About Us

Contact Us



Hacktreks Travel

Hacktreks 2

First Chapters

Hacktreks World Journeys

Kristine Chandler Madera

Now, face to face, an elephant is a lot larger – and uglier – than from even a few feet away'

Photo:...Kristine by a nose!

Don’t tell me you’ve 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 you’ve told to others. Like the tale of Uncle Ned’s 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.
Don’t be ashamed, it’s human nature.

Then, there are some stories that need no embellishment. In fact, some shouldn’t be embellished at all. That’s why I’m writing this – to keep this particular catfish at its original four pounds.
My husband’s 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 Nepal’s 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. We’d 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 meter’s worth of nose.

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 elephant’s 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 cameras.

We hadn’t 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 elephant’s 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, I’m 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 I’d 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 subcontinent – and…
That’s where my journal ends, and not coincidently, where my husband’s 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 elephant’s 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 elephant’s trunk, grabbed its ears and slapped them over the elephant’s eyes. The elephant crooked its trunk into a sort of step onto which Thapa put one foot. Then the elephant’s lifted its trunk until Thapa stepped gracefully onto the elephant’s head, walked to the elephant’s 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 elephant’s head and stayed in a crouch as he inched toward the elephant’s 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 I’d 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 elephant’s face, arms curled behind her ears to keep from falling.

My husband claims I screeched louder than the monkeys in the treetops, but this couldn’t be right. One, I don’t 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 elephant’s back shouting what I was sure were obscenities, and the pachyderm’s 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 elephant’s head to her neck, where I locked my legs in place and was actually seated somewhat comfortably.
But backward.

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 husband’s version involved a ninja-style back flip, which couldn’t be true, I’m not that graceful).
Seated forward on the elephant’s neck, leaning on her head, I finally felt a sense of accomplishment, even relaxation. But an elephant’s neck, though the most natural seat, isn’t 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 elephant’s ears – the elephantese signal to move.

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 husband’s version it’s 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 don’t remember how I got off the elephant. I don’t 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 management’s 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 elephant’s face as proof of his rendering of events – which I’m sure will bloom ever-more lurid as time goes by – just smile and shake your head, and know that at least in this instance you’ve 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
Las Vegas

More World Journeys

© Hackwriters 2000-2003 all rights reserved