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Me, the mahout and Mrs. Flower


Me, the mahout and Mrs. Flower

Elephants receive their morning bath at the paddy field camp site.

Mike Larder

Mrs. Flower’s elongated snout, capable of the most delicate - picking up a needle - or the most destructive - destroying a farmer village - eases the banana from my palm entwined with in the powerful muscle that is her nose, sensory device, battering ram, high-pressure hose, knife, fork and spoon.
Mrs. Flower is an Asian elephant and a lucky one, if you call being critically endangered lucky. For 22 of her 37 summers she has toiled in the verdant Lao forests dragging heavy logs from impenetrable jungles. She now hauls much lighter tourists for a living.
A scant 1300 wild and domesticated of her sacred relatives remain in the land-locked Peoples Democratic Republic of Laos, the fabled ‘Land of a Million Elephants’.
The Kings of the Forest are, despite their bulk, very thin on the ground. But they now have a slender chance.

Sebastien Duffillot guides Mrs Flower and caravan through the Lao mountains.

Frenchman Sebastien Duffillot with partner Gilles Mauer, champion ElefantAsia, a well credentialed NGO (Non Government Organization) dedicated to the health, breeding and finally restoration of the elephants to the Lao forests. Sebastien and Gilles operate ethnically authentic, rugged and ecologically sensitive elephant treks. Proceeds assist ElefantAsias work.
I’ve joined Sebastien, Guilhem, Gael and Pierre on a ramble into the wilds of western Laos. We depart from Hongsa and climb steadily, learning some important safety rules, like never creep up behind an elephant without yelling a throaty grunt. And never approach one without a mahout. Elephants, like hearse drivers, dislike surprises from behind.
We picnic on noodle soup, glutinous sticky rice, dried buffalo meat (I think) and leafy salad. We munch and gape at a panoramic view of distant hazy mountains and deeply shadowed valleys.
Elephants’ feet are an engineering masterpiece. So well balanced and shock absorbed that a four tonne elephant, for all its misshapen bulk, shares a ballerina’s ability to move in ethereal silence.
The gloom of the evening envelopes our tiring troupe. We reach our camp - a barren paddy field. Weary elephants are led to the stream for bath time. There is much falsetto tooting and raucous trumpets drifting over from the creek.
Camp chairs appear, as does a bottle of Pasti, saucisson and a reeking cheese. Our Lao staff, accustomed as they are to some gastronomically yucky delicacies, reel back, pinch their noses and giggle hysterically. The Lao love a party and are enthusiastic imbibers of their own evil hooch, a lethal brew distilled from rice.
We eat simply in the Lao way, squashing unidentifiable vegetables and meaty bits with balls of sticky rice. Then emerges a frosted old bottle of the powerful liqueur, best sipped with caution less you be rendered swiftly comatose.
The guttural babbling of the mahout unshackling their elephants awakes me. The cooks are frying eggs and brewing fragrant coffee. It is barely light, the surrounding heights shrouded in a gossamer mist.
Mrs. Flower, freshly bathed and perky, appears through the mist and trots past waving her trunk in salutation.
“Isn’t she pretty?” Sebastien coos. Mrs. Flower - Mae Dok in Lao - is a very visible ambassador for ElefantAsia’s commitment to the future existence and repatriation of the Asian Elephant, the environment and the ancient, mystic Lao culture.
She is also Sebs favourite.
“It is lucky I have an understanding wife,” quips Mrs Flower’s gallant admirer.
Our journey continues almost vertically revealing sweeping panoramas of what was once virgin forest.
Warmed by the mellow winter sun our little convoy follows a winding, vine-entangled creek. Progress is slow, precise and virtually silent. The clonking chimes of the elephants’ bells echo about the rearing cliffs lulling us into a sleepy torpor. Pete snoozes peacefully lodged sideways in his cosily oscillating howdah.
Gael gazes dreamily ahead, seemingly suspended in a state of bliss, a frangipani bloom woven into her hair. We are suspended in a time warp as indeed Laos has been for the last half century.
We meander through a tiered rice paddy, a slender teak plantation and follow a small river that dribbles into the Mekong. An elderly grandma beams at us with a broad toothless smile while washing herself, a squirming baby and her laundry in the trickling Houey En rivulet. We call greetings from our lordly height.
“Sabai dee bor” – hello, how are you? We are welcomed with a chorus of sabai dees and much clasping of palms under chins.
Sebastien, exuding boyish glee, mounts Mrs. Flower and settles comfortably astride her broad neck.
“Hrrow … Hrow,” he crows. Mrs. Flower responds with a flute-like toot, and we proceed in grand style. The moment slightly marred by an enormous, windy fart. “It wasn’t me,” protests our leader. We arrive to an awed reception.
A crowd of slack-jawed kids gathers atop a small cliff and gape. Small boys bob up from where they frolic in the rock pools, bronzed and shiny, surprisingly finding themselves face to trunk with elephants. Your reporter measures a lengthy two metres plus. I feel like I have entered the mythical land of Lilliput.
The ever-considerate Lao try not to stare but the sight of the longest white falang (westerner) they have ever seen tests their inherent good manners. Earlier in our journey our Lao companions have christened me, the towering, shaggily bearded westerner, “The Moving Mountain”. We make our grand entrance. This is pure Spielberg. I’m jerked from my reverie. Am I the first Australian ever to have set foot here?
We slither off weary elephants, dust ourselves down and ease entrenched wedgies. Ban Keng En is a solidly constructed and neatly brushed hamlet perched spectacularly on the precipice of a small hill, overseeing the snaking Mekong and a pristine white beach tinted by late afternoon sun coloring the afternoon with wash of burnished light.
As honored guests, we are invited to a village Baci celebration. Recent experience of the Lao’s ability to party suggests that this could be a long and lively evening.
After formalities are completed Sebastien promises us a Lao Beer from the “best little pub on the Mekong”. It is “spectacular” he promises.
The Mother of Water - the Mekong - swells into a hurtling, swirling, nourishing torrent during the wet season. Now, in the February dry, the river is low and sanguine. I stand gob smacked. The “pub” is a bamboo hut that teeters on worryingly thin poles. Guzzling a Lao beer from atop the cliff our four pals, the pachyderms, wallow and cavort in the whirlpools and eddies of the Mekong.
Mrs. Flower submerges amidst a maelstrom of bubbles and hissing foam, her wonderfully elastic, multi functional trunk poking above the surface, snorkelling and rotating like a ship’s radar scanner.
Later, at the chief’s house the Baci is awaiting us. The essentially Buddhist/shamanistic people believe that, like the elephant, humans have thirty-two souls. A Baci ceremony is conducted to re-gather and heal lost or damaged ones.
We sit on the floor, drink, chatter and share noodle soup, sticky rice, buffalo sausage and malnourished chicken. The men crowd in, chanting and caressing our hands and arms. They are calling our errant souls back to our bodies and are banishing bad spirits.
They tie loops of Lao cotton strings around our wrists. The hallucinatory effects of the highly potent rice whisky are kicking in and our jolly party becomes noisier.
With the theatrical flourish, the chief separates two tin dishes revealing the surprised, staring eyes of a beheaded chook.
We shake the bowls and reveal the severed head. It’s bad news if the beak points at you. I lose again to the delight of our alcoholically enervated hosts.
You have to drink; otherwise you’ll cause disappointment and offence. I hit on a plan. My beard has reached a certain rampant shagginess. I sip, to loud encouragement from all those assembled, but cagily dribble the potion though my beard and hope my already smelly t-shirt would absorb the liquor. I then smack my lips and emit an appreciative “MMMMmm”. I think I got away with it.
I excuse myself from the raucous frivolity and locate the village’s communal water tap and sluice down the sticky remains of rice whisky. Cleansed and refreshed I wander back to the chief’s house and bed. All is now quiet but for the snoring chief.
Tomorrow we will say a sentimental farewell to our friends the elephants and our amiable support group. We board, with some apprehension, a longboat for the 10 hour slow voyage to Luang Prabang, against the swiftly flowing current of the Mekong.
In the meantime the Moving Mountain rests.

Playing ‘chicken head roulette’ with the villagers - and
a dead chicken - at a baci ceremony.

ElefantAsia is a not for profit French based organisation chartered in 2001 for the express purpose of providing veterinary care for the remaining herds of wild and domesticated elephants. ElefantAsia supports a mobile “Sayaboury Elephant Care Unit” (SECU) providing quality medical care to wounded and sick elephants in remote areas. ElefantAsia also supports educational programmes for the mahout and Lao vets of which Laos has very few qualified large animal specialists. SECU vets have so far successfully treated several hundred ailing, exhausted or broken down animals. Foot damage from razor sharp bamboo, eye and foot damage and skin lesions and severe injuries from snapped chains are taking their toll of the dwindling population. Elephant diseases are similar to bovine cows. As the forests disappear - sixty five percent of Laos’ forests have been logged - so do the elephants, a living shrine to the Lao people, and the ancient traditional knowledge and culture of the mahout. ElefantAsia also campaigns against cruelty and abuse of elephants and unethical exploitation of elephants. The capture and domestication of wild elephants has ceased.