Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Place Where Norman Slept

Since arriving in Africa I’ve recounted a few stories of exciting, surprising, and even risky encounters with wild animals. I never thought I would use the word “enchanting” to describe a bush experience but that’s just what my encounter with Norman was, the most enchanting encounter ever.

Norman is a solitary old bull elephant who lives on Amakhala Reserve in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. He used to spend his days with his elephant friend George until George died after an unfortunate tussle with an electric fence in 2006. Now Norman wanders apart from the other elephants, meeting up with the breeding herd only at a distance or in mating season. Norman is bigger than most elephants his age and he is the elephant who asserts discipline over the herd and metes out punishment when he and his 8 tons deem it necessary.

I first heard about Norman during on a 3-day camp out on Amakhala when we came upon the remains of a male elephant on the side of a gently sloping hill. We could smell the scene long before we saw it.  Sun bleached bones picked clean by hyenas and scavenging birds were strewn widely around the area but the putrefying hide of the elephant still lay draped over part of the skeleton. I am not much of a “woo woo” person, but the area felt creepy. We turned to our mentor Schalk and asked how the animal died.

“This elephant was beginning to be a real problem. He would aggressively approach people in vehicles, pester other elephants, and generally disrupt tranquility amongst the herd. We had just had a ranger meeting to discuss what we were to do with this elephant when Norman decided to take matters into his own hands.” He went on to say that the battle between the two elephants went on for hours and that the shrieking of the other elephants in the herd as they watched the carnage could be heard several kilometers away. After it was all over, the herd was once again relaxed and content.

My initial reaction to the story was that I wanted to stay as far away as possible from an animal as violent as Norman. Though Schalk always referred to him as a “wonderful old elephant”, each time I encountered Norman after that I felt on edge - until the day we had a chance to watch Norman taking a nap. 

We had seen Norman earlier that day when he passed by two male elephants as if they were not even there. He carried on up the road in the opposite direction and disappeared over the crest of a hill. While Lewis continued leading our group to an encounter on foot with the two young elephants, I noticed that Scott kept his eye on Norman’s direction of movement. When it was Scott’s turn to lead, he was presented with a choice; we could follow the two young males down the road where they would eventually meet up with the breeding herd, or we could try to locate Norman. Scott looked at Schalk with a smile and said, “Let’s walk Norman!” I was more than a little apprehensive about his choice.

By this time Norman was far away so we climbed into the Land Rover. I was on the tracker seat. I had my eyes on Norman in the distance but I suddenly lost him in a thicket. Then I even lost the thicket! We drove around the area for 30-45 minutes looking for Norman’s tracks or Norman’s poo or Norman. Tiring of driving around in circles, we finally just got out of the vehicle and walked. Schalk, with his years of experience in the bush, especially with this elephant who was like an old friend, was able to recognize Norman’s footprint. We began following the spoor and tracked Norman deeper into the thicket. After some minutes, Schalk asked Lewis to bring the Landy up closer to our location and then told Scott and I to head in the direction of the vehicle, “I want to go a little further on my own,” he said.

Scott and I had just met Lewis at the vehicle when we heard a strange sound from the bushes. Then Schalk came running out at full speed. We quickly got the doors of the Landy open and were half in half out when Schalk, with a big smile on his face whispered, “It’s Norman.” Schalk caught his breath then said, “He’s sleeping! I almost bumped into him in the middle of the thicket. He was so still I thought, oh no, here is another dead elephant. Then he snored.”
“That was the sound we heard!” I said quietly.

We moved the Landy a short distance away from Norman’s bedroom and parked it behind a large bush. We waited for Norman to wake up. We peered through binoculars into the thicket.

Each time Norman took a breath and exhaled, the leaves on the tree next to him would flutter. We crept closer until we could clearly see him and we could easily hear him farting and snoring. We waited.
We quietly made lunch. We made coffee. We waited some more. It had been well over two hours since Scott had suggested we walk with Norman. Finally we heard limbs snapping. Norman slowly rose from his slumber and headed for the waterhole. Using clumps of bushes and trees as cover, we walked parallel to Norman as he made his way to drink. Then we watched him retrace his steps and pass the place where he napped before finally disappearing over a hill and out of view.

“That was great!” we all said and we began walking back to where the vehicle was parked – always the hardest part of a bush walk for me because I become so engrossed in what I am looking at that I have not paid any attention to landmarks. Fortunately the guys were guys and knew the way. “Can we see where Norman slept?” I asked as we neared the thicket. What I saw there completely changed my opinion of Norman once and for all.

The place where Norman slept was a cozy den with a high ceiling made of twigs intertwined with vines bearing petite blue flowers. A large patch of soft dry earth was his bed. There, in the center of the thicket, was a perfect impression of a sleeping elephant. Up near where his trunk had lain was a bone, part of the hipbone of another old elephant friend named Tom. On the way to his nap Norman had stopped to visit Tom’s nearby grave and decided to take a part of Tom with him as he napped. We all stared at Tom’s bone and thought about all we know and what we can’t ever really know about the complexity of elephant relationships.

I’ve encountered more animals on foot than seems fair for such a novice but no matter how many more chances I have to observe animals in the bush, I’ll never forget how lucky I was to see the place where Norman slept with his old friend Tom.

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