Do Elephants Have a Sense of Humor?

The diversity of Sri Lanka blew us away in our second week, as we headed further east and up to the highlands.

A peaceful solitary male elephant in Bundala National Park. He clearly was smiling.

Based in the small town of Tissamahama , we choose to do two separate safaris to Yala and Bundala National Parks. And although the parks are relatively close to each other, our experiences were vastly different.

Waiting at dawn for Yala to open meant a chance to chat with fellow travelers.
Yala National Park’s dramatic contrast of rock, water and coastal forest
Dawn breaks in Yala

Yala is the most popular park and the one nearly every one visits. We chose the “half day” morning safari which leaves at 5 am and ends by noon. The drive in the open sided safari truck in the dark at dawn was refreshing and we saw an elephant and a jungle cat (rare to spot!) before we even got to the park entrance. After admission fees are paid, the Jeeps then queue up outside the gate until the opening bell at 6:15am. Then a somewhat crazy race ensues as 50-100 jeeps head into the park and pan out in Sector 1, one of the areas of Yala that allows visitation and borders the beautiful coast.

Cheryl not on a bike
Safari breakfast safely on the beach
The first leopard sighting traffic jam as we entered the park made us both wonder if we made a big mistake signing up for this on a Sri Lankan holiday weekend! But it got better.

The scenery is arguably more dramatic in Yala with massive rock outcrops and a large river. And Yala has Leopards and sloth bears, which are not usually found in Bundala. But everybody wants to see a Leopard. After seeing a leopard in India, we weren’t as crazed to see one here, but did catch a glimpse over a somewhat comical scrum of gridlocked jeeps on a small side road (all roads are dirt and rough). As the morning pressed on, our guide was as able to find a bit more solitude as we viewed elephants and a vast array of bird life.

Ready to see some wildlife

On our second day we opted for an afternoon tour of the smaller Bundala NP. It’s also along the coast but characterized by large brackish lagoons and coastal forest and scrub.

Brown Fish Owl
Asian land monitor lizard
Mama and child in Yala. Smiling of course.

We actually enjoyed the intimacy of Bundala and we had a much better focus on amazing bird species from a fantastic park guide who has worked there for 20 years. And to answer the title question about elephants, “maybe, unless they are in Musth (male heat) when they can be aggressive and grumpy”

Crocodiles were everywhere in the wetland marshes of Yala and Bundala.
Recovering from hot safari days with a rice and curry feast, a staple of Sri Lankan diets and dishes come in many forms and ingredients; but always some spice -:)

So here’s the other revelation of our time in India and Sri Lanka….I think I’m becoming a birder. It started with the enthusiasm of the birders we met in the Western Ghats, but has been building as I read and learn more, as well as using the fantastic apps by the Cornell Lab of Orinthology, Merlin and EBird

Blue-tailed Bee Eater
The magical Painted Stork
A majestic Osprey

We will certainly be picking up binoculars or a monocular in Japan for sure. And birding and bike touring are a natural combination. This can now be added to the list of “things I never had time or patience for while working”….though most people had me pegged for the model train basement type-;)

This guy was in Musth (male heat with 50x testosterone!) and did NOT have a sense of humor. After a few calm viewing moments, he came at our truck fairly quickly, but luckily our guide and driver were faster….
You don’t need to go to a national park to see macaques or langurs, just look up!

We then took a car transfer up to Ella and the southern hill country of Sri Lanka, And although we were only at about 3,500 feet, we immediately appreciated the slightly cooler temps.

Beautiful train signage
The somewhat depressing and loud tourist section of Ella. You just need to get away a bit to enjoy beauty and peace.
Yes, we want a different view!
We loved the tranquility and discoveries along the Pekoe trail. It’s part of the Serendipity Trails Project.

One of our challenges of independent travel and a focus on the trains is the need to be based in more touristed towns with services and connections. Some people choose to rent a car here and that does give you a lot more flexibility, but as we know, it also ties you down in other ways and makes working in the epic train opportunities here difficult. So our strategy is to be based in a convenient place with tourist services, but then try to do different things than the norm, usually via walks and treks.

Starting Stage 16, turn left by GPS into the woods and everyone disappears!

Luckily there is a nascent long distance hiking trail in development across the hill country and mountains. The 300km, 22 stage “Pekoe Trail” has been initially mapped and stages are now available on many trail apps, including AllTrails and Wikiloc.

Picking tea by hand on the Pekoe Trail. It’s tough work, but they are unionized
The way up to Ella Rock, part of Stage 15 of the Pekoe Trail (we did the Stage in reverse)
I thought this little girl was never going to let Cheryl go, off the beaten track near Makulella.

So in Ella, instead of being driven around in a van or tuktuk all day to see 10 random things, we walked two stages of the Pekoe Trail from Ella. They were both great and although touch a few very popular tourist sites in places (by design) we mostly had the trail 100% to ourselves.

Blissful countryside rambling, with proper sun protection of course. UV can often rate “Extreme” midday in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka is the overall fourth leading tea producer in the world and number one for “Orthodox” or hand picked, dried and processed tea.
Did I mention the Ceylon Tea?

The trail will be a brilliant addition to tourism options in Sri Lanka, and spread the positive tourist impacts out along many more communities and people than the current concentration on tourist hot spots. Interestingly it’s sponsored partially by a grant from the EU, which has certainly seen the success of long distance trails in Europe, such as all the Camino routes in Spain and Portugal.

Dragonfly (not a bird!) on the Pekoe Trail
Cooling off after the Pekoe Trail
The single rail track is the most direct and level way to walk in the highlands, locals and tourist alike, it also was the best route to town and train station from our guest lodge.

We look forward to tracking the progress of the trail as dedication and signage is scheduled to be installed later this year. The lodge we stayed in Ella didn’t seem to know about it, or diminished it a bit as I think it’s seen as a bit of an existential threat to the tourism status quo, which is tour vans and tuktuks taking people around to the same sights and based in one of ten inland tourist hotspots. The coast is a separate beast and has hundreds of kilometers of beaches and towns, but mostly people focused on a tropical beach holiday.

These patient tourist police are charged with saving people from their own Instagram stupidity on the Nine Arches Bridge in Ella….look it up, you’ll see.
No, not a Brunel work. The construction of the bridge is generally attributed to a local Ceylonese builder, P. K. Appuhami, in consultation with British engineers.

We are continuing our journey in Sri Lanka, and are still awed by the universal friendliness of the people. We’ve had wonderful encounters with locals and some interesting conversations about the current challenges here. And there are still major economic hardships. Not enough jobs and opportunities for talented and motivated people. Not enough food for many who have slipped back into poverty.

Ahh…warm train ballast

And it’s been hard not to support EVERYONE we meet as they all have needs and a family to feed (and will often mention this), but we do what we can to be generous on our way. The boom times of tourism here from 2009-2019 were clearly different, but there is a bit of new optimism that things are finally getting better.

Tea worker huts dot the Pekoe Trail. The industry directly employs over 200,000 workers.
No tourists on the Pekoe trail yet, so everyone was a bit surprised to see us, and very agreeable to a photo

We sure hope so, but will also be voting for politicians back in the US that support more generous and compassionate immigration policies. We have an excess of space and opportunities to share still.

Heading onto our next adventure

Happy travels and keep exploring.

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Embarking on the next phase of my life after working as a full-time Civil and Transportation Engineer in the San Francisco for 30 years. My wife and I will be following our shared passions for world travel, culture, and sustainable transport.

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