Elephant Riding Southern Africa

You are surprised by how quiet an elephant is when it wants to be.
Here they are padding near silently through the open savanna of South Africa’s Kapama Reserve, past giraffes and buffalo and rhinos who are so used to having elephants around that they don’t even look up.
And sitting astride the immense animals in saddles – like riding a very tall, overweight horse – we’re nearly eye to eye with the giraffes and not spooking them with vehicle noise.
Plus, the most basic advantage of journeying on a safari by elephant is that you’re … riding … an … elephant.
On this reserve, a private 48 000 acre stretch near Hoedspruit, just west of Kruger, belonging to the Roode family, the place to stay for the elephant safari is the Relais & Châteaux property Camp Jabulani, an intimate six-room lodge decorated in an African and colonial motif.
The place is named after the now-15-year-old male elephant Jabulani, who was found as a four-month-old stuck in the mud, apparently abandoned by his herd, and quickly adopted.
Things snowballed from there. Knowing that elephants are herd animals and need company, Lente Roode rescued 12 elephants due for (culling) in Zimbabwe and trucked them here along with their handlers.
There are now 15 elephants, but when the group comes out to meet guests, Jabulani still leads the way.
During the day, the elephants wander around the acreage, nibbling from trees and splashing about in huge water holes. It’s quite a show: teenage males clashing tusks as a dominance challenge, the younger ones playing like little kids of any species.
And after an evening ride, you visit them in their stalls and feed them – you grow very attached to the large, gentle creatures.
Up in Botswana, on the western edge of the wildlife-rich Okavango Delta, the original elephant resort, Abu Camp, reopened this April after an ownership change and a totally new look under the management of Wilderness Safaris.
Founded by Randall Moore in 1990 as a place for rescued circus and zoo elephants, the 450 000 acre camp was pretty rustic when I first visited seven years ago, and the elephants, when not carrying guests, were kept on chains. That all changed when Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen bought it last year.
The decor of the six cottages, as redone by the Cape Town design firm Artichoke, is now Okavango chic: knubby fabrics in shades of beige artfully accessorized with African artifacts – shells, bone sculptures, carved wood tables – and designer touches such as antique chests and a rich brown leather headboard that’s a stretched wing chair.
The scenery is as stunning as ever: The decks look out onto a river (where hippos grunt as your evening serenade and wake-up call), which you can now view from the swimming pool, your private plunge pool in cottage number two, or your deep copper tub (in all six cottages).
Along with the decor, the food and service have also been upgraded. The biggest change at Abu is the treatment of the elephants.
A new elephant programme instituted by respected wildlife expert Brett Mitchell of Wild Horizons lets the elephants be elephants, as he describes it.
The chains on the six elephants, including Baby Abu, namesake of the late, much beloved elephant for whom the camp is named, are gone.
During the day, as at Jabulani, the elephants wander freely, watched and protected by their handlers.
In late afternoon, you seek them out in the wild and then ride them back into camp. (Safaris via vehicle and makoro, a dugout canoe, are available, too.)
With just six elephants (and a seventh due to be born soon), it’s possible to get to know these animals even better than the ones at Jabulani.
After sundowners on the Star Deck, you can watch the elephants go to sleep in their arena, or boma. And if you want to abandon your handsome cottage for the night, you can sleep in the double bed out on the deck – there’s a full bathroom attached – and snooze with the elephants. You can’t get closer to the animals than that. And then: Awake at daybreak and ride them back out into the wild.
• The full length version of this article can be found on Forbes Life Magazine.

December 2011
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