07/29/2012 10:08 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Petting Elephants in South Africa

I'm enjoying the fact that, in South Africa, people drive on the left. This has given me a rare opportunity to be condescending toward my boyfriend Steve, who is a nuclear engineer.

I'll say, "take the next left onto Tweebuffelsmeteenskootmorsdoodgeskietfontein street," and then he'll make a right, taking us on an impromptu tour of what South Africans call an "informal settlement." That may sound like a place where shirts are optional and every day is casual day, and it is, but not in a fun way. Then we'd stall out in one of these colorful neighborhoods, because our rental car's gear shift and clutch are opposite what Steve's used to. No, the other left, I'll say, with an air of superiority as we lock our doors and roll up the windows.

Despite these detours, we managed to make it out of Cape Town and head east, hugging the southern coast of Africa. The drive was, in a word, stunning. Rugged mountains loom over fields the color of tennis balls, and cliffs plunge dramatically into Tanzanite-blue ocean. "It looks like California," said Steve, who is from Orange County. He's right -- Africa's southern coast appears to be a seriously scaled-up version of Highway 1 -- one where mountain peaks disappear into clouds, and the surf crashes with such force it can wash out entire beaches.

I know what I'm talking about. When we arrived at our first stop, Plettenberg Bay, the beach had been washed out by floods -- which put the kibosh on our whale watching and SCUBA diving plans. Driving rains also dampened our desire to explore the sleepy resort town on foot, so we decided to go feed some elephants instead.

Now, in the beach towns I'm familiar with, bored families head to mini golf courses or chase one another in souped up go-karts. Here in South Africa, wildlife "sanctuaries" play that role -- tourist traps with questionable environmental value, but amazing photo ops. There are monkey sanctuaries, bird sanctuaries, lion sanctuaries, snake sanctuaries and even wolf sanctuaries, though these creatures clearly don't belong in Africa and appear not to like the climate very much. We opted for an elephant sanctuary, which allows tourists with poor decision-making skills to spend the night with the elephants in their barn. Well, technically, you sleep in a hotel room built into an elephant barn, but, as one 11-year-old girl told me:, "You can still hear them farting and pooping all night."

So Steve and I opted just to feed the elephants. But first we had to watch a video, which outlined the following safety rules:

  • Don't bend over for any reason.
  • Don't drink alcoholic beverages near the elephants.

Are the elephants recovering alcoholics? Former prison inmates? We never got any clarification from the elephant handlers, who had their hands full keeping us from being gored. I'm not being dramatic -- just a year ago, an elephant at this very park trampled a keeper. This same elephant, "Harry," also killed a man outright in 2005. Surprisingly, "Watch out for Harry," wasn't included in the elephant safety briefing.

Not knowing any of this at the time, I bounced along in the tractor across a muddy field to the herd of elephants, and felt nothing more than giddy excitement when they stampeded in my direction. The keepers then ushered the elephants behind a metal pole, where they (the elephants) stretched out their trunks and plucked beets right off my palm. I also chucked a few pieces of sweet potato right into one elephant's enormous, gaping maw. It was an incredible experience. If you were wondering, elephants have extremely dry, cracked skin and very long eyelashes. And this may seem obvious, but I have a new appreciation for the fact that they are very, very, very big.

My thirst to see giant grey mammals, however, wasn't fully quenched. Luckily, just as we were leaving Plett, city officials reconstituted the beach, allowing whale watching to resume. We boarded a large boat on a trailer, parked on the beach. Then, the captain explained the launch procedure: "Bob* here is going to back the boat as fast as possible into the ocean, and then stop abruptly."

"There may be a big 'bump' as we slide off the trailer," he added.

The launch, however, didn't go nearly that smoothly. Bob backed us into the ocean, all right, but instead of heading out to sea, the boat wedged itself into the sand. Waves beat against the hull, slowly turning us sideways, while Bob, on the other side of the boat, attempted to poke the boat forward with the end of the trailer. The captain revved the engines, immediately filling them with sand. Meanwhile, a couple in the back of the boat developed an impressive case of sea-sickness, especially considering that we were no more than 10 feet from shore.

As Bob and the captain worked to free the boat, we passengers helped by leaning back and forth, which I'm sure the sea-sick couple also appreciated. And, not to toot my own horn, but just as I moved to the front of the boat, a particularly large wave came crashing into shore, dislodging the boat and drenching my jeans with ice-cold water.

That was the high point of the trip, as the Southern Right Whales we were looking for had all left the bay when the weather got bad. We did, however, glimpse a Bryde's whale -- a sneaky little guy that our tour guide said they almost never see. Seeing that whale was actually pretty exciting, but not as exciting as getting the boat back onto land.

"What we're going to do," the captain explained, "is go full speed at the beach, and aim for the trailer."

And that's exactly what we did.


* Name changed because I forgot it.