Tuesday, January 10, 2006


It seems as if we will never stop driving. Suddenly we see a small collection of tents, and a Tuareg family exit one of them when they see our Jeep. Amadou gets out and is saying something to a thin, statuesque man in his early twenties.

For his elephant guiding abilities, we paid Amadou the equivalent of about fifty dollars in CFA. With some of that money, he bought a tin of marijuana, which is the currency required to pay the local Tuaregs who know where the nomadic elephants currently reside.

I look out the window and see Amadou handing over the tin of weed.

Amadou looks over at us and nods.

We all get out of the Jeep.

"They have seen the elephants recently," Amadou tells us. "This man will lead us to them."

The Tuaregs in this area live harmoniously with the elephants, whom they follow to find water, and for whom they have enormous respect. The Tuareg social structure is very hierarchal, as is elephant social structure, and they and the elephants are expert at scraping out an existence in the desert. But in recent years more permanent human settlements in the Sahel are leading to conflict between people and elephants, and threatening elephant existence.

We follow the Tuareg guide, stepping over scrubby bushes. There is more vegetation in this area. Suddenly Amadou points to large balls of elephant dung on the ground.

"We are near," he tells us.

The air feels cooler. We are surrounded by green, leafy trees. There must be water nearby.

The Tuareg guide motions for us to be quiet, and steps lightly and slowly, stooping a bit. We copy his style of walking. There is always the danger of elephants charging.

Suddenly our guide points, and motions for us to squat down.

I look, and about fifty yards away there is a mother elephant, with her calf nearby. They slowly eat leaves off the trees with their trunks. I feel that they are aware of our presence.

I remember a documentary I saw on TV that showed elephants in a circle passing around tusks of a dead comrade from trunk to trunk. They seemed to have memory, and a feeling of loss.

I had seen elephants before. The first elephant that I saw, when I was a kid, was at the Bronx Zoo, and I remember being struck by its torrential stream of piss. I also remember how massive it was, and its small cage, and its chain.

After college when I was living in Asia, I rode on a wooden, swaying saddle atop a domesticated Thai elephant. A boy sat nonchalantly on the elephant's head. Later at an elephant training camp that overlooked rice fields, he bathed the kneeling elephant with great big splashes of water from a bucket, the way farmers washed cows.

But I have never seen elephants completely wild like this, completely at home in their environment, at their oasis.

A giant bull suddenly comes into sight amongst the branches. He joins the mother and baby elephant.

Our guide very slowly turns toward us, and flickers his eyes, and we get that we should stay still. And then he says it is time to go.

I take one last look.

And then the elephants are out of our sight.

It is a sight I may never see again, a sight dependent on days and weeks and hours of travel, of asking and probing, of knowing someone who knows someone who knows someone. Most of all, the sight of the Gourma elephants, of which there are estimated to be 350 left, is dependent on relationship: the relationship between the nomadic peoples of Mali and the elephants who lead them to water, and both nomads' fragile existence in a harsh environment.

We walk back to the Jeep in silence, until Amadou says something to our driver, who then picks up three pieces of hefty elephant dung with his bare hands.

We climb back into the Jeep, surrounded by Tuaregs. A young man holds his belly, and Amadou tells us he is asking us for medicine for an upset stomach. I take out a few Tums and Lomotil from my first aid kit, not sure these medicines will be more than a stopgap, but wanting to give him something from my world, as I have been privileged to receive such a gift from his world.

We are driving away, turning left at a tuft of grass, on the way back to Gao.

The Jeep stinks pungently of...elephant dung.

Amadou turns around and cracks a huge smile. We can't see his eyes behind the pink-and-black gradient of his aviator glasses.

"Every time I see the elephants, I take three pieces of their dung. And then I keep the dung in a pile in my yard."

The dung keeps a long time in the dry air of Gao.

"This is so when the elephants are gone, I have proof that I have seen them."

The Road to Timbuktu II

We drive and drive out into the bush, holding onto the seats to keep from lurching forward. Our guide Amadou and our driver smoke and talk, ignoring me and Kate. We don't talk, because we're each glued to a window. An antelope runs by in a blur. The vegetation is sparse. From time to time, we pass boys herding goats, but mostly, there's emptiness.

I am not sure how our driver knows where he is going. There is no longer a road, just flat, rocky expanse, and we seem to be turning left at that shrub and right at that tuft of grasses. There are villages here and there, sometimes an hour apart, in the middle of the flat expanse, where we pull up and stop, so Amadou can go out and pay tribute to the village chief, which seems to be a necessity out here on the edge of the Sahara.

We also stop to greet a camel caravan. Tall Tuaregs wrapped in indigo cloth look down on us from atop their camels. Their headscarves frame stunning eyes that spark with gold and yellow. Richly-detailed hide bags hang from the camels.

"Where are they going?" Kate asks Amadou.

"Oh, they are on the road to Timbuktu," he says.

Kate and I both look at the flat, sandy, undelineated expanse, then at each other.

"The road?" I ask, raising an eyebrow.

"Yes," says Amadou, pointing at the flat, sandy, undelineated expanse.

The caravan moves in the direction of Timbuktu, in a slow but steady plod. I am struck by how well they know the land, and keep their sense of direction. I can't help but feel a thrill that I am just a day's walk away from the fabled Timbuktu, that if I just get out of this Jeep and join the camel caravan, we'll follow a route used for thousands of years to reach the ancient city, using the same form of transport used since ancient times.