Elephants never forget – neither will you

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Aristotle once said the elephant was “the beast which passeth all others in wit and mind. After watching Chishuru, a 2-metre tall African Elephant find my shoe in a heap of smelly sneakers and pass it to me, I have to agree with Aristotle. Those big floppy ears aren’t dumbo at all.

Adventures with Elephants is a combination rescue, rehabilitation, research and educational facility an hour’s drive from Pretoria in South Africa. A few different excursions are available from short visits, to rides through the bush to the ultimate encounter of swimming with the elephants.

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As the pack of 6 beasts came strolling towards the shady tents, it occurred to me that I didn’t hear them coming. They seemed like a lazy group of teenagers lolling along the path with their bipedal pals – the guides.

We met all of the elephants one-by-one and discovered different traits from each one. But what made it so exhilarating was the chance to get up close and explore them. While touching their oddly soft feet we learned the way they feel low sound waves vibrating through the ground from mates from far away. We watched as their snout took single pieces of kibble from our outstretched palms, sometimes sniffing up our shirts to seek out more in breast pockets.

Like puppies looking for a belly rub, they laid down. We ran our hands along their big barrel tummies as they rumbled on command. We touched their ears, rubbed their skin, and took turns lifting their noses to see how they moved. All the while it looked like they loved the affection.

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Only the guests with quick feet were able to leap from the spray as 15 litres of water blasted from their trunks – again on command. And it took a skillful soccer player to get a goal past big Moya.

But then the encounter got interesting. As four of us took position on equally spaced out mats, we were given a handful of kibble to offer Chishuru. As he sniffed and snorted the treats, the guide repeated our names.

“Chishuru, this is Joanne. Joanne, Joanne.” Then they’d repeat the process with Darren, and Cindy and John.

To our amazement, when asked Chishuru would point at us on command. THEN it got even better! We switched mats, took off one shoe and tossed it into a heap at his feet.

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“Chishuru, give Darren his shoe,” says the guide. Chishuru waves his snout over the shoes and pulls out the right shoe, wraps his nose around it and extends it to Darren. He does it every time. Then to prove that it wasn’t a trick, we were told to change places and toss the shoe again.

“Chishuru, give Cindy, Darren’s shoe.”

Yep, Darren’s shoe went to Cindy. My shoe went to John (which I thought would be tricky with our names so close) and so on.

Can your dog do that?

Chishuru has been known to remember a visitor 16 months after that first encounter.

As we put on our shoes, the elephants were saddled up for our hike to the pond. As I road Moya through the bush I learned about how the elephants can be used like horses on the range. Or with that keen sense of smell for tracking and detection of land mines.

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As we reached the pond, the elephants didn’t care that they had riders on their backs; they meandered into the water and submerged until only a snout poked out. Everyone had fun trying to stay attached and clambered swiftly back behind the guide before the gentle beast resurfaced

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A truck took the wet riders back to the shower hut but I lingered alone to watch the elephants. After the harnesses were removed, the pack headed right back into the water and resumed those teenage antics. It was so thrilling to watch the interactions, the playfulness and the endearing touches. One refused to get wet but a pushing match resulted with everyone into the pool. Ears flapped, trunks waved and the classic trumpeting rang through the air. I’d been in South Africa for a week and finally felt like I was – in Africa.

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IF you go:

Adventures with Elephants, is near Bela Bela in the Limpopo Province, just over an hour north of Pretoria, South Africa. Excellent directions are available on their website of www.efaf.co.za

Excellent lodging facilities where wart hogs, giraffe, antelope, kudu and zebra roam free are available nearby at either Zebula or Mabalingwe Nature Reserves. www.zebula.co.za or www.mabalingwe.co.za

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