Some sleep standing with their eyes closed, eyelashes longer than fingers, trunks resting on the ground. Others drink from small watering holes hidden behind tall grasses. Babies play happily together while males joust in nearby fields, tusks colliding, trunks wrapping around like coils as they perform a dance of dominance.
My heart rate slows as I bathe in the presence of these rumbling, head-tossing, ear-flapping giants. From my perch inside of an open-air vehicle, I notice how skin hangs off their backsides like harem pants; how their round middles form the shape of chestnuts—wider toward the top. Bony spines push up through the center of their backs before curving all the way down to their tails.
I recently learned of a Japanese practice called Shinrin-yoko, or “forest bathing,” which involves immersing oneself in a forest for the purpose of therapeutic rejuvenation. I have my own version, which I call "elephant bathing." It's not defined by watching them bathe, although they do enjoy a good mud bath, and it's quite fun to see. Instead, it requires simply getting close enough to wild elephants to take in their enormous energy.
The first thing one will notice when elephant bathing in Masai Mara, Kenya—or anywhere—is that elephants spend most of their time eating. They browse plants and grasses with their trunks, using their front feet as levers to uproot saplings before knocking the dirt off and shoving them into their hungry mouths. They eat grass and leaves, and if times are tough, will strip bark from trees using their tusks.
Occasionally, they’ll stop to receive a communication, vibrations that can travel at a frequency undetectable to humans. They’ll stand still with their sensitive feet expanded on the ground, awaiting further instruction. If word is for the herd to move on, I watch them walk away, a pleasure all its own, before suggesting my car do the same.
On safari, I'm always scanning ahead for the next group of elephants to be found just over the hillside. In the distance, they appear like slate colored boulders built-into the landscape. I get especially excited when, through my binoculars, I can make out what look like little rocks in between the boulders. "Babies," I'll shout to my safari guide, "Two o'clock." We'll speed up and then slow back down so that the elephant bathing can begin again.