24.01.2009 - 24.01.2009 24 °C
There are 4 resident elephants at Antelope Park, 3 female and one single minded adolescent male.
Every morning the elephants, aged between 18 and 22, are put through their paces. I arrive at the training area at the late hour of 7am where the elephants are tethered by a small chain round one of their back legs. The handlers give a variety of commands including, turning left, turning right, sitting down, laying down, picking things up, lift their trunks, balance on 2 left legs, right legs, opposite legs... They are rewarded with handfuls of maize kernels.
After the handlers have done their bit, it is my turn but the end elephant's trunk is constantly frisking me for food. We manage most of the exercises with me ending up sitting on her neck. It's a long way down!
For the next couple of hours we walk them outside the Park gates while they feed and generally destroy everything in their path. These elephants were once wild but were orphaned many years ago during the droughts. They were trained at Antelope Park and while walking with them through the open bush I can see why the training is essential. They are very well behaved and generally respond to everything the handlers ask, albeit sometimes in their own time. Controlling 4 fully grown elephants isn't easy and I sure as hell am not going to argue with one!
As we walk through the waist high spear grass I am told stories of snakes that are seen almost daily. I worryingly hope I will get the chance to see one from a safe distance and little do I know that I will have more than enough encounters during my time here.
On arrival at the Dam over the other side of the Park, I climb aboard the biggest and oldest female with the help of a specially constructed platform. The elephant is called Ami and it is the same one I attempted to train in the hope that we may have bonded enough this morning for her to be gentle with me.
I am sitting on her shoulders and as we walk towards the water, my buttocks are pummelled with every careful step. I wrap my arms firmly around the Hasslear's (handler) waist and as she speeds up at the sight of the water I use my knees to grip with every ounce of strength.
Once the water reaches my knees Ami unexpectedly decides to throw herself sideways into the water and all of us are completely submerged for a few long frightening seconds. We come up briefly for air and I consume another mouthful of the water when we suddenly lurch to the right for another dunking. This time I managed to keep my head just above the water which is a good thing as she decides to stay submerged at an angle for a very long time, just her trunk peering out of the water like a submarine viewer. I wonder if I am just too heavy on 3 cooked meals a day and perhaps I've drowned her under my weight!
Several roller coaster dunkings later she shakes violently from side to side, flaps her ears heavily over my trembling legs and walks slowly out of the water. I've swum with horses, a variety of marine animals including sharks, manta rays and whale sharks but that was something else and I loved it!
I push all thoughts of cholera and bilharzia from my mind and make a mental note to do that as often as possible while I am here.