Under the moon at Angkor Thom

Published September 30, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

We first saw the lions as our Kenya safari van turned past a dense stand of shrubs.

Immediately a polite "Shhhhh" rolled past us and crested against Jessica, my 14-year-old daughter, and her newly found friend, Elise, lounging in the back. Aroused from their teenage "I can't be bothered" stupor, they jumped up in the open-roofed van to get a better view. But their tangled legs wouldn't allow it and they fell back with a groan.

"Quiet!" I whispered in my sternest librarian voice. It was a father's compulsive reaction and Jessica's response was equally pre-programmed.

"Yeah, yeah," Jessie said as she untied her feet from Elise's.

"Hush, you two," my wife, Linda, said.

James, our Kenyan guide and driver, raised his fingers to his lips and we all sheepishly acknowledged the stupidity of our family vaudeville routine.

In a moment we were close enough to reach out the side windows and almost touch the lion. It was a young male lounging beneath a bushlike tree. Flies flitted across his face and stomach. He was out cold. James clicked his tongue to get our attention, then directed our view to a second young male snoozing beneath a similar tree about 20 yards to our right, diagonally across a small patch of grass.

We knew that they had eaten recently. Lions hunt primarily at night, but even during the day, if they are hungry, they are on the prowl. Instead, these two were hiding from the late afternoon heat.

After snapping too many pictures, wondering what it would take to wake our nearby lion, and mouthing many times to each other how amazing it was to be here in Kenya so close to wild lions, our attention waned. The kids fell back in their seats. David and Karen, a friendly couple from Houston who were sharing the van, and my wife and I looked to James.

"Pictures? OK? Ready?" James quietly inquired.

"Yes," we nodded.

For a fleeting moment I flashed on how quickly we had become blasi about the once-in-a-lifetime sights that continued to appear before us on this trip -- lions, hippos, cheetahs, elephants. Only days before, a group of us had stood in an open field just 15 feet from towering giraffes; like ambling light poles, they had strolled past us into the trees. And now here we were, almost close enough to touch a lion. It was amazing. There was no other word for it.

But then we were slowly rolling ahead, and I joined the kids in their unsaid sense of "OK, that's done, what's next?"

Are we that spoiled? I wondered. Are we that jaded? Have we lost the true sense of wonder? It seemed like it. Would the kids even remember this moment? They were already too busy with their portable CD players. After all, the lions were asleep. No growling. No ripping prey limb from limb. Not much of anything, actually. You see more on TV nature shows -- except that these lions were living and breathing, in the flesh, on their home turf. And so were we.

We had moved hardly more than 50 feet when we stopped on a bluff overlooking a wide, shallow river. Clearly James knew something we didn't. The sun was filtering through the trees on the opposite bank at a low angle. Crocodiles? I thought. Hippos?

No. Elephants.

From between the thick trees and shrubs across the river a proud matronly elephant appeared. Her tusks -- maybe six or seven feet long -- were almost glimmering in the sunlight. She looked upriver and down. Then, after what seemed like an all-clear sign, 500 pounds of baby elephant -- her child, we assumed -- pushed through the bush, followed by an older sister.

Most elephant herds are matriarchal groups. They consist of a mother and her dependent offspring, including grown daughters and their children. It's a close-knit family. Even when browsing on grass, shrubs or trees, elephants seldom stray more than 50 yards from a sibling or child. Should one herd member become sick or injured, the entire group will remain beside it, often struggling together to get the downed animal to its feet. In fact, too many stories are told of hunters easily killing an entire herd that refused to leave a downed companion. Adult males, on the other hand, mostly wander alone or in pairs. Occasionally they group together. But a male in a herd of females is there for only one reason -- to find a female with which to mate.

A moment later four more adults joined the trio at the riverbank, and the shaking of treetops behind them signaled even more. In all 11 elephants eventually lumbered to the water. According to James they ranged in age from about 1 year to around 30. Seven were female. Four were juvenile males, all younger than 12. That's when young males -- adolescents by elephant accounting -- become too troublesome and are forced to leave their mother, sisters and aunts and set out on their own.

The juveniles in the herd across the river bumped and splashed each other in the shallow waters. One particularly playful youngster slid between the adults, grabbed a trunkful of water, then retraced his steps to ambush his friend with a forceful spray. Others wove their trunks together as they stood side-by-side or swung them in the river, splashing their neighbors. One matron curled her knees under and awkwardly sat down in the water. A second stepped beside her and carefully looked upriver as if guarding her sister's bath.

The 4-foot-tall baby toyed with the water as it stood between its mom and its older relative. Reaching into its mother's mouth, the baby played joyfully. The matriarch, however, was always watchful. She kept her eye on the baby even as she gathered water with her trunk and slid it down her own throat to drink.

Elephants are especially protective of their young. This is true despite the fact that only newborn elephants are at much risk from predators, and then only for a few weeks. Still, mothers keep babies within a few feet of them and even a 9-year-old will spend half of its time within five yards of its mother. In fact, if there is a real king of the jungle, it's the elephant. No sane animal, no matter how ferocious, will mess with an adult elephant, which can weigh as much as 14,000 pounds and run as fast as 25 miles per hour. They've got all the numbers on their side.

Time seemed to stand still as the herd performed before us. As soon as the show began, Jessie and Elise were on their feet, this time elbowing their way to the front of the van. I was glad to see them interested.

"What d'ya think?" I asked Jessie. "Need a bath?"

"Hardly," she answered coolly.

"How about you, Elise?"

Elise laughed a little nervously. She wasn't sure what to say. The girls had met only a week ago and this was just the second time she had ridden in our van. She hadn't yet grasped my sense of humor. Jessie, on the other hand, had long ago had too much of my silliness. She was, after all, a teenager.

When we returned home she would be starting high school. Jessie was growing up and I guess I didn't like it much. Maybe I just wanted to make sure that I had done my fatherly job -- passed on something useful. I also wanted to know that the amazing sights we were seeing on our trip were actually getting through to her -- that her self-imposed coolness and distance weren't terminal. One reason we had taken this trip was to get in some "family time" before we slipped into a tight schedule of school, homework and her budding social life.

If the girls had been younger, I might have asked them what they thought of the animals they were seeing. We would have talked and I would have watched their eyes twinkle with the thrill of being here. Jessica would have asked where the daddy elephants were. I would have told her that they were busy. "At work?" she probably would have asked. "Yes, at work," I would have agreed.

If they were still children, we might have counted the elephants together. We would have repeated the game until Jessica would have put her hand over my mouth and insisted on counting them all by herself.

In either case, they might not have recognized the uniqueness of the moment, but I would have tried to help them store the experience in a special place where they could find it later. But these girls were difficult to make contact with -- too old to be children and to young to really understand being adults. So, I made stupid jokes. I kept contact and Jessie's reactions made me laugh.

It wasn't long before the elephants began to stir. A little water, a little wash, and it was time to cross the river. As before, the matriarch stepped ahead to test the going. I imagined that these elephants had crossed this river at this spot, at this hour, hundreds of times. The fact that James had brought us here made that obvious.

Still, the elephants weren't taking any chances. Children were with them and that meant extra care. Soon the herd was lining up. Behind the leader came her child. Next came another of the baby's guardians. The others followed. Youngsters stood between older relations until they were all sloshing their way toward us. The leader raised her trunk slightly and snorted. The image of a freight train came to mind, and even though it wasn't very original, it was accurate. Plodding along, the big engine led the way; at the end, another large female followed, a secure, strong caboose.

High on our bluff we knew that we were safely out of the way. The elephants were heading to our right, to a small, sandy beach where the riverbank was lower and a path up had already been established. Before the lead mom made her way up the bank, she raised her trunk high into the air, twisting it in all directions. She seemed uncomfortable and cautiously waited for the group to come back together.

Secure in our van, we watched and listened in silence. Nothing could move us from this spot.

Except for James. Without warning, he started the van and quickly backed up. Our jaws dropped. Where the hell was he going? We wanted to get closer, not farther from the bank, we thought to ourselves. But it all was happening too quickly to even talk. The elephants were hidden now, and in a split second we stopped again. Ahead of us was the forgotten lion, still asleep; to our right, his comrade continued to slumber. In between was the open pathway that led from the river to a field of tall grass.

Clearly, the elephants were headed for this tall grass beyond and behind us. Elephants spend as much as 16 hours a day foraging for food and this savanna was a wide-open buffet. But to get there, they had to pass between the lions. We knew that, but did the elephants?


The big mama trumpeted with a long, excited blast. Almost in unison, the lions raised their groggy heads. Across the path the distant lion stood. But he had only a moment to take in the situation before two adult elephants were upon him. They screamed and stamped their huge feet. Their ears flapped wildly. Still sleepy eyed, the lion almost fell back on his rump as he stepped back.

From our position in the van we were close enough to see the passion in the elephants' eyes. Their trunks waved madly, infuriated by the smell of the only animal that might harm a young elephant calf. They were pissed and the lion knew it. Still, he was a lion. He drew himself up and puffed out his chest. A low growling roar followed. For maybe a split second the elephants forgot that even one of them, alone, could turn this feline into a messy sack of vulture feed. But while this lion was young, he wasn't foolhardy. Having made his point, he turned tail and ran.

So much for lions, the two matrons must have thought -- at least for a split second. But the smell was still in the air. What gives?

We knew. While this elephant-lion tête-à-tête was going on, the first lion, our nearby lion, was calmly taking it all in. Even though he was in clear view to us, his post under the scraggly bush kept him hidden from the elephants. The two matrons had focused on his comrade, leaving our lion a front-row seat.

By now, the baby and several of the others were quickly moving into the clearing. At the same time the two matrons struggled with the idea that, while they could see their lion slowly fleeing through the grass, it somehow still remained.

Still, the second lion didn't go entirely overlooked. The matriarch of the herd had now stepped ahead of the rest. She had moved between the matrons and our lion and, in an instant, she recognized the danger. Quickly she whirled to face him, swinging her rising trunk and showing her pointed tusks. She too stomped, then stopped. Leaning forward she seemed to be almost daring the quickly rising lion to try something.

Our lion got the message. He quickly backed away, keeping a wary eye on the irate mother. Just to show that she meant business, the elephant lurched a few steps closer. She trumpeted again, then swung her head around to check on the progress of the group.

Standing only 15 feet in front of us, the lion backed up even farther, this time with added enthusiasm for his plan of escape. He continued to back off, farther and farther. Then he was gone, swallowed by the bush.

We looked back across the path and watched the herd pass into the tall grass. Then we all took a breath.

Not much was said on the ride back to camp. I suspect that, like me, everyone in the van was replaying the scene in their heads. The two teens, however, had wasted no time slapping their headsets on and falling back into that strange un-place where, even with their eyes open, they were lost to the here and now.

I couldn't get the elephant-lion standoff out of my mind. They couldn't get past their favorite cuts on their newest CDs.

"What d'ya think of the lions?" I shouted past my daughter's earphones.

"Yeah," she responded.

"Yeah, what?" I persisted.

"Yeah, lions," she added.

"Yeah, lions, what?" I went on.

Just then Linda touched my arm and pointed at the blazing red sun setting before us and the pair of giraffes that were marching past it on the horizon. I turned away, took it all in, then I turned back to catch Jessie's attention.

She rolled her eyes.

I was just checking. Something was in there, wasn't it? As she wandered closer to adulthood I wanted to make sure that the tight web of self-absorption had, at least, a few soft spots that could break open to let the rest of the world in. It didn't have to be just my ideas, or her mother's. I just wanted to know that there was room in there and a way in.

That night after dinner I watched as all the kids gathered around a bonfire carefully set in the clearing in front of the dining hall. Overwhelmed by the bright flames, the darkness surrounding them gave me perfect cover. Like the gawky, two-legged omnivore that I am, I stepped closer to steal a listen.

Jessica was rattling on, speeding through any attempt by the others to get a word in sideways:

"... And then the elephants turned and stared at that lion and really got pissed. I mean, who wouldn't? It was amazing, like, I wouldn't want a lion hanging around when my baby elephant was only a few feet away, so the lion saw which way was up and turned right around. I mean, like, hello, I may be a lion, but you're a lot bigger than I am and like, 'Excuse me, I think I left the water running in my car ...'"

The others seemed to have trouble keeping up with her, and no matter how hard they tried, they couldn't do more than get a quick "Uh-huh" or an astonished "Really?" out of their lips before she went zooming on.

I stood there and smiled to myself. I wondered how close I could get before she realized I was there, before she stopped dead in mid-sentence.

I waited. Then I backed up into the darkness.

By Karin Muller

Karin Muller is a writer and filmmaker. Her first book, "Hitchhiking Vietnam," was excerpted in Wanderlust.

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