The best of intentions

They say the road to heaven is paved with good intentions, those good things we plan to do but never quite get around to doing. Any resolutions we make to change, to be more proactive, ebb and flow like the tide with its ensuing highs and lows.

IMG_9628 (800x600)IMG_9776 (800x599)I was reminded of this recently while walking the beach at Bertra on the west coast of Ireland. Recent storms had shifted stones from the beach up on to the car park, the power of the waves undeniable. Once you could have walked the length of the dunes, but the dunes are being breached as the raging torrents of the sea attempt to slice through the sand into the calmer inlet on the other side. Stand on top and look left and you see a force to be reckoned with. Look right and you see calm, peaceful water. And in between, separating the two, are walls of sand.

IMG_9666 (800x600)IMG_9675 (800x587)A fellow walker stopped to chat. He pointed out that had nature been left to run her course, this wouldn’t have happened. But in trying to prevent breaches, by caging rocks and stones and making walls, the natural direction of the current had been redirected and thus the damage. I don’t pretend to know what he was talking about or whether what he was saying was true. But it did get me thinking about interventions and good intentions.

IMG_9682 (800x572)Perhaps some well-meaning team of souls, armed with degrees in marine architecture or some such did get together and decide to take on Mother Nature by building these barriers. And perhaps that was all for the good. And perhaps things would have been a lot worse had they not intervened. But there’s a little part of me that worries about man’s interference with nature – and the price that sort of progress might entail.

In Ireland in 2013, over 470 people received a letter from the President to make their hundredth birthday along with a cheque for €2540 – the centenarian bounty. We’re living longer than ever and yet we don’t have the infrastructure to support our aging population. I think of projects in developing countries that were the brainchild of development study graduates who may or may not have taken the time to ask the locals what it was they wanted before imposing on them what they thought they needed. I’m not doubting their intentions for a minute; I’m just wondering at their effectiveness. I think of the damage done by well-meaning conservationists who simply don’t understand the ways of the elephant. I wonder how often our good intentions do more harm than good. I wonder what Bertra would look like now, had no one intervened.

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Playing with the elephants

A number of years ago, while sitting in her house in Slough, the indomitable EK promised that some day, she’d take me to play with the elephants. I have to admit, the very words ‘play with the elephants’ conjured up all sorts of wild imaginings. Elephants wielding baseball bats in their trunks. Elephants playing football. Elephants doing the 100-yard dash.  Being South African, EK often paints her thoughts with words, a refreshing change from the formulaic descriptives used this side of the world. But playing with the elephants??? No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t get a handle on what she meant.

And then I went with her to Kruger.Now, some less fortunate people go to Kruger on tour. With guides. In groups. I was extremely lucky to have three personal, professional and very entertaining guides in EK and the Springbok Kids (sounds like a band, doesn’t it…and yes, believe me, they sing and bring a whole new meaning to the concept of a ‘captive audience’). Between them, they’ve more than 100 years of elephant play time under their oxters and I knew I was in good hands. Being slightly anal, I refused to believe that elephants could hide. They’re massive. How could they disappear behind a tree? But disappear they do. One minute they’re there. The next, gone!

We left the camp each morning between 6 and 7am and motored around all day, stopping for breakfast and lunch. You can only get out of your vehicle at designated rest areas or occassionally, in the middle of a long bridge. The animals see vehicles as just another beast – on four wheels rather than four legs,  rarely venturing off the road. Tame enough. No threat. That first evening, on our way back to camp, we hit on a herd of elephants playing in a river. It was gobsmacking – awe inspiring – to see these massive creatures frolicking around like kids. When they’d had their bath, they wandered up across the road to go home. My more experienced companions were keeping a sharp eye for signs that one of them might charge because despite their bulk, they’re fast! They can travel at 25 mph and at that speed, you wouldn’t want to run into one!

I wondered what animals did all day in the bush. Just eat and sleep and wander around? Perhaps. Only once did I see one doing something approaching work,  using her trunk to move a heavy log – admittedly I had trouble seeing the sense in moving a log from a to b, but then again, working for the sake of working is quite common in human terms, too. But when you consider that a grown elephant needs 300-500 lbs of food each day, finding that food and eating it is a good day’s work in itself.

Close up and personal, even the youngest of them looks old and wrinkled. But they’re happy in their skins. I didn’t see any of them working out or trying to firm up that flab but man, do they have eyelashes to die for – they can grow as long as 2.5 inches, without mascara! I fell in love. For me, elephants are the rugby players of the animal kingdom (am thinking Keith Wood here). Big, strong, bald, great eyes. I could forget about dieting as no matter how big I got; with my elephant beside me, I’d still look tiny.

Typically, they reach puberty at 12-14, have kids up until their 50s, and live to be in their 70s. Quite human. They cry, they laugh, they play. They can look sad, and happy, and bored. They’re the world’s biggest land mammal. They grow to 3-4 metres, weigh 4-7 tonnes (think about 12,000 lbs) and have four toes on their front feet, and three on their back ones. They throw dirt on themselves to protect their skin from the the sun (Lancome, watch out!), and this without the benefits of TV advertising!

Elephants are very family oriented. The herd (of 9-10 animals) is ruled by the strongest female, the matriarch. If a baby is upset, they’ll all hover around and comfort it. But while they take care of their young, watching over them at all times, never letting them stray out of sight, they’re not so tolerant of the young, obnoxious bulls. These are usually kicked out of the house when they hit their teens and hang around in bachelor herds, only going back to the family to mate. (Why does all this sound so familiar?) The older they get, the lonelier they become.  There is something really moving about seeing a lone bull making his way through the bush. His slow, lumbering walk. His big soulful eyes. I couldn’t help but feel for him.

Playing with the elephants turned out to be much more than I’d expected. It was an amazing experience and a humbling one. I’d never quite realised how much of humanity is mirrored in the animal kingdom.