Hacktreks World Journeys
Kristine Chandler Madera
face to face, an elephant is a lot larger and uglier
than from even a few feet away'
Photo:...Kristine by a nose!
tell me youve never done it had an adventure at some exotic
locale, trumped up the story just a bit, then a bit more, then just
a little more until the original story is morphed in your head into
the conjured-up versions youve told to others. Like the tale of
Uncle Neds prize catfish, ballooned from four pounds to forty
over a dozen years of telling. You may moan when Uncle Ned opens his
mouth, but we all do it.
Dont be ashamed, its human nature.
Then, there are some stories that need no embellishment. In fact, some
shouldnt be embellished at all. Thats why Im writing
this to keep this particular catfish at its original four pounds.
My husbands and my stories start out the same, and the truth can
be verified by my journal entries. We arrived at Temple Tiger Safari
Camp in Nepals Chitwan National Forest in the last week before
the camp closed for the monsoon.
In the late afternoon our first day, we boarded our elephant. I say
boarded because no other word strikes me quite as accurate. Wed
been on an elephant once before at something called an "elephant
bath" in Sri Lanka in which the elephant lay on its side in a shallow
pool, and we each slung a leg over its neck and struggled to adjust
without falling off as the elephant rolled onto its stomach and hobbled
to stand. It wasn't too hard to get on. The challenge was to stay on
as the elephant sucked its trunk full of water, pointed the snout end
back over its head (and into my face), then snorted out muddy soup,
elephant snot, and whatever else lingered in a meters worth of
In comparison, boarding the elephant in Chitwan was a regal affair,
and seemed as if it should be accompanied by a symphonic orchestra,
after the scratchy pop tunes blaring at the elephant bath. We climbed
stairs to a platform, then from the platform stepped onto what looked
like an upside-down table strapped to the elephants back, then
sat with our legs dangling over the table sides, and kept from falling
by holding on to thick rods affixed between the table legs very
comfortable, really. Even, as we found out, at high speed.
Gokarna, our first elephant handler, called a mahout, was the kind of
young, that, in a valet with his hand held out for the keys to your
new BMW, would make you burn rubber to get to the dimly-lit corner of
the self-park. Gorkarna flashed a roguish gleam as we lumbered out of
the camp, and once we rounded the path out of sight, he walloped his
elephant into a jog. Tall grass and stubby trees blurred together until
we approached the path to a watering hole, and Gokarna slowed the elephant
to a skulky creep through another patch of grass and under larger, leafier
trees filled with monkey chatter, to the edge of the watering hole where
two full-sized rhinos and a baby frolicked during their afternoon swim.
We snapped photos, and "ooohed" and "aaahed" for
all of ten seconds when Gokarna gestured that we should put away our
We hadnt yet zipped up our bags when Gokarna and his elephant
charged the rhinos. The mother and baby scattered. The male rhino turned
to fight. We ran after the mother and baby, and the male came in rescue.
In a deft circling maneuver, the elephant cornered the three rhinos
against a cluster of trees and trumpeted a primal victory. Then a larger,
angrier, male rhino raced in.
Our elephant spun. The smaller male rhino charged from the other side.
The elephant ran full bore and then spun again to keep the two rhinos
in its sights as rhinos can do great damage, even kill, an elephant
by using its horn to gore the elephants underside from behind.
More elephant trumpets, rhino brays, another evasion and twist move
from our elephant. Then the forest went silent for a split second before
monkeys shrieked from the treetops, birds burst from the branches and
into the sky, the mother and baby rhino fled into the grass. Even the
male rhinos looked spooked. Gokarna turned around, all trace of gleam
gone from his eyes.
"Tiger," he mouthed.
Our elephant froze. The smaller rhino ran in the direction of the mother
and baby. But the larger male rhino snorted, stomped, and tried again
to charge behind our elephant. Another spin to face the rhino, and then
another spin away from an orange shadow in the tall grass. Another
trumpet by our elephant, this one answered by another elephant. The
rhino grunted, and disappeared into the bush.
We never really saw the tiger, which was tracked by a gray-whiskered
mahout named Thapa who looked almost stately on the shoulders of the
approaching elephant though the camp guests on his elephant were
draped over the table rods in obvious boredom. A few sharp words from
the elder sent our mahout into a sulk and we followed the other elephant
back to camp.
The next morning, Thapa appeared as our guide. The staff hailed him
as a champion tracker, and sure to find us the tiger that the Gokarna
had chased away. As a mahout, Thapa was an artist in the grace with
which he guided his elephant forward, backward, waltz to the
side. He was Fred Astaire to an elephantine Ginger Rogers, but for the
fact that his elephant wrapped its trunk around every small tree we
came upon and then wrenched it from the ground something, Im
sure, that Ginger would never have done. Amidst the deforestation, Thapa
did track a tiger, which we saw for a second as its flanks and tail
darted into the grass. Other than the tiger, we saw two wild chickens
and an odd-looking bird. I drooped over the table leg the same way Id
seen his passengers do the previous day. I was hooked on the rush, and
missed Gokarna, our young mahout.
Gokarna showed up at camp later that morning, sans elephant, the gleam
back in his eye. He lured us to an "elephant briefing" with
a description of the difference between Asian elephants five
toes on the front feet, four on the back, ears the shape of the Indian
Thats where my journal ends, and not coincidently, where my husbands
and my stories diverge.
I know we went to the elephant briefing, we agree on that, and we both
remember one of the camp managers explaining how the mahouts "steer"
their elephants by pressing the right foot behind the elephants
right ear to go right, pressing behind the left ear for left and pressing
both to go forward. Then, he offered a demonstration of yet another
way to climb onto an elephant. He glanced around for a demonstratee.
Gokarna stood at the ready, but Thapa and his docile beast were chosen
for the job, and for this, I must say, I am thankful.
Thapa led his elephant in front of us, faced his elephants trunk,
grabbed its ears and slapped them over the elephants eyes. The
elephant crooked its trunk into a sort of step onto which Thapa put
one foot. Then the elephants lifted its trunk until Thapa stepped
gracefully onto the elephants head, walked to the elephants
back, turned around and sat down. Simple looking.
Then it was our turn.
My husband went first. He tottered some on the trunk and slipped a little
as he stepped onto the elephants head and stayed in a crouch as
he inched toward the elephants back. All in all not a bad effort,
though I saw quite a number of ways in which I might improve on his
technique. Being younger and sprier (and somewhat cocky), I thought
Id scamper right up.
I sauntered up to the elephant.
Now, face to face, an elephant is a lot larger and uglier
than from even a few feet away. Wrinkled freckles, stiff hair not only
on her chin and cheeks, but in the furrowed expanse between her eyes.
Up close, she looked as rough as the word pachyderm made her sound
primordial, callused, domineering.
I think that was the problem, I think the old girl spooked me.
I took a deep breath and grabbed for her ears. They were harder to flap
than I thought, more like stiffened hide than the flimsy gauze that
the mahout flailed around, but I got enough movement that she must have
understood, as she curled her trunk into a step. I took another breath,
held it, and put one foot on her trunk and gripped her ears for balance
as she started to lift.
The next moment was a blur. I remember feeling off-balance, and hearing
shouts in at least two languages, but nothing came into focus until
I landed tits first on the elephants face, arms curled behind
her ears to keep from falling.
My husband claims I screeched louder than the monkeys in the treetops,
but this couldnt be right. One, I dont screech, and two,
I clearly remember hearing my husband and the camp manager shouting
instructions at me as if I had some control over my motor skills. I
can also recall Thapa running back and forth across the elephants
back shouting what I was sure were obscenities, and the pachyderms
big, brown eye rolling up toward me in commiseration of our shared indignity.
Hands grabbed my feet, but instead of helping me down, they pushed me
up. Thapa grabbed my arm and hauled me over the elephants head
to her neck, where I locked my legs in place and was actually seated
The fun was over for me, but apparently not for the men around me. All
I wanted was to get down, but all they would do was shout at me to turn
around, which I did magically (I have no other explanation. My
husbands version involved a ninja-style back flip, which couldnt
be true, Im not that graceful).
Seated forward on the elephants neck, leaning on her head, I finally
felt a sense of accomplishment, even relaxation. But an elephants
neck, though the most natural seat, isnt the proper one. Thapa
tugged at me until I was sitting on her shoulders, which seemed meters
higher, and with nothing to hold onto, much more perilous than the neck.
My head spun, and I started to slip. To keep balanced, I slammed my
feet behind the elephants ears the elephantese signal to
Sitting on her shoulders also meant sitting on her shoulder blades,
which knocked me side-to-side as she walked, and the only way to keep
from toppling off was to right my balance with my feet, which pushed
harder behind her ears and sent her into a convulsive jig (in my husbands
version its a jungle crazed cha-cha involving more screeching,
a lasso, and a heroic intervention on his part).
The world whirled from ten feet up, and I mused that this was an interesting
way to die, but I dont remember how I got off the elephant. I
dont think I fell off. Maybe I jumped. Either way it was too mundane,
or likely, too traumatic, for even my husband to remember, as his version
is lacking in this detail as well.
We never saw Thapa after that, or Gokarna either. Perhaps it was the
Chitwan managements attempt to smooth over our memories with the
comparatively drab amusements of our remaining days at the camp
not that I remember.
This is the four-pound-catfish version of our time at Chitwan. So if
you meet my husband and he flashes you the photo of me clinched onto
the elephants face as proof of his rendering of events
which Im sure will bloom ever-more lurid as time goes by
just smile and shake your head, and know that at least in this instance
youve heard the true chronicle rather than a yarn festooned by
the vagaries of storytelling, which for travel sagas, as you know, contain
as much fable as truth.
© KristineChandler Madera- May 2003
all rights reserved