by MaryKate Zee 1997

TigerA camera safari in northern India's Corbett Park took MaryKate Zee to new heights on the back of an elephant. This month's feature story reprinted courtesy of "ACCESS to Travel."

Having always wanted to hunt for tigers from the back of an elephant, like the royal maharajas of old, I was ecstatic when I discovered one could do it on a camera safari in northern India's Corbett Park. But, as a wheelchair traveler, and veteran of M.S. for many years, I worried up to the moment I got there about how I was going to get up on top of the elephant.

From the East Coast, New Delhi is a sixteen-hour air journey, broken into halves by a stop in Europe. Then, a full day's drive north in a pre-arranged car brings one to the foothills of the Himalayas, and into India's first national park. From my guidebook's description of lodgings inside the reserve, I had not expected them to be quite so partan. When I first saw my room, only the thought of the long drive back kept me from returning immediately to New Delhi.

The thin, foam-rubber mattress on my hard, narrow cot was covered with a threadbare sheet, grayed by many washings. Green mold and rust competed for space in the bathroom, while badly torn mosquito netting on the windows offered no illusion of protection.

Lack of a roll-in shower was no problem, I thought. Who'd want to bathe in the murky water that trickled from the tap? Even boiled coffee was not safe to drink, our driver said, so we dared not eat any of the dining room meals. However, having packed a water filter, insect repellent and granola bars--always useful parts of a tropical kit, I stayed, determined to have my adventure. The only problem, as I saw it, was that I still had no clue as to how I was going to get on the elephant promised for the next day.

In reality, it was very easy. Moving slowly in the chilly dawn, three massive pachyderms filed slowly into the main courtyard. One by one, they plodded over to await their riders next to an elephant-high flight of wooden steps. When my turn came, all I had to do was let my companion help me to the top, then just sit down on the elephant's back.

Grateful that my part had been so simple, I quickly grabbed a corner post on the square canvas saddle as, on a signal from the mahout on its neck, the elephant slowly set out for open savannah. I held on tightly. Now that I was on, I was not about to disgrace myself by falling off.

As the massive beast carried us further and further from our small island of civilization, swaying from side to side like a ship on the sea, I was no longer a disabled tourist. In my heart, I was a powerful maharajah setting out with my servants to brave a snarling tiger. My dirty white saddle became a gilded howdah, sparkling with gems and filled with cushions, and my old Canon camera was now a sharp-pointed spear.

The only thing missing was the tiger. Even in this park famous for them, finding one was not going to be easy. Hunted nearly to extinction, there were only 90 of them living in this sprawling 520 sq. km. reserve, and just 4000 in all of India. I'd be lucky just to catch a brief glimpse of one.

Although I never could comprehend why people would want to kill such a magnificent beast, I soon understood the thrill of the hunt. Searching intently for our prey, I could feel the excitement a maharajah must have felt as his "beaters" whipped the grass to flush a tiger into the open. Listening carefully, I fancied I could still hear their shouts drifting faintly over on the breeze.

Suddenly signaling for silence, the mahout pointed to a fresh paw print as big as a dinner platter. Not daring to make a sound, I froze in place as he quickly slid down the elephant's trunk and knelt to scrutinize the spoor. After an intent inspection, he signaled the elephant to wrap its trunk around him and lift him back up to its neck.

Just ahead the high grasses rustled briefly, then as quickly became still. The elephant seemed unusually reluctant to proceed. As the mahout gave it an extra nudge, I wondered if a huge tiger was quietly hiding in the light-dappled grass, watching us with hungry eyes.

We went a little further, then the mahout shook his head. The trail, always faint, had completely disappeared. As we turned to go another way, I carefully scanned the tall grasses one more time. Then I saw it. Off to the side there was a quick flash of yellow. And then it was gone. I'll swear to this day that it was the tiger.

The sight of that stealthy movement, the ride on the elephant, the excitement of the hunt became images emblazoned forever on my mind. A far better trophy than the snarling heads or tattered pelts once brought back by maharajahs, they are a priceless reminder of dreams that came marvelously to life.

Now that I know how to get up on top of an elephant, the future promises to be very interesting. As I learned on the trail of the tiger, there's no such thing as an impossible dream.

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