I haven’t seen the Bill Murray movie this quote comes from, and it sounds like it was a bust at the box office, but the quote rings true nonetheless. Elephants are beautiful, intelligent, emotional animals, and time spent with them is magical and memorable, as I will finally get to discover for myself. Yesterday, during my and Craig’s “wish list” day, I went up to Lauren and asked her for yet one more wish: could she get me on the schedule with the elephants today, Sunday, our last day at Antelope Park? I still haven’t spent any time with the elephants except for our one bust of an experience last week, and I tell Lauren I don’t care what the activity is just as long as I get to interact with the ellies. I know we came here for the lions, but I have a soft spot in my heart for elephants, and to leave AP without the opportunity to get up close and personal with them would be a big disappointment for me.
You know, they say an elephant never forgets. What they don’t tell you is, you never forget an elephant.
-Bill Murray, “Larger Than Life.”
And so Craig and I are scheduled for an elephant ride during today’s late morning session. I have mixed feelings about riding an elephant. It’s something I’ve never done, and it seems like great fun and an incredible vantage point from which to view the world. On the other hand, elephants in the wild do not transport humans on their backs and I’ve heard horror stories of abuse related to elephant rides. (Most of the abuse stories I have read about take place in Southeast Asia, but it still makes me question the ethics of it.) As I’ve never done anything like this, since even my first horse ride was on this trip, I decide to go ahead with it. The bottom line is, the elephants at AP appear happy and very well taken care of, with plenty of opportunities to roam free and live like elephants should live, with the exception of the rides. I’ll do it this time, and then decide what to do the next time I’m here, which at this point in our trip I’ve decided can’t be soon enough.
Craig decides to forgo our elephant time altogether and go back to the tent to do some packing so he doesn’t leave it to the last minute. I’m not really sure if he’s stressed about packing, stressed about leaving, or just doesn’t have much interest in the elephants; but after breakfast, with a few apples in my hand, I leave him to do what he needs to do and head towards the herd. The apples are treats for the elephants. Several volunteers have told me they love them and if I bring some with me, I will be a big hit with the ellies.
I walk over to meet Amai, Chibi, Tombi, and Jecha, who are waiting for us along with the elephant handlers. I’m with a small group of volunteers, including Gillian, Katie (UK), Cat (UK), and Simone (SWE), and there are also two clients with us. After we put our helmets on, it’s time to hop on and go for our ride through the bush; although I suppose “hop on” isn’t exactly the right phrase. We go up a stairway to a platform and are given instructions on how to get on the elephant. I’m riding on Amai, which means “mother,” although she is not a mother yet. All four elephants – three females and one male – are in their early twenties. They have not quite reached sexual maturity, so there hasn’t been any mating within this group. “But perhaps by the next time you visit,” one of the handlers says. There are three of us on Amai: the handler in front, myself, and Simone behind me. Wow, we are up really high and it is a bit precarious balancing on the elephant! We straddle the elephant like you straddle a horse. We’re on a heavy blanket that forms a saddle, and there are some tabs on it that you can hold on to, but that’s about it. I have a camera in one hand and a bag of apples in the other, while also trying to hold onto the little tab. It’s not that the elephant is going fast, but they’re really big, and they rock quite a bit as they’re walking, so you do have to think about balance. Our handler ensures us, though, that she won’t start trotting like a horse. Whew!
Amai has a good gig going on. As she’s walking, she picks up branches, grass, and rocks with her trunk, and flings her trunk back to us offering whatever she’s picked up from the ground as a gift. Of course, the gift is offered with the expectation that she will get one in return in the form of a treat. So the handler takes the rock or branch and then gives her some feed, and a few times I get to put the feed into her trunk, too. I am completely charmed by her antics and am grinning from ear to ear.
After awhile, we take a break for some photo ops and the handlers take photos of us on the elephants with our cameras. I get to give Amai some more feed and I’m having a great time. When everyone has had their photos taken, we continue with our ride until we finally return to our starting point. We carefully, with shaking legs, get off the elephants and walk slowly down the staircase to solid ground. I’m told I can now give my apples to Amai. I’m sure she can smell them, because she is very interested in me before I even take them out of the bag. She opens her mouth wide, waiting for me to toss her an apple slice; which I do, totally in awe of this special experience. She opens her mouth again, and I toss another slice in, but the handler is telling her to use her trunk. I don’t know if it’s wrong to feed her directly in her mouth, but it’s so cute to see her big pink tongue. But Amai finally offers me her trunk and she takes another slice of apple from me. I then give a few slices to Simone; I have to share in the delight of offering treats to this beautiful animal.
It seems we’re done with our elephant time, but then the handlers mention that we’re going to take the elephants out into the bush and across the river so they can graze. I’m very excited; I had no idea we would also get to walk with the elephants! Simone and I are ready to go, but we see Gillian, Cat, and Katie wander off. Do they know we’re going to walk with the elephants? Are they not interested? We call after them, but they don’t respond, so we set off with all four ellies through the bush, walking right alongside them as we chat with the elephant handlers.
We get to the river and the elephants go right in and swim across to the other side. It is amazing to watch. At times theses giant animals are almost completely submerged. On the other side of the river, they wade in the water and start munching on the tree branches and reeds. The area across the river is full of trees and is very green, and looks more like a forest than the bush.
Suddenly, Katie, Cat, Gillian, and another elephant handler appear on the river in a canoe that they’ve taken from camp. I guess they did know we were spending more time with the elephants, and I can only guess that they were avoiding the long, hot walk over here. They cross the river and then the canoe makes a couple of more trips back and forth to get the rest of us across. It’s a delight to watch the elephants in this new location. They go in and out of the water, and it’s surprising how deep the it is so close to shore. There are plenty of reeds and trees with lots of green leaves here, and the elephants are lapping it all up. We have a few more photo ops, and then we just sit on the ground and spend some time watching them. We’re told by the handlers that the nice thing about elephant walks, as opposed to lion walks, is that you can find a shady tree and take a nap, and when you wake up they will still be there; or, at least will have left you a clear trail as to where they went. While none of us actually takes a nap, we do find it relaxing watching them from our shady vantage point.
It’s just about time for lunch so we head back to camp. The elephants will stay here on their own, and the handlers will go back later in the afternoon to herd them across the river and back to their boma. The property we’ve brought the elephants to is not owned by Antelope Park, but we’re told it’s owned by a relative of Mr. Conolly’s who has given the okay to bring the elephants over to graze. Given that, we have to duck through a barbed wire fence to get back onto AP property, and as I get poked in the leg by a rusty barb I am silently thankful I got a tetanus booster before I came to Africa. It’s only a very small scratch, but I wear my tiny scar proudly as a reminder of my time with the AP elephants. It was another honor and a privilege bestowed on me that I will never forget.
Meet the elephants? Finally!