Elephant Highway

I have my eyes peeled. Zambezi teak trees line either side of the road, and there is so much more life lurking behind their silhouettes..The Caution: Wild Animals road signs are a constant reminder. On this road, one truly feels as though they are deep in the interior of the African continent.

Eagles are soaring with the ultimate freedom of the clouds. I watched one do several circles around the trees canopy without flapping its wings. Its call, ‘Caaaawww’ rings down like lightning from the clouds. On my bicycle, I try to emulate this graceful creature of the sky as I glide over the grasses alongside the road.

Hello Giraffe

Endless trees line the road for the entirety of the 600 kilometers from Kasane to Maun. We are able to just be with the bicycles and the surrounding landscape. The only distraction is a pair of giraffes peaking their heads above their lunchtime acacia bush. Even 400 feet away, Marsha and Marshall, as I called them, capitvate the entire scene. Their long necks magically dip down behind a tree and reemerge like someone coming to the surface of the water. Two horns, large white ears standing sideways, long jaws constantly chewing and a tongue the size of my forearm. The physical characteristics make it the large African mammal. What makes a giraffe special, however, is its serenity. Calm movements and gentle nature blend its tall, spotted body into the surrounding bushes. Seeing a giraffes is the thing that makes me feel most connected to the African wilderness.

But this road got its name for a reason. The vast expanse of northern Botswana, along with the Caprivi strip of Namibia, parts of Angola, Zambia and Zimbabwe make up the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation area. Known as KAVA, the area holds 56% of the African elephant population. The area surrounding this solitary road, about twice the size of the United Kingdom, is home to thousands of the humble giants. In addition to potholes, cyclists passing down the road must watch for elephant droppings, usually about the size of a basketball. The fresh scat and toppled trees are a surefire sign one is in the presence of Earth’s largest land animal.

One hundred meters across the savannah opening, sprays of mud on wrinkled gray skin. A herd of fifteen is shielding themselves from the pounding subtropical sun. They fill their trunks with the muddy water and splash it onto their backs. The sight of this herd is a mixture of fireworks and a group hug. The large mothers shade the youngsters and the whole herd moves together. We stopped in awe of the group. Watching an elephant in its niche is stunning, majestic and a little terrifying when taking into account the actual size of the animals as they meander closer to where we are. I always wonder how they communicate so well, as if they know what each other are thinking as they walking along. The grace of their actions must be instinctual. The young follow closely to their mothers, and ass they grow, they will be able to teach their young the same techniques. Bending a tree by the trunk to eat its leaves, cool itself with mud and clear a path with its tusks are all uniquely elephantine abilities. In a follow-the leader manner, the group headed East, directly in front of us not more than 20 yards away. The matriarch leads the herd back into the expansive growth of Rhodesian teaks and acacia bushes. As ginormous as they are, they can still disappear from view into the ever-present wilderness.

I must have sat there watching for 45 minutes, minimum. He stood in the pasture munching grass by the bundle. His great trunk, flexible and strong, could uproot a large chunk of grass in a single swoop. He raised his trunk with a triumphant look. Elephants eat 400 kilograms of grass a day. His mighty feast was finished and he turned, headed back into the trees. as he disappeared into the afternoon sun, I heard his call, errrraaaahhh, as if his trumpeting trunk played a long goodbye note as he rejoined the vastness of the KAZA region. A sound that still rings in my ears as distinctly as the day I was riding through Botswana.

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