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 Many people balk at the concept of taming these glorious wild animals – holding onto the (perhaps outdated?)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/).

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