Into the Wild (Bathing with Elephants in India)


My global pilgrimage has thus far  brought me to some truly extraordinary places, and for the first time brought me on safari in Masinagudi, Tamil Nadu, and the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve – in southern India. Here, cut off from all main roads, noise and chaos, the stampede of big towns and bleaching light pollution, you are surrounded by tropical jungles, huge ridges of imposing mountain, the pure green of trees, an abundance of wildlife, and the ever-beating heart of the wild. Here, your only neighbours are the near-by tribal villages, troops of monkeys, hovering sunbirds, wild dogs and deadly snakes – the rawest elements themselves manifesting all around you. Here, I slept alone under the mountains on the edge of the tiger reserve, where leopards, bears, tigers and all sorts of dangers prowl at night, took safari trucks deep into the wild forests, and bathed in a river with a herd of elephants right out in the wild.

This is no safari park or zoo. This is India. This is the vastness and marvel of Mother Nature. This is a place where man, animal and the wilderness co-exist, co-depend and collaborate in one great roar and undeniable expression of LifeThis is a place where trees grow so tall they dwarf even the greatest of creatures. This is my journey. My diary. My jungle book.

~ Welcome to Masinagudi ~

I had the very special fortune of staying at the Jungle Retreat, a refuge for travellers from all over the world, under the care of the Mathias family, who have created a symbiotic relationship between their beautiful, nature-orientated campus and the tropical landscape around. There is a particular emphasis on solo travellers, conservationists, the ecological, sustainable and the personal- I arrived alone, stayed alone, left alone – and didn’t feel for a moment out of place.

I didn’t need the safety net of travelling companions ~ I had the embrace of the great spirit of nature all around me…

(Images and video copyright Jungle Retreat, Masinagudi. All rights reserved.)

There is a curfew at the camp after dark, after which time one has to be escorted via jeep to one’s room… or, if you’re anything like me, to and from the bar… You see, after sunset the camp comes alive – you’ll be gripping your torch and the door of the safari truck tightly, with fear and awe and that knowing you are truly alive – especially as the roar of tigers start to echo throughout the mountain valley.

This video below shows animals caught on camera traps around the camp, often pictured outside guests’ rooms. ((p.s. the leopard, jackal and deer were captured outside the hut that I stayed in…))

I spent many an hour sitting in the bar chatting with the owners and wonderful staff, about everything from wildlife conservation, working with Gerry Martin, the highs and lows of working in hospitality, scorpion attacks and chance meetings with charging elephants – drinking brandy and smoking until the late hours once most other guests had gone to bed… I really clicked with these people, got their sense of humour, respected their work immensely. Only wished I’d stayed for longer.

I don’t think I really slept during my entire stay… far too excited and really just hoping any moment a wandering leopard might jump into the throngs of travellers and we might have a head to head, bare-chested battle, and, after proving ourselves evenly matched and equally sharp of tooth, agree to a pact of brotherhood and respect eventually leading to me becoming the first white man to ever live in a tree with a leopard. I would spend my days wandering the jungle, catching snakes by the tail and washing my naked body in the river, singing from the mountain tops, the wind my orchestra, swinging from vines, discovering lost ancient temples and finding my meaning of Truth in the world… (always wondered how this pilgrimage would end).

It’s amazing how the mind can conjure such illuminations, and the hidden realms we find, when we just sit, and allow the soul to fly…

One of the best things about travelling alone is the people you meet along the way – Jungle Retreat is a hub for travellers from all over the world – I would sit and have breakfast, dinner or (just a modest six cups of) coffee (black of course) with different people each mealtime – people were happy for me to join their table, share tales from travels, stories of life in Asia, life in Europe, life in the Americas, discussing moments in nature and the sheer beauty of the landscape all around us. Socialising with this rich assortment of people was almost as exciting as the wildlife…

The mountains around the spot are just stunning, literally right on your doorstep.
Could you ask for a better view from your front porch?

Some of my favourite moments were spent sitting on my terrace, listening to the mellifluous choruses and watching the visuals of the natural world all around, coming to me – little gifts for a wandering life…

There were a few rules on the site… I’m not sure if I adhered to all of them… okay I definitely broke the morning curfew, I think it was after 6am you had to stay in your room – yeah right! I was up before even the sun, sitting on my terrace, watching the sky go from dark navy to that light ethereal blue of first morning, as the mists slowly sailed round the mountains and the night finally went to bed.

That enormous red hut was mine, nestled neatly under the mountain – I mean it was huge, and all for me! I felt very privileged. And I was.

Although, of course, the best part about any trip like this is getting out into the reserve…

The thing that probably fascinated me the most was the relationship the local people have developed with the wildlife over time. You see it everywhere – Mahouts on elephants getting right of way whilst crossing the roads (of course), tribespeople dotted throughout the forest areas and by the side of the roads collecting herbs and wildflower, people lining the banks of the unspoilt rivers washing pots, pans and clothing, whilst only a few meters away a great tusker was getting his morning bath, monkeys climbing all over people’s’ houses, lookout posts and forestry administration buildings, constantly either seen or heard swinging through the trees that tower all around, kids running to school in spots where only the day before a solitary tiger was seen hunting in the early hours… It’s quite a thing to behold, and an achievement. May God bless the places in the world where animals are protected.

The driver of my jeep must have been blessed with patience, because I think I made him stop every ten metres or so – just everywhere, dashing among the bushes, running low in the undergrowth, basking in sunlight, or standing proud and mighty on the roadside ~ a whole host of creation ~

I still get butterflies in my stomach when I think of this moment…
the forestry authority in the reserve cared for and protected the elephant population, some of which had to be cared for hands-on by the contingency of mahouts, who could be seen leading this particular herd around the area near the river, where they would wash them every morning, feed them etc. I was told this particular herd (or ‘memory’) of elephants had been misplaced due to their traditional migration routes being altered by rural development – a sad but serious reality for many elephant populations in developing countries. Apparently this herd was being rehabilitated here in the park, and had over time developed a bond with the mahouts in the area, who seemed to look after them very sensitively.

One of the rules between the mahouts and the forest authority in the reserve was that no contact was allowed between the herd and any other humans, apart from their chosen mahouts, who they form a lifelong bond with… well, you know how I like to break the rules…

The guide I hired, along with a couple of his friends and of course myself were allowed down into the valley on the basis that my guide had befriended a particular mahout he had been secretly paying to get time in with the elephants. We had to sneak past the forestry base and walk down into the vast valley, where at the bottom a couple of elephants were taking a bath…

Walking down into that valley I felt the whole natural world open up before me. The huge trees, the monkeys and exotic birds perched casually in overhanging canopies, and the great muddy river with elephants half-submerged, rolling in the water. I went right down into the water myself, almost knee-deep in mud at various points – could feel it squelching through the espadrilles that I bought in an Italian market some months before. I got very close to the baby, placed my palms on its bulging back and belly and gave it a good scrub. Its skin was so rough, so beautiful, so raw. These are such powerful yet sensitive creatures, known to have memories better than our own. If I can remember this moment with such vividity I wonder what that calf remembers? This incredible little creature lifted its trunk slowly and found my hand, without even moving or looking, and just rested it there, as I lay peacefully across its back. I could feel its warm breath. Such joy! If I wasn’t gasping and smiling so much I think I would have cried. What a blessed moment with this blessed creature – I felt true freedom, true connection, true feeling – the pain and wisdom of a thousands years in the single breath of that elephant. Such a creature. My little Dumbo. The guide kept telling me we had to leave in case the forestry authorities caught us, but I almost point-blank refused to leave, not so soon, didn’t care if I was caught, I had to have a few more moments in this bliss…

When I eventually left, walking up the steep, muddy sides of that jungle valley, I knew one thing, and still do ~ that I am a very lucky man.

When I got back to my luxury little hut, probably the most luxury I’ve ever experienced, I just laid back across the huge bed – laughed and felt tears stream down my face and fully luxuriated in the fact I had just experienced something truly extra.ordinary. Another adventure nobody would probably ever believe simply happened, unplanned, just like that…

Like all good things my time here had come to an end – my journey was calling me back to the open road… I wanted to stay longer, promised to return; probably never will. There are simply too many places in the world I want to see before my time is over. I pray I am delivered.

So it was time to get the soggy, beaten-up old espadrilles and the rucksack back on and set off.

Seemed strange seeing people again as we hit the towns on the fringes of the reserve. Suddenly it all seemed like a dream, something that had happened during a beautiful, deep meditation. I was back in the world of people, noise, traffic, dust and pollution.

But then I saw the smiles on the faces of groups of passing children, and remembered that little light… the light of humanity.

And one thing was for sure – my time in India was not yet over…


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  1. Anything related to nature = cool beans. The journey itself was filled with so much that it’s a good thing you brought a camera, otherwise who knows what nay have been missed. Thank you very much for sharing – good to know the news doesn’t reflect realty in its entirety. Many blessings!

    1. It’s amazing how misleading the news can be. Of course there are atrocities going on in the world, but the media drive the belief that nowhere is safe except the West and this simply just isn’t the case. Travelling round parts of India and Africa I’ve never felt safer. Beautiful country. Beautiful people. And of course the wildlife is incredible! Many blessings to you. Thanks for stopping by. Jx

  2. Great post! Love the shot of the lady washing in the river and the one of the mountain with you in the orange shawl. Very Zen! Namaste ~

  3. Wonderful recounting of your extraordinary experience James! I felt as if I was there. What a gift it is to immerse myself in your beautiful words! 😊

  4. What an adventure! I’d believe you 😉 I would love to get that close to elephants in such a wild and natural environment. You are a very lucky man indeed, and so are we, to come along and see your journey! Awesome.

  5. James, Ah magnificent! You take my eyes with you and bring the world to my small screen through this blog. I am ever grateful, these are journeys I have always wanted but could not do. But I have no complaints as we are all on the journey wherever it takes us 🙂

    1. Thank you, Tammy. You are so right, you know – I am on a special journey, and so are we all! – for whatever reason I seem to live a life that inspires others, but we all have things that are significant to our story that others may never see. I have such things too, personal things. But I am so happy to share the parts of my story I can when I see comments like yours. So thank you for helping me along the way. Jx

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