Sunday, 28 July 2013

Daisy begins training

Daisy sprinting for the edge of the river. Her speed is low,
but her endurance is phenomenal-Dopjie Van  Heerden.
Welcome to the July issue of Elezine. We are once more privileged to
have Dopjie Van Heerden with us, coach of Botswanan Olympic swimming sensation, Daisy, the Olympic elephant.
Elezine: Dopjie, we understand Daisy has started training for Rio 2016, but there were some issues to be sorted out?
At first Daisy just goofed off. Here I am
 trying to get her to get a move on-DVH
DVH: Yes that's correct. For your readers who missed the first instalment, I entered Daisy in the Botswana Olympic squad as a lark, but she was accepted, much to my surprise, so we went with it and began her training.
Elezine: Where did you start?
DVH: Well, we thought we would begin where she was most comfortable, and so I flew out to Botswana, conferred with Simba, her human partner, and then we took her back to the Okavango.
Elelzine: She was happy to swim?
DVH: Oh yeah. She loves the water. Our first real problem was to get her to swim laps. At first she just sat there spraying water on herself and generally goofing off.
Elezine: So what did you do?
DVH: I conferred with Simba and we came up with an answer. We had two problems really. First, her goofing off, secondly, she would only swim in a direct fashion while Simba was riding her, telling her where to go by tugging her ears. So we took her to the river and Simba taught me some specific instructions in the local dialect, basically, "Swim back to Simba."
Next, I stood on one side of the river and Simba got on her shoulders and swam to the other.
Then, and this was a real crucial point, he instructed her to swim back to me.
Simba lining Daisy up for
 lap swimming at the Okavango.
I waited on the bank for what seemed an eternity, then, it really was magical, I saw her shadow in the water and then her trunk, and she was back with me.
I should point out, as can be seen in the top picture, when Elelphants swim they are invisible from above the water, you wouldn't think a two-ton animal could be invisible, but she was.
I greeted her with great happiness, I can tell you.
Then I gave her a reward, sugar lumps and some carrots, and did as Simba instructed, I gently grabbed her ear, tugged her around, made the arm gestures Simba had showed me, repeated the words he'd taught me and stood back.
To her credit, she is one smart animal, and my great joy, she trundled down to the water's edge, disappeared like a submarine and began swimming back.
Elezine: The first day was the hardest?
DVH: In some ways, but every day was the hardest really. That day she swam three laps of the river, a distance of about six k. Then we had to get her to swim faster, get used to a pool, get used to her swimming costume, a hoarde of issues, but, yes, in general we were happy that she had quickly learned to swim laps without Simba on her.
Elezine: So what did you do next?
DVH: Well we spent the first week just swimming her three laps, and we were happy with that. Then we started work on her sprinting. Now I'm sure your readers will appreciate this, if an elephant doesn't want to do something, there's not much you can do.
Swimming the river she liked, but then, and this even taxed Simba's communication skills, we had to get her to go faster.
Elezine: Did you achieve that?
DVH: We did, all thanks to Simba, he really is a brilliant elephant handler. He simply took her downstream of our "lap" point and sent her back to me, so she had to swim against the current. Even then her sharp intelligence nearly sunk us. The first few laps she just swam directly across the river and then walked up the bank to me, she's no fool I can tell you.
Elezine: how did you solve this problem?
DVH: Simba had a word with her, got her to swim upstream and we gave her greater reward in sugar lumps. Also, she quickly figured out that she could coast downstream back to Simba, so it all balanced out in the end. We got her swimming laps, and every second lap was against the current at greater speed, so we were generally happy.
Elezine: And what was the next step?
DVH: Two next steps really, well, three. Botswana doesn't have much of a pool presence, most of Botswana's athletes compete in track and field, running, boxing and so forth. The paperwork I got said that to even go to the Olympic trials she had to join a local swimming club and record three times to be submitted three months before the trials.
The Olympic pool at Kimbala, here seen empty, as it soon was when Daisy stuck her paw in-DVH
I checked around and luckily for us there was a pool in Kimbala and even a swim club, so I signed her up and she became a member of the Okavango Delta Swimming Club.
At first Daisy just wanted to
drink the pool water.
That done, we then had to get her used to swimming in the pool, we needn't have worried, she loved it.
We had to do a bit of monkeying around, at first she thought we had provided her with a large drink of lovely clean water.
Have you ever tried to explain to a clothing
 company that  "my elephant needs
  a swimming costume?"
Here Daisy dives in wearing
the colours of the Okavanga Delta club.-DVH
However once Simba explained the lay of the land to her, she took to it with a flamboyance even we couldn't believe. As you can see from the picture on the left, she took to the pool with real joy.
Elezine: And she was happy to train in the pool?
DVH: Oh yes, once again we had to get her mind on the job as this was the most see through water she had ever been in, so at first she just liked being underwater looking about, but Simba got her going and soon she was lapping with great abandon.
Elezine: So pretty simple in the end?
Once Simba did a few somersaults, Daisy got
the idea. Here she is coming out of her tumble turn.
DVH: It was , much to our surprise really, our biggest issue on that day was getting her to do a tumble turn, but again Simba solved the problem by doing somersaults himself at the deep end of the pool and she quickly picked it up.
Elezine: So you're satisfied with how the training is going?
DVH: Oh, yes, really, when I think back to that morning on the river bank, waiting anxiously for her trunk to appear out of the river, and realise all she has achieved, we're over the moon.
Elezine: So what's next for Botswana's swimming elephant?
DVH: Well, we keep training in pool and river for the next months and then submit her times to Sports Botswana. If they're acceptable she goes to the Olympic trials and, hopefully, then to Rio.
Elezine: thanks so much for your time Dopjie, will you keep us informed?
DVH: Happy to, could I just add, we would like a sponsor (sugar lumps are not cheap in Africa), so if any of your readers can think of anyone suitable, we would love to hear from them.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

How Daisy's Olympic Dream began

Welcome to EleZine magazine, an online organ dealing with unusual Elephants.
We begin with an interview with Daisy's coach, Dopjie Van Heerden.
EleZine: Dopjie, is this true? An elephant from Botswana has entered to swim in the Rio Olympics?
DVH: Yes, it's true, it's been an amazing journey, and we are not even a quarter of the way.
EleZine: Can you tell us how on Earth such a got thing started?
Kruger elephants crossing the road.
"Put it this way in a dispute between a
car and an elephant, always bet on the
 elephant"-Dopjie Van Heerden
DVH: Sure. It all started a year or so ago. I work for Kruger Game park in South Africa and I was sent for training to Botswana to see how they work with elephants in their game reserves.
At Kruger we had been having some trouble with elephants interfering with tourists in their cars, so I went to learn from the experts, African elephant handlers in Botswana.
EleZine: And that's where you met Daisy?
DVH: Yes.
EleZine: Can you tell us about how you learned about her swimming ability?
DVH: Certainly. It's a longish story, but I'll do my best. I joined a group of Elephant handlers and their elephants in the south of Botswana and worked and learned from them for a three month period. The lead handler was Simba and M'Dahzee was the leader of the elephant troupe. Most days I rode with Simba on M'Dahzee's shoulders.
M'Dahzee was anglicized to "Daisy", which is what I called her as I had trouble getting my tongue around the dialectic name.
Eventually the time came for me to go back to South Africa and this is when the trouble started.
The rainy season came early and fell heavy from the start.
Simba radioed through to the capital and we learned that the Okavango had risen sharply and the roads and rail were already cut.
It looked like we would have to be evacuated with helicopters, but Simba and the other handlers didn't want to leave their elephants.
The Okavango River.
"I only wished it was this calm the day
Daisy lead her team across"-
Dopjie Van Heerden
The handlers had a discussion in their native language, which I couldn't follow, then Simba (and I swear this is true) went and spoke to Daisy.
Then he came back and said, "We're going to swim out".
I was immediately swamped with feelings of disbelief and terror.
Crocs, hippos, floating trees, rushing current, snakes, freezing water, I couldn't believe it.
Then (and this is gospel true as well) Simba said, "Daisy is confident".
Well, I'd seen him with her for the past three months and knew they had an almost supernatural bond, but even so, I was panicking.
EleZine: Gosh, you must have been in some fear?
DVH: I sure was. I'd heard of rapid, involuntary evacuation of the bowel, and I nearly suffered it then and there.
So we packed up, got on our elephants and set off, we had to walk about twenty k, through driving rain, to even reach the bank of the mighty watercourse.
I might add already the river and the land had merged into one enormous horizon spanning waterscape.
We plodded on.
Eventually I felt Daisy's feet leave the ground and we were swimming the Okavango.
Simba gently tugged on Daisy's left ear to keep her swimming diagonally upstream against the current so we wouldn't be swept downstream.
Trees rushed by, the water swirled and boiled.
I was terrified.
Occasionally Daisy would raise her head and trumpet, which Simba said was her call to the rest of the elephants to keep them together.
Then, and forget Beethoven's fifth symphony, I heard the sweetest sound in the history of humanity, the pad of an elephant's foot on ground.
We had reached the other side.
I have no real recollection of the crossing as I was shivering with cold and fear, but it certainly took some hours, three maybe, perhaps four.
A sweet sight, the railway station
 at Kimbala was still open.
(this picture taken during the dry season)
Slowly the elephants walked on through thigh, then knee and ankle deep water and then we were clear.
We reached a town called Kimbala and this was significant as it turned out to be the only dry place in nearly a thousand square kilometres of South-western Botswana.
I sadly bid a hurried goodbye to Daisy, Simba and the team.
Hurried because I had to get on the last train out for the capital.
EleZine: That is already a remarkable story Dopjie, but where did the Olympic part come in?
DVH: Well, when I got home I was so thankful to be alive that I was determined to do something for Daisy and Simba to mark her incredible swim.
As it happened I watched the movie 'Babe'  with my kids soon after.
They love that film and we have seen it at least twenty times, it got to the point where the farmer enters Babe in the sheepdog trial and he is happy because the entry form does not say "Name of Dog", but instead "Name of Entrant", so he, the farmer, doesn't have to lie.
Then it hit me.
There was no better swimmer in southern Africa than Daisy, what better way to commemorate her mighty swim than by entering her in the Olympics?
EleZine: So you did?
DVH: Yes, it was really only a lark, I just wanted something on paper to send to Simba as a momento, but as I now know, nowhere in the Olympic charter does it say that you have to be a human being to enter.
EleZine: Readers you can confirm this for yourself at Though we don't want to start a flood of entries from kangaroos in the high jump and so forth.
DVH (Continues): So I entered Daisy, I remembered that Simba's surname was Umtali, so I entered her as M'Dahzee Umtali.
This is a screenshot of the fateful form!

DVH (continues): As I said, it was all a bit of a lark, but then to my considerable surprise, the Olympic folks at Sports Botswana accepted it and I got an email back with instructions for team meetings, training schedules and so forth.
I sent a copy to Simba in Botswana and when he stopped laughing he asked me for some money to frame it, which I happily sent and we all went back to work.
EleZine: That is truly remarkable, Dopjie. Is that where the story ends.
DVH: Not at all, after a few weeks Simba got through to me by radio-telephone and reported that he had shown the form to Daisy and told her what it means, and (his words, not mine) that Daisy wanted to go to Rio and swim.

Elezine: Dopjie has agreed to keep us posted on Daisy's progress. Next post "Daisy Starts her training".