Romeo & Juliet, the Indian Version

Posted on December 24, 2009

The story holds that the girl Ranga fell in love with the boy Kazi, and their families did not approve. To protect their love, and avoid family opprobrium, they fled into the forest and were never seen again.. The locals took to calling the forest KAZIRANGA. Right now I'm at the edge of the same forest, about to climb atop an elephant. Nothing tragic and romantic about my day, and my only pressing concern is the amount of tea the hotel staff has plied me with. I'm wondering how to answer natures call from atop an elephant.

My elephant moves along. More correctly he lumbers along. A gait that looks slow, but is in fact pretty quick, he is steered towards groups of rhino by the mahout, sitting astride his neck and steering him with a push of a bare foot behind the ear.

One moment I'm standing in the woods, the next in an elephant depot, as 20 plus elephants arrive and unload their first group of passengers. It seems I chose well in electing the second ride, as the first ride is known for foggy conditions that reduce visibility. Only 6 a.m. and barely light, but less foggy by the minute. Unlike aircraft, elephants operate in the fog, but we humans are only here for the view. Once atop my 3 seater pachyderm (who knew, there are 3, 4, and 5 seater elephants, so obviously I got the compact model, more fuel efficient?) I get the briefest of safely instructions (funny how this is like an aircraft, where to keep my feet, how to say seated, how to get the mahout (elephant driver) to slow down or stop), and then we are off. Just minutes later, it's the Nature Channel come to life. Poor Kazi and Ranga, they fled into a forest full of rhinoceros, elephants, wild boar, wild buffalo, tigers and leopards. No wonder they were never seen again. I'm safe atop the elephant, and just 30 feet from Indian one horned rhinoceros, the largest concentration of them on the globe, with over 2000 of them here. Nothing harms or messes with an adult elephant, and sitting astride one, I am perceived as just an extension of the elephant, (some weird deformity, a man elephant to be pitied?) so as my elephant approaches the rhinos, they go about their business, which is essentially eating. If you weighed 2 tons, and ate only grass, you too would need to eat constantly to ingest enough nutrients. The 30 odd rhino I see have their heads down, as their prehensile lips twist off bushels of grass in seconds. They sometimes look upward, not as us, but maybe just to stretch their necks. The other passenger on my elephant is a park ranger, his rifle loaded with only blanks, in the extremely unlikely event a rhino or elephant runs amok, the sound of the shot will frighten them.

​One moment I'm standing in the woods, the next in an elephant depot, as 20 plus elephants arrive and unload their first group of passengers.

The ranger explains that were I on the ground, the story would be a different one. Rhino have poor eyesight, good hearing and excellent sense of smell. And they run at 25 miles per hour. I'm instructed that if I find myself at the end of a charging rhino, just stand my ground and don't move, until just as it's about to obliterate me. Then I merely step aside, the animal cannot pivot or stop short, so I'll have nothing to worry about. Yea sure. I think the ranger realizes tourists love to hear this story, (danger without actual danger) so they can repeat it back home, just as I'm doing here.

My elephant moves along. More correctly he lumbers along. A gait that looks slow, but is in fact pretty quick, he is steered towards groups of rhino by the mahout, sitting astride his neck and steering him with a push of a bare foot behind the ear. Stop is indicated with a tap on the head by a 18 inch length of iron with a pointed end. I never see action from the pointed end, but gather it must have its utility. It's much more comfortable aboard an elephant then I would have expected. They've equipped him (it is a him, you can't miss the evidence) with a saddle over many blankets, and there is a place for my feet, but I'm taller than the average rider, so my feet dangle as I straddle. I have an inverted U shaped bar to hold, but so secure is the ride I go hands free.

While rhinos are the money shot, the elephant moves through herds of swamp deer and hog deer (with hog shaped nose, and homely faces) and skirts groups of wild buffalo, the ancestors to the placid water buffalo seen in all villages, the wild version slightly bigger, with enormously bigger scimitar shaped horns, and aggressive as well (though no lesson as to how to avoid a buff charge). Wild elephant are in the distance. Apparently, the wild and domestic ones are best kept apart, as the wild ones try to kidnap the domestic females, (easy way to increase harem size) and the domestic males resent this poaching of their women, so the 2 communities function best separately.

An hour later we've passed through forest, field and marshland, and we approach a 2 story wood structure. My elephant is maneuvered into position, and I dismount (inelegantly) with a helping hand, much as would from a boat, in that there is some wobble from the vessel. The ranger behind me dismounts in one smooth move, he is of course a veteran at this, and I'm a first timer.

While it's a great experience (and I sign up for more) I have one piece of advice: pee before getting aboard an elephant.

I faced no danger, and lived to tell about it..