I bobbed my head down just in time as a low-lying tree branch skimmed across our hurtling open-top jeep. The wind was wildly whipping my hair to the point that the pony-tail I had attempted to confine it with seemed utterly pointless. The humid air was thick with heat and a promise of warm tropical rain. An ocean of lush, green vegetation stretched as far as they eye could.
Why did all single-word shrieks seem to draw the most attention? I tore my eyes away from the muddy, squelchy tracks the jeep was effortlessly winding through to the direction of the enthusiastic voice. A singular arm stiffly pointed across the distance. And there they were. Wild elephants enjoying a grassy lunch in the Kaudulla National Park.
Somebody pinch me. Please.
The Sri Lankan elephant is one of three recognized subspecies of the Asian elephant, and (as the name suggests) native to Sri Lanka. It is estimated that Sri Lanka has the highest density of elephants in Asia. An important cultural symbiosis has existed between the elephant and the human here for over two thousand years.
I had only arrived in Sri Lanka the previous day after a 10-hour flight on Sri Lankan Airlines from London, but I was on the touring warpath. There was no time for jetlag. And my very first excursion was to see the most beloved animal in Sri Lanka – the elephant.
I was seeing the elephants with 49 other top travel bloggers hailing from all corners of the globe, so my excitement for the trip was already sky high. But to kick off the trip riding in a convoy of 8 jeeps bouncing across the untouched landscape in search for wild elephants… Well, I was a child at Christmas spotting the elephant-sized present under the tree.
Our coach left our Cinnamon hotel and arrived at the entrance to Kaudulla National Park where the jeeps were waiting. The park only opened in 2002 and provides a sanctuary for wild elephants with a 6656-hectare corridor that connects to Minneriya National Park.
We loaded onto the jeeps, about 6 of us in each. I hadn’t previously met (in real life) anyone in my jeep, but that changed very quickly. It turned out I was riding with videographers Chris & Tawny from Captain and Clark, Brock from Backpack With Brock, Craig from Indie Travel Podcast (and also the current president of the Professional Travel Bloggers Association) and Nellie from Wild Junket.
As we waited to depart, the hot day grew stifling and the dark, menacing clouds opened up with rain. There was a mad dash as cameras were shoved under the only available open umbrella before our driver managed to pull a thick, black tarp over our heads. Feeling slightly claustrophobic I counted the minutes before the skies had finished their weeping and I could once again remove the cover, stand up in the jeep and fly through the park with the wind in my hair.
A chocolate brown river passed by us on the left, while trees crowded the right. Our “road” was a muddy brown path through the jungle filled with plenty of bogged moments that our jeep driver handled exceptionally.
I had almost forgotten the reason we came, I was having so much fun in the jeep until someone yelled, “there they are!” As we rounded a bend a herd of elephants appeared, quietly munching their way through a vast grassy field.
The jeep slowly and silently pulled alongside them and I watched in beautiful amazement as tiny baby elephants innocently played with each other or hid between their mum’s legs. I snapped photographs with vigour and then chose to pull away from the camera, just gazing in abandoned amazement at this close encounter.
The eyes of one particular elephant, with all his freckly speckled spots, connected with mine. We shared a moment. I’m sure it was only a few seconds but it felt like eons. Two freckled creatures, worlds apart.
The most unexpected moment occurred when we started to move off and heard the deafening trumpet call of a mad male elephant. All cameras swivelled around to watch him charge the last jeep in our convoy. The jeep driver acted fast and escaped. Unfazed by his first shortfall, he made his way for a second jeep. As this was unfolding, the nearby herd bunched together, protecting the young in the middle of a circle, fully prepared to defend an attack. The driver of the second jeep knew what to do and made a distinct warbling call and the elephant calmed - instantly. True! For a first-hand personal experience you can read all about this on The Runaway Guide blog – he was in that jeep!
Elephants in the wild. Beautiful, untamed, majestic, worthy of respect, love and attention. Why did I choose to write this post first? Because the Kaudulla Elephant Safari was quite possibly the favourite part of my Sri Lankan experience. Together with the muddy, slightly claustrophobic, jeep ride.
Like an elephant, I won’t forget this experience any time soon.