travelers-talesBy Teresa O’Kane

Animal Encounters Gold Winner in the Thirteenth Annual Solas Awards

Norman is a solitary old bull elephant who lives on Amakhala Game Reserve in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. Years ago, he spent his days with his elephant friend George, until George had a battle with an electric fence. These days Norman wanders alone, joining the breeding herd only during mating season. The rest of the time he observes the other elephants from a distance or ignores them completely. Norman is bigger than most elephants his age. He is the one who asserts discipline over the herd and metes out punishment when he and his eight tons deem it necessary.

I first heard about Norman during a two-night campout on Amakhala earlier in our training. During one of our walks, we came upon the remains of a decaying elephant lying on a gently sloping hillside. We could smell the scene long before we saw it. Sun-bleached bones picked clean by hyenas and vultures were strewn widely around the area. The putrefied hide of the elephant lay folded over on itself like a discarded area rug. The place felt creepy. We turned to our mentor, Schalk, and asked how the elephant had died.

“This was a problem elephant,” he began. “He was unpredictable. He routinely approached vehicles, pestered other elephants, and disrupted tranquility amongst the herd. The other elephants were nervous whenever he was around. Then one day, another elephant, Norman, decided to take matters into his own hands.” Schalk went on to say that the battle between the two elephants went on for several hours and that the shrieking of the herd as they watched the carnage could be heard a kilometer away.

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 I felt on edge—until the day of my assessment.

Three of us were being evaluated that day, Scott, me, and a young Brit named Lewis. We each picked which animal we wanted to track and be tested on. When it was Scott’s turn he said, “I want to track Norman.” I was surprised and a little annoyed. Being around Norman still made me nervous. Eight tons is a lot of angry elephant. I gave Scott a look, (Seriously?) and fell in behind Lewis as we began tracking Norman.

But it wasn’t long before I was completely engrossed in looking for signs of Norman. Tracking animals had become the most compelling aspect of my time in the bush. I don’t necessarily ever need to lay eyes on the animal. It’s enough to figure out from their spoor what they did that day. It was like reading the diary of a wild thing.

We had tracked Norman’s spoor for over an hour on foot and by vehicle before his footprints disappeared in an area of tall grass and bushes. Peering into a wall of bushy shrubs, Schalk asked us to return to the vehicle, saying, “I want to go a little further on my own.”

Shortly, we heard a strange sound coming from the bushes. Then suddenly Schalk was running towards us at full tilt with an enormous smile on his face. We quickly opened the doors of the vehicle and were half in half out when Schalk whispered, “It’s Norman.” Schalk leaned on the door and caught his breath. “He’s sleeping. He was so still I thought, oh no, here is another dead elephant. But then he snored.”

“That was the sound we heard,” I said at a giddy whisper.

Schalk started the vehicle and moved it behind a large clump of bushes near Norman’s bedroom. Then we waited for Norman to wake up.

I stared into the thicket through binoculars. Each time Norman exhaled, the leaves on the bush next to him fluttered. We crept closer until we could hear him farting and snoring. We quietly made lunch. We made coffee. Finally, after an hour passed, we heard branches snapping. Norman was waking up. He exited his den stiffly and blinked in the bright sun.

Using bushes and trees as cover, we walked parallel to Norman as he slowly made his way to a waterhole some eighth of a kilometer away. After a long drowsy drink, he retraced his steps. He paused briefly at the place where he had napped, before finally disappearing over a small hill and out of view.

“That was incredible. Can we see Norman’s bedroom?” 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 under a ceiling of branches intertwined with wispy vines that bore petite blue flowers. A large patch of soft dry earth was Norman’s mattress and in the center of it was a perfect impression of a sleeping elephant. Up near where his trunk had lain was a bone, the hipbone of another elephant.

“Oh my.” Schalk said quietly. “This must be one of Tom’s bones. Tom was another old elephant friend of Norman’s.”

On the way to his nap, Norman had visited Tom’s nearby gravesite and picked out a piece of his old friend to take with him as he napped. We stared at Norman’s outline and at Tom’s bone and thought about all we knew, and what we can’t ever know about the complexity of elephant relationships.

A wonderful old elephant indeed.

Teresa O’Kane writes about travel and adventure from her home in California and from around the world. She sailed a catamaran from California to Hawaii, trekked in the Himalayas, worked as a construction manager on a bridge project in Zambia, hiked more than 500 miles of the Camino de Santiago, and traveled to 120 countries and all seven continents. She is honored to be a member of The Explorer’s Club. Her book, Sarfari Jema, was the winner of the 2012 Indie Book Award for Best Memoir and 2013 finalist for Best Travel Book.