So where do I begin? As the King of Hearts advised the White Rabbit (Begin at the beginning, and go on till you come to the end: then stop!), I think I too shall do just that. But then where did it all begin? For me, it all began precisely at that moment at dawn, when peering groggily through the aircraft window, I spotted in the distance, a blue whale with a white back floating over a sea of clouds!!!!!!!
It had been almost twelve hours since we had left home and the combination of lack of sleep and too much starchy airline food had left both of us jet lagged, bleary eyed and on a carbohydrate high. But even in this sugared and sleepless state, I could reason that the probability of seeing a whale in the sky was somewhat remote....; hence the object was definitely not what it seemed. And then from the depths of my sugared brain the realization hit me: “Of course that’s Mt Kilimanjaro ......you idiot!” And with that the sugar haze faded in the rush of realization that I was actually in Africa...!!! Surreptitiously, I pinched myself to reconfirm and then reassured by the pain, resumed my inspection of that famed mountain.
Kilimanjaro is etched firm in my memory by my Dad’s frequent, almost reverential mentions of Hemingway’s ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’. My dad had in most probability never read the book (he never read anything other than the newspaper which he devoured from cover to cover) but he was a Hollywood buff and a Gregory Peck fan to boot; and he spoke of the mountain only in reference to the film. I too have not read the novel (nor seen the film) but thanks to Dad, Kilimanjaro has always represented Africa to me. I have this picture in my brain of the majestic blue mountain rising out of the heart of the green savannah, its peak ringed by a perpetual crown of snow. The idea of snow at the equator thrilled me no end, another reason why I was always intrigued by Kilimanjaro...So there it was, Mt Kilimanjaro at 10 o’clock to my left and even from 35,000 feet the snows on its crown glistened clearly, much to my delight. And as we both, myself and Other Half peered eagerly like school kids at the Peak through the tiny cabin window, I realised happily that my African Safari had really, truly begun.......!
We were of course not visiting Tanzania, only Kenya; so that glimpse of Mt Kilimanjaro was a really lucky bonus. We were basically visiting the Masai Mara and since our trip did not start until the next day, had decided to take a dekko of some places in Nairobi itself that same day. Our first stop was to be the David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage and since we were running a little late, our chauffeur and guide Bonnfish (???) drove the little car at breakneck speed over an unmetalled road in an effort to reach the place on time. I wondered a bit about the state of my intestines, my vertebrae and my spine post the ride but it was good that I did not dwell too much on the matter; because though I did not know then, for the next three days my innards and my bones were to be subjected to similar, rather more intensive a treatment.
As for the name of our guide and chauffeur, I am not very sure about its correctness (really, can someone actually be named ‘Bonn Fish?) and I now regret that I had omitted to ask him how it was spelt. Other Half on the contrary, had no such queasiness about inconsequential things like etymology and pronunciations and hence spent the entire trip un-selfconsciously yelling “Hi Bonnn Fiish, hey Bonn Fiish” accompanied by much back slapping. As for me the grammar nerd, because I would be involuntarily cringing each time Other Half yelled ‘Bonn Fiish’, I left the addressing to Other Half and carefully avoided ever mentioning his name during our conversations. But whatever his correct name may have been, Bonn Fiish was a well dressed, polite young Kenyan with startlingly beautiful eyes that resembled those of the petite impala whom I was to see the day after.
So thanks to the impala-eyed Bonn Fish and his impala-speed‘ed’ driving, we were able to reach the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust’s elephant orphanage well in time. It is situated at one edge of the Nairobi National Park and is a beautiful place, deeply green with red earth, blue skies and rustic cottages that serve as offices and staff quarters. We followed a hedge lined red path down to the forest’s edge where there in the open, we found a little enclosure ringed by a rope containing a muddy pool. Of the two of us, its me who is the Wikipedia, rattling off my superior knowledge about everything and sundry; but this time as the trip had been planned and coordinated by Other Half, I had absolutely no idea what we were supposed to be seeing. I vaguely knew that there were going to be elephants but my information blacked out after that. Other Half on the other hand had that special expression on his face, something I would describe as being akin to a mix between that of the cat that ate the cream and of the dog who is anticipating a bone. And judging from this expression, I knew we were in for a treat. And what a treat it was my friends, what a treat...!!
Sharp at eleven, the elephants made their entrance into the clearing from the forest. The moment they were spotted, dark shapes amongst the green trees and the red earth, a collective gush emanated from the spectators. Lord, they were adorable, trotting in an orderly queue like school boys out on excursion, their baby trunks eagerly extended in anticipation of lunch. The handlers placed huge milk bottles in their mouths and the little ones suckled eagerly, their tiny trunks wrapped snugly around the bottle. Since this first lot were very young, the handlers had to hold the bottles up for them. The next lot that came, being older were more dextrous and downed their milk quota like pros, bottoms up. Soon lunch was over and it was time for some fun. And that was when the reason for the existence of the mud pool became clear. One by one the babies entered the pool, gingerly at first as the slope was slippery. Having slipped a few times, they soon realised that slipping bottom and knee first into the pool was much more fun than entering it upright and were now sliding into the pool on their bottoms. Once in the pool, it was one carousel in mud. They lopped around, entwining trunks, lolling on their backs, placing their great fore limbs of each other’s backs, rolling in the muddy water... and generally if I may say so, having an elephant of a time. Soon, from the original gray-blue shade they turned redder and redder as the rich laterite mud that caked their bodies dried to a brick red in the hot sun. One little baby was enjoying himself so much that he laid his head on the inner slope of the pool and simply refused to leave! Looking at them I had this insane urge to go and have a dunk in the pool myself. In fact it reminded me of one particular Holi in college where we girls had plonked ourselves inside a water fountain right in the middle of the hostel courtyard and had refused to leave, just like that little baby elephant.
After much coaxing some of them left the pool, albeit reluctantly and followed the handlers around the enclosure. As they walked close to the perimeter, we could now reach out and touch them. Used to humans, they did not mind and we could safely reach out and pat their rough wrinkly skin. As they moved around the enclosure, a Kenyan gentleman, one of the Trust employees gave us a narration about elephants, their habits and habitat, the David Sheldrick Trust, its work, funding, its efforts at rehabilitation and other such information. He also introduced us to each baby elephant by its names and age and even gave us an amusing little description of its character and habits. I marvelled at how he knew each one by name and personality and realised that this was perhaps not just a job for him but also a labour of love. As for their names, I am unable to recall even a single one as they were all in Swahili but their stories touched our hearts. Especially poignant was the story of one little one, a baby girl whom the announcer identified for us by a deep scar running down her forehead. This little elephant had been trapped in a snare laid by poachers. Because she was too little to have grown a tusk yet, she was worthless for them and out of sheer frustration of having landed a baby instead of the more lucrative adult, the poachers had driven an iron rod through this little animal’s head!
The equatorial sun grew hotter as it climbed overhead and the heat began prickling up over my skin. It was a sign that it was time to go. As we left the elephants, some of them still contentedly gambolling around in the mud pool, my thoughts were not of elephants. Instead I wondered about that other species, the one to whom I belonged, the one called ‘human’. We are such a study in contrasts, we humans, aren’t we: at one end capable of excruciating cruelty, a cruelty that drives iron rods through skulls of defenseless animal cubs ; and at the same time, capable of such incredible love, a love that builds shelters like this elephant orphanage, all in an effort to undo the damage wrought by our very own alter egos...!
(to be continued)