There was a big grassy parking lot, in front of a large house. A little meerkat was scampering around, digging for something edible. On the left side, adjacent to the house, was a secluded garden with benches hidden behind some tall reeds, and on the right was a small paddock, which overlooked a large open area where we could see a couple of elephants in the distance.
We registered and paid at the reception. (Thank you to the wonderful manager who allowed hubby to participate for free – it was the best birthday present!) Then we helped ourselves to complimentary coffee and tea, and made ourselves comfortable in the beautiful little garden while we waited.
We sat outside on a bench, sipping our tea and watching noisy little yellow weaverbirds flitting in and out of the trees and swaying on the tops of the reeds. They were making quite a racket, and eventually I saw why. A wine bottle with some sort of red liquid was partly concealed in the bushes behind our bench, and the birds kept landing on the bottle to drink.
I asked the manager afterwards what was in the bottle; he said it was sugar water with a bit of food colouring; the colour attracted the birds, and they loved the sweet liquid. What a clever idea – maybe we can use something like this at home to attract nectar-loving birds?
On the grass, barely a metre from our bench, were two piles of corn-pips, which a couple of adorably fluffy bunnies were feasting on. I so badly wanted to stroke them, but they were surprisingly shy, and kept hoppetying beyond my reach. There were a couple of black bunnies, and one that was white with black spots all over. One went to lie on its side in a warm patch of sun near the reeds, exposing its tummy to the sun, reminding me vividly of Tuffy-Cat back home.
Suddenly, there was a rustling and quacking sound in the reeds… and, one after another, a group of ducks emerged. There was one sparkling white one, whereas the others were beautifully patterned. Amidst much quacking and beak-threatening, they waddled over to the piles of corn and started pecking at them. I was surprised that the cuddly bunnies did not seem the slightest bit alarmed. The tails of the ducks were sooo cute and funny – each of them had a little curly tail, rather like a pig’s tail, which they fluffed and waggled from side to side ever so often.
At 15h30, our African guide Patrick came to herd together all the people who were joining our group. I think we were about 15 or so, and judging from the accents, there was quite an international contingent. I even heard one Irish accent, and chatted with the girl later – she said she was from County Wicklow, and that it was a beautiful area. I told her I was keen to walk a bit in the Wicklow Mountains when we go over in September.
We followed Patrick down to a group of benches, where he introduced us to the Elephant Sanctuary. He explained that the six elephants at the sanctuary had all been rescued. Three of them came from Botswana and had apparently been destined for a circus in China (?), but they got stuck at the Johannesburg Airport because their papers were not in order. So they ended up here. And there was one elephant that had been kept as a pet on a far-too-small plot; she was very smart and knew how to open doors and gates, so they now have electric fences in places.
He told us the names of the six elephants, talking a little about each one, but it was too much information for me to remember: Maroela, Jabu, Thandi, Mopani, Thaba, and Tumelo. He said that they were intending to set them free as a herd in the near future, but they were still quite young as elephants go, and not yet fully-grown. In addition, they were very reliant on being fed, and they had gotten very used to interacting with humans, so they would need some ‘retraining’ to get them into a different routine where they were able to look after themselves. The handlers regularly take them out into the forests, where they teach them to forage and to find their own food, but this is an ongoing slow process.
Next, we walked over to the stables. This is basically just one big shed, with waist-high partitions. As the elephants are getting too big for these, new and more spacious stables are being built for them nearer to the garden where we sat earlier. Patrick explained that elephants lie on their sides when they sleep, and so there is a thick layer of sawdust in each stall. They had to create an additional stall just outside the main entrance for the young male of the group, because the females did not want him sleeping in the same space as them any more. Interesting, hey?!
And next came the highlight of the tour: an all-too-brief walk ‘trunk in hand’ with one of the elephants. Three of the elephants (Maroela – the matriarch in charge of the herd, Jabu – whose name means ‘the happy one’, and Thandi, whose name means ‘the loved one’ and who has no ‘fingers’ at the end of her trunk) were brought over to us by their handlers, who work and live very closely with them.
Patrick picked two other young women and me for the first group. An assistant, Leroy, came up to greet us, and allocated each of us to an elephant. I got Jabu, whose handler ordered me to stand with my back to the elephant and to hold my right hand down by my side, with my hand curved slightly upwards, mimicking an elephant’s trunk. It was quite daunting to stand so close to a big animal like that, and only a metre behind the big matriarch Maroela,… but I didn’t feel any fear, just a sense of utter peace and calmness.
And much to my amazement, Jabu promptly pushed the tip of her trunk into the palm of my hand!
She was inhaling and exhaling gently, and a bit wetly, which was pleasantly tickly. Patrick had emphasized beforehand that we were to be really careful not to close the trunk off, as the animal would not be able to breathe, but Jabu really pushed her trunk quite firmly into my palm! It was sooo amazing!
We had only walked along for about 20 metres (it could have been more, but it felt like just a few heartbeats), before we had to stop and another three people took our place. Just before Maroela reached the edge of a little forest, the little convoy stopped, and another three people went for their turn. Richard got to hold trunks with Maroela, and they disappeared into the forest.
The rest of us followed Patrick down a side path, until we came to a clearing in the middle of the forest, just as the three elephants and their human followers emerged. Then each of the handlers was given an opportunity to introduce ‘their’ elephant and to talk about their different characteristics and behaviours. And each asked his elephant to do something – like opening their mouth and showing their teeth, or lying down on their side, or shaking themselves, or flapping their ears – all natural behaviours. Each of the handlers remarked about their elephant, “And she’s a good girl.” It was evident that they were really fond and proud of their charges.
After that, we all got another opportunity to approach the elephants in pairs, and to touch them, with the handler pointing out the different features. I was amazed at how rough and thick and hairy the skin was – apparently it is very thick (about an inch?), and the hairs go all the way through, so elephants can sense their environment with their hair. And the front side of the big ears was rough, whereas the reverse side was very smooth – they flap their ears to keep cool in the heat. We also got to touch the tail, which was surprisingly hard and bristly. Maroela opened her mouth wide for us, with the handler pointing out the teeth inside the mouth. At the end, the handler gave us each a handful of pony-nuts to put in the hollow of the elephant’s trunk right near the tip.
Once everyone had had a turn touching the elephants, we walked back up to the big field. There was a big solid wooden railing in the middle, with a sandy patch in front of it, on which the handlers had placed a couple of large bowls of chopped up butternut. Now came our turn to feed the elephants. They lined up on the other side of the railing, leaning against it – now I knew why it had to be so sturdy! – and reached out with their trunks, as we placed handfuls of butternut into the hollow they obligingly formed for us with the end of their trunks, before ‘spooning’ the treats into their huge mouths.
After that, the six people who had bought tickets to ride the elephants were taken a few metres further away, where the handlers got the three elephants to kneel down. They easily climbed onto the back, wedging their knees behind the elephants’ ears, and the first three of the group climbed up behind them.
While we watched them walking around the outside of the big field and past us to the start, where the other three climbed aboard, a man by the name of Chris, whom I took to be in charge of the entire sanctuary, came over to speak with the rest of us about the elephants, taking the time to answer our many questions.
I asked whether all this activity didn’t stress out the elephants. He replied that they in fact loved it, and on the days where there were no visitors and they just did maintenance on the fences and the stables, etc., the elephants would come right up and touch them, as if to say, “We’re bored, come and entertain us.” They would stay quite close to them, reaching out with their trunks, nudging them, stroking them. So they had a fairly regular and stimulating routine, which they stuck to – they took the herd for walks into the forest, they ‘ran’ them all around the field, they brushed them and cleaned them, they took them foraging for food… Chris pointed out that elephants are very intelligent and highly sensitive animals: each had its own unique personality, with one being more shy, another more cheeky, and yet another being more demanding than the others, etc. They also knew if they could get away with doing something they knew they weren’t allowed to do. And they tested their boundaries constantly. The handlers also knew immediately if something was wrong or troubling their animal. The elephants also insisted on their routine, and became confused if there was any variation, such as walking a different way, or not being fed at the same time, etc. And if one of the handlers forgot to reward his animal with a treat when it had done something good, they would remember that the relationship of trust had been disturbed, and stubbornly refuse to obey the next instructions. It would take quite a bit of bribing with treats to re-establish the relationship.
After the riding, we walked back to the stables, where Patrick taught us a bit about the anatomy of the African elephants we had just met. He explained that African elephants (up to 4 metres tall, and weighing about 7500 kg) are usually larger than Asian elephants, and they have bigger ears, that look a bit like the African continent. Both the males and the females tend to have long tusks, whereas Asian ones have shorter tusks – however, as a result of poaching, it has been found that African elephants are getting shorter tusks, and sometimes hardly any at all. African elephants furthermore have a dip in their back and a smooth forehead, whereas Asian ones have a bit of an arch and two humps on the forehead, which apparently makes them more suitable for use as working animals. The trunk-tips of African elephants have two ‘fingers’, with which they can very delicately pick up things, whereas African elephants only have one ‘finger’.
After our very interesting anatomy lesson, Patrick said goodbye to us. And we all went to warm up from the cold wind with a mug of tea and coffee, and to pay a visit to the adjoining curio shop.
This was such a worthwhile visit.
I see on their website that they also offer something called “Elephant Brush-downs”: This is an early morning activity where you take part in the morning grooming of the elephants and then you join the handlers when they do their daily training-and-stimulation program with the elephants, at the end of which you get to walk again with ‘trunk in hand’. Next time!!
But for now, it was getting late, we were hungry (again) and we wanted to get home to our little cabin in the forest. And on the way, we had another little adventure, searching for a bottle of milk.