February 12, 2013
It rains and rains. After spending the morning reading and relaxing, Srihan, a contact Christof got from the hotel reception, picks us up for an elephant Safari. It is raining buckets as we drive off and although the cover of the Mitsubishi jeep is on, the back seats are soon soaking wet, so I join Srihan in the front of the jeep. A trough in the dashboard stuffed with rags collects the excess water from the windshield, but before long the water soaks through, spattering everything. Srihan stops in front of a modest hut and returns a few minutes later carrying a small newspaper package.
– Sri Lankan chewing gum he says, unwrapping it.
– Red lipstick, he says pointing to his mouth which is a odd red color.
A bundle of green tobacco leaves are rolled tightly around little lumps of sand-colored areca nuts, which he picks off, throwing them onto the floor of the jeep.
– Bad, arak (coconut liquor) he says wrinkling his nose in disgust.
– Lime, he adds dipping his finger into a beige colored paste and spreading it onto a betel leaf, folding it into a convenient bite-sized square, popping it into his mouth with a few areca nuts and chewing with great relish before spitting a long stream of red juice out of the jeep window.
Srihan has two boys; one is a mechanic and the other is still in school. His wife has been away for two years working as a house maid in one of the Gulf States, so he and the boys fend for themselves while she is gone.
The red sand along the road has turned to mud and a group of young mothers, all carrying a small child in one arm and an umbrella in the other, are picking their older children up from school. It’s a wonder that they manage to keep their children’s uniforms such a pristine white in this red, muddy environment. The tuk tuk drivers have let down the black rain curtains on their vehicles, protecting their passengers and hiding them from view. Srihan has four different horns, and every time we pass an animal, person or vehicle, he alerts them to our presence sounding one of them,
– Careful, we’re coming through.
He never honks to signal impatience, waiting quietly whenever there is an obstacle for an opportune moment to pass.
Both Kaudulla and Minneriya National Parks are flooded so he takes us into a smaller nature reserve, where we quickly spot two jeeps that have stopped, a signal that something interesting is happening. Joining them, we watch a group of female elephants grazing, languorously rolling their trucks in spiral motions around tufts of grass which they easily tug out of the ground before stuffing their mouths. Srihan points out the female’s flat backs, explaining that the males are recognizable by small humps on theirs. For the rest of the day, we practice identifying them, checking back with him to see if we are catching on.
We drive around the reserve stopping whenever Srihan spots something, and see peacocks, hawks, and both large and small groups of elephants. The roads are rough and muddy, and washes and gullies turned to red colored streams and rivers by the rain force us to ford them with the jeep, effortlessly ploughing through water that sometimes reaches up to the tire tops.
When the rain stops, Srihan rolls up the sides of the cover so that Christof can have an unobstructed view of the landscape and easily take photos. At one point he stops driving, and putting his jeep in reverse carefully backs away, only a moment before a young male elephant, roaring menacingly, charges after us with his trunk in the air. The thick-skinned, cumbrous bodies of these archaic animals give the impression of being too heavy to move quickly, but if disturbed or provoked, they become dangerously fleet-footed. Srihan puts his hand over his heart, and moving it back and forth to signalize its quickened beat, laughs with relief.
It’s a great feeling to have a guide so experienced he is able to anticipate events before they happen. On the way home we see a group of cars stopped along the main road, and joining them, spot seven more elephants, bringing today’s total to forty-four!