Elephants and Water: Remembering An Unforgettable Encounter

Recently I have been telling the tale of how I tweaked my knee during one of my most memorable adventures. The knee has been acting up and I’ve been going around to the medical community investigating how to best improve its function. You might enjoy the escapade vicariously, sans the knee injury. 

About thirteen years ago I was invited to join a Sierra Club trek in the Himalayas which included an elephant safari. It was scheduled toward the end of the 17 day trek through the lower Annapurna Mountains of Nepal. It was the final highlight, an elephant safari through the jungle of Chitwan National Park in southern Nepal.

Our safari included three elephants and ten trekkers. Our goal was to search the jungle and spot a rare one-horned rhino. The expedition was a great success as we spotted an entire family of them: a mother, father and offspring. All done from atop our 11,000 pound female elephants. When the adventure was over the mahouts positioned the three elephants in the shallow water of the river. Our guide, Raj, then asked if anyone wanted to sit on an elephant and be sprayed. Somehow my hand went up!

Once settled on the elephant’s bare back, I was getting comfortable when suddenly WHAM I was blasted by a trunk full of cold water!! My fellow travelers screamed from the riverbank, “Donna close your mouth!”I tried to close it when suddenly, WHAM!!! She sprayed me again. By now I was yelling with glee! She sprayed me five times!! It was great fun. I could not believe I was in Nepal being sprayed by a gigantic elephant. 

Sometime later, when all of us had had our fill of being sprayed, Raj asked. “So does anyone want to clean the elephants?” 


Again, my apparently autonomous arm shot up! “I do!” I exclaimed. Of course I again had no idea what this entailed. Raj directed me back into the water while my tour mates watched on. By now the three elephants were lounging on their sides in the waist high water. Clearly it was their spa day. I trudged down the bank and positioned myself at an elephant’s back where I began to spread water up on her skin and rub. It was marvelous. As I cleaned her I admired the thick dark grey hide which felt rough to my touch. She seemed to enjoy the attention. 

After a while I grew more confident. I waded up to her head and began cleaning her enormous ear. I rubbed gently and she seemed to lean into my touch. As I continued, I studied her beautiful thick eye lashes, the few graceful hairs on her head. I noted the look of contentment in the visible eye. She was so huge. It was wonderful. I could hardly take a breath for feeling the enormity of the moment I was sharing with her. She was still and relaxed. We both seemed to have moved into a kind of bliss. It lasted for long minutes.

Soon my fellow elephant cleaners were climbing out of the water through the mud onto the bank. The rain was coming down. We were soaked and becoming chilled. Everyone was heading back to camp but me. I was still glued to my elephant’s beautiful head. Finally from the shore, Raj, called, “So Donna are you staying?”


That pulled me from my reverie. “Could I?” I asked meekly.


Raj smiled as he replied, “Yes.” Clearly it was time to go back. But, I lingered, lost in the enormity of the moment as the group began to leave. I knew the elephant’s ancestors thrived in Africa some 20 million years ago. She was probably the closest I would ever get to a creature with links to our prehistoric past. Precious minutes ticked by as I was immersed in the encounter. The elephant continued to lean into me and I into her.

Eventually one of the trainers came back to help me to shore. I was far behind my group and had no idea which direction to turn once I got up from the river. I sort of stumbled along a trail. Eventually, I came upon three Terai women who were out gathering the morning crops. I think they read my zen-like expression and realized I was disoriented. They giggled a bit at my expense. I was, after all, dripping wet in my bathing suit. They knew I was lost!  


They approached me with care, gently turning me around and pointing me in the opposite direction. We shared smiles and one lady squeezed my arm in affection. Here I was, a stranger, half way around the planet in a foreign culture, being assisted by beautiful sari-dressed women who reached out to me as partners in a journey. We did not share language, nor customs, but we did share a bond of understanding. 

Poignant, short lived and beautiful. It was a day that lives in my memory. It was not until the next morning when it was time to pack up and walk to our vans that I realized I could not put weight on my knee!


Goodness! That was a problem! My trip mates took over getting me cold packs and rolling my suitcase to the vehicle. When I got back home and into see the orthopedic surgeon, he immediately scheduled me for surgery to repair my torn meniscus.

Now years later, the knee has started to give me trouble and hence I have taken steps to resolve the problem. However, the majesty of the encounter far outweighs the injury. I smile when I think of it: elephants, water, and the gracious Tarai women. It also speaks to the value of putting ourselves in the path of opportunity.


Does this story remind you of a time that something unexpected or remarkable happened to you? I would love to hear about it. I’ll keep you posted about my knee.


My best, donna