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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.