Ian does not believe me, but I swear that I rode an elephant at the Bronx Zoo in New York City when I was a kid. As I was a nut for wild animals for as long as I can remember, I'm sure we made many trips to the Bronx Zoo and rode the elephant more than once. At some point, and rightfully so, the zoo stopped the elephant rides. I didn't see wild elephants until our first trip to southern Africa in 2007. Since then, I have seen an abundance of wild elephants in the bush, but it was not until 2012 that I would again have an opportunity to touch an elephant. While in Livingstone, Zambia, Ian and I spent one morning on an elephant backed safari, not exactly how I usually spend my mornings.
Given the number of times I had ridden an elephant, I was spoiled, particularly considering the species' vulnerable status and the fact that I live in the United States, not a country with an especially high elephant population . . . . As a result of my spoiled condition, when presented with the opportunity to go to Abu Camp in the Okavango Delta, Botswana--a camp with a resident elephant herd providing the opportunity for elephant interactions and elephant backed safaris, I'm embarrassed to say that my response was more like "sure, that sounds like fun," when it should have been "OMG, I have always wanted to go there; it will be life altering to interact with an elephant herd" (screamed at the top my lungs while doing cartwheels)!!!! After our stay at Abu Camp, I'm definitely still spoiled, if not downright blessed, when it comes to elephants, but also when it comes to experiencing first-class service and viewing leopards in the bush. I am, however, no longer complacent about seeing elephants in the wild, let alone being able to touch one.
Management at Abu Camp redefined service; it is the standard by which all other safari camps are now judged, which is unfortunate for all of the camps we are sure to visit in the coming years. The camp was run with perfect precision where our every need and want were anticipated. The special extras were things I would not have even dreamed were possible including free Cuban cigars (a big thing for those of us from the U.S.), a lounge in the bush with a seven course tasting menu, sitting on couches and eating popcorn while watching a movie in the middle of the bush, and a champagne send off at the airstrip, to name just a few (a few photos to scroll through).
Spending time with the elephant herd at Abu is not comparable to any other elephant experience we've had. We chose to ride on the elephants once and to walk with the elephants twice. We preferred the experience of walking next to and with these huge animals to riding them. The elephant herd is comprised of rescued elephants and their offspring (see www.abucamp.com and www.wilderness-safaris.com for more information), each with their own story and personality, who are cared for around the clock by a group of dedicated caretakers, the herd handlers.
First Elephant Experience. For our first interaction with the elephant herd, we chose an afternoon ride on the elephants. During the day, the herd does what elephants do, roam, eat, and drink. So, we met them out in the bush and rode them back to camp. When we met up with the herd, they were busy trying to coax more food from their handlers (photos to scroll through):
Then we got on our elephant for a unique view of the bush (photos to scroll through):
And then, of course, more food, but this time we got to feed them.
Second Elephant Experience. This time we walked. Riding the elephant was fun and provided a great vantage point, but walking with the elephants was more appealing--to stand next to a massive, almost pre-historic animal and to walk in her footsteps. We met the herd at their home where they spend their evenings relaxing and sleeping and headed out from there (photos to scroll through):
During the walk, there were many photo opportunities, but it was hard not to focus on the baby, Naledi, born in November 2013. She is fed by her handler, Sane (who, as a result, is the subject of many of my photos; good thing he is so photogenic!), and seems to be on a constant quest to get Sane to feed her, simply adorable (some photos to scroll through).
After walking the elephants to a choice location to spend their day, we were provided the opportunity to interact with elephants--to feed and to touch them. Sitting here writing this blog, I'm reminded just how lucky we were to touch and feed an elephant as the species is killed at an alarming rate for the demand for their ivory tusks.
Third Elephant Experience. For our third and final elephant interaction, we again chose to walk. This time we walked by a water hole to see the elephants drink.
Like the last walk, we ended this walk with some food (photos to scroll through):
And, then Naledi put on a show. Keeping with the amazing service at Abu Camp, at the end of the walk there is a jug of water with towels to wipe your hands. Naledi thought it would be fun to play with the jug of water. Of course, she was right; it was fun!
Interacting with the elephants is something that we will never forget and would have been enough to put Abu Camp at the top of our list of experiences. But, the Okavango Delta does not disappoint, ever. While at Abu, we also had some of the best leopard sightings ever. We visited Abu in November, and the impalas had been busy giving birth, providing easy sustenance for the leopard, upping the leopard's activity level, and consequently our viewing pleasure (photos to scroll through):
I have been fortunate to spend many days and nights in the bush encountering animals that most people will never see in person and that others hunt for their own gain without a thought for their extinction. Before I went to Abu Camp, familiarity with elephants had softened my admiration and awe for these animals. The first time I saw an elephant in 2007 in Botswana, I got the chills. Since then, I have seen hundreds of elephants in the wild. I became almost indifferent to seeing them until our visit to Abu Camp. There may not always be hundreds of elephants for us to see in the near future, and I will never again take seeing an elephant, or any endangered animal, so casually. According to a National Geographic article from August, 2014, "[i]vory-seeking poachers have killed 100,000 African elephants in just three years . . . . During 2011 alone, roughly one of every twelve African elephants was killed by a poacher."**
I leave you with the following: Sir David Attenborough (of BBC fame) asked: "The question is, are we happy to suppose that our grandchildren may never be able to see an elephant except in a picture book?"
*FYI - This trip was planned by our wonderful travel agent, Jeanie Fundora at www.travelbeyond.com.
**Article by Brad Scriber, available at http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/08/140818-elephants-africa-poaching-cites-census.