Kottowatta wasn’t quite the boutique glamping experience we expected. Less a bespoke individualised wigwam, and more a council tent Coronation Street style. Yet comfortable enough, with a large mattress on a platform enclosed inside a bug-proof mosquito net. A zip fabric door to our own hard-walled bathroom too. Although the open panel in the roof worried me slightly, and the gap under the front door. What if something nasty slithered in during the night? A moat of muddy water rippled behind us, and trees and bushes grew all around. Yet there were lots of other campers, and the tents themselves were mounted on a huge wooden platform. Plus dogs patrolled the perimeter of the tents, chasing one another and then sleeping in our deck chair.
One night camping in the jungle? Pah, we’d survive!
In fact Kottowatta proved to be fantastic value. The price of our tent included a sumptuous buffet dinner too, with a delicious breakfast the next morning. And not one, but two large swimming pools to offset the humidity and heat. Really we couldn’t complain.
We left at eight forty-five sharp to visit the Elephant Transit Home outside the entrance to Udawalawe Park. Around fifty orphaned young elephants are kept in their own reserve here and fed four times every day with milk and palm leaves. We arrived right at the start of the morning feeding and were lucky enough to find free seats at the end of the viewing platform. The place was crowded with local families, all here because it was Saturday – and school holidays too.
One by one, little elephants ran out into the fenced off clearing in front of us. Most of them headed straight to the feeding station where feeders draped plastic tubes into their mouths and then poured in milk from a couple of bottles. A few however went in the opposite direction, chomping on a few of the fresh palm leaves laid out for dessert, before heading onto the liquid main course. And one or two tried it on, trumpeting dissatisfaction with their ration, until the feeders pushed them away so newcomers could step in for their share. As we watched, a steady stream of elephants came forward, gobbling their two bottles, then munching happily on loose palm leaves. By the time we left, there were forty or more animals in the group, their bellies stuffed and no bill to pay afterwards.
Sunil drove us to a temple we hadn’t heard of before at Buduvuwajata. The temple itself no longer existed, but seven magnificent rock carvings rose from the forest on a huge elephant-shaped slab of rock. This was a quiet, secret, unspoilt place with few other tourists around. The temple had apparently been covered by a lake for two or three centuries, only becoming visible again when the waters receded.
The day took on an escalator feel, with several eyes-and-mouth-wide-open vistas, one straight after the other. Acres of green paddy fields by the road, followed by a barer patch of mud, a new paddy field being prepared. The road ascent back up Ella Gap, passing two massive boulders from last week’s landslide. (We realised how lucky we had been to travel down, the boulders each the size of cars.) A glimpse of Demodara Railway Bridge (or Nine Arches bridge) seen from a slope high above, courtesy of a kind old lady who let us look down from her drink stall. An attempt to lunch at the uber salubrious and no doubt very expensive Ninety Eight Acre hotel with its awesome views. Then a frantic trip into the heart of backpacker hell – the town of Ella with its proliferation of cafes, hostels, and happy hours with Lion beer on tap for two hundred rupees – where we ate a wholesome burger and curry lunch at Chill restaurant.
Exhausted, we asked Sunil to take us to our next accommodation, The Hotel At The Edge of Nowhere, at Haputale. He drove there via Bandarawela, of best breakfast fame, then onto the road to Haputale which boasted amazing precipitous views down to the lowlands far below. We were at two thousand metres, and as Sunil drove higher, our ears popped. Haputale itself seemed a pleasant one street town where once again, the views were serious enough to deserve five stars.
Then as we drove on, things went unexpectedly downhill. Our accommodation wasn’t at Haputale, but at the next town of Beragale. And truly it wasn’t even there, but down more hairpin bends, past a misleading sign, and along a rough track. The Hotel At The Edge of Nowhere, and that must be another story.