(Nat) For as long as I can remember, elephants have been my 'thing'. When you get asked the standard child hood questions, 'what is your favourite colour?', 'what is your favourite food?' etc, my reply to 'what is your favourite animal?' was always an instantaneous and emphatic 'elephants'!I had only ever seen them in zoos but I was fascinated by them and would love to read books or watch programmes about them.This love was only fuelled further by my first real encounter with elephants in 2001, when Mum and I had an elephant ride in Bali.Since then, I have looked into all sorts of 'elephant experiences' in Asia, and Nick and I have chatted several times about the possibility of doing one I had found in India.In honesty, Laos had never come into the equation and, in my apparent elephant ignorance, I had absolutely no idea that the country was home to so many wild elephants.'Laos' itself actually means 'land of a million elephants' so I really shouldn't have been surprised when we were bombarded with elephant camp trips on arriving in Luang Prabang.After a lot of internet research, we opted to do a 3 day mahout training course with a company called All Lao experiences.'Mahout' is the lao word for an elephant handler and I think I would almost have paid whatever it cost to take part in the experiences it promised.This was it, a chance to live the dream.
When we arrived at the eco-lodges built to house visitors to the experience, a standard elephant ride was our first treat, in the howdah (seat on the elephant's back) just to get us started.The ride took us through jungle and rivers and we were so surprised how graceful the elephant was; slow and steady and definitely soporific.Later that day we were taught all of the elephant commands we needed to get us started (might try using these in the classroom on our return!) and it was off to test our skills.
Having met my elephant, Kam-dee (means 'nice girl' - just like her rider then!?!), I was in love.She was just so incredibly beautiful.Climbing on however, turned out to be an awful lot harder than it looked.Having been pushed and shoved by the mahouts and by basically launching myself at full speed over her neck, I was up and bloody hell it was high!! Nick had similar fun and games mounting his elephant, especially as his was a bit older and couldn't lie down to make it easier for him (again, much like her rider perhaps?!?) so he had to clamber up her leg with a nod towards spiderman's capabilities!We trekked in the jungle again, very quickly realising how sore our bums would get with three days of this ahead, then it was bath time!What an experience.It is almost not possible to describe how much elephants love the water.Their cheeky and playful side comes out and you get very very wet!The command 'boun boun' was much in use, as this was their favourite…squirting water over their head at their rider!They needed a bloody good scrub after getting dusty in the trees so a good scrub behind the ears was in order before leading them into the jungle to be tethered up for feeding overnight.Elephants eat 250kg of food every day and take in 150 litres of water so they are high maintenance to say the least, but they only sleep for 2 hours a night so it is the perfect time to let them loose for a forage!Day two had an early start, retrieving our elephants from the jungle at 7am for their early morning bath and for their breakfast…all before we could have ours!Then Nick and I were lucky enough to have the whole day, just the two of us, trekking on the elephants with our mahouts and our guide and picnicking in the forest (see photo of the mu-hassive water spider Nick ate!) before yet more bath time!Day three was our final chance to spend time with our elephants before kayaking 15 miles down the river from some waterfalls we visited for lunch.Fortunately, we have lived to tell the tale, having capsized amidst some rather rocky rapids!If you haven't got a sense of adventure though, you've got no place going travelling!
Spending so much time with our elephants in the way we did, getting to know them and see how well they are looked after, enjoying a life that really is the closest thing to being truly wild they could hope for (especially given the immense danger from poachers in the wild and their abuse and exploitation in the logging industry) was such an immense privilege.For a few days, they let us become part of their world and, make no mistake, it is their world, not their owner's, not their mahout's, not the tourists', it is theirs.They are majestic and beautiful but they often remind you, as they get spooked by cattle, or have a bit of an argument about who is going to get in the water first, no matter how they live, their instincts are still wild and they are all the more incredible for it.As you are submerged in the river, not caring that a huge lump of elephant crap is floating past your face, and you are surrounded by ten other elephants all playing, squirting and making lots of noise, you realise how powerful they are and also how gentle and how social.They are cheeky, they are hungry and they are naughty; they play, they sulk and they chat to each other; they make you respectful, they make you humble and, my God, they make you laugh.They give meaning to the word 'awesome' and deserve every bit of protection their country, and the world, can offer them.For me, a dream came true for me this week…suggestions for a new dream on a postcard please!!