THAI­LAND: WALK WITH GIANTS

Head to north­ern Thai­land for a jumbo-sized treat

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - Ian McIn­tosh

So­phie Ber­gin still shakes her head in dis­be­lief when she looks at her busi­ness card: Ele­phant Camp Man­ager, Anan­tara Golden Tri­an­gle Ele­phant Camp & Re­sort. It has to be a job in a mil­lion.

We are sit­ting in the el­e­gant open-air din­ing area of this lux­u­ri­ous Thai­land re­sort over­look­ing a branch of the rich brown Mekong River and, in the hazy dis­tance, Myan­mar. Be­low us, 20 res­cued ele­phants graze hap­pily in a clear­ing fringed by bright green jun­gle. “From when I was a very small child, it was al­ways my dream to work with ele­phants,” says Ber­gin, who hails from Cam­ber­well, Mel­bourne. “But I al­ways kept it to my­self. It was very much a pie-in-the-sky se­cret [that] seemed so, so im­pos­si­ble. I have al­ways dearly loved an­i­mals. I told my mother when I was three I was go­ing to be a vet. When I re­alised that was not go­ing to hap­pen, I chose bi­ol­ogy in­stead, study­ing at Deakin Univer­sity. Af­ter grad­u­a­tion I worked in ge­net­ics but it was al­ways my goal to vol­un­teer to work with ele­phants. I fig­ured if I spent a month of my life with them I would have washed that dream right out of my hair, so to speak, and I would re­turn to Mel­bourne and con­tinue my ca­reer. Ev­ery day, I spent hours re­search­ing for places where I could vol­un­teer.”

Ber­gin even­tu­ally made con­tact with John Roberts, di­rec­tor of Ele­phants, Golden Tri­an­gle Asian Ele­phant Foun­da­tion, and asked if he ac­cepted vol­un­teers. He said he did so she “jumped on a flight”. Ber­gin says her tim­ing was lucky as “John’s role was evolv­ing and tak­ing him off-site more and more” and af­ter she wrote her­self a job de­scrip­tion, she told him he should hire her. “And,” she says, laugh­ing, “he did.”

From her of­fice, which dou­bles as a work­shop, Ber­gin is in charge of all the day-to-day run­ning of the camp, which in­volves ev­ery­thing from train­ing and man­ag­ing the health of ele­phants through to plan­ning their in­ter­ac­tion with guests. She also keeps an eye on the ma­houts, mak­ing sure their daily jobs are done.

Guests en­joy a range of ac­tiv­i­ties at the re­sort but the most pop­u­lar pro­grams are Walk­ing with the Giants and the Ma­hout Ex­pe­ri­ence. The two-hour walk on tra­di­tional jun­gle tracks is even more of a treat at present thanks to the an­tics of the camp’s much-loved baby, Suki, who joins his mother on the walk. Like all young­sters, he is out for a fun time, splash­ing about, rolling in mud, slip­ping down slopes, jump­ing on a pile of sand­bags and dig­ging in the sand pit.

It is as sur­pris­ing as it is re­ward­ing to stroll be­hind these jum­bos and ob­serve their im­mense power and in­tel­li­gence. “When the mother, Boon­jan, came to us from Chi­ang Mai and got off the truck, ev­ery­one com­mented how chubby she was,” Ber­gin tells me. “The ges­ta­tion pe­riod [for ele­phants] is up to 23 months so you are never quite sure.” It turned out she was preg­nant and on March 3 last year she gave birth to Suki. He was spon­sored by Citibank Asia, which or­gan­ised a nam­ing com­pe­ti­tion that at­tracted thou­sands of en­tries. The names cho­sen by five fi­nal­ists were wrapped around pieces of su­gar­cane and he se­lected Genla, which is now his sec­ond name.

Ac­cord­ing to Ber­gin, Suki’s tal­ent for pick­ing win­ners was put to the test fur­ther dur­ing the FIFA World Cup. “We showed him two balls marked with team colours and which­ever one he kicked first was the cho­sen side to win. He did re­ally well un­til about half­way through the se­ries.”

Dur­ing the Ma­hout Ex­pe­ri­ence, guests clam­ber aboard a fully grown ele­phant and sit on its huge neck as close as pos­si­ble be­hind the ears. My lovely gi­ant is a fe- male called Lanna. The ma­hout is along­side but it’s easy to con­vince your­self that rub­bing the ele­phant’s in­side ear with your bare toes achieves the right re­sponse. Just as I am cer­tain I’m in con­trol, my four-tonne plod­der de­cides it’s time for a bath. With me hang­ing on to her ears like grim death, Lanna fills her trunk, then play­fully blows a fire hy­drant’s worth of (hap­pily) warm wa­ter di­rectly at me be­fore im­mers­ing her­self in the rich brown­coloured depths of the river.

Most of the 20 ele­phants at the camp were used in the log­ging in­dus­try, which was banned in 1989. Overnight, about 4000 were no longer needed. Ma­houts with an ele­phant that was, say, 20 years old, faced look­ing af­ter the an­i­mal for another 60 years — and an ele­phant eats a lot.

“It costs us around $US17,000 a year to feed just one,” Ber­gin says. “As the ele­phant was part of the ma­hout’s fam­ily they had to find a way to look af­ter it and in­creas­ingly the ma­hout re­sorted to beg­ging on the streets of Bangkok. Tourists would buy su­gar­cane and bananas to give to the ele­phants or pay to have pic­tures taken with them. Our char­ter has been to bring the giants back to where they be­long.

“As well as car­ing for the ele­phants, we pro­vide ev­ery­thing for the ma­houts and their fam­i­lies, in­clud­ing health and life in­sur­ance and school­ing for the chil­dren.

“We ac­tively dis­cour­age breed­ing, and when these ele­phants are gone our job will be done. For­tu­nately they live a long time so don’t ex­pect me back in a bi­ol­ogy lab any time soon.”

Just as I am con­vinced I’m in con­trol, my four­tonne plod­der de­cides it’s time for a bath

An ele­phant and ma­hout by the river at the Anan­tara Golden Tri­an­gle Ele­phant Camp & Re­sort, Chi­ang Rai, above; So­phie Ber­gin with one of her charges, top right; the re­sort pool, above right

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