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

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


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