Sunday, April 7, 2013

Birthday with Elephants and Room with a View

From the time I met him, Scott has always made my birthday a very special day. My 40th was a surprise trip to Paris and my 50th was spent in Sri Lanka bathing an elephant. But this time he went above and beyond the call of duty.
We love Africa for her animals and we most love spending time in the bush amongst them so of course that is where I wanted to celebrate my birthday. But as the Big Day (55 is a big deal, no?) approached I started to think my birthday would be spent not with giraffe and elephants, but with Land Rover mechanics, Marius, Neil, and George, in the city. But my Mr. Sky (as Scott was fondly called in the Zambian village of Kamunjoma), found a way to get me to where the wild things are on my birthday. Near Knysna (pronounced nize-na) on the Garden Route of South Africa lies Knysna Elephant Park. Why they had space available in their six room lodge for us on March 29th on such short notice is beyond me. And as I was to discover, Room #1 is very special, for it’s a room with a view unlike any other in the world.

The room itself was luxurious and tastefully decorated with cozy duvet and comfy couch. A bottle of wine made from grapes stomped by an elephant named Harry sat on the coffee table and out of the corner of my eye, a spa tub beckoned.
From the outside patio, we could see the resident elephants (save one), grazing on the veld. Then the concierge, Phumeza, pointed to a six foot sliding window over the couch, “And here, you can watch the elephants sleeping.” I walked over to the window and saw below me the sleeping area for the elephants. All night long I would be able to perch on the back of the couch and watch Sally, the matriarch, and eight other elephants eating, trumpeting, and sleeping. When I started crying both Phumeza and Scott began to look uncomfortable. I could barely speak. “You see, it’s my birthday and elephants are my favorite earthly beings,” I sputtered.
Phumeza smiled appreciatively at Scott and made her exit.

A while later….
I heard Scott call, “Tris you’ve got to come see this.”

Outside our room was a small common area with two couches available to guests in the remaining rooms so that they could watch the ellies sleeping at night too, though not in their nighties. There, below me, was a three week old baby elephant named Fiela. Rejected by her mother (how could she?) still unsteady on her feet, and smaller than a St Bernard dog, she pranced and played and followed her keepers around like a drunken sailor. I waited as long as I could (30 seconds) before I called down to Jenny, one of Fiela’s “mothers”, “Could I please come down and interact with the baby?”
Jenny from Canada looked up and said, “A guide has to give the okay and accompany you but it is possible.” I immediately went on the hunt for a guide and found Geoffrey who was busy with guests but said, “I will find you.”

Twenty minutes later, Geoffrey found me waiting at the entrance to Fiela’s sleeping area, and in we went.

Oh, joy! The little baby staggered about, pulled the hair of her favorite volunteer on-her-hands-and knees mother Laurie, begged for a bottle of milk, played with a ball, and then back up on to my lap and pooed. A milky thin poo which soaked into my jeans and onto my thigh. She then walked over to Scott and sucked his thumb.  I dub it the best animal encounter ever for us both.

I was already spent from my time with Fiela but at 4:30 we had an opportunity to join other guests for a more tactile look at the adult elephants. We watched a short video of dos and don’ts - don’t bend down, don’t turn your back, do what the guide instructs – and off we went in a trailer pulled by a tractor. Soon we could see elephants beginning to gather behind a six foot tall rail. They sensed that treats in the form of apples, squash, and carrots were imminent. As soon as we disembarked the elephants stretched their trunks toward us asking for a tidbit from our small pail of fruits and veg.
Sally grasped nibble after nibble with the “fingers” at the end of her trunk from my palm, gobbling them up like Pac-man clearing a maze. Ninety minutes later, we were able to walk the elephants back to their stable.

I barely slept a wink that night. Every hour or so, I would get out of bed, and walk to the window to hear, see, and smell the elephants. I never would have believed it if I hadn’t seen it but at around midnight they all laid down on their side to sleep. One by one they knelt down and turned on their sides. In the morning, as they woke up, like your pet cat or dog, they stretched their legs out before rising. It has to be the most enchanting thing I have ever seen. I couldn’t wish for more.

It was time to leave. I bid fare well to Fiela. Elephants are very fragile at that age and are prone to pneumonia and I dearly hope this little elephant makes it to adulthood. If you wish, you can follow her progress on the Knysna Elephant Park web site.

As for my Mr. Sky, having him in my life is like having my very own genie in a bottle.  I couldn't ask for more.

Scott and Tris
South Africa

June 13, 2013 - Update: I am devastated to report that Fiela passed away ten days ago. She became suddenly ill and died the next morning. Elephants are so fragile...