‘You won’t see a leopard’ they told us.
Back in the car that morning, we headed off to what was one of my most anticipated parts of the trip. This may just be me, but when I thought of Sri Lanka initially, I didn’t even realise you could do a safari. But you can. And you should.
First arriving in Udawalawe, and after checking in at Elephant Trail, where we did some washing in the sink for the first time in too long (pheww), we headed to the Elephant Transit Home just down the road. Supported by the British organisation Born Free, the home rescues and rehabilitates orphaned elephants, many of whom are released back into Uda Walawe National Park next door. Three times a day, you can visit as they feed the baby elephants their quota of the twenty litres of milk they drink in a day. In groups of around five at a time, the carers guide the elephants ranging from fresh to five years old into the milking area, where another carer feeds them litres of milk through a large funnel. They run, the jump, they squeak with excitement. And the babies, oh the babies. Words cannot describe how utterly spectacular they were, so I will let the pictures speak for me. All I can say is, go there.
Next up, it was safari time. Picked up in our jeep, fitted out with canvas canopy, weighty wheels and snug seats, we climbed aboard and headed for the national park. Dusty roads and shrub for miles, our driver expertly weaved his way through unmarked roads, over potholes and through low-hanging branches. Not long down the road we saw a herd of buffalo bathing in a swamp, one in particular keen to have his photo taken, lolling around in the mud in front of us. Further on we saw our first elephant, once an orphan, now roaming the park freely. Then some lounging monitors massaging each other in a tree. A peacock or two thousand strutting his stuff, eagles soaring above us, a toucan or two, crocodiles, a snake, a jackal, the list does go on.
At one point, our driver turned down a small path, and suddenly we lost site of any other jeep in the park. In the distance, on the road ahead, we saw a looming grey figure. Before we could make it out, we heard the trumpet of the elephant and saw it running at full pace away from us. Slowly, we rolled forwards. Before long, we came upon the most magnificent of moments. Turning the engine off, I sat speechless, and only managed to look over at him to make sure what I was seeing was real. It was.
There in front of us, two grown female elephants stood side by side, trunks linked. Between their bodies were two calves, one a few years old and one only new. Once they were sure we were safe, they slowly unlinked, revealing their gorgeous young to us. It was surreal. It was breathtaking. It was so utterly…human. We sat there for a good ten minutes watching, seeing what they say about elephants emotions in action. They feel love, they feel fear, they feel safety.
Confident we would not surpass that moment, we drove on, discovering more and more wildlife as we went. We often never went longer than five minutes without spotting something new.
And then it happened. ‘STOP!’ ‘GO BACK!’ ‘DID YOU SEE THAT?!’ In a flash our guide was on the roof of the jeep. I’m sure it almost rolled as we all threw ourselves over the left hand side of the vehicle. He‘d seen the face, I’d seen the spots slinking away through the shrubs. It definitely was. No way. It really was. We’d seen a leopard.
Now we’ve been told a few times this trip that we’re lucky to have seen a range of different animals, but we had become a tad more doubtful each time we saw them over and over again. But this. This was was different. We had been told outright that we wouldn’t see a leopard. Our guide had never seen a leopard, only tracks. They were incredibly rare and incredibly shy. Plus, there are only seven hundred left in the country. But we saw one. And it was mind-boggling. Looking over after, I saw him pinch his arm.
Waking early the next morning, we set course for Ratnapura, the gem mining region, where we canoed down the Kalu Ganga for what felt like an eternity after the grueling couple of days hiking that had just been. Weaving in and out of gem mines that were set up with bamboo across the river, we were waved at by the friendly miners who were bobbing up and down in the shallow river collecting soil, or panning the rocks in their woven baskets by the bank. One group even showed us the stones they’d sourced after we almost ran them over with our canoe.
Physically and mentally exhausted, and with another day and a half of this planned, we reluctantly asked our driver if we could stop. It turned out to be a good thing too, because, not long after we did, he came down with pretty nasty bout of food poisoning.
That night we stayed at the Wegawatta Village Camp Site, run by the same team behind our last campsite. Of course, that’s exactly where you want to be when you have food poisoning. Just for his sake, because I know he did not enjoy himself that night, let me tell you what could have been if you were feeling better that night.
The campsite was much more remote than the last, the tents had been set up in the middle of a rubber plantation, especially for us. We were greeted with cold towels, tea and biscuits, and shown to our tents that had an attached bathroom and shower (thank god). Inside the tents, they had a battery-run fan (another thank god), comfy beds, toothbrushes and towels.
For dinner we were served another outstanding four course meal, which was prepared under a tarp that had been set up temporarily, especially for the occasion. I’d watched them lug gallons of water from the truck, while I’d been inside the tent trying to comfort him. I don’t think either of us slept that night, I was worried and he just felt downright shit. I’d highly recommend the camping though, just not food poisoning.
The next morning, after listening to our plea for rest, our driver had organised for us to visit Galle instead of canoeing, much to our delight. Galle had been on our bucket list, and we’d been kinda bummed that we were missing it. Feeling a little better, he’d managed to stomach half a banana and two bites of toast, we hit the highway headed for Galle.
Greeted with white colonial-style buildings down tiny streets converted into boutiques, bustling cafes, and a mega stone wall wrapping around it, Galle was beautiful. It was teeming with tourists, but who could blame them. The sun was beating down, and with him still feeling rough, we found the first cafe we could and sat down. Deciding he was ready to brave the boutiques, it wasn’t long before he was slumped down by the door being told by a friendly local that he needed black tea with lime. Ayurvedic apparently.
Off I sauntered to find the closest place with air-con, where they kindly closed all the doors and turned the air-con and fan on for us. We sat there for a few hours. Like a true soldier, he battled on and I got to visit a few boutiques – Stick No Bills, an awesome poster shop that I could have spent a lot of money in, Barefoot, which had everything from books to bags, sarongs to soaps. On our way to lunch at Anura’s Restaurant, we walked past schools with children yelling out the window for a photo, and the most luxurious resorts we’d seen yet, one after the other. After a sip of my coke, he order one for himself, and from then on he was all be recovered. Absolute champion.
A sleepy ride back to the bustling Colombo, where the buildings shot out of the ground like cathedrals, and the roads widened by a few lanes. Saying goodbye to our driver, Shan, was hard, but we shook on our return. With our leftover spendies, we spoiled ourselves with room service and tucked in early in preparation for our 3am wake up call to the airport the next morning.
Sri Lanka, in a word, you’ve been swell.