Elephants show concern, protect their young as Israeli air raid siren sounds

Self-inflicted wounds

TRIBE Life: Game on

While urban hubs Cape Town and Johannesburg are home to thriving Jewish communities, with members whose personal convictions helped shape post-apartheid South Africa, the allure for many who make the long journey from the United States is the rare opportunity to experience wildlife in its most authentic setting. In other words, the original “eco-tourism” experience, which goes beyond anything that may be trendy in nature-focused vacations, is a major draw for travelers.

Safari lodge resorts like Kapama Private Game Reserve near Hoedspruit (on the outskirts of South Africa’s Kruger National Park) represent today’s South Africa at its best without trying too hard, thanks to ethnically diverse staffers and guides, superb cuisine and a relaxed, comfortable approach to luxury safaris.

At the Kapama’s sprawling complex, nature’s bounty, combined with uplifting examples of philanthropy and an eco-friendly lifestyle, are celebrated both on a grand scale and on a personalized, intimate level. The reserve is composed of several resorts of different sizes and settings, enabling guests to customize their safari experience to their own needs — families, honeymooning couples, corporate groups, guys’ or girls’ getaways, or hard-core adventuring travelers.

The compact but regal Kapama Lodge (kapama.co.za) is quintessential safari South Africa. Its cottages are appropriately comfortable and elegant, yet free of the trappings of jungle kitsch or over-the-top five-star hotel décor. Dinners are served open air in a lapa (courtyard) with an array of seasonal, simple sides and made-to-order grilled meats. Daytime dining, meanwhile, benefits from the presence of local produce and a gorgeous terrace overlooking the nearby river.

While the resort has decent Internet access, e-mail loses its urgency when you’re surrounded by the serenity of the area’s lush greenery and sprawling river. Though camping here is hardly “roughing it,” Kapama’s approach puts you back in touch with nature, from a greeting committee of giraffes to nayala antelopes and monkeys strolling nonchalantly past your cottage, to elephants adding extra ambience to your spa experience, to the lodge’s astute and youthfully energetic staff.

Kapama Lodge’s guests enjoy braAi (pronounced “bry”), a traditional South African barbecue.

Though you could visit Kruger National Park on your own, guided tours are ideal for short stays and eco-tourism virgins. Game drives conducted by Kapama’s guides in tricked-out Land Rovers deliver on their promise of genuine thrills and “wow” moments, ample photo ops and plenty of witty commentary from guides as they make earnest efforts to ensure you see at least four of the “big five” (lions, elephants, water buffalo, rhinoceroses and the elusive leopards) as well as other equally interesting specimens of wildlife. However, this is the jungle, so expect surprises. Our group, for example, delighted in stumbling upon a family of normally elusive cheetahs en route to an outing outside the Kapama compound.

Firms like Distell (parent company of Amarula Liqueur and several internationally distributed wines, including Durbanville Hills) contribute significantly to the well-being of communities neighboring Kapama and Kruger National Park. Convening with nature on safari may be the focus of your journey, but a visit to the Amarula Lapa (visitor center) near the village of Phalaborwa brings an added dimension of human interest and cultural enrichment to a safari vacation, even if you are not an avid cocktail fan.

Marula fruit (a relative of the mango that in its fresh-picked state tastes like an eccentric hybrid of citrus, passion fruit and plum) has provided nourishment to elephants and humans living in this region for centuries. Prior to the arrival of Distell, locals used marula to manufacture local beer, fruit juice and beauty products. However, the economic value of this fruit grew when, nearly 20 years ago, Distell’s experiments to develop a marula spirit with international appeal, in a manner of speaking, bore fruit.

From that seed emerged the Amarula Trust (amarulatrust.com), and if you travel to the Amarula Lapa during harvest season, you can witness firsthand the trust’s conservation efforts and community philanthropy in action. During the months the villages’ men are stationed at their jobs, the trust provides wives supplemental household income, as well as a medical facility and day-care center. The trust also oversees a scholarship program enabling young adults to further their education and train for field-guide careers.

Johannesburg-based Rabbi Baruch Goldstuck, meanwhile, has developed a uniquely Jewish way for his brethren from other countries to experience Africa’s majestic bush and wildlife, using his own memories of childhood vacations as a starting point. By converging the Jewish traditions that shaped him with the untamed wonders of nature, Goldstuck built a unique tour company offering tailor-made and strictly kosher safaris in Southern Africa a little over a decade ago. Today, The Kosher Wildlife Experience not only offers fully catered, glatt kosher safaris, but also has retained its quaint, personal approach, arranging a unique, custom-prepared vacation for each group.

For more information on South Africa, visit southafrica.net, and for information on flights into South Africa, visit flysaa.com. Companies such as Momentum Tours (momentumtours.com), The Kosher Wildlife Experience (kosherwildlife.com) and Travel With Jacob (travelwithjacob.com) also offer Jewish-focused tours of South Africa, which include safaris in their itineraries.

Tikkun Olam, Thailand and an elephant named Yom

Who would have guessed that a 15-year-old boy born and raised in West Los Angeles would befriend a 49-year-old elephant named Yom who lives in a conservation reserve hidden deep in the jungles of Lampang in Northern Thailand?

Ever since my bar mitzvah, I wanted to do something that would connect me more to my Jewish identity. One way was to take the Jewish notion of tikkun olam (repairing the world) more seriously. So every summer I have spent two weeks helping out less fortunate communities.

On the summer of my 15th birthday, I joined the Rustic Pathways camp, a 25-year-old community service group that takes students to impoverished communities in Third World countries. Our group of 15 American students went to Thailand to help out on an elephant reserve.

The elephant population is at risk in Northern Thailand due to the constant poaching and attacks from angry villagers. In the past, elephants rampaged through the villages, which made for an unsafe situation for both the elephants and the villagers.

Wanting to protect the elephants, the local people have made a conservation reserve in the elephants’ natural habitat. And because keeping elephants well fed and healthy is an expensive enterprise, the elephants’ lifelong trainers (mahouts) teach the elephants tricks so they can perform in local shows to raise money for their upkeep. Without such programs, the elephants’ lives would be in great jeopardy.

The mahouts work all but three days every month. By helping them, we would take some of the menial work from their exhausting schedule.

The elephant reserve was filled with native Thai shrubbery of every color. Hours after I arrived, a mahout showed me his elephant, Yom. Her eyes, immense and brown, showed a deep level of love and serenity. Her hair, which is almost invisible from afar, felt as sharp as nails. And Yom’s giant ears drew attention away from her enormous nose.

It is remarkable how smart elephants are. After a couple of days, Yom flapped her ears in excitement every time she smelled me coming. And those flapping ears acted as an automatic seatbelt when I rode her, always holding my legs against her neck to make sure I didn’t fall off. At the conservation camp, I learned how to take an elephant’s temperature (you don’t want to know) and how to shoot a rampaging elephant with a homemade dart gun (very carefully).

Every day I gave Yom two baths. I rode her into the nearby lake once in the morning and once at night. There she submerged herself in water for up to 15 minutes at a time, with only her trunk sticking out like a snorkel.

After Yom’s morning bath, I took her to either the feeding grounds or the training area. On every occasion that I took her out to eat, she would pile food in her mouth like it was her last meal. We passed areas that looked as if a logging company had recently come through the forest. With all that eating going on, I wondered how there was even a forest left at the end of the day.

Once Yom had her fill of leaves and branches, I led her to her daily activities. One of these activities included a miniobstacle course. I steered her through poles, instructed her to bow her head and made her walk backward. Yom was exceptionally good at the course because she’d had more than 48 years of training at the camp.

Time always flew by when I was working with her. Before I knew it, the sun was ready to set and I had to put Yom back in the forest for the night. I rode her into the forest for miles to find the perfect spot. Once I decided on a place to leave her for the night, I tied her down to a nearby tree sturdy enough to hold her back, or she would have been able to leave the forest and walk right back to the city of Lampang.

Before I left, I always looked at all the surrounding trees and took note of the fact that they would not be there when I would return the next morning. Yom would make sure to take down every tree or bush she could reach for a midnight snack.

Then, just as I would leave, I would look back at her standing amid the trees. I would stare in awe of Yom’s beauty in her native habitat, standing half hidden in the foliage looking perfectly peaceful. This sight was the highlight of my trip.

I spent the evenings with the Thai counselors and staff members. They introduced me to their native dances that they had learned as children and their favorite Thai bands.

At nightfall, silence took over the forest, and the only sounds I heard came from the mahouts’ singing and drumming on paint cans. There was no TV, no electricity and no running water. We were just 15 kids, a herd of elephants and a breathtaking forest.

It was there in that dark forest that I realized that if I give to a cause that I am passionate about, I will get so much more in return.

Phillip Nazarian is a 10th-grader at Brentwood School.

Speak Up!

Tribe, a page by and for teens, appears the first issue of every month in The Jewish Journal. Ninth- to 12th-graders are invited to submit first-person columns, feature articles or news stories of up to 800 words. Deadline for the April issue is March 15; deadline for the May issue is April 15. Send submissions to julief@jewishjournal.com.