Jul 3, 2006

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.


  1. Anonymous5:27 AM

    Hi Amanda! I tried to catch up with your blog and find out where you've been lately...your trip to Africa sounds just amazing!and Alaska after that? Wow!where next?
    Drop us a line when you have some time! Lots of love - Alberto

  2. Ciao Albi,
    Hope you andd beautiful Loulou are well. I'm in Norway at the moment, though much behind on the blog. I'll write soon as net access improves. Xoxoxo, Ax.

  3. I found your blog from a search for "Gavin Best". I too have experienced the joy of a safari on elephant at Elephant Camp in Zimbabwe. Sadly, I found out today that Gavin Best died in an elephant accident on Dec. 15, 2008. An elephant walked between a mother and baby elephant, and the mother attacked the intruder. Gavin tried to break up the disagreement and was killed. They have established a Wild Horizon Trust non-profit to continue to care for the orphaned ellies, and to conduct research, community education, etc. See http://zimconservation.com/?p=351 "Statement from representatives of Wild Horizons

    Wild Horizons Elephant Back Safaris, Zimbabwe, Incident Report - 15 Dec 2008

    Gavin Best died on Monday 15th Dec after sustaining severe injuries from one of our elephants. The incident happened when an elephant walked between a cow and its new calf which caused the cow to attack it. Gavin tried to intervene to stop the attack and was knocked down by the cow.

    Gavin passed away in the ambulance on the way to hospital.

    We have suspended our operations till further notice whilst the incident is investigated and we come to grips with Gavin’s death.

    Gavin’s passion was the elephants and he will be remembered for his dedication to the elephants’ wellbeing as well as the orphaned and injured elephants he and Shay saved and looked after." and


    I think they will need much help to care for the elephants now. Thought you would want to know and pass the news along about their non-profit trust.

    Beth Guislin

  4. How deeply sad. I was tempted to take down this post, as Gavin's quote sits uncomfortably, given the circumstances. But I've decided it's more important to keep his memory alive and also to spread the word about this more-ethical elephant experience.


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