Elephants have played a recurring theme in my life.
In September in India I got to ride an elephant. I won’t say how long it’s been since I was last on an elephant, but I was around 7 or 8. I came home from school to find an elephant in our backyard!
I grew up in Kentville. For those of you who know the town, we lived at what is now an
entrance to the centre square parking lot, across from the Kings Arms Pub. There were no elephants resident in town, nor was there a zoo.
However, the circus was in town and my father thought it would be fun if when I returned from school I could invite friends over for elephants rides. A pile of kids showed up for rides. I vaguely recall a white box with two rows of seats facing out. We climbed the little steps my mother used to reach the clothesline and then up a step ladder to be half handed to a circus worker on the box. I think my father was straddling the top and the one handing kids to the circus worker.
After my father’s funeral my nieces and I were seated around the dining room table. They asked what my memories would be and I said, “There will be no more elephants.” That’s when I told them about the elephant in the backyard. They couldn’t believe me and turned to my mother for the truth. Mom was standing at the sink, washing dishes and said, “Oh, he only did it the once!”
Those are two of my fondness memories.
Approaching the India trip I mentioned the upcoming elephant safari to my friend John. We grew up together and both went into journalism. John had a memory of riding an elephant at our place, but because it was so long ago and the idea of an elephant in Kentville so outrageous he thought it must have been a false memory. It wasn’t.
So, in India my group did a pre-breakfast trek through the bush at a former royal hunting lodge outside Jaipur.
And now to today. Over the last few days I have been sorting through old slides and photos and came across these two images from a night in the jungle in South Africa. We were looking for an elephant herd.
There were about 12 of us in a massive open Range Rover. The driver gave me a spotlight to scan the bush for elephants. Having never done that before I was an idiot at it. I used the beam to sweep the low bush along the path as if suddenly a two-ton beast was about to spring out at us.
In disgust the driver took back his light and broadly swept the horizon and into the trees. He didn’t tell me to check the trees, but then I wasn’t expecting to find an elephant in a tree. We had to check the trees for the big cats who might be laying on a branch, waiting for prey – which could be us. There were no cats, but lots of monkeys who occasionally bounced on nearby branches, pointing and screaming at us.
By scanning the horizon the spotlight’s beam would catch the reflection of the elephants’
eyes and show us where they were. While elephants are big, in the bush at night they are not easy to see. And they’re clever. They will stop all movement and sound to judge if the sound coming towards them represents a threat.
We found the herd. It’s like whale watching, it seems like a great idea until you face a massive animal in the wild that you start to reevaluate the wisdom of going in search of them.
Having found them, we were faced with another issue: how to photograph a grey animal in the dark? You do not use a flash! We watched them, they watched us. Eventually, we bored the herd and they broke their way through the bush to a water hole. We did not follow.
It’s an experience you actually experience vs snapping for social media – which when I did this trek didn’t exist. Nor did digital cameras. I got bad photos, but great memories.
Elephants are such improbable, delightful animals.