Have you ever dreamed of spending quality time with elephants? Then look no further than Abu camp, where guests are able to interact with the camp’s fascinating herd of rescued, orphaned, and raised elephants. But be warned: Your dreams may come true, but chances are you’ll only want more. No matter what you’ll come back with lasting memories and amazing safari photos.
Updated April 2020
Update: Abu Camp no longer allows guests to ride the elephants
In the middle of a shaded clearing stood Abu’s seven remarkable elephants, their big ears gently flapping in the heat, trunks casually picking grass with acute precision. Nearby, handlers dressed in head-to-toe khaki and aviator glasses kept watch. Roaming about was an adorable 1 ½-year-old calf named Warona, a very precocious tyke, whose puppy-like nature belied her chest-high stature.
Wellington, aka Welly, the chief handler, introduced us to the elephants. First was Cathy, the 53-year-old matriarch who would lead our little expedition into the bush, followed by the other adult females, Shireni and Kitmetse (Kitty). Next up were the “kids”, Shireni’s son, Little Abu, Kitty’s daughter, Lorato, and Paseka, an orphan that had been adopted into the herd a few years before after being ravaged by a pack of hyena. Warona, Shireni’s little girl, rounded out the lineup.
Cathy, Shireni, and Kitty were outfitted with heavily padded saddles that accommodated two guests, one seated behind the other like a toboggan, handlers in front. I was assigned to Kitty and mounted her via a raised platform. Kitty’s gait swayed as if we were in a canoe floating on a wake of honey, and as we ambled along, the view from her back offered a whole new perspective of the landscape.
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Walking with giants
Walking with the herd was a completely different experience and my favorite way to spend my time with the herd. It’s easier for guests to ask questions, take photos, and touch the elephants along the way, and I did all three with a vengeance.
I was fascinated by details impossible to see from a jeep. I had no idea that an elephant’s eyes were brilliant amber or that their skin feels like a supple radial tire covered in sandpaper.
Walking behind Cathy, her feet reminded me of large sandbags, bulging and retracting, as her weight came down then lifted. Every time I was with the elephants I saw something new that struck me with awe.
It was also a kick to watch the relationship between the handlers and their elephants. Whenever Cathy stopped during a walk to feed — which was all the time — Big Joe would give her a few minutes to shove in a mouthful or two and then he would say, in his baritone voice, “Move on, Cathy… Cathy, move on.”
I could tell that Cathy heard him, her eyes shifting up ever so slightly, head tilting, but as often as not, she wouldn’t move until she’d eaten more. It was clear that “moving on” was a bit of a compromise.
Abu’s six luxury tents are located in an exceptionally beautiful area overlooking grassy plains and a hippo-laden lagoon. Each room is a testament to understated luxury that includes a cavernous outdoor tub, indoor and outdoor showers, a writing area and a private deck that looks out on to the water.
The camp organized special excursions that were beautifully executed and a perfect opportunity to get to know the other guests. One night we were taken to a clearing where a living room had been set up for cocktails and a screening of a documentary about Paseka’s dramatic arrival to Abu. The grass was decorated with rugs, couches, chairs, and lanterns, and as the sun dipped into the horizon, we sipped champagne and snacked on bags of gourmet popcorn.
Return to the Wild
Over the years, when elephants have shown signs of wanting to leave the camp, the handlers, in conjunction with the director of Elephants Without Borders and under the guidance of Wild Horizons Wildlife Trust, work to release these elephants back into the bush. Cathy was rescued from a circus and wouldn’t know how to live in the wild so she’s a permanent resident.
• Camp amenities: Six airy tents that blend beautifully into the environment; a small pool; a library stocked with field guides and African literature; Wi-Fi (the only camp on my trip that had it); gym equipment.
• Camp activities: Elephant walks and rides; game drives; bird watching; motorboat or makoro rides; seasonal catch-and-release fishing; small plane or helicopter tours can also be arranged. You can spend the night under the stars on a deck above the elephant enclosure. (I highly recommend it.)
• In-room amenities: In-room safe; laundry; hairdryer; minibar, indoor and outdoor showers; large outdoor tub; Africology-brand toiletries.
• My guide: Newman. A kind and extremely knowledgeable guide.
• Meals: Dinners are served al fresco at separate tables on the camp’s main deck. Dinners tend to be on the formal side (in presentation, not dress), and there is an excellent selection of wine.
• Animals in camp: A bunch of beautiful birds, impala and hippos and at night.
I recommend Abu Camp for…
• Travelers who want to indulge in a wildlife fantasy by spending some quality time physically interacting with elephants.
• Honeymooners who love romantic settings, alfresco dinners, and luxurious rooms.
• People who want a different kind of safari experience.
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