"Miss Virginia," he said. "Your elephant is over here."
I had been afraid of that.
The beast that was to be mine dropped ponderously to its side and shoved a rear leg at me. The gesture looked decidedly unfriendly. I tested the wrinkled shin with one foot. The elephant did not seem to mind. With definite misgivings, I scaled the huge, flabby hip and climbed gingerly into the saddle. There were no stirrups. The scat resembled a broad leather cushion, very smooth and slippery. The instant I touched it, the elephant got up. It was a two-part operation. First it straightened its front legs so that it was more or less sitting upright on its haunches. I immediately slid backwards and almost off the saddle. As I struggled to regain my balance and still hang on to my gear, the creature straightened its hind legs and brought its rump up with a bump. I was thrust abruptly forward, this time almost taking the mahout with me. He cracked the elephant on the head with his grappling hook and the beast lurched to one side. I slid halfway off the other, grabbing desperately for the saddle. I decided to let one of the multitudes carry my rifle until we reached our destination.
By this time everybody was astride. The King had bounded onto the back of his elephant like a sprinter and was sitting cross-legged on a blue cushion, his rifle across his knees. The Queen looked regal on her mount and even Princess Princep, munching a piece of peanut brittle, appeared perfectly at ease. Only Ambassador L�er, who was also green in the saddle, seemed as unnerved as I. We exchanged uneasy grins. When the elephants started to move, all four legs seemed to operate independently, so that the several parts between swayed sideways and forward and up and down all at the same time. My legs stuck out in the air as if I were doing a split, and the saddle was much too wide to provide any kind of purchase. When the elephant picked up speed it was like trying to keep balanced on a slick deck while running an inlet in a storm.
Prince Himalaya rumbled up alongside to tell me that my elephant's name was Narancolia. "She is one of our best elephants," he said. "Very steady. You will never have to worry when the tiger is near that she will run away with you or go wild like some of the others."
My immediate worries had not gotten that far, but it was nice to know that I was riding a gentle beast. "One caution, though," the prince added. "Do not fall off. Even the steadiest elephant reacts instinctively when something drops from its back to the ground. It thinks it has been attacked and will instantly lash back with its trunk to crush the attacker." How nice.
We were now in open country. Two shikaris rode ahead of the procession to guide us to the tiger. My elephant was third. Directly behind me was the King. The elephants moved single file through the tall yellow grass, strung out in an enormous chain like a giant circus parade. They were decorated with red and blue and yellow paint, and each carried, in addition to its passenger, two mahouts in brilliant turbans. One rode at the elephant's head, his toes behind its ears to direct it. The other stood on the elephant's back, controlling its speed by digging his toes into the animal's flank. In my efforts to get a leg-hold on the slippery saddle, I apparently uncovered some additional sensitive spots. Periodically the elephant lurched ahead without warning.
We crossed a narrow river, the water up to the elephant's knees, and lumbered up onto the opposite bank. I turned to watch the others, spellbound by the spectacle. Elephants were strung along the horizon. The afternoon sun had turned the grass to gold, and in the distance the snow-covered peaks stood against the sky. "It is not a sight that will be seen often again," His Majesty said, stopping beside me. "Everything changes. The princes of India once had such herds, but now the princes are no more and their herds have long been scattered. This is the last great elephant herd, and it, too, grows smaller each year. At the end of the century, when the princes and kings of England came on shikar here, the royal elephants numbered several hundred. There are less than 80 today. "We do not find replacements in the forests now as we did long ago. Even the forests are less."
"And the tigers?" I asked.
"They are still plentiful," the King said. "Especially in the west of Nepal. Here food for them is so abundant that there is rarely a man-eater. Even an old, weak tiger can find something to cat besides people in this part of the Terai. Only man is their enemy and he seldom hunts them, so the tigers here grow old and fat. You will see."