*** Update 3/2018: Before visiting the elephant sanctuary, please read this document describing the dangers – to the animals – of any interaction with humans. Specifically, see pages 8-13 for “free contact” and pages 26-27 for elephant back riding, both offered at the Elephant Sanctuary. Also read this excellent blog post about animal interactions in South Africa in general, and why they are bad, whether it is with lion cubs, elephants, or any other animals. I knew none of this at the time I wrote this blog post. ***
It was probably the most distasteful kiss I ever received. And definitely the muddiest. And smelliest. But how many people can say they’ve been kissed by an elephant on their birthday?
We certainly didn’t plan it this way. It was a Sunday in July of 2010 which just happened to be my birthday and we were looking for a day’s outing in the vicinity. It was one of those crisp and beautiful days only the South African winter can produce, so we were eager to spend it outdoors.
After the obligatory Google check and the study of some maps, we settled on Hartbeespoort Dam, a beautiful lake to the Northwest of Johannesburg. The road leading there is pretty adventurous for the newly-arrived expat in South Africa, as we were at the time. It winds its way up into the Magaliesberg mountains, is riddled with potholes, and on weekends frequented by adventurous bikers who love nothing more than overtaking you in the most hair-raising maneuvers. But what awaits you at the end is breathtaking: A beautiful view into the valley down below where the turquoise waters of the lake are spread out between the mountains.
Please note that I don’t have a picture of this view, probably due to the fact that by that time we had passed several “Hijack Hotspot” signs along the road. We were not inclined to stop and find out what exactly that meant.
It turns out the lake is a bit of a let-down after that first view. The reason the water is so beautifully turquoise from a distance is that the lake is the victim of severe algae growth due to all the agricultural runoff seeping into it. Most people warn against actually swimming in it. Which might explain why we couldn’t really find any nice lakeside beach clubs where one might sip a cappuccino and then perhaps rent a boat. We circled and circled and didn’t find much in terms of public lake access. So when we came across a sign to the Elephant Sanctuary, on the other side of the lake, we decided to check it out instead.
It’s not that easy to get all our family on a weekend outing. Some people don’t want to go anywhere. Some people are in the middle of something at the very moment it’s time to leave. Some people have planned to do all their homework on this particular Sunday and had they only known about this outing, they would have made room for it for sure and done their homework on Saturday (yeah right!). And if we do succeed in coaxing (some might call it bribing or worse) everyone into the car, we still have five different opinions of what we should be doing or should have done.
Taking all this into consideration, the Elephant Sanctuary ended up being a huge success. No one complained afterwards that it had been a complete waste, which in light of there being two teenagers in our family I count in the plus column for sure. We learned all about elephants, the role of the sanctuary taking in orphaned and otherwise damaged animals and educating the public about them, how they typically learn to understand several languages, how their trainers develop bonds with them over the years, and how dangerous they can be if one misreads the signals.
All in all another beautiful day in Africa. And we’ll always cherish the memory of being kissed by an elephant.
This article is part of Joburg Expat’s What To Do in Joburg series.