LST-Part Eight: Walking with the elephants

Knysa - another gorgeous location, another chance to take the wrong turn. Certainly, by the time I arrived, I was exhausted. It had been a very long day of driving from Port Elizabeth, and the last thing I needed was to get lost.

Somewhere along the way, the paper with my hand-drawn map (always more reliable than my car's GPS), had fallen to the floor, but I thought I remembered which turn to take. The reader will no doubt see that sentence, sigh, and shake their head despairingly. I knew it was a left turn onto Howard Street. And it was, except that Howard takes a variety of unexpected turns, which I hadn't noticed on the map. After asking directions from locals, I pulled over and called the hostess of Pumula Lodge. She asked where I was, told me it was too difficult to explain, and suggested I head a little further along that same road and ask at a B&B - Knysna Country House - where she knew the owners. I follow directions better than I follow a map, apparently, and found the B&B.  A woman came out to the gate, and I asked her how to get to Pumulo. She'd never heard of the place. I asked if she would be so kind as to call them, and get directions. She couldn't do that, either. I don't know if she was just unhelpful, or really didn't know how to use the phone, but being in the hospitality industry, one would imagine those two qualities would be foremost in mind. So, exasperated AND exhausted at this point, I called Pumulo, and this time she gave me clear instructions on how to get to her. Howard, then a left and immediate right jog. Relief flooding as I arrived at the gate.

It's not a cheap B&B. The room was simple, basic, with a lovely balcony overlooking the lovely garden, with hadedas and assorted birds stalking worms, and a view over the trees towards the Knysna Heads. Only the 3 basic SABC TV channels on offer, which made the evening spent lying on my bed rather boring. Cheaper B&B's usually do have all the available channels, so if one is not exploring the neighborhood, at least one can watch a re-run of Madam Secretary while drifting off to sleep. I understood why the people who checked in after me filled the communal fridge with copious amounts of booze.

leave only memories. taking this picture caused me to almost lose my balance and land on some sharp rocks. knysna.

leave only memories. taking this picture caused me to almost lose my balance and land on some sharp rocks. knysna.

I was out too early for breakfast the following morning, as I had the long drive to Plettenberg Bay, and I anticipated "rush hour traffic". The traffic was easy flowing, and I reached the Elephant Sanctuary at The Crags in perfect time. Welcomed by a former Zimbabwean guide, who was exceedingly warm and hospitable, and decided to treat me as his favored guest, we waited for the other parties to arrive before he walked us down to the enclosure.

I had always wanted to get up close to an elephant, and in doing the research to which place would be the best, I had come across the Knysna Elephant Park (KEP), also dba as "Elephants of Eden". The NSPCA, not known for being litigious largely because they simply don't have the funds to create nuisance lawsuits, had filed charges against the KEP in 2014 after photographic evidence of the most horrific abuse came to light. The photographs are still available to see online, but I urge you to practice some self control over your anger if you look at them. The treatment follows the standard human practice, followed in countries around the world, of breaking the animal's spirit. The lack of understanding of an elephant's anatomy and psychology has resulted in so many horrific abuses: from chaining, bullhooks, and other forms of torture, to tourists harshly scrubbing the animal and riding on its neck or back. The clear evidence of abuse by KEP was fully and roundly denied by owner, Lisette Withers, who claimed the NSPCA manufactured the story to get donations. While it seemed at one point the story was going away (to rumours that KEP had paid their way out of the lawsuit), recent reports as of November 2015, indicate that it is ongoing, and the NSPCA is not giving up.

The story was front and centre in my mind as we approached the elephants, and my guide, Xolani, explained where they came from, and how two of the ladies had possibly lost the tips of their trunks (likely poacher's snares). The one bull kept his distance, and the one female, who hated humans for reasons unknown but can be imagined, also stayed away, although very curious. The other three ladies ambled forward sociably with their guides. I noticed the guides had bags of feed around their necks, and everything they asked of the elephants was rewarded with a snack. In later conversation with my host, he explained that the abusive methods had been the way things were done, but he had managed to persuade the owner to try something different: instead of abusing the animals, reward them when they learn natural behavior on command. Nothing was taught that was outside of what an elephant does in the wild, but they learn to do it on command.

I was relieved that only one woman in the group had booked a ride, but I wished afterwards, when the guide was giving us a lesson in elephant anatomy, that he'd pointed out how damaging riding an elephant - whether on its neck (the better option) or back (terribly painful and harmful to the animal) - really is. One point to note: the ride was very short. I doubt she was on it for more than 5 minutes, which is darn sight better than some places that will do entire, long safaris, who place a heavy chair on the animal's neck, plus the human weight, and expect the elephant to endure carrying hundreds of pounds without injuring itself. One of the most common ailments found in captive elephants are sores where the chair/saddle is placed for long periods of time, as well as where the strap rubs against the delicate skin under its tail, as well as muscular strain and damage to leg joints. If you are ever in close proximity to an elephant, watch whether it rocks from side to side. No wild elephant does that, and it is a sign of extreme stress.

My guide placed me with one of the girls, and her handler showed me how to hold her tipless trunk. We started to walk, taking care to match her pace, as my hand got snottier and muddier with each step. The quiet amble through a wooded glade and into a clearing was all caught on video and my camera, as X-man decided to appoint himself as my personal photographer. We sat on stumps as the trainers put the heffies through their paces: including how the tipless girls cleared their trunks of excess dust, as they were unable to separate it as undamaged elephants are able to do. A large flap of the ears created a breeze, and we were invited to a closer inspection of the beast. One of the common misunderstandings about elephants is that they have thick skin, when in fact, it's rather thin, and very sensitive. The tourists scrubbing elephants in some Asian countries probably aren't aware that they are causing severe pain, but because of the abuse metered out in the training process, the animal is taught to endure the pain without complaint.

up close and personal. really personal.

up close and personal. really personal.

really, really personal

really, really personal

I collected my video of the experience, wished X-man well, and headed back to Knysna. It was a gorgeous day, so my first stop was at Knysna Heads. Now, this may come across as sour grapes, but here's a message to the wealthy: just because you can build a house somewhere, doesn't mean you should. Spoiling the incredible surroundings of the Heads with your little MacMansion does not look good on you. I only stayed a couple of minutes, snapped some pics that avoided the tourists, and made my way down the narrow roads to the bottom of the Head. My habit of not carrying cash has to end. I scraped some money together, including finding a $1 bill, and handed what I could to the vendor who sold his beautiful stone carvings. He wanted R150. I managed to give him less than half that. I tried to walk away, embarrassed that he insisted on me taking the little sculpture that I clearly been drawn to, but he was having none of it. If I gave him enough to buy lunch, he was happy. A charming man from Zimbabwe -if anyone goes there, please give him the asking price to make up for my lack of coin?

I headed back to Pumulo, and downloaded photos, caught up on emails, and then made my way to the pool, where my minimal social skills came in handy for the duration of a glass of wine. Then, back to my room where a dearth of entertainment awaited. The next day would be another challenging drive through the Swartberg Mountains and Karoo to Matjiesfontein.

Where - guess what happened?

Do I really need to tell you I got lost? Really?