Herd of elephants run toward the camera from the bush behind

Just Say No to the Ride

Since we were unable to go to Johannesburg and Kruger National Park due to my rehabilitation needs and the girls’ school schedule, we needed to find an alternative animal park somewhere else to satisfy one last fix of the African wildlife. We decided on Addo Elephant Park, which is about 45 km from Port Elizabeth and seemed to fiBaby elephant reaches for water at a waterhole standing at the mama's feett nicely into our plans to drive along the Garden Route and stay overnight in one of the costal towns in the Eastern Cape. Addo is a national park a little over 1,600 square kilometers in size. Zebra, lion, Cape Buffalo, rhino and of course elephants are among the large animals you can see in the park. Hippo also live there but are found in an area of the park only accessible by 4-wheel drive. We heard that because of its size it is almost guaranteed that you will see all the animals. Unfortunately, we still missed the elusive lions but watched as a herd of about 15 elephants came charging out of the bush to drink at the water hole where we had front row seats. Our favorite character was the baby bouncing (and occasionally stumbling) alongside the mother with its trunk flopping around uncontrollably and exuding pure joy (actually we read that baby elephants have little control of their trunk for the first 2-3 weeks of life).

While planning our route, I read about Knysna (pronounced with the K silent) and Plettenburg Bay two coastal cities close to Port Elizabeth who are regaled for their beauty. I booked accommodation in Plettenburg or “Plett” as you would say if you were a local. I was also told to check out Knysna Elephant Park or KEP, which is located between Knysna and Plett. It is a privately owned elephant rescue program that also allows tourists to walk with, feed and ride the elephants. According to the website and the elephant caretakers we spoke to while there, KEP is a rescue sanctuary and their prime goal is to care for injured elephants and provide a safe haven for elephants from other game parks who are threatened for one reason or another, such as an aggressive older rhino who is on the attack. Once the elephants are safe and nursed back to health, they are reintroduced into larger, private game parks. These rescue elephants never see tourists. The elephants that tourists meet are the nine that make up their “resident herd”. One of the trainers was keen to make a differentiation between an elephant sanctuary and elephant park whose prime goal, according to him, is for tourism and profit.

Even though the option to ride the elephants was enticing, Jacob and I knew right away that we did not want to support this practice. Abusive training protocols in Southeast Asia has gained much publicity in recent years.  From my research, I learned that elephants are not built to be pack animals and their backs cannot tolerate very much weight. I also read that many elephant tours in Southeast Asia use saddles perched in the middle of the elephant’s back and the elephants are forced to carry one to two people on long rides for up to 12 hours per day with little water. There was a story in April 2016 of an elephant at Angkor Wat in Cambodia that collapsed and died of exhaustion.  The practice in Southeast Asia to train elephants for tourism as well as perform pack-animal work for farmers is called Phajaan or “the crush”. Baby elephants are stolen from their mothers and undergo this abuse and torture to break them of their “wildness”. Smugglers tranquilize the baby elephant so they can transport it and often they will shoot and kill other adult elephants that linger over the collapsed baby. The “trainers” will submit the baby to isolation, starve them of food and water and use bullhooks to beat and prod the elephant into submission. In Northern Thailand, there are now a few parks whose mission is to rescue and protect abused elephants.  These elephants are already desensitized to humans and the park allows tourists to get up close and personal but not ride them.

Knysna Elephant Park does not use saddles to transport the riders. Instead, they use blankets and riders sit at the front of the elephant’s body above their shoulders where their backs are stronger. Additionally, the rides there are only 15-20 minutes long, which is more tolerable for the elephants. However, I still did not want to support riding elephants even if their way was more “humane”. As soon as the girls saw the other tourists getting ready to ride, they challenged our ability to hold steadfast to our decision with immediate tears and protests about how we are unfair and horrible parents. However, we are not parents who cave easily just to keep our children from experiencing disappointment. You know me, I of course think it is valuable for kids to experience the breadth of their emotions as well as understand that the world does not need to bend to their every whim. That is how they will learn that they have the strength to tolerate tough emotions and make responsible choices. Actually, this event gave us the opportunity to talk with them about the controversy and why we were choosing to walk instead of ride.Jacob and Quinn walk with their elephant ahead of Mackenzie and Amy's elephant

Our walk with the elephants was magical. I did not envy the riders one bit because all they did was sit on top holding onto the elephant’s trainer. They missed out on the relationship we created with our walking partners, Nandi and Thandi (mother and daughter). The trainer who was walking with Mackenzie and me told us that Nandi and Thandi have never been willing to accept riders and the trainers are of the belief that they will not force an elephant to do a job they do not want to do. As we walked, we got to look into their eyes, put our hand on their warm, rough skin and feel the wiry hairs on their bodies and trunks. By the end of the experience the girls had come around and understood that this experience was just as good if not better than a ride.

Still, after our walk, the memory that the trainers at KEP all carried bullhooks floated to the front of my mind. I started thinking more about elephant abuse and the training required for elephants to allow people on their backs. I wondered if KEP’s stated method of positive reinforcement was really all they use and if so, why the need for bullhooks? I watched how the trainer, walking with Mackenzie and me, used his hook to sort of push Nandi back into her line; he also used a strong voice like you would with a dog so maybe the bullhook is like a leash. I have an undergraduate degree in Psychology in which I learned all about positive reinforcement and how to get rats and pigeons to do tricks for me using food as a reward. I imagine this is what they do with the elephants as well but is this really humane? If elephants backs are not built to carry weight why do we think it is ok to put two adults up there even if their agreement is a bucket of fruit at the end. I then started to wonder about how much poking and prodding the elephants endure so that people can walk next to them? Is it really any better? I decided to ask Google about elephant abuse in Africa and guess which “sanctuary” came up in the feed? The owners of KEP also own and an elephant park called Elephants of Eden. In 2014 the owners were charged with and admitted to cruel and abusive treatment of baby elephants at Elephants of Eden but denied that the practice also occurs at KEP. Click to read for your self.

There are many businesses and organizations in the world that use animals in captivity to bring in money and raise awareness. It is pretty damn cool to be that close to an elephant or pet a cheetah but is my life going to be any less full if I just see these animals from a distance instead?  Is keeping animals in captivity the right method to bring about awareness and conservation?  Would people care as much about endangered species and land conservation if they didn’t get to see the animals in person and develop an empathetic connection?

Sally, the matriarch of the herd
Sally, the matriarch of the herd
These are multilayered, difficult questions and I really don’t have a clear answer. However, after all this research, what I do know is that if an elephant park or sanctuary offers elephant rides, it is best to steer clear.  These parks are keeping their “resident herds” well stocked, so to speak, which means that when a baby like Thandi is born at the park, they are “training” her early to be willing to allow people to walk and/ or ride her. True sanctuaries, like the ones in Northern Thailand, are rescuing elephants from establishments like these and offering a place for them to retire and have a better life not further abuse and hard labor.

family of warthogs

Nine in Namibia

On the day before my oldest daughter’s birthday I laid in our rooftop tent, pen in hand trying to capture our first couple of days in Africa. I realized while I wrote that at the same time nine years ago, I was in the 20-somethingish hour of labor. I try not to remember too much about how many actual hours it took from the start of the first contraction to when she finally entered the world. It was many, way more than 20. Stubborn that girl, plain stubborn. Along with that stubbornness, however, she also possesses knowledge of who she is and what she wants. It’s all I want for her; to know thy self. Isn’t that the key that once found, will unlock the world? The best weapon we can have against the meanness and pressure of adolescence and high school is to know how to listen to our own opinions and have a strong sense of belonging, especially in our own skin. My job as her Mama is to help her continue to grow in self-awareness as well as cultivate an ability to advocate for herself. It is because of that self-advocacy that we arrived, nine years later, in Namibia, Africa.

My parents took us up on our suggestion to join this leg of our trip. We met them in Frankfurt and then flew the ten hours to Namibia together. The reunion was so sweet; once Quinn spotted her Popa at the gate, she flew down the airport hallway and crashed into his open arms. Mackenzie landed in her Omi’s arms and was immediately covered in a thousand kisses. I would do that scene over and over if I could.

My own desire to go to Africa started when I was Mackenzie’s age.  I watched movies, read books and looked cravingly at photo after photo of this continent until well into my adulthood. I began the sales pitch to my parents back in July; enthusiastically painting my vision of Africa for them as we sat around the campfire at our favorite family camp spot. To further entice them into joining, Mackenzie happily added that Africa was her chosen place to celebrate her birthday. My parents gave me my appreciation and need for outdoor adventures, which I hope I am also passing on to my daughters. My mom loves to tell the story of camping with my dad when she was eight months pregnant. How she fished with my sister on her hip and me in her belly; got sick on hotdogs and marshmallows. How my dad dug a hole underneath the tent with the hope that this little streak of genius would allow her to comfortably sleep while resting her heavy, Baby-Amy-filled belly in the hole (didn’t work, but what a guy). I remember my excitement at receiving my first backpacking pack, baseball hat and fishing pole for Christmas when I was ten. I logged many a wilderness mile with that pack on my back, hat on my head and pole in my hand. What a gift to add a camping safari in Africa to my bank of outdoor adventure memories with them and for my kids to have those memories with them too.

Our research and planning landed us on a self-drive tour through the country complete with 4 x 4 trucks supplied with camping gear and two-man tents harnessed to their roofs. The girls were giddy when they saw the pictures of the trucks, enamored with the idea of how the tents open up on the roofs and a ladder drops to the ground for them to climb into their kingdom.

white 4 x 4 truck with popped up tents on the roof
No snakes or millipedes up here!

The eleven-day route took us from Windhoek, the capital and largest city in Namibia, north to Etosha National Park, west to Damaraland and then to the coastal town of Swakopmund, south to Sesriem and the red sand dunes of Sossusvlei then finally to the Kalahari Desert before heading back to Windhoek.

The time change and driving conventions were the first challenges to overcome when we arrived in Windhoek. As we ventured out to find groceries for our trip, I watched through finger-covered-eyes as Jacob wrestled his brain into driving on the left side of the road while simultaneously yelling unheard warnings to my Dad to, “stay left!” . The travel agent through Cardboard Box who arranged our trip, knew what she was doing when she booked our first night in Windhoek at a bed and breakfast.  After our heart stopping tour of the city, we relaxed on the veranda with a beer while jet lag seeped into our bodies.  My mom and I suppressed secret giggles as my Dad lost his battle, his neck too tired to hold up his head.

Once we got on the road the next morning, I felt like we were on some kind of crazy theme park safari ride. Our trucks running in a track, taking us to the perfectly timed and choreographed mechanical warthog by the roadside with the bright blue bird perched on his back. Like the Jaws ride at the Universal Studios of my childhood, a lion would come bursting out of the bush at any moment. However, one turn of the knob on the radio and the car filled with the sound of a DJ speaking an African language complete with clicks and I realized that the warthog was real and this was no theme park.

Our first stop was Waterberg Rest Camp. After the long hot, dusty drive, the girls were desperate to find the swimming pool. This must be the most picturesque swimming pool in the entire world, or at least in the world I have seen. Two big circles of clean water were surrounded by Acacia trees and situated at the base of an iron red cliff. Thousands of dragonflies zoomed high in the sky overhead. We sat in the grass with cups of crisp, white wine, inhaled a bag of salt and vinegar potato chips and watched while the girls delighted in their splashes. I looked around at this scene and tried to get my brain to accept the place where my body had landed.swimming pool with Mackenzie and Quinn playing

Back at our campsite, an entire family of warthogs greeted us. At least ten of these beautifully ugly creatures were snorting around in the grass, completely unaffected by our sudden stop and gawk. We laughed at the size of their heads, which take up most of their body and snouts that take up most of their heads. That night I was happy to be kept awake by their very strange donkey-like snort as they defended their territory from the screeching baboons. Literally, their sound is a hee-haw, snort snort.

Because Namibia has a population of two million in a country roughly the size of Texas, the darkness outside the cities is like no other darkness I have ever experienced. Before setting off, we were warned by a fellow traveler to “have your torch handy” because once that sun sets, it is immediately dark. However, with the darkness came the stars! It was like someone spilled a pound of salt on a pitch black tablecloth. Not even in the darkest, clearest mountain sky in Colorado have I ever seen this many stars. We sat with our heads resting on the back of our camp chairs and looked up into the sky. The more our eyes became accustomed to the dark, the more the stars appeared. The familiar constellations were lost in all of the extra stars invisible in other places, in other skies. The Milky Way was truly milky.  Mackenzie did not want to go to bed when her sister crawled up into the tent.  It was one of those moments when you watch your child mature right before you.  She “oooed” and “awwed” with Jacob, me and her grandparents and I silently noticed my emotional dichotomy, both excitement for her growth and nostalgia for her infancy.

The conversation between the warthogs and baboons continued the next morning in the trees all around our campsite. The baboons made their appearance in the adjacent site just as we were packing up our things. They walked through the site, tails held high with an air of superiority. Their body language told us clearly that they were in charge and the trashcans were part of their territory. They noisily flipped off the lids to peer inside, expectant of breakfast. My Dad bravely moved closer for a picture as my mom slowly backed further away and jumped into the truck not sure she wanted to be so close. Once packed, we all piled into the trucks. Wasting no time, the biggest of the group bounded into our site and hopped up on the braai, giving us all a safer photo op.Baboon sitting on the outdoor grill at the campsite.

With Etosha National Park and Namutomi rest camp plugged into the GPS, birthday cake waiting quietly in the refrigerator for its adornment with candles later that evening (let’s face it, this really was more of a version of glamping rather than camping!), we headed down the first of many dry, dirt roads. I watched as the landscape flew by and marveled at the billions of clouds in the sky and the long views of the savannah. I said a silent prayer for Mackenzie to receive her requested gift of a giraffe sighting on her birthday and secretly hoped for that scene of the lion bursting out of the bush. I giggled to myself as I remembered the interaction we had with some young American girls on a bus in Sevilla. One of them declared to Mackenzie, “how many kids can say they turned 9 in Africa?!” Mackenzie astutely answered, “All the kids that live in Africa?”

This planet is better off since she arrived and I will always be impressed by her intelligence, humor, creativity, confidence and ability to catch every detail. While I never got my lion scene, I could never have prepared myself for the many incredible scenes I did get to see throughout our safari. Watching Mackenzie turn 9 was just one of them.P1040197