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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Riding an Indian elephant (Elephas maximus indicus) in Rajasthan is not unusual; in India they are traditionally used as beasts of burden and as workers in the fields and in combat; this has been the case for thousands of years. Alexander the Great used elephants in his campaign of conquest as he battled into India, and so did the armies opposing him, as did Hannibal later, crossing the Alps. But these were Asian or Syrian war elephants, smaller, tractable varieties.

A big-eared African elephant (Loxo- donta africanus) was another matter altogether. For one thing, it is the largest land animal in the world, highly intelligent and independent and family-minded. I was thinking that Africa, which was losing its wildness by the day to urban encroachment and land-grabbers, was also sacrificing the wildness of these powerful elephants as well, in the interests of tourism.

When I mentioned this to Michael he repeated that his ultimate intention was to reintroduce most of these elephants into the wild, so that they could perhaps join a herd and live as free creatures again. This seemed to me a worthy aim.

On another day at Abu we climbed onto the elephants and were taken to a clearing by the backwater at the side of one of the wider river channels. This picnic by the lagoon stands out in my memory as the highest level of comfort one could find in the African bush, while still retaining all the elements of the safari experience. The clearing was a lovely setting, a grove of tall mopane and fig trees, well shaded but looking onto the water coursing through the thick reed beds of the Okavango. In all essentials we were outdoors in the heart of Africa, among small darting birds and tall fish-hunting herons. We were seated in camp chairs, we were served cold drinks by the Abu staff, and on an expanse of white linen, a buffet table had been laid—yellow curries and bowls of purple vegetables and a tureen of soup and platters of sliced fruit and beer and wine in chests of ice.

Nathan—his usual serene self, chatting with the other mahouts—told me how he had taken the mahouts and elephants out camping for the night recently. What fun they had swimming, playing soccer. “We were sleeping with the elephants in a circle around us.” He made it sound like Boy Scout camp. But one of the cautions in Randall Moore’s Back to Africa book—the whole Abu Camp rationale—was that it was essential that the trainer continually remind the elephant who’s boss. “Dominance...must prevail,” Moore writes; the trainer “must make it known from the start who has the best means of domination at his disposal.”

Nathan spoke of the elephants, and especially Sukiri, with a matey affection, but his tone also contained a note of reverential awe, granting them a sort of sacredness. I noticed that no one at Abu ever joked about the elephants.

Sighing, Alexandra said, “Isn’t this magical? Look at us. It’s a living Manet, Déjeuner sur l’herbe.”

It was a transcendent experience and an unexpected thrill. Such experiences are so exceptional in Africa that few people know them. These thrills will become rarer as the game diminishes and the wild places are overrun with camps and lodges, the rivers dammed, the savannas fenced, the land carved up and exploited, and the bush animals eaten to extinction. Peter Beard’s landmark book, The End of the Game: The Last Word From Paradise, was early (1965) but prophetic, the doom of the animals inevitable. He wrote, “Death is the patiently awaited, unfeared fact of delicately poised African life.”

I admired the order of Abu Camp and the integrity of Michael’s wish to release the elephants; and I hoped that he would prosper. I liked the harmony and found it funny that although the mahout might yell and cajole, the elephant stood its ground, yanking at trees, stuffing its mouth with leafy boughs, doing exactly what it wanted to do, taking its time, and only resuming its walk when it had eaten its fill.

On my last evening Michael asked where I was headed. I said I was going back to Namibia, and north to Etosha National Park.


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