I love elephants, these gentle giants with their slow movements, the huge trunk, the rough skin, their apparent docility and impressive strength. I had been on an elephant before, on a sort of “chair” used to take tourists for a walk in the jungle. They were quite safe, those contraptions, and all you had to do was sit down and enjoy the view. At this elephant camp, however, we were about to learn how to ride without one.
Kaitlyn and I arrived at the camp after about an hour drive from our hotel. The camp leader, Mr Woody, gave us an introductory talk about the life of elephants and how they are trained. The two necessary objects for training are a machete (to cut the food for the elephant) and a wooden stick with a hook at one end, to direct the animal. We were eight people that day, and were supposed to ride two on each elephant.
The morning was spent rehearsing commands, in Thai, for the elephants. To get on the elephant we said: bend your leg; then using the leg as a ladder, we said higher so we could climb up onto the animal’s back; with the hook we pulled gently on the right ear for going to the right, and left ear for the opposite direction; backwards proved to be useful when the elephant got sidetracked in the jungle and had to be brought to the path; stop, go don’t really need any explanations while walk slowly we didn’t have to use, thank God. The last thing you want when riding an elephant is for the animal to start running. Open your mouth was a command we used when feeding them bananas, which they couldn’t get enough of. Rule number one is never get close to an elephant without a mahout around. The mahout is the person who takes care of the elephant and they know the animals quite well.
After we each had our turn in practicing the commands, it was time for photos. One of the elephants was pregnant. An elephant carries its baby for 22 months before giving birth and Christine, the biggest elephant at the camp, was more than halfway through her pregnancy. I had never seen a pregnant elephant before. There’s a first for everything.
Everybody got on the elephants and then my turn came. You, come on up, said one of the mahouts and even though I love elephants, I’m always wary of them at first – they look well trained but then elephants are BIG. And a bit scary.
Getting on the elephant was easier that I thought. Right hand grabbing the ear, and with the left pulling the skin at the back of the animal’s leg, then climbing up. One can sit right behind the animal’s head (which made me dizzy because of the swaying) or on its back (more comfortable). Getting down proved to be more difficult, at least for me, and I kept sliding clumsily instead of retracing my steps. Oh well.
After lunch the elephants took us for a ride through the jungle. Not far from the camp, gentle green hills surged forward, thick clumps of vegetation with walking paths going through. Halfway through the ride it started to rain and that slowed us down a little. We arrived at a wooden pavilion, a sort of house on stilts, without doors or windows. After a short break, in which we fed the elephants more bananas (and got our hands super sticky in the process), we climbed back on and made our way downhill. The rain had turned the path to mud and puddles made our trip slower than usual. Kaitlyn and I rode on Christine, and I would look at how she took her time when the terrain proved too slippery. I was a bit nervous but it was amazing to see how careful she chose her next step, her trunk swaying, the mahouts shouting encouragements while I tried not to slid forward too much (for the return trip I was sitting on the back of the animal).
Once we got out of the jungle the elephants made straight for a big pond where they were given a bath with big scrubbing brushes. They seemed to enjoy it, lying down on their side, the trunks submerged in the water, letting the people scrub away on their skin. Apparently they must have two baths a day to cool off and kill the parasites.
The weather had cooled down considerably and since it was raining again, I just sat under a huge umbrella and watched. And took pictures. It looked like everybody had fun.
After coming out of the water it was picture time again before walking the five minutes back to camp. We changed into our dry clothes (the camp had provided t-shirts and pants for the day) and hopped back into the car for the ride back to the hotel.
By this time next year Christine will have had her baby. I wonder what the little elephant would be like. Maybe I can go back next year and see. That would be something!
Double click on the photos for a larger size.