John Gimlette, courtesy of the Daily Telegraph and http://www.dailynews.lk/?q=features/sri-lanka-family-holidays-amazing-mr-elephant where the title reads “Sri Lanka family holidays: the amazing Mr Elephant”
If you were to design a child’s perfect holiday, it would involve beaches, a castle, a little magic, something gruesome and a few monsters. That, broadly speaking, describes Galle. Sri Lanka’s elephants may not be monsters exactly, but there are 500 of them in the region, each as wonderfully weird as any Roald Dahl creation. So, box ticked. Admittedly, Galle’s fortress wears its gruesomeness lightly these days. The three of us often climbed the old Portuguese ramparts, Lucy (aged 8) trailing her kite. At sunset everyone would gather up here: monks, clerics, a bright pink tuk-tuk, and newly-weds in exotic silk doublets. Life wasn’t always so chirpy. Locals told us that the great coral blocks were cut by Mozambican cannibals so fierce they had to be muzzled. The slave-pits are still there, together with siege-proof sewers (1663) and a gunpowder store (1782).
“And the magic?” I asked. Yes, there was an exorcism here only last week. In fact, magic is everywhere. Foreigners think all those masks are just jolly kitsch, but actually many are sanni – diseases in a devilish form. We went to Ambalangoda’s Mask Museum, where all is explained. I enjoyed the idea of tourists taking Miss Smallpox home, or her colleague, Deva Sanniya (the spirit of cholera). Boxing Day 2004 There were more surprises inside the fort. Each morning, monkeys came pattering over the roofs and, in the lanes, pedlars appeared – selling everything from underpants to milk. Meanwhile, in the shops, you can buy anything as long as it’s Georgian: snuffers, rusty spoons, or a palanquin. Our hotel was built by the Dutch, and had a front-door key weighing more than 3lbs. Then there was cricket, played in the tiniest spaces, and the local hearse, which wore a white satin skirt. Lucy was fascinated, and the spectacle continued along the coast. We spotted fishermen on stilts, and a little star-fort at Matara, which still has a crocodile living in the moat. In Hikkaduwa, we hired a glass-bottomed boat, and were soon being ogled by thousands of improbable fish. You still see the odd ruin here, a reminder of Boxing Day 2004, when the sea went mad and threw a tsunami at this coast. Another time, we climbed Dondra Head Lighthouse, where the Indian Ocean is at its most frothy and furious (even around Galle there are 200 wrecks). No wonder the beaches looked pristine, after a flogging like this. In Ranna, the sand squeaks for mile after mile.
The wildlife was always slightly outlandish. Rekawa’s turtles are not like the little helmets seen here in zoos. No, by torchlight, they look like upturned dinghies, with the footprint of a tank. It’s the same on Galle’s little river, where the mangrove is draped with water monitors. After millions of years of looking like dinosaurs, these impressive five-footers have now settled down to a lifelong siesta. And then there are the elephants. I suddenly realised that Lucy had never even seen a captive, yet alone the full monty, flattening trees and gulping up ponds. We were soon among them. From Galle, Udawalawe National Park is only a few hours’ drive, through padi and teak. We stopped only once, for a childhood first: delicious roadside pancakes – filled with curry – and a clay pot of buffalo curd. You never forget your first elephant, or the 30 that follow. The first was a lone bull, posing theatrically against the mountains. Then there was a group of orphans at the transit centre. In the tussle for milk they looked like kittens, except with foghorns. After that, there was the full panoply of elephants: chubby, thin, hairy, mud-orange, and curious. The other animals – including crocodiles and macaques – could hardly compete. Perhaps the most successful was the white-necked stork, which had a way of flying along as if it were an airliner with engine trouble. Famous for gems Like all good adventures, ours ended with a hunt for buried treasure. Sri Lanka is famous for gems, as Marco Polo noted (rubies “as thick as an arm”). We were staying on a seam at what is now Kalu’s Hideaway. The hotel’s owner, Romesh Kaluwitharana (once Sri Lanka’s wicketkeeper, and still a coach) told me his little hillside was once covered with pits. It took a lot of persuasion (and a new school) to coax the miners away. A few still work the adjoining river, and one of them brought us some grit to sift. By the end of the morning, we had enough microscopic sapphires to cover a fingernail. On the open market, they’d be worth about the price of a coconut. They are, however, a reminder that in this fabulous country you never know quite what’s around the next corner – or even underfoot. –