There was this elephant…
Well, first, there was the brief report I read about two herds of elephants in Kenya who showed up at a man’s door after his passing. He’d died unexpectedly of a heart attack in his sleep. Soon after, the elephants arrived to pay him tribute. They’d walked over twelve hours to the man’s home, forgoing food for the two days and two nights that they remained outside the house. This remarkable occurrence stunned me. How in the world had the elephants known of his passing? What had the man done to inspire such a bond?
Sometime later, a friend mentioned she was reading “The Elephant Whisperer” by Lawrence Anthony. He’d saved wild elephants from being killed, she told me. Traumatized by the deaths of half of their family at the hands of humans, the enraged elephants became so dangerous that authorities were about to execute the lot of them. To save their lives, the inexperienced Anthony volunteered to take them in, at his compound in Kenya. With patience and passion, he set about regaining their trust in humans and at the same time keeping them wild.
Prior to my trip to Africa, I devoured the borrowed book in one sitting. He was, indeed, the man whose physical death prompted the elephants’ solemn pilgrimage to pay him homage. It was not the first time the connection between Anthony and the elephants mystified everyone. Recalling an incident concerning the first elephants he saved, he wrote:
“One week I went to Durbin on business and on my return was surprised to see all seven elephants outside the house, waiting expectantly as if part of a reception committee. I put it down to coincidence. But it happened again after the next trip, and the next. It soon became obvious that somehow they knew exactly when I was away and when I was coming back.
Then it got… well, spooky. I was at the airport in Johannesburg and missed my flight home. Back at Thula Thula, 400 miles away, the herd was on their way up to the house when, as I was later told, they suddenly halted, turned around and retreated into the bush. We later worked out that this happened at exactly the same time as I missed my flight.
The next day they were back at the house as I arrived.”
There were other unusual incidents that Anthony admitted “transcended the limited realm of my understanding.” Something about elephants, besides their unbelievably high intelligence and empathy.
On one of our game drives, the guide slowed our open-air land cruiser so that we could watch an old bull elephant striding purposefully along a beaten path near our own. His ears were ragged on the edges. He’d lost a portion of one of his tusks. But he was still magnificent to behold. It’s been scientifically proven that elephants are self-aware. This one had an air of nobility, a confidence that I could feel. We eyed each other from a distance as he passed and continued on his way.
Riding back to camp on our last evening in the Serengeti, two friends and I asked the guide to stop to let us gaze at a pair of elephants standing peacefully in the shade of a tree some distance away. The larger one suddenly parted from the other. After an unexpected shower earlier in the day, his body was encrusted with dried mud. When he turned toward us, here was the noble elder—ears ragged with age, that remnant of a tusk, his purposeful gait, and an invisible but palpable energy emanating from his massive body. This time his “destination” was us.
Clearly, he was intent on making a connection. I recalled the elephant whisperer’s words about such an encounter with another huge bull elephant he called Mnumzane: “He was absolutely calm and I sat in the vehicle, my heart beating loud,” he confessed. Anthony knew that an angry elephant could easily overturn a vehicle with his massive head. Such power was probably on the minds of my two frightened fellow passengers, standing together in the aisle of the vehicle.
“Sowa! Sowa!” they called out, using the Swahili word we’d learned to tell a driver to move on.
“Please don’t leave,” I pleaded, asking him, “Have other elephants come right up to the vehicle?”
The driver, who was also our guide, said, “It is rare. But if so, then to cross the road.”
This elephant’s ears were not flaring in anger. His trunk was not raised high nor was he angrily trumpeting. And he certainly wasn’t charging. His was a slow, steady pace. Gazing into that approaching elephant’s eyes, another observation of Anthony’s came back to me:
“I felt as though I was in the presence of an old friend. This was what intrigued me: the emotions that I experienced when I was with [the elephants]. For it seemed to be their emotions, not mine. They determined the emotional tone of any encounter.”
Yes! As he made his way along an invisible line leading straight to me, that calm transferred over. How can I put this? We “recognized” each other. There was a moment when a part of me exchanged places with a part of him. With our eyes locked on each other, we were cementing a link through time, communicating without words—the elephant via the ultra-low frequencies or rumblings perhaps, that humans can’t hear, but can only intuit. Me, via vibrations or telepathy, I suppose. I was feeling and intuiting all of this at warp speed, of course. Does it make sense to say that in those moments there was absolutely nothing separate about us? We were one.
Meanwhile, my two friends were in panic mode. “Sowa! Move! Hurry! Now!” they shouted.
And the driver, as he’s trained to do, drove slowly away, as disappointed, perhaps, as I was that a truly memorable moment could not have become a magical one as well. Nevertheless, I was awed, exhilarated.
Back at camp, the guide pointed out a group of elephants not far from an open tank of water behind our row of tents. Now his job was to keep the clever pachyderms from drinking the water needed to maintain the camp. “They hate noise,” he said, so he and other guides would make loud sounds to keep them away. In the middle of the night, a male voice just beyond the tent awakened me. Had the elephants come closer? Was someone talking loudly to deter them? I listened more closely.
It was a very familiar voice—actually coming from within the tent and only a few feet away— via a podcast still playing on the iPad of my tent-mate who had fallen asleep. Wayne Dyer, a renowned author and speaker in the fields of self-development and spiritual growth, was talking about Taoist teachings. “I am that!” he kept repeating, emphasizing that each of us is a part of everyone and everything else.
What was the probability of a spiritual teacher, who crossed over three years ago, showing up, nonetheless, in the middle of the African continent to underscore for me that important understanding? It was exactly what I’d experienced with the elephant only hours before! In the dark, I laughed out loud, loving the divine synchronicity of this second unexpected awakening.