Tuesday, April 7

Amidst the Dust Devils with an Elephant Whisperer

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The African spring has filled up the underground rivers that feed the plains. Water sprays up from the sides of the Landrover, it’s wheels almost submerged. We can just about tell where Lake Amboseli’s edges meet the swamp. On one side, in Tanzania, shines the snow capped summit of Kilimanjaro. The sacred volcano’s base stretches some eighty kilometres along the Kenya – Tanzania border. Rising almost six kilometres into the sky, the highest peak of the dormant crater – there are two more extinct, shines brighter than the clouds this morning.

‘The African spring has filled up the underground rivers that feed the plains. Water sprays up from the sides of the Landrover, it’s wheels almost submerged. We can just about tell where Lake Amboseli’s edges meet the swamp’

Which, waft away into the sunshine. The baby elephants, knee deep in sludge, stick close to their mothers and pull out the wettest reeds from the swamp to feast on. The white Egrets, too are having their fill on skin parasites and insects unearthed by the elephants. They raise the alarm by taking flight as we approach to a halt. The elephants blink, they have already seen us, are uninterrupted in their feeding, so the egrets settle back on them.
We are here to talk to the elephants. Whilst observing their slow, unperturbed trunks furling and unfurling, a calm spreads amongst us. Liz is an elephant whisperer and guides the four of us to connect our energies with the elephants. My other companions are ahead of me – they spent the whole of last afternoon with a large herd. I’ve just arrived and my mind is still scattered from the weekend’s activities and the journey from the city which started at the crack of dawn. I chide my cynicism and begin to relax. For now I am content to breathe the air, observe and frame a few pictures.
Prompted by Liz, Willson aka Senteu, our guide and driver tells us that he hails from a long line of Laiboni. But, he nor any of his siblings have filled their grandfather’s footsteps. A Laibon is a Maasai seer. Seers have been venerated in every society. They are extraordinarily sensitive human beings able to feel the elements, read animal behaviour, predict where migrations would flourish and as sages use ancient wisdom and medicine together with shamanic divination to heal psychological and physical wounds. Wilson aka Senteu has chosen to come back to his ancestral lands as a guide. He struggles out an explanation about money and lifestyles, promising to find out more about his people and their legacy.
Later, he tells me he has only one wife but that he knows there are more women in the world than men and to look after all of them, one could consider polygamy. Settled lives have brought education, science and christianity; which have on the one hand removed backward practices, yet on the other, lost people’s deep connection and reverence for nature, which could be the reason for our detrimental treatment of the earth. A haze moves over the mountain slowly shrouding it as we head back to the lodge for lunch. Clouds are gathering over the high montane forests which sequester carbon dioxide and trap water from the clouds to create rain. On the other side of the mountain is Tanzania, where the rivers are drying up. Climate change and wildfires due to rising temperatures are destroying these forests rapidly. The glacier – iconic white cap – researchers have long been will be gone in ten years.
Tanzania also relies heavily on Mount Kilimanjaro and the national park which surrounds it, for tourism. Back at Tawi lodge, we spend an hour all together in a guided meditation that is designed to connect us with each other’s energies. I quieten once again the skeptic in my head, and find myself drifting into an ethereal world. Imagining ourselves as conduits for energy fields, we begin to develop a heightened consciousness in which we sense things. Intuition we are told is a muscle that improves with use. And now we can use our sharpened sixth sense to connect with the elephants and off we go for the evening game drive. The sky is darkening. The matriarch grumbles and the herd form a tight ball, walking fast to cross the road. There are too many cars all speeding up to them which parked shoulder to shoulder across the road, block us. One car overtakes us at considerable speed, and parks half way up the mound on the side of the road, in a bid for the best view. We fall back and wait behind the flurry of vehicles. The herd crosses quickly, rumbling all the while, the calves surrounded, in their midst.
Elephants know that they are not in immediate danger in the Amboseli as no hunting or culling is allowed here and poaching has been reduced to a minimum. Yet they are unmistakably nervous. As soon as they cross they slow down, spread out and resume their foraging. The vehicles move in disarray and through a gap we leave slowly, unable to do our connection exercise. It is the work of the Elephant Trust under the guidance of Cynthis Moss, that has ensured healthy populations and the reign of elephants in a relatively small area – less than 400 square kilometres. In 1968, she and Harvey Croze, found the conditions in Amboseli National Park were far better than anywhere else because of the swamps, forests, plains, salt licks, biodiversity and the pastoralist nomads who prevented the land from being degraded.
Her work remains the most authoritative and in depth study of elephants in the world. In Amboseli the elephant age structure has not been skewed by human interference and the population spans the whole range from newborn calves to old matriarchs large adult bulls in their 40s and 50s which is unusual in other parts of Africa. On the plains, frolick zebras and Thompsons gazelles. Jackals scurry past us, a dikdik freezes and darts away.

‘On one side, in Tanzania, shines the snow capped summit of Kilimanjaro. The sacred volcano’s base stretches some eighty kilometres along the Kenya – Tanzania border. Rising almost six kilometres into the sky, the highest peak of the dormant crater’

We spot a serval cat walking close to tall grasses by the roadside and a lone young male lion sleeps under a tree. Hyenas disappear into a den whilst others walk in single file beside us. In the distance rises a dust devil, empusial in the Maa language, meaning whirling salty dust which gives Amboseli its name. Male elephants form bachelor herds. The matriarchs ensure this. There’s a male in a small herd with calves in the swamp. Wilson aka Senteu points out the secreting gland at his temple, he is in musth and in search of a female in oestrus. The calm is disrupted once more.
A family of hippos has a challenger. He is driven away, not just by the alpha male but his ally too. He flees from savage teeth, bleeding by the leg. It begins to rain and we must head back to camp. As we leave Amboseli, by the airstrip and the gate, there are Maasai women selling their beadwork. Beads still have spiritual and cultural significance to them. Yet to criticise their sale to tourists as mere souvenirs would be unjust. It is a worthy occupation, keeping traditional crafts appreciated, alive and ensuring a livelihood for women who would normally be excluded from monetary exchange.
There is no misappropriation in wearing these. I haven’t become a shaman just yet. But what’s more important, is the groups willingness to reflect on our disconnectedness and to give nature and animals a useful power.

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