The Elephant Whisperers of South Africa

Elephant Whispers, Hazyview, South Africa

I don’t do animals. I run a mile when I see a dog, and stand on chairs when I encounter a spider. So just what was I doing standing beneath the head of a 6 ton elephant in the middle of South Africa?

Not sharing my aversion to animals, hubbie had been wanting an elephant experience for years. He’d been disappointed when I vetoed the idea in both Thailand and Laos, having read less than encouraging reviews about the treatment of the animals (although agreed he didn’t want to take part in an experience that didn’t truly have the welfare of the elephants at heart). Don’t get me wrong, I may not be comfortable around animals, but still get furious when I read about instances of mistreatment. There are so many organisations offering rides and interactions all in the name of elephant conservation, yet behind the scenes it’s often a whole different story. So make sure you do your research.

It was a different story however with Elephant Whispers in Hazyview, located in the Sandford Conservancy on the banks of Sabie River, about 20 minutes west of the Kruger National Park. Opened back in 2007, it was set up to care for 6 elephants with different and troubled histories. Orphan Tembo was under threat of being destroyed after repeatedly raiding crop farms and causing thousands of rands worth of damage, but the folks at Elephant Whispers came to his rescue, worked with him and now he’s a gentle giant and a favourite amongst visitors. Caring for the elephants obviously costs money, so the interactions were established to allow visitors to learn about these magnificent beasts with a hands on approach.

The handlers bring up the elephants

The handlers bring up the elephants

There are 7 different interactions, lasting from 1 hour to a whole day, each with different experiences from brushing down in the morning, to watching the elephants cavort in the dam in the evening. We opted for the Ultimate Experience which began at noon and lasted for 2 hours. There were about 12 of us at the start of the session, as several of the different interactions overlapped. Unfortunately it was a cold and rainy day, and my visions of strolling in the sun with the animals and leisurely sipping sundowners on the deck at the end had been washed away by the weather. To say I was in a bad mood was an understatement, and the thought of spending a couple of hours doing something I had only agreed to in order to please hubbie wasn’t filling me with joy. However he was keen to learn so I tried to put on a brave face.

The eles demonstrate some of their skills

The eles demonstrate some of their skills

To start we sat and watched a demonstration of the skills and commands the animals had learned, which whilst very impressive, made us feel a little uncomfortable. Does an elephant really need to be able to lift opposing feet at the same time? Sure, one is useful so medical checks can be performed, but there was a very slight whiff of circus to it all. However the other guests were lapping it up and I realised for the money to keep rolling in to care for these beasts some audience expectations have to be met. And to be fair, it was far less showy than many of their counterparts in South East Asia would have been, and it didn’t last long.

Being taught more about the eles during the interaction

Being taught more about the eles during the interaction

Next up was the hands on interaction, where one lucky chosen animal laid down (there were lots of treats involved) so we could get up close and personal. The handlers taught us lots of fascinating things, from how the elephants regulate their body temperatures through their ears, to allowing us to feel the surprisingly numerous different skin textures. Figuring I wasn’t in any danger I nervously followed hubbie around the beast touching and admiring where appropriate. I was quite awed by being so close to the biggest land mammal on earth.

Did you know African eles have ears shaped like Africa, and supposedly Asian eles have ears like India. Do you agree?

Did you know African eles have ears shaped like Africa, and supposedly Asian eles have ears like India. Do you agree?

Feeling small and insignificant beneath the mighty Tembo, I think my face says it all!

Feeling small and insignificant beneath the mighty Tembo, I think my face says it all!

Everyone had the opportunity to try out different commands, rewarding the elephant with food afterwards and then before I knew what was happening, hubbie and I were standing between Tembo’s front legs, being asked to smile for the camera.

Perhaps it was a good thing we were first. It meant I wasn’t waiting in line and getting more of a scaredy-cat by the minute. We had to stand with our hands on his kneecaps so he knew we were there (and didn’t accidentally stand on us), whilst his handler seated on top was feeding him more pellets.

Which was fine until he brought them down to his mouth…a colossal trunk hurtling towards our faces at a great rate of knots almost caused a requirement for new underpants! As the picture shows!

Feeling ridiculously proud of myself even the slight drizzle couldn’t dampen my spirits as we then clambered on top of our trusty steeds and trundled off for a walk around the conservancy. Seated in the middle between hubbie and the handler I felt quite safe and was able to sit back and enjoy the ride.

Off on our ride around the conservancy.

Off on our ride around the conservancy.

After we’d rewarded our elephant with more food (these guys eat a lot!), everyone else departed and hubbie and I were escorted down to the dam to watch the elephants play in the water whilst we had lunch.

The eles deserved a tasty reward after carrying us around all morning!

The eles deserved a tasty reward after carrying us around all morning!

To be honest, given the weather conditions it wasn’t quite the experience we’d been hoping for. It was freezing cold, and felt a bit odd being the only ones eating whilst being watched by 3 members of staff (who were on hand with the drinks and to transport the picnic down from the lodge).

Our lunch overlooking the elephant pool

Our lunch overlooking the elephant pool

Yet it was wonderful being able to see the elephants enjoying themselves in the water after all their hard work, and we felt quite smug knowing the other guests had missed out. If the sun had been shining it would have been the perfect end to the experience.

Mighty Tembo thinks nothing of taking a big tree for a playmate

Mighty Tembo thinks nothing of taking a big tree for a playmate

I know most of you will be thinking I’m a bit of a wimp when it comes to animals, and wondering what all the fuss is about, but for someone who once spent half a day hiding up a tree after being chased by a playful dog, to do something like standing beneath an elephant was quite an achievement, so please just humour me.

It's a long way down!

It’s a long way down!

14 Comments

  • Debbra says:

    I love the photo of the elephant’s eye! I so want to make it to South Africa to go on safari, and this experience would be lovely to add to that sort of trip. Elephants fascinate me.

  • Jenn says:

    Great experience! I really hope that animals get treated properly and ethically. Its nice they taught you so much about the elephants! We went on an elephant tour and got to bathe them which was really nice. It was no harm to the elephant and they had so much fun in the water!

  • Bec says:

    This is an awesome post! What an experience! I had my very first encounter with an elephant when I was travelling around Africa, and it was one of my favourite and most memorable travel experiences! In Zambia we were able to ride on an elephant for a safari, and then have personal interactions with them after, was so much fun and met some cool people on the tour as well 🙂

  • Stephen says:

    Looks like an awesome experience; even better that the money goes to a good cause.

  • sarah says:

    What a beautiful experience. With all of the stories of terrible abuse and mistreatment of animals it’s good to hear a positive one.

  • Megsy says:

    Wow that sounds like such a great experience. We did the Mahout training in Thailand which was amazing (and yes we did our research first). Congratulations for facing your fears and giving it a go.

  • Sean says:

    Ok, first I have to say — the cover pic for this post is stunning! Great shot. Glad you had such a great time with the elephants — we’ve done an elephant trek, and they are magnificent animals. It’s kind of humbling being next to an animal this huge and powerful, isn’t it?

  • Michele says:

    I applaud you for accompanying your hubbie on this excursion. When I visited the Elephant Nature Park in Thailand, my own hubby completely refused to go with me. So, I ended up leaving the kids with him and going solo. It ended up being one of my most memorable experiences in all my travels. Your own experience looked Ultimate indeed. I agree that I also would have daydreamed about it being a much warmer and sunnier day. Glad you enjoyed it.

    • Heather Cole says:

      Thanks! I’m so glad I did it,enjoyed it far more than I expected. shame your hubby didn’t join you in Thailand, maybe show him this and convince him to go next time 🙂

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