Wa­ter for ele­phants

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - DAR­REN MOYLE

RY­DALMERE, NSW VOL­UN­TEER tourism has never been high on my travel to-do list and it is my bet­ter half who books a trip for us to help out at Ele­phant Na­ture Park, a sanc­tu­ary and res­cue cen­tre in the prov­ince of Chi­ang Mai, in Thai­land’s far north.

Al­though ENP stresses its mantra of ‘‘ride bikes not ele­phants’’, there are am­ple op­por­tu­ni­ties for vis­i­tors and vol­un­teers to feed, bathe and walk along­side th­ese gen­tle gi­ants in a unique eco­tourism ex­pe­ri­ence that has earned world­wide ac­claim and cel­e­brates its 10th an­niver­sary this year.

Freely roam­ing ele­phants greet us when we ar­rive at ENP’s 800ha sanc­tu­ary, which is set in a river­ine val­ley. The un­du­la­tions of its bor­der­ing moun­tain ranges are vaguely rem­i­nis­cent, at least to my eye, of the shape of a herd of ele­phants on the march.

Five jum­bos are guided to us by a ma­hout and we soon learn that an ‘‘elie’’ is the cool slang to use around here; this group still bears scars from years in danger­ous work en­vi­ron­ments, such as log­ging in Thai­land’s rain­forests. Some have been wounded by land­mines; oth­ers blinded from re­peated ex­po­sure to cam­era flashes. It’s an ex­tra­or­di­nary feel­ing to hang out with th­ese five-tonne crea­tures, pat them and hand over a ba­nana (or 50) — we are told each needs up to 300kg of food a day.

We head over to the sanc­tu­ary’s main meet­ing place, which has been built with long porches that dou­ble as feed­ing sta­tions for the res­i­dents — who are nois­ily trum­pet­ing their pres­ence. We­hand-feed the elies a va­ri­ety of fruits and take our lunch from the buffet set up for vol­un­teers and the scores of day tourists. Then we head to the river to help give the elies a bath. The best tip I have if shar­ing fast-mov­ing wa­ter with elies is to stay up­river or risk be­ing tor­pe­doed by dung.

To be frank, at this point I still want an ele­phant ride. But later in the day we are shown a doc­u­men­tary on the meth­ods many Thai vil­lagers have tra­di­tion­ally used to do­mes­ti­cate ele­phants so tourists can take rides, and they are in­deed quite cruel.

ENP wants to end this prac­tice; the vi­sion is for ele­phants not to be re­garded as per­form­ers but to be re­spected and loved as the amaz­ing sur­vivors they are. Send your 400-word con­tri­bu­tion to Fol­low the Reader: travel@ theaus­tralian.com.au. Pub­lished columnists re­ceive a 35cm x 27cm x 4cm Cather­ine Manuell Lap­top Com­pen­dium ($79), which also fits iPads and in­cludes a notepad, stor­age pock­ets and pen holder. More: cather­ine manuellde­sign.com.

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