By Mari Gold
“Not to worry, Mem Sahib,” the mahout said. “No problem, positive.”
The mahout had attended Sana, the elephant we were sitting atop, since her birth and would stay with her until either one of them died – most likely him). He sat in front of me, both of us nine feet up in the Royal Chitwan National Park in southern Nepal.
The day before, just after arriving at the Gaida Wildlife Camp, I had my first elephant ride with three other visitors, in the security of a howdah, a wooden seat strapped to the elephant’s back. Today, there was no howdah, only a rope attached around the elephant’s girth behind Sana’s enormous, flapping ears.
The ground was a long way down. Fortunately, Sana’s back was as broad as a tabletop so, in theory, there was plenty of balancing space. I maneuvered into an approximation of a split, a feat I hadn’t been able to manager as a teenager, but fear is a great motivator.
Considering that Sana weighed close to four tons, her gait was smooth, but a cosmetician could have had a field day with her skin. Elephants don’t need age to develop wrinkles; Sana was a mass of creases at eleven years old.
Directed by the mahout, Sana walked into the jungle. Whenever a branch threatened to smack me, the mahout softly spoke a command and Sana either uprooted the entire tree or stepped neatly on the offending shoot. The first time, I patted her, a reflexive “good dog” moment, until I realized she was so big she probably didn’t notice. Every so often, she stopped to snatch a mouthful of greenery, critical calories for an animal that weighs at least six thousand pounds.
The jungle teemed with screeching birds. Monkeys zipped up trees and swung on the vines; deer browsed in the tall grasses.
An hour into the ride, we arrived at a small pond. In the center, a rhinoceros stood enjoying a morning drink. The mahout urged Sana forward.
“Go back,” I said.
The mahout laughed and Sana walked on. The old joke: “How to you stop an elephant from charging? Take away his credit card,” flashed through my mind. We moved closer to the rhino who gave us a calculating look. What were the chances of ending my days in the Nepalese jungle? Would I have an interesting obituary beginning: ‘killed by a charging rhino…?’
“Please, we have to turn around,” I begged.
Again, the mahout laughed.
“Not to worry,” he said, apparently his stock phrase for hysterical tourists. I was miles past worry. One of us was the irresistible force; the other, the immoveable object. Something had to give and I was strongly in favor of wimping out.
By the time Sana and the rhino were fifty feet apart I was terrified. A collision was inevitable and the mahout either didn’t understand my frenzy or had a death wish. Just then, the rhino yielded, lumbering out of the water and up the bank.
“See missy, rhino knows elephant is bigger. No problem.”
“Ahah.” I started breathing again. Clearly, this man understood the subtleties of elephant/rhinoceros confrontations and had probably played the same joke on other unsuspecting visitors.
“Bye bye, “I waved to the rhino. This time I patted Sana with more force. Nonchalant, she grabbed half of a delicious sapling and stuffed it in her mouth.