On the backs of giants

On our recent holiday we made a spontaneous decision to try an African elephant back safari. It is something I have never considered doing, the purist in me always dismissing the idea. Surely training such a sentient being for this form of tourism would be wrong? I know I am not alone in feeling this way. Many people balk at the concept of taming these glorious wild animals – holding onto the (perhaps outdated?) image of them roaming free across an endless African grassland.

My mindset shifted and my interest was piqued when chatting to a highly respected conservationist recently who firmly believes in the concept in Africa and is convinced that it has enormous conservation value. And as I have come to realise in recent decades…if wildlife has any hope of survival on this volatile continent of ours, it has to pay its way…

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So with such an educated thumbs-up, I decided that it would be something well worth trying. More than anything, I really wanted to expose my son to what promised to be a life-changing experience.

And that it was.

The short 40-minute ride itself was remarkable enough. Tim sat astride one of the young massive males Mukwa (with his handler, Prince) and my husband and I rode on Duma together with our superb, gentle and informative guide and handler Elliot. There are no bridle-like contraptions, saddles or blankets to cushion the ride or upset the animals. The handlers use reward, voice commands, trust and respect. No breaking of spirits here. _1WD0677

For the three of us though, the most exceptional part of the experience was after the ride when we were given the opportunity to walk through the bush alongside the three beautiful beasts.

We were quite literally rubbing shoulders with them while they wrapped their trunks around thorn-encrusted branches, closed their Bette Davis eyelashes in slow soporific delight as they munched on bark, flicked large clumps of grass against the upper part of their trunk to get rid of the soil before shovelling it into their mouths, defecated at our feet and ambled along softly (yet with astounding efficiency and speed).

I held my breath through it all standing right next to Duma…when touching the moist hairy tips of his huffing, sniffing prehensile trunk, when smelling and feeling his warm explorative breath on my cheek, feeling his coarse tail hair, running my fingers over his toenails and the soft spongy looking skin under his massive feet, tucking my hand under his wrinkled armpit and feeling the baby-bottom soft, warm skin._1WD0738

Then to stand right infront of him and look into his eyes and have him look right into mine…. knowing what I know about what we are doing to his relatives (and their habitat) elsewhere on this continent – and wondering what this great beast could see and read in my mind.

It was nothing short of mind-blowing. _1WD0696

We also had a chance to feed them, which gave my son yet another unique opportunity to gaze right into an elephant’s mouth, to see his tongue, his massive mincing molars and awesome gaping throat. What a rare privilege – particularly for a young child!

_1WD0729All these pictures speak for themselves (thanks Warren).

Though the one at the very bottom of this post is particularly poignant, I think…

George Monbiot recently reflected and wrote about a very real environmental crisis (and one which I alluded to in my previous blog). That is the removal of children from the natural world. Despite the research that shows the great majority of people do wish to see our ailing planet protected – very few, claims Monbiot, are really prepared to take action. The young people we all hope will stand up and fight to protect the natural world – are sadly having less and less to do with it.

Monbiot’s words resonate for me – particularly after an experience such as this.

I strongly believe that a rare and deeply moving opportunity such as this should be taken where possible/affordable. Exposure at this level cannot fail to move a person – young or old.

And we really NEED young people to be moved enough to effect change or to dedicate their lives to the protection of our very precious wild creatures – and their habitat. Now more than ever.

‘There is no substitute for what takes place outdoors; not least because the greatest joys of nature are unscripted. The thought that most of our children will never swim among phosphorescent plankton at night, will never be startled by a salmon leaping, a dolphin breaching, the stoop of a peregrine, or the rustle of a grass snake is almost as sad as the thought that their children might not have the opportunity.

Most of those I know who fight for nature are people who spent their childhoods immersed in it. Without a feel for the texture and function of the natural world, without an intensity of engagement almost impossible in the absence of early experience, people will not devote their lives to its protection.’ [Monbiot, 2012]

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(For more on this truly excellent outfit based in the Zuurberg mountains, visit Addo Elephant Back Safaris: (http://www.addoelephantbacksafaris.co.za/).

Wild creations

Happy 2013 to you all!

We have just returned from a wonderful time away exploring a few hidden (and relatively untouched) corners of this amazingly beautiful, diverse and surprising country.

I am going to kick-start this blogging year with some reflections on how some of these forays into these wild and woolly places brought on a remarkable change in our nine-year-old. His creative juices seemed to flow uncensored; he relaxed, seemed happier and made the most beautiful things.

We spent time swimming and canoeing in rivers, hiking on beaches, splashing in the warm Indian Ocean, sloshing about in thick river mud, watching clicking crabs and slurping prawns out of their murky depths, exploring the leafy, damp depths of thick coastal and riverine forests and swinging high within and between the vast creaking arms of ancient trees.

We rode horses (without conventional bridles and bits). We also rode and walked alongside African elephants. We met some amazing people who have a deep love and respect for these animals and who work with them in a way that uses the power of intention and a deep understanding of their instinctive/natural ways as opposed to cruel force and domination.

We stayed in some remote and rustic places – one or two of them fairly basic and without electricity. Our nights were lit by paraffin lamps, our showers either cold or heated up only by first lighting a fire and revving up a donkey boiler._1WD0147

The first of Tim’s creations emerged after one of our forest walks in the Wilderness area. Before we knew it, he had fashioned a little forest elf hat out of ferns, stems and twine. This he wore for the rest of the day – much to the gentle amusement of those we passed.

The second came out of a walk along one of those endless windswept Transkei beaches. This time, Tim quietly gathered up a random selection of driftwood sticks. He refused to tell us what he wanted to do with them. A surprise, he said.

That afternoon he sat with his knife and some fishing twine and within about half an hour had created a beautiful bow and arrow – the arrow perfectly whittled at the tip, with a neatly crafted slit at the end to fit the bow.

This was used on our first forest walk in Hogsback…when we were out searching for Hobbits!_1WD0406

At our next destination, and after another long drive, he hauled out his knife and fishing twine and started whittling away at the various bits of the bow and arrow and again – with zero intervention from us, he had fashioned a fascinating musical instrument. A kind of African guitar, which emits two tuneful notes when plucked along its two taut strings.

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Our final evening was spent in a glorious Karoo farm, the ancient farm house overlooking the Gamka River with its craggy steep echoing sides. While we sipped our wine and marveled at the warmth of the stoep soaking into our bare feet, the fading sunlight touching the aloes, and the vastness of the sky, Tim vanished into the scrubby Karoo veld.

He returned armed with scraps of iron, rusty wire, a bone, a stone and various other gnarled fingers of farm detritus. He then proceeded to create the most beautiful mobile/wind chime – his bare hands twisting and bending, cheeks puffed out with concentration._1WD0879

The end result is completely beautiful. It hung on the stoep, the warm Karoo wind making music with it throughout the night. It now hangs on ours at home – a wonderful momento of a beautiful evening.

Later that evening, Tim and I went around the house lighting the paraffin lamps before the darkness seeped under the doors. He then went off to help his father light the fire under the donkey boiler.  No electric switches, no television, no ipad, no cell phone. None of these hideous modern imagination slayers. These sensory thieves.

That night we all sat together and soaked it all in….the crackle of twigs, the smell of wood smoke, the fading distant chirrup of the kingfishers in the valley below, the hadedas cackling as they winged their way to bed, the crickets humming and the jackals calling to one another.

All of them telling stories – the subplots of which we humans could never fathom.

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This degree of creativity, independence and contentment is a fairly rare commodity at home with this little boy. I am not sure what it points to. But I imagine it has a lot to do with a “tuning out” – a shutting out the noise that is “civilised”, modern fast-paced and pressurised life.

There really is much to be said for spending more time in remote places. Especially for children. To be in places where one is forced to really fine tune all five senses; to become aware of what it takes to generate light and warmth; to invent, create and to really look and be in awe of the natural world.

In blogs to follow, I will share more on the extraordinary rivers and indigenous forests and the creatures we heard and saw. I also want to share the mind blowing interaction with three truly magnificent elephants…