Bodie looked at the huge milk bottle he was holding. Two more were placed next to his feet, waiting to be emptied into a hungry mouth. The milk bottles all had "Kithaka" written from top to bottom.
He glanced across to his partner. Doyle's left hand was wrapped around a milk bottle as well, while his right hand shielded his eyes from the sun standing high in the Kenyan sky. His attention was focused on a fast approaching cloud of red dust. The milk bottles Doyle was in charge of all bore the name "Barsilinga".
Low rumbles and excited trumpeting could be heard from the group of elephants eagerly running to get their midday milk.
Bodie and Doyle stood in the middle of a long line of keepers from the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. As the elephants came nearer, they fanned out to home in on the correct keeper. Bodie exchanged a glance with Benson, the keeper in charge of feeding Kithaka. Kithaka had grown considerably since Bodie had last seen him three years ago, so he felt a little nervous when the young bull came racing towards him. Benson gave him a reassuring smile.
From the corner of his eye Bodie could just make out that Barsilinga had wrapped his trunk around the bottle Doyle held out to him before a sharp tug on his own milk bottle made him turn his full attention back to Kithaka, who took the bottle from Bodie's hand, put it inside his mouth and started to feed himself.
Not to be outdone, Barsilinga followed his best friend's lead and snatched the bottle from Doyle's hands.
Bodie and Doyle burst out laughing. Doyle asked Joseph, the keeper standing next to him: "You didn't tell us that these boys can feed themselves."
Joseph gave him a smile before replying: "We wanted to surprise you."
Before Doyle could answer, there was a loud clatter as a milk bottle landed at his feet, followed by a loud trumpeting. Doyle immediately bent down to hand Barsilinga his second bottle.
It didn't take long for all the elephants to down the three bottles of milk that made up their midday ration and the orderly line soon was soon thrown into disarray as the elephants headed off for their post-lunch activities. Some went to have a mud-bath and some, like Kithaka and Barsilinga, started a pushing match.
Bodie and Doyle watched with growing excitement the pushing and shoving of the two young bulls. They were almost identical in strength and size and it was hard to tell who had the upper hand. The tussle lasted for several minutes until Kithaka and Barsilinga got bored and decided to call it a draw.
They headed towards the mudbath and started splashing mud on themselves.
All of a sudden, the atmosphere changed. The sounds of elephants playing in the mudbath were drowned out by orders being shouted in Kiswahili by Benjamin, the head keeper. The other keepers who had been busy collecting all the empty milk bottles abandoned that task and ran off to carry out these orders.
Grabbing Benson by the sleeve of his green dust coat, Bodie asked: "What's up?"
With a serious expression on his face, Benson replied: "Our pilot has spotted a baby elephant with a snare wrapped around its leg. The vet is on his way to treat him."
Doyle fought hard to suppress an urge to retch. He focused on the task he had been given, holding up an i.v. bag with saline solution. He tried to ignore the putrefied smell coming from the horrible wound on the leg of the young elephant that lay at his feet.
The vet worked calmly to remove the snare that cut through to the bone, not bothered by the dozens of flies attracted by the smell of the rotting flesh.
Doyle winced in sympathy when the snare was cut loose with a wire cutter, remembering the many times he had been tied up and the pain caused by the rope cutting through his wrists.
He exchanged a glance with Bodie, who was standing next to the young elephant's head. Bodie's job was to keep an eye on the young bull's breathing. A small stick was placed inside the tip of the trunk to make sure the airway stayed open.
Doyle turned his attention back to the surgical procedure going on and immediately wished he hadn't as he nearly threw up.
The wound was teeming with maggots and Dr. Poghon took a long time to cut away all the decaying flesh. Eventually, the vet got up from his crouching position and exhaled loudly.
"That should do the trick," he said tiredly.
"It's unbelievable the little chap was actually walking around with that snare in his leg," said Doyle.
"Elephants are extremely resilient," replied Dr. Poghon. "Yet I think we need a small miracle for him to survive," he added sadly.
He grabbed of bottle of hydrogen peroxide and emptied it into the wound. Bubbles of foam appeared instantly, a visible sign of the invisible battle the hydrogen peroxide fought against the germs and the dirt in the horrendous wound.
When no more bubbles appeared, the wound was covered in green clay and dressed with a bandage.
Benjamin approached the vet and said: "The pilot hasn't been able to spot the little elephant's herd. He needs to go back to base because he's running out of fuel. With no chance to reunite the elephant with his mother, I think it's best to rescue him."
Dr. Poghon nodded. "You're absolutely right. He doesn't stand a chance out in the bush on his own."
With a worried expression on his face, Benjamin replied: "We can't take proper care of him here in the Ithumba stockades, he needs to go to the nursery in Nairobi by plane if he is to have a good chance to survive. It's rather late and I hope we can can get him to Nairobi before dark. I'll call Angela and tell her to launch a rescue immediately."
Doyle checked his watch. Nearly four o'clock! The race against darkness was on!
He lay in wait, taking a firm trip of his rifle. "Give them a warning and get away," the boss had told him.
Squinting against the setting sun, he could make out the approaching plane.
He lifted the rifle and peered through the scope, taking great care not to leave the cover of the rock.
The ride through the savannah was rough and dusty. Bodie turned around. The Land Rover with the sedated elephant baby on board stuck to the one he and Doyle travelled in like glue.
"These KWS rangers are one hell of drivers," Doyle thought when the Land Rover swerved to avoid hitting a termite mound and hardly lost any of its breakneck speed.
He could see the windsock, indicating the airstrip where they were supposed to rendezvous with the plane coming from Nairobi.
Their timing couldn't have been better. Just when the convoy of Land Rovers came to a halt a short distance from the airstrip, the Cessna Caravan touched down at the opposite end of the paved runway.
The sound of a single shot rent the evening air. The birds perched in the trees nearby flew off, squawking indignantly.
Bodie grabbed Doyle by the arm and pointed in the direction of a rock behind which he had seen muzzle flash.
They jumped down from the Land Rover, drawing their guns. In the light of events during their last trip to Kenya, Major Cowley had made sure they were issued permits to wear their guns during their recent trip.
The Cessna Caravan hurtled down the runway without losing speed.
From the corner of his eye, Doyle could make out that the plane's front window was shattered before he focused his attention on the man running away.
He and Bodie jumped over the rock the sniper had been hiding behind.
Bodie yelled: "Stop or you will get a second bellybutton!"
The man kept on running.
The plane came to a stop only inches before the paved runway ran out.
Bodie fired a shot into the air.
Their assailant was obviously of the nervous sort as he tripped, fell over a root and lost his rifle.
When the rifle hit the ground, a bullet was set free. Pieces of bark scattered about as it hit a tree.
With one mighty leap Doyle knocked the sniper off his feet. A well-aimed blow to the man's chin sent him off to slumberland.
Fastening a bandage around the pilot's head, Dr. Poghon said: "You are a lucky man. A fraction of an inch to the right and you'd be dead."
The pilot winced. "I have been on rescue missions for the DSWT before, but this is the first time I have been shot at. What the hell happened?"
Bodie answered: "The poachers are getting quite frustrated with the presence of the anti-poaching units and the orphaned elephants is this area. Not good for business, that is what this joker told us. He was sent to issue a warning and damage the plane. Not a good shot he is."
He glared at the man neatly tied to a tree.
The pilot's hand went up to touch the bandage around his head while he gave a snort. "I feel a bit dizzy," he said.
"You've probably got concussion," Dr. Poghon said. "We need to get you to hospital as soon as possible, but I guess we'll have to stay here until they can send another plane tomorrow morning."
A worried expression came across his face. A man with a head wound should go to hospital fast and that little elephant should go to the Nairobi Nursery as quickly as possible.
Bodie cleared his throat. He couldn't clear all the dust from his throat, so his voice sounded a bit hoarse when he said: "I have a pilot's licence, I can get us to Nairobi."
All eyes turned on him.
Doyle mouthed: "Are you sure?" Bodie nodded his head ever so slightly.
Dr. Poghon asked: "Do you think you can fly with an elephant on board as well?" He wanted to get BOTH his patients into safe hands as quickly as possible.
Bodie thought for a moment. "I haven't done that before, but I sure like a challenge!"
Greg, the pilot's complexion was distinctly pale and a little blood had seeped through his bandage, but that couldn't stop him from overseeing the loading of the elephant into the Cessna Caravan. It was most important that the little elephant was properly placed and securely fastened in the plane to avoid potentially disastrous mishaps during the flight to Nairobi.
Getting the sedated little elephant on board the plane was no easy task. The little bull was placed onto a mattress which was inside what could be best described as a bag of elephantine proportions. It took eight men, a lot of muscle and sweat, grunting and shouted orders to accomplish the task to Greg's satisfaction.
Some DSWT keepers were busy mending the hole in the plane's windscreen with sturdy plastic foil and duct tape.
Bodie eyed the make-shift repair critically. Greg placed his hand on Bodie's shoulder and said: "An aviation inspector would throw a fit, but it's only a one hour flight, so we should be all right. Let's just hope we won't experience bird strike, I don't think the windscreen could withstand the impact of a bullet AND a bird."
Bodie frowned, but there was no time for second thoughts because he needed to hurry to catch up with Greg to finish the inspection of the plane.
Apart from the hole to the windscreen, there was no damage and the plane was in flying condition.
Bodie and Greg ushered everybody on board. Greg sat next to Bodie, and Doyle was in the back of the plane with the elephant. He held an i. v. bag and briefly and gently stroked the little bull's head.
Having completed the check-list, Bodie started the engine, pushed the throttle forward and said: "Gentlemen, thank you for flying with Jumbo airlines today. Next stop Nairobi. Enjoy the flight."
The plane gathered speed as it raced across the runway. To Bodie, it seemed to take forever until the planed reached enough speed to take off. As a matter of fact, there was not much runway left when the plane was finally airborne.
Bodie exhaled loudly. Greg gave him the thumb-up sign.
When it reached its cruising altitude, Bodie levelled out the plane and turned around: "Everybody all right in the back? "
Dr. Poghon looked around and quickly checked his patient. Then he reported: "Yes, both elephants and humans are doing well."
Bodie gave a grin. He was beginning to enjoy this first in a lifetime experience. After a few minutes, he had settled into the routine of flying. He was even able to have a look out of the window and enjoy the scenery.
When he spotted a large herd of elephants on their way to a waterhole he could see in the distance, he alerted the others to it. "Huge herd of elephants at nine o'clock. I hope our little guy will grow up to join one of these herds some day."
Dr. Poghon answered: "It will be a long road, but he has every chance to make it back to the wild."
The sun set and darkness fell. It was a rather dark night, because it was the night of the new moon. The GPS helped Bodie to stay on course in the dark.
The flight was smooth, but that was about to change. They were called over the radio by air control. "Yankee – Five Sierra Lima Seven Four. Wilson Airport has closed for the night. You will be rerouted to Jomo Kenyatta International Airport."
Greg was feeling rather nauseous by now, but that message set free enough adrenaline to ignore all feelings of discomfort. He grabbed the mike and said: " This is Yankee – Five Sierra Lima Seven Four. Could you repeat that? We are supposed to land at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport? You do realize we have a sick elephant aboard and it will take forever to extricate an elephant from the International Airport! That will jeopardize his chances of survival."
He shook his head and immediately wished he hadn't as the movement triggered another wave of nausea. Greg exchanged a weak smile with Bodie.
" Yankee – Five Sierra Lima Seven Four. We confirm that you are supposed to land at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. Don't worry, we are well aware of your situation. You're designated exit is E-25 and you will be met by a follow-me vehicle which will take you to your parking position. The crew from the DSWT will be waiting for you there, as well as an ambulance. The fire brigade is on stand by. We've never had a flying elephant land at Kenya's International Airport and we'll do the best we can."
"Roger. Yankee – Five Sierra Lima Seven Four Out." Greg replaced the mike and turned to Bodie. "Well, you heard it. Ready for landing at an International Airport?"
Bodie gave him a grin. "That should be fun!"
Greg frowned and entered the new destination into the GPS system.
When the lights of the Nairobi skyline could be seen, air control contacted them again.
This time, Bodie answered the call. "This is Yankee – Five Sierra Lima Seven Four. We hear you loud and clear."
"We've got you on our radar now. Your approach is looking good. You are clear for landing any time. We've blocked all other traffic for the time being and sent a British Airways and a Lufthansa plane circling the airport. We were told that the passengers on board were quite surprised to hear that their holiday in Kenya would start a little later because in Kenya, elephants always have the right of way."
Bodie chuckled. The air controller's joke did a lot to ease the tension he felt. Despite feeling well below par, Greg picked up on Bodie's nervousness and he said in a reassuring tone of voice: "No need to worry. It's even easier to land at the huge and well-lit runway of Jomo Kenyatta International. I was a bit worried you might miss the tiny and dimly-lit runway at Wilson airport, but now I am totally convinced you will get this baby down without any problem at all." He gave Bodie a grin.
Bodie replied with a feigned tone of sarcasm in his voice: "Thank you for having so much faith in me."
There was no more time for joking as they had reached the start of the runway. Greg kept an eye on the flight level indicator and the airspeed indicator. "Looking good, Bodie. Just take us down nice and easy."
He had hardly finished the sentence, when the wheels of plane touched the tarmac of the runway and Bodie stepped on the brakes. The plane started to lose speed until it reached a suitable speed for taxying.
The passengers aboard the Cessna Caravan broke out in cheers. Even the little elephant seemed to join in, but the sound he made sounded a lot more like a snore than a cheer.
Air control greeted them over the radio: "Welcome to Nairobi!"
Taxying in a light aircraft on an international airport was quite an experience. They passed a Boing 767 on its way to the runway and when Bodie turned around, he could make out the British Airways plane air control had mentioned earlier make its landing.
As promised, they were met by a follow me at their designated exit. It seemed forever for them to reach their parking position, but once they had come to a stop, things started to move swiftly.
Greg was bundled into the waiting ambulance after shaking hands with Bodie. Airport personnel helped to unload the still sleeping elephant.
Bodie stood in the cool night air, wiping the sweat from his face. Doyle joined him, placed his hand on Bodie's shoulder and said: "Well done, Captain Bodie!"
Bodie gave him a smile. "You did quite a good job as well, vet nurse Doyle."
Doyle laughed, then said: "We'd better hurry and join the convoy to the orphanage. Vet nurse Doyle wants to make sure his patient is safely ensconced in his stable."
An hour later, Doyle settled down in the hay next to the little elephant to spend the night with him and his keepers while Bodie had a drink to celebrate his first "international flight."
A few days later, Bodie, Doyle and Greg, who still wore a bandage round his head, watched as the little bull was warmly greeted by his new elephant family. The love this herd of tiny elephants showered upon the new arrival was heart-warming and Bodie and Doyle wished that mankind would take several leaves out of the book of elephants.
A word by the author: I am currently fundraising for the DSWT. I plan to do zip lining across the Olympic stadium in Munich. If you wish to support me, please go to Facebook or justgiving and search for the "Flying Elephant" page.