The Joys and Dangers of Exploring Africa on the Back of an Elephant

Renowned travel writer Paul Theroux journeys through Botswana’s spectacular, wildlife-rich wetlands

At remote Abu Camp, visitors can hitch a ride into one of the great water holes of Africa. (Sergio Pitamitz / Biosphoto / Minden Pictures)
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“Want to know one of the best ones?” he said. “It was lying on the ground for hours watching the antics of dung beetles as they battled over a pile of elephant dung, with the brood pairs frantically rolling away the nuptial ball.”

The strangeness of being in an open-sided room, around a linen-covered dining table, in the middle of an African swamp, kept the conversation somewhat subdued. It was a situation daunting even to the much-traveled millionaires at the table, humbled by the surrounding darkness. The meal was delicious, but past the torches and lanterns at the edge of the platform we could hear the snorts and grumbles of hippos thrashing in the reeds, and the bird squawks and the crackle of electrocuted insects frying on the bug zapper.

After dinner, Michael took me aside and introduced me to Star, a young Tswana woman, all smiles, who was the chef, and to his managerial staff, his colleagues, the people who ran the operation in his absence. One, a man of about 30, had been at dinner, listening intently but had said nothing. Because of his reticence, I said hello.

“This is Nathan,” Michael said. “He was traveling around Africa and visited us. He discovered he liked what we were doing. He found us, not the other way around.”

His friendly bluster made Nathan smile, but still he seemed rather shy. I introduced myself and we talked awhile. He said he was from Australia and had been at Abu just a few months, and that his girlfriend, Jen, also worked at Abu.

“Nathan’s one of our trainers,” Michael said, because Nathan had not yet said so.

His shyness showed in his faintly smiling downcast face, the sideways tilt of his head, his deferential posture, even the way he planted his feet. But when the subject turned to elephants Nathan brightened. He had worked with elephants in Thailand and Canada too, and seemed very serious about knowing everything about elephant behavior. He had strong opinions about their behavior, how teachable they were, how they responded— and he reminded me of horse owners, who speak of the subtlety of horse responses—how they’re smarter than the rider; or of the dog owner who says, “Nugget is always a little nervous around really selfish people.”

One by one, the guests were escorted to their tents by a guide raking the path with the light of a powerful flashlight, looking for a snake or a scorpion, or possibly a hippo—hippos leave the water every evening to climb ashore and feed on vegetation.

The night air crackled with the slapping of bats and the fit-fit-fit of insects and the hoots of herons and the thrashings of hippos browsing in the reeds under my sleeping platform.

Dawn is sudden in the water world of the Okavango, without any hills or heights to delay the sunrise, and the shimmering mirrors of the lagoons and channels intensified the light, which is all gold.


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