Aka one of the most incredible, yet scary, experiences of my life.
It was on my list of things to do on India - see wild Indian Elephants - but given some experiences I'd heard from other travellers I didn’t know how realistic my expectations were.
I was travelling with my brother (Tim) and we decided to give it a shot at Periyar Wildlife Reserve, in Kumily, Kerala. 925 sq km of wild animals roaming free.
Tim insisted we go with the walking option, rather than the jeep or the boat. I wasn't too keen about coming face to face with an elephant on foot (let alone a tiger, which also live within the sanctuary!), I would have much preferred the safety net of a getaway vehicle! However, my brother won the battle and we went with the trekking option.
We met our group at 8am the next morning. There were five of us, plus two guides initially. After the first half hour or so an armed forest guide joined us - clearly stating that no animals would be harmed with the gun, it was merely for protection. While I was of some relief that we had some form of protection, I'm not sure if this made me feel more safe or less safe!!
We walked for a few hours, stopping to demolish some morning tea and lunch from our brown paper bag (provided by the trekking company). During this time we saw plenty of monkeys, bison, a sambar carcass - we were told it had been eaten by a tiger - and a tree trunk that had been scratched to buggery by a tiger marking out it's territory....we were reassured this was from a few years back – still mildly terrifying none-the-less.
Post lunch and gazing across some breathtaking views of the Tamil Nadu/Kerala border, we began the trek back towards civilisation. We were all feeling a bit deflated thinking that since we hadn't seen any elephants that morning, it was probably pretty unlikely that we would see any at all. Of course like with anything, when you are least expecting it is when it always happens, right?!
We were trekking along, much of the conversation revolving around the fact that yes, people get trampled to death by elephants (thanks for that, yup that's exactly what I want to hear while we are actively searching for wild elephants in India!!), when all of a sudden the guide at the front whipped around and urgently waved his hands signalling us to be quiet. There were elephants ahead!! And there they were – just over a mound in the path, were FOUR wild Indian Elephants.
My heart leapt out of my chest!
It was the most incredible sight to see. Elephants are such majestic animals, and it was the most humbling (read: scary!) feeling to be in their presence in such a vulnerable state, i.e with no escape vehicle other than our very own feet!
Though of course while this was all happening, my mind was frantically panicking about the fact that we were probably going to get crushed to death but also I had better get some good photos before that happens to prove we saw them!
We lingered around a while, well-hidden, and took some photos. Problem being, these elephants were standing directly on our path - there was no getting back to town until they were on their way.
Thankfully after we had our fix they strolled off to one side and we were safe to continue.
That safety lasted about 10 minutes, as we walked directly into an open space and were suddenly in the presence of another MASSIVE elephant. I was petrified because we were in such an open space that being seen by this elephant would not be ideal! The elephant had heard something and slowly turned around, while the 5 of us bounded after our guides to hide in some bushes.
The elephant turned away and we dashed away further to safety, and after watching him in all his glory for anther few minutes, continued our trek back to Kumily.
What did I learn from my experience looking for wild elephants in India?
1. Seeing elephants in the wild is terrifying (I admit I’m a but of a wuss when it comes to scary animals but I swear this would be scary for anyone). You feel so vulnerable, so small, so insignificant. At that moment there was no way out. Sometimes, there is nothing you can do but do your best to stay calm and take in as much of the experience (any experience!) as you can.
2. I have never felt so close to nature as I did that day. You have to take a bit of a risk and live life outside your comfort zone to remind yourself that you are alive! Seeing elephants in the wild is a very different experience to seeing them in a zoo.
3. Experiences make the best memories. Hell yeah I will spend however much it costs to do something like this. But spend $200 on an item of clothing…not so much.
4. Don’t always go with the easy option. Not just when looking for wild elephants, but for life in general. For me, trekking was the hard and scary option. But it was soooo worth it. If you go to Periyar, don’t do the boat trip.
5. Wild elephants > elephant rides. Please DO go trekking in India looking for wild elephants. You will never regret it.
What’s the scariest/bravest thing you’ve ever done?