Dayle Green gets far more than she bargained for at an elephant conservation park near Ubud.

In a scene that is straight out of Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book, I am perched atop an Asian elephant, riding through the forest. But I am not in India, or Nepal, or Thailand or Sumatra, all places where you might reasonably expect to find Asian elephants. I am in Bali.

Many Asian cultures consider the elephant to be a symbol of luck, wisdom and strength. Perhaps my husband thought I needed a good dose of all three for the year ahead when he organised a surprise visit to Bali's Elephant Safari Park.

At first I am a little sceptical about visiting an elephant conservation park in Bali, an island that has never provided natural habitat for wild elephants, and is not known for its high regard for animal welfare. However the park was awarded the "Best Environmentally Friendly Tourist Attraction" in Indonesia in 2010 and is an accredited member of the World Zoo Association. The late Steve Irwin also gave it the thumbs up, saying it was "the best elephant park" he had ever seen. So I check my cynicism at the gate and enter with an open mind.

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The Elephant Safari Park is at Taro, about 20 minutes north of Ubud in the central highlands of Bali. As we purchase our admission tickets we are advised there is an hour wait for our elephant ride. This gives us just enough time to feed some elephants, watch the elephant show and be enthralled by what we can see at the elephant nursery.

The elephant show is short (only 15 minutes) and is designed to showcase natural elephant behaviour as well as demonstrate how smart the elephants are in being able to perform small tricks such as kicking a soccer ball, swinging a hula hoop, shooting a basketball and painting. All pretty tame stuff.

When a couple of the elephants fail to complete their tasks they are not punished. "We never push them," our cheery host says.

As we return to the feeding area our name is called and it is time for our ride. We clamber aboard as elegantly as possible and our giant steed lurches off. Almost immediately I get more than I bargained for. Brushing past a tree, a large, brilliant-green chameleon drops from above and scurries across my chest before taking a very long dive to the ground and, thankfully, our elephant is not alarmed by the sound of my scream.

As we make our way through the beautiful park grounds and into the forest we try to grow accustomed to the awkward rolling gait of the giant creature, while our mahout (driver) sympathises with us from his cross-legged perch on the elephant's head. "Every night I have a sore bottom," he confides. If he can't get used to it, what hope have we got?

We are surprised to hear that our mahout made the long journey all the way from Sumatra with his elephant seven years ago. Later in the cafe we watch snippets of Operation Jumbo, an hour-long documentary of the military-like operation in which 10 Sumatran elephants were rescued from appalling conditions, and then transported 3000 kilometres by truck across Sumatra and Java to their new home in Bali. The elephants in the park were relocated from government-run "training camps" where wild elephants, with nowhere else to go due to loss of habitat, are relocated and chained up indefinitely. Nigel Mason and his Balinese wife Yanie are the directors of Bali Adventure Tours, the oldest and most successful adventure tour operator in Bali. When Nigel found nine Sumatran elephants living in a dried-out rice field at Taro in 1996 he bought the site and the elephants from their owner, and the Elephant Safari Park was born.

Eight elephants were rescued from Sumatra in 1997 and the 10 elephants featured in Operation Jumbo made their journey to the park in 2004. The birth of three babies at the park in 2009 brings the total in the herd to 30. While most of the mahouts have been trained in Bali, about 15 are originally from Sumatra and are now resettled at Taro. About 90 per cent of the park staff come from the local community, which has significantly raised the living conditions for the people of Taro. Much of the elephant food is also sourced locally.

The park features a large concrete pond where the elephants can play and bathe. We leave happy with our elephant experience, my scepticism replaced with admiration for the hard work that has gone into transforming the site into a lush botanic park, and appreciation for the dogged persistence that has gone into the rescue and relocation of these endangered animals.

Trip notes
Getting there Elephant Safari Park and Lodge is at Taro, 15 kilometres north of Ubud in Bali. Bali Adventure Tours offers a fully inclusive tour package that includes transfers from major tourist centres, or you can organise a driver through your hotel.

The park is open 8am to 6pm daily. Entry to the park and an elephant ride costs $US86 ($83) for adults, $US58 for children or $US259 for a family. baliadventuretours.com.

Staying there Visitors can stay overnight at the park's lodge from $US280 a night. An elephant will pick you up and take you to dinner, and the park also offers night safari rides. elephantsafariparklodge.com.

Read more: http://www.smh.com.au/travel/join-the-jumbo-jet-set-20130418-2i2c7.html#ixzz2U4oXNWxA

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