Elephants you ll never forget
Fina enjoys bananas. Picture: Jean Hudson

Trumpeting loudly and flapping her giant ears, Fina leaves the path. She wraps her trunk around a tree, peels off a long length of bark and munches happily.

More Singapore
RAPIDLY CHANGING
BOLD AND FUN
CALM AND COLONIAL
THE HUMAN SPIRIT OF ART
TAKE THE TRAIN AND SIT BACK
MODERN SINGAPORE
SENTOSA

I cling on to her hairy ears with no idea what will happen next. I feel very vulnerable astride a six-tonne Sumatran elephant - the ground looks a long way down.

Mo, the elephant mahout, had climbed off Fina to take photographs of me. In a flash he is back, shimmying up her front leg and landing in front of me. "Naughty girl," he scolds.

We set off again, and I gladly hold on to Mo's shoulders for support as we are riding bare-backed.

Fina is a 23-year-old female and one of the seven elephants at this sanctuary on the Indonesian island of Bintan, just a short 45-minute ferry ride from Singapore.

Fina ambles and sways up and down jungle paths. It is amazing feeling her powerful shoulders and a wonderful opportunity to be so close to one of the most ancient animals in the world.

As it rained earlier, the sky has that magical washed look and everything smells fresh. The jungle comes alive with the sounds of monkeys and birds. Brightly coloured parrots flit through the understorey. Huge monitor lizards dart across our path. I imagine boa constrictors hiding in the dark cool forest.

The tropical rain forest is lush as we meander along the shady trails of Bintan's interior. Part of this amazing experience is observing how Mo and Fina work together.

There are fewer than 2800 Sumatran elephants remaining. Environmentalists warn that they will become extinct within decades without our protection.

Over the past 25 years, 69 per cent of the elephant's home forests have been burned, felled and converted into plantations. As paper, pulp and palm oil industries expand, Sumatra is seeing some of the worst deforestation rates in the world.

Conflict between elephants and villagers is increasingly common as the forest habitat shrinks. Hungry elephants enter villages looking for food. Frightened villagers and rangers hunt them away with torches and firecrackers. Villagers are threatening to kill elephants unless authorities protect their farms.

After my safe return, I feed Fina a bag of bananas. She looks at me through long lashes and blows at me playfully through her trunk. It's a moment I will treasure for the rest of my life, feeling so close and at peace with this gentle giant.

It is difficult to believe that just yesterday I was among throngs of people in Singapore's Orchard Road.

These elephants have been trained to perform all kinds of tricks and antics to entertain adults and children at the elephant show. They make perfect turns on raised forelegs astride a tiny drum stand, kneel, bow and dance to music. They swing their trainers around with their trunks and enjoy being handfed bananas. These seven Sumatran elephants are loved and well cared for in this Bintan sanctuary.

For centuries Bintan Island was known as "Pirate Island" as its strategic location on the India- China trade route made it a pirate haven. Today the South China Sea is dotted with tropical islands, hundreds of oil tankers, freighters, oil-rigs and huge container ships.

Bintan is the largest of the 3,200 islands in the Riau Archipelago and located 45km south-east of Singapore. We stay in a villa at the Nirwana Garden Resort, one of a number of classy resorts on the island.

The holiday area bears little resemblance to the rest of the island, with its fishing villages and the traditional way of life, and is separated from the rest of the island by armed security guards.

Our resort has manicured lawns and tropical gardens. Sunbirds twitter in the foliage; large black monitor lizards sun themselves and squirrels amuse us with daring acrobatic displays. Our children love the infinity pool, with its swim-up bar, spa and water polo nets.

The island has pristine white beaches and the clear waters are rich with marine life. Snorkeling on the islands coral reefs is very popular.

Dugongs live in these waters. Our villa is on a palm-fringed beach with talcum powder soft white sand.

After the hustle and bustle of Singapore, Bintan is a peaceful and tranquil. Midweek and outside the Singapore school holidays are the best times to visit.

Bintan Island is "Rottnest for Singaporeans", and the perfect tag-on location to a Singapore stay.


FACT FILE

• The 45-minute ferry to Bintan costs $50 return from Singapore. A visa can be bought at the ferry port for $US10.

• The elephant park is open every day except Tuesday and Wednesday. A tour including transfer, show entrance and insurance costs $24 for adults and $19 for children. There are optional short 10-minute elephant rides and half-day elephant safari rides.

The West Australian

Popular videos

Compare & Save

Our Picks

More from The West