Back In The Saddle Again…Part I

6 01 2009




“Taxi!”                                            (near Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe)


My success with riding horses in far-flung corners of the world is negligible at best. At Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, my steed was torn between feeding me to the crocodiles that lurked in the Zambezi, feeding me to the lions that lurked behind every bush…and playing the role of a barrel and simply taking me right over the Falls itself. In Iceland, my delicate little 5-gait Icelandic horse with the enormous eyes, sweeping eyelashes and affectionate demeanour decided that it would do me good to be thrown onto my head as he belted down the black sand beach. While in the bear-infested wilds of Northern Ontario, my hardy mount was quite happy to lead me into the bush…but reared-up the moment we left the corral and let it be clearly known that if the battle of wits that followed was to continue, he could do a lot more damage to me than I could to him…and so we headed back to the stable.


Given that prestigious equine record, why did I volunteer to ride an elephant in Zimbabwe?  African elephants are considerably larger than horses, considerably more obstreperous than horses, considerably more dangerous than horses, have much larger tusks than horses…and according to one book I had read, were impossible to tame. Then again, when did commonsense ever interfere with the Adventure Blogger’s thirst for fun?


After several minutes drive down dusty tracks away from the main road, we arrived at a small ranch just after dawn. The elephants were brought out from their accommodation and put through their paces in the central corral. All of the elephants had been orphaned either through natural causes or poaching and adopted by the ranch. There they had been hand-reared and, where suitable, domesticated for riding with a view to eventually returning them to the wild. Unlike in India or Thailand where elephant rides were quite common, this was one of only a handful of such operations in all of Africa. For hundreds of years people had attempted to domesticate African elephants in the same way they had in Asia including Hannibal and Belgium’s King Leopold, but few met with success. In most cases, the efforts resulted in human death or maiming and the project abandoned. Attempting to tame an animal that weighs more than most cars and kills more people each year than lions and leopards combined is not an easy prospect.zim-elephant-5-mw


One elephant was clearly not in the mood for cooperation this morning despite the efforts of the mahout – or elephant handler. Even once he had settled down sufficiently to allow a loose saddle to be placed on his back, he still wasn’t especially amiable as he trumpeted, stomped and swung his head wildly. As he was led away, I assumed his tantrum had earned him a morning of leisure…until I was beckoned towards him, that is.


“This one is yours” the mahout said. “He’s a bit naughty today so I give him to you, not to the ladies.” With that, he gave me a leg-up and over the mighty beast, and then clambered up after me, taking the ‘driver’s seat’ just behind the mammoth ears.


The saddle was little more than a padded blanket and although the elephant was quite young in elephant years, he already had a not inconsiderable girth. As I struggled to get comfortable, I knew I was fighting a losing battle. In fact, this was clearly the pachyderm equivalent of the medieval rack and my legs felt as though they were being popped from their sockets. As we waited for the others to mount-up however, I had to admit that there was simply no disputing the view and there was something so ‘right’ about exploring the African wilderness from an elephant’s perspective. It was only as we started to slowly and elegantly sway from side to side and head into the bush that I made another discovery: never wear shorts when riding an elephant….unless you want a free inner-thigh exfoliation from its sandpaper-like hide on each and every step.


At least this time however, I wasn’t steering!



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan




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