When we were rough-housing as kids, my mother used tell us we sounded like a herd of elephants. I doubt she realized the compliment. The eles (pronounced Ellie) we encountered were quiet, regal and stately. They stand and sway a bit. Make an occasional “whoof” of air, a twitch of the tail or one of their enormous, almost translucent ears, which act as a cooling system. When they walk, it’s with a slow grace, though they can run at a good clip when necessary.
Our first encounter, however, wasn’t all that quiet. Our jeep inadvertently separated two halves of a migrating herd and one young fellow took exception to this state of affairs and headed toward us, trumpeting away. Fortunately, the matriarch put an end to that nonsense and the herd moved on, leaving me a little shaken.
Which meant, when our driver pulled into the middle of an elephant herd half an hour later and shut off the engine, I was a bit apprehensive. At 10 paces, these animals are very, very big. There were a few looks from the young males, a few feints, but it didn’t take long to realize no one was paying much attention to us and these quiet times just watching the elephants are one of my best memories of Chobe.
During the day, the eles (pronounced Ellie) travel inland considerable distances to find food, then in the evening, back to the river to drink and bathe. The elephants we spent time with were mostly breeding herds made up of females, immature males and babies. They have a matriarchal society and the babies are cared for by mothers, aunts, and older siblings. When we were there, there were dozens of babies from very tiny to half grown. The rule of thumb is if the baby ele can stand under the back end of mom, its under six months old. If it can stand under the front end of mom, its under a year. When the young males get old enough to notice the females, they are sent packing, and we would encounter solitary males now and again, or small packs of two or three.
The most noticeable feature of the herd is the affection. The older females let the little ones lean against a leg or a trunk, or they will reach out a trunk to touch them now and again. They are also incredibly protective, and at the first whiff of danger, the older eles they would surround the babies until you couldn’t even tell they were there.
The youngsters, on the other hand, are mischievous and just love to play. You’d think that something that weights several hundred pounds a birth wouldn’t be quite so playful, but these little kids liked to romp, splash in the water, roll in the dirt. During one afternoon drive, we watched three little ones wrestle in the dirt, having almost as much fun as we were.
The eles would linger on the beach, wading in the water, drinking, spraying their bodies with water, or just resting; then, as the sun began to set, there would be some unheard and unseen (to us) signal from the matriarch, they would head into the water at their slow pace. All you’d hear would be the slosh of water as they waded to one of the islands to graze. Now and again, you’d hear the deep, low growl they use to communicate, and I was told it could be heard up to 20 miles.
As the sky reddened, we would pull a Zambezi (local beer) out of the cooler and settle back to watch the animals silhouetted against the African sunset before heading back to the lodge.