I didn’t really have a plan to get from Ella to my next stop, Udawalawe National Park. It was a couple hour drive, but a hiring a car, or tuktuk for one person, didn’t make sense. I thought I would take the bus, then another bus and tuktuk (which could take a lot more than a couple hours). Walking through Ella on my last day, I spotted a sign for taxi service, and asked them if they went that direction, and if there were shared taxis available. There was one the next morning at 9am and there was a space available at the right price. Once again, procrastination or lack of plan was the right plan.
The taxi was more like a minivan. The passengers included two French women, and an Australian couple on a “visa run” from India (they had a one-year visa but had to leave every 3 months for two weeks) and our driver, Samsa. I was the first to arrive, and Samsa, like nearly every person I have met in Sri Lanka, was open, funny and wanted talk. His parents were originally tea farmers, but he had finished high school, his wife was a school teacher and as he said, his daughter “will be more.” His brother owned the taxi company and he was helping out. He had taught himself English, some Russian (he played club soccer there), and some Arabic (he had worked in Dubai in the hotel industry).
The ride was mostly uneventful - Samsa talking about his country, the Australian couple seeming interested and the French women, not so much. Once we dropped the women at their hotel near the park, Samsa said he knew a place for lunch and did the rest of us want to stop. We were all game. It was a thatched roof place, run by a local woman, who, according to Samsa, made amazing curry – he was right. We sat on plastic chairs on the lawn, swapping stories and drinking cold beers. The Australians were in the middle of a in a nearly 3000-mile motorcycle ride through India. Samsa was trying to learn more English slang and talked about starting a guest house in Ella. We talked about the politics of visas, the politics of our home countries, the places we wanted to go, and the places we had been. After lunch we loaded back in the van and eventually went our separate ways. I’m not sure the shared taxi was any faster than the bus, but I’m glad I was along for the ride.
The next morning at sunrise I headed out for a safari in Udawalawe, and a trip to the Elephant Transit Home nearby. The park is a lowland scrub forest with a population of about 300 elephants, wild boar, deer, mongoose, land monitors, peacocks and many other species of other birds. Initially, my guide Janieth and I were in a crowd of jeeps, but he asked if it was ok if we got away from the crowd and tried some other spots. He wasn’t sure what we would see, but nature and wildlife was his “hobby” and he had some ideas. We bumped and banged along dirt roads finally coming to overgrown area, where he saw an elephant in the woods. We slowed and heard more banging, crunching, scraping and other elephant-sized noises. Suddenly, we could see at least six more elephants. We sat as the elephants lumbered around and past us. They grunted and called to one another, filling their mouths with leaves. We caught sight of a tiny baby elephant under the legs of her mother. We were in the middle of a small herd, with no one else around. We stayed quiet, watching and listening until the elephants moved on. A few hours later we left the park, having seen even more elephants, a few elusive crocodiles, peacocks and more.
The park, like many in developing countries is under threat from poachers. The deer are hunted for meat, and “tuskers” - elephants with tusks (only 7% of elephants in Sri Lanka have tusks) are taken for ivory. There is a strong tourist market for wildlife safaris, but it is an ongoing struggle between man and wildlife. The Elephant Transit Home was established by the Conservation Department to foster orphaned elephants and attempt to return them to the wild. To date, they have reintroduced 90 elephants and are caring for 30 more. Each day, they bring the babies – some were so tiny (elephant tiny), to a small clearing and feed them by hand for visitors to see and raise awareness. There were tourists, but also local school groups. Hopefully, the next generation will see continued economic development from tourism and understand the impact that poaching can have.
In the meantime, the center requests donations of powdered milk and money to continue to care for the stream of orphans that arrive there each week. www.eth.dwc.gov.lk.