Water for elephants
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.