Caroline Casey is an Irish tough cookie who is legally blind, but has, in spite of her handicap, done more in her life than you and me combined. And her most notable feat – from a kickass travel perspective – is that she rode an elephant across India. By herself!
On an elephant across India
Casey graduated university and became a management consultant at Accenture. Feeling unsatisfied in that job she decided to follow her heart and in June 2000 she quit her job and started the Aisling Foundation (“aisling” is Gaelic for dream and vision) to promote and enhance a truly positive image of people with disabilities.
To promote the foundation and raise funds for its cause from January – May 2001, Caroline trekked solely 1,000 Km across southern India on the back of an elephant. Her journey was inspired by Mark Shand ‘the elephant man’ who made a similar journey years before.
Casey’s friendly, but sometimes eccentric female elephant was called Kanchi and together they raised kickass awareness of what people with a disability can do. Along her journey Casey became the first Western female mahout in India.
En route she visited “eye camps”, where thousands of visually-impaired patients come for treatment.
strange but true – I never planned to be a Social Entrepreneur – I sort of fell into it when I came out of the closet about my vision impairment at 28. At that time I was working as a Management Consultant with Accenture. When I realised I had to handle my vision better I decided that I would fulfill a childhood ambition to become Mowgli from the Jungle Book and trek 1,000 km across India on an elephant. That elephant was called Kanchi – the name of the organisation that I subsequently founded which challenges mindsets and behaviors around disability. The elephant trip was both an opportunity for me to regain my lost confidence but more significantly a chance to challenge the perceptions and representations of people with disabilities. I tell you – it was one leap from Management Consultant to Elephant Handler to Social Entrepreneur.
Registered legally blind, Casey’s goal with her journey on an Elephant across India was to alter perceptions of disability by encouraging people to focus on the individual and their personal achievements. “I was just sick of always discussing things that I couldn’t do. And I always wondered why I never came across people who have disability in the work place. So when I put the two together I came up with going on this trek and raising awareness about disabilities,” she said.
“I want to demonstrate that physical disability need not be a barrier to the realization of your dreams, however impossible they may seem. “Aisling” is the Irish word for dream after all” she added.
She is not the first one in kickass-travel-world to make that point: Erik Weihenmayer, the blind adventurer, climbed mount Everest and all the other eight-thousanders in the world, firstly because he loves it, and secondly to prove blind people can dream big!
Riding an Elephant across India
To travel on an elephant across India a lot of preparation was needed. Before she set off Casey spent a month of necessary “bonding” time with Kanchi, a 20-year-old Nepalese female elephant who stands 2 meters tall at the shoulder. She did this under the strict supervision of an Indian mahout (elephant handler) called Jayan. The other mahout Vikram did not know why Caroline wanted to learn about living and working with elephants. Caroline had to prove to them that she wanted to learn their skills. Because she is visually impaired, developing a strong relationship with her elephant was crucial for the success of the three-month trek. She learned to bathe Kanchi, mount and ride her, feed her bananas and started learning some commands in Malayam, the Keralan local language.
“She’s the perfect anna,” said Casey, using the Malayam word for elephant. Their bond was completely based on trust and the elephant’s ability to sense and understand Casey’s visual disability.
Casey started in the of port city of Kozhikode (the English name is Calicut) in the southwestern state of Kerala. She then headed north before turning east and crossing through the Nagarhole National Park. On the first day of the trek, curious Keralans followed Casey all day. “I was presented with flowers, propositioned — not much I could do with that on an elephant — offered husbands, given bananas to beat the band and caused two schools to come to a complete standstill,” Casey excitedly told reporters after her kickass trek..
Casey cared for her elephant all by herself, and she camped at every stage of her journey, accompanied only by an elephant feeder and Indian guides.
The total journey was 1,000 km long across southern India and she travelled for at least 8 hours a day. Nothing would stop her. The safest place to sleep was the top of a battered transit van.
Meals consisted of rice, dhal(split seeds), chapattis(bread) and lots of vegetables, watermelon, mangoes and bananas.
There was always the danger of male elephants mating with Kanchi. Fortunately whenever a herd of wild elephants were near Bhadra would lift her trunk, sniff the air and made a rumbling sound in her belly. Then everybody would run and get pots and pans and made noise to frighten the elephants away and if that did not work then they would set off an elephant bomb, which was like a small loud firework that startles elephants. Surprisingly, Bhadra would barely move when the bomb went off. It was as if she knew that Caroline was trying to protect her. Sometimes she would pass a herd of wild elephants or through villages of screaming children armed with bananas!
At the end of March after two months on the road, Caroline spent three days at the Shankara Eye Hospital, which serves 14.5 million people. Fifteen surgeons work there for Sight Savers International and carry out hundreds of cataract operations every day. A fifteen-minute operation can restore sight to a blind person.
During the trek she stopped at some of the Sight Savers Projects, hospitals and community care centers to learn about their work in India.
After a bit over three months on the elephant Casey reached her final destination in Coimbatore in the eastern state of Tamil Nadu.
International response to her trek as chronicled in the National Geographic documentary “Elephant Vision” has been widespread.
From the Aisling to Kanchi Foundation
The major fundraising initiative riding Kanchi the elephant across India inspired many including a name change of the Aisling Foundation:
The organisation was originally called The Aisling Foundation. The name Aisling means dream or vision in Gaelic but it did not travel well. Pronounced “ailing”, outside Ireland, Aisling not only loses its meaning but brings attention to the negative thinking the Kanchi team are trying to change. Our history has made us who we are and our story began with an elephant called Kanchi. To us, Kanchi is a symbol of change, vision, possibility, never giving up, looking at things differently and individual potential. So in 2008 we chose Kanchi as our new name.
In September 2002 Caroline – inspired by her Indian journey with Kanchi – was one of the five founding trustees of the Elephant Family charity.
Elephant’s family driving force and chairman has been Mark Shand, our kickass hero who rode his elephant Tara across India in the early nineties (and who inspired Caroline Casey).
Elephant Family’s mission is to highlight the plight of the Asian elephant and to lead the way in assessing, managing and funding best practice in elephant conservation.
Through individual experiences, each of the five founders learned that these majestic and beautiful animals were teetering on the brink of extinction and that the conservation-conscious western world seemed indifferent to their impending tragedy.
Victims of the battle for space between humans, several significant elephants stole the hearts of the co-founders, evoking the need to turn the situation around. Mark Shand rode Tara the elephant across India, Dugal Muller fell under the spell of orphaned elephant Jojo, Robin Russell, from a family of conservationists, initiated the rescue of three captive elephant youngsters from an uncertain future in India and had them flown to a secure and happy life in the broad acres at Woburn. Caroline Casey embarked on her epic journey across south India on an elephant named Kanchi and finally Nicholas Claxton, joining in 2002, and having been married on an elephant in India , has used the force of his award winning filmmaking to highlight issues in wildlife conservation and the environment.
More Adventures: Around the World in 80 Ways
Subsequent to her elephant trek Casey didn’t stop kickass tripping: in 2002 she got involved in the highly acclaimed ‘Around the World in 80 Ways’ – an epic bid by three adventurers with disabilities to circumnavigate the globe using 80 different means of transport. Around the World in 80 Ways visited 78 towns and cities, used 92 modes of transport, raised ¾ million worldwide and spoke to audiences from 20 to 4,000 at over 80 events.