When we first started planning our trip to India, I asked the family for ideas of what they’d like to do. Top of the list for our daughters was a day with elephants. Today their dream finally came true!

We visited a sanctuary that cares for around 130 elephants. In southern India, elephants are used for work, and are sometimes not treated well. The lucky ones end up in places like this, where they give rides and perform other light duties.

The day started with an explanation about the differences between African and Asian elephants: African are grey, Asian are brown; African are larger with 5 front toes and 4 at the rear, Asian have 4 and 3. African have one head lump, Asian have 2; African pregnancies last 22 months, Asian 20 months. Both male and female African elephants have tusks, only male Asian ones do. If an Asian female grows tusks she becomes infertile – a sign, maybe, of too many male hormones.

So, armed with this information we were ready to make friends with these huge prehistoric beasts! We did so by hugging and stroking their trunks. We were all a bit nervous, knowing how strong their trunks can be, but gradually our confidence grew.

Next it was time for a ride. I saw the elephant driver hold his animal by the ears and climb up its trunk, and thought this was how we all would mount. PANIC! Short-lived, fortunately, as we were guided to a platform where we reversed onto a seat on the elephant’s back and shuffled ourselves into a comfortable position.

I confess to feeling nervous. Memories of TV programmes showing elephants stampeding because they’d got fed up of being manhandled kept flashing through my mind, and a sick feeling mounted in my chest with every sudden movement. Our driver kept turning around to say, “You happy, me happy, elephant happy!” which I found vaguely reassuring.

After riding a couple of times around the field, we dismounted and started to paint the elephants with vegetable dyes. Our ‘brushes’ were sticks, and it was hard work getting the colours to adhere, but we had fun trying. Even little Jacob had a go!

Another ride followed, but this time the seat had been removed and we sat on just a blanket with only a piece of rope to cling to. We were all much more relaxed this time, except for Ami who, in the words of my children, “was bricking it!”

Once on the ground again, we scrubbed the elephants clean. It took a lot of elbow grease, and was very hot and sweaty work in the blazing sun. We were all grateful for the breeze that day!

Our final activity was to feed them. A real treat for elephants is bananas; the human equivalent would be chocolate. We watched as they opened their mouths to reveal an enormous tongue that unfolded and guided the fruit down their throats.

Our visit to the elephant sanctuary was a lovely, relaxing escape after ten busy days, and one that we will all treasure forever!