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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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.



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