If you’re looking for an experience that will take your breath away, have you ever considered walking with African Elephants? Yes, really… Actually walking alongside these magnificent beasts with no barriers, no restraints and all in a natural setting?
When I first started looking into what we could do on our two-week trip to South Africa, this was one of the first things that caught my attention. However, I was keen to find a reputable company whose philosophy is to put the welfare of their animals first. I’ve heard the horror stories of how some elephants are mistreated around the world, and l did some vital research before deciding to take the family on such an expedition.
What drew me to Knysna Elephant Park was the fact that the park has dedicated the last 20 years to elephants, and is internationally recognised as one of the best captive elephant facilities in the world. More than 40 elephants have been rescued and/or relocated there and it has also played a vital role in formulating regulations and guidelines for captive elephants throughout South Africa.
It also practises a “controlled, free-range environment”, which allows the elephants as much freedom as possible, within the borders of the Park. Meanwhile, their walking experience is limited to a certain number of people twice a day as to not overwhelm the creatures.
When we arrived at Kynsna Elephant Park for the early evening session and checked in at the reception, we were all handed a small bucket filled to the brim with apples, carrots and other vegetables. We’d gone prepared wearing comfortable walking shoes and the baby was in a sling – prior to our visit, I checked and triple checked that it would be okay for us to have Peanut, and each time we were reassured that a crying baby wasn’t going to bother the elephants one bit.
We watched a short introductory video which explained how the park had come into existence and more information on their resident herd, which consists of an adult and adolescent female elephants and their youngsters, who are all guided through their daily activities by matriarch Sally, the first elephant to arrive at the Park in 1994.
We were then lead outside by one of the park rangers, who drove the group (of around 20 people) all a short distance to a feeding area. And there they all were… waiting for their treats.
It was incredible. The rangers explained to us that we only had to lay the food on the flat of our palms and the elephants would do the rest. They did warn us to be quick, as otherwise, the elephants would snaffle the whole lot and take the bucket! Feeling an elephants snout and the force in which it quite literally sucks the food from you is indescribable. We only had one tiny metal rail between us but we didn’t feel unsafe.
Monkey was a little unsure at first, and was too scared to feed them himself – and who can blame him, these are the largest mammals in the world, and tower at four metres in height – but he was more than happy to stand by our sides.
Once this was done, smaller groups were then each assigned one ranger and one elephant, and it was in this instance that we were able to touch the elephant. Its skin felt cool and rough on the sides, much like fine sandpaper. But I also got to stroke its ears, which felt so much smoother and more delicate.
From this vantage point, we were able to just observe closely and follow as the elephant moved around. But what was so extraordinary was being surrounded by several of them and having to jump out of the way as they sauntered past – all the while the rangers were all in close proximity making sure we were all safe.
From this point, we were split into separate groups again, as some visitors had chosen to ride the elephants (something which I am not at all comfortable with – and was glad to hear that the Park is abolishing this experience soon) and others like ourselves, going on to walk alongside them.
Monkey and I were paired up with Sally, the matriarch, who is 24 years old, while my husband and the baby were behind us with Thandi, who was actually born in the park 11 years ago. In a simple procession, we walked for around 30 minutes on a scenic route alongside them. What was so awe-inspiring was being able to be so close, as well as view the amazing scenery surrounding us including the Outeniqua mountains and Knysna forest. Even better was the inquisitiveness of Monkey, who had now grown accustomed to these gentle giants and was keen to learn more about them. He fired off tons of questions to the ranger, and I was charmed by his thirst for knowledge.
Before I knew it, our walk was over and to say I was in awe and pretty much speechless for the whole experience is an understatement. Such was the power of being so close to these breathtaking mammals. Even the baby seemed to have enjoyed it.
Walking with elephants is something that we will all cherish for the rest of our lives because it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Plus, knowing that we contributed to a project that will keep protecting these animals well into the future, was a comforting thought.
If I could do it again, I would in a heartbeat, and so would the rest of the family. We still talk about now!
Need to know
• There are only two walks per day and booking is essential
• Prices start at R590 per adult (approx £36) and R260 per child
• If you can’t book onto a walk, you can just turn up for the Daily Tours which will give you the experience of feeding the elephants and touching them
• There are restaurant facilities on site, which offers hot teas, cakes and sandwiches, and larger meals such as burgers.
• To enhance your experience you can also stay in the Park’s Elephant Lodge, where you can watch the elephants in the evening