Hidden among dense jungle, tucked in the northeast corner of Cambodia, an Englishman has created a home and a sanctuary for some of the country’s used and abused elephants.
Take a road less traveled – indeed one that was only completed a couple of years ago – from Phnom Penh to Mondulkiri and Jack Highwood, the manager of the Elephant Valley Project, will introduce you to his charges, involve you in his passion and invite you to help with his daily chores.
For eyes wearied by the hot orange dusted landscape of the plains, arrival in the mountainous Mondulkiri countryside is a lush green relief.
Perched on a high ridge, the Elephant Valley Project lodge has a splendid view of the province’s gorgeous jungle.
The glorious view is accompanied by a raucous soundtrack – the thick jungle is full of wildlife that fills the air with its whirs, squeals and hums.
In 650 hectares of rented forest, Highwood and his team look after 12 elephants that had been overworked and abused in the tourism, agriculture and logging industries.
The elephants were brought to the sanctuary and simply allowed to be elephants again.
Highwood began working with elephants in Thailand 10 years ago and says that he witnessed a great deal of maltreatment.
In 2005 he set up the Elephant Livelihood Initiative Environment charity in Cambodia, providing mobile veterinary service and a research and monitoring program.
A year later, he established the Elephant Valley Project with big ambitions.
“Not only do we want to give a home to elephants, a place where they can connect back to the forest, but we want to connect people back to conservation again,” he says.
The project sustains 35 - 40 workers, several of whom are dedicated to protecting the jungle and its wildlife. It also provides healthcare to three nearby villages and tries to address land-rights issues with local communities.
The vast majority of the project’s work is funded by paying guests who visit for as little as a day or up to several months, and can spend their time shadowing the herd and learning about the elephants, as well as volunteering.
Visitors can pick from a range of accommodations: four bungalows, a backpacker house with seven beds, and a larger group house with 16 beds. All are quite basic.
Be prepared for cold-water showers, communal bathrooms shared with eight-legged friends as well as those on two, and no luxuries such as fans or mirrors.
Unfortunately, some of the mosquito nets were also the worse for wear, but these necessities were quickly replaced after a complaint. Despite the lack of luxury, falling asleep to the buzz and screech of the jungle is a magical experience.
Mornings spent at the project are an astonishing opportunity to walk with the elephants as they wander their surroundings, eating, bathing and socialising. Although the male elephant, Bob, is aggressive and unapproachable, several of females are accustomed to close human contact.
Visitors can sluice them with buckets of water from the river, touch the hot leathery skin of their ears and pass bananas into inquisitive trunks that greedily post the fruit into ever-hungry mouths.
Simply watching the elephants as they amble is also a joy. With plenty of time, and in such proximity, their wonderous, humourous – and very individual – quirks can be spotted; the way Buffet crosses her back legs as she stands; Bob and Onion’s big romance; Ning Wan’s trumpeting; the delicate pink edge of Ruby’s ears.
Volunteers spend afternoons contributing to the essential maintenance of the project; working on small construction projects and gardening.
After a physical and tiring day, visitors are rewarded with meals prepared by a talented chef: mouthwatering fresh fish, crunchy stir fries and Khmer curries.
Highwood acts as host and tour guide, as well as vet and manager. He admits that he can “sometimes be a bit Basil Fawlty” and it’s clear that the elephants are his sole focus.
He confesses, too, that he “is like a squirrel”, in that he sees things he wants and goes out and gets them, squeezing them in where he can.
There are more elephants that he would like to rescue, two with landmine injuries, and he would love to breed the elephants at the project, believing that calves would help raise awareness of the necessity of preserving Cambodia’s forest.
Since the completion of the road from Phnom Penh, Mondulkiri is easily accessible from the capital.
Take a bus, take a taxi – just go.