Roaming with Knysna’s giants

The raggedy hem of the Knysna forest gives no indication of the full skirts of green that await visitors. Even the path that skips through scabby barks and fungi-encrusted logs is not permanent; the forest laps at the path’s ankles, threatening to take back what it owns. 

The green lung of the southern Cape is a greedy diner, sucking up debris from the forest floor, devouring the light from above. 

I’ve come to walk on the paths where Dalene Matthee drew inspiration for her forest novels and, of course, to catch a glimpse of the Knysna elephants. 

I’ve loved elephants since childhood and bought the Disney propaganda that Dumbo was goofy and gentle. My grandmother played Mancini’s Baby Elephant Walk on the piano, her fingers stumbling across the keys much the way a baby elephant would ignore a tar road. She played it again and again at my command while I dreamed of playing with baby elephants. 

She also made me a beautiful ellie that I adored. The stuffed toy became moth-eaten, misshapen and eventually, after years on my sunny windowsill, crumbled. But my love for the animal has never wavered. 

The towering stinkwood, assegai, hard pear and alder trees stand shoulder to shoulder and the damp, leafy carpet on the forest floor muffles the sound of human footsteps. If there are elephants padding in the undergrowth, one probably would not hear them. There was certainly no bulky pat of elephant dung or broken trees to indicate we had missed their passing. 

A recent American study would have us believe at least five females roam the forest, but SANParks officials have yet to corroborate these independent findings. In the 1800s the forest was home to hundreds of elephants, but by the early 1900s they were hunted to the point of extinction for their ivory. 

Specially guided tours take visitors through the forest, leading them past old mine shafts, meadows of bushman’s pillow and other interesting “forestabilia”, but there are no photographs to prove that the elusive bigfoot has been seen. 

However, Knysna does have elephants, in dedicated elephant sanctuaries where it is possible to get close to loose-limbed baby elephants and adult orphans moved from Namibia and Kruger. The parks make no apology for the tourist activities on offer. 

From a distance, I watch baby elephants toddle after each other, their tails swaying, accentuating their vulnerability, their small legs shuffling as they chug behind the grey bulk of taller elephants. Their curious little periscopes wave in the air, and occasionally collude with a sharp lower lip to yank clumps of grass from the ground. 

To my disappointment, these baby ellies are not small. Almost 1.5m tall, they are neither cuddly nor playful – they are wild animals. You can walk among them and have your photograph taken with them, but the juicy grass is far more important than your agenda and a flapping ear or wayward trunk will knock you out of the way. Still, I realise a dream of a lifetime at the Knysna Elephant Sanctuary by riding one of the giants. 

Elephant hide feels like an unplastered wall, rough, ridged and stubbly. The large beast kneels to allow the rider to mount and when it stands, the rider is horizontal to the ground and it feels like it takes forever for the elephant to rise. 

If you were the girl who couldn’t do the splits at ballet, chances are you’re going to struggle to sit astride the elephant’s spine-ridged, wide table back. 

Elephants do not walk; they sway forward, then backward until the rear catches up with the front, then they sway forward again. It’s like riding a pendulum. 

When we reach a muddy-banked waterhole, the sociable creatures spray water on themselves, turning their taupe skins to glossy black, and as I observe their keen self-control, I am in awe of the superlative strength that is harnessed by a superior dignity that many humans do not possess. 

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