With the sounds of the bush around us, six of us watched the frolicking of a large pack of baboons while a herd of impalas grazed peacefully in the background. Our very friendly guide, Bums, was telling us how a mother baboon keeps hoping that her dead baby will return to life; she carries it in her hands until it starts to decay and she can no longer recognise her former offspring. His words were not yet cold when we saw a mother baboon with a dead baby in her arms. She carried the little corpse in her right hand while she loped forward on three legs past the front of our vehicle. I was in the north of Botswana near the Moremi Reserve on a visit to the Okavango Delta.
The baboon mother's love contrasts sharply with the behaviour of hippopotamus fathers. On our sundowner cruise that same day, as we watched the big red African sun disappear behind the trees, we were told that since the beginning of that year ten little hippopotamuses had been killed by their fathers. This has to do with the hippos' ranking system: the offending father eliminates future competition in order to remain leader of the bloat (believe it or not, "bloat" is the collective noun for a herd of hippos).
But another wild African animal, the elephant, reveals an almost human-like care and love for its young. If a baby elephant is born deformed-without a trunk, for instance-the herd will help this little one to drink and eat. The entire herd acts as an extended family. I love watching these huge grey mammals; their huge frame and peaceful grazing always instil harmony and peace in my heart.
On my first day at Xakanaka camp in northern Botswana, I was dealt a guide who did not exude the normal friendly and gentle behaviour of the Motswana people. At sunset, on our way back from the sundowner drive, we encountered a big bull elephant standing in the middle of the jeep track. Our guide revved the vehicle and jeered at the sturdy mammoth a couple of times. Eventually the bull moved off the road, venting his anger at this taunting with loud trumpeting.
I was thoroughly shocked at this guide's disrespectful behaviour-so much so that I went to the manager and requested a different guide for the next day. I love being in the African bush, but want to enjoy it with like-minded people. Thus I was moved to another group, with the friendly Bums as our guide. This ensured that I had a most wonderful last day amongst the wild animals around Xakanaka camp.
On my way back to Cape Town I read a very interesting article in my Air Botswana inflight magazine. I learned that for the past seventeen years northern Thailand has been home to a nature park dedicated to the care of abused and traumatised elephants. To date the project has housed more than thirty animals.
Here there are no leg chains, ropes or ankusas (steel hooks that controlling caretakers drive into elephants' sensitive skin at the side of the head). An extensive volunteer system helps with the animals' upkeep and staff salaries, housing and food. Lek Chailert, the small, friendly Thai woman who founded this remarkable sanctuary, was named "Asian Hero of the Year" by Time Magazine in 2005. In 2010 she was invited to visit the White House, where she met with then- US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton.
The loving-kindness with which these formerly abused elephants are treated tangibly reflects Thailand's Buddhist culture. Zen master Thich Nhat Hahn reminds us that maitri, or loving-kindness, is the first of the "four immeasurable minds", also sometimes called “the four heavenly abodes”. In his writings he urges us to look at the nature of our own love. Do we find maitri there?
I witnessed this deep, authentic brand of love in the large buffalo herds that we came across in Botswana. At night the herd gathers in a big circle, the bulls on the outside to protect the calves on the inside.
African wildlife has its own rhythm and its own idiosyncrasies. On the many rivers and channels of the Okavango Delta the African jacana-a long-legged bird-is a common sight. The locals call it the Jesus bird because it seems to walk on water while stepping from one lily leaf to another. The female of this species, however, does not follow strict Christian standards: she is polyhedrous, laying eggs for a few different males. Then the males hatch the laid eggs while the mothers are off doing their own thing!
The kudu bull with its amazing curved horns is another majestic sight in the bush. Fighting for dominance, these bulls can actually entangle their horns in such a way that they get stuck. The entangled animals eventually die of hunger or become lions' food-a dismal end for these beautiful antelopes.
During this visit to the Okavango Delta, the beauty, serenity and eternal rhythms of the African bush served to restore my soul. I could forget about the busyness of city life and simply surrender to the learning schools of the wilds. Although nature can be cruel, the overriding feeling I experienced in the Delta was that of peace. The natural loving-kindness I encountered there reminded me of a remark by Lek Chailert of the Thai Elephant Nature Park: "Where there is love, there is hope."
I had brought along some lovely holiday reading: one of Alexander McCall Smith's Number One Ladies Detective Agency series, which is set in Botswana. Somewhere in the middle of the book, this wonderful Scottish writer echoed the same truth: "I think that the measure of whether a life has been a good one is how much love there has been in that life-love both given and received."
I landed in Cape Town firmly resolved to return to the African bush as soon as possible. The love and beauty I found there has given me deep peace and hope for the future.
- Moremi Safaris and Tours. www.xakanaka-camp.com
- Peolwane, the inflight magazine of Air Botswana, July 2013.
- Thich Nhat Hahn. 2004. Dharma talk, Loubes-Bernac, Bordeaux.
- Smith, Alexander McCall. 2010. The Double Comfort Safari Club.