The elephant cow chosen as my ride had the most calm and docile temperament, perfect for a novice like me. The thick rope tied around her neck was loose enough for me to get a firm grip and each of foot fit snugly in the hollow behind her huge ears. These are much the same as the small hollows behind our own ears. It’s so important to get the sitting posture right because when the animal ascends or descends a river bank, the gradient can be as much as forty degrees. Believe me if you don’t get that right there’s a good chance of slipping off and even being trampled by the beast.
I was attempting to learn not master, how to ride an elephant in a single day, just to do a jungle safari bare-back for a couple of hours. So for me to get used to the undulating lumber the mahout led the elephant, with me in the seat, around the river area where there was both tall grass and the river embankment. She was a truly gentle creature whose thick coarse strands of hair seemed to pop out of her head. I felt an immediate affection for her and absolutely no fear. Occasionally her trunk would fumble around to check where my feet were, then she’d let out an almost inaudible low rumble, it was a very comforting sound that resonated through my body. Elephants are known to communicate long distances in this manner, and use the soles of their feet as listening receptacles. At close proximity elephants love physical contact and can display a high degree of emotion and concern for one another, even for the dead!
My next lesson - how to steer left, right, straight ahead or stop. Depending on which foot prodded her behind the ear and she’d move in the opposite direction i.e. a left foot meant right turn and opposite for the right foot. To get her moving ahead simply prod her behind the ears with both feet and call out ‘ugath’. To stop I dug my heels into her shoulders and called out ‘arr’. By the way I had to sit between her shoulders and head, there is very little neck on an elephant and it seems you are almost sitting on her head. Elephants in Nepal only understand Nepali and the constant ‘conversation’ between a mahout and his elephant creates a very personal bond that cannot be achieved by some day scholar. Pachyderms on the Indian subcontinent and in Indo-China region are far more docile and can be trained very well. However the African Elephant which is much larger has been an extremely difficult animal to train. As a result there are very few safaris in Africa that offer elephant rides.
My feet tingled with excitement when the next morning the three elephants lumbered into the jungles of Chitwan. I was in the middle, a wise place to be! and as an additional precaution the regular mahout sat on her back a little further back actually.
My years of visiting Asian jungles have taught me – one can never be certain about any sighting. So I thoroughly enjoy the very habitat, the terrain and treat every bird or sighting as bonus. This way I’m never disappointed. As we silently plunged into the tall grass, the feet of this heavy beast carved a path among the pale green blades. Despite the size we made no sound as we progressed to water’s edge. I could see the lead Mahout point to the opposite bank. There on the wet mud, basked a crocodile. But it had seen us and in a few seconds disappeared, head first, into the brown rushing waters. We lumbered on into the waters; I must admit this was the point at which I was worried. We tread straight across the waters and up the far bank; I was slowly getting the hang of bending against the angle to compensate the shifting point of gravity. It was much like sitting on a horse bucking in slow motion. We kept a steady pace behind the lead animal as long as we were in the grasslands. But now I could see the tree line approaching.
Once inside the forest my elephant required a lot more manoeuvring and I had to concentrate far more on my riding. This meant that I kept getting smacked in the face with thin branches and leaves and even getting my face full of spider webs and insects. One time it seemed I lost sight of the elephant in front until we nearly bumped into its rear. I almost came alongside the other beast when the mahout motioned with his head at the rhino standing straight ahead in the path. Neither animal wanted to give way and for a few unnerving moments there was a tense standoff, until the Rhino angrily stormed off into the brush.
There is ‘almost’ no danger when you are on top of an elephant not even from tigers; however the only trouble comes from large elephant bulls. I was told of rare instances when a mahout meets a tusker, his elephant is charged and chased out of the jungle. Though it is not often that they venture to the fringes of the forest, however in Chitwan wild tuskers are known to raid the pens when the females are in oestrus apparently that’s how my elephant became pregnant! Mostly elephant cows are used to ferry people and tourists in the area.
It was a great morning out in the jungle; we had seen Cheetal, Sambhar, peacock by the dozen and a number of other birds and animals but above all that I was most happy with the fact that I rode into the jungle on an elephant and didn’t need the mahout to come to my rescue at any time during that entire trip.
That night sleep came easily and certainly not because of the large glasses of Raxshy, the local liquor, which I happily ‘sipped’ through the evening. Only the loud but distant roar of a tiger sometime in the early part of false dawn opened my eyes, albeit for a few seconds. Often the jungle so consumes me with happenings that nothing else can occupy even the fringes of my imagination. When in this state I know I’ll encounter a moment, a something, an experience which will forever remain a special spark for the rest of my life. My moment came early the next morning. As I stepped out of the wooden cottage; There partly hidden by the bushes near the river a large antlered Sambhar grazed, its coat dappled in the soft morning sunshine. At the sound of the door opening it razed its head, looked at me and slowly waded across the river and into the grasslands of the opposite bank. I sat there for a long, long while staring aimlessly after it, the morning was cold and mist inches above the undergrowth. To the left came the hysterical call of a lapwing screaming ‘did-you-do-it?!’ while grey wagtails dipped their tails to the sun as they hopped across the narrow strip of grass a few yards away from where I sat on the steps of the cottage.