Photo by Duncan Sharp
After our exciting sighting (what a lovely phrase) of the herd on Wednesday morning, we spent a very hot few hours back at camp while the sun was at its height. At around 14:00 the temperature rose to 38 degrees in the shade.
Tessa’s log: Earthdate 18 April 2012
Temperatures: 06:00 24°C 14:00 38°C 19:00 32°C
- Waterholes group – Sarah A, Sarah L, Tony, John E, Mandy, Barry, David DW, Susannah
- Fishing – Rajan, Carolina, Cathy, Peter
- Birding – Bhim, Jack, Villa, David R
- Survey – Duncan, Siv, Graham, Tessa
The waterholes group saw One-tusk.
Survey group found the herd again, which was rather close to the road we were on. The matriarch got quite excitable, but eventually moved off. Bhim Gaj then appeared following them.
The fishing group saw Gangetic dolphins again – probably 2 of them.
Some of the birding group saw Rajim.
The beauty of small things
Over lunch we discussed what each of us would most like to do that afternoon and were split into the most appropriate groups as a result. While Carolina and Cathy decided to take the opportunity to join the fishing group and go for a swim in the river, Jack initiated the idea of taking a group bird watching and, while he took Bhim as a guide, he took on the role of group leader as part of his leadership training. Tessa elected to go out with the survey group.
I elected to tour the watering holes again because I hoped the heat would draw a lot of animals to drink. As it turned out, the largest living thing we were to see throughout most of that afternoon were insects, although I did spend a few intrigued moments poking at a dead boar that lay in the muddy waters of one hole. It was odd to see such a meaty carcass simply lying about, although I suspect it didn’t last long following our visit.
As there was nothing larger to distract me, I was able to focus on the rather stunning insect life. In Bardia insects tend not to appear shy, but instead suggest adjectives such as ‘flouncy’ and ‘in your face’. Butterflies are many, varied and beautiful. Dragonflies buzz about in crazy bright coats of Ferrari red and iridescent blues and greens. Beatles are either madly bright in colour, skittering around the forest floor like animated hundreds and thousands on acid, or ominously black and massive, buzzing through the forest at chest height like enormous airborne tanks.
It made me realise how easy it is to become pre-occupied with the larger mammals and forget about the tiny lifeforms that were all around us, all the time. It is too easy to reduce these creatures to the footnote that requires you to pack heavy-duty insect repellant.
Caterpillars would find their way onto our hats and shirts and into every piece of equipment we possessed. The air was full of long-legged, brightly coloured beasts that would flit past, land on a leaf and either disappear into the background as it shut its wings or loom hugely in front of our eyes as we strolled along, daring the birds to try eating it despite the fact that it’s colours screamed ‘poisonous’!
Every tree in the forest is host to insects of some sort. There are the vicious fire ants that would get people hopping and yelping in their houdas if our elephants took us through any elephant-height fruit bushes. Or the snazzy shield beatles that wandered up and down the tree trunks, their backs sporting the most incredible designer patterns.
In addition to the glorious host of bugs that flew around the forests, some of the most exciting insects were those found around camp and which I had only ever come across on wildlife programs before this. Exotic beasts such as praying mantis, hornets and scorpions had my full attention.
One lunchtime, Siv and Duncan arrived at the mess lodge brandishing a photograph of a large, black scorpion they’d found sitting outside the entrance to their tent. I had to fight back almost as much jealousy at not having seen this spectacle myself as I had when I’d heard about the tiger being spotted. I was however hugely gratified to be rewarded a visit by a stunning, pale green praying mantis the next evening. It landed on the mat right outside tent no.9. I remember looking at the little alien-like thing in all its perfection and finding it odd that it looked exactly like photographs of itself. Even in reality, this spectacular creature was almost too weird to be believed.
Throughout the expeditoin Susannah spent tireless hours putting together a butterfly list, while Jack tried multiple times to set up successful insect traps to catch further nocturnal specimens. These traps became more and more extravegent, eventually becoming a bed sheet suspended in mid air and lit up using a collection of UV insect lights taken from each of our tents. Unfortunately none of his initial efforts worked well at all and his most successful trap attracted two enormous brown mantis which then spent the evening eating every other creature that dared to land. None of us could work out why Jack’s methods failed, but it was a lot of fun watching him try.
The excitement of massive things
Following many hours traipsing from waterhole to waterhole, we found ourselves on our way home in the jeep. The evening light was just beginning to fade and the temperature had dropped to a more reasonable 32 degrees.
Once again, those of us sitting in the back stopped chatting abruptly as our jeep squealed to a halt and the guide pointed into the depths of the high brush we had just driven past.
There stood an elephant, watching us.
It was the bull with one tusk. He stood alone in the brush chewing grass and watching us from about 15 meters away. We all grabbed our videos and cameras and started filming him. Through my camcorder lens I watched as he contemplated the situation for a few moments. Suddenly, without any warning, he was charging us. Hari yelled at the driver to go. The jeep jolted forward. We were all knocked back into our seats. I kept the camcorder running as we were bounced about wildly in the back of the jeep staring at the massive elephant running headlong at us. This time, he really meant it and there was a moment when my thoughts turned to the scene in the movie, Jurassic Park, when the ground shakes as the T Rex bears down on the tiny landrover.
Lucky for us the jeep engine had been kept running. Lucky for us we had stopped beyond the elephant. And lucky for us, once it got going, the jeep was faster than the elephant. Not more than fifty meters on, One Tusk decided we weren’t worth the effort and slowed to a halt. We too stopped. But this time at a much greater distance away.
We waited and watched until he crossed the road behind us. This gave us the shots we needed, from shoulder to ground, to get his height measurements.
When we got back to camp we were to find our elephant sighting was to be trumped once again by the survey group. They had seen the entire herd, with Bhim Gaj, crossing the road as they made their way home. The birding group had also seen a lone bull from a distance, later identified as Rajim, and the fishing group had yet another sighting of Gangetic dolphin.
Tony had been with us for the charge of One Tusk and stood in the mess lodge, video camera in hand, ready to share the footage with his wife. While she had spotted the brown hump of a dolphin as it surfaced briefly in the river, Cathy had yet to see an elephant.
“I don’t believe it,” announced Cathy in wild frustration. “I missed the elephants again. All I got to see was the bloody dolphin.”
“Don’t you dare!” said Tessa in dangerously dark tones. “Have you any idea how many people would give their left arm to see a Gangetic dolphin. Do you realise how rare they are? Don’t you dare complain about having seen one. You should count yourself as lucky.”
The whole mess lodge went quiet as Tessa gave Cathy an unequivical ticking off. Cathy sat in stunned silence for about three seconds before turning to Carolina, who sat next to her.
“Well that’s a bit of a cheek!” she declared. “Who gave her the right to talk to me like that? Perhaps if she’d missed every elephant sighting to date she’d understand. We are here to see the elephants after all.”
There was an awkward hush as Tessa kept glaring at Cathy and Cathy, her back turned squarely away, muttered to those sitting next to her.
“Calm,” I said to Tessa. “Sit down. It’s not worth it.”
Tessa sat. If she had been an elephant her ears would still have been flapping slightly.
“Mmmmmmm….” she said in tones of slatey grey.
“Tell me about your sighting,” I asked in a blatant attempt to switch the focus.
Tessa’s face immediately lit up.
“You should have seen it,” she said in delight. “There was a tiny baby and it fell into the ditch at the side of the road and couldn’t get out. We watched it as it worked out how to escape. It was ridiculously cute.”
If I were wicked, I might have believed that Tessa may have been speaking a little bit louder than usual. Perhaps just loud enough to ensure that Cathy could overhear everything she said. But luckily no one rose to the bait.
The spat was over. We all went back to our dinners.
The next day, Tessa apologised to Cathy and the air was cleared. But it also helped that Cathy was very careful never to grumble about having spotted dolphin again. In fact, she was less grumbly about her daily experiences altogether from that point onwards. She did, however, make Tony promise never to go out without her. They were to share whichever experiences they were lucky enough, or unlucky enough, to live through from then on.
Thankfully Cathy did eventually get to see both lone elephants and a herd.
Lesson no. 28: appreciate the Gangetic dolphin or risk the wrath of Tessa