Upon returning to town from our visit to a tea plantation, Stefje and I made our way to the bus station. We soon discovered that the timetable our guesthouse provided was outdated, which resulted in me sprinting down the hill just steps ahead of the oncoming bus. Miraculously, we timed it up perfectly and hopped on board. Under the friendly yet constant stares of locals, we hauled our bags on board and set off for Wellawaya.
This frequent local bus was a master of acceleration and deceleration, wrapping around hairpin turns like a Formula One driver and never failing to pass a sputtering tuk-tuk, yet always stopping when someone flagged it down at a random bend in the road.
At the Wellawaya bus station we finally arrived at a unique moment in our journey: we were the only tourists in sight. Suddenly tuk-tuk drivers appeared out of the woodworks, offering to take us anywhere we pleased with a "good price for you." Yet we steadfastly rejected all the oncomers and quickly located the bus which would take us onwards to Udawalawe.
We sped past tiny villages and dirty hovels which offered a brief glimpse of daily life in Sri Lanka.
Before sundown we reached Udawalawe, capping a three hour journey that cost us less than $1.50. Only of note as a destination due to its proximity to a national park, we had barely settled in before our guesthouse's owner advised us to visit the nearby elephant orphanage for the evening feeding.
By timing our visit on the same day as a national holiday, even the simple process of purchasing a ticket felt like rushing into Walmart on black Friday. A huge crowd was in the process of bull rushing the ticket window when we walked in, squirming the way to the front and stuffing cash in the face of the lone employee.
Yet the stress undoubtedly paid off, as just ten minutes later the first baby elephants began to appear.
They ran towards the feeding area on wobbly legs, sticking their trunks out in eager anticipation of milk. These adorable creatures range from toddler to adolescent and are sent to Udawalawe's refuge from all over the country. Without this program, most would not survive in the wild.
After milk it was time for a snack of leaves, as the group steadily congregated around carefully arranged branches.
All the while locals crammed against the protective railing, pushing their children to the front for the best views.
Just half an hour later the whole show was finished, culminating with a parade of elephants slowly trudging towards the exit. The scene was straight out of a Disney movie, the perfect cap to another magical day in Sri Lanka.
On Saturday it was the fourth day in the week we awoke before dawn. This time it was to get on the same schedule as mother nature for our safari to Udawalawe National Park. Stefje and I were joined by two German travelers; the four of us felt like we were stepping into Jurassic Park as climbed into the back of a retrofitted jeep and sped off under the cover of night.
As we entered the park we could see the soft glow of the rising sun slightly obscured by cloud cover. Yet ahead of us the sky was a pure blue, ensuring we might be able to capture the elusive soft morning light.
Although Sri Lanka has so far proven itself a family-friendly destination, our first encounter with the park's wildlife was decidedly NSFW. Right next to the trail a gigantic male elephant was groaning through his morning urination. How do I know he was male? His fifth leg was swaying beneath him as he plodded forward, perpetually ready for encountering prospective mates.
We cruised along the outer edges of the park, allowing the expanse of this territory to come into view. A wide plain was dotted with a smattering of elephants that emerged from the forest for their morning meal.
In the distance towering mountains slowly materialized, shrouded by cloud cover around their slopes.
Yet the most impressive feature of the park was an enormous body of water which ebbs and flows in size depending on the season. Our incredibly knowledgeable guide, working his 18th season in the park, told us that despite the abundance of wildlife Udawlwawe is already in the grips of climate-change induced crisis. The previous rainy season produced hardly any precipitation, depleting the park's main water source to dangerously low levels.
Nevertheless, life persists in staggering diversity. We followed along to a few more popular Elephant breakfast spots. Here our jeep pulled side by side with the thick-crusted leviathans, offering an up close look at their foraging techniques.
Using their front feet to uproot grasses and a multi-purpose trunk to compile them into consumable chunks, these elephants each eat a staggering 150 kilograms of grass every day.
Further along our guide pulled over to alert us to the presence of a peacock. Here a male had just sighted a prospective mate and was dazzling her with his spectacularly detailed feathers.
While shimmying his butt and rotating in a circle, the female calmly avoided his advances, ensuring no one was getting lucky this morning.
Next up we rolled alongside one of the park's watering holes. Here water buffalo performed the delicate balance of keeping their skin's surface area wholly submerged without drowning.
Eyes, snouts, and imposing antlers protruded from the languid surface, belying the size of the monstrous beast bodies lurking below.
As our jeep rattled on through the plains, our tour guide stopped intermittently to point out plenty of animals which our eyes glossed over and he was able to spot. Jackals moved swiftly in the distance and herds of deer were spooked by oncoming cars. Monkeys rustled in the treetops, taking a break from their morning snacking to spy on us.
Despite my lurking fear of eventually transforming into a grey-haired, beige-wearing bird watching fanatic, I couldn't help but be impressed by the diversity and vibrancy of bird species within the park.
In the morning, peacocks roosted high in trees, their long tail feathers perfectly folded while fast asleep. In watering holes long-legged storks and egrets padded the waters, keeping their watchful eyes down while looking for food. Same birds also accompanied much larger mammals without fear, for the two species offered a symbiotic relationship that created mutually beneficial dividends. For example, it is uncommon to see a group of water buffalo without an egret nearby, as the bird does what flapping ears and shaking tails cannot: eliminate pesky insects for good.
In treetops and canopies the apex predators lurked: multiple species of hawks and eagles swiveled their necks while keeping body feathers perfectly still.
Yet ultimately the most charming bird species was the green bee-eater, a creature of impressive color that fluttered through the branches plucking insects out of thin air.
Our morning tour of the park culminated with a trip down the banks of a shallow, muddy river. Here the tour guide pointed out the normal high water mark - as high as two meters from the surface - while our eyes panned the riverbed for crocodiles.
Eventually we spotted one, perfectly camouflaged by covering his scaled backside in mud. Somehow the most visible feature was his bright white incisor, nature's clever reminder that even though the sun-bathing reptile looked sloth-like in his resting position, he was a vicious predator that could strike without a moment's notice.
Further along we encountered a couple more of the beautiful beasts, finally realizing after much long-distance spying that their scales were actually a gorgeous deep twinge of green.
Finally the trip concluded and with gurgling stomachs we made our way back to the guesthouse for breakfast. Even though the safari felt similar to visiting a zoo in that an incredible variety of animals were packed into such a contained space, I couldn't help but feel wary about this fragile environment. Such biodiversity requires an endlessly complex ecosystem, one that humans may destroy before they even truly understand it.
As stewards of the natural world, we must treat the environment with the respect and protection it deserves before the delicate balance comes crashing down around us.