Tuk’s slow steps rock me back and fourth. Theelephant feels her way with her feet across the big rocks under the rushing water. She has done this walk many times and probably knows the uneven stony bottom like I know the streets around my home. Sometimes Tuk uses her trunk to feel out the submerged boulders ahead. The rider, a Mnong named Xuyen, 28, uses his foot behind the voi’s left ear – nudging it with his toes in a quick rhythm and grunts out commands. When she disobeys he gives her a sharp knock on the skull with a hardwood goad. The 30 year old Tuk has only one thing on her mind – ripping the branches off trees to eat.
The water is a torrent that would wash a human away in an instant, but Tuk is impervious. The currents wrap around her like it rips past the fig trees and islands that divide the Serepok’s many channels. It is amazing to sit in the rough-made carriage on her back and feel the delicacy of her small steps in the roar of the rapids and watch the slow selectivity of her trunk as she eats, then contrast those with her uncompromising power and strength.
In the evenings when the customers have all gone home, Xuyen unsaddles Tuk and takes her to the forest where she can eat. He wraps her big chain around her middle and rides her across the open dusty farmland while she drags 10 more meters of chain behind her. In the morning he collects her and she has a bath in the river – drinking deeply and submerging completely like a hippo. To keep from getting wet Xuyen stands on her back, so he appears to be balancing on the water. She rolls around and he scrubs at her leathery head and back, scurrying around on her ball-like body. Then it’s off to work for the ever-so patient creature to be saddled with the carriage and chained by the foot while she waits for customers
Elephants are in Xuyen’s blood. His father was a farmer and an elephant hunter – not a hunter in the killing sense of the word – but going into the forest to catch young elephants to train and sell as work animals. So Xuyen grew up around elephants and knows how to talk to them. Tuk knows all his different commands
In a story that Xuyen’s father told him, the first elephants came from humans. A farmer came to the Serepok River where he caught and ate a fish that turned him into an elephant. He caught more fish and gave them to the villagers who also turned into elephants.
According to one forest ranger, there are still wild elephants living in Yok Don National Park, which is on the other side of the river from where Tuk lives at the Ban Don Tourist Park at 22 Hung Vuong St, Ban Don, Daklak. Six months ago on a moonlit night patrol the ranger said he saw a group of 30 of them from a distance. The tourist park, which is the first on the left when you come from Buon Ma Thuot, has traditional houses to stay in for budget prices and lots of great things to do and see. By Michael Smith in Daklak
Riding bareback into the river – Photos: Michael Smith
Tuk has her morning shower before work