His name was ‘Rambo’. Five tonnes of sentience with a nose of fuchsia freckles, ambling towards me with a look of moderate indifference—like he’d already eaten three just like me for breakfast.
I considered taking my trembling knees back down the Jungle Jim ladder from the where I now stood on a few planks of wood hammered into the trees. But fear had caused a paralysis of will. So when Nut Nut, my small but perfectly formed mahout, motioned to me to get on board, I obeyed without question.
“Do you speak English?”
(Most Thais did not, I’d found)
“Yes,” he replied.
“Oh, great. What is your name?”
“How old is this elephant?”
“Okay. How long have you worked with elephants?”
I sat back in the howdah—the metal seat strapped around Rambo’s girth—that swayed leisurely to the rhythm of the animal’s gait, and diverted my attention to the succulent vision of 360 degrees of tropical forest. Baan Chang Thai Elephant Camp is 2 kilometres from the main road on Koh Chang island, so the trek begins in the jungle itself. (Koh Chang actually means ‘Elephant Island’.) Within minutes, we were heading along a dirt track into the heart of the island, so dense with flora that the word ‘green’ lost all meaning. The howdah tipped upwards unnervingly as we lumbered down a steep muddy bank towards a stream. Splashing across the river, we lurched up through slick mud from the previous day’s deluge, up onto the opposite bank. My knuckles whitened from their grip on the metal bars. I envied Nut Nut’s position astride Rambo’s head that seemed far more secure. I looked around for a seatbelt, or at least some kind of harness. Silly me. I wasn’t in Disneyland.
I had been ambivalent about taking an elephant ride in Thailand for two reasons. Firstly, although my first memorable toy had been a stuffed elephant (imaginatively named ‘Elly’) and elephants had been my first animal love, I am, in fact, terrified of them. Secondly, in 2007, I’d visited Dubari elephant camp in Karnataka in South India, where the the animals were openly abused. All my romantic notions of the mahout-elephant relationship had been blown to smithereens as I watched one mahout smash away at his elephant’s head with what looked like an ice-pick, until blood was streaming down its forehead into its eyes. That elephant could’ve taken this human runt at any moment, and I’d found myself almost willing him to do so. I had watched several other mahouts treat their mounts in similar fashion until I felt physically sick. So in Baan Chang Thai elephant camp in Koh Chang, I had grilled the pretty lady manager rather vigorously. How long are the elephants chained for? How often to they get to roam free? What do you feed them? etc. She patiently answered all my questions until I was satisfied by her answers.
Nut Nut sat astride the giant leathery head, ice pick in hand. But he never once used it. Instead, he guided the elephant with a series of soft clucking sounds such as “Ukukukahkau” and “ghouck!” which I suspect he made up as he went along, since the elephant appeared to ignore them all. Every now and then, Rambo stopped short to lazily munch on a tropical snack, a few twigs here, a bit of fruit there, while Nut Nut sat patiently gazing off into the distance, the pointy stick idle by his side. Calmed by Nut Nut’s gentle handling, my concern for Rambo’s well-being soon gave way to a somewhat less noble concern for my own. Perhaps Nut Nut had no idea what he was doing. Maybe this was his first month, first week, first day! Oh do shut up, I gently commanded my flappy girl brain.
The track became a narrow trail and then disappeared altogether. The only sounds were the crunch, swoosh, crunch, swoosh of Rambo’s huge padded feet and tree branches surrendering to his substantial girth. I felt myself beginning to relax, or rather it was as if the beauty of it all just over-powered my anxiety. The pace of riding an elephant feels like the pace at which all of life should move. Gradual with purpose.
I was startled out of my reverie by an escalating quivering that erupted from below, jiggled up my spinal cord, and ended with an enormous bellowing snort. I knew enough elephant talk to discern that Rambo was excited. I tried to ask Nut Nut what the reason was, but he just smiled and pointed up ahead with the ice pick. The reason became clear a few hundred yards on, when we came to a deep emerald pool that lay between two miniature waterfalls. Nut Nut motioned for me to get down onto another tree platform, while he removed the howdah. Free of his burden, Rambo shuddered, and ambled into the crystalline green water. He sank to his knees with a contented sigh, the end of his trunk playing around the surface and emitting soft gurgling bubbles.
“Get in water!” said Nut Nut, his English suddenly improved. The spray coming out of Rambo’s trunk sparkled like costume jewelry. I stripped down to my underwear and slipped cautiously into the water, perfectly refreshing in the intense humidity. Nut Nut waved at me to get closer, but I was absorbed in gauging the trajectory physics of trunk thwacking distance.
“Get on elfant baaak!”
Nut Nut was finding my reluctance amusing.
“Get on elfant baaak!” he repeated with a huge grin.
Maybe it was the way I was raised, but crawling on someone’s back while they’re taking a bath seems, well, impolite. Besides, we had only just met.
Instead, I climbed out of the water and sat on a rock next to this amazing creature, with a thrill I have rarely felt before or since. The size, the strength, the legs of a warrior—but the eyes of a poet. I had no idea that Nut Nut was busy taking photos. Bless him. I spoke quietly into Rambo’s ear, his long eyelashes bejeweled with water droplets blinking knowingly. But what happens in the Elephant Pool stays in the Elephant Pool.
On the way back, as if he’d read my mind from earlier, Nut Nut offered to take the howdah and I positioned myself on Rambo’s head, my feet tucked snugly into the folds behind his ears that slapped my ankles like yoga mats. Nut Nut grabbed grapefruits off the trees as we went under them, peeled them, and handed them to me. Rambo, knowing the routine well, raised his trunk and rotated it like a periscope, squeezing snout end inches from my face, the little hairs glistening in anticipation. I placed the grapefruit into its grasp and down it went, then within seconds periscoped up for more. And so went along. I felt I could do this for the rest of my life, but suddenly Nut Nut jumped down, said something that sounded like, “Geewabangananana” and disappeared into the jungle. Rambo picked up speed and began steering away from the path, swashing through the bushes. My what if brain kept kicking up scenarios like, what if it sees a mouse and panics? I twisted around and scanned the howdah. Now, where was that pointy stick?
For ten minutes it was just Rambo and I in that jungle. I’m sure Nut Nut had it all planned out, but he’d executed it brilliantly. When Nut Nut returned, he walked alongside us, doing a little half-hearted gardening, with the occasional thwack of his ice pick at an unsuspecting branch. I took the opportunity to check Rambo for head scars, but I could find none. I sat up taller, sensing every touch between my skin and his; my hands resting on his forehead, my thighs squeezing around his girth, my soles pressed against the smooth cracks behind his ears. I was, for those ten minutes, without doubt, Queen of the Elephants. No one could strip me of the title. But then Nut Nut grunted at me to get down, and I was de-crowned on the spot.
Back in his stall, munching away at a pile of palm fronds, I could have sworn that Rambo smiled at me when I took my last photo. I spent the rest of the day in a kind of giddy swoon; a soft-edged album of our escapades set to a Donovan song. There were Rambo’s gently-blinking eyes, his youthful freckles, his long fruity farts, his grapefruit-seeking trunk. We were made for one another. Rambo and me.