Elephant in the Room: We’re not on Barnett Lane Anymore!

Monday, June 6

Some blog readers might remember our Milwaukee house across the street from more expensive homes that over looked Lake Michigan. For those who were never there, it was on Barnett Lane, a lovely street in Fox Point, a suburb only 15 minutes from downtown—20-25 minutes on the scenic route along Lake Drive, instead of the freeway. But the setting was bucolic–a mid-century modern ranch home perched atop a wooded ravine and set back from the street as the second house on a long driveway. Sometimes we’d drive in and have to wait while a deer or two crossed the path into the garage. I remember once having a guest from New York City nearly fainting with awe at the tableaux of deer assembled in the back yard at the exact moment she walked into the living room. At night there was a menagerie silhouetted by our motion detector lights: the spooked deer (“caught in the headlights”) which would stop in their tracks, but our scrawny resident red fox (it WAS Fox Point, after all) and the feisty raccoons took it in their stride. The trees and bushes surrounding the house and filling the ravine lushly bloomed to capacity around Mother’s Day every spring and, even bare of leaves, framed a picturesque landscape all winter. Never much of a gardener, I felt less need to be one there, so we welcomed the deer nibbling on our leaves—unlike our neighbors with more extravagant landscaping.

What does this have to do with Africa, you ask? (The woman lives in the city of San Francisco, she’s on a fantastic trip to Africa, and she’s pining for Fox Point, Wisconsin?)

Well, here in the bush we hear all kinds of sounds and are cautioned not to walk alone in the dark, as there are animals a lot more threatening than even the fox of Fox Point. Occasionally, even back there, though, the sounds of a nasty raccoon squabble would keep us awake. And I did worry sometimes about the motion lights detecting something or someone other than the animals.

However, never on that ravine did I have a night like the one on another ravine, our second night in Botswana, at Baobab Lodge adjacent to Chobe National Park. We were in a tent cabin (not talking pup tent here—bedroom and bath, complete with mosquito netting and electricity).

Our cabin, Baobab Lodge, Botswana

About 2 am noises a tad (!) louder than mosquitos and birds awakened us. It sounded like elephants were stomping all around, plowing through trees, breaking branches en route. In fact, if you’re in Africa, and it sounds like elephants, it is elephants!

During the day we’d learned from our guides about the destruction wrought by elephants, and we saw plenty of it firsthand—huge, old trees felled as if by hurricane or earthquake. Would our sturdy canvas up lodgings stand up against these marauding creatures? They’d looked so benign loping through the plains–from the safe vantage point of our safari vehicles crash into our canvas accommodations?

I cowered in bed, while Eli got up and looked outside. Despite the darkness he could see the shadow of at least one elephant just below the cabin. From the sounds there had to be more than one, and they were next door, on the right, where there was a thicket of trees. At one point the canvas seemed to vibrate. We checked the clock again at 3:30, after not one moment of dozing off. At one point the noise simmered down briefly, and pungent odor pervaded.

“Was that you?” I asked Eli.

“Nope,” he said. “You?”

About 5 am (?) I went back to sleep until our six o’clock wake-up call. In the morning, as we exited the cabin for breakfast, we saw our nocturnal visitors’ distinct (and stinky) calling card, as well as the detritus of tree branches and limbs.

Night deposit–aka, evidence!

Here’s what we surmise happened:

The elephants were marching down from higher ground to the ravine below us toward a watering hole (that leads to the Chobe River). The thicket I mentioned–about four feet wide—was between our cabin and a walkway leading to the main lodge. Some of this brush touched the side of the tent. As the elephants tramped through, they pushed the trees against our wall. Between that and branches snapping back (some breaking), it sounded like attempted entrance. We don’t know how many there were, but we later saw parades (the technical term for groups of elephants) numbering at least fifty. Since they lumbered by for at least two-and-half hours, who knows what the count was?

One woman in the cabin next to ours had heard something, but her travel companion slept through it entirely. Others in the group were thrilled by the baboon and bird action they had on their side of the camp. “Adrenaline rush.” “Wonderful.” “Who could sleep?”—all comments that made me feel, I confess, like a wuss.

Yeah, some baboons (and even hippo noises we’ve heard since at our second Botswana camp, in the Okevanga Delta)—fine. A parade of elephants for hours around me in the middle of the night? Adrenaline rush? Call it terror!

Was this one of the “perps”?

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