Sri Lanka – Aragum Bay and Uda Walawe
We stayed in Aragum Bay for three nights, in a little ‘treehouse cabana’ in a hostel right on the beach. Our little wooden cabin, on stilts twice as tall as I am, and reached by a set of wooden stairs, made up for what it lacked in air con with heaps of rustic charm. We lay each night on the mattress under our mosquito net, trying not to move a muscle, drenched in sweat and waiting for the old ceiling fan, whose main purpose appeared to be to shake the whole cabana from side to side, to send a waft of cool air in our direction. Not that it really stopped us from getting to sleep, we were always exhausted after a long day on the beach in the sun, and anyway I can think of worse places to sleep than in a treehouse on the beach in Sri Lanka 😉
The beach itself, which is really the heart of the little town which otherwise consists of restaurants, hostels and a few little shops, is a long sandy ‘hook’ leading up to ‘baby point’ and ‘main point’, said to be a world class surfing destination. There certainly are a lot of surfers, carrying their boards up the beach or waiting just off the point for the biggest waves, and it’s easy to see why this particular beach is perfect for them. On the main stretch, the waves break directly onto the beach and it’s hard to swim because they break with such force that you are likely to be lifted up and slammed into the sand if you get caught in them. Of course, waves of this strength and size are ideal for surfers, and as the beach curves around, the waves come in at a right angle to the sand, so that surfers get a long run on the biggest waves, and swimmers can avoid being repeatedly body slammed to the floor (I find it’s more relaxing that way).
Abi and I were able to rent a pair of sun beds (one in the sun and one in the shade) and relax, watch the surfers, and jump in the sea to cool off, as the dry intense sun was enough to reduce me to a puddle of sweat in just a few minutes. On this side of the beach, the waves are great fun, and we bobbed about without a care in the world. Even though the businesses on the beach are mostly tourist-oriented, it’s very popular with locals, and the surf was swarming with local kids and teenagers, many diving into the sea fully dressed in embroidered saris or digging themselves into the sand right on the waterline and screaming in delight as the waves washed over them or dragged them back and forth.
From Arugam bay we travelled to Uda Walawe national park on the efficient Sri Lankan public bus route, changing in Monaragala. It was easy enough to figure out which bus we were meant to be on, and altogether a pretty stress free journey, although it was a little sweaty, and it seems Sri Lankans are skinnier than us Brits as the bus seats felt very narrow!
In Uda Walawe we made our way to our hotel – a collection of luxury tents alongside a river – and soon discovered that we were the only guests. It was a very calm and beautiful place, but the attentions of the ten or so members of staff was a little overwhelming! They were very friendly and helpful, but if you’ve ever tried eating a cheese sandwich while the chef, sous-chef and other assorted hangers on watch your every mouthful and ask endless questions, you will understand that it’s not the most relaxing thing ever!
First on our agenda was a visit to a local Elephant Transit Centre, an alternative to the popular, touristic ‘Elephant Orphanages’ (which have sadly become more like zoos in recent years), this centre regularly feeds injured, vulnerable or orphaned elephants, but puts emphasis on rehabilitation, is not residential (for the elephants), and discourages elephant/human contact – which can make the elephants vulnerable to poachers, as it teaches them that all humans are friendly sources of food!
Instead, we were able to watch from a safe distance as the forty or so baby and teenaged elephants were fed milk through a special funnel (essentially a beer bong, for those of you not familiar with baby elephant feeding apparatus), and then allowed to gorge themselves on leaves, pushing and shoving each other and splashing themselves with muddy water. They were allowed into the paddock a few at a time, littlest first, and the keepers really had to wrestle the funnel out of their mouths, as they would grip onto it with their trunks, hoping for more milk! It was fun to watch them interact at such close quarters, and then file off into the wild again once feeding time was over.
After another slightly awkward lunch, during which two of the chefs announced that they would be joining us on our safari ‘to help out’, we all climbed into one of the modified safari jeeps (a pick up truck with six raised seats in the back), and set off for the National Park. After paying our entrance fee and picking up a guide we had quite the embarrassment of helpers (a driver, a guide, a chef and a sous-chef), but it was a lot of fun bouncing along in the jeep and the driver and the guide both had an incredibly good eye for spotting all the different animals. We saw everything from lizards to toucans (I’ve never seen one outside The Lion King and it was amazing!) as we slowly drove through the vegetation, pulling up at a watering hole where there were not only storks and brightly coloured bee eaters (like green and gold kingfishers) but also a herd of water buffalo, submerged in the muddy water, a few jackals, skulking up to the water’s edge, and a bull elephant, using his trunk to fling muddy water over his back to protect his skin from the sun. I’ve never been on a safari before, but somehow it was exactly what I imagined (and more than I’d hoped for!), I almost expected David Attenborough to start quietly narrating the scene.
As we drove on we saw a few more elephants, always much farther away, as well as a mother mongoose with her baby, some rather sneaky looking monkeys, a jackal hiding under a tree to eat the corpse of a buffalo, a chameleon and several small crocodiles so well disguised in the mud that I definitely would have been eaten alive if I had been allowed to wander around unsupervised. My favourites, apart from the elephants, were all the birds – we saw pelicans, egrets, herons and even a large pied kingfisher fishing in the muddy lakes, and everywhere else lapwings with long, thin yellow legs, or toucans, bee eaters, and hundreds of other species were rustling the leaves around us.
We left the park just as the sun began to set and as we drove back along the road outside the fence we saw that several vehicles had stopped to watch an elephant that had climbed over the first of the two “elephant proof” fences, and was approaching the road. Apparently people sometimes feed them fruit over the fence (even though you’re not supposed to), so he was probably looking to score an easy meal. It was amazing to see the huge animal so close, and Abi and I were able to climb out of the jeep and walk up close to him as he stood there quite calmly, shuffling his trunk along the ground and trying to spy out some mangoes.
I was pleased that nobody fed him (although I’m sure he wasn’t), and pretty glad that we’d been able to see elephants in this way rather than via an elephant ride or in a zoo. (I did ride elephants when I was in Thailand, because at the time I didn’t realise how exploitative that kind of thing is. I regret not doing my research at the time and now I’m really careful about what I support with my money.)
After Uda Walawe we are making a short stop in the coastal town of Galle before returning to Colombo to fly home. I can’t believe how much of the country we’ve seen (and we didn’t even venture into the Northern half!) We’ve gone from cities to mountains to beaches, to a safari in the middle of the jungle and finally a pretty coastal town. It feels like it’s all gone by so fast, and we’ve loved getting to know Sri Lanka.
Thanks, as ever, for following along.
Big love, PV x