“ A centre offering elephant rides and other cultural experiences in Thekkady, India. „
I love elephants - I suspect most people do, if not the physical reality of one charging towards them, then at least the idea of elephants is very appealing. There's something so compelling about their slow, plodding nature, their fascinating prehensile trunks and their leathery skin. And when you look into the eye of an elephant you can't help but think you're looking into the eyes of an equal - though admittedly one that outweighs you many times over and might well outlive you too. Elephants are the state animal of Kerala, which may surprise those people who've always assumed that Kerala was about beaches and backwaters.
Our trip in November 2011 took us up into the mountains of Kerala and offered us a couple of opportunities to get up close and personal with elephants. On our first day in Kerala our driver wouldn't let us ride the elephants at the Dreamlands Spice Park. It wasn't on our official itinerary, he told us, we had to wait until a couple of days later in Thekkady when we could ride elephants at the elephant park. If you find yourself in a similar situation my advice is to seize the day - ride every elephant that fate puts in your path. I don't think you'll ever regret it.
~Elephants aren't crazy about rain either~
I had assumed that we'd have a pretty hot and sweaty time since Kerala is quite a long way south in India but we soon discovered that there was a good reason why it's such a green and lush state - quite simply, it rains a lot. When we arrived at the Elephant Camp, the weather was awful. Half a dozen soggy nellies were plodding through the mud with eager Indian families perched on their backs carrying golf umbrellas.
There should be a variety of elephant experiences on offer at the Elephant Camp - rides short and long, giving the elephants a bath, watching them move logs around and feeding them - and even a residential elephant safari. We wanted to have a longer ride and to feed the elephants but were told that they were very busy and because of the awful weather, only the short elephant ride was available. Perhaps the elephants had called in their shop steward and were objecting to working in a downpour. The ticket office tried to sell us places at a display of the local martial art - a kicking and swinging swords around affair called Kalaripayattu which we really didn't fancy - and for Kathikali dancing. We'd been dragged to a Kathikali dance display the previous time we'd been in Kerala and both vowed that life really was too short. One Kathikali display is quite possibly one more than the average human needs to see. Remember that old quote that says "Try anything once except incest and morris dancing?" - well watching Kathikali dancing makes both the alternatives sound attractive. We held firm - elephants or nothing and handed over our money. I believe we paid around 200 rupees each - or just under three pounds.
We rarely understood our driver during the 4 days we were together but we're pretty sure he told us to just go and wait with the other customers and we'd be called forward to mount the elephant when it was our turn. Unfortunately it seemed we were the only people who'd been told this and it never did seem to be our turn. We weren't too bothered because we thought that if we waited the rain might stop but after 20 minutes or so our driver strode up and had 'words' with the elephant handler about why it was taking so long. The combination of our English tendency to let everyone else go first - especially when it's 'their country' - and our desire to avoid the rain since clearly we English aren't familiar with getting wet, meant we weren't actually at all bothered about waiting.
Elephant riding isn't new to me. I've done it several times in India, in Sri Lanka and in Thailand and in Sri Lanka I recall we were even allowed to sit on their heads and tuck our feet behind their ears like extras from a Tarzan film and then walk the elephants through a river - really quite exciting stuff. I've done what might be considered rather more 'hard core' elephant activities than plodding round the garden but I don't care - if there's an elephant ride to be had, I'll be in the line. Getting onto an elephant doesn't faze me in the slightest. My husband is not quite so relaxed about such things and I'd noticed that he was looking rather nervous as we stepped forwards to get onto the elephant.
~Do you ride Western, English or Side Saddle?
The Kerala elephant saddle is a nice design, ideal for people of medium height or above. I'm just over five foot seven and it was perfect for me. Hubby is taller but with similar length legs. You sit on these saddles much like you would on a horse - one leg on either side - and instead of stirrups, there's a rail to rest your feet on. Children and little people can't reach the rail and we'd noticed they tended to look pretty nervous or to get themselves wedged in between taller people so that they couldn't slide. I sat at the front, Tony perched behind to ensure that if he started to slip he could grab me and take me with him. The rain had pretty much stopped so we were spared the indignity of having to ask for an umbrella which no doubt I would have had to hold as Tony was too intent on hanging on.
Before we could set off we had to wait whilst a group who'd just finished riding our girl - a 30 year old by the name of Lakshmi - came back to ask for more photos with her. This was probably not a bad thing as it gave my husband time to get used to sitting on the elephant before it actually started moving. We admired the pink edges of her ears and her freckles and I pondered that as a freckly person myself, the shared skin characteristic might be part of why I love these beasts. Fortunately I hope that freckles are the only thing I have in common with an elephant.
With the photos finished we plodded off. Elephants are very measured in their gait - you never feel like they might suddenly 'bolt' or miss their footing. The walk slowly and very deliberately. This short tour walks through the spice garden at Elephant Camp along a muddy path that was seriously churned up by the rain. Lakshmi chose her steps carefully, trying to avoid getting her feet too wet. From her back we could look into the trees and see various fruits growing as well as look over the fence into the gardens of the camp's neighbours - most of whom smiled and waved back when we smiled and waved at them.
Despite this being a big local tourist attraction, we were the only westerners there that day and so seemed to get quite a bit of attention. After the first five minutes or so, our elephant handler asked for my camera and took some photographs. He explained that Lakshmi was one of his favourite elephants, that she was very dependable and not at all flighty. She knew her way round whether he was there or not. He pointed out the various plants and spices and told us about the different elephants at the camp, how they were fed, how they were looked after and how important they were to the business. I have ridden elephants that didn't seem terribly happy about the experience but he reassured us that the elephants had a good life and were well cared for.
Elephants eat a lot - and their diet is very high in fibre. This means that even on a short walk, the rider will inevitably become educated about the bodily functions of their mount. When an elephant stops and won't move for a few seconds, you can pretty much guarantee it's pooping. What I'd not realised before - because this was the first time I'd sat on such a saddle where your body is separated from the beast by only a few inches of padding - was that when an elephant breaks wind its entire body vibrates. As Lakshmi let rip with long juddering gassy emanations, we got fits of giggles as the vibrations moved through her body and then through our bodies on top.
Our ride was only about 30 or 40 minutes in duration and I was so comfortable I'd have stayed on for hours without needing any encouragement. I hopped off and hubby, pleased at what a brave boy he'd been, fell off the elephant and onto the platform, feeling really stupid. We popped down the steps and went round for photos and blessings from the elephant. I'm not sure what the religious value of an unconsecrated elephant blessing is, but it's a very good way to tip the handlers - you put some money in the elephant's trunk, she passes the money to her mahout and then bops you on the head with her trunk. You cannot watch or receive an elephant blessing without getting the giggles.
Tips handed out, elephants and riders photographed, we headed back to the car, feeling the afterglow of elephant therapy. Everybody should ride an elephant - even if only for a short time and especially if they think they are scared. I've never turned down the chance and I hope I never will.