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Too close to elephants in a Sri Lankan forest

“There they are, it’ s a massive herd!” I cry out pointing at a distant cluster of boulders, now its my niece’s turn to make a face. We have been playing ‘Cry Elephant’ for the past three hours. But it seems we had over played; our company in the jeep had ceased being amused almost three hours ago. We are on safari in tiny Sri Lanka, more like elephant safari, I have to pinch myself to believe this. I had allowed thirty-nine years to do this, but relief finally outguns regret. My Dad, brother’s family along with two good friends are stacked up next to me. We had struck deep into enemy territory, but our hapless foe is nowhere in sight. We are roaming a forest in North Central Sri Lanka, adjoining the mighty Minneriya reserve; home to large elephant herds. Freak rains had flooded Minneriya forcing the jumbos to take refuge in Eco Park, and daily sightings had been reported. Our veteran behind the wheel had shuffled us around frequently as the rough terrain tilted the jeep dangerously, being a featherweight I was allowed to occupy any end I desired. But so far only the less eminent occupants of the park had entertained us, jungle fowl, a pack of foxes and some magnificent spotted deer had stared back; unfazed. A peacock scurries in to the trees; its resplendent feathers webbed jealously together, so not in the mood for love. I don’t ponder too long on why this magnificent creature must fan out its glory to seduce the unattractive female. I have been milking my camcorder battery; begging for more, cursing its brevity.

My wife, baby son and mom had opted to stay back at base, at “ Sigiriya Village Hotel”, a unique set up smack in the middle of Sigiriya village. It makes noble attempts to take the traveler back to a simple; rustic setting, modeled on ancient Sri Lankan Village life. A village within a village; a novel concept. Over hundred cottages painted with earthy shades. A tree hut, a miniature paddy field under cultivation; guarded by a fierce scarecrow and a Lotus pond had slowed us down with their unhurried charm. Monkeys ape humans on the footpaths. Yet four-star comforts lurk within. I had happily ignored the calories as we feasted on buffets with a traditional spin. Devilled chicken, local lake bred fish pan-fried, roasted pork and Mongolian rice were some of the gastronomical challenges that I had to face, I like my choices simple, but sampling all solved the problem. All the while our eyes had rested on that gigantic rock, which defined the backdrop. The iconic historic citadel of Sigiriya was built by an ambitious ancient King; Kashyapa who had murdered his Father for the throne. He had defied gravity by getting his engineers to build a palace in the sky, the inevitable vengeance of his brother and rightful heir to the throne Moggallana, being a critical motivation. His artists had painted frescoes featuring some gorgeous ladies who had not aged with time. But then he had done the unthinkable and left this uncontestable vantage point to give battle to his brother in the dusty plains below. Was it his guilt or over confidence, it was a pleasant poser and a good digestive aid as we munched on our cholesterol enhancers.

In the morning we had visited the imperial kingdom of Polonnaruwa, just an hour’s drive from Sigirya. My third visit, but some spells just don’t lose their glue. This was once the mighty capital of the medieval Sri Lankan rulers, who had made it home from 11 to 13 AD. Temples, shrines monuments, and commemoration stones graced the hallowed grounds. We had stepped gingerly, on bare feet, snapshots not taken with our backs to the monuments. It was never a hassle; those masters of the past deserving all the veneration that we could offer. The engineers and architects who had obliged the whims of their overlords had vied for equal spot, who could refuse. I had to remind myself to release my breath; biological needs playing second fiddle. My teenaged niece from Melbourne was in a history daze, another keen victim. I was disturbed by the prospect that the intervening centuries up to now may have even sent us backwards, what have we achieved that could out do this.

“They are elephants, Uncle was right!”

It’s my niece’s turn, I thought we had stopped this game. I don’t bother to respond.

“ Look there’s a whole lot”

My brother picks up the cry, and he never looked too brightly when we were playing it. I can only look; the boulders have multiplied and are moving. Twenty-five, Thirty, too many to count, I give up, I don’t care, a massive herd. It’s a top-notch group carrying several calves and a tusker-in-progress. A dream coming true even before dusk. My camcorder issues a final gasp, it’s a long gasp, ten whole minutes are all that I require to preserve this memory. Several more jeeps with hushed tourists join us; the elephants hardly budge. We are in their territory. The flashes violate the light cover of darkness in a vulgar showing, but they don’t budge. Time stands still, we stand still, and what’s new; I am holding my breath again.

Our trance is only interrupted by the animated conversation of our driver with another. The problem becomes clear; the other chap has left the trail to offer his guests that ‘killer shot’. Their jeep has got stuck in deep mud, in the great beyond, a few hundred meters away from us. He wants our jeep; out of the question with two kids on board, my dad is firm. But he agrees to release our driver, I whisper my approval, luckily no one heard. I feel nostalgic as our driver disappears in to the murky depths around us. The last of the jeeps are pulling out, we are still here, driverless. Anxiety had run deep furrows on my brother’s forehead; his entire family is in the vehicle, so it is quite understandable. The trumpet calls are getting louder, the herd is getting cockier by the minute, perhaps they can sniff out the tiny insect in their backyard; stranded and so alone. Then I see the shapes, hulking, massive, one, two, three, on the move; towards us. So close, but the thrills had left me a few minutes ago. That last trumpet blasted so close; we start screaming for our driver. I am glad that my son and wife had missed out on this. I desperately want to play ‘Cry Boulder’, but my niece has sunk in to some sobriety.

I get banged against the frame as our jeep takes off with a violent jerk, I didn’t see the guy sliding in nor hear him start the engine, not that I care. Adventure; can it get any more wholesome than this. As we bump and lurch our way back to human habitation, I have only one prayer, one hope, that my son, his own and future generations are allowed to respect and savour these majestic creatures on their own turf.

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