David Whitley goes giraffe and rhino-spotting from atop an elephant
Ahead of us, Michael plunges into the trees. His three startled riders try and dodge the thorns as he manages to uproot an entire acacia bush. “Takeaway food,” says Elias in front of me. “Michael always gets his takeaway food.” Michael, oblivious to the havoc he’s causing, wraps his trunk around the light snack and marches onwards. It is one thing to see an elephant on safari in Africa – but it’s altogether something different to hop on top of one and lumber through the sunburnt countryside. Suddenly the wildebeest and antelopes look a little puny from up on high.
Of the six elephants in our herd, Michael is also the one who likes to threaten the rhinos. But on the flip side, he does a cracking job of playing with and looking after Titimalo. The nine month old super-cute elephant calf isn’t even his, but Michael seems to have taken on a surrogate uncle role. Such unexpected diversions aside, it’s beaming smiles all round for the novice riders. We’re all sat in imperious positions atop the elephants as we plod through the Letsatsing Game Park, and behind every bush is another giraffe, warthog, impala or zebra.
The Letsatsing Game Park isn’t technically part of the Pilanesberg Game Reserve that most people come to this part of the world for. It is privately owned, and there are no big cats to spook the elephants, but the big beasts of the Pilanesberg are just over the fence. And don’t we know it when a dominant bull elephant stares out our herd from the other side of the electric fence. Elias steers us away, commanding our lumbering steed to “get over”. It means turn right, and is one of the 36 commands that the elephants learn during their two year training period.
Not that the one telling them to stop eating has much effect. By the end of our journey, each of the five jumbos has a satisfying haul of foliage with them. Which, given that we get to feed them afterwards, is just plain greedy. Hand feeding an elephant is a rather bizarre experience. You can do it one of two ways – risking your trembling paw by putting the food directly into their mouth, or waiting for them to turn their trunk around so you can put din-dins into that. Either way, they seem grateful, and seem to give us a wave after feeding time is over and they’re released back onto the grasslands.
By David Whitley