Striking Sri Lankan elephant safari

written by Catherine Lawson

Striking Sri Lankan elephant safari

Credit: David Bristow

Thumping along a muddy track, not a wild thing moving under the hot Sri Lankan sun, a big pungent pile of steaming dung sends everyone in our jeep into a giddy state of excitement. Necks craned, cameras poised, for just around the bend — perhaps over the next rise — we are finally about to encounter our first Sri Lankan elephants in the wild.

And suddenly, there they are: four enormous females, bristly infants at their feet, grazing silently on tall lime grasses in a tiny pocket of Sri Lanka’s Hurulu Eco Park, rendering us awestruck with each nonchalant flap of their big wrinkled ears. As our jeep slows a silent stop, the elephants patiently ignore us, turning their backs and carrying on grazing while we gaze on mere metres away with the inevitable rapture of first-timers.

The intimacy of the encounter has me transfixed, drawn to tiny details: eyes staring out beneath big, curling eyelashes, the pinkish tinge of unexpectedly mottled blue-grey skin, a trunk curled around an equally wrinkled infant, coaxing it gently and safely underfoot. I can’t say just how long we watched that first little matriarchal unit but, of all the marvellous elephant scenes we witnessed that afternoon, this elephant encounter is the one most vividly imprinted in my memory.

The gap between our jeep and the herd closes; they graze and watch, graze and watch, until quite suddenly I realise I’m eyeballing an elephant that’s so close I could reach out and touch her.

As the afternoon sun shifts slowly overhead, our expert local guide navigates on, detouring along unmarked trails to encounter more and more elephants that amble across our path, shepherding infants along invisible routes to join great grazing herds of 20 or 30 beasts.

Only when we have clicked a thousand images and our expectations have been blown sky-high do we make our most amazing discovery: an enormous male, close enough to see the mating musk glistening on his cheeks in the afternoon sun. He mills around a group of females on the ridgeline above us and then, to our amazement, the mating begins.

It’s a brief, noisy scene that lacks longevity but afterwards, when the females move on, they head straight for us: four mothers, one grandmother and three infants, the smallest bundle of bristles just four or five months old. As we watch, the elephants’ wariness wanes and they move closer, slowly bringing their remarkable physical individualities into clear view.

The gap between our jeep and the herd closes; they graze and watch, graze and watch, until quite suddenly I realise I’m eyeballing an elephant that’s so close I could reach out and touch her. Immobilised by her presence, no one speaks and no one moves, but I spy our guide’s hand poised on the ignition, ready to flee if the elephants flex their significant muscle.

Eventually the herd shuffles on, leaving us reeling as we watch them disappear into towering grassland. We climb a granite knoll to catch our breath and capture ourselves in beaming photographs, standing above the plains where distant herds have come to graze in the golden hour before sunset.

Covering more than 10,000 hectares in the heart of central Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle, Hurulu Eco Park is part of a much bigger forest reserve and biosphere declared in 1977 to provide sanctuary primarily for Sri Lankan elephants. Female-led elephant herds migrate seasonally between Hurulu and neighbouring Minneriya and Kaudulla National Parks, as well as Ritigala Strict Nature Reserve and other nearby sanctuaries, in search of water and food.

Immediately sensing our presence, the leopard stretches and yawns, revealing its spectacular dentition and long, slender limbs, then rolls onto its back and resumes its slumber.

When water levels at Kaudulla and Minneriya Tanks are high, covering the tasty fresh pick that elephants love, the beasts move on. Frequently, they head for Hurulu Eco Park, which was officially opened on the edge of Hurulu Forest Reserve in 2008 to cater for visitors. Although the elephants share Hurulu’s dry evergreen forests with endangered Sri Lankan leopards and rusty-spotted cats, they are undoubtedly the park’s biggest drawcard and what drives a popular safari business.

From the town of Habarana, a 20-minute drive from the park’s entrance, open-top jeep safaris set out in the cool of the afternoon, spending three to four hours locating and observing the elephants. The simplicity of this adventure — one jeep, one driver and a prompt hotel pickup — is matched only by its affordability. In all, our afternoon with the elephants, including jeep hire and park fees, set us back less than AU$60 for three, a fraction of what you’d expect to pay in Sri Lanka’s more famous Yala National Park.

Despite its undeniable shabbiness, Habarana makes a convenient base for adventures into Hurulu and neighbouring wild lands, including Sigiriya’s World Heritage-listed archaeological ruins, located on the summit of an imposing, flat-topped mesa, and the sacred caves at Dambulla that house 2000-year-old Buddha relics and vast rock art canvases. Online digging will direct you to quality hotels in the hills that surround Habarana, all providing meals and transport to nearby cultural attractions.

Ritigala Ruins

On a rugged rainforested hill outside Habarana, Ritigala Strict Nature Reserve provides an intriguing escape and a rigorous uphill stroll to discover monastic ruins and meditation caves that date back to the 4th century BC. Abandoned for almost a thousand years, this ancient refuge is a tumbledown affair but several eye-catching structures remain, including a magnificent pond at the park entrance, monastic buildings complete with stone urinals, a hospital with grinding stones and stone baths, and a palace.

Poking through the forest, we follow a path to a chiselled stone lookout providing views down the river valley and marvel at enormous quarried stone foundations and fantastic staircases, all but hidden among the undergrowth. Entrance fees and mandatory guides have both been abandoned at Ritigala, leaving travellers free to enjoy an amazing walk and the forest wildlife.

Cheeky macaques are easily spotted on the climb and, while driving through the lowlands, we sight mongoose, peacocks, jungle fowl and enough elephant poo and tracks to raise our hopes. Make a donation and hire a park guide if you please and allow about two hours to hike and explore. Beat the heat by setting out early from Habarana, an immensely scenic AU$10 return trip away by three-wheeler.

Wilpattu National Park

For travellers keen to tick off a more diverse species list, you can’t beat a safari into Sri Lanka’s largest national park, the freshwater wetland of Wilpattu. Located far off the beaten track on the country’s northwest coast, the park, whose name means “natural lakes”, supports an incredible ecosystem dominated by elephants, sloth bears, spotted deer, sambar, wild boar, mugger crocodiles and that most sought-after creature of all: Sri Lankan leopards.

Protected since 1938 and closed during Sri Lanka’s long, war-torn years, Wilpattu reopened in 2003 and rapidly gained a reputation as one of the best places in the country to spot elusive leopards. This fact alone should lure the kinds of crowds that seek out the utterly overrun Yala National Park in the island’s far south. Yet travellers who make it to Wilpattu regularly report the serenity of sharing their visit with only a handful of other jeeps, as was the case on our recent adventure.

Difficult public access and the lack of a tourist scene in the neighbouring towns of Saliyawewa and Kala Oya keep this destination off the radar of many short-stay visitors. It guarantees a great wildlife experience — but you’ll need to be pretty motivated to get there yourself.

Our epic journey from Negombo is an all-day affair, spent riding a trio of local buses to a tiny two-room guesthouse at Saliyawewa, a 20-minute drive from the park entrance. Despite significant language issues, the friendly guesthouse owner manages to find us a jeep and driver for the next day and puts together a humble menu; his spacious but spartan rooms might well be recommended if it were not for the bed bugs that devour us overnight.

Our safari begins under the cover of darkness and, after handing over pricey park entry fees and picking up our compulsory guide, we bounce off into the wilderness. At 1317 square kilometres, about the size of Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, Wilpattu is an enormous destination to explore in a single day, so there’s no telling what you might encounter.

Jungle fowls kick-start our spotter’s list, a proud and attractive looking bird that Sri Lankans love to point out is their country’s national bird. We stop counting them when our tally hits 15, hungry to see creatures that look a little less like a chicken.

A hush falls over the jeep when we spy our first pair of spotted deer grazing in the undergrowth and, soon, a promising pile of elephant dung and footprints across the track. We follow these into the scrub, spooking a big herd of wild boar and sending monitor lizards scrambling up trees.

There’s a big, solitary sambar, tiny, flighty barking deer that disappear quickly into the scrub and lots of birds — serpent eagles, pond herons and black hooded oriels — but no prized leopard in the hours before we pull over for breakfast.

Stopping at a scenic lakeside clearing alongside a handful of other tourist jeeps, we unpack our Sri Lankan breakfast of steamed hoppers, dunking the little nests of thin, rice noodles into still-warm bowls of curried potato and coconut soup while gazing across the lake, hoping to spy elephants on its distant shores.

Our safari begins under the cover of darkness and, after handing over pricey park entry fees and picking up our compulsory guide, we bounce off into the wilderness.

With plenty of ground to cover and a rather slim spotter’s list so far, our driver eagerly moves us on, searching down track after track for that one creature everyone silently yearns to see. Suddenly our jeep is buzzing, arms are pointing and we jump up to catch sight of a big, lazy cat sleeping out the mid-morning heat under a nearby bush.

Immediately sensing our presence, the leopard stretches and yawns, revealing its spectacular dentition and long, slender limbs, then rolls onto its back and resumes its slumber. When it finally rises to its feet and stalks slowly away, we gush, awestruck by its brilliant spotted physique: the defining moment of our Wilpattu wilderness experience.

Lost in the exhilaration of our leopard encounter, we exit the national park past distinctly rural scenes of farmers drying corn and grains on the hot bitumen road and green rice in soggy fields. Past bungalows that might provide a convenient base for safaris, we return to our guesthouse to recount the experience over cold Lion beers.

Some naturalists say Sri Lanka’s once war-torn interior can offer wilderness experiences that rival any East African safari. That might be raising expectations a little far, but these two wild destinations do provide ultra-affordable, utterly memorable safaris that can be organised with ease and shared with few.

What really shines about a visit to Wilpattu in particular is what you don’t see: the hundreds of jeeps that compete for wildlife sights elsewhere in the country and the carnival atmosphere this invariably creates. There’s no denying the diversity and density of animals and birds you can discover at Wilpattu, but what really thrills is the sheer pleasure of exploring its pristine lakes and grasslands in perfect near-solitude.

Elephants under threat?

An extensive Sri Lankan government-led survey conducted across the country in 2011 put the elephant population at around 6000 in the wild, with numbers predicted to be on the rise. World Wildlife Fund (WWF) paints a less optimistic picture, currently listing Sri Lankan elephants as endangered, numbering between 2500 and 4000 and with mortality rates due to elephant-human conflict of 6 per cent per year.

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Catherine Lawson

Journalist, editor, author and adventurer Catherine Lawson travels full-time with photographer-partner David Bristow and their 5-year-old daughter Maya. Captivated by wild places and passionate about their preservation, these storytellers advocate a simple life and document their outdoor adventures to inspire all travellers, but especially families, into the world’s best wild places.