Promptly at eight-thirty, we heard a car draw up outside the black gate.
“It’s Sunil,” said Kate, and sure enough as the porters in their burgundy tunics opened the gate, it was it was our guide and driver, Sunil, in his burgundy car.
He’d set off from Negombo at six o’clock that morning. Making good time on the expressway to Galle, he was here to show us Sri Lanka. The same Sri Lanka we’d already seen partly, but through a different set of windows and with dramatically sunnier weather. He smiled and shook our hands. For some reason I’d envisaged a broad bearded man, but Sunil was clean shaven and lean. Strong enough to lift our suitcases, especially mine. After putting them into his boot, he sat us down and went through our itinerary, suggesting places we might want to visit, including a four-thirty am start on Sunday to witness sunrise at Lipton’s Seat.
“We’ve already been up early for World’s End?” I recalled that morning’s five o’clock start to traipse through drizzle and mist.
“This is better.” He beamed confidently.
“And we didn’t see a sunrise then.” Kate was on his side, strangely keen to rise early. Although she hadn’t walked to World’s End, I remembered; she’d made the sensible decision and stayed in the bus.
Everything settled, we set off. Kate navigated in the front passenger seat and I did nothing in the back one. East out of Unawatuna and back down the highway we’d travelled in on the bus. Memories of Mr D, Sujan and Saman smiled at us from the opposite direction. We passed lots of familiar landmarks too: the stilt-fishermen’s stilts, empty; the longest building in Sri Lanka, still long; the austere façade of the Fortress Hotel, not hinting at what lay inside.
At Merissa, where no-one on the last tour had gone whale watching, Sunil stopped at a tourist hotel to order breakfast. Across the road, big white waves rolled up a sandy beach. For a moment, I wished we could have stayed a little longer on the coast, rising late again and chilling out. But our itinerary was booked – four-thirty starts and all – and today we were due at Udawalawe National Park where the elephants wanted to see us.
Udawalawe is around a four hour drive from Galle. The park is mainly grassland and bush forest, and is famous for its wild elephants, of which it has around three hundred. Hopefully we’d a see a few more than we had at Yala, especially as the weather was now hot and sunny.
On the way, Sunil told us about himself and his family. He has three sons, one of whom lives in Canada, and the youngest one still at home. Over Christmas he and his wife had entertained sixty people, yet still she’d kindly wrapped up two pieces of delicious fruit and nut Christmas cake in wrapping paper for us to eat. As a driver and guide, Sunil is often provided with free board and lodging by the hotels and restaurants we visit. Their way, I suppose, of encouraging his patronage.
At Matara, Sri Lanka’s fifth biggest city, he turned inland and headed north towards Embilapitya and to our accommodation at Kottawatta Village. Here we dropped our bags in at our tent – yes TENT, because despite Kate’s phobia of canvas – we were camping. Then our safari jeep arrived, and we climbed up a four-rung ladder to board. Other than the plane, this vehicle had to be the highest thing we’d travelled in. As it swayed and bounced through lots of little villages, then along the road that crossed the top of the huge Udawalawe Dam, we felt like gods. On our left stretched a blue expanse of water, and beyond that the purple humps of hill country. On our right, the tops of trees in the green forest below us. Upon reaching the end of this dam road, several big trees grew out of the reservoir and creating the prefect photo opportunity. In this place, water, sky, hills and forest all came together into a unique beautiful picture.
We turned left into the reserve. An electric fence surrounded the entire park, supposedly to keep elephants in and cattle out. It is only switched on during at night as it is too dangerous for children and others in the day.
Immediately our driver stopped by a big tree. He pointed out a chameleon that no-one else, including Sunil, could see. Yet the driver lingered, sure something was there. Then he backed up and drove for miles down a rough red track where – apart from one Indian roller (a grey and blue bird) – we saw absolutely nothing. I began to wonder what sort to safari this might be. Chameleons we couldn’t see, and elephants that remained out of sight. Echoes of Yala where we hadn’t seen a single one. Perhaps we’d come too early. Or the elephants too late.
Realising we were becoming bored, the driver took us to a lake where a couple of crocodiles smiled with open jaws from the centre. Another white pink floating object turned out to be the corpse of a deer the crocs had killed and let rot. And as the smell drifted over, we held our noses and realised that crocs don’t own fridges.
Jolting away, we came across a herd of other jeeps and – miraculously – a herd of elephants. Hip, hip, hip, hurray! They grazed close to the road, so the photos would show some of their detail other than a distant grey smudge. Two tiny baby elephants wandered with their mothers. One was three months old, and the other around six. Enthralled by their antics, we stayed for ages, taking photo after photo – most of them mediocre, I’m sure – yet hoping one or two might be gems.
Eventually the fumes from all the other jeeps became too much, and the elephants grew bored with their overstaying visitors too. We drove a little further on the red track to come across – yes! – another herd, then when we were tired of that, another and another. We must have seen thirty or forty elephants in all – maybe ten percent of all the elephants in this park – unless these were the same herd over and over.
As the day cooled and dusk fell, more animals came out to say hello: peacocks spreading their tails, black faced monkeys jumping out of trees, a lone elusive fox, and best of all for its sheer unusualness, a star turtle. Then the spectacular drive back along the reservoir road – wind and bugs blowing in our faces, and the smell of charcoal fires. The water across from us darkening underneath the shapes of those mighty hills. And, as the sun set, the sky cracking with fire.
Driving with Mrs Kate had never been so exciting.