Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of columns from Susan Sloss about her recent experiences in Africa. The first ran on Friday, Feb. 8. Subsequent pieces will run in future editions of Outdoors.
Elephants — those majestic beasts, the largest of all land animals.
“Africa’s true King of Beasts,” were fascinating to watch this winter on a recent trip to Africa as they ambled through the bush, napped against a tree, or romped about by the mud.
THE TAMER ONES
I welcomed an opportunity to get up close and personal to elephants after seeing so many wild ones in Chobe. Instead of tackling the great Zambezi River in a rubber raft with my family and a bunch of other tourists, I opted for a more gentle experience — an elephant ride.
I was picked up early in the morning along with a bunch of other clean, well-pressed, and perfectly safari-outfitted tourists. Having come from 12 days of camping, rough roads and recent rains, I wasn’t looking or feeling so polished. I basically stunk, as did all my clothes.
We were delivered to the Victoria Falls Private Game Reserve, a 4,000 hectare private reserve outside Victoria Falls. Awaiting us were the beautiful big beasts with drivers perched on top.
I felt simply happy to be able to get close to these giants.
Our guide gave us a few brief tips, like hold on to the strap, before trying to scale the steps and slide on top of the elephant’s back. I was the odd person out, so lucky me, I got an elephant and driver all to myself.
Off we moved to a slow easy rhythm.
My driver proved to be a wealth of information about elephant behavior, and these elephants in particular. There are 12 elephants in this reserve’s stable, all having been orphaned. It takes two years or more of training and taming before they can be ridden, even though they don’t feel our weight on their backs. They also need to be taken from the wild in the first few years to be tame enough to be ridden when older. Elephants communicate with each other through low frequency rumbles that humans can’t hear, but can be felt when riding them. Their trunks, a muscular extension of the upper lip, contain the nostril, the tip of which is equipped with two “v”-shaped finger-like pincers used for manipulating tiny objects. What a versatile tool! Those trunks that can coil around and pull up grasses, pick up peas, and tear off tree limbs. Frequently, my elephant threw back his trunk eagerly searching for snacks. These sweet treats offered by the driver were compressed sunflower seeds and molasses energy pellets the size of brazil nuts, and were amply supplied during our ride. My driver told me these pellets are like chocolate to elephants.
My elephant was just a teenager, at 14 years old. Well behaved too — unlike the smaller elephant behind us that carried the big, husky Russian and his demure, cute wife. We heard shrieks the first time their elephant veered off into the trees and thorny bushes, with little regard for the people on its back. Turning around I saw the driver pelting the elephant on the head with his metal hook. Yikes! With heads down and pushing branches out of the way, the riders and elephant emerged from the thick bush to temporarily join us again on the track. That elephant digressed many more times from the track during the ride, which brought smiles and laughter to us all, especially the guides.
Our walk was uneventful in game viewing, but there were plenty of tracks in the sand that told the story of the night’s escapades. Disturbed earth showed deep giraffe and zebra tracks, indicating flight from a leopard. We followed cat tracks and saw where it chased zebras through the bush. Our guide told us we wouldn’t see any game this morning with a leopard in close proximity — the game was already miles away.
As we ambled on, my driver talked more about elephants, how they cover themselves with mud to create a thick layer of dirt to keep the flies from bothering them. Ear flapping keeps them ventilated and cool. Their hearts weigh 28 kg, and they essentially walk on their tiptoes. Dense cartilage pads line the area under their foot bones and makes their steps nearly soundless. Their thick wrinkled and leathery skin felt warm and tough, but I was surprised by how soft and pliable the skin behind their ears was in contrast to the rest of their bodies. Long stiff hairs pop out all over their bodies, but it’s their long eye lashes that would be the envy of any Las Vegas show girl. And the long tail hair is more like stiff strands of baleen, and can be found woven into bracelets at the markets in Vic Falls.
Chatting later with our guide over breakfast, I learned that his real job is as an elephant hunter. He is called upon for many and varying tasks involving elephant and human interactions. Recently, he helped save a young elephant that had gotten into a school playground. Its mother had trampled the fence and both of them had entered the school grounds; the young one was too small to get back out over the fence. He does elephant related work for national parks, and basically left school to work with elephants.
Stay tuned for next week’s installment — a flashback to the beginning of Sloss’ trip, as she takes in the sights and sounds of Africa.
• Susan Sloss is a Juneau resident.