Don’t Forget The Elephants

“If you go to the loo in the middle of the night, before you get out of your tent, just shine your torch around to make sure there are no elephants between you and the toilets.”

WE have become accustomed to what, in normal circumstances, could be considered quite unusual camp sites over the past six months.

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Off For A Drink – One of the locals wanders through camp

We have slept in the shadow of a sand dune, a self-made clearing in the Gabon rainforest, a spectacular opening amid the rocks at Brandberg Mountains, under a massive statue of Christ, dried-up river beds, forest tracks and the hard shoulder just shy of the Nigeria-Cameroon border.

And we have got used to some issues to deal with – snorers (so the others tell me), attempting to keep our tents dry in the rain and even stuck to the ground when the wind blew, any number of buzzy, bitey insects and replacing any toilet facilities with a shovel and a hole in the ground.

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Close Enough – Not getting much nearer. One of them did

Not to mention people forgetting those of us in see-through mosquito tents have a pretty good view of them if they choose a few yards behind us to start digging. Even at night.

But even after all that, being told to watch out for elephants before venturing out of your tent at night gets your attention.

Especially when we were able to spend much of the afternoon sat at the bar of our home for the night, watching a string of elephants trot just the other side of the toilets nearest to our tents and drink at their leisure at the watering hole around which all of the Elephant Sands site is built.

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Passing Traffic – A couple more elephants wander past our tents (mine is the see-through one to the right)

No fences, no visible lookouts and, for the large part, no real issue as the elephants have got used to sharing their drinking spot with captivated onlookers, many of whom may not be exactly silent after a few hours in their drinking spot.

That is until one male decided asserting dominance over the two others who were already at the watering hole when he arrived was not enough for him. He wanted to make it perfectly clear to us as well.

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Helping Himself – The annoyed elephant drinks from the toilet block

The other two elephants saw what was coming and as their angry cousin started to turn towards us, they quietly slipped away (if an elephant can slip away quietly) around the other side of the watering hole and out of sight.

And for those of us who had been marvelling at just how close we were to these magnificent animals, we were able to marvel a bit more (although that was maybe not the over-riding feeling) as he came a whole lot closer.

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Towering Presence – He looked even bigger charging the bar

A couple of charges towards the bar’s viewing terrace saw his front feet up over the dividing wall, sending most of the watching onlookers running for cover (if there is any from a rampaging elephant).

Still in something of a huff, after a couple more charges of varying intensity, he headed back up the path, stopping at the toilet block (still showing the signs of repair after the elephants ripped out the pipes in search of water during the dry season) to grab a drink by sticking his trunk over the wall and emptying the cistern.

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Fair Warning – Can’t say they don’t tell you

All a bit more excitement than we were expecting on a day dominated by sitting back and watching these wonderful creatures come down in ones, twos and bigger groups – capped off in the evening by a larger family group which ranged from a real giant to a tiny baby (largely hidden in the middle of the group) who probably did not reach up to the top of the wall separating us from them.

Wonderful moments to add to a string of them across Botswana where the wildlife (and the odd cold beer) continued to dominate proceedings.

Our previous stop in Maun had seen half the group head off into the Okavango Delta, leaving the rest of us chilling out by the pool and bar, in my case making good use of the wi-fi to sort out an intrusion from the real world.

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Tight Confines – View from the back of our flight over the Okavango Delta

My reward, courtesy of a far more realistic quote for work on my house back home, was a flight out over the Delta.

Seven of us crammed into a small aircraft which never felt entirely stable and grew increasingly stuffy (more than one of us was nodding off as we came into a rather fast-paced landing), for a 50-minute flight we had been told would give us a perfect view over this unique natural habitat and the creatures who call it home – at least the big ones you can see from that far up.

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Bird’s Eye – Mind you, cramming in was worth the effort

And we were not disappointed as we were treated to some amazing views and countless sighting of elephants and, for the first time out of water, hippos (see, some animals are easier to spot from up there).

But after all that and the events at Elephant Sands, there was still more to come in terms of wildlife as we hit Kasane in Botswana. Much more – certainly enough to knock any feelings of complacency out of anyone after the previous week or so of natural treats.

IMG_0282Having watched animals from the air, the back of the truck, even a rickety canoe (although we only saw the top of some hippos’ heads), it was time to view what we could track down from a boat cruising around the wildlife mecca of the Chobe River – once we had managed to carry on an eskie filled with ice and enough drinks that people thought would last them for three hours. Quite a lot it would seem, almost at the cost of my cheetah-chewed flip-flop to the watery depths.

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Close Up – AFter the air, the view from a boat on the Chobe River

And it is difficult to tell which flowed more freely as we moved from the heat of a sun-baked afternoon to a dazzling sunset – the beer or the wildlife – as we spent a thoroughly remarkable few hours.

There were elephants (lots of them, topped by a couple of young ones play fighting alongside the boat), crocodiles (obligingly coming up to surface around the boat), kudus, lizards, giraffes, buffalo and a range of birds, but they all played second fiddle to the hippos.

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Prize Sighting – A hippo pops out of the water for a snack. Right in front of us, while a few of his pals come together, below

Our first encounter put us alongside three large specimens, one of whom had the decency to clamber out of the water for a snack on the long grass in easy viewing of our cameras, before marking his territory with a nifty little trick of using his tail to spray his dung around.

After marvelling at that and a few other solitary types, we hit the jackpot with a group of almost 20 hippos lounging half in and half out of the water, ranging from the very big to the very small. With more distinct territory marking to try to capture on film.

IMG_0376More followed as we began the trip back to base, our final sighting rounding off things perfectly as one ran along the bank alongside us before diving into the water and under the boat.

Not a bad end to a spectacular few days amid the African wildlife.

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Not A Booze Cruise – Well, not really. Group shot on the Chobe River cruise
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Elephant In The Room

THE countdown to departure has reached single figures in terms of weeks and the American trip which acted as a buffer between “some way off” and “God, I’m nowhere near ready” has come and gone.

It is time to stop writing the to-do lists and actually start chalking off the items.

And it is time to address the elephant in the room. Not the ones which, barring something very wrong with the world, will cross our path at some points during the upcoming 10-month trip around Africa.

No, the elephant in the room which has been lurking in every conversation about the trip over the past few weeks – Ebola.

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Lurking in the corners

Reactions have varied from the mickey takers, through the genuinely concerned, the geographically confused (Papua New Guinea is neither affected nor on our route) and the fatalist.

“You won’t be going to any of these countries,” said the nurse, scanning to the list of places we were heading as we worked out the exact schedule for vaccinations.

My reply was something along the lines of “we’ll see… long time away yet”, a lack of any genuine debate or disagreement perhaps attributed to the fact she and her colleague were about to simultaneously stick a needle into each of my arms.

Discretion – and cowardice – is the better part of valour (have no real problems with needles as long as not looking at them, so having one from each side made looking away a bit difficult without shutting my eyes and, with a few more jabs still to come, that may not have created the intended impression).

But “we’ll see… long time away yet” has become a sort of standard reply, after explaining that yes, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Nigeria, Liberia and pretty much all the countries hit by the current outbreak are on our route.

Partly to avoid too long an explanation and, largely, because it is just impossible to give a more accurate answer. It is a way off yet and who knows what will happen between now and our arrival in the affected region.

While not one to fret unduly about these things – if we have to change route, then hey, we are still seeing Africa, just a few different bits – and have shrugged off most questions, but that elephant has been lurking and can’t be ignored any longer. The time has come to start asking a few questions.

One of my fellow travellers gave in to the lurking pachyderm first and got in touch with Oasis Overland, the tour organisers, and got back the latest info which was then shared in the first of a series of e-mails which will guide us through the next few weeks (once all the information has been distilled onto those to-do lists, of course).

And while there is obvious reason for concern and a close eye on developments, with alternative routes kept on the back burner, the expert view is that there is no reason for us not to head through the affected region.

Dr Richard Dawood, medical advisor of the African Travel and Tourism Association, is clear about the impact of the disease on the area, but confident it will have minimal impact on our trip

“Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia have a very inadequate public health infrastructure that has so far been unable to control the present outbreak,” he said. “Until sufficient external help is provided, the number of cases there will grow and cases will undoubtedly spread to other countries via travel – though in most other countries further spread will be extremely unlikely since very close/body fluid contact is needed for further spread.

“At this stage, I cannot see any situation where clients would actually be at risk, though obviously the situation needs to be taken seriously and monitored closely.”

That view is backed up by the World Health Organisation (WHO), who have taken the step of escalating the status of the outbreak, which should open the doors to additional help in fighting the problem.

Their advice reads: “The risk of a tourist or businessman/woman becoming infected with Ebola virus during a visit to the affected areas and developing disease after returning is extremely low, even if the visit included travel to the local areas from which primary cases have been reported.

“Transmission requires direct contact with blood, secretions, organs or other body fluids of infected living or dead persons or animal, all unlikely exposures for the average traveller. Tourists are in any event advised to avoid all such contacts.”

And that, for the moment, is that. Still not that far past “we’ll see… long time away yet”, but at least the elephant can wander out of the room and back into its natural habitat to prepare for a few photo opportunities when we get there.

 

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