ALISON GRINTER hops on the back of a Sumatran elephant in Bali as she enjoys a safari park set up for the endangered species.

The first thing that catches my eye as I enter the world-famous Elephant Safari Park in Bali is a statue of two elephants shagging. Classy!

“They’re not shagging, just climbing over each other,” says the park’s no-nonsense owner Nigel Mason. For the past eight years Mason has been offering what he calls “a complete elephant experience”. Not only does the park provide a sanctuary for the endangered Sumatran elephant, it also gives the public the chance to get up close and personal with these beautiful pachyderms.

“The park has educated the public to the fact that there is an Indonesian elephant,” says Mason. He goes on to explain that the Indonesian elephant (better known as the Sumatran elephant), is a sub-species of the Asian elephant, and is found only in Sumatra and Borneo. But with less than 2000 elephants left in Sumatra, they are fast becoming an endangered species, which is where the park comes in.

Mason followed the hippy trail to Bali 25 years ago and never left. He met and married his wife here and became a major player in the island’s developing tourist industry, setting up a white water rafting company and a restaurant. The elephant park, though, proved to be a happy accident. Mason came across a man who’d brought 10 Sumatran elephants over to Bali and had no clue how to look after them. The man sold the animals to Mason who promptly “fell in love with them”. Swotting up in all things elephantine he found a deserted, dried out rice paddy in the shadow of Mt Kintamani near the village of Taro – the perfect place to build the park.

Eight years on, the safari park is firmly committed to the conservation of the Sumatran elephant. But not only that, it is beautifully laid with landscaped gardens and a restaurant, and has attracted its share of celebrity visitors over the years (David and Victoria Beckham, Dolph Lundgren, Jean Claude Van Damme and Steve Irwin to name a few). There are also plans for a hotel and luxury huts, elevated to the height of an elephant, so that guests can be ferried to and from their rooms on the backs of elephants.

There are 27 elephants in total, including two babies. Most of the elephants have been rescued from Sumatra where they have been used – sometimes cruelly – for logging.

The old adage about elephants having long memories is true; earlier this year the New Scientist reported that a whole generation of elephants were taking revenge on humans for years of poaching and general mistreatment and cited chilling tales of pachyderms rampaging through villages and trampling on humans. They can hold grudges if you’re cruel to them,” confirms Mason.

Over the years he has had to patch up various elephants who’ve been mistreated and some still suffer from a type of post-traumatic stress disorder. Thankfully, Mason’s elephants don’t have too many “issues”.

“We have to make sure they aren’t too old or hold too many grudges,” he says. One bad-tempered elephant had to be sent away because he was too unruly.

So, now it’s time to meet the elephants. First up, we are to take an elephant ride around the park. Divided into pairs, we are ensconced in wooden seats on top of these lumbering beasts. Our elephant is Niki, a 20-year-old female. The driver, or mahout, squats on Niki’s neck, just behind her ears (remarkably without any seat or form of restraint) and then we are off, ambling along at what feels like two kilometres an hour. Most of us are still bleary eyed and jet-lagged from our long haul from London, so the top of an elephant is as good a place as any to relax and absorb Bali’s serene beauty. From my undulating vantage point I can see farmers in conical straw hats wading through thigh-high water as they tend to their crops among the emerald-green terraces. It sure makes a nice change from the chaos and hard sell of Kuta.

After the 40-minute ride we are shaken from our langour as the elephants are led into the “honeymoon pool” (so called because it’s where they are encouraged to mate). As Niki steps down purposefully into the water, there’s a scary moment where it feels as though terra firma has just dropped out from under us. I have visions of us pitching head first into the murky water below. But Niki is as surefooted as a mountain goat. She’s just keen to get in the water and frolic with her mates – and us hapless humans are being dragged along for the ride.

Elephants are hugely intelligent, and communicate with each other using infrasound and infrasonic sounds. “They’re not just another animal,” says Mason as we recover our land legs.

“They have different personalities – they’re sensitive, playful. They’re just like big dogs and can be trained in the same way and can remember more commands than dogs. Just to prove his point, we are then treated to a display of elephant tricks involving balancing acts and basketballs. It seems a little cheesy, watching such magnificent beasts performing tricks. But Mason has read my mind. “We’re not a circus – that’s not what we’re about. We allow only enough tricks to show how smart they are.” And it has to be said the elephants lap up the attention. They soon get their own back by sucking water into their enormous trunks and blasting it over us gormless, gawping tourists. It’s like being hit with a particularly powerful super-soaker – perfect in Bali’s oppressively humid heat.”