One of the optional tours was an excursion where we could interact and ride with elephants. None of us had ever done this, so we jumped on board right away. We were all excited, and a little nervous. We walked into the venue to see five large elephants all lined up in a row, with an instructor on each of their backs. I was intimated and immediately asked if I could ride one of the smaller ones (as though it really made a difference when we were talking two plus tons of pure muscle).
The workers gave a quick overview of why the elephants were there. Kruger Park was overpopulated with elephants, and they were being killed to prevent this. The organization we were working with was taking elephants as ‘orphans’ and essentially domesticating them. It eased my mind a little that they would have been killed if they weren’t at the venue we had paid to visit. I hated thinking that we took the animals out of their natural environment for our entertainment.
We were also given a short performance where the elephants followed a few commands. I think this was to put our minds at ease, or at least that’s what it did for me. The animals were extremely intelligent and obedient. I was feeling more and more comfortable just watching them.
Next, we gathered in a large circle and one of the elephants – Timbo was his name – came into the center. Here, we were each given a handful of elephant food pellets and had the opportunity to walk up to the elephant and let it eat the food out of our hands with it’s trunk. This was a bit scary, but of course, exciting as well. After the group had taken turns feeding and capturing photos of Timbo, he was instructed to lay down. One of the guides told me to go to the head of the elephant, and here, I was asked if I wanted to feed Timbo while he laid on the ground. I couldn’t resist, so I grabbed a handful of the food pellets out of the five gallon bucket and put them directly into Timbo’s truck. There were two holes, his nostrils, that seemed to never end. He would wait until I filled both holes completely full, often at least seven or eight handfuls. I soon realized that feeding him was a slight distraction so the group could learn about the elephants – their skin, their eyes, their ears, their feet, everything. I was so enthralled with feeding Timbo that I regretfully did not pay attention to what was being said. But something about those 30 minutes calmed me. I was in such an awe with Timbo. I felt like we had created a unique bond that no one else could understand, and I understood how the workers could start to become attached to the elephants as though they were their children.
After Timbo finished two buckets of food, it was time for us to hop on their backs and go for a ride! I was nervous about this. I didn’t know how my knees would handle straddling a very, very large elephant. But I’ve never let my disability stop me before, and I knew I was going to ride that elephant! We all walked up to a platform so we were level with the backs of the elephants. There were a few stairs which one of the workers carried me up in his arms. He set me on the elephant and I straddled it the best I could. Tony hopped on right behind me. My right knee started throbbing as soon as the elephant took it’s first step. I almost asked if I could get off, but I had read an article the day before about the Regrets of the Dying. One of them was not doing things while they could. I was reminded of my favorite quote – fear and regret are twin evils – and so I ignored the pain in my knee and tried to enjoy the 15 minute ride as best I could. Who knows, I may never have the chance to ride an elephant again!
This was, I think for all of us, the highlight of our trip. It was truly a phenomenal experience to see, touch, feel, bond with creatures so different than us. In the past week, I’ve read several articles about a sixth extinction. It breaks my heart to know that in my lifetime these amazing creatures might become extinct. Timbo and his family will forever be in my heart.
On our final day, before we got to the airport, we had one last safari adventure. This one was different though – it was on a river! We got to see dozens and dozens of hippos (and a few crocodiles). It was amazing how close we got to the hippos, which kill more humans than any other animals. It was almost frightening at times.
And just like that, eight days in South Africa were over. We were soon back on our flight to The States, thankful for the opportunity we had to experience yet another wonderful side of the world that not many get to see.