Firstly, I'd like to preface this post by saying that during the time - albeit brief - I spent in Tangkahan, I witnessed absolutely no mistreatment of the elephants, as has been described in very few blog accounts of the area. While I can't vouch for their 100% happiness (I don't speak Elephant), the elephants I met bore no resemblance to the elephants I have seen in other parts of South East Asia, where they are often kept in very small enclosures and treated with a rough hand.
Elephants have always been my favourite animals and from a young age my mother has often given me little elephant figurines and keepsakes, so I was pretty excited at the prospect of helping to wash the elephants in Tangkahan. I’d ridden and fed Elephants in Thailand and Nepal, but this was a chance to get even closer to them.
We had a pretty tight schedule and only time for an afternoon in Tangkahan before flying out of Medan early the next morning. Unfortunately, not having the luxury of endless time that backpackers seem to have to get a $4 bus ride, we organised a private driver to get us to Tangkahan for the afternoon (2.5hrs) and over to Medan (4-5hrs) before we flew out the next morning for about Rp800,000. Pretty pricey compared to Bali standards but well worth the price. This was not a journey I would have enjoyed driving (4 hours of the total drive time was on bumpy, pothole-filled unsealed roads!) but the Indonesian drivers never seem too bothered.
We spent a good couple of hours bouncing around on unsealed roads through some pretty depressing scenery - described by some as a scene of 'environmental devastation', with palm oil trees as far as the eye can see. Our driver even stopped the car at one point to let us take a photo of the 'view', so we dutifully got out of the car and looked at each other awkwardly, taking a quick photo to appease the driver before we were on our way.
We arrived at Tangkahan early so headed across the river on a pretty spectacular ferry to grab some lunch. Tangkahan would make a great place to base yourself for a few days, with wooden bungalows lining the hills above the river and calm, cool waters to swim in during the day. There are also a lot of trekking options in the area.
During the 1980s and 1990s, locals in the area were involved in a lot of illegal logging and poaching, which was displacing the elephant's natural habitat. Poaching was a huge problem, with elephants, orangutans and tigers regularly taken or killed.
Eventually, the local people realised the damage their actions were doing to the environment and they collectively decided to turn the area into a protected area, with a focus on ecotourism.
Tangkahan, which is located at the point where the Batang and Buluh Rivers meet, now has a Conservation Response Unit - a team of ex-captive and refugee Sumatran elephants and their mahouts (caretakers) - who patrol the forest for signs of illegal logging and poaching. Due to the efforts of the CRU, poaching in the area has decreased to a point where wild orangutans, elephants and even the rare Sumatran tiger have started to return to the area.
The afternoon spent washing and playing in the river with the elephants was indescribable. It was hard to wipe the smile off my face for hours afterwards and the thrill was more than any rollercoaster could give you. The elephants I washed - Olive and the male of the group Theo - were like puppy dogs and seemed to just want to wrap their trunks around you in a big hug (before splashing you in the face with a trunkful of water).
Too soon it was time to change out of our soaking wet clothes and brave the long, bumpy road to Medan. But I'm already planning to head back to spend more time with the elephants!
While the Elephant riding at Tangkahan is pricey (around Rp600,000/ride), the washing only costs Rp100,000 (around $10) and is a great way to interact with the animals and learn a little more about them. Make bookings through your guest house or here.