I was torn over the idea of an elephant safari through the jungle— on one hand, it was a childhood fantasy within reach— on the other, the fantasy seemed tainted with an edge of cruelty. I have read that the mahouts, or elephant handlers, raise an elephant from calf, and are responsible for the creature's health and well-being. The elephant is the mahout's main source of income, and tourists like myself, pay to ride their beast of several tonnes through the steamy jungle, cameras in hand and wide grins plastered on their faces. Training such a large wild animal to carry five people at a time on its neck and back (the mahout perches on the neck, while tourists cram into a little platform like sardines in a tin on the elephant's back) cannot be an easy nor an elegant task— and I suspect there aren't any Elephant Whisperers in Chitwan.
Nevertheless, I gave in to the little Mowgli inside me, and we found ourselves contorting our larger foreign bodies into a little wet platform with two happy Germans already squished inside, legs over the beast's ribcage. It was not comfortable by any means— my own ribs were smashed against a railing of sorts, and there was a piece of wood in my armpit— but there were my feet, dangling high above the ground, fanned by a spotted pink, papery ear. I fell in love with the domed skull and its sparse reddish hairs, the rumble of breath underneath me, the curious serpentine trunk. When we set off into the trees, I was on a cloud, I was a little girl. The monsoon made mud of our path, and dripped down my braids, making a foggy wreck of my camera— still, the sucking sound of the earth and the snapping of branches was a delight.
"What is the elephant's name?" I asked the mahout.
"Champakali." He smiled.
Suddenly, I heard a terrible, dull thump.
Next to his umbrella, in the right hand of the mahout was a long, iron hook. He cracked it once more upon Champakali's skull, and my spine went rigid.
We saw two kinds of deer, several peafowl, a mugger crocodile and some boar. The landscape was stunning. All I could think about was that iron hook.
It was not surprising, but I had naïvely hoped that I could hang onto the silly fantasy a little longer. The experience brought to mind the dancing bears I used to watch along the Bosphorus as a little girl— which have long since been banned. I know an elephant's skin and skull are much thicker than ours, and that perhaps it felt like a tap to Champakali— the hook did not break the skin, nor was it used very often or with a heavy hand— but the sound...
Regardless of the hook, the experience was a disappointment. I had imagined that we would rarely see another touring elephant, but we were behind at least eight other elephants of tourists. The whole 'safari' felt more like a conveyor belt carnival ride— we even had a traffic jam at a river crossing. I suspect many of the animals were scared away by the shouts and screams of the tourists— one woman kept shrieking every time her elephant took a step.
"No rhinos today?" I asked the mahout.
"Afternoon no good."
"Is morning good?"
"Morning no good."
"When is a good time for rhinos?" I pestered.