Day five: Polonnaruwa ancient city/evening safari
In the morning you will visit the ancient city of Polonnaruwa. In 1070 King Vijayabahu chose this place as his kingdom, one of the most ancient in the history of Sri Lanka. Cycling in Polonnaruwa countryside is a wonderful experience; you can cycle through Polonnaruwa Lake, meet traditional inland fishermen and get to know their lifestyle and their fishing methods. Afterwards you have free time to relax by the pool of your lovely hotel overlooking the surrounding landscape or to take a herbal massage. If you are interested, you have the opportunity to climb a rock to reach Pidurangala monastery. In the evening, your tour leader will drive you to Minneriya/Kaudulla National Park for an evening safari. This is the best time to spot wild elephants in their natural habitat. If you’re up for a serious rumble in the jungle, then Minneriya/Kaudulla is your ideal destination! Spreading over 8800 hectares, this park is mainly a sanctuary for elephants, but it’s also home to herds of deer, bulls, wild boars, and colourful birdlife. It is well known as the largest elephant gathering place in the world.
The long days in the car are taking its toll. We seem to spend all day driving from one town to the other without actually seeing anything, except from what I see from my side of the car. I simply do not wish to sit in a vehicle from 6am to 11pm with five-minute stops to see sights, as I did recently in America.
Although the itinerary doesn’t look bad or too cramped, we now realise that bad roads and traffic congestion had not been factored into the planning of this trip. Today's planned itinerary includes driving 127 kilometres in a westerly direction and this could take anything up to eight hours at the rate we’re going. I honestly believed that with the modest number of kilometres to cover each day, we would be able to see the sights that are included in the itinerary. Now I’m not too sure.
We decide to start a little later today and skip the Polonnaruwa ancient city. I can appreciate the country's ancient history, but I don’t have to visit them all. Since cycling is not my forte, perhaps it won't be hard to pass on it. We can’t really skip the town per se, we can only direct the driver to continue to drive through.
At this point, I should make the observation that, apart from the first day, when we were taken to a rest house, we haven’t stopped for lunch, nor have we had the opportunity to use public conveniences. This is one of the reasons we need to be in our hotel by 3pm to give us the chance to eat and use a toilet.
For now, however, I’m going to take a walk along the beach before breakfast just to feel the hot sand under my feet. I head down to the semi-hard sand nearer the water and when I do, I realise the tracks zigzagging over the sand are probably those of baby turtles as they make their way to or from the sea. They look like toy tractor wheel imprints, except that I can follow the trail from the beginning of the beach near the hotel to the seashore. I also see crabs skittering across the sand and popping into their little crab holes. I love to see these activities and hope that predators, such as the millions of nondescript dogs don’t have a chance to wreak havoc on these little creatures.
The property next to our hotel also has a beach, but instead of lovely little turtle tracks, there is a lot of old plastics that have been dumped there, including water bottles and plastic rope. Many of the Sri Lankan people use ropes made of coconut fibre, and although plastic and nylon are probably stronger and cheaper, it would be nice if the local biodegradable product was exclusively used.
Time to go, and I watch the countryside pass by me as we negotiate traffic and small villages. Today’s vista is somewhat different than the coast road because there are fewer villages and I can watch the patchwork of paddy fields flit by. Young men riding bikes; the backs of which are neatly stacked with small logs and kindling ride by. They seem to be in the middle of nowhere. I ask the driver about them. He says that they go out and collect the sticks early then ride the laden bicycles into town. The wood kindling and small logs are sold to bakeries, in particular, for their kiln-like fires. These young boys should be at school, but yet, they are working hard to collect the fuel from under trees to sell and to earn a living. I wish we could ask our own young people to do the same in Australia.
By the time we arrive in Polonnaruwa, it is after midday and we direct the driver to continue to our accommodation. For some reason he wants us to stop at the Minneriya/Kaudulla National Park first then go to our hotel, and we'll find out why later. We would prefer to settle into our hotel first as per the itinerary, and despite not really having time to swim or to view the lake on which the hotel is located, we can change our clothes and cover ourselves with insect repellent to protect us against the myriad of disease-spreading mosquitoes.
As we enter the National Park, the driver points out the electric fence erected to keep the elephants away from the villages and the people within. Despite the animals being somewhat contained within the National Park, they are a deadly nuisance if they attack a village. During the dry season, no villager really wants to see an elephant marauding their vegetable gardens to supplement the 400 kilograms of green matter an adult must consume each day.
The traffic ahead of us comes to an abrupt halt. Is there an animal on the road? Just ahead of us, a Sri Lankan elephant is walking slowly along the road’s shoulder. It’s not worried about traffic as it ambles along the side of the road. This is the first elephant I’ve seen in it’s completely natural environment, doing what elephants do.
The driver turns off the main road and suddenly we are plunged into a pot-holed dirt track. We pass new homes, paddy fields, farms, and small homestay-style hotels. Each pothole is a different size, and the driver has to concentrate on manoeuvring around these obstacles without damaging this totally inappropriate vehicle, whilst at the same time move out of the way for tuk-tuks, trucks, private vehicles, and pedestrians. We come to a T-intersection, and turn left. A whole family is fishing in the water next to the road. Since it’s also rained here, the road is muddy and much of the water is still high; the paddy fields are flooded. The children outside have been fishing and some of them have caught fish, which they proudly display to us as we pass.
I am now beginning to understand why our driver had tried to force us to go on the safari before settling into our hotel.
At the very end of the road, the Wewa Addara Hotel stands. I simply do not understand why a driver in a fairly old Prius would choose to wreck his vehicle on this terrible road. This tour company should have provided him with an appropriate vehicle if they were serious about running these tours. I fully understand why the people Of Sri Lanka want to start new businesses after a long bloody war, but this tour company is run by total incompetents. The road is shared by many homes and businesses, but it is not a private road and the bureaucrats and residents have no intention of pushing to have the road sealed. Perhaps there are too many things that need to be fixed in this country.
It’s time to leave, and dressed in jeans, long-sleeved shirts, and runners, we join the driver for the arduous journey back over the unmade road. Arriving at a designated spot in the village, we are transferred into a jeep. Our new driver sits into the cabin, whilst we are positioned in the back as he races toward the National Park. The last in a queue of over twenty similar jeeps, we enter the National Park in a convoy. Thrown around in the back of the jeep, I stand up and grip the rollbar. Very tight. But I have an advantage now as I can see the road ahead and anticipate the jolting as the driver negotiates the large muddy quagmire, which is the road.
It is impossible to take photos. It is almost impossible to stand in one spot in the back of the jeep and remain standing without concentrating on what the driver is doing ahead. I tried to sit it out, but it’s easier to stand and observe.
I hear a shout ahead and our jeep rounds a bend to find many vehicles halted in one spot, their engines cutting out one by one. Ahead is a large boulder and all eyes are on it. Suddenly, I see a flicker of movement and I realise that the boulder is actually a male elephant. Behind him is a baby calf and mum is probably close by. We watch the elephant, the Sri Lankan, male elephant as he uses his trunk to rip long grass and vegetation out by the roots. He needs approximately 400 kilograms of green matter each day. At this time of the year, the promised trip to the waterhole to watch the elephants gathering, is a furphy, a myth. I am concerned that we have hemmed this large elephant into a smallish space with no real place for him to exit. I’m just as pleased that despite the National Park status, this elephant doesn’t appear to be too perturbed with his captive audience.
A little later we see another group of elephants and whilst most of our convoy stops at a lookout rock, we ask our reader to continue. As dusk falls and the sunset lights up the sky so beautifully, we ask the driver to bring us back to our starting point. We are surprised that a few minutes later we are on the main road, hurtling toward our tour guide. It is dark by the time we return to our starting point and find the driver.
Our day may be done, but I can see that the recent rain and wet conditions has promoted the growth of new fodder for the elephants. For me, I’d rather see them in the National Park, knowing that they're protected and have a good chance for its continued survival.
TOUR: Across the Best Sites of Sri Lanka - Capital Lanka Tours
DISTANCE TRAVELLED: 127 kms
ACCOMMODATION: Wewa Addara Hotel, Kayenwala, Sigiriya, Srt Lanka. http://www.wewaaddara.com (A long way from civilisation. Comfortable hotel, the staff are very good, especially in the restaurant.)