Paddy Hintz in The Weekend Australian, 25 October 2023, bearing this title “Jungles, curries and wild elephants: why Sri Lanka is a ride”
We’re just in time to climb into Kandalama’s beautiful infinity pool and be” mesmerised by fireflies as monkeys sift through the trees beside us.
The morning tour is spectacular. Sigiriya Rock Fortress features cascading water gardens, a vertigo-inducing climb to find the remnants of a paranoid and murderous king’s domain (complete with ancient swimming pool) and a cliff-face cave full of frescoes of scantily clad concubines.
After a vibrant Sri Lankan buffet lunch, with a hands-on cooking demonstration from a local chef, what could possibly go wrong, we think, when our lunch hosts recommend an elephant ride. It sounds better than waiting two hours for a bus; the next minute, a tuk tuk is speeding three of us through jungle-lined villages to a small, thatched hut next to a tall wooden platform. Cash changes hands and we are on the platform, a huge example of the largest sub-species of Asian elephant backing up in front of us.
“Quick,’’ two youngish Sri Lankans say, “Get on.’’
“Onto what?’’ we respond, before realising we’re about to go bareback.
Our elephant has taken less than half a dozen lurching steps across the road of this whistle-stop village when post-affogato regret begins to sink in. My 73-year-old companion, wedged between two of us, is sliding perilously off to one side with each lunging step.
“She’s 25, same age as me!’’ the elephant’s mahout proudly responds when I tell him our travelling companion urgently needs to get off.
It’s all over in less than 10 minutes and we emerge intact with a photograph of the elephant raising her trunk with us on its back, the World Heritage-listed 5th century Rock Fortress in the background.
If you like this, try:
Our companion is thrilled to have survived and becomes the day’s sensational news in our group. A few days later, a photograph of the experience makes its way to social media. A direct message arrives in my inbox. “Paddy, I think you should know there is no such thing as an ethical elephant ride,’’ the message informs. I delete the ensuing three messages and put the phone away.
After 10 days in Sri Lanka, I develop a strong belief that this is a mesmerising, surprising and deeply affecting place where Western tut-tutting about “ethical conduct” is about as appropriate as topless sunbathing in a Muslim country. Over millennia, Sri Lanka has weathered waves of occupational forces, blood feuds between regal families, civil wars, and, most recently, constant fuel shortages amidst threats from the World Bank. There is deep poverty and an agricultural economy still reliant on medieval technology. But also hope for the future displayed in completed houses with frames ready for a second storey when funds allow.
As visitors, we enjoy magnificent hospitality featuring professionally trained staff and brilliant, humorous guides. Their excellence and care factor are world class.
We stay two nights in one of the world’s greatest examples of tropical architecture, the Geoffrey Bawa-designed Heritance Kandalama, arriving during a drenching thunderstorm. Water is everywhere. We’re confused. It’s hard to work out where to get something to eat, or how to turn on the lights in our room. But when morning arrives, a magnificent six-star buffet breakfast in a stunning room materialises. We watch the mist roll away from the jungle below to reveal the forest-lined Kandalama reservoir, and the vibe changes to one of wonder as we explore parts of the vine-clad kilometre-long hotel, hewn out of the hillside.
With the elephant ride and the Rock Fortress visit, it’s a long day when we fit in an afternoon tour of Polonnaruwa, the medieval capital of Anuradhapura. We return just in time to climb into Kandalama’s beautiful infinity pool and be mesmerised by fireflies as monkeys sift through the trees beside us. The experience lasts for exactly one minute before the pool attendant calls time out.
It’s 8pm and the forest-lined gardens of Kandalama are not a safe place at night. There are elephants about and they can get angry, often with tragic circumstances. Studies suggest the human death toll from elephant encounters in Sri Lanka has increased by 42 per cent in the past three decades. It’s speculated that as the health system of Sri Lanka has improved, its rural population has increased, leading to a loss of land spaces for elephants.
About 125 people and 370 elephants die each year due to escalating human-elephant conflict caused by competition for resources. A system of national parks provides elephants with safe haven. However, where parks and rice paddies meet, villagers take to various measures, including sleeping with firecrackers in small grass huts on stilts, to protect their crops.
There is possibly no better place in the world to view elephants in large numbers than the Minneriya National Park, where up to 300 from here and a neighbouring park gather during dry spells around the waters of the Minneriya Tank. As the reservoir waters recede to reveal fresh, new grasses, large herds congregate in an awe-inspiring spectacle.
There are about 80 elephants grazing by the water when we visit. When a young elephant comes up to investigate the sound of our too-loud laughter, swaying his head, raising his trunk, and flapping his ears, our driver opens the door of our open-air jeep and motions him away with his foot. The young bull saunters off, but not before kicking in the tyre of the jeep following us.
The central importance of the elephant in Sri Lanka’s cultural and economic life is enshrined in the spectacular Elsa Perahera or Dalada Maligawa, one of the largest Buddist festivals in the world. Sri Lanka is the proud custodian of a piece of Buddah’s tooth, and both the tooth, and the elephant, are central to the celebration. The annual festival, held in Kandy and said to date back 1500 years, takes the Sacred Tooth Relic of Buddha in a procession of richly decorated elephants.
Our days in Sri Lanka loop from Negombo, north of Colombo, on the west coast to the Matale District in the centre of the country at Kandalama.
Then from nearby Kandy, we head to a hilltop converted tea-factory hotel near Nuwara Eliya. We end on the coast in Galle, a town where Shane Warne was king. En route to the airport, an open truck with two elephants swaying in the back passes our bus. “Look,’’ says our guide. “The elephants are on safari to see the humans!”
Sri Lanka is a destination that will always surprise and delight, as long as you keep an open mind.
Getting there: We book our 14-day tour of Sri Lanka and the Maldives through TripADeal and find it to be powerful name in Sri Lanka that opens doors; any issues are quickly smoothed over. TripADeal’s partner on the ground, Aitken Spence, takes care of domestic arrangements. Travelling with TripADeal means flying the airline of their choice, in our case Brisbane to Sydney and Colombo return via Sri Lankan Airlines. The premium deal costs $4500 per person.
Stay: Built between 1992 and 1995, Heritance Kandalama is a masterpiece of tropical architecture (heritancehotels.com/kandalama).
Eat: The Heritance Tea Factory Hotel in Nuwara Eliya has international-level dining. Have cocktails in the colonial-style Hethersett Bar. Also beg a local for a home-cooked dry-fish curry. These often aren’t on tourist menus.