My Facebook memories thing said that last year on this date, I was at Iguazu Falls, in South America. It was one of those absolutely spectacular experiences that was hard to describe because of the sheer beauty and power of the falls, one of nature's amazing feats and wonders.
My experience at Udawalawe National Park was sort of like that as well, but in an absolutely antipodal kind of way. (Udawalawe is pronounced ooh-dah-VAH-lah-vay. Yes, the w sounds like a v.)
First, though, the narrative. We came to this part of Sri Lanka for Udawalawe National Park. The park is one of the smaller ones in Sri Lanka, but they have the greatest concentration of elephants. There are also a few leopards here, as well as a whole host of other animals living in this protected wilderness. And in the midst of the national park there's a huge reservoir, so there are water buffaloes, various migratory water birds, crocodiles - you get the picture, all kinds of interesting animals! Their website: udawalawe.national.park.ww.lk
And once we heard that there were elephants and leopards - plus the greatest concentration of leopards as well as elephants in Asia! - well, we knew we had to get to this part of Sri Lanka. Plus Udawalawe gets fewer visitors than some of the other parks, especially Yala on the SE region of the country. So a less crowded park with more chance to see elephants sounded ideal.
Our hotel made arrangements for me to go on a safari yesterday (Wednesday) morning. Basically, a driver would come and take me to the park, I'd pay my park entrance fee, and we'd drive around for three hours spotting animals and watching them. Perfect!
We got up at 5 AM for a 6 AM pick up. Richard woke up feeling not so great, and we agreed that bouncing around in a jeep-like vehicle wouldn't be good for his back. So he stayed at the hotel while I went out to the front of the hotel to pick up my portable breakfast and wait for the driver. (I had also made arrangements for an afternoon safari, and we thought Richard could see how he felt and maybe go on that safari.)
Mr Driver showed up on a motor scooter, and indicated that we'd be going in the huge vehicle we've seen sitting in the parking lot. Not a Jeep, more of a giant pickup truck with a raised bed holding six viewing seats - three rows of two cushioned seats, narrow aisle inbetween. Perfect for a group or family, but huge for one guest and one driver!
So I climbed the wrought-iron ladder (barely a ladder) and got into the vehicle. After testing the various spots, the best place for viewing was the second row of seats. Fortunately, I had a sweater, since this was a chilly ride the 28 km (17.4 miles) to the park. Mr Driver got the man from reception to push the jeep truck so he could pop start the vehicle with the clutch. Yeah, you can imagine what I was thinking - we have to pop start this truck, what happens if we get charged by an elephant??? What an inauspicious beginning!
Just outside the entrance to the park, by the side of the reservoir, we encountered two elephants - one a big and older ellie, and the other a bit smaller and younger. Mr Driver told me that the bigger elephant was sick with "sugar," meaning diabetes. He said people give this elephant things to eat and that has given the elephant sugar sickness. Elephants are smart, and it seems this elephant figured out that if he stood by the fence, people would come and give him food. Unhealthy for elephants food. Poor greedy elephant is now sick, and really does not look well. But people don't really know better, or don't care, or whatever. And so the elephant still comes to the fence, and later in the day I saw people posing with him and possibly feeding him.
His little friend was cute and not interested in people, just was keeping his friend company and eating everything green that he could find.
After I bought our park pass, a young man introduced himself to me and said he'd be our guide for the day. I wasn't sure if he was pre-booked through the hotel or what, though it turned out he's trained as a guide but works basically for tips. (He described himself as a volunteer.) But he was a very nice guy and an excellent guide, so I was happy he came along.
We drove all over the park, and there were elephants pretty much everywhere. The male elephants leave the family when they're about 10 years old, and they live independently until mating season. The females and babies live as a family unit. During mating season, the males go around finding fertile females and mate. A big part of the reason they leave the family is to not mate with their relatives, leading to inbreeding and potential genetic problems. Instinctively they know to broaden their gene pool!!!
So we bounced and jounced on the bumpy and dusty dirt roads through the mist and fog blurring the usual green landscape to a dark grey, looking for elephants and finding random males. Some were medium sized and some were huge! Some would eat and eat and eat, ignoring us as we watched them. Others would eat a few bites of leaves or grass and get shy, then disappear into the bush.
The elephants would occasionally take branches in their trunks and peel off the bark, eating this as well as all the leaves they could pull off, or all the grass they'd pull up. An adult elephant eats about 150 kg (or 330 lbs) of food a day!!! And they spend roughly 20 hours walking around slowly and eating. Leaving only about 4 hours to sleep, which they do while standing. Not the most relaxing life.
These are obviously Asian elephants, with the smaller ears and more placid temper. The Sri Lankan elephant is considered a sub-species of the Asians, and has a few characteristics different from other Asian elephant sub-species. Most notably, not all Sri Lankan male elephants have tusks. Actually, only about 7% of the males have tusks, about 2% of the entire elephant population here. (The ones with tusks are referred to as tuskers.)
During the colonial period, sadly, many of the elephants were shot for sport or for their tusks. The species is still somewhat endangered, mostly due to loss of habitat. Thus the national park system was developed, to provide safe places for the animals where they could live without fear of encroachment or poachers or trophy hunters. This also protects humans from the animals, especially since elephants don't know the difference between farm crops and forest greenery. So the elephants and other animals are fenced in, and the spread of human development is fenced out.
Just a few more elephant facts to go with the ellie photos (and you know I went photo crazy): the gestation period is roughly 22-23 months. Yes, elephant mamas are pregnant for nearly two years. A newborn elephant calf weighs about 91 kg, or roughly 200 lbs. The baby elephants are weaned at about 5 to 10 years old, when they are then considered adolescent elephants until they reach sexual maturity at about age 25. Elephants usually have a life span of about 80 years, although there are various reasons that they might die at a younger age. In old age, elephants usually have worn down their teeth, and basically can no longer eat, causing natural death. It's a very sad way to die of old age.
But the elephants didn't seem to worry about their demise, or the touring vehicles full of admiring tourists and travellers, or the misty foggy morning. They were lumbering through the jungle, eating tasty leaves and grass, walking around with mud or leaves or grass on their back to keep the insects away and to help keep cool.
Some elephants seemed to look us in the eye, and contemplate what sort of creature we might be. Others ignored our presence. Some seemed to almost smile as they ate, as if they know how cute they are. And others were camera shy.
It was amazing. It was wonderful. It was indescribably incredible.
And there will be more (and bigger) elephant photos at the end.
We also saw monkeys in a tree, but they ran and leapt from branch to branch too quickly for a photo.
And the birds! Gorgeous, gorgeous birds! (And more bird photos at the end.) There are several that stand out: the white-breasted kingfisher is a bright shiny blue, the blue of a blue morpho butterfly. They have a russet belly, with a large white spot from their neck down their breast. And with the long pointy beak that is the kingfisher's signature look, wonderful for snatching up insects and fish. We saw one who was happy to pose for photos, turning this way and that.
Peacocks! Peacocks in trees with their long magnificent tails trailing down like bridal veils, or walking along the road, or fanning out their tail under a tree to attract mates or challenge rivals. And peacocks screaming across the jungle, their wild and piercing cries sounding as if they were being attacked and crying for help. They really have a chilling, spine-tingling sort of cry, not in the least bit melodious.
There were various birds of prey, including the crested hawk eagle and the white sea eagle. I'm not sure why the hawk eagle is named that, but it definitely has a quirky crest of a few scattered feathers standing straight up on its head. The white sea eagle dives for fish, though not always in the sea. We also saw two serpent eagles, who mainly eat snakes. Big and majestic, all of them!
By the lake, we saw various water birds - herons, cranes, egrets, spoonbills. Beautiful painted storks, migrating through, and classic in their elegant black and white plumage, with a few pink splotches for contrast on their tail feathers. With bright orange beaks and legs - sort of an edgy classic black and white look.
We also saw water buffalo wallowing in the various lakes in the park. Water buffalo eat grass, and then chew their cud, as do cows. But for water buffalo, this process creates excessive heat in their stomachs, so they lie down in the water to cool down as they continue their digestive process. They are huge and gentle, like the elephants - although both animals can be fierce and destructive if they are feeling cornered or challenged. So we kept in the jeep, watching the buffaloes in the water.
There were also some crocodiles in the water, lurking and hoping for a baby buffalo, but they were all well attended. Later in our tour, there were a few crocs lolling on the banks and basking in the sun, absorbing the warmth. These are freshwater crocs, and can get up to 4 meters in length (about 12 feet). Big but not huge. Or huge but not gigantic.
We never did see the leopards. I was hopeful, but like cats everywhere, leopards are good at staying hidden when they want to not be seen. They could have been watching us from trees, or they could have been hiding among the rocks. We did see two leopard paw prints in the mud, and there probably had been more but the vehicles left tire tracks. We were lucky to see these two prints. And that was as much as I saw of the leopards.
Somewhere in there, we had to drive across a river. Down the bank, across the river, and up the bank on the other side. While dodging a jeep truck coming down the opposite bank and heading toward us! Yeah, almost as crazy as the driving on the road!!!
After three hours, it was time to go. It was wonderful. It was exhilarating. I wanted more time, more animals, and even though I was tired I was looking forward to my afternoon safari.
As we drove out of the park, we met the same two elephants who had greeted us in the early morning mist. However, the younger elephant was playing in the lake or reservoir. Really, this funny ellie was in water deep enough to cover its trunk! And it would stick its trunk up out of the water to breathe, as if the trunk was a snorkel!!! Some splashing around, some blowing bubbles, this elephant was having a great time playing and staying cool in the water!!! Mr Driver and I spent a while watching, it was so funny!
So we were driving down the road, heading back to the hotel, and we were stopped by two policemen standing on the side of the road. The driver told me to stay in the vehicle (as if I'd get out and interfere???), and he went to talk with the police. He came back a few times to get various papers out of the vehicle. I ate some of my breakfast, since I had been too busy holding onto the vehicle or watching animals to eat.
Eventually, Mr Driver came back. The vehicle's license (or possibly registration) had expired the day before. The company that owns the truck didn't renew it. The police would not let him drive the truck back to the hotel. So Mr Driver called a friend with a tuktuk to take the two of us back to the hotel. And the truck had to stay right there.
Yup, that meant no afternoon safari for me. Ah well, sometimes things happen and what can you do but adapt to the change in plans. Back to the hotel it was, to find another wedding in mid-party. Richard and I headed to the shop across the street (well, down the long hill and then across the street) for a bite of lunch. But we were stopped by a young boy on our way - he was with his family, and they were all at the wedding, but they were outside taking photos. He said something and gestured with his tablet-thing, and I thought he wanted me to take a photo of his family with him in it. One of the women came up, beautiful in a purple sari, and explained that no, he would like a photo with me in it. I hate disappointing kids, and this boy was about the age of my former students, so I posed with the family - they in their wonderful and colorful saris or wedding wear, me in my blue tee and shorts so I wouldn't scare the elephants with bright colors. It's a pretty funny photo, but this boy can remember the tourist who walked by his cousin's wedding.
Okay, lots of photos so I'll end the narrative. More elephant stories for tomorrow! (And these photos are in the sequence in which I experienced the encounters with the animals.)