One hundred and two elephants

A rustic holiday bungalow in Dambulla in the midst of a mahogany and teak forest planted by my brother-in-law as his contribution to conservation was our destination. I was up before the first streaks of dawn, as we were leaving at 4 a.m. when it was still dark and the roads were clear of traffic.
I have been to Dambulla many times to see the rock cave temple and the wall paintings dating from King Kirti Sri Rajasingha's time and the Maha Raja Vihara Cave Tree named after Vattagamini (89-77 BC), the Buddha statutes, etc. I used to be fascinated by the Dutugemunu-Elara battle mural. But I had never been to a mahogany forest in Dambulla and was excited at the prospect.

Gradually the sun broke through, an orb of brilliant red. It was a magnificent sight, the beautiful sky, soft pink and the soothing green paddy fields dotted with white herons and jacanas tripping lightly on lotus leaves in the waterways with the blue gray hills in the distance.

Before long we were at Dambulla. We passed the newly-built cricket stadium and a school with eager young children in white uniforms and well-oiled plaits doing shramadana, and came to a rutty gravel path which led to the forest site. Dipping in and out of potholes and muddy pools, our vehicle squeezed past cows, bulls, bare-bodied children, sarong-clad men on bicycles with womenfolk with open umbrellas perched on the pillion. A rustic gate was the entrance to the forestland; Thirty acres of newly forested mahogany and teak, growing tall and healthy. Only six years old as yet, these trees were an effort at reforestation in the dry zone by one individual.

The affable manager was there to greet us. Baggage was unloaded and we rested for a while before breakfast. Mounds of red rice string hoppers appeared before long and steaming hot plates of freshly uprooted bathala yam, katta sambol, scraped coconut, fresh eggs and lake fish curry followed. How quickly the food vanished. Piping hot green tea and plantains from the garden rounded off a wonderful breakfast.

Through acres of mahogany and teak planted in diagonal, evenly spaced rows, we walked on and on, enjoying the coolness. We had stout shoes and sticks to ward off snakes in the undergrowth. We didn't come across the snakes but we did see two eagles.

We walked till we came to the edge of the forest. In the distance we saw a farmer's hut and thought we would visit the watakolu patch. Sene lived in a wattle-and-daub mud hut with bamboo splinters showing through cracked clay. The roof was thatched. There was a wooden door in front but no windows and the cow dung floor was polished to smoothness. Beside the hut was a rustic bench on one side and on the other a wooden plank just off the ground, which served as a bed. In a corner was a rolled reed mat and a coir rope for hanging clothes. On the ground was a water pot. That was all he had.

How extraordinarily simple his life was and how astounding that he could be content with so little. There was not even a chair to sit on. Outside were a brick fireplace, a cooking pot and a coconut shell for water. The vegetable plot was just outside his hut. Large luscious watakolu and pathola hung down from a coir rope trellis and sticks supported the creepers. He also had green chillies and cucumber and a small plot of paddy. He was preparing the soil with a mammoty when we met him.

He greeted us with a smile though he had sweat running down his face, and had no objection to our walking into his hut. We didn't wait long as we didn't want to disturb him but he seemed to enjoy a chat. We felt guilty when we left him thinking of the luxuries we enjoyed. Cow dung and mud were his lot. But he seemed a happy man in his solitude.

Later we went to a horse farm, at Ibbankatuwa almost opposite the megalithic archaeology burial site. There were about 50 horses grazing on 150-acres of land.

Next was a river bath in the "Mirisgoni Oya". I thought it was a strange name to give a river and had visions of huge jute gunny bags hurtling down the stream with red-hot chillies, floating willy-nilly, spilling their contents of miris. Nobody seemed to know how the name was derived. I didn't fancy getting into a river and getting chillie powder in my eyes but nevertheless the river bath was invigorating.

In the late evening we went to Kekirawa just for the drive. The tranquillity of the verdant countryside was like balm to a wounded soul.

The following day we went to the Minneriya wildlife park not far from where we stayed. Our tracker at one point asked us to divert from the main track and go into a wide open plain surrounded by forest. We waited silently for over half an hour in quiet reverie.

Our patience was rewarded. Two elephants emerged from the forest. They ambled along across the plain just in front of us. Soon after, five others joined them. We watched with popping eyes as more elephants walked past us. Two young bull elephants fought each other for dominance and others playfully entwined their trunks.

A little while later a huge herd of elephants came along. There was an extraordinarily tall elephant that towered over the herd. A baby elephant that could hardly walk tottered beneath his mother's knees. They were very close to us but did not seem to notice us. If they did, they totally ignored us.

Several other elephants kept coming up at intervals to join them in twos and threes. They came and they came in a seemingly never-ending stream. Some stroking each other, and others eating the little shrubs on the way. They ate grass in a leisurely way and showed no signs of moving.

I have visited wildlife parks many times, but have never seen such a large number of wild elephants in the open in such close proximity. We counted 102 elephants in just that one place. What a sight. We looked and we looked as these elephants nonchalantly ate grass without a backward glance at us human beings gazing with fixed focus at such a panoramic view.

It was nature at its best and a rewarding experience for us nature lovers lusting for excitement. Life is full of unexpected wonders.

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