Photo Essay – A Week of Volunteering at Elephant Nature Park. (Contains Many Photos and Much Waffling.)

A baby banana-hoover learns how to do it.

A baby banana-hoover learns how to do it.

September 2013 and I was at it again. I traveled back to Thailand and instead of wallowing at beach resorts and quaffing drinks with little umbrellas in them, returned to Elephant Nature Park, a sanctuary North of Chiang Mai, and volunteered my sweat and gave myself some blisters to remember. This time I went for two weeks instead of one, and also hauled my partner along so he could see what I had been rabbiting on about for the last year or so. Here’s a photo essay on being an ENP volunteer.

Firstly, this is where we slept. We were surrounded by Australians, so we dug in, marked our territory and guarded it fiercely. It was a great spot – it had a huge veranda outside, complete with guard dogs and several cats, and our room had a bed with mosquito nets, an open-walled ensuite, a tiny frog and a gecko. Unfortunately, it was situated up some stairs. Fourteen steep stairs to be exact. I know this. I counted them at the end of each long, hot day. Fooouuurrrteeennn of them…

NZ territory - right smack in the middle of Australian territory.

NZ territory – right smack in the middle of Australian territory.

One's veranda is a great place to hide from the regular precipitation.

One’s veranda is a great place to hide from the regular precipitation.

Breakfast started at 7 am, where we would sit at the ‘platform’ and watch the elephants begin their social rounds over our coffee and toast.

Where one has meals and meets banana-hoovers.

Where one has meals and meets banana-hoovers.

The Chargrilled Toaster Machine, manned by Apple.

The Chargrilled Toaster Machine, manned by Apple.

Ozzies and Kiwis at breakfast time. We're the couth ones...

Ozzies and Kiwis at breakfast time. We’re the couth ones…

Work started at 8 am. Jobwise, they often start you off on the easier chores here to lull you into a false sense of security. Usually it’s elephant kitchen duty, where one or two bits of fruit need to be unloaded off the trucks that come in regularly.

Bowls anyone?

Bowls anyone?

Watermelons and pumpkins had to be washed to make sure there are no pesticides or other icky stuff remain on them.

Endless melons...

Endless melons…

Melon washers - laughing in the face of tedium.

Melon washers – laughing in the face of tedium.

When the banana trucks came in, each hand of bananas had to be counted during the unloading. Sort of like an on-the-spot banana audit.

Banana delivery. I don't know why they don't just bring the elephants to the truck...

Banana delivery. I don’t know why they don’t just bring the elephants to the truck…

When you see how quickly elephants can hoover these things, you realise why there are so many kept on board.

When you see how quickly elephants can hoover these things, you realise why there are so many kept on board.

The fruit got cut and sorted into baskets, then carted around to the platform where the visitors would feed it to the awaiting banana-hoovers. Different banana-hoovers have different needs. Banana balls are made for elephants who are older and can’t chew so well any more.

Cutting watermelon with big knives can often lead to macho masculinity competitions.

Cutting watermelon with big knives can often lead to macho masculinity competitions.

Volunteers play 'squish the bananas' for making banana balls.

Volunteers play ‘squish the bananas’ for making banana balls.

Banana balls.

Banana balls.

And for your dining pleasure today...

And for your dining pleasure today…

The next day, you might be put onto ‘pooh duty’. This is where you grab forks and spades and harvest what potentially becomes organic compost. Sometimes you get distracted…

Occasionally work is interrupted by a passing pachyderm.

Occasionally work is interrupted by a passing pachyderm.

Yin Dee - 2 weeks old. A very distracting factor indeed...

Yin Dee – 2 weeks old. A very distracting factor indeed…

This chore is a pleasure compared to getting out into the hot sun and making elephant-proof pillars around the place. It’s about now that you get a sniff of the fact that all is not going to be as easy-going as you thought…

Out in the stinking hot sun making pillars that will theoretically keep elephants at bay.

Out in the stinking hot sun making pillars that will theoretically keep elephants at bay.

Your suspicions are confirmed when you are sent down dirt tracks with oddly shaped digging implements and working gloves. Here, you will become familiar with the never-ending challenge of putting the poles back in the ground that the elephants have bowled over for fun. (Hence the reinforced stone pillars you helped create yesterday). And you will learn how to do battle with barbed wire…

Required for the digging of a hole - a supervisor, a guard dog and an actual worker.

Required for the digging of a hole – a supervisor, a guard dog and an actual worker.

Pole Hole Depth Calculation System (TM)

Pole Hole Depth Calculation System (TM)

The great barbed wire battle. But don't worry, a coordinator will be on hand to mock you...

The great barbed wire battle. But don’t worry, a coordinator will be on hand to mock you…

The volunteer coordinators will accompany each volunteer group and mock supervise the goings-on.

Sometimes we were driven to mocking them back...

Sometimes we were driven to mock them back…

Sometimes the coordinators will actually lend a hand and lean on your pole for you.

Sometimes the coordinators will actually lend a hand and lean on your pole for you.

The coordinators kept a very close eye on the proceedings...

The coordinators keep a very close eye on the proceedings…

And just when you thought that was over, you will be sent out the next day, and you will dig more holes. Bigger ones. And you will put trees in them.

Unloading the ute. Future elephant fodder?

Unloading the ute. Future elephant fodder?

The trees are taken for a walk around the property before they are plopped into the ground and told to stay put.

The trees are taken for a walk around the property before they are plopped into the ground and told to stay put.

Lek stops by for a chat with the Venezuelan volunteers.

Lek stops by for a chat with the Venezuelan volunteers.

We went out again the next day and planted more trees, in case we’d forgotten how to do it.

More trees being planted out in the front field. It was hot and muggy while we did this, then we had a massive thunderstorm.

More trees being planted out in the front field. It was hot and muggy while we did this, then we had a massive thunderstorm.

It started out as a stinking hot, sunny afternoon, then just as we were finishing planting the trees, a thunderstorm came over, and we had to take shelter under a nearby house, with dogs, chickens, motorbikes and lines of washing. I’m fairly sure I will never forget the sight of Chet, coordinator extraordinaire and resident flamboyant clown, leaping about in the rain, like a character out of The Sound of Music, screaming ‘Yessssss!!! Yesssss!!’

The local house that we sheltered under during a thunderstorm.

The local house that we sheltered under during a thunderstorm.

Watching the torrents form from under the neighbour's house.

Watching the torrents form from under the neighbour’s house.

Volunteers, motorbikes, dogs and chickens all await the passing of the thunderstorm under a local house.

Volunteers, motorbikes, dogs and chickens all await the passing of the thunderstorm under a local house.

Then, as a return volunteer, the day I had been dreading came. The Corn Cutting. The first-timers, blissfully unaware of what was about to descend upon them, climbed like innocent lambs onto the back of the truck, ready for a fun ride into the countryside.

Poor things. They didn't know...

Poor things. They didn’t know…

Look at them smiling. They'll find out...

Look at them smiling. They’ll find out…

Suckers!!

Suckers!!

Corn cutting itself isn’t so bad. You get to play with machetes, and heck, there can only be so many cobras hanging around, right? You cut the corn, stalk and all, tripping over the weeds and trying not to break your ankles in the ditches that are everywhere, and meanwhile the sun rises above you and you start to sweat. Within a very short amount of time you look up and see you are getting further and further away from the truck. And the shade. And the water supply. Then you have a lunch break and you think ‘Well, that’s not so bad. We survived it.’ But it ain’t over yet…

There it is - the bane of my volunteering existance. The Cornfield.

There it is – the bane of my volunteering existance. The Cornfield.

Now the bundles of corn and stalks have to be shifted from way out in the field to the truck, and loaded on. And all the cutting you have done has left nasty, sharpened stakes sticking up all over the ground, and you have to lug the bundles (long, unwieldy and weighty) between them and over the multitude of ditches. The sun has gotten much hotter and you wish you were back at the park shovelling pooh. Or digging holes. Or playing with barbed wire. ANYTHING, but this!!

Lugging the corn, while doing battle with weeds, sharpened stakes, ditches and blazing hot sun. It sucks!!

Lugging the corn, while doing battle with weeds, sharpened stakes, ditches and blazing hot sun. It sucks!!

A volunteer's feelings show, upon learning the reality of the dreaded corn cutting job...

A volunteer’s feelings show, upon learning the reality of the dreaded corn cutting job…

At last it was done and we could go back to the Park. Oh the relief! But, there wasn’t room in the truck for the crew, so they had to ride on top of the harvest. Somehow I managed to get a lift in the comfortable, cool cab. Heh heh. Well, truth be told, the coordinators looked at me and decided that I was too aged (and short) to climb way up there, and insisted I sit in the cab. But I was okay with that. Really, really okay.

Victorious corn-cutters celebrate the end to the least popular of all the chores...

Victorious corn-cutters celebrate the end to the least popular of all the chores…

These are not all the chores that are done here. They change with the seasons and with the needs of the Park at the time.

Thankfully, this is about as bad as it gets. You are only actually expected to work for around four hours per day, and it really gives me empathy for the locals that put in a much longer day, but we are just a pack of wussy Westerners after all…

Thursday was a good day – we got to go to the local school and play with visit the kids.

A very serious game of volleyball gets started at the school - kids versus ENP folks.

A very serious game of volleyball gets started at the school – kids versus ENP folks.

So, it’s not all hard work. There are many moments where you can hang out with the other volunteers and get to know each other better, or let your loved ones know you are actually surviving life in the jungle, on the internet. Provided the WiFi is working. You are quite a way out of civilization in this place, so you can’t expect it to be like city life.

The WiFi area - you have to take turns getting internet connection here. (Just kidding)

The WiFi area – you have to take turns getting internet connection here. (Just kidding)

The all-important umbilical cord to the outside world...

The all-important umbilical cord to the outside world…

You can also go for a wander out the gate and up the road to the local shop and get an ice cream, or, erm, something to drink…

A suspicious-looking miscreant with an anonymous substance in an innocent-looking pink bag...

A suspicious-looking miscreant with an anonymous substance in an innocent-looking pink bag…

A small example of what's available at the local shop.

A small example of what’s available at the local shop.

A local dog at the gas pump. Probably pulled in to fill up his motorbike.

A local dog at the gas pump. Probably pulled in to fill up his motorbike.

Or you can hang out and watch the banana-hoovers do their thing.

If you're lucky, you'll spot an elephant around here somewhere...

If you’re lucky, you’ll spot an elephant around here somewhere…

An Australian of particular interest to a banana-hoover.

An Australian of particular interest to a banana-hoover.

Peter's first moment up close and personal with a banana-hoover.

Peter’s first moment up close and personal with a banana-hoover.

We had a party on the Friday night for Peter, who was fortuitous enough to turn 40-something at the Park. Chet flounced in with a lovely cake and candles, several people sang ‘Happy Birthday’ in different languages, and a whole lot of waffling, limbo dancing and whistle-wetting went on.

Miscreants, Exhibit A.

Miscreants, Exhibit A.

Australians - they never take anything seriously!

Australians – they never take anything seriously!

Chet, pole dancing at the birthday party...

Chet, pole dancing at the birthday party…

Then there were those of us who got ourselves branded while we were there.

Pick the most awkward place to get tattooed, then stay put and don't breathe till it's done.

Pick the most awkward place to get tattooed, then stay put and don’t breathe till it’s done.

In which I have crossed to the other side and become 'inked'.

In which I have crossed to the other side and become ‘inked’.

Witnesses to the tattooing going on in the background - also, the band.

Witnesses to the tattooing going on in the background – also, the band.

You get a tattoo around these parts, naturally there'll be a pachyderm featured in there somewhere...

You get a tattoo around these parts, naturally there’ll be a pachyderm featured in there somewhere…

We also attended talks given by Lek Chailert, founder of the Park, and Jodi, who gave us lots of past and present elephant gossip.

Jodi giving us the latest ele gossip up on the Skywalk.

Jodi giving us the latest ele gossip up on the Skywalk.

Finally, our week was up. The Park put on a farewell dinner and cultural evening, where we ate food prepared by the local hill tribe people and watched their beautiful dancing.

Indulging in some wonderful hilltribe food at our farewell dinner.

Indulging in some wonderful hill tribe food at our farewell dinner.

Some beautiful young local girls who danced at the farewell dinner.

Some beautiful young local girls who danced at the farewell dinner.

On the Sunday, we all gathered to take photos, and the coordinators posed for, and took photos of, us.

Our coordinators of the week. Mad, the lot of them!

Our coordinators of the week. Mad, the lot of them!

Mugshots of the volunteer coordinators. A bunch of friendly, funny guys who do a fantastic job.

Mugshots of the volunteer coordinators. A bunch of friendly, funny guys who do a fantastic job.

I just have to add a few more pics of Chet. He’s…. priceless.

Chet - the most modest of them all.

Chet – the most modest of them all.

Chet featuring a fetching little work outfit.

Chet featuring a fetching little work outfit.

He should've been a movie star.

He should’ve been a movie star.

In which Chet does his tiger pose...

In which Chet does his tiger pose…

We grabbed each other’s email addresses and said our farewells to each other and the Park. This is always a poignant day and an interesting one. The volunteers here come from all over the world, and have fascinating tales of how they got to be here and where they are going next.

A bunch of people getting in the way of my elephant portrait.

A bunch of people getting in the way of my elephant portrait.

I have many banana-hoover pics, of course, but I’ll save them for another post. Although, there are a few here at the Faa Mai Ditch Appreciation Project…

So that’s it. My report on our first week at Elephant Nature Park in 2013. For the next week we volunteered at their dog sanctuary. You can see photos of that here and here, and you can read a story about Steel, a very special dog, here.

There be elephants in that thur distance...

There be elephants in that thur distance…

Mae Lanna's mahout, Nuum, holds the postcard I made featuring a photo of her from my visit in 2012.

Mae Lanna’s mahout, Nuum, holds the postcard I made featuring a photo of her from my visit in 2012.

Nuum and his elephant friend Mae Lanna.

Nuum and his elephant friend Mae Lanna.

The End

The End

16 thoughts on “Photo Essay – A Week of Volunteering at Elephant Nature Park. (Contains Many Photos and Much Waffling.)

  1. Thank you ! I plan to take my 12 years old son next year for two weeks, and you long and great post gives me a great way to show him what we will do there. I love your writing and your humor, thanks again !

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    • Thanks Crone. Yeah, I get homesick for ENP the moment I land in my own country. Thank God for Facebook and the ENP updates! I agree though – def not the corn! Pooh duty is pretty good huh – not too hot yet and we got to sneak lots of looks at the new baby… πŸ˜€

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  2. THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR SHARING YOUR EXPERIENCE!!!!! I loved reading every bit of it. It made me laugh, smile at the pics and actually made me feel like I was there. I do hope I get to go there soon….ENP is on my bucket list. Look forward to your dog sanctuary pics. πŸ™‚

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    • Hi Andrea. Thanks for dropping by raveburbleblog. I’m glad you enjoyed, and I really hope you get to go there as it’s wonderful place and a unique experience. You will be mocked, and you will cut corn, but it will shape your character. πŸ˜‰ πŸ˜€

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  3. Thanks sp much for you post. I’ve supported ENP from a distance for many years and hope one day to spend time volunteeting. Loved to read about your experience

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  4. Pingback: Sauj – lexlimbu dot com, for your Nepali News and Connections | raveburbleblog

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