Sri Lanka off the bicycle: scooter rental and elephant safari

My original plan for Sri Lanka had me going up into the mountains a bit after finishing the Cultural Triangle part of my tour. Unexpectedly my bicycle was destroyed, and the cheap new one that I bought, well, did not like going uphill. Seriously I use the small chainring even on flat roads! It’s an effort in the easiest gear to go up short, moderate grades. There is no way I could pedal that thing up into the mountains.

As an alternative I based myself in Wellawaya and rented a scooter for two and a half days. My first day was a short shakedown ride to get used to the scooter and make sure I was ready for a long day in the mountains. I only climbed to about 300m, but I did get views of the mountains that I’d explore the following two days.

IMG_20211222_150204 by bryandkeith on flickr
IMG_20211222_143138 by bryandkeith on flickr

I heard somewhere that you can’t really visit Ceylon without seeing their famous tea plantations. That was my goal for the first long day on the scooter. Turned out to be an easily accomplished goal.

IMG_20211223_093553 by bryandkeith on flickr
IMG_20211223_115039 by bryandkeith on flickr

Here’s the scooter above what I believe is housing for the tea plantation workers. This is fairly near Haputhale.

the scooter I rented for 2.5 days by bryandkeith on flickr
IMG_20211223_092022 by bryandkeith on flickr
IMG_20211223_094821 by bryandkeith on flickr

There are a number of waterfalls around. This is Diyaluma (lower falls).

IMG_20211223_140003 by bryandkeith on flickr

That first day ended up being longer than I expected (136km) on roads that were way more bumpy than I expected. I had to turn back on three routes that I had picked out because the roads were simply too rough. From what I saw of the roads they didn’t appear to be any worse than what Ferda and I rode last summer in Borçka, but small obstacles for a bicycle can be insurmountable with something as heavy as a (light!) scooter.

Given that experience I was amazed with how smooth and good the roads were for my second long day. I ended up going just over 100km, but I spent far less time on the scooter. The goal here was to see Ella and its environs, one of Sri Lanka’s hill stations that (some) tourists like.

I started off with Ellawala Waterfall, down near Wellawaya,

IMG_20211224_070958 by bryandkeith on flickr

and then visited Small Rawana Waterfall in the heart, I guess you could say, of the Ella region.

IMG_20211224_095544 by bryandkeith on flickr

I was right near the start of the trail to Ella Rock. Since the scooter travel had been so much faster than I had expected, I decided to walk up to the famous viewpoints. Online reports suggest this is a four hour roundtrip. Luckily, I hadn’t read that before, or I probably would have skipped it. It ended up taking two hours including stopping at the top to enjoy the viewpoints and drink passion fruit juice.

IMG_20211224_110900 by bryandkeith on flickr
passion fruit juice -- the fruit were definitely different than the granadilla that I'm used to seeing in Mexico; you could buy that kind in Sri Lanka as well, but they were less common and more expensive by bryandkeith on flickr

I still had plenty of time, and the next thing that people kept recommending was to visit the Nine Arch (railway) Bridge, built by the British.

IMG_20211224_125052 by bryandkeith on flickr

Uh, really? Is Ella so starved of attractions that this is one of its top sights?

IMG_20211224_124321 by bryandkeith on flickr

It reminded me a bit of Varda Köprüsü in Adana, but the scenery at Varda is much more spectacular, and it’s hardly one of Adana’s main attractions.

I stopped at another waterfall, Rawana Ella Falls, on the way back to Wellawaya. I found the mango much more satisfying than the waterfall.

IMG_20211224_135959 by bryandkeith on flickr
IMG_20211224_134626 by bryandkeith on flickr

Can I talk about food again? I continue to find fantastic food in Sri Lanka. Here’s a breakfast (in Heeloya) of string hoppers, pol sambol, and dhal.

Breakfast: dhal, string hoppers, pol sambol by bryandkeith on flickr

This is kola kenda, an entirely different breakfast.

breakfast: kola kenda by bryandkeith on flickr

Kola kenda is a supposedly healthy herbal porridge. That morning was kind of cool — one of only two mornings when I bicycled in anything more than shorts and t-shirt during my whole trip (well, I’m still here…). I put on a long sleeve shirt that morning. The kola kenda was served warm and really hit the spot.

And another entirely different breakfast:

breakfast: is the one on the right bola di amor? by bryandkeith on flickr

I’m wondering if the cake on the right (above) is bola di amor, a recipe the Portuguese brought here many years ago. It’s a cake that is now more popular in Sri Lanka than in Portugal. Reminds one of the Portuguese bringing tempura to Japan, now much more popular in Japan than in Portugal, doesn’t it?

Shirantha and his wife served this excellent dinner one evening in Wellawaya. Clockwise, starting on the left, that’s banana flower curry, ash plantain curry, and ambarella curry. So yummy!

banana flower, ash plantain curry, ambarella curry by bryandkeith on flickr

I did get on my bicycle for one day from Wellawaya to Udawalawe, passing again through the now dreaded forest areas.

IMG_20211226_084736 by bryandkeith on flickr

Ahead I saw an elephant. Locals assured me I could continue without being scared. When I was across from the elephant (which was actually just inside the boundary of Udawalawe National Park), I stopped at a stand where women were selling mangos. No problem, they said. They even tried to sell me some peanuts to feed to the elephant. Bah! 🙁

IMG_20211226_101636 by bryandkeith on flickr

Just a day or two after being attacked by an elephant, I had considered going on a safari to make me feel better about these terrifying animals. A man in Polonnaruwa offered to take me to Hurulu Eco Park. I read online reviews like this:

  • a “mother elephant and her baby were surrounded by at least 25 jeeps”
  • “The poor animals have sometimes no space to escape.” (because of the jeeps)
  • “Elephants cornered by cars and people”
  • “Some jeep drivers drive so close to the animals that they have no possibility of evasion and then a jeep comes even closer so that the elephant has to back away in order not to be hit.”

If an elephant experiences that, we can expect it to be immediately aggressive to people (what happened to me). In addition I didn’t like the driver. It was an easy decision not to go.

Udawalawe National Park gets better reviews, but I was still prepared to be disappointed. I chatted with Nakala and decided to go on a solo tour with him, thinking, “if he’s treating the elephants poorly, I can ask him to stop or simply leave the park.”

Well, every driver I saw treated the elephants with respect. When another jeep came, the first driver would show them where to park so the clients would have a good view, perhaps moving their vehicle a bit. There were only ever two vehicles together. If a third vehicle came, the first vehicle might leave, or the third would wait a bit away. The vehicles didn’t leave the roads and didn’t follow elephants if they started to walk away. I was very happy with the tour.

In addition to elephants we saw a number of crocodiles, monitor lizards, wild buffalo (!), deer, mongoose, jackal, and quite a few birds. I’ve seen hundreds of peacocks in Sri Lanka. The best photo I have is from this safari:

I saw hundreds of peacocks while I was in Sri Lanka.  I think this is the best photo that I managed. by bryandkeith on flickr

A very colorful pelican, right?

IMG_20211227_093117 by bryandkeith on flickr

I definitely needed binoculars (which Nakala had) for the other animals (except the elephants). The crocodiles didn’t move, but one was out of the water. The jackal was a good sighting — the only one I’ve seen in Sri Lanka. The best elephant sightings we had were lone males. The family groups were a little far away.

The first elephant was this small one:

IMG_20211227_081432 by bryandkeith on flickr

This one walked around in the open for us (no other jeeps were there, just us):

IMG_20211227_105522 by bryandkeith on flickr

We were also the only jeep when we came to this elephant, a very large male like the one that attacked me:

IMG_20211227_093544 by bryandkeith on flickr

Unlike for the other sightings, Nakala did not stop the engine.

IMG_20211227_094733 by bryandkeith on flickr

When the elephant turned and took a step toward us, Nalaka quickly put the jeep into gear.

IMG_20211227_093934 by bryandkeith on flickr
IMG_20211227_094429 by bryandkeith on flickr

Nalaka later told me that he was scared, that that particular individual had attacked a jeep. Ufff.

Our last encounter (again, just us) was with a juvenile tusker that walked right up to the jeep.

IMG_20211227_110148 by bryandkeith on flickr
IMG_20211227_110204 by bryandkeith on flickr

I had been sitting on this seat a few seconds earlier:

IMG_20211227_110211 by bryandkeith on flickr

Yikes, enough for me. Time to go home.

IMG_20211227_110555 by bryandkeith on flickr

That evening Nalaka and Shivanti put together this incredible meal — winged bean, dhal, cucumber salad, papadam, kos atta (fried, not a curry), polos curry, batu moju, chicken curry.

winged bean, dahl, cucumber salad, papadam, kos atta (again fried, not curry, like the night before), polos curry, batu moju, chicken curry by bryandkeith on flickr

Look what I did to that meal even though I didn’t bicycle that day!

IMG_20211227_192311 by bryandkeith on flickr

The next day, though, I did bicycle. I started by heading south away from Udawalawe National Park. However, instead of taking the road a bit to the west, Nalaka and Shivanti recommended the road farther east where the chance of running into an elephant was much lower.

Instead I found a large monitor lizard (water monitor?):

Maybe this is a water monitor as opposed to the normal monitors which are often called iguana in Sri Lanka (mistakenly, I believe). by bryandkeith on flickr

and domesticated buffalo with birds on their backs (classic!):

IMG_20211228_110307 by bryandkeith on flickr

I made it to Sri Lanka’s southern coast that day (where I still am), far from wild elephants. Yay!

IMG_20211228_115844 by bryandkeith on flickr
IMG_20211228_090016 by bryandkeith on flickr
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2 Responses to Sri Lanka off the bicycle: scooter rental and elephant safari

  1. Jennifer & Derek Werner says:

    Great as always!

  2. Mike Painter says:

    Glad you saw some peaceful elephants! Interesting as ever!

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