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Closing in on wild elephants is one ot the unusual sensations 'offered by a new kind of African safari which AlterTM by Richard Harrington BOTSWANA, AFRICA. A new kind of do-it-yourself safari, which gets you so close to wild elephants that you can hear their stomachs rumble, is making its entry onto the tourist market. The scene is Botswana, an African country adjacent to Rhodesia and the Republic of South Africa. It's a primitive place about the size of Texas but with only three small towns and a few thousand population, including Bushmen. Its few roads are little more than tracks leading into sand traps. But Botswana, which used to be known as Bechuanaland, is rich in one thing--animal life, including large concentrations of elephants and 375 species of birds. No hunting allowed The trouble with most visits to African wildlife, like the kind I've taken ' to Kruger National Park, is that you view the jungle creatures from your car, windows rolled up tight, and you may not even open a car door, much less stroll about. For any infraction of the rules, heavy fines are imposed by constantly patrolling wardens. But now several operators are offering educational wildlife expeditions-for viewing, not hunting--during which they more or less turn small groups loose in the bush lo observe and wander as they please. An experienced guide and a native tracker go along with each group, which is a good thing, as you get so close to the animals that some element of danger is inevitable. The cost? About $150 for five days. I went out with a small group from Johannesburg. The operator provided transportation, tents, cots, washbasin, folding chairs, a table, food and the indispensable guide. We were picked up by minibus at 6 a.m. and we headed Lakes participants into rugged, untraveled terrain. Gun on guide's back is for use only in case animals attack. for the extreme southeast corner of Botswana, where the country borders on Rhodesia and the Republic of South Africa. There we crossed the Limpopo River in a conveyance that seemed precarious, to say the least--a cable-ferry cage that carried one person at a time and-that sagged down to within touching distance of the water at midstream. On the Botswana side we reloaded into a four-wheel drive, the only vehicle that could traverse the "Ivory Trail"-a path flattened out by generations of elephant hunters and poachers. At night we set up our tent camp in the Mashatu Game Sanctuary, and as I dropped off to sleep it was to the sounds of elephants trumpeting and hyenas moaning. The next morning we found what we were looking for--fresh elephant tracks, each well over a foot in diameter, in a nearly dry riverbed. A herd of the huge beasts was nearby. Wild elephants are not creatures you fool around with, so we were given Â·x explicit instructions--we must walk single file, not talk, avoid all noise. The native tracker went first, then our guide carrying a heavy-caliber rifle--which he would only fire if our lives were actually imperiled. We had to watch the tracker for signals, whether to move ahead or freeze. If you want to get really close to an elephant--and we did--the idea is to come downwind. The beasts have an excellent sense of smell, though their sight and hearing aren't so acute. We walked quietly for about a mile. Suddenly our tracker stopped and pointed. It seemed to me he had spotted several small, round, reddish hills. Then one of the "hills" flapped an ear. The "hills" were the elephants we sought. A peaceful rumble As we moved closer, I could hear their stomachs rumble as they grazed on leaves and branches. It was a peaceful and contented kind of noise, I thought. Later I learned that the stomach rumble is one form of elephant communication. Our tracker knew all about this, because all of a sudden he detected a change in rumble tone and indicated that we should withdraw. So we quickly, but quietly, beat a retreat. All in all, we played hide and seek with the elephants for three days, striving for as close a look as possible. Once we intercepted the herd by jeep, and when one elephant passed a few yards away, the guide indicated a thorn tree he wanted us to climb if the creature took a notion to turn and attack us. Fortunately, nothing seemed further from his mind as he lumbered past. Pachyderm playtime Our best view came on the third day, when we got to within 50 feet of a herd of about 200. We could see mothers sloshing water over their babies, half- grown pachyderms playfully interlocking their trunks, and grandparents throwing reddish sand over their backs. We were close enough to see their flanks thick with flies. Few hunters dare gel so close to elephants, and I hoped the pounding of my heart didn't sound as loud to them as it did to me. Had we been discovered, the herd would have moved off in alarm. But usually some of the older males turn to chase intruders, and with their great strides they could have run faster than any of us. So it was a scary lime, and we were pretty exhausted at the end of the day when we reached our Land Rover, had our sandwiches and relaxed under a tree. But it sure beats going to the 700. For information about do-il-yoursclf safaris, write to: Clive Walker Educational Wildlife Expeditions P.O. Box 10920 Johannesburg 2000, South Africa Although members of the party view all sorts of animals, elephants are main attract/on. Here, C//ve Walker, group leader, points out a set of fresh tracks.