…the morning I swam with him, the Indian Ocean was like a warm bath, just the way Rajan — and I — like it. I first treaded water a few feet away, watching him step like a delicate matron into the sea. He raised his trunk to breathe as if it were a giant snorkel, and his mahout slid off his back and swam alongside him; soon Rajan was pedaling away with his feet, gliding through the deep blue with unexpected ease. In my goggles and fins, I drifted alongside, admiring Rajan’s graceful, slow-motion movements, and at one stage brushed my palm along his wrinkled flanks. For one unforgettable stretch, I flippered downward and swam beneath Rajan, watching him from below; weightless and drifting in silence, I had the strange sensation that we were flying.
Tony Perrottet’s fascinating narrative about the Andaman islands (Babar and Me and the Deep Blue Sea, Conde Nast Traveler, January 2010) opens with an account of him swimming in the Indian Ocean with an elephant. Rajan, an ageing pachyderm once pressed into hard labour by loggers, is a celebrity on Beach No. 7, Havelock Island where he spends his well-earned retirement eating, snoozing, swimming and being gawked at by visitors to Barefoot, a remote jungle lodge.
Perrotet’s writing reminds me of Eric Hansen’s Stranger In The Forest, a true story of one man’s endeavour to transect, on foot and by boat, the uncharted rainforests of Borneo. He wrote:
The Ambun Rapids were the last major obstacle blocking my way to the Apo Kayan – the highland plateau of central Borneo… The Apo Kayan is part of the large white patch on my map bordered by comments such as “Unsurveyed,” and “Limits of Reliable Relief Information.”
Hansen bartered shotgun shells — prized by the native Penan tribesmen — for food, shelter and porter services. Among other adventures, he stays with headhunters in a longhouse, is very nearly shooed away by misanthropic American missionaries, and joins the Penan in shooting and then hacking up a wild pig while it is still alive and thrashing. It’s a fascinating book, offering unmuddled if slightly bewildering anthropological insight told with taut, candid narrative.
In the Conde Nast Traveler article, Perrotet relates a similar encounter — except his is with the Jarawa, one of the most violated indigenous tribes of the Indian Union.
The slideshow, though, disappointed but for a couple of shots of the elephant in the water. It didn’t connect me with the experiences related in the article. View it here.