From glitzy processions in Kandy to huge wildlife gatherings in Minneriya, pack your trunk for Sri Lanka's beautiful hill country
The Sri Lankan elephant is something of a party animal.
While the rest of the planet’s pachyderms are content to keep themselves largely to themselves, the Sri Lankan elephant likes nothing more than to meet up with its mates and have one hell of a knees-up. If elephants read Hello! magazine, Sri Lanka’s tuskers would be the It crowd. And August would be the pinnacle of their social calendar: in this month – give or take a few days – two of the most spectacular elephant gatherings in the world take place. I had invitations to both of them.
First stop: Kandy – a winsome lakeside city in Sri Lanka’s hill country, where a stream of tuktuks and clanking London buses weave past a strangely successful architectural mix of Buddhist classicism and chipped-round-the-edges Victoriana.
It was early afternoon when I fell out of a tuktuk into the heart of Kandy – and what appeared to be backstage at the mother of all pantomimes. The city was in the throes of the Esala Perahera, Sri Lanka’s most flamboyant festival during which the sacred relic of the Buddha’s tooth – or a replica of it, at least – is paraded through the streets for ten consecutive nights, along with an excitable retinue of bendy acrobats, fire-twirlers, histrionic dancers and up to 100 bejewelled elephants.
Preparations were in full swing for that night’s spectacle. Lanterns were stacked up ready to be filled with burning coconut husks; small boys practised routines on the clipped lawns; somewhere a cacophony of instruments was being tuned (or perhaps that was how they were meant to sound...). Inside the Temple of the Tooth itself, a faintly baffled guy sat amidst a mountain of enormous velvet blankets (elephant costumes), trying to work out who was wearing what.
And then there were the elephants themselves. They were everywhere. Kandy was literally packed with pachyderms: munching on stringy bark by the lake; parked up on roadsides; chasing tuktuks; cooling off among the spray and cherubs of a grandiose Victorian fountain.
Several hours later, night had fallen and it was as if someone had flicked a switch. The genteel charm and quiet anticipation of the afternoon had vanished. The pavements were now a sea of Sri Lankans jostling for space. Horns blared, trumpets bellowed, babies shrieked, monks muttered. A throng of small boys kitted out in blue shorts and ‘Panadol’-emblazoned caps handed out cups of water and packets of tablets. I picked my way through the crush of nut-brown bodies and scarlet saris, jumping over magnificent-looking picnics and through clouds of incense to find my seat.
As all good parties should, it started with a bang. A loud one. Followed by a fusillade of ear-drum-bursting snaps that sounded like God was throwing firecrackers at us. My ears were going to have to get used to the onslaught – for the next two and a half hours it didn’t stop. Not for a second.
Indeed, watching the perahera physically hurts. Your eyes sting from the smoky lanterns. The choking fumes of kerosene catch in your throat as the fire-dancers twirl their flames. Your head pounds with the pulse of 100 wild-eyed drummers, the caterwaul of countless snake-shaped bugles (yes, they really are meant to sound that bad), and the whoops of the demented dancers whose job it is to summon the evil spirits and keep them away from the sacred relics.
Among it all strolled the elephants, stars of the show, in their ridiculous finery. Decked out in capes lined with twinkling fairy lights, most strutted down the street with all the gravitas of a couture model trying to look beautiful in a dress made of Coke cans, when inside she knows she looks absurd. Others didn’t take it that seriously, waving their trunks excitedly and relieving themselves mid-parade, sending a torrent of elephant pee into a horrified portion of the crowd. Towering above the others, the honoured Maligawa Tusker sauntered past carrying the sacred relic in its casket blinking with pink lights, along with a small man in white with a comedy-curled moustache, puffed sleeves and a golden parasol.
Spectacular doesn’t even come close. The perahera isn’t a joyful celebration like Rio’s Carnaval or Mardi Gras. It’s dark and disturbing – aggressive, even – but with moments of pure kitsch delight that even Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen couldn’t have dreamed of. By the end my eyes were streaming, my head was crying out for some of those Panadol and I felt physically exhausted. It was time for some respite.
The next day I was walking down an altogether different processional route. Small white flags lined the sandy track and every so often I passed a small poster glued to a tree trunk showing a grainy photo of an old man who had died. The funeral party had long since passed by, but there was still a sense of peace and contemplation in the air as the evening sun cast long shadows across the valley floor.
I was in the up-and-down landscape of the Knuckles Range, a clenched-fist crumple of hazy blue mountains to the east of Kandy. It’s the hill country’s last great wilderness – Unesco has designated the areas above 1,000m a Conservation Area in a bid to save them from deforestation. Apart from the occasional village, the Knuckles is an untouched tangle of trees – this is the only place in Sri Lanka where you can see every different type of forest, from the dry zone slopes through montane areas to the waterfalls and lush dripping foliage of cloudforest. Unsurprisingly, the variety of wildlife in the area is just as impressive.
“I have seen 40 species of birds before, just walking along that short path,” said my guide, Dami, pointing towards a shady track as we gazed out from our campsite that evening. The sky was glowing a gentle pink and heavy mist was pouring down the valley like dry ice in an 80s pop video.
“This is one of my favourite places in Sri Lanka,” Dami continued. “It might not have the big game of Yala National Park – but then it doesn’t have the tourists, either.”
He was right. Since leaving Kandy, we’d seen only local villagers. With its rugged hills and undiscovered beauty, the Knuckles is a trekker’s delight although, with scant infrastructure, it’s not the easiest place to explore.
This became clear the next morning when we found ourselves thrashing through 2m-tall grass. For the fifth time that day, the path had petered out into nothing and we were relying on Dami’s sense of direction. Ironically, the creation of the Knuckles Conservation Area has meant that the tracks once used repeatedly by the locals who harvested the cardamom here have quickly become overgrown, and exploring the region is trickier than it was before. In time, Dami felt sure that a proper network of trails would be maintained. In the meantime, you need a guide.
And so, with my human compass leading the way, I strode past rippling fields of silvery lemongrass and showy flame trees as Dami introduced me to a never-ending list of the local inhabitants – paddy field pippets, greater coucals, tree nymphs, a black eagle, hill-mynas and white-eyes.
Our route took us through all of the forest zones, each one so clearly defined that it was like walking through the different domes of the Eden Project. We applied sunscreen, pulled on waterproofs, took them off again, put up an umbrella – first to protect from the rain, then from the beating sun – all in a matter of minutes.
We sheltered from the third sudden downpour in the courtyard of an old, abandoned cardamom estate where the air was still heavy with the sweet spice.
“This was one of the most famous estates,” said Dami. “The whole region was a huge producer of cardamom, but the forest environment suffered hugely as a result.”
He explained how cardamom is planted on the forest floor. When it’s harvested, everything is cleared – not just the cardamom itself, but the entire undergrowth of the forest, drastically affecting regeneration in the process. Cardamom cultivation and slash-and-burn agriculture is now banned in the Conservation Area. Providing alternatives to the locals who relied upon the estates for work has been a key priority for the Forestry Department, which now controls this area.
The rain passed, and Dami nodded up the steep hillside behind us where the old cardamom plants were flourishing untended. He looked doubtful for a moment: “I don’t suppose you’ve got any leech socks in that rucksack of yours?” he asked. Not a little smugly, I whipped some out and spent the next ten minutes rolling down sleeves, pulling up socks and tucking in trousers. I was going to be a tough customer for these leeches.
But hell, they tried their best. I must have been the first trekker they’d seen for a long time – these were some seriously determined parasites. For the next two hours I marched as quickly as I could through the undergrowth, large, wet cardamom leaves slapping my face and thorns snagging my clothes, hungry leeches flipping through the air like pole-vaulters in my wake.
Back at camp, I picked the last shrivelled stragglers from my boots as Dami and the crew fired up the large barbecue. As darkness fell over the ethereal Knuckles, small beacons started to be lit around the valley. Dami hurried past with a lantern on a pole and planted it firmly outside my tent.
“Elephants,” he muttered. “There’s a herd around tonight. The villagers have warned us.”
I lay in my tent that night, ears peeled for ripping branches and trampling undergrowth. But the only ripping sound I heard was the sound of my flysheet being torn to shreds in an unseasonably strong gale. I woke the next morning to find my tent collapsed around me like an underdone soufflé, and an elephant-free camp – although the huge pile of fresh droppings just down the road suggested they’d come close.
To be guaranteed a viewing of Sri Lanka’s wild elephant population I needed to head north, to Minneriya National Park, venue for the second event in my social diary. This was to be a bit special – a natural assembly of up to 300 elephants that congregate around the shores of Minneriya Tank in the dry season to bathe, drink and feast on the emerald grass around its edge. Known simply as The Gathering, this is the largest congregation of wild Asian elephants in the world – yet hardly anyone knows about it.
The sun’s heat was waning as we headed out into the park, the dry, crunchy undergrowth and deep-red earth a sharp contrast to the lush greens of the Knuckles. Nadeera, a softly spoken naturalist, sat next to me in the jeep as we bumped along. “There’s no point getting here earlier,” he explained. “It’s only in the cool of the evening that the elephants come out from the shade of the jungle.”
As we chugged out of the forest, Minneriya Tank appeared before us, a shining mirror that glinted out into horizon so I couldn’t tell where lake finished and golden plains began.
A fish eagle rode the thermals above the water, scanning for food, while a small mongoose darted across the grass between the myriad mounds of… yes, there it was… elephant dung.
It peppered the plains like the world’s worst molehill problem and there, in its midst, plodded its makers – a solemn but beautiful band of grey walking slowly towards the lake like giant iron filings being drawn to a magnet. Splashes of white danced between their legs – opportunistic egrets trying to catch the cloud of insects being kicked up by the herd.
“Can you make out the different families?” asked Nadeera. We drove a bit closer and cut the engine. What had seemed like one giant group from a distance was actually made up of smaller family units, each with its own youngsters, mothers and dominating matriarch.
The more I watched, the more I noticed – playful teenagers bumping into the legs of their elders; stroppy eles lying down on the ground and refusing to budge; the tiny newborn, not more than a month-old, surrounded by its mother and aunts like a diminutive pop star and her huge bodyguards. Even through binoculars I could only catch glimpses of her, but in a rare moment of clarity, I watched as the other adults gave the mother and child some space and it started to suckle.
As the herd edged into the water, a lone bull emerged from the forest and wandered towards them. He looked edgy and skittish, hormones dribbling down its face. “He’s in musth,” said Nadeera as we reversed out of his way. One of the other jeeps wasn’t so sensible and provoked a spirited charge that could have turned nasty. Instead, the bull veered off at the last second and flounced into the lake where he swam out to an island, trunk held aloft like a snorkel, to take the elephant equivalent of a cold shower.
Oblivious to the drama, the main herd sauntered on along the carpet of fresh grass shoots as the remaining shafts of sunlight cast their glow between the blue hills on the horizon. For all the glitz and drama of the Esala Perahera, this was how elephants were meant to be. It couldn’t have been more beautiful – and not a fairy light or a golden tusk between them.
The author travelled with Boutique Sri Lanka, specialists in tailormade itineraries and characterful accommodation from eco-lodges to heritage homes. They offer a ten-day trip, including the Esala Perahera, luxury camping in the Knuckles, the Gathering and the Cultural Triangle’s ancient cities.