Rolf Potts travels around
the world with no luggage

Justin’s elephant-poop cold remedy

September 21, 2010 by Rolf Potts

Of all the things I’d expected to experience when planning my no-luggage world journey, drinking elephant-dung tea in South Africa was not among them. I’d expected I might explore nightlife in Spain (which I did, while eating tapas in Madrid) or ride a camel in Egypt (which I did, at Giza) — and I even thought I’d get lost from time to time (which I did in Morocco, among other places) — but I never expected to imbibe a medicinal beverage that had recently passed through an elephant’s ass.

Such is is the unpredictability of travel.

This rather bizarre chapter of the adventure took place in the latter half of my week in South Africa, when Justin and I were staying at the Makweti Safari Lodge on the Welgevonden Game Preserve, three hours northwest of Johannesburg. Under normal circumstances we might not have been able to afford Makweti’s exclusive and luxurious safari chalets — but the folks at South Africa Tourism caught wind of the No Baggage Challenge and offered to set us up with a couple of nights there. My chalet at Makweti featured a private plunge-pool outside, a claw-foot bathtub inside, and a decanter of port wine at my bedside; the family of vervet monkeys that hung out on my roof during the day screeched like mad whenever they saw predators in the canyon. Across a suspension bridge from my chalet was a sprawling safari lodge that featured single-malt Scotch in the bar, a library filled with travel books, and leather furniture arranged around a giant fireplace. At night my fellow guests and I dined on stewed eland by torchlight; morning breakfasts were frequently disrupted by baboons sneaking in to steal fruit. At times I felt like I should be wearing a pith helmet.

One of the most interesting people at Makweti was Jacques, our safari guide. Born in Pretoria to an Afrikaans-speaking family, Jacques was deeply versed in biology and wildlife conservation — which meant that his game drives tended to be slower and more nuanced than the dogged quest for Big Five animals I experienced in other parts of the country. We did manage to spot the standard charismatic megafauna with Jacques (a particular highlight was viewing a pride of lions by flashlight in the late evening), but we also spent a lot of time idling on sandy jeep-trails among the brushy grassland while our guide explained the mating dance of the wattled plover, or had us inhale the sage-like scent of the resurrection plant.

Since I’d previously become accustomed in South Africa to the list-driven task of identifying large animals that had already appeared as Disney cartoon characters, it was strange at first to ponder red-breasted swallows and spotted eagle-owls when we might otherwise be scanning the horizon for rhino and wildebeest. In time, however, I came to enjoy the quieter task of keeping an eye out for all creatures — big and small, legendary and obscure — and learning that, say, black shouldered kites have ultraviolet vision that allows them to spot rodent urine-trails, or that a type of shrike called the “butcher bird” improvises its own bush-pantry, skewering beetles and grasshoppers on thorns for later use.

Amid this ongoing biology lesson, my cameraman Justin was suffering from a cold he’d been fighting since we’d flown to Johannesburg from Cairo earlier in the week. Justin snuffled and coughed while Jacques described the medicinal uses of various plants and animal byproducts — but for some reason neither he nor I thought to approach Jacques about trying a bush remedy. It wasn’t until Justin inquired with the safari lodge about the availability of cold medicine that Jacques suggested a novel solution: Why not drink elephant-dung tea, which Africans have been using as a cold remedy for generations? After a bit of discussion — and a pledge on my part to sample a cup of poop-tea out of solidarity for my cameraman — Justin consented to try the bush remedy.

If you ever want to commandeer the agenda of a given African safari drive, just offer to quaff a cup of boiled elephant-crap in front of everyone. Indeed, not long after Justin and I agreed to drink the stuff, our six-person safari outing turned into an intrepid quest to find the perfect tea-turd. The energy behind this endeavor was purely adolescent in spirit, of course — though Jacques kept us informed with a running commentary on just why elephant dung makes a good cold remedy. Apparently, it’s a combination of factors: First, most all medicine comes from plants, and elephants have a very healthy and diverse plant-based diet; on top of that, elephants only digest about 40% percent of a given plant’s nutritional value — which means that elephant droppings consist of largely of healthy plant fibers that are still 60% pure when they’re pooped out.

Once Jacques found a suitable pile of dung, he took it to Makweti’s bush kitchen, crushed it up in a pot of boiling water, and filtered the concoction with a tea-towel. From here the cloudy brown liquid was transferred into a metal bowl, and poured into coffee cups. Justin and I then sampled the concoction in front of a small audience of giggling safari guests. Had we done this in front of a formal TV documentary crew, there probably would have been an off-screen producer imploring Justin to ramp up his gag faces, but — unflappable Midwesterner that he is — my cameraman just sipped the poop-tea, furrowed his brow, and observed that “it tastes like it smells.” When I tasted it, I found the flavor curiously similar to how a zoo smells — not disgusting, necessarily (the zoo is, after all, a sentimental smell from childhood), but not really something you’d want to drink on a regular basis.

The following day, when Justin and I had returned to Johannesburg and were preparing to leave for Thailand, Justin told me he still felt sick and that he planned to hit a pharmacy as soon as we arrived in Bangkok.

By the time we reached Bangkok, however, Justin’s cold was gone. His recovery could be attributed to any number of factors — but I’d like to think that the secret to his vigor lies in the rear end of a pachyderm.

Note: The stay at Makweti Lodge came courtesy of South Africa Tourism. Nightly rates (including all safari activities, meals, and ground transportation) start at US$400 per person.

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