The Joys and Dangers of Exploring Africa on the Back of an Elephant- page 7 | Travel | Smithsonian
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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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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.  

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