June 9, 2019

Lessons from a waterhole

We had spent the day driving from waterhole to waterhole in this large, dry national park in southern Africa. The trees and shrubs on the edge of the road were white with the dust from cars who had made the same trek the day before, and somewhere out there were elephants.

“You arrived too late,” we were told at one waterhole. “There was a black rhino here just five minutes ago, but he has wandered into the bush past that large camel thorn tree.”

And so it went—a journey of being 15 minutes early or 5 minutes late, over and over. Should you sit and wait at an empty waterhole, or move to another one just 15 km away?

For the elephants and rhino, there was certainty. They knew exactly when they would appear for water, but they would not share their appointment calendar with us. Hidden by trees, we could only see evidence of their presence by the large, softball-sized chunks of poo that resembled a shredded globe of garden mulch. The poo mocked us, “Late again.”

Finally, as day was ending, we began to leave a waterhole after watching four giraffe decide whether it was safe to drink—necks and heads tentatively down, then back up at the smallest noise or burst of wind. Giraffe are so shy; it is amazing they do not die of thirst at the edge of the waterhole. But, eventually, the world synchronizes for them—the wind dies, nothing stirs, and the waterhole is empty of other animals. The giraffe bend down to drink.

As we turned to leave, a portion of the universe aligned for us and the elephants as slowly 1, 2, 3, 4, and then eventually 50 wrinkled, gray creatures silently stomped out of the forest towards the water. The smallest of the herd began to run, disregarding all thoughts of danger, and their mothers trotted after them. The entire group walked into the water, drank gallons, and finally baptized themselves with sprays of water and mud. They churned the mud with their feet and reveled in the flying muck. Some of the young were so small they had not learned to use their trunk, but they giddily twirled their little nose-tubes like a baton  and were covered in goo by the by-products of others’ mud baths.

Just like that, it was over. A leader turned back to the bush, and the herd disappeared as quickly as it had emerged. We were left in silence at the waterhole with a single vulture who had silently watched the chaos.

As we drove away, we passed another car just arriving to the empty waterhole. “Justice,” we grinned, and we drove out into the world willing to be disappointed again.

Elephants at Klein Namutoni waterhole, Etosha National Park, Namibia. June 2019, Photo by Larkin Powell

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