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Best in Travel 2013

Best places to see elephants (up close)

There’s nothing quite like an elephant encounter to gain some perspective on life (and we’re not talking zoos). Here are our top picks. This article is an excerpt from Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2013.

Chobe National Park & Okavango Delta, Botswana

With an elephant population of 70,000, the highest concentration in the world, Chobe tops the bucket list of any ellie lover. This is a pachyderm paradise: you’ll regularly hear the rumbles and calls of these Kalahari kings, the largest of all elephants, see them in massive groups at the river (don’t get too close), and encounter them along the road. Got an elephant-sized bank balance? Venture outside the park to the sumptuous Abu camp for lots of one-on-one time with the on-site herd, and take up the rare opportunity to snooze among the elephants in the ‘star bed’ overlooking their boma.

During the dry season the ellies congregate around the Chobe and Linyanti river in Chobe; in the rainy season head for the southeast of the national park.

Hongsa, Laos

Situated on an emerald plain ringed by densely forested mountains, the remote town of Hongsa, Sayaboury province, is little-touched by modern life. For Laos, once called the ‘land of a million elephants’, it’s elephant-central: with a concentration of domesticated elephants in this part of the province, mahouts still carry on an age-old tradition with their charges, working in the logging industry. Give an ellie and its owner a well-deserved day away from the grind by inviting them to be your tour guides. There are also elephant encounters of hefty proportions in mid-February at the Elephant Festival in Sayaboury, a day devoted to all things elephant.

Hongsa is a day’s journey by public bus from Luang Prabang. For accommodation try the Jumbo Guesthouse at www.lotuselephant.com.

Selous Reserve, Tanzania

You’ve heard of peeping toms, but how about an elephant trunk peeking over the top of your bathroom door? Or being escorted to your tent by an ellie (and a Maasai guard) after breakfasting mere steps from the massive and beautiful creature. More rustic and untamed than many areas on the safari circuit, the Lake Manze area in southern Tanzania is a prime site for daily elephant encounters as they amble through camps on their way to water points. Gliding along the river on a boat safari, don’t be surprised if you’re obliged to stop several minutes for an elephant crossing.

The Selous Reserve is an approximately 40-minute flight from Dar es Salaam. Stay at www.lakemanzecamp.com.

Margate City, USA

Stuck on North American soil and don’t like zoos? Get a different kind of elephant high by visiting Lucy the Elephant: the first ever, patented ‘zoomorphic’ building, constructed of wood and tin in the 1880s. Fashioned in the image of the world’s most beloved creature, all 20m and six storeys of Lucy are still standing tall — the howdah carriage atop her back was once a lookout point — and she’s listed on the national historical register. While Lucy can be spotted from miles away, you can’t get much closer to an elephant than this: her interior has faithfully served as a real-estate office, summer cottage and tavern.

Lucy is located at 9200 Atlantic Ave, Margate City, 15 minutes from Atlantic City. See www.lucytheelephant.org.

Tsavo National Park East, Kenya

If you’ve never seen a red elephant – aside from that stuffed animal in your nephew’s play box – head straight to East Tsavo for some famously unique-looking ellies. They weren’t born that way, but you’ll soon learn elephants love to roll and play in the dust, and this is an area where there’s plenty: a few rolls around and they’re coated in a rusty hue. The population of elephants in Kenya is 36,000 and about a third of them live in the Tsavo-Mkomazi ecosystem, so chances are you’ll see a bunch.

Check with the Kenyan Wildlife Service for up-to-date information on campsites: www.kws.org or book at the Voi Safari Lodge.

Southern Damaraland, Namibia

No, you’re not just dehydrated. In the shockingly bright light and rolling sandscapes of western Namibia stands before you a genuine herd of ellies, though they may look a bit other-worldly. They represent a unique species and only one of two populations of desert elephants in the world (the other’s in Mali); conservation efforts have helped the population increase considerably this century and diffuse as they search for water. Get acquainted with the desert ellies with a team of elephant trackers who document the herds, monitor their movements, camp under the stars and help elephants and humans cohabitate.

Learn more at: www.desertelephant.org.

Chiang Mai, Thailand

Throughout Asia the centuries-old tradition of domesticating and tending to elephants created a lifelong career for people known as mahouts – who would train and work one-on-one with an elephant for decades, creating a unique bond. Get a chance to be a mahout for a day (or more) and be paired with an elephant while you learn basic commands to communicate, get to scrub them down, and even have a chance for a short ride the behind those elephant ears.

For more information, see www.baanchangelephantpark.com.

Udawalawe National Park, Sri Lanka

Happily munching on a vegetarian buffet and tromping through the marshes and open grasslands, an estimated 250 or more Sri Lankan elephants – the most speckled of the subspecies, and darker – permanently live on the Udawalawe reserve. See the young ellies at the Elephant Transit Centre, an orphanage where they can be protected and nurtured through their early years. You can’t exactly hold their bottles, but observing a collection of young calves (39 at last count) at close range while they feed is a sight to behold. Human contact is minimised so that one day these tots can live on the wild side.

Accommodation can be reserved through the national park or try www.kalushideaway.com.

Mfuwe Lodge, South Luangwe National Park, Zambia

You’re not the only one who loves those succulent sweet mangoes: the ellies love them, too! One herd is so partial to a particular wild mango tree, they showed up one day at the newly constructed lobby of the Mfuwe Lodge in Zambia and proceeded to traipse through just to get to their fix. The parade of pachyderms made international news and the mango migration carries on: the 10-strong herd arrives each year when the luscious fruit ripens. Guests can see them up-close at Mfuwe’s base camp.

The elephants make their yearly pilgrimage to the mango tree for four to six weeks between October and December. See www.mfuwelodge.com.

Mondulkiri, Cambodia

The dense forest crackles under your feet, an eagle swoops and you’re serenaded by the sounds of gibbons as you spend time with the ellies in northern Cambodia’s province of Mondulkiri, home of the Bunong tribe and about half of the country’s ageing domestic elephant population. A handful of them are now getting R and R at the Elephant Valley Project, a sanctuary that encourages the mahouts to retire their charges and tend to them on this sustainable forest reserve. You can feed them bananas, muck about with the gentle giants as they take their baths or simply sit and watch them close-up.

Guest accommodation is available in bungalows or dorm-style in hammocks. The project is located 11 km from Sen Morom, an area known for its waterfalls and trekking. See www.elephantvalleyproject.com.

Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2013
Pack that trunk and pick up a copy of Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2013 while you're at it.