Last night the Intercontinental, tonight a candlelit mud hut, drinking neat Black Label Scotch flies buzzing around my face.
Thunder is booming on the horizon. From Sri Lanka’s capital Colombo it took ten hours of bouncing road travel to reach Tree Tops; chicaning around cows honking at stray dogs, after a while I stopped looking out of the windscreen.
There are around 2500 elephants left in the game parks and countryside in Sri Lanka. That compares with 12,000 at the beginning of the 20th century. Although these remarkable beasts hold a special place in Sri Lankan culture and killing them is illegal, habitat destruction and human-elephant conflict means their future is far from completely assured. For farmers who often have to borrow heavily to buy seed, a visit from a herd of elephant to their paddy field spells financial ruin. An elephant chomps through 250 kilos of vegetation a day. That’s probably four times your body weight.
“You might not see elephants. I can’t guarantee it,” Lars tells me. He fell in love with Sri Lanka 20 years ago when he came here as an anthropology student. “I had a dream to make a living from tourism with minimal impact on the environment,” he explains. He found Tree Tops on the internet. A Sri Lankan guy had just set it up. “We worked together for a while. And then I ended up taking it over.”
Metres away from the mud-walled dining area, he’d shown me scuff marks in the mud and fresh elephant dung before the darkness rolled in. Sometimes they come very close.
“Do you have a gun?” I ask.
“Yes. We also have fire crackers provided by the Parks Authority. They make a hell of a bang. It’s a dilemma with the gun. We don’t want to use it but we need to consider the worst case scenario. There is an element of danger here.”
Lars sleeps on the dining room table. It’s wide open to the outside. Yesterday he woke up to find one of the cushions halfway across the clearing. An elephant had reached in and taken it. That’s a bit close for comfort. “There’s one new male that’s not as friendly as the others. He’s more aggressive,” Lars explains.
“Hang on, I can hear an elephant. Yes, he’s definitely nearby.” It’s pitch black outside and the storm is getting closer. I haven’t noticed anything remotely elephant-like. Lars always extinguishes the lights when elephants are in the clearing. We stumble around in the dark and Lars kicks over a lantern. Then, quite clearly, I hear branches breaking. There’s a kind of strange chomping sound. Lighting suddenly lights up the tree tops. I try to make out something, anything in the dark. There’s more crashing and whooshing, but the lightening is killing my night vision.
Next day we go for a walk in the rain forest. I see interesting plants and trees and piles of fresh elephant dung, but no elephants. Lars assures me we can look for them down at the watering hole later in the afternoon. During the heat of the midday I lie sweating in my mud hut and wait for the sun to subside a little. We’re all set and ready to leave at about 4pm. And then the heavens open and it pours with rain. In any other situation I’d have been happy just to watch the crazy rain and drink a beer in the shelter. But the rain finished any hope of seeing the elusive elephant that day.
5.30am. Another rather sweaty night under my mosquito net.
“Tea outside for you sir.” It’s still pitch black. No time to lose. We hope to catch the elephants at dawn. We march to the nearby watering hole, but no elephants are there. So it’s another 20 minute walk as dawn breaks and the sun begins to feel hot. Elephant dung, the footprints of wild boar, interesting birds. It’s all pointed out to me and I’m not remotely interested. I am completely fixated on seeing a wild elephant. We reach the main lake and it’s beautiful. Shrouded in early morning mist with rainforest rising sheer behind. A forest fox darts away from the water’s edge. A couple of fish flop in the water, causing ripples. But not an elephant in sight.
I am gutted. We wander back to the clearing. I am tired, muddy and sweaty.
I take myself off for a shower Tree Tops style, at the outdoor well. I pour cool water over my head and try and be philosophical. I’ve heard elephants, I’ve seen elephant dung so fresh it must have just come out of his bottom. And yet he remains elusive.
When I get back, now resigned to the situation, they are waiting for me in the car, engine running. There’s been a definite sighting just down the track. I refuse to get too exited. Five minutes down the dirt track, we jump out or the car and no more than a few hundred yards away he’s there. He’s an old loaner that the locals call Pote Aliya or blind elephant. Old One Eye almost fell victim to a poacher and is almost blind. We approach with caution. The guides have fire crackers at the ready in case he suddenly gets nasty.
And so I get to stare Old One Eye in the eye. I wonder how it must be, having your habitat bashed up and cultivated. Bewildering I suppose. For now a bunch of inquisitive villagers are happy watching this dumb white guy shooting off with his camera, but I guess usually they’re just waiting for him to start munching their valuable crops before they chuck stuff at him. It’s illegal to shoot elephants, but it happens. And if you’d mortgaged your house to buy seed for the next season and an elephant came and started eating all your crops, well what would you do? It’s people’s very existence that’s threatened. And the elephants’ too.
Fancy an elephant adventure?
Stay There: Book direct with Tree Tops Jungle Lodge. Full info about getting to the lodge also provided.
Find Out More: The official Sri Lanka Tourist Board website.