We took our first drive out of Maun yesterday. We headed toward Nxai Pan National Park (say “nigh pan,” like the cooking pan) on the A3, a paved road.
In or out of town, this is a common sight:
Cows, donkeys, and goats roam freely, munching grass by the side of the road or wherever it can be found. Earlier in the day as we returned from a walk, we cut off a big bull lumbering past our gate, crossing a few feet in front of him. I wondered if he’d mind, maybe get snotty. He didn’t.
About fifty miles out of town, as I searched out my window, Mike slammed on the brakes.
“What? What? What is it?” In that instant, I wasn’t sure if the sudden stop was a good or bad thing.
“That.” Mike pointed to the opposite side of the road, where I hadn’t been searching.
A gigantic gray animal stood frozen, looking at us. She was used to cars buzzing past, and the sudden stop probably startled her or at least made her take notice.
It’s not unlike driving along the highway in Alaska and stopping to look at a moose, except, of course, this was an elephant. A huge, wild, beautiful elephant with lovely white tusks, crazy wrinkly skin, and giant ears flapping in the heat.
She kept her eye on us—she was female as far as we could tell, but there’s a lot of baggy skin dangling beneath an elephant—but ultimately decided we were okay and returned to eating. I watched the agile tip of her trunk through the binoculars as she selected a branch from a shrub and ripped it off. Though there are green things around, she appeared to be eating brown stalks, or maybe the brown stalks just came with the selected branches. Once, she ripped a small shrub right out of the ground, roots and all.
Our first wild elephant! Neither of us was expecting that.
A little farther down the road, we came upon this:
We can’t distinguish antelope yet, but we think this is a steenbok. Like the livestock, it browsed inches off the road. It backed off when we slowed and stopped, but it stuck around long enough for a picture.
We arrived at Nxai Pan and turned around, which was our plan.
On the way back, not far from the park, Mike again slowed down and pointed out his window. A giraffe!
I confess that this is what I had been secretly hoping to see. I felt a little guilty while watching the elephant because I had been hoping to see a giraffe. I wanted to make sure the elephant and the universe knew I was thrilled with that sighting.
However, giraffes fascinate me, and if I were to prioritize the animals I hope to see, giraffes would probably top the list. Do you know they sleep for just 15 minutes a day? So I’ve read, anyway; I can’t say I’ve investigated that in depth. If it’s true, how is it possible? And why isn’t someone studying the biology of that so that we might somehow use it—you know, make giraffe anti-sleeping pills?
The giraffe was strolling along, so it wasn’t a long view. And since it was on Mike’s side, we were slower with the camera—he’s gotta get off the road and in park before he can pick up the camera. It watched us a bit from the brush, and we could just make out the goofy “horns” on its head amongst the tangle of branches.
Now, I ask you, where was that giraffe when we first drove by, and I was actively searching that side of the road? Why didn’t I see it on the first pass?
I know the answer; I’ve witnessed it over and over: One step behind a bush, one moment with a head down, and an animal can become invisible. In fact, as we watched the elephant, she wandered behind a tree and virtually disappeared. We knew she was there and could see her tail swing as we watched, but had we driven by at that moment, we would not have seen her. It is ridiculously easy to lose an elephant or a giraffe.
An elephant, a steenbok, and a giraffe: What a drive! This was no game drive on safari. This was a little outing on the highway out of town! But wait . . . there’s more.
Again, I was searching out in the bush on my side of the road when Mike spotted (striped) zebras right beside the road. No point in both of us watching the road, right? He’s driving; he’s got it covered.
After seeing the giraffe, I began wishing for a zebra. It was as if I was calling them in—though I don’t for a moment believe that. Ohmygosh, zebras are pretty! The lines of their stripes are so clean and sharp.
That was an impressive first outing. We didn’t expect that. In fact, Mike said early in the drive, “You know, we might not see anything.”
“I know,” I said. Heck, I’ve driven the whole of Denali National Park and not seen any wildlife besides ground squirrels and gray jays. But that doesn’t keep me from hoping, wishing, and searching intently.