In Thailand

The elephant I was riding threw me, then rolled over me like a steamroller. All my bones broke at once | Life and style

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It was as Gemma Jones was climbing on to the elephant, over its head and on to its back, that she began to have misgivings. The trek through the hillside jungle in north Thailand, near Chiang Mai, was highly rated by other travellers. Jones had been expecting a ladder, perhaps even a saddle. Instead she found a wooden plank, lashed precariously with rope across the animal’s back. “I remember climbing on and thinking: ‘I don’t know about this,’” she says.

Jones, 45, is a clinical psychologist and yoga therapist based in Leamington Spa, Warwickshire. Back then, in October 2002, she was 24 years old and days into what was meant to be a 15-month trip through south-east Asia, Australia and New Zealand with two friends.

She was a relatively experienced traveller, but this trek, with leeches, outdoor ablutions and spiders “the size of my head”, had taken her to the edge of her comfort zone. By the third and final day, she was ready for the city, but not before the activity she’d looked forward to most: an elephant ride.

For their group of nine, five elephants were brought to their bamboo huts: four adult animals and a smaller adolescent, each led by a mahout (guide). Jones and her friend Yvette (a pseudonym, at her request) were to ride together on one of the fully grown animals while Berni, the third in their trio, sat by herself on the younger elephant behind.

What first struck Jones as she climbed up the elephant was, inevitably, its size. It was huge – “just nothing like” what she had imagined from watching nature documentaries. These were Asian elephants, slightly smaller than the African variety, and up to 12ft high and weighing up to 12,000lb (5,400kg). The creature was so tall and so broad that Jones – perched next to Yvette on the plank across its back – could not see the ground on either side, or the mahout walking by its head.

Gemma reaches out to an elephant’s trunk
Gemma Jones on a subsequent trip to Thailand, five years after the attack.

The next surprise was a low rumble from deep within the elephant. She could feel it travelling up her legs. “I didn’t know that elephants could growl,” she says. In 2002, elephant rides were seen as innocent fun, and a key draw for tourists in Thailand. “You don’t realise, in your 20s, that just because you’re allowed to do something doesn’t necessarily mean it’s all going to be fine,” she says.

They set out in uneasy formation, the elephants lumbering along the uneven ground. The two women struggled to hold on against the rolling motion. “As soon as we started, I was like: ‘I don’t like it,’” says Jones.

After 10 minutes, the elephant stopped so abruptly that Jones was nearly launched over its head. As the three elephants in front continued along the path, theirs moved to follow. But then it came to a halt again.

The third time the elephant stopped, it turned to look at the mahout, now in Jones’s line of sight. “The mahout’s face suddenly turned white,” she says. “The look of fear – I remember thinking: ‘That’s not good.’”

The mahout turned and ran. The elephant gave chase. “I don’t know how long we held on for – it could have been seconds, or minutes,” says Jones.

Eventually the animal stumbled, or it may have deliberately thrown them. Jones and Yvette were both tossed to the ground, one to each side of the charging elephant.

They landed hard, in a bramble bush. Jones’s glasses bumped up against her eyes, temporarily taking away the sight in her left. Her clothes were shredded, along with much of the skin on her left side, from armpit to hip. But her split-second reaction was of relief. “I was thinking I was safe, that it was gone,” she says. “Then I realised that the elephant hadn’t kept going – the elephant was still over us.”

What happened next Jones registered in flashes, like a silent film. In such a high-stakes situation, “your brain is constantly catching up. Everything is changing second by second,” she says.

There was no pain. “This is one of the things I learned: your brain just takes over and starts to sedate you,” says Jones. “That’s part of the trauma: you dissociate. You have to – you can’t cope with what’s going on.”

Yvette was able to scramble out of the way; Jones was and caught by her long sleeves and trouser legs. Yvette later confessed to Jones that she felt guilty for abandoning her friend, but Jones told her she’d had no choice. “There was no ‘fight’ option, it was literally: run. You just didn’t stand a chance. It was massive – and it was everywhere.”

The elephant towered over Jones, who was on all fours beneath its belly and in the thick of “this chaotic scramble of feet and legs”, she says. Its limbs were like tree trunks being uprooted and crashing down around her.

“It was at that point I started thinking about my family – the impact that this was going to have on them, and what would happen if I died.”

Then the elephant grabbed Jones with its trunk. “It wrapped itself around me, picked me up and threw me,” she says. It did this more than once.

Jones remembers a distinct thought penetrating her limited consciousness: that, at age 24, “Everything that has happened to me could be everything that is going to happen to me – this is where it stops.”

Jones at her home today.
Jones at her home today. Photograph: Andrew Fox/The Guardian

Then the elephant brought its great bulk down on the ground, level with Jones. It rolled over her from right to left, like a steamroller. “All my bones broke at once: my collarbone, my ribs, my pelvis,” she says. “I didn’t feel it, but I heard it. I thought: ‘Oh, shit. That’s my spine.’”

She believes that what saved her was that the ground was soft. Plus she had some experience of gymnastics and yoga, which might have helped her move with the impact. But there was nothing she could have done that would have improved her chance of survival. “It’s just luck and circumstances.”

She remembers feeling the elephant’s short, bristly hair against her skin; the way it blocked out the sun as it went to roll over her again. She braced herself for the end, for her skull to be crushed.

Instead the shadow passed. “The next thing I remember was light,” she says. “There was sun on my face – and the elephant wasn’t there.”

The mahout reappeared by her side. He dragged Jones to her feet and then over a fence to some nearby huts. The numbness finally gave way to all-encompassing and overwhelming pain. “Everything just started screaming at me,” Jones says.

As she was laid out on her back on an outside table, Berni and others from the group pulled up in a pickup truck. Berni – Bernadette Johnen, now based in Kingston-upon-Thames – remembers the sight vividly. Her first reaction was relief: Jones was covered in dirt and dishevelled, with a bloodshot eye, but had no visible wounds. She was even talking. “But as soon as you touched her, or went anywhere near, she started screaming,” says Berni.

Chiang Mai was more than an hour’s drive down the mountain. Every bump in the dirt road was agonising. At the hospital in Chiang Mai, Jones was given painkillers and X-rays revealed that her pelvis had been cracked from top to bottom. She also had a broken collarbone, three fractured ribs and internal bleeding – but didn’t need surgery.

Jones’s call to her parents from the hospital was her first call home since setting out on her big trip, less than a week earlier. Sedated with morphine, she told her dad in Warwickshire “an elephant broke my glasses” before handing the phone over to Berni.

Jones trying to walk with the aid of parallel bars, watched by medical staff
Jones in a Thai hospital, where she had to undergo extensive rehab.

By the time her parents arrived in Thailand, two days later, she was immobilised by swelling. “All the bruising started to come out internally. I couldn’t do anything – laugh, cry or sneeze,” she says. Even routine X-rays and redressing her wounds were excruciating. Physiotherapy, which she started on her second day in hospital, was a feat of endurance. She became hyper-attuned to who, among the hospital staff, she could trust to treat her with care. She still swoons at the memory of a porter who could get her smoothly in and out of a wheelchair. “It’s the details that really matter when you’re that helpless.” Berni, too, proved a pillar of strength, advocating for Jones with doctors but also helping her – and sometimes pushing her, Berni admits – through the punishing physiotherapy regimen.

“She put a lot of trust in me, and she also had belief in herself,” says Berni. They remain close today; Jones and Yvette are also still friends.

Jones was hospitalised for 10 days, during which word of her accident spread. The consulate and the embassy were involved from the start, given the implications for Thailand’s tourist industry. “Obviously what happened wasn’t a great bit of PR,” says Jones.

But her lasting impression, including of the officials, was of the kindness of strangers. “My hotel room started filling with flowers; nurses and doctors would stop me in the halls. The whole community was shocked, I think.”

Elephant attacks in Thailand are rare. The national parks department recorded 135 human fatalities between 2016 and 2022: an average of about 22 a year, despite approximately 3,800 “working” animals still kept in captivity today. “It’s a million-to-one chance that you’re going to get attacked by an elephant, but if you do, it’s a million-to-one chance that you’re going to survive,” says Jones. “I do feel pretty bloody fortunate.”

In hospital, Jones learned that her elephant had been loaned from a neighbouring community and was under stress in unfamiliar territory. The mahouts may also not have been following best practice by leading on foot and carrying machetes. But the specific circumstances of her attack never became clear. Jones was also told that the attacking elephant had been destroyed, but that may have not have been true. “We don’t know, is the answer.”

After being discharged, Jones joined her parents at their hotel for one more week of rehab. Even as she was relearning how to walk, she was determined to resume her adventure.

She was pushing to go to Bali to recuperate, but then there was a terrorist attack on Kuta beach, in October 2002. More than 200 people died, many of them young tourists like her. That was the last straw and she flew back with Yvette to the UK.

At home with her parents in Warwickshire, her physical recovery progressed swiftly. Within a month, she had booked a flight to Sydney, Australia for New Year, to rejoin Berni and restart their trip. Yvette chose not to go. “I think it was just too much, too soon.”

There were clues that Jones was far from healed. In her mind, her traumatic elephant encounter had coalesced with the Bali bombings and even 9/11 the previous year. “The whole world felt really unsafe. I always felt like I was on hyper-alert.” She developed a fear of flying. Even clouds could provoke subliminal associations with the elephant blocking out the sun as it came down on her, Jones says. “It’s funny, the pattern-matching … heavy grey skies just made me anxious.” She sought cognitive behavioural therapy, then “white-knuckled” the flight to Sydney.

“I think in some respects it was important for me to get back out travelling, not to let the fear kick in at that point. At the same time, I was traumatised and didn’t recognise it.”

Her awareness manifested, first, as a desire for a career change. In December 2003, after a year living in Sydney, Jones returned to the UK and started a doctorate in clinical psychology. She had previously worked in human resources, but the experience with the elephant had made her realise two things, Jones says: “Life can change in a heartbeat and you never see it coming, and there are points in life when we’re completely alone and powerless. You can’t escape those things – they are human problems – so what do you do? I wanted to understand how to work with that.”

She started therapy herself and recommitted to her yoga practice. In 2007, five years after the attack, she even returned to Thailand for exposure therapy, feeding elephants at a sanctuary. Jones recalls the experience as helpful, if somewhat bizarre. “Standing alongside this beautiful, serene animal was in total contrast to the chaos and brutality of the attack,” she says. “I just kept thinking: ‘How did I not die?’”

Jones now works with patients in private and NHS practice, specialising in palliative care, pain management and psycho-oncology. Though she does not do trauma-focused therapy specifically – it comes too close to her own experience – first-hand understanding informs her work. “Trauma rewires your brain and your nervous system, so it is literally embodied. If you know what you’re looking for, you can see it.”

The most helpful thing Jones did for her own post-traumatic stress, she says, was learning and practising trauma-sensitive yoga. Today she has no lasting pain from the elephant encounter, and no scars; the only visible trace is a wonky collarbone.

For Jones, the decades since the attack have been a gradual and not always linear process of coming to terms with the “extraordinary thing” that happened to her. She feels that it changed the course of her life for the better. “I learned so much about myself: I know I can survive. I know that you can suffer, you can be in pain and alone, and completely out of control – and yet it can be OK.”

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