Expedition Elephant chapter twenty six: Camaraderie and competition


The following morning was Thursday and Jack had encouraged some of us to get up at the crack of dawn to head up river and look for evidence of Rajim following the sighting made by Jack’s bird group. As the main group was planning to take the elephants for a bathe in the river later that morning after a late breakfast, this seemed like a good plan. Tessa and I therefore agreed to join Jack, Susanna, David D-W and Captain Sarah and Bhim was assigned to guide us.

Tessa’s log: Earthdate 19 April 2012

Temperatures: 06:00  24°C    14:00  38°C    19:00  31°C

06:30 Bhim, Jack, Tessa, David DW, Susannah, Sarah A, Sarah L – walk up river to try to find Rajim´s footprints and/or dung from yesterday. Footprints (20” = were found on other side of the river (by dint of wading across), but no dung.

The lure of camaraderie

I admit at this point that the idea of a long walk before breakfast would usually have been a difficult sell for me. However, I found that getting up was a lot easier in Nepal than at home. The attraction of waking up in a tent to the sounds of the forest and the warmth of the sun always made it easy to hop out of bed and embrace the world.

There was, of course, the added attraction of this particular group of individuals. How could I not be persuaded to join them? Jack was a lovable rogue, Sarah easily admirable and always good for a laugh, and of course Tessa, my best and most trustworthy buddy. Being generally quiet, yet surrounded by an air of growing contentment, Susannah remained deeply intriguing, and David D-W could draw images that looked like photographs using a pencil! My heart rose at the mere memory of his abilities and he carried himself with such charm. I was already a huge fan. Although his wife will be pleased to know that I was reserving my own natural flirtiness for both Jack and Sarah.

There is definitely something intoxicating about sharing such an emotionally explosive, extreme adventure with a relatively small group of people. In my opinion the bonds formed during a ‘work hard/play hard’ scenario of such intensity are some of the most cherished. These relationships may not last beyond the trip but at the time the people you find yourself waking with, walking with and working with, seem like the most fascinating you’ve ever met. Those who were strangers until you met at the hotel, quickly become like family. Which is just as well as you occasionally find yourself trusting them with your health, safety and well-being.

Placed in this type of situation I would be described as ‘gregarious’ and ‘transparent’. Which is a nice way of saying ‘gobby’ and a little flirtatious. My mother describes me as a social butterfly and my father hangs his head when forced to remember my antics as a young woman. When it comes to life, the universe and absolutely everything, my husband and sons know there is very little I’m not willing to talk about squarely, openly and in-depth.

This approach to life can appear somewhat brash to some. To others it can be anything from amusing to down-right embarrassing. Peter, a true gent from a generation expected to be seen and not heard, quietly revelled in the novelty of it. To young Jack and Sarah it was an invitation to be as open and honest in return. And herein lies the real benefit to transparency. The more open you are, the more other people will reveal of themselves to you. Under these circumstances certain types of people will reciprocate with bright-eyed joy in the freedom of it and there begins what will feel like a meeting of minds. Mutual appreciation will ultimately turn into mutual attraction. Pheromones go crazy. Chemistry flies. Married women find themselves having to have serious talks with themselves on a regular basis. Trust me, I’m an expert. Luckily it is this bit I like best. The really naughty stuff seems unnecessary in comparison. This is what is known as ‘love of the chase’. It saves many of us from being truly bad. Sadly however it does not prevent us from making complete and total idiots of ourselves occasionally… but that was all still to come.

So, when asked if I might join a walk along the river with some of my most precious new friends I jumped at the chance. I wanted to spend as much time with these people as I could. And I guess I was also a little interested in finding elephant footprints and even dung too.

Competitive by nature

We took a jeep as far as we could before going on foot, through the head-high grasses along the bank and down to the water. As a group we followed Bhim along the river’s edge. The pebbles under our feet threatening to twist our ankles with every step and the further we went the larger and looser they became.

We soon reached the area where Jack’s team had spotted the bull elephant the day before. We scouted around for some time but found nothing of interest. The terrain on this side of the river was not conducive to footprints and there were no signs of any elephant droppings. All we found was some rhino dung that looked at least a few weeks old.

Bhim suggested that the other side of the river would be a better bet and, leaving us sitting in the morning sun on the pebble beach, he began to wade across.

The river was fairly wide and the water rose to thigh height at its deepest. Bhim used his walking stick to keep his feet from being swept out from under him as he forded the middle section which ran fast. We all watched him as he crossed, shielding our eyes from the sun with our hands so we could keep up with his progress.

With time to contemplate, I gave myself another layer of suncream whilst listening to the quite conversations going on around me. Jack and Tessa had already begun to discuss the possibilities of their following in Bhim’s footsteps across the river. Captain Sarah and Susannah were chatting with David about life at home.

It wasn’t too long before Bhim had crossed the river. He was clearly used to carrying out such feats. Within minutes of him reaching the other side he had scouted the far bank and was yelling across at us that he had found both footprints and dung. That was all the incentive Jack and Tessa needed. They were off!

Tessa simply waded into the water in her shoes which were designed specifically for being able to do just that. Jack had to take his boots off, string them together and hang them round his neck. This set him several metres behind Tessa from the outset but his competitive streak was in full play and they were both clearly aiming to reach the other side first.

Sarah and I agreed that there was more than a little part in both of us that wished someone would fall in. I had my video camera at the ready. Sadly however they both reached the other side without incident and disappeared into the greenery beyond.

Behind the curtain

They were gone for some time. I began to worry about the time. We were going to be late back to camp. It also occurred to me as we all sat looking across the river that we were rather exposed. I turned and sat watching the forest behind us instead, just in case. Time ticked on. The conversation between my companions evolved. David was sharing details of his life. His story was deeply personal and deeply moving. Although he talked directly to Susannah, both Sarah and I listened intently.

It can be shocking to peek behind the curtain of someone else’s life. When we first meet someone we learn of the most obvious things about them first and can fall into making assumptions about their lifestyle. We tend to imagine others’ lives as more glamorous than our own. We fabricate truths that must then stand up and be tested when the facts are revealed. Occasionally we are not too far from the truth but this is rare. More often than not, real life is nothing like our imaginings. And sometimes reality stops us short and we gasp and watch our preconceptions crumble to dust. In these moments we learn. We learn to appreciate the person baring themselves to us. And we learn to appreciate our own existence. Mine at least can seem sheltered and cushy when compared to the harsh experiences life has seen fit to throw at others.

David is an artist. I had looked up his website and seen a book of his work following our first meeting during the briefing day in January. He is, in my opinion, quite brilliant at what he does. Not only is he is an artist but an explorer too! I had therefore, instantly fabricated my perception of his lifestyle around those facts and assumed a fair amount of glitz.

That morning, on the beach, David described his daily reality. It was so far removed from anything I had imagined that my entire perception of him underwent a dramatic shift. I had admired his work before. Now I admired him as a human being.

Late home again

Eventually Bhim, Jack and Tessa reappeared from the brush and used sign language to let us know they would walk back along their side of the river and cross over where it was narrower. So we set off over the pebbles to meet them.

We were not as late back to camp as I had expected to be. But we were late enough to get an earful from the Colonel. On the plus side, Jack and Tessa’s excursion had won them some clear footprint data and several dung samples to add to our growing collection.

Lesson no. 29: When left waiting on a river bank in tiger territory, don’t forget to look behind you

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