So, I'd always been under the impression that only Asian elephants could be domesticated. The idea of riding an African elephant just seemed like it wasn't even a possibility. I knew that only Asian elephants appeared in circuses, for example. And I knew that unlike in India and southeast Asia, people in Africa didn't use elephants as working animals.
In fact, I rode an elephant once, back in 2003, when I went on a trip to Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. On that trip, we took a trip up to a mountain village on elephants, and the two of us (I shared an elephant with my friend, Sue) sat next to each other on a saddle that was kind of a bench. It was a fun experience, but I didn't really learn much about the animal. It was just kind of a ride, and that was pretty much it.
Then, nine years ago, when I was in South Africa the first time, I didn't think that riding an African elephant was even a thing that you could do. I remember thinking at the time that sinceAfrican elephants couldn't be domesticated or trained, they were just these huge and a little bit terrifying animals on our safari. My assumption was that there was just no way that you could get close to them, let alone ride them.
So, when we were planning this family trip, my sister-in-law suggested that we try to find an opportunity to ride an elephant. I thought that sounded crazypants. But then, while planning the trip, it seemed that there actually were places in Africa where you could ride an elephant. Who knew?
At the beginning of our trip, while we were in Zimbabwe, we went on an elephant back safari. We were given a little bit of information about elephants, and then we climbed this ramp to a sort of "elephant boarding platform" and sat astride on the elephant--a HUGE elephant--and rode through the veldt for about 45 minutes or so. We didn't really see that many animals--mostly just impala--but it was a really fun experience.
We learned that there are lots of elephants that wind up in conservation or rehabilitation programs. Some were young animals that were orphaned or abandoned during droughts. Others were animals that had become nuisances, because their reserves were over-populated. And, since they were so smart, they could be trained in just a few years to work with people. So, my assumptions were completely wrong. It is very possible to ride an elephant.
And so we did it again, after we left Zimbabwe and headed on to South Africa. And it was an even better experience, if you can even imagine. In South Africa, near Krueger National Park, there's a town called Hazyview. And near that town, there's a place called Elephant Whispers, where you can ride an elephant.
And not just ride an elephant. Unlike our elephant back safari in Zimbabwe, Elephant Whispers offers a more complete (and very educational) "Elephant Experience."
For about an hour, we got to interact with African elephants. We learned a ton (no pun intended) about them. And we got to feed them treats (little pellets of grass and molasses and some other stuff), and we touched the skin on their bodies, including their trunks, and ears.
It was fascinating. And a little bit crazy. At one point, we stood right underneath the elephants, just up against their legs. When the elephant would lower its head to eat one of its treats, it was sort of a little bit kind of terrifying.
After the interaction, we saddled-up, with the same kind of saddle as we used on our Zimbabwe experience, and we went off into the bush for a short walk around the property. It wasn't a really long ride--much shorter than our earlier elephant back safari experience, but it was fine. Honestly, elephants aren't narrow animals, and when you're sitting astride of them, it kinda makes your legs a little wobbly after a while. On one of our rides, there was this short older woman with a broad Cleveland accent (lots of broad flat "a" vowels), and as she was getting off the elephant, she said, "Wow! I'm really short, so when I'm spread out, I'm really...spread...out!"
All in all, it was a terrific way to cross off my "ride an animal" item on my 101 Things List. I learned so much about these phenomenal animals at Elephant Whisperers. And when we headed out on our safari the next day, whenever we encountered an elephant in the wild (which was nearly every day), I kept thinking about all the things I'd learned during my elephant encounter. It's impossible to leave that experience without tremendous respect for these magnificent animals.