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In South Africa: Elephant October 29, 2010

Posted by Jenny in memoir, nature, travel, wildlife.
Tags: , , , ,

I am awfully cute

For an introduction about my recent trip to South Africa, go here.

My title for this post is “Elephant” (singular), not “Elephants” (plural). But surely I didn’t see just one? I’m only following the example of my friends Arnold and Sonja, Klaas and Carol.  “If we go at dusk, we may see leopard,” one of them would say, or “The dam is a good place to see hippo.” I don’t even remember what the grammatical term is, but the word is being used as an abstraction, a concept, an essence. “We will see laziness there” instead of “We will see lazy individuals there.” And, around Kruger, I definitely experienced elephant!

I’ve always thought that elephants were one of the most preposterous animals (well, maybe I should save that word for the hippo, and turn it into a hippoposterous). Can you remember back to when you were a child and were first introduced to these remarkable creatures? How wonderful, how delightful, it seemed that such an animal could exist? Really, you say? It splashes itself with water that it lifts up with its nose? It reaches up to the very top of the tree for the freshest, tastiest leaves? It has ivory tusks? It is huge and has feet as big as wastebaskets? (And, unfortunately, the Victorians actually made wastebaskets out of elephant feet.)

Oldster crossing the road

For me, visiting Kruger was a truly magical experience of seeing the animals that I had read about, dreamed about, as a child. When I was flying home from Johannesburg, the woman in the seat next to me said she wasn’t very interested in game reserves: “I’ve always felt that  I could see them in zoos,” she commented. She was not trying to diminish my experience—she was a thoughtful person with whom I enjoyed a long and interesting conversation—but I knew without a doubt that on this particular subject, she was missing something important.

How could she possibly understand the way I felt when I saw my first elephant? That occurred on the night drive we took, a tour at dusk in one of the park’s big open-sided vehicles, driven by a very knowledgeable and entertaining guide.  The light was starting to dim as we drove through the dry, monochromatic savannah. Then someone called out, “Elephant!” And there it was, just a few feet away, a huge gray beast calmly pulling down the leaves from a thorn tree. I could look into its eye. It was looking back at me! And it was in its own home, nearly hidden away, a somewhat drab-colored piece in a huge and complicated jigsaw puzzle, blending in beautifully with the background.

Even the next day, in daylight, the elephants blended in awfully well.

Elephant blending in

It was fun to see them among the trees, and it was also fun to see them creating a traffic jam.

Somehow I don't mind a traffic jam caused by baby elephants

I enjoyed picking out those remarkable shapes in the distance.

Ruler of the watering hole

And…very strange to think that it was a certain ugly, irascible man, a certain president of the Transvaal Republic, who had the foresight to set aside a huge area as a game preserve…to actually protect it from his fellow Boers, who loved more than anything else to hunt…to begin what would eventually become, after various stages, the crown jewel of South Africa and one of the most famous parks in the world.

Paul Kruger watches over the entrance to the park


1. Thomas Stazyk - October 29, 2010

It amazes me that something so big can be so hard to see in the bush. Love your digression about elephant vs. elephants!

Jenny - October 29, 2010

Trust an editor to focus on something like that!

2. Thomas Stazyk - October 29, 2010

But I enjoyed the whole thing! Especially the pictures. 🙂

3. kaslkaos - November 2, 2010

Wow! Elephants! I get it. I’ve seen wolves in the zoo since I was little, but it didn’t compare to hearing them howl in Algonquin Park. And it didn’t compare to the time I saw one jogging up a dirt road on the coast of Lake Superior.

Jenny - November 2, 2010

Seeing animals in the wild is an entirely different experience. That must have been a great moment on Lake Superior!

4. brian - November 2, 2010

Wow, this really makes me want to go to Africa. I like Kslkaos’ comment on wolves. Somehow when you chance upon a wild beast in the forest you feel like you’re getting a brief glimpse into a hidden world. I love zoos, but after a few hours I can walk by some highly endangered animal from the ends of the earth and feel kind of bored.

Interesting observation on the “elephant” usage. For me that would have brought to mind some Jim Corbett type with a big gun and a pith helmet on a foray for fungible fauna. That does seem to be the technical origin, but I think your interpretation is better and more in line with the way it is used now.


5. Jenny - November 2, 2010

Really interesting, Brian! So, basically, that usage is common among both kinds of hunters: gun shooters and snapshooters. I hadn’t thought about the parallel situation with the word “deer” being both singular and plural. But I think there’s more to it than an arbitrary dropping of an “s.” It has something to do with the fact that the hunter is not so much going after particular individuals of a species, as going after the generalized experience of hunting that type of animal. Similar words in other areas of life would be “jewelry” instead of necklaces and bracelets, “furniture” instead of tables and chairs, “housing” instead of houses. But I’m getting much too philosophical here. 🙂

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