stuck, or a brush with death

On safari you experience a near constant reminder of just how small your place in the biosphere really is. That’s part of the bargain, part of the rush. Mostly it comes in gasps of wonder and awe. Yet today’s run in with an unhappy elephant was a heart-pounding example that sometimes the reminder comes hand in hand with a dizzying fear. Watching this beautiful creature devour a thorny Acacia was mesmerizing until we were distracted by the howls of a jackal, whose cries signaled a lurking danger. It turned out to be a pair of male lions on the hunt, and seeing them cross our line of sight we decided to make pursuit.  What the driver failed to notice, however, was the big ditch separating us from them – until we went kerplunk. Thoroughly stuck, we sat there immobile, our rear wheel unable to gain any traction whatsoever.  As the driver gunned the engine, the axle emitted a high-pitched squeal which not only set my teeth on edge but also seemed to rattle the brain of an animal in mid-meal.  Add the howl of the jackal and the smell of the lions and we suddenly had a skittish and visibly unhappy pachyderm not twenty feet away.  With perfect timing a branch feel from the tree, thwacking it on the back. As if we were to blame it reeled on us like a bull, using its muscular trunk to toss branches left and right in a display of displeasure, if not downright aggression. It’s at this point that I became almost hyper-conscious of the animal’s large tusks – and my unfortunate positioning in the car, which puts me at the direct point of impact should we be charged. I flash back to the terrifying drive back from the condor nests in Patagonia last winter: a white-knuckle journey in which we narrowly escaped skidding into a ravine multiple times. My friend told me afterward that from the back seat she was wishing for death because she knew if we went over the edge she would never survive getting out of the gorge on her own. I’m wondering what we would do if this elephant charged the car? Where would we run? Outside are a pair of lions which would quickly pick up our scent. Plus, there’s not a  substantial tree in sight – and even if there were it’d be no match for a rampaging elephant.  It is so silent I can’t hear anything: I feel my heartbeat, however, and what I think is a low guttural rumbling coming from the elephant. If the driver fruitlessly guns the engine one more time, I think I might get hysterical, but he’s reaching for his walkie-talkie and radioing back to camp for reinforcements.  How anyone will find us is beyond me but at this point all we can do is wait – and watch. Time bends. The anticipation is agony. We are rescued, of course, by a pair of laughing Masai who, no doubt, will mercilessly rib and cajole our driver for weeks, if not years, to come. Almost incidentally they scare the elephant off with a machete. Trying to get some traction to the back wheels they attack a fallen log. The metallic ping as the machete hits the wood is enough to freak the elephant out: it whinnies and runs away as expeditiously as if we had pointed a shotgun at its head. I am pretty sure I exhale audibly, while simultaneously realizing that I am ravenous. We’ve spent all this time staring down death and managed to miss breakfast.

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live blog: red sky morning

“Red sky morning, sailor’s warning” is no wive’s tale.  We were up before dawn to go in search of condor with Lorenzo Sympson, a noted Andean condor expert. This involved a good 40 minutes driving off-road across dry, rugged terrain to reach a small mountain refuge built for the express purpose of observing a group of condor nests tucked into the rock face.  About half way there, this red dawn ominously broke above the steppe.  Traditionally it portends bad weather on the horizon and indeed, after we arrived at the refuge it started to rain.  We did however see a condor:  an enormous glider with a 6+-foot wingspan.

What happened next was nothing short of terrifying:  we had to get back down the mountain.  The hard rain turned the clay not to mud but to a surface as slick as ice. Our car skidded and slid the whole way down – at times very close to careening off the edge of the mountain.  At first we tried to make small talk but then quickly turned silent, gripping the door handles and seat belts in anticipation of a horrible rollover into the gorge.  When finally down on the flats we all breathed a sigh of relief.  Little did I know that as I was up front having a conversation with Jesus my photographer was in the back seat praying for a quick death.

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