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|Year and Month||3 & 4 May, 2015|
|Number of Days||2|
|Crew||Lasantha, Podi, Dimuthu & Me|
|Accommodation||Pokunuthenna Wildlife Bungalow, Udawalawe|
|Transport||By Bus & Hired Jeep|
|Activities||Relaxing, Photography, Wildlife, Safari, etc…|
|Weather||Excellent (Showers in the late afternoon but no problem for our plans)|
|Route||Nugegoda->Udawalawe by Bus.Udawalawe Safari by JeepBack to Colombo by Bus.|
|Tips, Notes and Special remark||
|Comments||Discuss this trip report, provide feedback or make suggestions at Lakdasun Forum on the thread|
“Alintai, Lamaintai – Naliyantamai Hitha.” (Elephants and Kids are always very playful)
“Ali Belillei, Bali Belillei – Iwarayak Ne.” (One can’t get enough of watching Elephants and Cultural Ritual called ‘Bali’)
I’m sure most of the Sri Lankan, if not all, have heard the above sayings related to elephants or jumbos as many refer to them. They are such lovely creatures of the Mother Nature. I simply can’t get enough of watching them, especially when they are in their natural habitat. Many say they are one of the most intelligent animals in the world and have long memories. Watching them in their home turf is something I really love. My memories of the Maduru Oya Journey still keep me going despite having seen only a few. This time I longed for more jumbos and the Mother Nature had already decided to grant her son’s innocent wishes.
One of my friends is gonna get married in September so he wanted to go on a relaxing journey before his arms and legs are tied. As I’d not been to Udawalawe before, this turned out to be the perfect opportunity. Apparently the scary things bring along good and happy returns with them. So we planned the journey during the Vesak as we all could get away without an issue. However, this time there wasn’t any of my Lakdasun buddies to accompany me. It was just the four of us, my close friends outside Lakdasun. So we all got ready to spend a night at one of national park known to harbor more than 300 jumbos. Our biggest concern, if we’d get a better bungalow.
There are four known bungalows at Udawalawe. They are Seenuggala, Thimbiriya Mankada, Gonawiddagala and Weheragolla. When I visited the Wildlife Department website to make the booking online (this is a great thing introduced by them. It saves so much trouble and painstaking process many undergo until not so long ago), none of those bungalows was available. Gonawiddagala and Thimbiriya Mankada were highly recommended but I had no luck. There was however a fifth option, Pokunuthenna, and it’s not listed in the information page for the bungalows which has photos and accommodation details. I was in two minds whether to cancel our jumbo watching and do something else coz every wildlife bungalow at all the national parks was booked.
This was when one of my friends came to our rescue. She said that I was indeed very lucky to have got the chance to go to Pokunuthenna and it hadn’t been available for booking for some time. So without any more haggling, I went on and did the booking, fingers crossed. The online booking process is very efficient and they even send you a text message with the reference number. You can go back and keep an eye out for the status of the booking as well. So let’s hope we would get a better experience.
- Ath Athuru Sevana (Elephant Transit Home), Udawalawe.
- Udawalawe Reservoir & the Dam.
- Udawalawe National Park.
The whole country was busy with the preparations for the Vesak while we did the final touches on the planning. This time I was without any of the old and trustworthy traveling companions so everything had to be fixed and looked after by me. It took so much scribbling and changing before I arrived at the food items to be taken to the bungalow. We decided to have only two meals at the bungalow making it easy for planning and taking the food items. The shops would be closed so we bought all the dry rations on the 2 May. Everything was in order when I finally hit the sack on the eve of Vesak.
Getting up at 2am, I got ready and joined my friends at the bus stop around 3am. It was another good half hour before an Embilipitiya bus arrived by which time we were ready to go back to sleep on the pavement. The golden plate like moon was high in the sky signaling it was a full moon Poya day. The bus was jam packed with people but we didn’t wanna wait for another and managed to squeeze in. I was hoping to catch up on the lost sleep in the bus but big fat chance I had in the current state. We set off being squashed from all around. We fell asleep standing and hanging from the bars.
After swaying as if in a boat amid a rough sea, we got seats closer to Sankhapala. There were hundreds of white clad devotees at the Sankhapala RMV despite the early hour. Finally, we arrived at the Udawalawe junction just after 7.30am and started our journey towards the reservoir on Thanamalwila Road. From the Udawalawe junction, Elephant Transit Camp is located about 3km away and you could take a Udawalawe bus or anything going along that road which is the Thanamalwila-Thimbolketiya road. However feeling ravenous, we stepped in to a nearby shop which was doing a soaring business of breakfast, rice and curry. After a tiring and sleepless bus ride, a hot meal was just what the doctor ordered so we went in and savored every morsel of our meal. Now let’s do something fruitful than having a plateful of rice.
Elephant Transit Camp aka Ath Athuru Sevana
We first decided to take a walk to the dam as there was no sign of a bus but about 100m into our walk, there came a bus and we hopped in. They dropped us near the Udawalawe closer to the Transit Camp. From there we walked towards the dam in the hope of getting a few pictures. There were hundreds of vehicles going on the road probably to Tissamaharama and Kataragama. When we reached the dam, we were fully exposed to the burning down sun. Within seconds we were soaked with sweat and everyone complained about having to walk in the fierce heat. Nevertheless, we walked for a couple of hundred meters and saw the faint outline of the mountain range that runs from Kalthota via Diyawinna towards Gevilipola. Sensational Diyawini Ella could also be seen amid the thick haze but taking a picture was impossible. The fishing boats were anchored to the right of the reservoir due to the Poya.
My friends never stopped grumbling so I decided to save the trouble and turned around to visit the Elephant Calves. But, you would surely wanna see some pictures, so here they are.
On the way towards the Transit Camp, we met Sanath and he said the jeep would be coming to the camp shortly. So we hurried to the camp and found a large group of people already inside while a few others were trying to get through the gate. It was five minutes to nine, just before the first of four times those calves are fed. Feeling lucky, we too hurriedly bought the tickets and ran out to the viewing platform beyond which was the feeding center. Now you don’t have to run with us, take it easy and lemme give you an overview of the place.
“Overview of Elephant Transit Camp
There are over 30 (we counted 31) baby elephants in different ages and sizes being looked after at present. They are resided in the park and brought to the feeding center during four times a day. They are from 9am until 6pm at three-hour intervals which mean 9am, 12 noon, 3pm and 6pm. They are fed Lactogen 2 powdered milk. You have to buy tickets to enter into the premises which is Rs. 20/- each for adults, Rs. 10/- each for children and Rs. 5/- each for school kids. The money collected selling the tickets goes to the well-being of the elephants and if you are really interested, you could become a sort of poster parent by sponsoring one or more elephants for their quota of milk. The parking area is open for the public only just before and during the feeding times so make sure you plan your arrival at an appropriate time.”
Now you know what to expect let’s go experience this wonderful sight. By the time we arrived on the platform, there was a big crowd but managed to squeeze through and find a better place to watch the proceedings. Elephants were coming from their resident areas and were waiting outside an electric fence some 50m from the feeding shed. One officer was keeping them in order with the help of a stick. At the shed, there are 3-4 counters where calves can come and claim their rations. Closer to the platform but separated by another electric fence (so that they wouldn’t come near the public) is an open ground almost two volleyball courts in size. There were branches of jack tree lying around so that they could munch on them after the milk.
There was a heart-breaking site of a small calf with the lower part of its right hind leg missing, probably blown off by a landmine. The wildlife officials had fixed him with an artificial lower part made of steel. The stump had been fixed to an open basket like metal container slightly bigger than the leg so that it would fit nicely. The basket had holes in it probably for ventilation. It then had a metal stick attached to the bottom so that the calf could walk even with a difficulty. The sight of this cute little one walking made me feel so sorry for the fellow. He’s kept at the feeding site separate from the others coz he can’t move freely and the chances of him getting injured again are high.
Before any of the others came in they allowed him to have his quota of milk and this was a very sorrowful but a new experience. He finished his milk and dragged himself to the open field much to the delight of the kids watching him. We heard kinda deep growls made by the impatiently waiting calves. Finally the wire fence was open but the officer allowed only a couple of them at a time otherwise it’d have been a huge uproar at the feeding shed.
The first group came running and making noises before coming to an abrupt halt in front of the feeding rack. The officers had a time control their impatient demands. Most of them drank their quota hungrily while some spilled most of the milk in their hurry. The first group finished but they simply didn’t wanna leave. They hung around the shed in the hope of more milk but another officer with a stick chased them to the open field.
Then came the second, third and fourth batch of baby jumbos and got busy with their drinking. One tiny fellow drank his milk kneeling on the ground as if asking for more or maybe even thanking for providing him with milk. Another tiny fellow kept screaming for more milk and defying the stick. I remembered Tom Sawyer and him asking for a second helping of the watery soup but got a beating instead. Sometimes a calf would drink his milk from the rubber hose attached to the container while putting his little trunk over the rack to straight to the container itself trying to be a bit cheeky and drink simultaneously in two ways. Some large elephants refused to drink from the hose and the officers poured the milk into the cement tank on the ground.
It was another thing that made us all laughing from ear to ear. A couple of the calves drank their milk, and then wandered off to the open ground. After a while they slowly circled around and joined the queue once again to have milk. The first one or two were successful and had a second helping but the others only received a bash on their backs. After finishing the leaves lying on the open ground they were herded back out of the center and we decided to explore the visitor center before going out. I know you must be craving for those pictures and here they are before we show you around.
Ok, now you are as content as those calves, aren’t you? Let’s see what the information center has to offer. It has wall papers with valuable information pertaining to the jumbos, their history, how they evolved from mammoths, present condition and future difficulties. There were a few elephant skulls as well. The most prominent one was the complete skeleton of a jumbo assembled at the entrance to the information center. I remembered the whale skeleton in the national museum. Meanwhile, I received a call from Akalanka, our jeep driver and we went out to join him. Take a look at some of the pictures before we go.
We drove to a shop and bought everything in the list. It took so much effort and time agreeing on the meals. It is so complicated when you think of how many ingredients are required to cook a meal. No wonder they say cooking is an art and put so much emphasis on the techniques. If one tiny thing is missing, the whole curry would be tasteless. Afterwards we came to the junction and ordered lunch packets to take with us saving having to cook another meal. So finally around 11am we started our drive to the entrance passing the dam. Towards the other end, we saw the beggar elephant waiting for someone ignorant person to throw something at him.
There are many signs placed all along the road in all three languages requesting not to feed the fellow warning that he’s still a wild elephant and can be dangerous. Unfortunately not many heed the advice. As we were passing there was a long tailback on the dam. It’s prohibited to park on the dam itself but that like not feeding the jumbo had fallen in deaf ears. There were vehicles waiting for their turn to get closer to the jumbo and probably feed him. There already was a lady carrying a kid in one hand and an umbrella in the other dangerously close to the elephant. Her group was inside the van taking pictures and others getting out to join the lady with the kid. This was beyond being silly and unnecessarily putting not only one’s life but also the little kids’ lives in danger. Here look at the pictures.
Udawalawe National Park
We drove and entered the park. You have to drive another few hundred meters to the ticketing office. There’s also the car park where if you want, can leave your vehicle overnight when staying inside the park. We produced our online booking papers and were asked to pay for the jeep which was Rs. 280/-. Our tracker was a young wildlife officer, whose hometown is nearby, named Prasad (not my Lakegala mate Dodam) and we entered the forest. We showed our permit to the officer at the entrance to the jungle and were waved through.
“Facts about Udawalawe National Park:
Established: 30 Jun 1972
Area: 30,821 ha (76,160.30 acres)
Details: Before the designation of the national park, the area was used for shifting cultivation (Chena Farming). The farmers were gradually removed once the national park was declared. The park is 165 km (103 mi) from Colombo. Udawalawe is an important habitat for water birds and Sri Lankan elephants. It is a popular tourist destination and the third most visited park in the country.
The Udawalawe Elephant Transit Home was established in 1995 for the purpose of looking after abandoned elephant calves within the park. A total of nine calves, on two occasions in 1998 and 2000, with another eight calves in 2002, were released in the park when old enough to fend for themselves. Currently there are some 30+ calves in residence.”
Safari in Progress
Lemme give you a short description of the layout of the Udawalawe National Park. Until this was declared a national park in 1972, the forest had been cleared for Chena Cultivation. As a result, even today the first half of the park is more like an open ground with bushes and a few trees scattered every now and then. Due to the jumbos feeding on the tiny plants such as teak, even today this area doesn’t have many trees. It’s one of the reasons why you can see jumbos very easily. Most of the 3-hour safaris roam around these open areas. However if you go deeper into the park such as Seenuggala and Pokunuthenna, you will be able to experience the typical jungle very much like Wilpattu and Yala.
As soon as we entered into the park, we came across the first of many jumbos we encountered in the journey. He was resting under the shade of a tree, leaning against it keeping his eyes half closed. The fierce heat bothered them as much as us even though their skins are thick enough to endure the hardships of the jungle keeping them safe from the thorny bushes and trees. He made an imposing sight and I filled my memory card with more than a dozen pictures. Ok, let’s go see what else is in store for us. Already Mother Nature kept her promise and as the day progressed, we’d come across many dozens. You wanna see what he looks like, don’t you before we move on?
How do you like the fella? Well before we go any further, lemme tell you the birds we saw in addition to the number of jumbos. Pokunuthenna is a great place for birding and our Lakdasun birders would love it there. We saw many but managed to picture only a handful of them. I’m not a great bird watcher and my knowledge of them is as good as my Greek. Finding their names was like my Advanced Level Pure Maths paper. You know the names of the complex formulas but that is as far as you would go. But, after a lot of time and searching, I’ve found the names of them. Here we go:
- Red-Wattled Lapwing (Kirala)
- Changeable Hawk Eagle (Crested Hawk-Eagle)
- Oriental Honey-Buzzard (Crested Honey-Buzzard)
- Indian Peafowl (Peacock)
- Purple Heron
- Common Kingfisher
- Sirkeer Malkoha (Southern Sirkeer)
- Malabar Pied Hornbill
Ok, now that is taken care of, we might go on. We came to an abrupt halt after a short time to find a large group of jumbos, mainly calves and females, resting under a huge tree. Some of the tiny ones were sleeping on the ground under their mummies’ tummies. The bushes prevented us getting a better picture of them but the rest of the group, a dozen or so, just stayed still as if trying to fall asleep. However our intrusion must have woken them from their after lunch siesta. This was a sight I had been dreaming about and we spent nearly half hour until my friends got tired before moving once again.
The tiny ones kept moving about not allowing their mothers to settle down. Do you know that elephants are have the longest pregnancy period? The elephant mothers hold their babies for 22 months, yeah you heard right, nearly two years, before giving birth to their calves. Just imagine having to bear a baby for nearly two years. The little ones looked so cute and playful and I felt like jumping out, running to them and hug those tiny fellows. You can watch these cute darlings all day long without batting an eyelid. Well, enough of my descriptions and you enjoy the pictures.
What do you think? Sensational isn’t it? Well we saw two other groups like that during the safari and a couple of others as well. I didn’t honestly expect to see that many elephants in that time of the day because it was so hot but Mother Nature took pity on us and asked those jumbos to welcome us. Well I guess it’s time I let you enjoy the rest of them as well before we moved to the thick forest on our way to the bungalow. Here you go, enjoy them to the fullest but come back for the last leg coz I’ve got a couple of hawks to show you.
Ok, now I’m getting hungry so let’s go to the bungalow for lunch. Our lunch packets are still hot thanks to the unforgiving sun. We drove along the road and entered the buffer zone between the thick forest and the open area. It was like a mixture of both and the signs of the jungle slowly advancing towards the open terrain were visible. This is when we noticed a hawk resting on top of a dead tree. This was well my second countable encounter with one (the first was at Archeological Site in Polonnaruwa) and we spent some time taking the pictures. The fella had a few feathers (a crest) on top of his head like a crown giving it the name Crested Hawk Eagle. It’s also known as Changeable Hawk Eagle. He looked absolutely sensational and here are the pictures.
Passing him, we came across another fellow but this time a slightly different one. It was an Oriental Honey-Buzzard or Crested Honey-Buzzard. He stayed on a tree branch right by the road but flew as we settled down but the long range in my camera managed to capture a few more pictures of the fella. Here they are.
Well, after him, we entered the thick forest and carried on the shady road. On our way, we passed the turn off to the Seenuggala Bungalow. The journey was uneventful except for a few spotted deer that ran across the road, too fast for a picture. Finally we arrived at the bungalow almost at the edge of the park bordered by the Pokunuthenna Tank thus the name for the bungalow as well. I’ve given a fairly detailed description and a few pictures on a separate post. Check the Pokunuthenna Bungalow Post here. I’ll give you some more pictures while we have our lunch. Be seeing you soon!
Ok, if you have enjoyed them, I’m gonna show you a little more around the bungalow. As I said earlier, this is located at one end of the park and beyond the electric fence and the tank are the villages of Hambegamuwa and Weli Oya. Nishantha, one of the keepers, said it is only 6km to the Hambegamuwa main road from the bungalow. Well look at these pictures while we take it easy and relax. Afterwards we’re going to have a cuppa coffee.
Ok pals, while you were at it, we spent some quality time chatting and drinking surprisingly good coffee. I can hear the dinner is being made as we speak. It’s gonna be Soya Meat, Gotukola, Potato Curry, Mushroom (yummy, yummy) with Papadam. We had dinner a lot earlier than any other group and the bungalow keepers kept saying this was the first time four-person group arrived coz always they bring the full complement of 10 or very likely a couple extra as well.
Well, that is not how we do things. The night arrived in all four corners enveloping the bungalow. We heard towards the evening, farmers of the bordering paddy fields making noises to chase the elephants. When that didn’t work, they fired an elephant cracker too. I was hoping for those jumbos to pay a visit to us and had my torch ready but none appeared. Ok folks, we’re going to hit the sack and I can hear mosquitoes circling around making that dreadful noise. Thankfully we’ve got the nets even though I hate to sleep in that confined space of a net; it felt good to have it. It’s been a long and wonderful day experiencing many new things. So the Udawalawe treated us really well in our first ever journey. Did I tell you that there is only solar powered electricity here? However we saw the bungalow keepers watching TV, probably using a small generator (couldn’t hear any noise though) or a battery.
We’re no fans of the TV and can live without electricity for a while so settling comfortably in our new home, we went to sleep. I simply couldn’t take the jumbos, especially those cute little darlings off my mind. I was hoping for a jumbo to come in the night and make a roar or something but they must have decided to let us have a good sleep. I’ll see you in the morning folks, good night!
Good morning folks and I hope you slept soundly. We enjoyed the cool air coming from the Pokunuthenna tank. The birds were out in numbers looking for some breakfast and we had our tea while contemplating the day ahead. It was the second day of Vesak and the end of a long holiday so we had to make it as early as to the bus stand to get home early. After a few pictures around the bungalow, we got ready to have our breakfast. While we eat, why don’t you look at them?
We then took our leave bidding farewell to our cooks. On our way our first encounter was a peacock sitting majestically on top of a tree branch. We then saw a parrot looking through a hole in a tree but we couldn’t get pictures of him as he got frightened by our arrival. Afterwards Prasad pointed at a bird on the road ahead of me and he said it was the Sirkeer Malkoha. The fella went ahead of us for about a couple of hundred meters keeping us on our toes and making us delay as we tried to take as many pictures of him as possible. He would walk a bit then raise its head to hear and look then put it low and run for a few feet before doing the same again. The way he ran with the head low was a great sight. Here look for yourself.
Afterwards it was the Hawks that kept us going. We saw at least half a dozen of them but got lucky to picture only three. The first fella was feeding on a dead rather killed bird. He was plucking the feathers in an attempt to dig up what little meat was there. Sensing our presence, he then flew with the prey. The second one was on top of a dead tree (must be their favorite place to sit and watch) and after a while flew away. All the time there was not a sign of the jumbos as if they wouldn’t wanna come out of their homes. I was frantically searching for them when there was another Crested Hawk Eagle sitting on a short stick sunbathing. He was very vigilant and looked fierce. However our close encounter got disturbed by a herd of water buffaloes. The bird sensing trouble flew away. Dam those buffaloes. The last bird to come face to face was a beautiful Hornbill with bright yellow and black feathers. It flew into a tree nearby and we enjoyed our encounter. There was a fairly large hole in the tree and Prasad informed that a leopard had gone into that and apparently got stuck. He’d been there the whole day and everyone came to the park got lucky to see the fellow. Well, no such luck for us and I’m gonna find an elephant even if I have to spend the rest of the day going around. See the pictures while I check on them.
I promised to show you some jumbos and here I got lucky with a Thunpath Rena (a small group of elephants that consists of two adult females and a tiny calf). As we were about to leave, I pleaded with the tracker to try a different route and as we were going halfway, there was the trio. I was over the moon and took a lot of pictures before noticing one of the adults, not the mother, was in a way pointing with her trunk at the front left leg. Then we saw it. A swollen wound full of puss as large as a wood apple was sticking out of her leg almost at the base. She kept pointing to it and we felt really sorry. There was another jeep and the driver said it could be a gunshot wound probably one of those rudimentary set-guns or in Sinhala “Kandan aka Bandina Thuwakku”.
Prasad immediately contacted the office and asked for a medical team to be sent. Meanwhile the baby elephant was playing around his mother making sure he was always closer to her. Prasad said it’d be better if he went and reported in person when the naughty calf started to have milk from the mother. Gosh, this was a sight very rare and we had to spend a few more minutes before leaving. We didn’t get a very clear look as he was behind the mother. We waited a little while even though feeling a bit guilty for doing so. Afterwards we went out of this wonderful park which gave me a lot of things in my inaugural visit. The matter of the wounded elephant was also another concern for our early departure. Now look at the pictures and tell me if they are any good.
We arrived at the office and Prasad went straight to the park warden to inform about the elephant and hopefully she’ll get the proper medical care and be better. We then bid farewell to Prasad and drove towards the dam. Two of my friends wanted to bathe in the reservoir so we got ourselves dropped at the public bathing place at the beginning of the dam when coming from Udawalawe Junction. They had a bath while we waited. There were many people enjoying a dip in the shallow waters.
Finally we took a bus to Embilipitiya in the hope of getting a seat but it turned out to be a 2-hour wait before we got the chance. Even then, it was a low-level bus and we reached Avissawella by 5.30pm. This was going to be bad and it was just that coz the high-level road was blocked by the people going to Colombo for Pandols, Lanterns, Dansal and many others. They walked all over the road and there were thousands of vehicles as well. It took us four and a half hours to get to Nugegoda. It felt like an eternity but finally we got home around 10.30pm.
Well, here ends another fairy tale of Sri and I hope you like it and I managed to keep you interested right throughout. Well, I’m saying bye for now and will meet you with another soon.
P.S. I’m no bird expert and the names of the birds in this report, I just found out on the internet but I might be wrong. So please correct if there are any mistakes. Apologies in advance for any errors.