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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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.


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