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Travel Guide: Searching for elephants in Sri Lanka

12th Oct 2011 1:53am | By Editor

JEREMY HEAD takes a journey through an elephant park in Sri Lanka that he'll never forget.

I can't guarantee you'll see any elephants," Lars tells me as we sit in a mud hut at Tree Tops Lodge, drinking neat scotch by candlelight. Yet if you're lucky, a stay here is about as close as you'll get to a real wild elephant in Sri Lanka. A storm is approaching and it's pitch black outside. Lars thinks he's heard an elephant. We extinguish the lights so as not to frighten it. After a moment I hear branches breaking. There's a kind of chomping sound. Lightning arcs across the tree tops. There's more crashing, but I see nothing. The lightning kills my night vision completely.

At 5.30am the next morning we hike to a nearby lake. We see elephant dung, the footprints of wild boar and colourful birds, but no elephants. Shrouded in mist, the lake is beautiful. A forest fox darts away from the water's edge, fish flop in the water, causing ripples, but not an elephant in sight. We wander back, tired and muddy. I shower at the outdoor well, pouring cool water over my head. I try to be philosophical. I've heard them, I've seen dung so fresh it's still steaming, but the elephants remain elusive."

Lars meets me on the walk back to tell me there's been a sighting. I refuse to get too excited, but then five minutes down the dirt track, we find him: an old loner the locals call Pote Aliya - Blind Elephant - which almost fell victim to a poacher and has only one eye. We approach with caution. The guides have firecrackers ready in case he turns on us, but he's oblivious, munching away on the greenery. Finally, I'm seeing my first wild elephant.

There are only 2500 elephants left in Sri Lanka, compared with 12,000 at the beginning of the 20th century. Seeing the few hundred that live in the wild might be a challenge, but there are other places you can get right up close.

Uda Walawa is the country's largest game park. Around 500 elephant roam free in 78,000ha and it's easy to find them, particularly if you have the services of an old guide like Nathaniel. His mouth is a gaping hole where teeth used to be and he wears bottle-bottom bifocals, but he hasn't lost his tracking skills.

For a couple of hours we grind around in an old Land Rover and get off to a magnificent start seeing an old male. Soon after we see a threesome of mother and two babies, who turn out to be our best sighting by far. Most were at quite a distance, although standing up in the back of a Land Rover, the wind ruffling your hat and the sun beating down, was brilliant fun in itself.

If you want to get closer still, Sri Lanka's most popular tourist attraction is the place to go. The elephant orphanage at Pinnewala is home to 80 elephants rescued from the wild, usually ones whose parents have been killed by poachers. Several cute babies have been born here, and visitors can feed them from a huge milk bottle to see them gulp down five litres of milk in 15 seconds. I arrive just after lunch, but this proves perfect timing - it's bath time, and the traffic is brought to a halt as the whole troop ambles over the road to the river for a wallow in the cool water.

My most memorable pachyderm moment, however, came last. It takes a quarter of an hour to saddle up an elephant with a riding platform so I decided to just climb on up. Merica, my elephant steed, lifts up a front leg in an oddly effeminate gesture, and I grasp the chain around her neck and use her knee to step up. Somehow I get myself spread-eagled across her shoulders and claw my way over. I wobble precariously trying to hold on tight with my thighs. I'm wearing shorts and the hairy grey cartilage of her massive ears flaps against my knees, rough, rubbery and hairy all at the same time.

It seems like a fairly harmless amble until we come to a lake. Merica's keeper jumps up to sit in front of me and I wonder how deep the water is. With each plod forward Merica sinks deeper. And still the water rises. It's now well above the tops of her legs. My feet are getting wet. The elephant keeper points out an eagle in a tree. Has he forgotten his elephant is still rolling forward in top gear? Eventually we are so deep that only the top of Merica's head and trunk are above the surface, the water level at my knees. The ground under her feet is solid though and we splosh, dripping but unbowed, out the other side. These beasts know what they're doing.

Sri Lanka's top five

Some of Sri Lanka's beach resorts closed after the tsunami, but many are now open again and the country's cultural sights are all inland. Here's TNT's top five.

Rock on: It's a slightly vertigo-inducing climb up the rock fortress of Sigiriya. Sticking up like a craggy thumb out of the jungle canopy, the summit is the size of several football pitches. The views from this huge 200m boulder are immense.

Take the train: The British built railways wherever they went and Sri Lanka is no exception. It's a fantastic way to see the countryside, and it's cheap too.

Sip a cuppa: Sri Lanka is famous for tea. Many of the plantations in the hill country around Nuwara Eliya offer tours and you can even stay in old planters' cottages.

Chill in Kandy: Sri Lanka's second city is home to the Temple of the Tooth - the country's most important Buddhist shrine. It's also a chilled out place on the shores of Lake Kandy, ideal for kicking back.

Pedal the temples: Polonnaruwa is the ruins of an ancient Sinhalese kingdom with hardly another tourist in sight. The best way to see it is to hire a bicycle and freewheel along the dirt tracks that link the ancient temples. Nearby Anuradhapura is also pretty impressive.