You don't even know you are holding your breath as the elephant, on whose back you are perched, slowly browses through the bush, brushing aside lesser trees and towering beside a group of lions feasting on last night's kill. You can see the glint of still-wet blood in the early morning light.
© Elephant handler, Chris Baeti, with his charge, at Abu Camp. Okavango
Please Note: Elephant Back Safaris have been banned in Botswana as of January 2017. Please see alternative Elephant interaction and walking with Elephant safari packages
Sounds of bone snapping and low growls for dominance fill the air. You can't be closer without being part of it! But breathe you must and slowly tension ebbs as you realise how safe you are. Comfortably seated within a sturdy padded metal framework, securely bound to your elephant
and high above the ground, there is no danger. Despite missing the protection of a vehicle, you quickly realise that wild animals are unconcerned at the close approach of these familiar leviathans and the presence of humans mounted upon them seems quite unnoticed. The creatures you ride, the mahouts who ride them with you and the men who oversee it all, are among the most highly trained of their kind
. In the event of an emergency, a competent rifleman is ready.
On safari, a maximum of 10 guests
travel two to an adult elephant with one 'spare' and a hoard of youngsters trailing along behind. At deceptive speed your private herd passes through glorious open woodland, skirting meadows of golden grass or, like a fleet at sea in elegant line ahead, strides majestically across broad, open plains. In the wet areas the herd will pick its way along well trodden trails
beneath the lily covered surface whilst the youngsters, as youngsters do, succumb to the fun of unlimited shallow water.
A ride begins while the day is cool but you will have been woken early. The coming dawn is announced by the mournful distant hooting of the ground hornbill and, seconds later, by the busy cackle, outside your tent, of an army of francolins
. This seems to usher in a chorus of robins, shrikes, babblers, starlings, bulbuls and a dozen others. Once the fish eagle throws back his strident call, there is no peace and rising for the day for a light breakfast and a short walk to your elephant
is the only option.
Comfortably atop your mount, game viewing takes on another dimension
. Not only can you see further and more easily but the game is not disturbed and very close approaches are possible. Strolling with giraffe, looking down on impala, laughing at the antics of the warthog and seeing a whole range of familiar animals: hartebeest, wildebeest, kudu, buffalo, lion and leopard from a new and striking perspective, is breathtaking.
Set all of this in the world's largest inland delta and a sense of the magic begins to emerge. With its myriad streams of sparkling water, its emerald islands, age-old trees, deep lagoons and towering reeds, the Okavango itself is exceptional. Add elephants and close encounters with the wild
and you have a sensual experience that is far beyond common-place; a symphony of sight, sound and scent. Something surreal takes place as the light chill of early day dissipates before the warming sun: the smell of wild sage and warm dust seduce the senses; endless bird calls; the murmuring of mahouts; creaking leather; the swish of grass and leaves on the elephant's hide
, and the nearly soundless fall of its great pads upon the soft sand all make for a languid lullaby.
A safari like this appeals at a number of different levels
. Firstly, of course, there are the elephants themselves. Riding them is one thing, walking beside them and being 'with' them, is quite another. There is no compulsion to do so but, with the guide's blessing, it is possible to walk with and among the elephants.
Standing between them, surrounded by them, being touched by them, scented by them, being nudged and gently pushed at by them, feeling their curiosity and their trust, is to feel a oneness
at an emotional and visceral level which is immensely elevating and yet, somehow, disquieting. There is a sense of reaching back, in some strange way to common origins and a shared heritage.
Abu is the biggest male. At one stage I found he had placed his tusks about me so that I stood between them, looking up into his cavernous mouth as the 'fingers' of his trunk explored my head and neck and I gently touched his tongue. It was a moment of intense feeling. I was reminded of the young Ian Douglas Hamilton with his penchant for walking among wild elephants
and I knew at once the source of his passion for these creatures. I felt it too.
At a different level, beyond the emotional appeal, there is plenty to satisfy the need for creature comforts. The new Abu's Camp opened early in 1997 and is magnificent.
The architect, Paul Munnik, has done things to tents that have never been dreamt of by others. In his deft hand, they have become sumptuous dwelling places in canvas and wood. Beams with soaring sweeps carry aloft great swathes of cloth in shapes that recall the curving roofs of Asia
or the scalloped line of Sydney's Opera House. Vertical walls, windows, brass baths, four-poster beds, fabulous lounge suites, oriental carpets and antique furniture destroy any remaining links with what we used to call safari tents.
All six tents nestle beneath large trees
in thick foliage but peek out through the branches onto an open space that, for most of the year is filled with water, and even in the driest times contains large pools.
The central gathering area is little different. Here, between the massive trunks of six giant trees under a canopy of fig and mahogany,
a series of hand-crafted, blood-red teak terraces rise in splendid progression to the central structure. Once again under canvas and wood you will find lounges, a dining room, writing desk and bar.
Abu's camp is not all elephants and perhaps the most important point is that there is so much to do. There are game drives in open safari vehicles
during the day and at night. When there is sufficient water, you can pole the surrounding Delta in native dug-out canoes (mekoro) or, if you prefer, take guided walks through the woodlands and along the margins of the floodplain. Often, time is spent watching some of the incredible variety of bird life which this most diverse of habitats attracts.
This pristine wilderness is yours to enjoy. And enjoy it you will for, apart from the sheer professionalism of the operation, three things set this safari above most: intimate contact with elephant; escape from the unimaginative; and the magnificence of the unique Okavango Delta.
Although he has traveled extensively through southern Africa, this was Mike Main's closest encounter with elephants
. Mike is the author of two books, Zambezi, Journey of a River, and Kalahari, Life's Variety in Dune and Delta.
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