Escape of the Week: Udawalawae National Park, Sri Lanka

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.”

Pee-ow. Pee-ow.

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.

Udawalawae National Park, Sri Lanka

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.

Udawalawae 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.

Udawalawae elephant

A wild elephant. In front of me.

Udawalawae National Park

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 male elephant at Udawalawae

A solitary male, or “tusker” as the guide refers to him.

Family of elephants at Udawalawae

A family group.

Elephant at Udawalawae

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.

Udawalawae National Park

“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.

Udawalawae landscape

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.


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When leeches attack

I remember the scene from “Stand By Me” so vividly. My childhood crush, Wil Wheaton, is stomach-deep in water and emerges with big, fat, juicy, blood-filled leeches on his skinny frame. Frantic, he and his cohorts rush to pull the vampire insects from their bodies. Then, the worst possible thing happens: there is a leech. In that private spot no one EVER wants to have violated by said grossness. Cue faint.

Yeah, that is the only memory I have from the movie.

I think it is pretty easy to say the leeches made quite the impression on my young, easily-influenced brain.

So, when we go to Sri Lanka for a little elephant/human conflict exploration and monks whisk us from Colombo to land owned by one of the largest temples in the country, I am delighted. We pile into 4x4s with them so they can guide us on a tour of the mountainous region, namely the highest peak in the area. We hit switck-back after switch-back, wind whipping in our faces as we go (a little bit too fast) around the sharp curves.

Then, it happens.

Photo courtesy Flickr Creative Commons: Daecon

We get stuck going up a mud road en route to the peak. For about 10 minutes, we reverse, shift into drive, reverse, shift into drive, simply spraying a layer of thick brown dirt onto the truck, and sometimes coming dangerously close to ending up off of the mud road and into the thicket of jungle.

When we are directed to exit the vehicle, I don’t think twice about stepping out of the safe confines of our ride and out onto the floor of the jungle.

That is … until my boss spins me into a panic.

“Oh, Diana. Leeches. Leeches.”

Hello, “Stand By Me.”

I immediately drop my gaze to the ground. No puddles. Just dirt and fallen leaves.

“Where? Where?” I ask, frantic. I see nothing.

“On you! On your legs!”

My world nearly goes black as I think back to poor Wil Wheaton and his unfortunately placed invader.

“Oh my god! Get! It! Off!” I scream.

My boss laughs at my Western Freak Out and without hesitation plucks the tiniest brown worm from my black pant leg.

“I thought they only live in water,” I explain, trying to calm myself down … to convince myself perhaps she is wrong, and these aren’t leeches, but adorable little brown worms who simply want to hang out on my leg.

“Noooo, Diana. Leeches.”

“But … why …” I stammer, my brain working overtime to come to terms with the difference between Sri Lankan leeches and the leeches in Hollywood.

And, that is when things go to insect hell.

Suddenly, everyone is squealing and jumping. Leeches are everywhere.

I don’t want to move. I don’t want to do anything but get back into the safe, leech-free confines of our truck. But, that isn’t happening. Instead, our group of 10, including two monks, has to hike it back down the mountain.

Through the land of these grotesque things.

“I don’t understand,” I keep saying, kind of like the way a cat purrs to calm itself down. “I don’t even see them.”

“They are everywhere!” My boss says as we begin to wind our way down, down, down the mountain.

Every few feet, I spy the jerks climbing up my legs. Then, I feel it. A tiny, sting-like thing piercing the top of my ankle.

Oh my god. I’ve been leeched.

I stop on the path — in the heart of leech territory — and pull up my pant leg. There the little asshole is. Ugly brown against my white sock. My fingers fly to my ankle and pluck it off, instantly causing crimson blood to seep through the fabric.

“I’ve been bitten!” I laugh-scream.

I mean … really? Me and leeches? In Sri Lanka? Come on.

Then, I start to notice leeches all over me. Crawling under my socks. Crawling up my legs. Crawling into the lacings of my hiking shoes.

Then, the laugh turns into sheer terror.

“They’re everywhere!”

My boss laughs again at my panic, which immediately reminds me of the ridiculousness my Drama Queen antics.

“Be careful … Diana … they like to crawl into your belly button.”

Oh, for fucks sake.

I hate belly buttons. Despise them. They freak the crap out of me like no other. About 10 years ago, a popular jeans company did a commercial with belly buttons singing “I’m Coming Out.” I could barely watch a snippet of it without being sickened. And now? Leeches setting up shop in my belly button?

I will either puke or faint. Or possibly both.

I’m pretty sure my face goes nearly ghost white.

“They’re everywhere,” I repeat, coming to terms with the fact.

This time, one of the monk stops and comes to my aid. In his bright orange robe, he bends down and begins removing them from my shoes as I tear them off of my skin.

“Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” I repeat, knowing damn well he shouldn’t even be touching me, let alone grabbing them off of my feet.

“Do it like this,” my boss says, beginning to march down the dirt path. Knee-to-chest, knee-to-chest. “They won’t get you like this.”

So, I begin to do the same. Then, I begin to actually see them on the path. It’s as if they can sense my footsteps. Like little mini “Tremor” worms. They stick straight up in the air, then jump. Yes, jump, onto the body.

We continue down the path and every few minutes someone else shrieks at discovering a leech on their body. Finally, we make it to stone steps, and about 30 minutes later, we make it down to our meeting point where we are once again loaded into trucks and brought back down the mountain.

I emerge from the truck blessedly leech-free. And ready to get on with the Sri Lankan adventure … so long as there will be no more leech encounters.


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