Searching for elephants – a Sri Lankan safari

We left Kandy not feeling like we were short changing it with our limited time there. The only thing we would have added would have been to get out into a tea plantation, though if we’d been more planned it turned out we could have fit that in too.

It was Sunday, and we were heading up to the ancient cities. Our hotel said the first bus to Polonnaruwa on Sunday didn’t go until 9am. We didn’t believe this but not wanting to take the chance of losing sleep for nothing we decided we’d be at the bus station for 8:30am.

We whizzed there in a tuk tuk and had no problem finding the right bus. Ours was somewhere down the back of the station but Sri Lankans are really helpful and we were pointed the way.

We loaded on and were early enough to get seats, this time next to each other and by the window. Emma soon scored some vadai (lentils, corn and spices deep fried in a palm sized ball) from a seller that got on. You get 4 for 100 rupees (NZ$1) and she’d discovered on the train they make a good breakfast. The bag was made from lined notepad paper.

The journey was fun, we could see and feel and experience more of Sri Lankan life than from the train. Packed and with music blaring we beeped our way out of Kandy, through small settlements with narrow roads. Like all good developing country drivers, ours drove like his life depended on reaching his destination as soon as possible and he put his foot down the second he got some clear air, so we went hurtling down the mountain.

The temperature increased as we lost altitude. We knew it was forecasting 39C where we were heading, which was part of the reason we wanted an early start to try and travel before it got too hot. Ww were left hoping it didn’t get too hot too soon. Luckily the speed we drove at gave a steady stream of air even if it meant getting our heads blown off by the open window.

We arrived tired and pretty dazed. We’d found a guest house and booked it online the day before. It said it was a small place in a quiet area and it could organise elephant safaris which is what we hoped to arrive early enough to be able to fit in that afternoon. We hopped on a tuk tuk, checked in and they’d sorted us out with a safari within half an hour of us arriving. They had another guest joining a shared Jeep but if we joined him it was going to cost us NZ$100 with up to 4 other people, whereas to take a Jeep on our own was only going to cost NZ$135. We decided sharing wasn’t worth the saving, particularly as we had something to celebrate that day.

Sri Lankan elephants are one of the three subspecies of Asian elephant. They have a special place in Sri Lankan culture which goes all the way back to Sinhalese kings who captured and tamed elephants. Despite this they are currently classed as endangered as their habitat shrinks, and they are protected under Sri Lankan law. They continue to play an important role in cultural and religious traditions.

We had just enough time to drink tea, and fluff about a bit before our Jeep arrived. There are 2 national parks, pretty much on opposite sides of the highway, our guest house had told us we’d be going to Kaudulla on the north side. Apparently there are more baby elephants there at the moment. The entry fee is also half the other one and since entry is included in the safari price then it probably helps them to make the cost sound cheaper.

As we headed out of town we made an unplanned stop at a garage. We had a puncture. Our driver was most apologetic but we figured it was better timing now than in the park! The place we stopped at didn’t have the right socket to get the wheel nuts off. We had time to wander over the road to a shop while they were working this out. Plan B was to fill the tyre with as much air as possible and leg it to the next garage. We made it. We were given plastic chairs while we waited and caused the garage guys great amusement when we sat and ate the popcorn we’d scored at the previous stop.

Our apologetic driver was promising us a great safari. The stop hadn’t taken long though and of course our driver knew a short cut so we parted with the highway and took a dirt road before eventually rejoining the sealed road outside the park’s entrance.

2.5 hours of bumping down jungle trails and round a lake later and we’d seen monkeys, a crocodile, wild buffalo, a lot of cool birdlife and hundreds of elephants, including the promised babies, lots of them.

The journey back to our digs was almost as enjoyable, we both love whizzing through the streets at twilight in Asia, there is something magical about it.

We arrived back super tired, dusty and happy. There are hardly any places to eat in Polonnaruwa, the guidebook says to eat at your guest house. When we rolled in we were asked ‘do you want dinner?’, ‘yes please’, ‘noodles ok?’, ‘yes noodles are fine’.

While Marie got organised Emma got the nephew of the guesthouse to take her to an ATM and the supermarket, and went zooming off in the dark on the back of his motorbike.

There seemed to only be us and a young guy from London staying. He’d unexpectedly got the chance to take 2 weeks off work so had literally booked his flight to Sri Lanka the day before he flew. This was his first solo trip. Sri Lanka is perfect for that, or as an introduction to Asia, it so easy and people always sort you out. A really nice chatty guy Marie had to tear herself away to back up photos etc, otherwise she would have chatted to him until bedtime.

Click on any photo to enlarge and scroll through

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