This is hard to write — not because I’m sad, but because I’m scared.
When I read about bicycle touring in Sri Lanka before coming here, it was stuff like friendly people, quiet roads, good scenery. I did read warnings about dogs, and the dogs definitely suck here, but it’s probably not worse than Turkey or Greece or Romania. If elephants were mentioned at all, it was usually something like, “oh, and you get to see elephants too!” They’re often referred to as “gentle giants”. I was actually hoping to see some.
For example this website promotes mountain bike trips on the — I am not kidding you — “Elephant Attack Trail” near Trincomalee, “a jungle trail that takes you through the dry forests frequented by the gentle giants of the country”.
In Africa I bicycled near elephants 5-10 times in Tanzania, Zambia, Botswana, and Namibia. In Botswana, in an area with lots of elephants, we pitched our tent as far from an elephant track as we could, and then one walked by while I was making dinner. At a campground in Zimbabwe, elephants crossed the electric fences every afternoon to eat the fruit trees. The guards tried to chase them off by waving, clapping, and yelling. Not once did an elephant ever take a single step towards me. Gentle giants indeed.
With this background I had no idea I was walking (or literally cycling) into a major human-elephant conflict in Sri Lanka. In the first half of 2021 in Sri Lanka an elephant killed a person on average every three days.
I wish I had known this before. I saw the elephant from far enough away that I could have turned around. When I got too close (I guess), the elephant turned toward me and immediately started quickly walking directly at me. It was unprovoked (by me) aggression that I never saw in Africa. I have learned since that it’s not unusual in India as well.
The incident happened very fast. I guess I just dropped my bike. The elephant came toward me two or three times in total. It stomped on my bicycle, tore off the bags, threw them around. My beefy Tubus rear rack was split into two pieces like it was made of toothpicks not steel.
I was on a two lane paved highway. People came from both sides quickly but were too scared to come close until the elephant calmed down. An empty pickup arrived. My stuff was thrown in. I got in back, and we sped off. 4km later we were at the Bakamuna Police Station.
I am physically fine. It’s been ten days since the attack, and it still makes me tremble and feel nauseous when I think about it.
The police were helpful. I was in shock. They took me around town, and I bought a new bicycle. Mine was almost completely destroyed — frame bent in multiple places, all four brakes and brake levers broken, the rear derailleur was flattened. I salvaged a surprisingly small bag of parts.
I actually rode the next day to Polonnaruwa, and I put off a rest day for ten days, until today (Christmas Day), because I figured I just needed to keep going. I’m lucky to be alive. Scared too.
When my bicycle was stolen nine years ago, I wrote a nice tribute to that bicycle and the places it had taken me. The similarities in these two events ends with a lost bicycle. I’ll replace the bike — that’s the easy part. Now I’m working on recovering mentally, learning something (I hope), and being thankful to be alive and uninjured. In that vein here are a bunch of photos that hopefully show what’s good about Sri Lanka.