Dances with Elephant

Inspired by reading the story of the man who was swallowed by a hippo, I give you an extract of my memoir –

Mic_boom_with_windshieldThe soft news programme “Cefn gwlad” (Fresh Air) for S4C, regularly employed my limited skills as a sound recordist,  on this occasion in 1987 it was a visit to the animal sanctuary near Llanpumpsaint, Skanda Vale.

The place was called “The community of the many names of God”, and it was a lovely sunny valley setting where the “Swami” explained to us that the animal sanctuary was all part of the philosophy of the Community that celebrated all the religions of the world, while the main aspect was inescapably Hindu.

Among the very tame wildlife, they had a few 28 year old Jersey cows, goats, the odd sheep, a range of ducks, exotic birds, all sorts of animals that were unwanted or rescued. But easily the main attraction was Valli, the orphaned Sri Lankan elephant.

While we were filming this wonderful animal the cameraman noticed that Valli seemed to have an eye for the “Doogal”, the fluffy grey windsock cover for my short gun microphone. We suspected it looked very much like a trunk. He wanted a shot of the elephant in close up and so at his suggestion I moved behind the camera and used a boom pole to dangle the microphone above the lens. Sure enough this brought Valli towards him and he got some great shots of her trunk swinging up and around the lens as I rotated the boom, teasing the elephant by withdrawing the mic as she looked to coil her trunk around it.

I was charmed by the place, and the Swami’s explanation of why he had given up his posh boy job and comfortable public school education-based security to become a monk at this Ashram. We had a cup of tea with the Guru and he wondered allowed if there might be a reason that the film crew had come that was more to do with who was in the crew rather than the finished film. His almost permanent charismatic smile at whoever he was talking to was perhaps one reason why I made up my mind to come back to this place at an early opportunity.

The Easter meditation course they offered in 1988 was a week of hard learning at the Ashram, and during this time I learned many things,

One example,  that Valli the elephant liked banana skins more than any other food, and so I asked for the chance to take some up to her, the chief cook gave me a few and smiled knowingly. I walked up the fairly steep hill at dawn to the specially built Elephant house, feet dampened by the dew from the long grass between the path and the tall building where I knew the elephant would be with her minder.

I walked in tentatively and asked if it was OK to give Valli the skins. He said yes but to put them on the stone floor and then stand back. She was quickly upon them and had snaffled the lot before I had stepped more than one pace back. I stood still and watched in awe as she eyed me, chewing the ten banana peels.

I took another step back, The elephant instantly took a step back. I took another step back and found myself colliding with the roof support beam, so took a step sideways. She took a step back, …and then sideways…
this was suddenly very interesting.

I slowly took two sliding steps sideways to the left.
She mirrored this action perfectly.
I took two steps back to the right and did a “hokey cokey” foot in the air.
She mirrored this perfectly again.

My next move to the left was slightly forward and sideways, a little faster, and again the kick in the air. There was no doubt at all, as she did the same again, I was laughing, and dancing with an elephant.
On the very next move sideways however, she took a step further forward than before and reached swiftly out with her trunk to grab my arm.

Before I had any time to react, she had pulled me towards her and downwards, with irresistible strength, and placed her mouth over my head in a manner whereby I could still see but both my ears were covered by her, very soft, mouth. I have since seen photographs of an Indian trainer being lifted in such a position with his legs crossed, but my instinct then was one of slight panic.

The monk/keeper was also clearly in a worried state, though I could barely hear him shout, and I believe he hit Valli with his stick and told her “NO!”.
At this point she instantly let go and I made an undignified stumbling recovery to a standing position. Brother keeper told me to get down the hill for breakfast and suggested it might be best not to mention this episode, for his sake, so I agreed not to tell anyone.

valli1

Until now

 

This is that elephant, Valli, taken at around that time as she grazed the meadows in “The field of the five saints”

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