The first elephants I met in India were in Karnataka, at Dubare Elephant Camp. Nowadays it seems to be a holiday lodge destination with added elephants, but when we visited, it was still largely home to elephants who’d given years of service to the state’s Forestry Department as log-hauliers.
As we arrived, the elephants were being a good old scrub in the River Cauvery, It was clear they relished having their hard leathery hide scrubbed, their hard bristly hair scratched. And it was obvious their minders were enjoying it too. After that – breakfast. Here’s a picture of a cook in the cookhouse. He’s boiling up an appetisng concoction of jaggery (dense dark sugar), millet and vegetation before rolling it into giant balls which the men feed to the expectant animals.
And here’s feeding time. And that was it really. A short but memorable experience.
I had a very different time about ten days later, at Kumbakonam, where my new American friend had taken me to visit some of the eighteen – EIGHTEEN – temples in this small town. I’ll take you for a tour another time. This time I’ll introduce you to the elephant who, at one of the temples, was available to bless visitors in exchange for a few coins for the temple’s finances. Gwen took me to meet her. As I stood before her, she lifted her trunk and laid it gently in my shoulder. I did indeed feel blessed.
Temple elephants are a common sight – here’s one in Thanjavur.
But only once did I see one in the wild, a youngster crashing through the undergrowth and feeding at the edge of a forest.
“To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.”
To travel is certainly to discover. If I told you that we were off to start the day at an animal sanctuary, followed by a picnic, followed by a spot of local shopping, you might imagine our spending an hour or two with distressed dogs or donkeys, maybe some homeless hedgehogs. Then you’d picture us with a pack of sandwiches, maybe sharing a bag of crisps and some Jammie Dodgers, perhaps on a park bench, or dodging the cow pats in a country field. Then you’d suppose we’d nipped into Sainbury or Tesco on the way home.
But this is my Indian Adventure, so you would be wrong. Our animal sanctuary was Dubare Elephant Camp. This is where elephants who’ve had a long career working transporting logs for the Karnataka Forest Department go to live out their retirement years.
We watched them enjoying their daily bath in the River Cauvery. One elephant needs maybe three young men to bathe them: good tough scrubbing brushes required to give that hard leathery skin a good old scratch.
Look for the trunk poking above the water!
We were in time for their breakfast. There was a cookhouse where an appetising mixture of jaggery (a dark brown palm sugar), millet and vegetation was boiled up and formed into giant balls of nourishment. Just because they ate it daily didn’t stop them finding it delicious.
Making breakfast for the elephants
That was it really. But we had to set off for our picnic in any case. With some difficulty, we waded through paddy fields, where the young rice plants were an impossibly citric green, vivid and vibrant. And there, at the end of our walk, was the River Cauvery: a perfect scene from a travel documentary: tall palm trees, knotted and intricate tree roots, little islands among the fast-flowing waters.
Off for a picnic
The walk back home
We were glad to climb into our costumes and plunge into the river – muddy, but otherwise clean. There was quite a current, and I wasn’t strong enough to swim the width of the wide river, so stayed close in to the banks.
And then it was time for our picnic: something special, this. Staff from our host’s residence clanked down the hill with great metal cans yoked over their shoulders: rice; sambal; a wonderful bitter curry made out of some dark green leaf also used to de-worm children; chicken curry; a sour and bitter sticky chutney; curds; and a gorgeous buttered cabbage curry. It truly was a memorable feast.
The picnic arrives
On our way home, we stopped off at our local town, Madikeri, to do some bits and bobs of shopping – get our photos onto CDs in the days when memory cards didn’t have much capacity, buy sandals, that sort of thing.
Oddly, I took few photos here, but I’ve used others from later in the trip, because with their rows of tiny shops, Indian shopping streets are standard in their own way. No M&S, Boots and Costa certainly, but there’s still a certain uniformity in the small shop fronts with goods stacked and hanging outside, and pedestrians, bullocks and auto rickshaws all jockeying for position in the crowded streets. Here’s the auto rickshaw that four of us (and our driver of course) contrived to travel home in after our trip…
I wasn’t so much wrong about India as didn’t have a clue.