Elephants & Radio Adittafane

Mali 2008

Tuesday, January 15th, Douentza Reserve. Shita (SHEE-ta), the pisteur sits up front with the driver, pointing the way. David and Gilles decide they want to ride out in the box of the pickup, scouting with Tigani. This leaves me alone and able to stretch my legs in the back seat. I'm grateful for this, even though I'm feeling much better after a pretty good night's sleep.

There has been no shortage of elephant dung sightings.

Shita frequently tells the driver to stop. He hops out of the 4x4 and goes to investigate something or other. In this shot he proclaims excitedly, "Hier matin," (yesterday morning) as he holds up a piece of dung. It's not as gross as it sounds. The stuff looks more like moist hay than actual feces. In any case, we know we're getting close.

Shita poses for Gilles' camera. Tigani stands aloof in the background.

At one point, about 20km south of the village, Shita tells the driver to stop. He jumps out of the truck while it's still slowing down, crosses behind the vehicle and runs a good 200 feet. He goes to a seemingly insignificant tree, bends down, grabs something and comes waltzing back to the truck. He's holding a branch and grinning to beat the band. "C'est frais!" (It's fresh) he blurts out. It has just recently been chewed off. Amazingly, I have my video camera running for most of this.

Shita displays the telltale twig.

The next thing, we're all out of the jeep and walking through a sparsely treed area of the Reserve. Sparsely treed is as treed as it ever gets here. The driver has stayed behind with the vehicle. I don't really want to think why. Shita turns around and puts his fingers to his lips. He doesn't even say "shhhh." We tiptoe as quietly as possible. For some reason it occurs to me that the five of us are suddenly ten years old, playing hunter. Shita turns again and signals "down" with both arms, as he crouches low. Then he stops, places a finger behind his ear, telling us to listen. I don't hear a thing. "Prrrrrrr." Shita makes that low purring sound that elephants make. It's one of those sounds that I had never consciously noticed when viewing the elephants at the Toronto Zoo, or on Mutual of Omaha's "Wild Kingdom" with Marlin Perkins back in the 60s, but as soon as Shita imitates the noise I recognize it, and as soon as I recognize it, I HEAR it - way off in the distance. My jaw drops. They're here. I'm actually on the same continent, in the same country, in the same reserve, in the same woods, as them. No fences. No zookeepers. No cotton candy.

Marlin Perkins and leopard cub (left)

It's not scary. Even though Shita told us last night around the fire about The Three Things: 1. we must approach from behind. 2. if it's a mother and a baby, don't get close. 3. if charged, run in a zig-zag pattern. I don't know why it's not; it's just not scary. Awe covers fear like paper covers rock. We tiptoe a bit faster now that we know they're still a ways away. We keep walking. Sometimes upright, sometimes crouching, sometimes stopping, kneeling, squatting, peering through branches, under branches. We stop. An elephant trumpets. Holy shit. Now we know exactly where they are, and we walk forward. Again - Marlin Perkins eat your heart out - I just happen to have my camera filming as we come upon our first sighting.

You can just barely see them at the end of the video; a mother and her baby, backs to us (how did Shita DO that?), munching away in the trees. Then my worst nightmare. No, we didn't get charged by the big mama. My camera, at the end of that last clip you just watched flashes red: MEMORY CARD FULL! Complete with exclamation mark. For 8 days, since I deplaned at Mopti airport, I've been wondering when this would happen. Canon, are you listening? Can you please add a menu item that tells the user how much freaking memory is left? Suddenly, I am not 10 years old anymore. I am not looking at mama and baby elephant. I am searching through my pictures frantically looking for a memory intensive movie or two that I can live without. I find a couple, delete them, and then try unsuccessfully to return to my former beloved state of awe. I snap another picture.

Elephant behinds through the trees: Mom is on the left and youngster on the right.

Shita knows there are more on the other side of this stand of trees, so after 10 minutes or so, we head back to the truck. We circle around the trees for about half a kilometer, then stop and get out again. We walk carefully for a few minutes and sure enough, there are several more through the trees. And sure enough, I snap one more picture and realize my batteries are about dead. I don't have power enough to take another movie or to zoom. As sure as I could hear the purring of the elephants, I can now hear god whispering in my ear, "whaddya say we try staying in the present moment, Lou old boy?" It was so important to me that I "capture" the moment, I was actually missing the moment. It's a lesson I hope not to forget. That being said, here are my trophies.

Gilles' camera had a better zoom, AND working batteries!

Here's what I was able to snap, my zoom being inhibited by the limited battery power.

If you have software that can zoom in, these shots are worth downloading and blowing up.

After about 15 minutes, this one turns and faces us. This is the first time I feel a little afraid. Shita thinks it best to get back to the truck and head home. Later, he tells us he figured there were about 50 elephants in the vicinity.

On our way driving back to drop off Shita in Adittafane, we pass four children. They are just walking along, in the middle of nowhere. We stop to chat with them:

Shita poses with four kids about 20 km south of the village. We don't know what they're doing out here, but they certainly are a happy group.

I replace the batteries in my camera, and take a couple of short movies as we travel. In the following, there are a couple of clips strung together; a goat herder / Tigani lying on the back of the truck (note the shades) / a chat with some local farmers, and a pan showing the terrain of the reserve.

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Back in town, we have said our good-byes and are ready to leave. But wait a sec. Shita's got a pal who could use a lift. He hops on his motorbike, and goes to get him. Meantime, Gilles strikes up a conversation with a tall, lanky older gentleman dressed in white slacks, white shirt, white western style sports jacket and a beige baseball cap. Turns out he is le chef de la radio - the boss of the radio station. "Radio station?" you say. That's what we said, too. So Gilles and I walk with le chef through town and across a large field. We come upon a modern looking concrete building. Here is what we saw:

A long shot of the radio station at Adittafane.

Closer.

DJ at work, overseen by le chef de la radio.

The DJ left his station long enough for me to get these pics. There was a second room that served as a recording studio / storage room.

Radio Adittafane power bar.

Shita returns with his friend on the back of his motorbike. All this by 11:30 A.M! Big smiles and big handshakes all around. These are the warmest people I've ever known. Now that we have seen the elephants, the upcoming two-hour drive to Hombori across the rough terrain doesn't seem as foreboding. Or perhaps it's that I know this will be the last of the piste for a while. The hitchhiker sits out in the box of the pickup with his suitcase. Gilles, David and I are in the back seat and Tigani and the driver are in the front. Shita accompanies us, riding alongside on his motorcycle for a few kilometers. Then he stops and waves good-bye, grinning like mad. We return the wave, and the grin, as Shita guns his bike, wheels it around and heads back home. Steve McQueen, it's your turn to eat your heart out. About 45 minutes later, Shita's friend raps on the roof. We slow down and he hops out - in the middle of nowhere to our eyes, but I'm sure he knew exactly where he was.

Shita

Steve McQueen

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