This is Adam. His movements are slow and deliberate as if to say that he has been here for an age and he will be here for another—long after I have gone and this moment is a flash of memory.
Blood thrums through my ears and moisture pools inside my clenched fists as I consider the flimsiness of the fence that separates us. I am overcome by that mix of fear and excitement that characterizes all dangerous and fresh infatuations.
This is Adam, one of the largest elephants in the Amboseli National Park.
He’s the first elephant I have seen in the wild. He is majestic.
What does he see when he looks at me on the other side of this fence at Ol Tukai Lodge? A being of intelligence or something crushable? An ant?
He dismisses me with the flapping of his ears, a sound like a tent snapping in the wind. Angry dust rises underneath his feet as he turns away. The rejection stings. I am not even an ant after all. Not even worth crushing.
I retreat to the Lodge’s terrace restaurant. Coffee, brewed fresh and citrusy, is balm and I observe Adam’s other relatives from a distance, unable to withstand another rejection. A matriarch herds a family of seven, calves guarded in the middle, across the swamp on the other side of the fence.
They are too far away for me to make out any sounds. It feels like watching a silent film where I have to imagine the squelch of food in their mouths; a calf’s protest at being nudged along; and the splash of water hit by a trunk.
These first encounters with elephants have an unreal aspect to them. Ol Tukai Lodge feels like a place teetering on the edge between reality and fantasy, right on the border between the world humans have cleaved for themselves and the wild.
Buzzed with coffee I wander away from the elephants to the mountain facing side of the lodge. I watch the horizon, trying to make out the curve of the clouds from what might be a mountain peak.
This morning Kilimanjaro does not want to shrug off her blanket of fog. But today, in a place where time moves at an elephant’s pace, it feels like I also have an age. So I retreat to the balcony of Kibo Villa, willing to wait out the fog until I am rewarded with a glimpse of that elusive peak.
Kibo Villa is rustic and luxurious. I could soak in the upstairs bath all day, watching the horizon through the glass window, playing this waiting game with Kilimanjaro.
I imagine long evenings with friends and family on that balcony, as Amboseli falls asleep.
The only occupation left for a visitor is to make out the difference between the sounds of the night— do palms rustling in the wind carry the same urgency as those disturbed by an excited baboon’s climb?
Ol Tukai is named for the palm trees that provide the only shade to be had in these areas and whose fronds fall like grey skirts, hiding all manner of baboon mischief. In Ol Tukai, baboons are the naughty younger brothers with whom you must live.
Turn away for a minute, and they will snatch your food. Lemuja is the local Maasai warrior waging an endless battle against the baboons on our behalf.
He tries to teach me how to recognise their sounds. He fails because I am as tone deaf with baboons as I was with a violin. He has marginally more success teaching me how to hold a slingshot so that the shot is straight and true.
Although I manage not to hurt myself, my shots fall in listless curves.
When the sun is cooling in the sky, I give up on the mountain and go on a game drive with Ruth, who handles tricky guests like myself, and Diwan, a grizzly, turbaned veteran of thousands of game drives who’s also climbed Kilimanjaro at least 40 times.
Diwan is an encyclopedia of the wild. He knows it is easier to get lost in the Maasai Mara than in Amboseli. He knows where to find the birds that have heads like mice. He knows how to tell lions and old logs apart from a distant, in the twilight.
He knows that I ought to wear a sweater on Amboseli evenings although it will ruin the elegant lines of my carefully selected Safari outfit. With Ruth and Diwan, we root out lions in the palm trees and find a group of five lionesses. But they will not pay us attention. So we let them be and drive off. In the dying sunlight I am finally able to make out the peak of Kilimanjaro.
Ruth is not an encyclopaedia of the wild but she is a veteran. She talks quickly and excitedly about the majesty of elephants; the wiliness of hyena; and the elegance of giraffes. She turns suddenly to me and asks: “What do you think giraffes see when they are up there in the trees?”
I laugh at her question. A few minutes later, she returns the favour, laughing at me when I lose my strength on the run up to Observation Hill. We’ve become free with each other in that strange way people do in in friendships that might last a lifetime or a day.
Observation Hill is the highest point in Amboseli. Ol Tukai has followed us even here, waiting to surprise us with sugary drinks, fizzy drinks. The wind is so strong I feel as though I might take flight.
For a moment I think about surrendering, unclenching my feet and spreading my arms wide open. If I were to fly off this rock, I would continue until I sunk into the red glow of sunset.
Ruth tells me that once, she conspired to set up a marriage proposal on this hill. “She said yes, of course.”
On the drive back to the lodge we move slowly in the darkness, giving way to an elephant and her calf walking slowly from the swamps and back “home”.
At Ol Tukai there is an hour long deep tissue massage waiting for me. The masseuse sloughs off the tautness of my muscles.
Relaxed, I sit down to dinner and a conversation that I wish wouldn’t end with Kennedy, who manages the Lodge. He’s been all over East Africa and his stories could keep the candles burning late into the night.
I sleep with my curtains open. When I wake up in the morning, I lie in bed and watch an elephant walk past one of the dust devils for which Amboseli is named. I tell myself that this is Adam, come back to say goodbye.