The word ‘safari’ brings images to mind of the open savannah with vast tracts of blue sky, giraffes eating the top leaves of the tree, lions lying on a low mound observing their potential prey, and herds of zebras cantering across the plain.
However, the word safari conjures up in me a queasy feeling. To me safari means motion sickness, being showered with stream water, and oxygen deprivation.
Recently I travelled for five weeks in India and I managed to stay free of illness the whole time, probably down to luck more than anything, though drinking four litres of water a day to stay hydrated is definitely a good policy for any visitor. But somehow, as I crossed the border into Nepal, I had a feeling that my luck would change. The first inkling I had that I might be right came because I hadn’t realized that Nepal is actually 15 minutes ahead of Indian time. My first day was spent assuming all the clocks were wrong and that seeing the airport bus disappearing into the distance and having shop doors locked and bolted in my face were unfortunate coincidences.
On my second day, with my watch set correctly after checking with the hotel concierge, I headed to Chitwan National Park to go on safari. This was going to be a special day spent on the back of an elephant looking for rhinos. However, my luck was about to change. There was a shortage of elephants and so we tourists had to go four per elephant plus the mahout on the animal’s back. In other words, there was a tourist at each corner of the elephant, not that our animal seemed to mind as he was a large beast with the most enormous expressive green eyes. Our mahout welcomed us on board his elephant, whose name was Major. We were given our pre-flight instructions, which essentially were to hang on and make sure that we didn’t fall off. We had to keep our feet braced against a rope hanging from the animal’s saddle and we all sat with another rope looped around us. I was sitting over Major’s back right leg with an excellent view of his tail.
After we settled down, the mahout shouted “Major Go” and the elephant departed in search of rhinos. It quickly became apparent that the elephant was very heavy-footed and every foot placement was a shock to the system. He also had one leg that seemed shorter than the others so that he had a rolling gait, which may seem funny but it meant that not only was I being shocked but there was a circular motion which gradually induced motion sickness in me.
After 10 minutes Major felt hungry and so stopped and ate a large bush in three trunkfuls. Thankfully, my queasiness eased as Major ate brunch. The driver informed us that Major usually ate around 100 pounds of vegetative matter per day, a very high-fibre diet. Then we were off again and the rolling and shocking started once more.
Soon Major was thirsty, so he headed for a small stream and sucked up a ten yard stretch in a matter of seconds. As an encore he raised his trunk vertically and blew out the last two yards of water so that we tourists were treated to our own mini-monsoon. He trumpeted slightly. He was happy; we weren’t.
Major was off again. After 5 minutes he stopped once more and this time he raised his tail vertically. What goes in must eventually come out especially with a high-fibre diet. The stench was horrible though I managed to hold my breath for the whole time. However, Major stayed in the same spot after finishing as though he was savouring the occasion and so I had to breathe in this horrible smell. There wasn’t much oxygen around and I began to feel sick; luckily Major moved and some fresh air entered my lungs saving me…for the moment.
The mahout spotted a rhino and off we went at a trot, with the circular motion now giving me a headache. Major stopped abruptly five yards from the rhino, who’d had his horn cut off by the park authorities to save him from poachers. Major was wary of the rhino who sniffed the air suspiciously before continuing to eat.
After 10 minutes admiring the rhino we trotted away and entered a jungle clearing. The air was perfectly still. Major stopped. A deep gurgling came from inside the elephant and he lifted his tail again. This time he broke wind for longer than I could hold my breath. I kept glancing at his tail, hoping it would go down, but it stayed vertical. Eventually, I had to breathe in and the methane entered my lungs making me gag. I was suffering from oxygen deprivation. Major’s tail went down but he stood still in the clearing, enjoying the moment.
My luck has taken a huge turn for the worse, I thought, being gassed on the back of an elephant – who would have thought it possible? I had avoided illnesses caused by microscopic organisms on holiday and here I was being made ill by the largest land animal in the world. The irony wasn’t totally lost on me as my head lolled on my chest as we headed back to our base. I felt nauseous, had a bad headache, and knew I was going to be sick. I crawled off Major, smiled wanly at the mahout, and almost made it back to my cabin.
The doctor came to see me and thought I might have cholera. He ignored my weak excuses that I had been gassed on the back of an elephant; he said being slightly delirious was a sign of possible cholera and told me to stay in bed for the rest of the day.
The following day I was fine but when I was offered another safari I politely declined.
So, if you ever go on safari on an elephant do sit at the front and if possible measure its legs just to make sure they are all the same length.