The wake-up call came early in the morning, ending a restless night's sleep well before dawn. Although it's June, it's winter in southern Zambia with overnight lows in the 40s and highs in the 70s, and not a chance of rain. We pulled on an extra layer of clothing to ward off the chill and met our driver in front of the Royal Livingstone Hotel. I'd looked forward to this day since booking the trip, and now it had finally come.
An hour later, in the bush along the Zambezi River, our first game drive was about to get under way. We climbed wooden stairs to a platform 10 feet off the ground, threw one leg over a saddle and settled in behind the "driver" for an elephant-back safari.
Adult African elephants are 18 to 24 feet in length and 10 to 13 feet tall, and the first sensation from the saddle was just how high off the ground we really were. We lumbered away from the camp with huge, silly grins on our faces, finding the ride surprisingly smooth and comfortable.
The elephants had come from Zimbabwe across the river, a mix of orphans and others that had been selected to be culled -- killed -- due to perceived overpopulation. They were safe now, well fed and cared for and allowed to roam free with their young, except for a maximum of two one-hour treks each day.
There were five adult elephants in our group, each of which could carry up to two guests plus the trainer, and two adolescent elephants that tagged along for fun. The smallest of the adolescents was less than 3 feet tall and weighed 240 pounds. He was as playful as a puppy, barging through the guests while we stood on the ground just to see us scatter. He went out of his way to climb over obstacles we encountered, and frequently found himself straddling a fallen tree, with front or back legs dangling off the ground.
Elephants eat constantly, from 16 to 20 hours a day, and throughout the ride our elephant munched on leaves, twigs and flowers torn from bushes and trees. There are no lions or other big cats in this park that might bother these animals, so the only concerns were snakes that might spook them or wild elephants that could challenge our dominant male to a fight. To make sure that did not happen, we were accompanied by a guide who walked ahead on foot with a rifle that would be fired only to scare any wild elephant that became aggressive.
We saw no other elephants during our ride, but we did see impalas, waterbucks, eagles, wildebeest and giraffes. The last third of the trek was along the banks of the blue Zambezi, and at one point we waded in to let the elephants have a drink. Crocs and hippos baked in the sun on nearby islands.
If we had visited a bit earlier, we might have seen the last two white rhinos left in the entire country of Zambia, but they were shot just the week before, by poachers. The female was killed and her horn hacked off, and the male was critically wounded. The rhinos had been guarded 24 hours a day by armed game wardens, and no one seemed to know how this could have happened.
Rhino horns are highly prized in some parts of Asia for their supposed medicinal value, and in the Middle East they are used to make handles for daggers. Despite the pristine beauty of all we saw, one could not help but sense the fragility of the system here and throughout the game reserves of Africa, and the risks posed by greed and desperation and ignorance.
Back in camp, we hand-fed our elephants before saying goodbye and returned to the Royal Livingstone for lunch outdoors in the warm midday sun. But the day's adventure was far from over. By 2 p.m. we were 30 miles upstream from Victoria Falls, preparing to canoe the mighty Zambezi.
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