The first elephant ride of Isabella Bird



A truly hideous beast

The elephant at last came up and was brought below the porch.
They are truly hideous beasts, with their gray, wrinkled, hairless hides, the huge ragged "flappers" which cover their ears, and with which they fan themselves ceaselessly, the small, mean eyes, the hideous proboscis which coils itself snakishly round everything; the formless legs, so like trunks of trees; the piggish back, with the steep slope down to the mean, bare tail, and the general unlikeness to all familiar and friendly beasts.

How to mount an elephant

Before I came I dreamt of howdahs and cloth of gold trappings, but my elephant had neither.
In fact there was nothing grand about him but his ugliness. His back was covered with a piece of raw hide, over which were several mats, and on either side of the ridgy backbone a shallow basket, filled with fresh leaves and twigs, and held in place by ropes of rattan.
I dropped into one of these baskets from the porch, a young Malay lad into the other, and my bag was tied on behind with rattan.

Not happy with the mahout

A noose of the same with a stirrup served for the driver to mount.
He was a Malay, wearing only a handkerchief and sarong, a gossiping, careless fellow, who jumped off whenever he had a chance of a talk, and left us to ourselves. He drove with a stick with a curved spike at the end of it, which, when the elephant was bad, was hooked into the membranous "flapper," always evoking the uprearing and brandishing of the proboscis, and a sound of ungentle expostulation, which could be heard a mile off.
He sat on the head of the beast, sometimes cross-legged, and sometimes with his legs behind the huge ear covers.

An uncomfortable ride

This mode of riding is not comfortable. One sits facing forward with the feet dangling over the edge of the basket.* This edge soon produces a sharp ache or cramp, and when one tries to get relief by leaning back on anything, the awkward, rolling motion is so painful, that one reverts to the former position till it again becomes intolerable.
Then the elephant had not been loaded "with brains," and his pack was as troublesome as the straw shoes of the Japanese horses. It was always slipping forward or backward, and as I was heavier than the Malay lad, I was always slipping down and trying to wriggle myself up on the great ridge which was the creature's backbone, and always failing, and the mahout was always stopping and pulling the rattan ropes which bound the whole arrangement together, but never succeeding in improving it.

How to unmount an elephant

Before we had traveled two hours, the great bulk of the elephant, without any warning, gently subsided behind, and then as gently in front, the huge, ugly legs being extended in front of him, and the man signed to me to get off, which I did by getting on his head and letting myself down by a rattan rope upon the driver, who made a step of his back, for even when "kneeling," as this queer attitude is called, a good ladder is needed for comfortable getting off and on.
While the whole arrangement of baskets was being re-rigged, I clambered into a Malay dwelling of the poorer class, and was courteously received and regaled with bananas and buffalo milk.

Her first experience with leeches

I had walked on for some distance, and I had to walk back again before I found my elephant. I had been poking about in the scrub in search of some acid fruits, and when I got back to the road, was much surprised to find that my boots were filled with blood, and on looking for the cause I found five small brown leeches, beautifully striped with yellow, firmly attached to my ankles.
I had not heard that these were pests in PÍrak, and feared that they were something worse; but the elephant driver, seeing my plight, made some tobacco juice and squirted it over the creatures, when they recoiled in great disgust. Owing to the exercise I was obliged to take, the bites bled for several hours. I do not remember feeling the first puncture.
I have now heard that these blood-suckers infest leaves and herbage, and that when they hear the rustling made by man or animal in passing, they stretch themselves to their fullest length, and if they can touch any part of his body or dress they hold on to it, and as quickly as possible reach some spot where they can suck their fill.

The mahout helps her to mount again

Certainly I always dreamed that there must be something splendid in riding on an elephant, but I don't feel the least accession of dignity in consequence. When the pack was adjusted, the mahout jumped on the back, and giving me his hands hauled me up over the head, after which the creature rose gently from the ground, and we went on our journey.

Her elephant goes his own way

But the ride was "a fearful joy," if a joy at all! Soon the driver jumped off for a gossip and a smoke, leaving the elephant to "gang his ain gates" for a mile or more, and he turned into the jungle, where he began to rend and tear the trees, and then going to a mud-hole, he drew all the water out of it, squirted it with a loud noise over himself and his riders, soaking my clothes with it, and when he turned back to the road again, he several times stopped and seemed to stand on his head by stiffening his proboscis and leaning upon it, and when I hit him with my umbrella he uttered the loudest roar I ever heard.
My Malay fellow-rider jumped off and ran back for the driver, on which the panniers came altogether down on my side, and I hung on with difficulty, wondering what other possible contingencies could occur, always expecting that the beast, which was flourishing his proboscis, would lift me off with it and deposit me in a mud-hole.

Her elephant remains unruly

On the driver's return I had to dismount again, and this time the elephant was allowed to go and take a proper bath in a river. He threw quantities of water over himself, and took up plenty more with which to cool his sides as he went along. Thick as the wrinkled hide of an elephant looks, a very small insect can draw blood from it, and, when left to himself, he sagaciously plasters himself with mud to protect himself like the water buffalo. Mounting again, I rode for another two hours, but he crawled about a mile an hour, and seemed to have a steady purpose to lie down. He roared whenever he was asked to go faster, sometimes with a roar of rage, sometimes in angry and sometimes in plaintive remonstrance.
The driver got off and walked behind him, and then he stopped altogether. Then the man tried to pull him along by putting a hooked stick in his huge "flapper," but this produced no other effect than a series of howls; then he got on his head again, after which the brute made a succession of huge stumbles, each one of which threatened to be a fall, and then the driver, with a look of despair, got off again.

She decides to walk

Then I made signs that I would get off, but the elephant refused to lie down, and I let myself down his unshapely shoulder by a rattan rope, till I could use the mahout's shoulders as steps. The baskets were taken off and left at a house, the elephant was turned loose in the jungle; I walked the remaining miles to Kwala Kangsa, and the driver carried my portmanteau!

"It was a wicked elephant!"

Such was the comical end of my first elephant ride. I think that altogether I walked about eight miles, and I was not knocked up; this says a great deal for the climate of PÍrak. The Malay who came with me told the people here that it was "a wicked elephant," but I have since been told "that it was very sick and tired to death," which I hope is the true version of its most obnoxious conduct.