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At remote Abu Camp, visitors can hitch a ride into one of the great water holes of Africa. (Sergio Pitamitz / Biosphoto / Minden Pictures)

The Joys and Dangers of Exploring Africa on the Back of an Elephant

Renowned travel writer Paul Theroux journeys through Botswana’s spectacular, wildlife-rich wetlands

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After miles of gravel and some upright spinning funnels of dust devils and the light brown scrub of the bush, and the immensity of woodland and camel thorns—after all that thirst, the Okavango Delta is unexpectedly drenched, as the desert deliquesces into a watery mirage, a deep green marvel that bubbles up and sprawls over the left shoulder of Botswana as a succession of swamps. Most river deltas occur at the edge of a landmass, widening and dumping soil and water, enlarging the shore, pouring the current into a body of water. The Okavango is unusual in being landlocked; the stream of the river, fed by numerous watercourses draining from a catchment area in the planalto of Angola, the wooded highlands of the far north, becomes a delta hundreds of miles wide. This river—lush and sodden and silted—empties all its flow into the middle of the Kalahari Desert. The precise and pretty name for this natural wonder of watery interstices and spreading rivulets is an alluvial fan.

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The result of the sprawling torrent of water are channels and flood zones and lagoons and islands of palms, and water so clean from percolating through the papyrus beds that it is drinkable. Also present are seasonal swamps, and wide trenches called fossil rivers that once carried water, and ephemeral rivers, and permanent rivers: It is a water world. This fertile deep green habitat for animals and birds and flowers, one of the glories of Africa, is without traditional villages—the Tswana people live almost entirely on the perimeter, entering the delta only to fish or hunt.

In Africa, animals—large and small—are found at water holes. The Okavango Delta, teeming with wildlife, and still pristine, is one of the great water holes of the continent.

In a channel of the Okavango Delta there was a luxury camp for visitors to ride elephants across the mushy ground, and through the tall grass and the swamps, to look at birds and big animals. Few others in Africa rode elephants. At Abu Camp (“Meet your inner elephant”) all they rode were elephants. The camp advertised itself as a “unique opportunity to bond with elephants firsthand,” and went on, “Situated in a vast private reserve of 400,000 acres, guests interact with the resident elephant herd, whether riding or walking with them through the bush. The ultimate elephant education safari!”

The camp had originally been conceived in the late 1980s as a refuge for “rescue elephants”—elephants that had survived a cull, or had been orphaned in the wild as a result of the mother being killed, or had suffered the torments and teasing of a circus, or been confined in a zoo or a wildlife park. This elephant rescue scheme was the idea of Randall Moore, an American who had begun his working life shoveling great crumbly muffins of elephant dung at an animal-training school in Oregon. By an odd set of circumstances he had come to possess three elephants. It happened this way. A pair of animal trainers, a man and woman who were his mentors at the school, were killed separately, but in quick succession, a consequence of the bull elephants in musth—a condition of high-testosterone aggression. The woman was gored and transfixed by the tusks of an enraged elephant—this occurred during a circus act before a large crowd of horrified Québécois in a small Canadian town. Later, in Oregon, the man was stomped to death by his favorite elephant.

Since he was on the payroll and knew the ropes, Moore inherited the elephants, which—stigmatized and vilified as “killer elephants”—he resolved to save by relocating them to Africa, as he describes in his book Back to Africa. Failing to find a home for them in Kenya (red tape, obstinate officialdom, bush confusion), he was welcomed in Botswana, where, as a wildlife entrepreneur, he started a training program for rescue elephants and pioneered his unusual safaris. The idea for elephant-back safaris was initially that of photographer, socialite and Africa hand Peter Beard, who suggested to Moore in the 1980s that riding elephants through the African bush was unprecedented and would be an incomparable safari.

Abu—“Father” in Arabic—was one of the earliest elephants, brought from a wildlife park in Texas, repatriated to Africa and, as the star of the camp and a natural performer, had appeared in several feature films before his death. Other elephants—enough to create a substantial herd—were added over the years, from distant parts of Africa and as far afield as Canada and Sri Lanka. They had names and pedigrees, they had distinct profiles and personalities; some were quite old, others were babies, either born at the camp within the motley herd or recently orphaned. They were attended to and trained by a large team of mahouts—they used this Hindi term for elephant whisperer—mainly African, each one bonded to a particular elephant.

The appeal of Abu Camp was its remoteness in the delta, the uniqueness of an elephant-back safari and the luxury of its accommodations. One of the boasts of the camp was that the purring refrigeration of its extensive wine cellar was inaudible outside the kitchen compound. It was also eco-friendly, depending on solar panels for electricity and for reducing all its kitchen waste into compost to fertilize its extensive vegetable gardens. The staff quarters amounted to a small, rather prim village, with its own dining hall and recreation room—nearly all the workers had permanent homes in Maun, the Okavango’s main town and only substantial airport, at the southeastern edge of the delta. Most guests were flown from Maun to bush airstrips in small planes over startled herds of zebra and wildebeest.

There were only six tents, but “tents” gives a mistaken impression—they were more like canvas bungalows on high platforms; they had showers and tubs and double beds with mosquito nets like wedding veils, and at the edge of the lagoon it was possible to prop yourself up on one elbow in a big soft bed and watch the resident herd of hippos gasping and spewing in the water below.

Michael Lorentz, who ran Abu, was my friend. He called himself a safari guide but he was the moving force behind a reconceived and upgraded Abu, and he was a great lover of the wild, with a particular affection for elephants. I had met him ten years before in Johannesburg, at the end of my Dark Star Safari trip, and we had kept in touch. His fortunes had risen in that decade; he had become an entrepreneur, with his own high-end safari company. He was now married, his wife an academic, and they had two small boys. He was obviously prospering in a competitive business—he still conducted safaris of his own all over the wilds of South Africa and Botswana, as well as Zambia, Kenya and Ethiopia.

A stout, imposing figure in bush hat and khakis, Michael was a perfectionist, with a great work ethic, who had grown up in a large family—his father a surgeon, his mother a landscape gardener. Abandoning a career in law to be a trainee guide in Kruger National Park in South Africa, he rose through the ranks, started his own company and had worked among the elephants at Abu for 20 years. And he was still not much more than 40.

“I intend Abu to be the premier safari lodge in Africa,” Michael said. “I want it to be like an English house party—a great house party—to eat together, sit around the fire together, five nights ideally, sharing experiences. Luxury without excess.”  

Michael said he was particularly drawn to the African elephant, for what he called its deep level of emotional intelligence and its ability to elicit a wide range of responses in the people who encounter it—awe, excitement, happiness, fear, wonder, laughter, respect, humility.

“Abu is a complete immersion in a single species,” he said, “which also happens to be one of the most charismatic of all land mammals, the African elephant.” Complete immersion meant sharing five days of your life with a herd of elephants—physically interacting with the herd, riding them, walking with them, game viewing from atop their backs, even sleeping near them on a raised platform, while the elephants browsed and snorted below. Elephants inspired fear in some people, Michael said, but it was his view that they were to be respected, not feared.

“I’ve been slapped by an elephant—by its trunk,” he told me. “It sent me flying! Why? I was probably being inappropriate.”

He was an enthusiast—intelligent, well-read, congenial, physically strong and happiest outdoors in the bush; he seemed to have a genuine gift for working well with the larger mammals, and that extended to his ability to get on with people. I was delighted to see him again after so long.

“There’s something I want you to see—do exactly what I tell you to do,” he said, minutes after my arrival and checking his watch. “Want a beer? Go over to the platform at the front of the property—have a beer and just wait.”

The platform at the edge of the lodge had been built around the tower of a high, smooth termite mound, fat and cylindrical, and so sculptural it could have been an artwork. The lodge itself was situated in a grove of trees—African ebony, sycamore figs and jackal berry trees. I was greeted by the staff, offered sushi—sushi!—from a tray and sat down to drink a cold bottle of St. Louis beer.

Past the cushions and the lounge chairs, beyond the rails of the wide platform, the lagoon on this reach of the Okavango was dark and depthless-seeming, in shadow as the sun set behind it, but the slanting sun gilded the reeds of the marsh and glittered on the boughs of the acacia trees on what looked like floating islands in the distance. Streaks of pink and purple had begun to appear low in the sky. Usually nightfall in rural Africa is the end of everything—nothing to do, time to sleep, to await the dawn. But I was confident in the comfort of this sumptuous camp—able to enjoy the growing dusk and the expectation of nightfall. Food! Wine! Lamps were lit, torches blazed, and then there came an unusual noise from the marsh.

It was the sound of many footfalls, heavy ones plopping in water, squishing in mud and kicking against thicknesses of dense grass. I looked up and saw a herd of elephants, parting the reeds in front of them, trunks upraised. They were approaching the camp in the golden dusk, framed by dark trees and the pinky purple sky, kicking through the swamp water and the brush, some of them trumpeting. Each rounded advancing creature was ridden by an upright man, sitting just behind its flapping ears, and though each rider was holding a goad, the stick with a hook that Indians call an ankusha, none of them used it. Instead, to direct the elephants, they were calling out commands in English—though not many commands were needed for elephants headed to the security of their enclosure and the expectation of cakes of food.

At sunset, the quietest time of day, the loud and sudden arrival of the elephants in a welter of splashing was an impressive display. The herd filed in front of the platform like disciplined troops past a reviewing stand.

I was witnessing this royal progress for the first time, but the other guests, who had seen it all the previous evening, were beaming with pleasure and expressing their renewed astonishment. “They told me this would be the experience of a lifetime—and it is,” a woman near me said. She was a photographer, a New Yorker, her first time in Africa. “Africa is just amazing.”

I resisted telling her that this was an experience of Africa that only a handful of people knew. I said, truthfully, “I had no idea that anyone in Africa actually trained and rode elephants.”

“I rode one yesterday,” she said. “We’re going out again tomorrow. I can hardly wait.”

Her name was Alexandra, and she was taking pictures for a magazine article. Because she was a first-timer to Africa she was all nerves, hyper-alert and intensely watchful.  “I can’t sleep I’m so excited,” she said. “And the noises from the swamp keep me awake.”

“Funny. I have that problem in New York.”

Of the arrival of the herd at dusk, she said, “The sounds are as interesting as the visual experience.” And that day, on the elephant, she had noticed a guide with a rifle just ahead of her. “It was a strange juxtaposition. I’m on the elephant and I see the guy with the gun.” And she added, “You have no idea how much these mahouts adore the elephants.”

After drinks in front of a campfire, we gathered on the veranda for dinner, about ten of us around a long refectory table, four courses, with wine, Michael at the head of the table answering questions and calming the more anxious guests.

“Elephants are emotionally highly complex,” he said. “Never lose your respect and never assume too much, but don’t be afraid.”

“You must have had some amazing experiences,” someone said.

“Want to know one of the best ones?” he said. “It was lying on the ground for hours watching the antics of dung beetles as they battled over a pile of elephant dung, with the brood pairs frantically rolling away the nuptial ball.”

The strangeness of being in an open-sided room, around a linen-covered dining table, in the middle of an African swamp, kept the conversation somewhat subdued. It was a situation daunting even to the much-traveled millionaires at the table, humbled by the surrounding darkness. The meal was delicious, but past the torches and lanterns at the edge of the platform we could hear the snorts and grumbles of hippos thrashing in the reeds, and the bird squawks and the crackle of electrocuted insects frying on the bug zapper.

After dinner, Michael took me aside and introduced me to Star, a young Tswana woman, all smiles, who was the chef, and to his managerial staff, his colleagues, the people who ran the operation in his absence. One, a man of about 30, had been at dinner, listening intently but had said nothing. Because of his reticence, I said hello.

“This is Nathan,” Michael said. “He was traveling around Africa and visited us. He discovered he liked what we were doing. He found us, not the other way around.”

His friendly bluster made Nathan smile, but still he seemed rather shy. I introduced myself and we talked awhile. He said he was from Australia and had been at Abu just a few months, and that his girlfriend, Jen, also worked at Abu.

“Nathan’s one of our trainers,” Michael said, because Nathan had not yet said so.

His shyness showed in his faintly smiling downcast face, the sideways tilt of his head, his deferential posture, even the way he planted his feet. But when the subject turned to elephants Nathan brightened. He had worked with elephants in Thailand and Canada too, and seemed very serious about knowing everything about elephant behavior. He had strong opinions about their behavior, how teachable they were, how they responded— and he reminded me of horse owners, who speak of the subtlety of horse responses—how they’re smarter than the rider; or of the dog owner who says, “Nugget is always a little nervous around really selfish people.”

One by one, the guests were escorted to their tents by a guide raking the path with the light of a powerful flashlight, looking for a snake or a scorpion, or possibly a hippo—hippos leave the water every evening to climb ashore and feed on vegetation.

The night air crackled with the slapping of bats and the fit-fit-fit of insects and the hoots of herons and the thrashings of hippos browsing in the reeds under my sleeping platform.

Dawn is sudden in the water world of the Okavango, without any hills or heights to delay the sunrise, and the shimmering mirrors of the lagoons and channels intensified the light, which is all gold.

After breakfast, Michael showed me around the camp—the staff quarters, the composting field, the solar panels—and at the elephant compound he introduced me to the mahouts. Big Joe, George, Itaki, Collet, Frank and Nathan, the one non-African, were leading the elephants from their stockade to an open area where each elephant, with an iron cuff shackling its foot, was chained to a large eye bolt. The clanking of the long heavy chains, the bang of the bolts, the shouted orders of the mahouts, as the elephants shuffled, was at odds with the idyllic place—a courtyard with a canopy of high foliage, the sunlight filtered through the dust kicked up by the elephants.

“She’s a good girl,” Nathan said, and he rested his head against the thick gray post of her leg. “Aren’t you, Sukiri?”

“How old is she?”

“Eighteen,” he said in the Australian way, ay-deen. “She was orphaned from a cull at Kruger with Thandi and Seeni. They were brought to Gaberone. That’s where we got them. Steady, girl!”

Now the seating platform—a howdah-like contraption—was lifted to their backs and strapped around the elephants’ middle, and when this was done each elephant was verbally hectored until it knelt, its whole body flat to the ground. This was accomplished through a slow folding of the legs beneath them and a sagging collapse of the big gray belly.

“Isn’t it incredible?” Michael said.

“I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“You’re riding Cathy today—that’s her over there.”

“What’s her story?”

“Captured in Uganda when her family was culled. She was sent to a zoo in Toronto. That’s where we got her from. She’s about 50 years old—the matriarch of the herd.”

Another kneeling elephant snorted dust as a group of men fussed around her, fastening the wooden seating platform to her back.

“This operation is amazing. All these workers, all these animals—and just a few guests.”

“That’s why we’re expensive. But we have wonderful owners and great clients. We have a chance to be the best safari lodge in Africa.” Michael was smoking a cigarette and admiring the activity. “A team created it. You can build whatever you want. But if you don’t have the human element you’ve got nothing.”

“How many elephants altogether?”

“The ones we ride—about a dozen. But there are lots more, big and small, that are part of the herd. They’ll go out and follow. It’s a dysfunctional put-together family of elephants.”

“In what way dysfunctional?”

“They’re from all over. We created the herd, so there’s all sorts of dynamics.” He was still looking across the compound. “Our plan is to release some of them back into the wild.”

A little while later, speaking to the guests before the ride, he said, “The elephants embody so much of Africa...”

And his peroration about the glory of African elephants reminded me of the passion of Morel, the idealistic hero of Romain Gary’s The Roots of Heaven. In this early (1956) environmental-themed novel that was later a John Huston film, Morel mounts a campaign in Africa to save elephants from the big guns of hunters, and fails.

***

Taking turns, we got onto the seats, while the elephants still knelt on the ground. There was no delicate way of climbing the elephant’s back and squirming into the seat, and this was another job for the mahouts and the trainers—easing the timid and top-heavy guests into seated positions.

We set out in a long and straggling file, heading across the swamp water, looking for animals. The mahout seated on the elephant’s neck talked much of the time to the elephant, urging it onward, cautioning it, mildly scolding it when—as frequently happened—the elephant took a hunger-determined detour from the route and, tearing at bunches of palm leaves, decided to eat a whole tree. We were aimed in a general direction, a long file of elephants, great and small, some of them with humans on their backs, and we saw impala and zebra and wart hogs, and a profusion of birds; but the strongest impression I had of this outing was of a herd of elephants, idly grazing.

“Move up, move up. Come on, Cathy—move up,” Big Joe called out. And I could hear the other mahouts exhorting their elephants.

But the elephants were hungry, there was no way to dissuade a famished elephant from its food—and as far as the eye could see there was food in this glittering swamp. The elephants wrenched at leafy boughs, and crammed palm fronds into their pink mouths, and they twirled tall stands of grass with their trunks and uprooted whole sheaves of it to eat.

“Move it up!”

The cry “Move it up” did very little to provoke Cathy to move from her meal, and I could not really see the point of trying to convince this snorting and masticating beast that it was a better idea to keep moving than finish eating the tree she was stabbing with her tusks and tearing apart with her trunk.

But the experience of riding an elephant past the wildlife on the grassy banks and the herons in the channels under the high blue sky was something unimaginable to me, and though objectively I could see that the elephant was enormous, and I had always felt elephants were dangerous, I felt safe from any predators. What animal would dare attack this big-tusked creature? Its only true enemy was a human, armed with an enormous gun.

We proceeded to an island between two channels where there was a mud wallow. The elephants, relieved of their riders and seats, rolled in the soft muck and sprayed water over themselves, while we few guests sipped mineral water, seated in camp chairs, some snapping pictures, others making notes in journals.

Riding on a trained elephant, gazing upon wild elephants: It was like nothing I had ever done or seen, and, as far as I knew, it had no parallel in Africa. Added to the fact that Abu Camp was an island of luxury in the bush was the novelty of elephants for transport, and the staff working so hard to please the guests. I could understand the travel writer gushing for the magazine, writing pieces about where pachyderms play and recalling the meals: Antelope steaks sizzled on the grill as we were plied with wild mushroom risotto, cauliflower gratin, tiramisu, Veuve Clicquot...And as we sat drinking and talking an enormous hyena appeared out of nowhere....

I had seen elephants in Africa before—they are unmissable features of the landscape, visible from a mile away, and they are dauntless, never hurrying or circumspect and hunted-looking as most other African game seems. Elephants own the bush, where they are right at home, ambling in family groups, going wherever they wish. If they decide to eat a tree, they will do so, and are well known for tearing a baobab to pieces with their tusks, for the juicy pulp. If you are in their way, they will trample you and keep going. They never give the impression that they need anyone or anything. Because of their size and their appetite they spend much of the day eating. The oddity of Abu was that these elephants, born in the wild, had been captured and dominated, taught to submit to humans climbing on them.  

Riding an Indian elephant (Elephas maximus indicus) in Rajasthan is not unusual; in India they are traditionally used as beasts of burden and as workers in the fields and in combat; this has been the case for thousands of years. Alexander the Great used elephants in his campaign of conquest as he battled into India, and so did the armies opposing him, as did Hannibal later, crossing the Alps. But these were Asian or Syrian war elephants, smaller, tractable varieties.

A big-eared African elephant (Loxo- donta africanus) was another matter altogether. For one thing, it is the largest land animal in the world, highly intelligent and independent and family-minded. I was thinking that Africa, which was losing its wildness by the day to urban encroachment and land-grabbers, was also sacrificing the wildness of these powerful elephants as well, in the interests of tourism.

When I mentioned this to Michael he repeated that his ultimate intention was to reintroduce most of these elephants into the wild, so that they could perhaps join a herd and live as free creatures again. This seemed to me a worthy aim.

On another day at Abu we climbed onto the elephants and were taken to a clearing by the backwater at the side of one of the wider river channels. This picnic by the lagoon stands out in my memory as the highest level of comfort one could find in the African bush, while still retaining all the elements of the safari experience. The clearing was a lovely setting, a grove of tall mopane and fig trees, well shaded but looking onto the water coursing through the thick reed beds of the Okavango. In all essentials we were outdoors in the heart of Africa, among small darting birds and tall fish-hunting herons. We were seated in camp chairs, we were served cold drinks by the Abu staff, and on an expanse of white linen, a buffet table had been laid—yellow curries and bowls of purple vegetables and a tureen of soup and platters of sliced fruit and beer and wine in chests of ice.

Nathan—his usual serene self, chatting with the other mahouts—told me how he had taken the mahouts and elephants out camping for the night recently. What fun they had swimming, playing soccer. “We were sleeping with the elephants in a circle around us.” He made it sound like Boy Scout camp. But one of the cautions in Randall Moore’s Back to Africa book—the whole Abu Camp rationale—was that it was essential that the trainer continually remind the elephant who’s boss. “Dominance...must prevail,” Moore writes; the trainer “must make it known from the start who has the best means of domination at his disposal.”

Nathan spoke of the elephants, and especially Sukiri, with a matey affection, but his tone also contained a note of reverential awe, granting them a sort of sacredness. I noticed that no one at Abu ever joked about the elephants.

Sighing, Alexandra said, “Isn’t this magical? Look at us. It’s a living Manet, Déjeuner sur l’herbe.”

It was a transcendent experience and an unexpected thrill. Such experiences are so exceptional in Africa that few people know them. These thrills will become rarer as the game diminishes and the wild places are overrun with camps and lodges, the rivers dammed, the savannas fenced, the land carved up and exploited, and the bush animals eaten to extinction. Peter Beard’s landmark book, The End of the Game: The Last Word From Paradise, was early (1965) but prophetic, the doom of the animals inevitable. He wrote, “Death is the patiently awaited, unfeared fact of delicately poised African life.”

I admired the order of Abu Camp and the integrity of Michael’s wish to release the elephants; and I hoped that he would prosper. I liked the harmony and found it funny that although the mahout might yell and cajole, the elephant stood its ground, yanking at trees, stuffing its mouth with leafy boughs, doing exactly what it wanted to do, taking its time, and only resuming its walk when it had eaten its fill.

On my last evening Michael asked where I was headed. I said I was going back to Namibia, and north to Etosha National Park.

“Etosha’s another story.”

For him, Etosha was mass tourism in a large, regulated game park; busloads of gawkers, herds of budget-minded tourists, sprawling hotel compounds.

Michael said that he would stay in touch, and he did. I got news of Nathan and Collet and Big Joe taking a trip to New York. These three friends, bonded by their months of working together at Abu, stayed at the elegant Pierre Hotel and were interviewed by awed journalists about their life in the bush and their elephant experiences with the herd at Abu. They visited zoos in Toronto, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh and Baltimore, looking at elephants and studying the breeding programs. They were photographed and quoted, as though they themselves were marvels from Africa. They were away for six weeks.

On his return to Abu, Nathan Jamieson began working again with his elephant, Sukiri. Only a few days after he arrived back he left her untethered, and when he walked a little distance to fetch her chains and manacles, turning his back on her, she followed him in the nodding and plodding way of an elephant on a mission, and knocked him flat, crushing him to death with her huge head. Nathan was 32 years old.

Later, Michael told me, “He died doing what he loved.” I remembered how happy Nathan had been at Abu Camp, how fond of the elephants, and how much he knew of them. Perhaps it was true that he’d had a happy death.

On hearing of Nathan’s fate, the Botswana government ordered that Sukiri be destroyed. Michael Lorentz vigorously opposed this, and thus began an imbroglio that ended with Michael quitting Abu for good, Abu resuming under new management, and Sukiri, along with the two elephants that had been orphaned with her, being trucked to Johannesburg and flown in elephantine crates to the United States, where they are now housed together in an exhibit at the Pittsburgh Zoo.

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