Photographer Abbie Trayler-Smith in Mali
“Abbie, would you mind going to the Sahel for 3 weeks to hang out with elephants and Tuareg warriors? Oh and you can’t wash or the elephants will smell you. It shouldn’t be too hot, only 43 degrees in the shade and watch out for the camel spiders and scorpions….”
I have to admit, I was a little nervous of what lay in store, but there’s something about this place that penetrates your soul, leaving an imprint far larger than you may have first acknowledged, that blossoms into a feeling of peace and the realization of what it really means to be a human. I am at Banzena, a fast shrinking lake south of Timbuktu, and after 8 months of no rain, everything is thirsty. Including us.
“A dark wind is coming” says El Mehdi, our local Tuareg elephant expert and as I turn around the sky is literally coming at us. Within minutes we are lost in a sea of dust, the world has morphed into an orange, hazy whirlwind and I feel as if I’ve just been transported onto the set of a science fiction movie.
At that precise moment I realize I am falling in love with the desert… and everything it represents. The raw ebb and flow of nature and how this has such a soothing effect on our bodies and souls in spite of the harshness of the environment. I can feel the grit being swept in into my ears and up my nose, and I’m frantically ripping off my turban and wrapping it round my camera.
The air clears, but my excitement remains, and I’m grinning from ear to ear, at which point Cecilia, our director on this sequence, starts giggling at all the orange dust stuck to my teeth. Luca, our cook has a new sand-blasted tan.
This special place is a refuge for the elephants of the Sahel, now numbering only 200. Banzena lake is one of the last stops on their migration route before the rains come in a few weeks time. In the 2 weeks since we’ve been here, we have watched, almost in real time, the lake shrinking before our eyes. Watching the effects of climate change first hand is something of a shock. Not just to me and the crew who would have given anything for a drink cooler than tepid, but to the thousands of cattle who cross the desert from their pasture to come to drink, and the herders who need donkeys to carry their water supply through the many mirages that we can see. And of course the elephants, who rely on this dying watering hole to sustain their existence.
Later on, as I am showering beind a thornbush in the moonlight with half a bucket of water and a cup, trying not to step on the fresh elephant dung as my body vibrates to the sounds of a rumbling herd nearby, I’m struck by what an amazing planet we live on, how lucky I am to be here and whether I really will be telling my grandchildren stories of the last of the Sahelian elephants.
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Interested in more stories from Mali? Try HERE