ELEPHANTS ON PARADE
VICTORIA FALLS, Zimbabwe My hips my whole torso, in fact sway in tandem with Tendai, as I straddle her broad back. And I can't stop thinking, "there's a baby somewhere below me."
The whippersnapper will be there some time: elephants take the longest-gestation prize for mammals at 22 months. Still, I'm a little unnerved to ride animals nested like Russian dolls...
We lumber through the landscape. Our mounts graze, sometimes ripping up slender trees wholesale. Animals are in short supply on this bush safari, but spotting another impala isn't the point.
The mahout Matthias guides Tendai, prodding her with metal barbed stick every now and then. Especially when she curls her trunk back, probing our faces. "She's begging," he complains, but eventually teaches me to load food pellets into her snout. Snack-break. Altogether now: I share my Clif Bar with Matthias and we all munch, content under the midmorning sun.
Ever the cynical travel writer, I expected a cheap switcheroo on this Zimbabwean elephant safari. Ha! Climb aboard an Asian variety, as the Africans are too cranky to ride.
Instead, Wild Horizons surprises me. The animals are indigenous: rescued orphans or creatures culled from overgrazed areas, who normally might be shot. They're all volunteers, free to escape with the wild herd at will. Most remain at the camp, however, lugging tourists in return for cheap, easy grub.
Best of all, we face forward, rolling with the motion, rather than the ragdoll-like, full-body-spanking of Indian sidesaddle traditions.
Wild Horizons, an ecotourism pioneer, isn't without critics. Similar, but possibly unscrupulous ventures, hit the headlines a few years back. But Manager Gavin Best bashed about by a mischievous toddler elephant is hard to doubt. Especially as a gooey babydaddy look suffuses his face. "This is Izibulu. The name means 'firstborn'," he explains.
"At 18 months, he weighs 450kg. They come out solid," Gavin says, whacking the critter's rump. "You can still be killed by little guys like this."
Throughout my trip, I've tried to buy only crafts made from recycled or at least renewable resources. In South Africa, for example, I purchased a satchel of old tires and license plates at a township cooperative. I wanted my money to matter, if only a little bit. Plus, I admire the use-it-all ethos.
But the Elephant Camp shames them all. I now own Tendai's footprint inked onto a scroll of banana leaves and elephant dung.
Sure, it's not great art. And the ick-factor is rather high. But half the money, I'm told, goes to anti-poaching patrols.
If that's not worth an ugly addition to the storage-room decor, I'm not sure what it.