A fort, the beach and an elephant safari

I’m going to start with our experience of the Udawalawe (ew-dah-lah-wahway, kinda), so I can end with superlatives when describing luscious dreamy tropical beach landscapes!

Udawalawe, oh Udawalawe: you were supposed to be so much; instead I left slightly conflicted and a bit underwhelmed.

We arrived in the small one main street town of Udawalawe after an epic three bus connections adventure (I’ll write about this in another post). We were pretty knackered after five days in Sri Lanka and pretty much hitting the ground running on each of them, so we didn’t explore the town and just stayed in, enjoying the rather lovely family-run guesthouse we were staying at down a long, long drive; it felt like (and sounded like) being in the bush.

Soon enough, a young Spanish couple travelling with a third friend/family member and their young son turned up, and we spent an enjoyable evening chatting, learning about the small town they’re from (Alcorisa), their mining history, olive oil production, and strange Easter festivities!

A dull thud at 4.40am, like a muffled hammer to the head, woke us. It was hot; the fan really only recirculating heavy air around our interior bedroom. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m not a morning person anyway – never have been and clearly never will be – so this was never going to be an ideal wake up call!

By 5am, we’re in the truck and speeding off in the dark, joining a rapidly multiplying caravan of converted 4x4s along the road outside the main entrance to the national park. This was the first of a few stops actually, and we didn’t get into the park proper until just after 7am. This is just the way it is: all the trucks line up, and then, slowly, you inch forward, as they let in more and more small groups of trucks. I just wish I’d known; I would have taken a book or podcast to listen to, and the time passing would have mattered little.

Look: a herd of 4X4s in the wild!

Once inside, what the experience was going to entail became clear: a lot of trucks circling around and zeroing in when something notable was ‘found’. I did remark at one point, it was like herds of 4x4s chasing herds of elephants! Who’s doing the safari-ing, them or us? This did, though, became slowly less intense as the experience continued and, I guess, trucks were able to spread out as we reached further into the what is a huge park.

However, to be clear, there were no moments when it was just us, alone, driving about, spotting this and that. This is no David Attenborough spying on the great wilds experience! We’d drive around, find something (or find other trucks and swarm behind/around them), stop for a bit and move on usually when other trucks arrived and wanted their share, and we’d had ours.

What we did see was: elephants, alone, solo or couples with baby elephants, or in small packs; lots of buffalo, a few crocodiles, coyotes, and plenty of bird-life (including peacocks who all refused to peacock, those prima-donna bishes!

Udawalawe reservoir

At the halfway point, we stopped for a break beside the huge Udawalawe reservoir (a lake, really), which offered some stunning vistas and a chance to get out and spread the legs. Some of the fancier safaris brought out tables and chairs for a lakeside nosh. Ow, flash gurrls! We may have stopped for a little longer than needed; in the end we were standing under one of the few shady spots (actual shade from a tree, not just us throwing shade), waiting to get going.

For me, the one moment that demonstrates the slightly unsettling feeling I left with, came when we stumbled across a solo elephant grazing by the roadside. It quickly came out and strolled amongst the trucks, all and sundry agog at the up-close-and-personal moment. Of course it was wow-ing; I won’t say it wasn’t.

But, for me, it was also hard to read: was this elephant so docile and domesticated that it was truly comfortable strolling among humans (which is, in itself, not necessarily a good thing)? It seemed to be reaching into trucks looking for, or expecting, food. Is that its party trick, or was it starving?

I couldn’t tell; I don’t know: what do those eyes tell you? Because the sad reality of safaris and protected zones, is that they have resulted in an unintended consequence: people feed the elephants – they’re not supposed to – and the elephants have learnt how much easier this is. Also, the electric fences, which are supposed to keep poachers/people out, also keep them in, and they are therefore forgetting how to properly forage and graze, to search for food.

In short, it’s complicated. We did see elephants in the wild, which was a pretty special experience. But, for these few moments, it was a lot of hours of otherness, and in the end didn’t feel too far removed from just visiting a zoo. The possibility that our presence there may be creating adverse impacts, especially on the part of the elephants, is unsettling.

Would I do it again? Doubtful, not a safari that uses this current model, anyway. Would I have not done it in the first place, knowing what I know now? It’s hard to say.

Bathing

Funnily enough, one of the best moments came on the drive back, once we had left the park and were driving along the road beside the reservoir but on the other side of it, far away from where the trucks explore. There, on the other side of the fence, I spotted an elephant, on its own, just grazing on a tree and plonking about in the shallows. A magical few seconds.

The paved streets of Galle fort

Now, onto the two days beforehand, in the wondrous Galle. Galle is an old Dutch fort town, but the fort is very large and is extremely well preserved; by far the best we’ve seen in our travels throughout other former European colonies. You can wander practically right around the whole thing, along its walls, and, inside, exists a preserved little town, full of paved streets, a lot of colonial architecture (houses, guesthouses, boutique accommodation, museums, churches, and a bucket-load of shops, cafes, and restaurants), and some real charm; it really is like a living museum.

Our guesthouse host, in Galle town proper, explained that, pre-2004 tsunami, the fort wasn’t anywhere near as populated or anything like it is today. People who were in the fort at the time didn’t even know a tsunami had hit, that’s how protected it was. Afterwards, as you can imagine, the fort became hot property, as people poured in.

The result is, yes, admittedly, a lot of gentrification, (re)creating that particular kind of generic-ness that pervades popular tourist spots of this type: galleries and boutiques, cafes and accommodation, all serving up a kind of localised Western-ness. At it’s best, it’s fusion, at its worst, it’s a place where people can say they’ve been (tick) and not really experienced anything that much different than their local gentrified neighbourhoods.

Galle fort and lighthouse

However, in saying this, we found the place more charming than not. The whole old town has not been renovated, yet, so there are still some places that are awaiting their facelifts, and many places that just look original (even if they have no doubt been maintained). Moreover, many of the renovations have been really quite tastefully done, and it was lovely to look at some great architectural and design work. In short, we really loved strolling about its streets, and soaking up the atmosphere. Watching the sun set while wandering across its walls was a particular highlight.

Galle fort
Unawatuna, look left…

Sri Lanka’s south coast is populated in what seems like one endless stream of villages and towns. We jumped a local bus to nearby Unawatuna beach for a day trip, and, combined with our bus ride right around the coast the next day (onto our next destination), it gave the impressions that the pace here is quite casual, with both locals and tourists hopping on and off buses, or riding tuk-tuks and motorcycles, all along the coast for all sorts of purposes; business, tourism, the everyday. It felt like quite a fluid approach to movement and life, something that’s extremely appealing.

Unawatuna itself is stunning: golden sand, a beautiful bay, palm trees for ever, and warm, warm water. Glorious, as indeed many of the beaches we passed are here. Coming from our Pacific backyards, full of beaches, this is really saying something I feel: we’re normally a little hesitant when people tell us about beautiful beaches. Yeah right, goes the Tui ad!

But truly, ‘tis was a magical few hours lying in paradise. It wasn’t even too packed. Had we had longer, I could have happily spent a few more days here, jumping buses and exploring many of its nooks and crannies. And I’m not even really a beachy person, such was its intoxicating impact. Oh well, will have to leave this for another time…we had Hill Country to get to!

…then look right. Repeat!

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