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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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.”


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