You’d think elephants would be difficult animals to hide, yet as our open-top jeep bounced along the muddy track we couldn’t see a single pachyderm anywhere. Lots of green bushland though, broad-leaved plants that must have names, and wide low trees. We were in Minneriya National Park, where over two hundred elephants were supposed to live, but they were either hiding from us or else had gone out for the day.
Ahead a cluster of brown jeeps like ours blocked the track. People were standing up on their seats and aiming cameras. Then Kate won the prize for being the first person in our group to spot something as she pointed at what they were all looking at.
Not an elephant, but a brown rock.
It rose out of the foliage, inert and wedge-shaped. Maybe it was a monument? Or maybe there was something on it? A monkey? A squirrel? Even a snake?
“It’s an elephant,” shouted someone, and sure enough, as we edged closer we could see the wrinkles around its eyes, and its ears too. But little else. It hid in the bushes as if it didn’t want to be found and was doing a pretty good job.
As we reached the other jeeps, more elephants came into view. These were less concealed, a little easier to see. Yet still distant. Without a telephoto lens, I wasn’t going to get much of a photo. Still I took a string of photos anyway. Later, when I showed people at home what we’d seen, I could point at a brown blob in among all the trees and say, “That’s one of the wild elephants close to where we were staying.”
And already I could hear the reply. “It’s not very big, is it?”
“No, well Asian elephants are smaller than African ones,” I’d explain.
“You’re sure it’s not a rock?”
“No, it’s definitely an elephant.”
Funny how we have that expression “the elephant in the room”. Although these were elephants in the bush, a totally different situation – and worth at least twice as many brownie points as seeing elephants in a zoo.
Nevertheless. people stood and snapped, then stood on something higher and snapped some more. The elephants, three plus a baby, ignored us, too busy tearing up grass with their trunks and cramming it into their mouths. Imagine if roles were reversed: a herd of elephants had flown eleven thousand kilometres to see us, arriving at our front door and ringing the bell. And rather than rushing downstairs to greet them, we remained in the kitchen, stuffing our gobs with chips.
With nothing more to see, the jeeps dispersed. We drove on, looking for other elephants who might be more social – and a little closer to the jeep. And five minutes later, we did find some more. Slightly nearer, yet still not within a decent photo range. I took a few shots anyway, hoping they’d advance or perhaps do something else, like juggling or playing leapfrog. Although that would be impossible. A male elephant eats up to one hundred and fifty kilograms of grass each day and weighs four tonnes. It cannot jump, gallop or climb the steps up to an aeroplane.
Again our jeep moved on, following the others deeper into the park. The next herd of elephants were much nearer, close enough to smell the shrubs they were eating for their dinner, sprinkled with a strong scent of mint.
And on once again, to find elephants practically by the side of the track. They advanced nearer, then nudged their way between the jeeps and slipped single-file to the other side. Cameras clicked, people sighed, and still the elephants took no notice.
Yet the best came after we’d left the park. Driving back on tarmac as the sun set and darkness fell, we encountered several elephants right by the side of the road, as close as close could be. These elephants decided to cross the road as well, a group of solid creatures that stopped all the traffic. Surely a sight worth waiting for, especially for Kate who loves elephants more than she likes duffins, giant doughnuts, and jumbo cakes.