Back In The Saddle Again…Part II

8 01 2009


“I think it needs a jump-start.”                   (Near Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe)


Our parade of elephants ambled into the bush in a loose line. Despite his earlier misbehaviour, my elephant was now behaving impeccably…apart from the occasional ticklish exploration of my bare leg with the snout of his trunk. I would like to think he was just being inquisitive or affectionate, but I had noticed that he only ever did this when the mahout was looking the other way and I began to suspect that it was actually a form of intimidation.


Apart from our little convoy of elephants we had one other companion: a man with a gun. As if sitting on top of an elephant wasn’t security enough, the armed guide who walked alongside us acted as a reminder of just what lurked in those long grasses and prickly bushes.


“Is he here for lions?” I asked my mahout, gesturing at our escort.


“No, no” he replied dismissively. “Lions aren’t much of a threat.”


Buffalo?” I asked, attempting to recover some semblance of respect.


“No. Not buffalo” he answered. “He’s here in case we encounter any wild elephants. They could charge us and attack. Or they could try and mate with one of our elephants. You wouldn’t want to be caught between two mating elephants” he explained.


The thought of being crushed between an amorous bull elephant and his love interest didn’t really merit much contemplation and I looked nervously behind us. In keeping with my perfect record when it came to eventing in dangerous neighbourhoods, we were of course the last elephant in the group. I just hoped romantically-inclined elephants could differentiate between males and females long before they came forward for a dance.zim-elephant-1-mw


From our lofty swaying perches, we spied antelope and warthog who regarded us with only passing interest. We ducked beneath branches and if the coarse hide wasn’t tenderising the insides of my legs enough, thorns were doing a mighty fine job on the outsides leaving my appendages like two sausages chewed by a pack of Rottweilers. I smiled with tears in my ears when the mahout asked if I was having a good time.


At one point, a lone cape buffalo emerged from the bushes to survey us menacingly. He stood a few hundred feet away, his fine curved horns and solid boss framing his glaring face. Not generally comfortable in the company of one of Africa’s most feared beasts, I must admit to a certain cockiness this time around and had to fight the urge to poke my tongue and make rude faces at his ugly countenance. Our armed guide tucked closer to our entourage and we ambled past with little worry.


We eventually arrived in a small clearing in which a table had been set for breakfast. Our elephants knelt down, and we clambered free although I was convinced that it would be several weeks before I walked properly again. I used to mock John Wayne and other cowboys for always walking as though they were riding horses, but I now looked as though I’d been straddling an elephant for several hours…which I had.


The elephants were freed of their saddles and allowed to wander around the clearing, while the rest of us were seated at the table and treated to a cooked breakfast. It was a surreal experience to sit at such a civilised table surrounded by a small herd of elephant, made even more surreal when one of our former steeds persistently attempted to steal our sausages and had to be chased away by a mahout.


On the drive back we spotted a group of circling vultures. Our guide stopped the vehicle, collected his rifle and led us through the bush to the source of the scavengers’ attention. There, not far from the road was the carcass of a young dead elephant. She had died during the night, the guide explained, likely of the cold or natural causes. He added that she had probably become separated from her mother and the herd. The sadness in his voice and the pained expression on his face were quite evident.


“If only we’d known she was out here” he continued, “we could have brought her to the ranch and looked after her.”


We returned to the vehicle and continued in silence. What had a few minutes earlier been a fun excursion and great experience without much thought of conservation, had suddenly become something a bit more meaningful. Whether or not domesticating elephants for tourist rides was a worthy cause was debatable, but with the alternative still burned into our memory, we were all very glad that our jaunt had played some part in saving a few orphans from a very sad end.




Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan



One response

22 05 2009


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