E is for Elephant

An elephant hunt? Ridiculous. When had seeing elephants in the wild become such a priority for me? But sadly, as my trip progressed, I had given up. According to guidebooks and Sri Lankans themselves, I should see them frequently. Last week driving along the monsoon soggy edges of Minnereya National Park, the place I was sure to spot them, the driver slowed hopefully. “No, too wet. Elephants not come now,” Saman stated.

Maybe I should tour the park he suggested. “No thanks, I’ve tried twice in India and the only elephants I sort of saw were on the roadside in the dark. The parks are too noisy. No wild animal wants to be near those busy safari roads. “And besides” I thought, “I’ve spent too much on fees and guides and jeeps already. ENOUGH!” I can see elephants in zoos.”

But after days of travel fatigue recovery at Hideaway, in Arugum Bay, I reconsidered, gulping at the price of hiring a four wheel drive vehicle to visit nearby Kumana National Park (or Yala East). Sharon, the Hideaway owner, gently encouraged me and went the extra mile to find two more tourists to share the expense.

By 1:30 pm three of us are rumbling, rocking and rolling along a clay road pitted and washed out from recent monsoon rains. Our driver maneuvers expertly past washed out bridges and through lake sized puddles. It’s a long ride from Aragum Bay to the park. The road cuts through rice paddies that extend as far as one can see interrupted by lagoons, wetlands, and even views of the distant beaches of the Indian Ocean. The rice is in harvest and fragile fences are in place to protect the crop from elephants. Sentries spend the night in the fields to drive them away….But I disregard this. I am not going to see an elephant. I will concentrate on birds.

I pack my camera away and pull out my binoculars.

We enter the reserve having paid our fees at the gate. A young guide jumps aboard. And we bounce off on even rougher roads. My ribs hurt, and my stomach muscles begin to feel as if I’ve done three dozen sit ups.

But lucky us, this is the only vehicle on the road and it moves quietly along the sandy stretch. Birds migratory and endemic are everywhere. Ibis, Painted Storks, Lesser Egrets, White Pelicans, Whistling Teals, Spoon Bills, Ceylon Jungle Fowl, Indian Peacocks, Grey Heron, Malabar Pied Horned Bills. Eagles, Green and Blue Tailed bee eaters and more and more whose names I barely understand

Then there are herds of wild water buffalo, massive black creatures with threatening horns. They graze and wallow in mud with their calves while keeping wary eyes on the dog like jackals that hunt on the fringes of the herd. Spotted deer peacefully graze, the males sporting huge racks. We spy a massive sambhur deer with a competing rack, who stares back and does not retreat. Six hulking wild boar parade across the road and into the bushes.

Crocodiles sun themselves jaws agape. Enthusiastically I joke with the guide, “This is great… But where are the elephants?

Kumana has 100 elephants, but it also spreads across 357 square kilometers. I sighed. Needles in the haystack. What are the chances of one elephant coming near us?

How nice to be WRONG. First we spotted a huge bull standing in the shallows of a pond, quite distant from us. And then the count began….over the next two hours we encountered solo males shyly retreating into the bush, standing knee deep in water to pluck tender grasses, or scuffing up their choice morsels with graceful kicks of their front feet in the roadside dust. The young German couple began to joke. “We have seen so many now, perhaps we can see all 100. Let’s see only 81 to go. “

On a distant beach we see a TUSKER…. his huge ivories easy to see with binoculars. He is honored and sacred here in Sri Lanka. We are lucky again!

“You are a great guide,” I laughed. “But now to prove yourself, find a leopard.”

We reached the western boundary of the park, paid our respects at the small shrines there, and headed back in the dusk to exit the park by 6:30.

And then, across the road ambled six baby and three female elephants. We slowed. Mommy elephants are very protective. They hustled the brood into the bushes, trumpeted in warning and formed a barrier to their offspring.

Wow!…..can’t top that. My elephant priorities were more than satisfied.

I looked ahead on the darkening road. What was that? A LEOPARD. Oh my goodness. He nonchalantly crossed into the thicket. What luck. But although we flashed lights and backed up to see more….that was that.

We drove on……and then—-ANOTHER LEOPARD. This one sauntered across the road intent on getting his supper from the deer grazing nearby. Our truck spoiled his plans. The deer leapt away and the leopard slowly crept past. He would have to content himself with rabbits this evening.

Our driver and our guide were as excited as we. They began to mimic my words: Beautiful, Lucky. As tired and sore as we were, we were all energized. The truck jerked and jumped its way through the darkness.

I had finally enjoyed not only elephants but a varied and delightful wildlife safari. Our guide more than earned his tip! At 8:30 that evening, as we rolled up to Hideaway, I ordered a bottle of chilled white wine to celebrate!

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