The journalist, Herb Caen, said: “I have a memory like an elephant. I remember every elephant I’ve ever met.”
It started with an invitation to visit the Knysna Elephant Park. I had contacted Dave, the Marketing Manager, to find out how accessible the park would be to a blind visitor. After a few brief emails, Dave too became intrigued by this challenge. The question we both wanted an answer to was, “Could a blind person experience and enjoy an encounter with the mighty Ndlovu?”
The sanctuary, situated between Knysna and Plettenburg Bay on the famous South African garden route, was established 20 years ago and is a world leading facility in regards to elephant rehabilitation and research. The park is currently home to 9 elephants who have been rescued, relocated or born at the park and remain under the expert care of around 60 staff. Seven of these elephants form part of the main herd, while the remaining two elephant bulls (Clyde and Shaka) are too old for the main herd and are kept separately.
My biggest fear, as I counted down the days before my visit, was what I would do if I found myself in the path of a massive unseen and unavoidable elephant foot, without being able to see how to escape. Would I be able to even enjoy the experience of the park? And really, what could a blind visitor get out of standing in the same proximity as a 3 ton elephant if I could not even see it?
I arrived at the park with my partner, Tamlyn, bright and early. The team welcomed us with a warm greeting and made sure that I immediately felt comfortable. Now I must be honest here and divulge the fact that this was not my first time at the park. I had visited many years ago during my sighted years. However, with the challenges of accessibility this was sure to be a very different experience. Accessibility can be described as when a service, product, device or environment is designed with the disabled in mind. I was the first blind visitor that the staff could recall visiting the park. When I was told this, I felt a little anxious but curious none the less. Due to the early hour, Tamlyn and I were treated to our own private tour of the park with our knowledgeable guide, Ndyebo.
The first stop, after walking around the little information centre, was in a small briefing room set up for visitors to watch a short movie about the history of the park and the elephants. After the movie, Ndyebo ushered us outdoors to begin our morning’s adventure. His high energy and enthusiasm was contagious, he really got me excited for our close encounter.
Next, we visited the enclosure where the elephants sleep at night. No, we did not get to wake up any slumbering beasts, but I at least got to admire their sleeping quarters. Large steel bars that I could easily fit in between, enclosed the giant shed-like area. I imagined the bars to be enormous bed posts and I found myself wondering what colour blankets adorned the beds and what do elephants dream about exactly? This was not the case though and I learned that the resting place was simply a bed of dust, much like a horse stables, that was cleaned regularly. Interestingly, Ndyebo explained that sometimes the elephants may sleep standing up. This did not seem too strange to me as I imagined that shifting such a large bulk in the morning to an upright position must prove challenging, especially after a day of indulging in marula fruit known to make elephants tipsy. All right, all right, I know this is a popular myth, but my imagination was running wild at this point. Tamlyn described the boudoir as having the best view in the park looking out over the rolling fields and watering hole. I could feel a cool breeze, still carrying the early morning chill, gently caressing my cheeks as we stood in the enclosure.
It was then time to move on to the encounter that we were eager to make. Ndyebo led us to a parked tractor that pulled along two large trailers each fitted with rows of padded seats. This would be our transport for the short trip across the field and down to where the herd were grazing.
The tractor rattled to life and I felt the vibrations and bounce of the dirt jeep track as we drove through the veld for about five minutes before coming to a stand-still right next to the resident elephants. Our friendly guide explained that I should step cautiously off the side of the trailer and move with him to a point away from the tractor.
I followed his lead listening carefully to every word he said. I wondered where on earth the elephants were. I was half expecting some form of trumpeting or stomping noise at least. But, silence. For such large creatures they made no sound at all that I could distinguish yet. I reached for a piece of fruit from the snack bucket I was holding and, with Ndyebo’s guidance, I extended my arm with the chunk of fruit in my open hand. Then, ever so gently, a coarse ended trunk took the offered fruit from my hand and started munching. This was the first sound I heard the giant make. I stood as motionless as possible to try and sense the herd. After a short time, I could tell that they were standing in front of me.
Sally, the Matriarch, stood less than a metre before me and for the next five minutes I held out chunks of butternut, whole apples, beetroots, carrots, pears and an assortment of treats. I listened intently and heard the soft swish of her long trunk as she batted away the trunks of her herd, along with their snorts of indignation, when they were not quick enough to snatch a treat from her grasp. Sally was one of the first resident animals at the sanctuary. She is just 24 years old but is undeniably the largest of the herd as well as its undisputed leader. Ndyebo told me that she could live anywhere between 70 and 100 years.
After the bucket of treats was finished, I stood to Sally’s side and following our guide’s instruction, reached out gently and touched Sally on her ear. She flapped it lightly but let me touch her without moving. The ear was a rough leather full of many nobbled lines and textures the outside. It seemed to be caked with hard crusty mud. The back of her ear was however much thinner and unusually soft and smooth. Most surprisingly it was cool behind the flap. Ndyebo explained that it was her ‘natural air conditioning’. Just like a fan, when an elephant flaps their ears, it circulates cool air over the blood vessels. In addition to this ingenious cooling system, Ndyebo explained that an elephant’s ears are uniquely shaped and are used to identify them in the wild.
Some of the other younger elephants, silently loped around us also looking for a treat. I remarked on how quiet they were and Ndyebo explained how the elephant’s feet act as shock absorbers and in fact they bear most of their weight on the tips of their toes. I imagined Sally quietly tip-toeing through the bush stalking an unsuspecting acacia tree.
Tamlyn stood feeding them while I felt along Sally’s side flank. Her skin was rough to the touch and little wiry hairs covered the leathery joins. I knew that elephants can get sunburned and use mud and dust to protect themselves but I could not imagine how her rough skin could suffer from this affliction. Her muscular trunk moved around with sharp jerks up and down as she ‘frisked’ us for more treats. I was just waiting for the trumpet to sound. This would have certainly made me run for cover. I have no idea where I would have run to though.
Sally behaved so well. She stood super still as I ran my hand along her trunk and felt her strong white tusks. Strangely, they did not feel as smooth to the touch as I had imagined. They felt rough like bone with little pits etched out from years of use. Nyebo guided me to Sally’s rump and let me feel the thick coarse hairs at the end of her tail. They reminded me of extra thick fishing line. Super strong unbreakable.
I have often been known to quote the adage “How do you eat an elephant?” the answer, of course, is “One bite at a time”. But after hearing that the average elephant eats up to 260 kilogrammes of vegetation a day, I think I may need to find a new saying for how to tackle challenges!
Once Sally had gotten tired of my affection, she allowed Thato, to come and meet me. This young calf of just 6 years old is the park’s youngest resident. I could immediately feel that the hairs on his sides were considerably finer than Sally’s hairs. His ears were also thinner and his trunk and head were much closer to my head height.
Ndeybo stood at my side the entire time and still commented that it was unusual for the elephants to be so inquisitive with a single guest. Perhaps they could sense that I could not see them and were determined to give me an experience through my remaining four senses.
The resident herd of Burchell’s Zebra also came right within spitting distance to see what the fuss was all about. This too was a first for our guide as the Zebra normally gave visitors a wide berth.
I could smell the pellets and fruit that the animals are fed but the elephant’s themselves did not have any strong odour that I was expecting. The audio sounds was a mix of the giants crunching away at fruit and stepping softly along the grass to come closer. My sense that was most affected was touch. I could not believe how gentle and graceful the animals were. The skin texture is so varied. From smooth to rough from hot and sun baked to icy cool and smooth.
Dave arrived and took us for a tour of the rest of the park. He showed us their beautifully located facilities on the edge of a kloof used to host functions such as weddings. All of this was a way to generate funds for the management of the park and its most important residents. The park even offers 5 star accommodation right next to where the giants sleep.
We bid farewell to Dave at the main reception area. The question had been answered. Could a blind person enjoy an elephant encounter? The answer was an undoubtable yes. In fact I think that a blind person may actually appreciate ‘seeing’ these creatures using their four remaining senses. They certainly could experience this encounter better so than with any other of the big 5.
As we drove away from our morning adventure, I thought about blind people who have been sightless since birth. I had been lucky enough to see for most of my life. I know what an elephant looks like and knew a little about what to expect. But for a person who has only had the creatures described to them, this would be one of the highlights of their lives. These majestic peaceful beasts deserve our respect, awe and protection. Sally, Thato, Nandi, Thandi, Keisha, Shungu and Mashudu will remain unforgettable to me.
Story by: Christopher Venter aka The Blind Scooter Guy
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