Yet for all its lofty aspirations, our expedition has plenty of down-to-earth hurdles. For example, we’ll need pack animals. And there’s really only one kind of pack animal that can carry a lot of water but doesn’t have to drink much itself.
Wall and Galgallo begin lobbing numbers back and forth. Galgallo is holding a long dry stick, and he starts employing it like a conductor’s baton, tapping ruminatively at the volcanic dust as he considers Wall’s latest offer, then making sharp, precise slashes as he retorts with some salient point about the superlative qualities of his camels: their docility, their size, their willingness to carry loads and walk at night.
Wall makes another offer: 57,000 Kenyan shillings. Roughly $735.
Galgallo nods, taps the ground once more with his stick, then throws the stick to the side.
The deal is done.
A day before we set out on Shadrack’s trail, Save the Elephants founder Iain Douglas-Hamilton flies his Cessna out to a remote airstrip near Mount Marsabit so he can take Wall on a reconnaissance flight. The plane was a gift from the late HRH Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands, one of Save the Elephants’ many notable donors, to replace the one Douglas-Hamilton had totaled in a gory collision with a zebra. Wall sits up front, with a handheld GPS unit, directing Douglas-Hamilton as he flies from waypoint to waypoint along Shadrack’s 129-mile route, just 500 feet above the terrain we will start walking tomorrow. I’m in the backseat with Nathan Williamson, the photographer who will be documenting the expedition.
Below us, the Kaisut Desert, red and baking. Riverbeds and old lava flows. Steep escarpments. A sea of rocks and dirt. Infrequent circles of desiccated bushes or hastily placed stones are the only signs that humans have ever ventured where we are about to. A few times we spot what is clearly water. A few other times we see vague shimmers against the dirt and cross our fingers. Occasionally, Douglas-Hamilton pulls a tight, unadvertised U-turn, making sure our eyes take everything in, though at the expense of our stomachs.
With my headphones on, listening in on the conversation between Douglas-Hamilton and Wall, I’m privy to an encounter between men who represent the past and the future of elephant science.
Douglas-Hamilton, 66 years old, has probably spent more quality time with elephants than any man alive. He was born in Britain, but he, his wife, and their two children have lived most of their lives in Africa. Good chunks of that time were spent, to quote the title of a best-selling book he wrote in the 1970s, "among the elephants." His early research was groundbreaking in its descriptions of the inner workings of an elephant society in Tanzania, and his later work led directly to the outlawing of the ivory trade under the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) treaty in 1989. Although elephant poaching remains a problem today, the CITES ban dramatically slowed a trade that had in ten years decimated half of Africa’s elephants and pushed the species toward the brink of extinction. By the time Douglas-Hamilton founded Save the Elephants in 1993, one could argue, he had already accomplished the organization’s titular mission once.