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Riding Elephants in Botswana

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© Alexandra Penney

Traveling with wildlife expert and guide Michael Lorentz through the Okavango Delta.

New York—on this impossibly beautiful April evening, the temperature is much closer to that of Botswana’s Okavango Delta than to Midtown Manhattan this time of year. Stars seem to sparkle in the early evening—or is it just the lights of Tiffany’s, Bergdorf Goodman, and, yes, as one invited guest pointed out, Joan Rivers’s penthouse? Right now, wildlife expert and guide Michael Lorentz is surrounded by a gaggle of curious New Yorkers invited by two of his biggest supporters to hear his tales of Botswana and romantic safaris on elephant-back through dusty savannahs and across lagoons filled with crocodiles and hippos. New York Times reporter Guy Trebay, pencil in hand, takes notes for “The Gimlet Eye,” his cheeky weekly column on the comings and goings of the city’s own urban primates. The very social Jamee Gregory asks for Lorentz’s card, later dropping a note, “We’ve always wanted to go. But now we have the man to take us there.”

Here, on a tenth-floor terrace suite of The Pierre hotel, The Elephant Whisperer has come to talk specifically about Abu, the tented camp he manages in Botswana that accommodates eight, possibly ten, guests who come to live among the creatures he so loves.

“Abu is a complete immersion into a single species, which happens to be one of the most charismatic of all land mammals,” Lorentz says. “The African elephant has always inspired a vast range of responses in us—awe, excitement, happiness, fear, wonder, laughter, respect, and humility. They possess a deep level of emotional intelligence, and being privileged enough to spend time with them in their natural environment is, quite simply, one of those things you have to do before you die.”

Last September photographer Alexandra Penney and I did just that, traveling 40-something hours, first on British Airways to Johannesburg, then to Maun, Botswana, where we flew on a 14-year-old single-engine Cessna 206 to a dusty little private airstrip for a 20-minute drive to Abu, a 500,000-acre game camp founded 20 years ago by American environmentalist and entrepreneur Randall Moore and now owned, in part, by Microsoft’s Paul Allen. Abu was meant first as a refuge for orphaned and endangered elephants, and second as a safari camp. In 1987 Moore was approached by a South African film producer looking for several trained elephants for a movie he was making in the Knysna Forest of South Africa. Moore, surprisingly, found his elephant, Abu, in a wildlife park in Grand Prairie, Texas, and another, Benny, in a zoo in Fort Worth. Both elephants were believed to be orphans from South Africa’s Kruger National Park; Abu was being tragically mistreated in the mistaken belief that he was in a hormonally heightened condition called musth, during which bull elephants can become highly aggressive. After much attention and TLC from Moore, Abu, Benny, and a cow called Cathy were put on a boat to South Africa for their starring roles in the movie Circles in a Forest—and, unwittingly, as the founding elephants at the camp Moore would name Abu. Moore was a pioneer at the time, proving to the world that indeed the African elephant could be “trained,” in his words, “but never, ever tamed.” In 1991 he was joined by a young fellow named Michael Lorentz, now managing director of Elephant Back Safaris, whose most prominent property is Abu.

The main camp at Abu is peacefully situated on the edge of a lagoon amid a voluptuous overgrowth of marshes and hardwood trees. While there are grander camps—Grumeti and Singita are two I have personally experienced and written about in these pages—few possess more authenticity or greater sense of real place. Abu is, in fact, rather modest by the standards of those above—there is, for example, no infinity pool or WiFi service, and the main lodge is a simply appointed open-air salon set over a large and expansive wooden deck for drinking, dining, and socializing. There are five individual canvas tents, impeccably appointed in a sort of Afro-Bedouin style. (A renovation is currently under way and should be completed by next March.) At night one falls asleep—or do I mean is kept wide awake?—with the slobbering crunch of hippos night-grazing in the waters just outside your tent.

Abu is obviously devoted to the pursuit of bush luxury, great style, service, comfort, and food. And while it embraces as many up-to-date eco/green initiatives as possible, all this is merely a backdrop to the real reason for coming: sharing a few days of your life with some of the most wonderful creatures on earth. As Moore once remarked, “I have been let down time and time again by humans, but very rarely by an elephant.” That means more than just riding the elephants. It means living among them 24/7 while they are walking, feeding, mud-bathing, swimming, even sleeping. A platform bed has been built in the elephants’ boma—or quarters—that lets you literally sleep among them.

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