The sunrise in Sri Lanka casts a pink and orange glow across the peach dirt, warming me despite the slight chill in the air. In front of the guest house we’ve stayed at, there are two larger-than-life Jeeps, with their sides and roof ripped off and rows of plastic benches replacing the normal seats.
We’re off on a safari to see some elephants where they belong — in the wild.
“It’s nothing like what you’ve seen before,” my friend tells me before I climb into our SUV. “Seeing these animals in the wild … it is just amazing. It gives you an entirely different appreciation for them.”
That’s the first thing I hear as we pull onto the very dry dirt road at the entrance to Udawalawae National Park.
What on earth?
“Peacocks,” our guide explains. For the past two days, every time I hear that call, I have thought it was cats. But, nope. Peacocks.
He points to one in the distance, perched on a tree. Shutters snap as our group lay claim to the memory of our first peacock at the park.
But, the peacocks aren’t what we’re after. So, as the sun rises higher into the Sri Lankan sky, we set off on our journey through the vast park.
The third most visited park in the country, Udawalawae is home to various species of birds, lizards, cows, buffalo, and, of course, elephants. Spanning around 119 square miles, the 30-plus-year-old sanctuary is quiet at this time of morning. Even though we’re told it is the perfect time of day to spot wild elephants, it seems at 6:30 a.m., most of the world has yet to wake up to join us on our journey.
And I’m totally OK with sharing Udawalawae with only my team and the animals.
As the pee-ow continues to be the soundtrack, we venture into the park, bumping and thumping along dirt roads in our yellow SUV. Every now and then, our guide clinks a rupee against the metal shell of the vehicle, alerting our driver to stop. He will point out an animal, our cameras will all go off simultaneously, and then we will continue on.
It isn’t far into our journey when we spot our first elephants.
Bathed in thick brown mud, Mom and Baby meander together through a thicket of tall grass, casually whacking the blades against their legs to soften them and then depositing the vegetation into their big mouths and chewing it.
A wild elephant. In front of me.
Two wild elephants. In front of me.
I blink, gently dig my thumb into my palm to remind myself this is real. I am in Sri Lanka on a safari and witnessing these animals before they have been abused in the name of tourism, before they have been made to give rides. They are happy. They are free.
For a moment, I can feel the tears well up in my eyes. Then, we continue on, getting a better angle from the safe confines of our vehicle.
“Shall we go?” One of the members of our group asks once the photos have slowed down.
We continue on, stopping every few minutes to spot different elephants.
A solitary male, or “tusker” as the guide refers to him.
A family group.
And more. And more. And more.
With each stop, my heart warms even more at the experience.
Until we encounter one single female elephant.
We pull up beside her as she snacks. Two jeeps, parked at odd angles in the late morning. She watches us watching her, casting as curious of glance as an elephant can give. Then, she slowly meanders up to the jeep I’m in. Our guide reaches out his hand to touch her. She leans her head into his hand.
“Hello, girl,” he says, his eyes twinkling as she leans more and more into his hand. Suddenly, his hand is no longer against her head. Instead, her head is against the metal of our SUV. And, we’re being pushed.
Oh my god. I’ve seen this on You Tube videos. Stupid tourists get too close to wild animals and pay the price.
“Woah, woah,” he says. Then, she backs off our ride and slowly returns to her grazing.
“Again! Again!” My boss says, delighted at our mini assault from the girl.
I laugh, a nervous laugh. A laugh that says, “that was great … but never again.”
The day continues, weaving through gorgeous landscapes of dried lake beds against far-off mountains and grasslands.
After nearly 10 hours of being on a safari, we call it a day. After all, we’ve got another safari tomorrow to tend to.
Getting there: I recommend being a part of a tour. Head there in the morning and stick around for lunch. The elephants are most visible in the early morning hours. The park is located near the Ratnapura-Hambantota turn-off, about 35 miles from Embilipitiya. The closest major city is Colombo. Cost for entrance is $12.
PLEASE NOTE: There are many places to enjoy safaris in Sri Lanka, but not many which do it right. Places like Chitwan National Park, which pile people onto elephants and offer elephant rides into a safari, are not animal-friendly or examples of responsible tourism. These places encourage the capture of elephants from the wild, their spirit to be broken through abuse, and the ultimate demise of the animal from the very place you want to see it live. It is not only safer, but the responsible way to experience wildlife in this beautiful country.