As soon as I saw you, I knew a great adventure was about to happen
Our driver collects us from the hotel as the sun starts its descent. We have just a couple of hours of daylight left of this clear, cloudless day. Despite the 30 degree day, I've changed into jeans, runners, and a long-sleeved shirt and applied insect repellent along the hem of my jeans and the cuffs of my shirt to ward off any biting insects that may come my way. The tour guide says it's not necessary, but I know that I'm very attractive - to mosquitos, that is.
Our driver speeds, slows, stops, skirts deep potholes filled with water from the rain, which has fallen up until three days ago. Our hotel is at the end of the pot-holed road. It is unmade and ungraded. It's like a private road, but the hotel owner insists that it's the government's responsibility to maintain it. It takes about 20 minutes to travel the five kilometres to the main road, as long as there is no oncoming traffic. Drivers are quite impatient here and they all vie for supremacy - to be King of the Road. The whole subject of Sri Lankan traffic is the subject of another post.
Whilst the driver tackles the potholes, I take in the lovely rural setting. There is a large lake, its surface almost covered with water lilies. Beneath the surface there are many fish lurking between the water plants. The large, flat leaves flap in the wind, whilst tiny ripples spread along the surface. Spent lotus flowers bent and brown, provide interesting shapes in the water. Young children under the watchful eye of their parents catch medium-sized fish. We cross a fast-flowing causeway; the driver gains momentum on the flat hard surface to provide the impetus to reach the top of the next hill. Around another corner is a large rice paddy. A concrete channel provides the farmer with the ability to flood or drain the small irregular-shaped fields. The recent rain has provided more water than is needed and the farmer tries to drain the excess water from the fields. As the rice is harvested, white egrets forage, pecking between the stalks to hunt for tiny invertebrates and insects. They also eat rice and seed left behind after the harvest, as well as snails and worms. The birds assist the farmers by keeping potential pests under control, thus providing a tool for keeping the environment balanced.
The driver finally makes it to the main road, and putting his pedal to the metal, weaves between tuk-tuks, buses, motorbikes, and pedestrians, reaching our destination in a timely manner. We transfer from his sedan to a large jeep, which speeds off, with us inside, down the road for a few kilometres before turning into a gate, where about twenty similar vehicles are parked haphazardly in a car park. This is the entrance to the Minneriya National Park.
The driver parks then rushes off to get the tickets to enter the park. As I wait, I watch as the drivers of the other vehicles rush out of the ticket office, jump onto the top of their vehicles, unroll the canvas top, and take off at full speed down a dusty unmade road. We wait for what seems to be an eternity. We are the last group in the park, so I guess our driver has to wait his turn. The carpark is almost deserted when our driver returns, unrolls the top and jumps in the cab of the 4WD. Once we pass the entry point, our vehicle turns off the road and follows the convoy of jeeps ahead on this last safari of the day.
I sit in the back seat for a few minutes before realising that, despite the seat belt, I am being thrown around the back of the vehicle like a rag doll. The jeep has no suspension, so it seems, and I suddenly have a desire to see where we're going so I can anticipate which way the vehicle will go. The padded roll bar at the top of the vehicle provides a stable handle on which to hold as the vehicle weaves around or drives through huge divots filled with water and mud.
The noise of the jeeps engines drown out the jungle noises. I can only hear the droning sound of tyres spinning in mud, trying to get a foothold in the ever-softening mud, then chugging as we get enough grip to push us out of the mud and speed down the track until the next dip provides the next challenge. The unexpected rain and resulting floods has taken these itinerant workers by surprise. It is usually dry at this time of the year. Ahead a family sits quietly in the back of a stationary vehicle, as a flat front tyre is being expertly changed. A back-up vehicle arrives and the passengers are quickly transferred, leaving the driver to finish fixing his car without delaying his passengers. For a group of tour operators, who appear to be lackadaisical and laid-back on the outside, they are surprisingly well-organised. I feel a lot more comfortable knowing that.
The jungle gives way to grassland and we continue to race ahead on these impossible roads. After what seems to be an eternity, which in reality is about twenty minutes, I notice the sounds of the jeeps dying down. I hear a shout ahead, and as we round a bend in the track I see a small grassy area encircled by jeeps parked at all angles. One by one the jeeps cut their engines; the jungle noises gradually replacing them. Click, clack, squawk, screech swish. I wish I was able to recognise the noises. Then just as the driver points his finger toward another group of silenced jeeps, I see it. A slight movement on what appears to be a big rock. Then it moves, wraps its trunk around the long grass, swish, swish, into the mouth. Swish, pull, eat. Nearby, a baby gambols in the grass before following its mother out of view. The male elephant continues its rhythm, swish, pull, eat.
If we had been here in Sri Lanka in July or August, we may have been lucky enough to view the daily elephant gathering in this National Park. Each day hundreds of elephants gather around the diminishing Minneriya Reservoir where the grasses are rich and fertile. At this time of year, however, it's harder to see the animals en masse, so I'm counting my blessings that this guy is here, nonchalantly munching through his daily 400 kilograms of vegetable matter. The Sri Lankan elephant is smaller of the Asian elephants and Sri Lanka has the highest density of elephants in Asia. There are approximately 150 in this national park, and whilst there are electric fences to keep the elephants out of towns and villages, many do roam out of the parks and wander along the roads. We are lucky to see a few already in our travels. They can be a nuisance, especially if they get into small farms. They eat everything in sight, leaving subsistence farmers with little food and wrecked crops. Here, in the National Park, there is much food at hand so it ignores us as it continues to eat.
One by one the jeeps start their engine, and as quietly as possible, depart the elephant's feeding ground. Having encircled the animal could be a risk, particularly if it decides to rejoin its family, so each jeep withdraws quietly one at a time.
Once past the elephants, the jeeps resume their journey through the National Park, the drivers ever watchful for more creatures.
The sun dips below the treeline, lighting the sky a fiery orange colour. I'm well satisfied after seeing 'my' elephant, not in captivity, but going about its own business within a safe area, where he and his family are protected. As the sun disappears and velvety blackness envelopes the jeep, we emerge from the jungle, turning onto a road. Within minutes, the driver slows and points toward the jungle on the left side. An elephant emerges from the dark trees, watching the traffic. I wonder whether he wants to cross the road.
Today's jeep adventure is one of my favourite highlights of Sri Lanka - so far.
TITLE QUOTE: Winnie the Pooh
ACCOMMODATION: Wewa Addara Hotel by the Lake, Sigiriya