Above: A bonding moment with my girl, Mae Mua Tong
I have always wanted an elephant. But, with condo living as it is, it seemed a bit, well, impractical. So, I leapt at the opportunity to have my very own elephant for a day at the Patara Elephant Farm. Located within the beautiful Hang Dong Valley, and surrounded by mountains, the farm is a mere 30 minute drive south of Chaing Mai, Thailand.
“The purpose of the farm is to Rescue, Rehabilitate and Reproduce,” said Pat Trungprkan at our orientation meeting. Pat and his family own the farm and run it entirely on the proceeds of the ‘Elephant Owner for a Day’ program. No donations are solicited or taken and there are no kitchy souvenir stands or food hawkers. All visitors are welcome, including children and the disabled, but limited to perhaps 16 per day.
“We currently have fifty five elephants and, in the last ten years, we’ve had eighteen babies and no fatalities. This year alone we have five babies.” Pat continued. “In just a moment, you will meet your elephant. Each elephant has been matched to you based on your perceived personality.” The staff had had time to assess us – we had already spend half an hour with a group of elephants and their babies down by a stream – to get us acclimatized. “You will spend the rest of the day caring for your elephant the way a mahout would.”
he first thing we learned to do as an owner was to bond with our elephant. Mine was Mae Mua Tong, the matriarch of her herd and she had her two month old daughter with her. We learned the various commands necessary to work with our elephant. Before feeding her, I had to know if she was relaxed and friendly or defensive and hostile. If her ears flapped at least once a minute and her tail was swishing gently, she was relaxed. If her ears were fanned out stiffly and her forelegs planted, she was defensive. Swish, swish. Okay, everyone is relaxed.
Then I learned how to tell if she was healthy. Elephants don’t have tear ducts so I had to check that the tear tracks down her cheeks were even and one wasn’t more copious or different from the other. All good.
It was time to groom and water her before riding her down to the waterfall to be bathed properly. Grooming is done with a feather duster-like contraption made of twigs and leaves. All grit has to be removed before riding so it isn’t ground into the elephant’s skin. And elephants get gritty during their frequent dust baths. I gave the command to ask Mae to lie down and then tell her to stand up.
Now, it was up and onto her head. No riding in a upholstered box – that chafes the elephants and hurts their backs. Instead, we rode like a mahout, barefoot and as close onto her head as possible. Getting up was a challenge. Some managed to step gracefully on an outstretched foot or trunk, but not moi. I needed a leg up from not one but two mahouts! But, up I got.
I’m going to tell you right now – sitting on top of an elephant’s neck is nothing like sitting horseback and felt much as I imagine sitting atop a bristly Volkswagon would. There was nothing but a rope around Mae’s middle (behind me) to hold onto. My first thought was, ‘I’ve already broken my neck once. What the hell am I thinking here?!’
“To steer her left, nudge her right ear, to steer her right, nudge her left ear.” We were told the command for ‘STOP!’ as well. I figured I might need that one. “Lean back going downhill and forward going uphill.”
Coming up Next: The Lady AND the Tiger.
Note: I'm moving to a weekly blog now. See you on Monday, March 31