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Where elephants have right of way

At an offbeat watering hole in Botswana, you may get closer to one of Earth’s largest creatures than you could find comfortable

brunch Updated: Sep 15, 2018 20:37 IST
Sathya Saran
Sathya Saran
Hindustan Times
watering hole,Botswana,elephant spotting
Elephants gather every morning and evening at the watering hole in Botswana(Shutterstock )

It is amazing how quiet an elephant can be. And how easily it can hide itself from view.

We had seen many an elephant crossing the road as we drove along the highway from Johannesberg to Botswana, and noted how, even as we slowed down and aimed our cameras, the lumbering beast stepped into the bush and simply disappeared.

But it was at Elephant Sands, an off-beat watering hole in Botswana, that I had my real elephant encounter. Face to face, him standing looking at me, me looking at him. That look was up close and pretty personal, let me tell you. And thereby hangs this tale.

Pachyderm paradigm shift

This watering hole was on the last leg of our journey.

“What do we do there?” I had asked our guide-cum-driver. He had laughed and replied, “Nothing.” He said nothing about elephant encounters. And of course I had no clue.

A view of tents from the seating area (Sathya Saran)

This lodge announced itself pretty dramatically. The board read, ‘Where Elephants Rule’, and instead of the word elephant, there was a larger-than-life beast, ears flapping, dominating the space. Marketing spiel, of course. We had then turned off the highway, following a strip of road that opened up into a camp.

Passing a line up of tents all dressed in safari khaki, we stopped at a thatched building that passed for the only built up structure in that space. The reception was forbidding with its large signboard of dos and don’ts. As I read the list, I was acutely aware that the otherwise cool day was turning summery. Perhaps it was the Spartan nature of the reception, with its single table and two chairs, and a small fan. Or it was the sand all around that held the sun and passed its heat on to those who stopped there. Whichever it was, the list of instructions added its own heat.

 Do not leave the dedicated walkways.

 Do not feed the birds.

 Do not bring outside food and drink beyond this point.

 No fires and cooking in the tents.

 Lights and water will go off at 10pm. Do not waste electricity.

 The water in the mornings will be very cold. Solar takes time to heat.

 Elephants have right of way.

The last one got me. And I felt the rush of heat under my collar again. But a quick look around told me there were no elephants in sight. Clever marketing, I muttered.

“This watering hole, in its earlier, original avatar was a hunting lodge. Here ‘brave’ men armed with guns, wearing safari gear right down to the pith helmet, and ankle-high hunting boots sat in hiding and took pot shots at tuskers and she elephants... ”

Botswana is one country where, regardless of whether you are in a game park or on the highway, animals rule. Guides, drivers of rented vehicles, locals... everyone gives the wild the respect due to it. Even voices are hushed. Which is probably why, after a few unpleasant encounters with the typical Indian tourist, armed with crackling chips packets and loud, animated conversation, the Botswana government has practically stopped issuing tourist visas to Indians. I accompanied my husband on a business visa, which is how I am one rare “tourist” who managed to experience the magic of the country’s game parks. As a rule, nobody, repeat nobody, is allowed to get off the game park open vehicles once inside the park. The vehicles follow designated routes within the park area, and sighting animals is often a matter of luck combined with the acumen of the guide-cum-driver. This lodge was an exception. Where, as long as we walked along given paths, we could be on foot during the day.

The cowardly hunters

The good news was that, unlike in other parks, there was connectivity here. I had a deadline breathing down my neck, thanks to unthinkingly agreeing to an assignment on the day of leaving for a vacation, and Wi-Fi was a must for the research. Unlike the hotels we had stayed in up to then, here it was on payment, 20 pula for 100 mb. Considering the exchange rate was 10 pulas to a dollar, it was amazingly affordable.

You can have your real elephant encounter — face to face with the creature in Botswana (Shutterstock )

This watering hole, in its earlier, original avatar was a hunting lodge. Here ‘brave’ men armed with guns, wearing safari gear right down to the pith helmet, and ankle-high hunting boots sat in hiding and took pot shots at tuskers and she elephants as they came up to drink water at one of the few watering holes that remained wet deep into the dry season. Then they posed with their ‘kill.’

“After a few unpleasant encounters with the typical Indian tourist, armed with crackling chips packets and loud, animated conversation, the Botswana government has practically stopped issuing tourist visas to Indians”

I glimpse large thigh and pelvic bones, bleached by the heat of many suns, hanging as decor in some of the areas. Following my gaze, the young woman at reception assures me that no elephants have been killed here in recent years, even before hunting was officially banned in the country of Botswana in 2014.

Keys in hand, we take a quick walkabout the area and go to our tents. The tents are roomy. And hot! We swelter for a long, uncomfortable 15 minutes till we decide to open up the zippered flaps. The cool cross wind is pleasant, but the evening sun seems to have set the tent on fire. Planning to reach the shady restaurant area, my friend and I start on the circular path, walking past more tents on stilts, older ground-level cottages, and single-room thatched huts, in one of which our driver is ensconced.

Eye to elephant

The elephant is almost invisible. It stands beside one of the tents, and only the sound of a twig snapping alerts us to its presence. ‘Oh, look!’ I say to my friend, but it is as if I have addressed the elephant, for he turns around, slowly and fixes his eyes on us. I have learnt that pachyderms do not see too well; to him we are blurry images. Only his ears serve him well, and will alert him to danger. We freeze. He will turn away if we are still. But the temptation is strong, and our phones go up to shoot a picture.

Lions are frequent visitors around the tents at night (Shutterstock )

It is high alert then. The beast turns squarely towards us, ears flapping open, and he moves ahead. Someone watching from a tent calls to us to retreat. We turn back. The elephant stops. We wait, hoping for more close up photos. But he has obviously read the line that says elephants have right of way. He wants us to go away. And when he comes slowly forward, straight at us, we turn back and beat a hasty retreat, walking the longer arc of the circle to reach the central area.

The elephant does not follow, but looking in our direction proceeds to empty the contents of his bowels and bladder! My friend says it is his response to my bright pink umbrella!

“I still regret the fact that the snug warmth of my blankets stopped me from peering through the flaps, especially when I learn that lions and giraffes are also frequent visitors”

That evening we watch as processions of elephants walk ponderously up to the watering hole and drink their fill. At night, the moon rises large and full, and we sit by the fire and watch their shadowy movements. The food, served hot off the stoves, is delicious. But worry nags us about how we can walk back without walking smack into a near invisible beast.

Our driver saves us the worry and drives us to our tents. Through the night, the snuffling of trunks and shifting of elephant feet can be heard all around. I still regret the fact that the snug warmth of my blankets stopped me from peering through the flaps, especially when I learn that lions and giraffes are also frequent visitors.

In the morning, we stuff ourselves with bacon omelettes and toast, and fried potatoes, washed down with filter coffee and prepare to leave.

As we drive off, a large tanker drives up. Nata village, which tends the property as a trust, ensures the elephants never stay thirsty.

PS: The 20 pulas were well spent. I wrote my article that night, and Wi-Fied it the next morning.

(The author is a senior journalist and is a former editor of Femina magazine. She has penned several books, including a biography on filmmaker Guru Dutt)

From HT Brunch, September 16, 2018

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First Published: Sep 15, 2018 20:34 IST