Explore post-civil war Sri Lanka, a lush haven for some 6,000 wild elephants.
Sri Lanka's pachyderm paradise
At dusk, the giants came, crashing through the jungle. But, as always, the cooks and waiters were ready for them, with saucepans and whistles. After a brief exchange of trumping and hooting, there was a splintering of trees, the beasts fell back and the lodge fell silent.
"Elephants," said the cook. "They know the game."
Across central Sri Lanka, similar scenes are played out each night. During our two weeks, almost everywhere we went was designated "area of human-elephant conflict". Two years after the end of the 26-year civil war, it's almost as if old front lines have reformed. With 70 per cent of the wild elephants living outside national parks, they are in constant competition with farmers for the country's rice crop. Around Habarana, the farmers even build watch-huts high in the trees. One night, I persuaded a farmer, called Mohathun, to show me his tree house. It had room for three farmers and a cosy hearth. "Once we sang to scare off the elephants," said Mohathun, "but now we use fireworks."
For me, this uneasy coexistence of man and elephants is fascinating. But even more remarkable is that such creatures exist here at all. Sri Lanka is slightly smaller than the UAE, and yet it manages to support not only big cats but also more than 6,000 wild elephants. How does it do it?
The answer, I now realise, has much to do with the island's shape, like a planter's hat. Around the coast, we found ourselves on a brim of low flat plains, of paddy fields and palms. But towards the centre, an enormous hump of rock appeared, about twice the size of Qatar and more than 2,100 metres tall. When the clouds off the Indian Ocean hit this, they turn to rain, creating vast rivers. Humans have been fighting over the greenery for centuries, beginning with the Sinhalese invaders (around 2500 BC), followed by the Tamils (around 200 BC). Animals like the forest too, and they have flourished.
It's said that, with the war over, they're flourishing all over again. This intrigued me and so, with my wife, Jayne, we set off on our tour. We began - as the Sinhalese had - on the north-east plains. It's a hot, flat world of paddy and scrub. Here, at about the time of the Roman Empire, the Sinhalese collected their precious water in enormous reservoirs. It's on these "tanks" that life gathers, in a blaze of feathers: ibises, cormorants, fish eagles, and those little blue sparks of static, kingfishers. We'd spend hours on the tanks. Sometimes I even plunged in, sending a wave of horrified frogs bouncing over the lilies.
Nowadays, humans make little impression on this vast wild landscape. Even our hotels were tactfully unobtrusive. One place - perhaps my favourite - the Galkadawala Forest Lodge, was open to the jungle, so you could lie in bed watching the monkeys over morning tea. Another lodge, The Mudhouse, was made entirely from clay and sticks, and yet was curiously chic. As elsewhere, every evening brought a feast of unfamiliar dishes: roti (coconut pancakes), string hoppers (rice noodles), and sumptuous forest-flavoured curries.
The local architecture hadn't always been so modest. Several thousand years ago, these plains supported two of the world's greatest cities: Anuradhapuru and Pollonaruwa. Here are vast suburbs of plinths, temples and canals; a stupa, comprising 100 million bricks (once surpassed in size only by the pyramids of Giza); and the oldest tree in the world, now in its 23rd century. But, best of all, there's Sigiriya, a fortress, dated 477BC, perched on a pillar of granite. Even a booby-trap has survived, ready to drop several tonnes of rock on the unwary intruder.
I doubt the animals have ever been impressed by these cities. Civilisation has, however, left them a vital amenity: the Minneriya Tank. Big enough to swallow a large town, it survives the annual drought. Over the last 2,000 years, this tank has become a rallying point for elephants, known as "The Gathering". On the day of our visit, they were arriving by the herd. I hate to describe animals as looking "happy" or "sad" but these beasts seemed overjoyed. Huge groups, totalling more than 200, danced around, flapping their ears and waving their trunks. This is as near as elephants get to holding a shindig.
But, of course, life isn't always a beach party. In the squabble with humankind, plenty of elephants get hurt. The victims of this struggle sometimes end up at the Pinnawala sanctuary. Here, among the 90 orphans and amputees, all seemed forgiven. One mother even let Jayne bottle-feed her calf. I was surprised how fluffy it was, like an outsized chick. Another elephant had lost a foot to a landmine. For the wildlife, the end of the war could not have come to soon either.
Continuing south, the land buckled and rose for the Central Highlands. It was cooler now, and this seemed to energise the flora. Everything seemed to grow bigger here, and in mind-boggling colour. At the Peradeniya Botanical Gardens, the bamboo grows as thick as your waist, and 40 metres tall. Sadly, we were too late for the world's biggest tree, a giant Java fig. It was now just a stump, but another was on its way. Just standing beneath it is like being in front of the stage in a theatre.
In the highland city, Kandy, the animals too were different. Huge black fruit bats hung in the trees like bundles of laundry. We only saw one elephant. After a life spent carrying the city's holiest relic (Lord Buddha's tooth), "Raja" had been reverentially stuffed. I loved the museum dedicated to him and the complex of palaces. Every now and then a group of monkeys would burst in, looting the flowers. My favourite find was a book 2.5cm tall, containing "five hundred stories".
After Kandy, the road rose again, and we found ourselves surrounded by tea. Churches appeared, and a luminously green golf course at 1,800 metres. Up on the misty Horton Plains, the planters had recreated the Scottish moors, introducing bracken and gorse. Some of their game had survived too: the sambar deer. It was odd seeing this monarch of the tropical glen against a backdrop of dwarf bamboo and woolly monkeys.
After the highlands, we descended to the south coast. During the war, it had been crammed with hotels, away from the action, and then came the great tsunami of 2004. But parts of it are extravagantly beautiful, like Tangalle, with its wild headlands, and the sleepy, old fort at Galle. I like the idea that you can sit here, in the former Dutch barracks (now the Amangalla hotel), enjoying much the same view as officers had in 1684.
But, when it comes to wildlife, the greatest treat of all lies farther west, at Yala. Here the ribbon development slams to a halt, and a vast park opens up, 64 kilometres deep. A mixture of rock, wetland and thorn, this wilderness runs straight into the sea. For years, it was all off limits as rebels took to the caves, torching what they could. Now life has returned, larger than ever; rafts of marsh crocodiles; great pink chorus lines of spoonbills and storks; mongooses by the slinky dozen; another 450 elephants, and the greatest concentration of leopards in the world. These were unforgettable days, camping, dipping in the river, and pottering around in jeeps.
Best of all were the leopard moments. We spotted five in all, lolling in the branches. Their expression was familiar, and seemed to mirror my own feelings for the journey we'd done: sheer pleasure and just a hint of perplexity.
John Gimlette is the author of Wild Coast; Travels on South America's Untamed Edge (Profile £15; Dh86).
If You Go
The flight Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) offers direct flights to Colombo from Abu Dhabi from Dh1,120 return, including taxes
The tour TransIndus (00 44 8566 2729; www.transindus.co.uk) offers a 12-night package combining the north-east plains, the Central Highlands and South Coast from £1,415 (Dh8,105) per person, including accommodation, breakfast, chauffeur-driven transport and sightseeing, based on two sharing
The hotels In Colombo, try Casa Colombo, an old but now retro-chic mansion (0094 114 520 130; www.casacolombo.com; doubles from Dh834
On the north east plains, The Mudhouse, Anamaduwa, is a charming lodge with no electricity or gadgets (0094 77 301 6191; www.themudhouse.lk; Dh391 per person). The Galkadawala Forest Lodge, Habarana (www.galkadawala.com; doubles cost Dh230 a night, and dinner Dh23), an imaginative, three-room, cutaway building that's open to the forest
Near Sigiriya, there's Back of Beyond (0777 753975; www.backofbeyond.lk; doubles Dh345), a comfortable and stylish lodge set in three acres of jungle
In Kandy, stay at Kandy House (0094 81 492 1394; www.thekandyhouse.com; Doubles Dh863), a palatial mansion built in 1804 by a Kandyan noble. The dinner is international (prawn tempura, grilled fish, and Cambridge cream) and excellent value at Dh109 a head excluding drinks. For something ultra-modern try Theva Residency (081 7388 296; www.theva.lk; doubles Dh662. For dinner, try its sampling of 17 curries (one order is enough for two) at around Dh80
In the highlands, Warwick Bungalows, Ambewela (0094 60 253 2284; www.jetwinghotels.com) has doubles from Dh828 in a faithfully restored country house with crisp linen, log fires and modern comforts
On the south coast, there are two Aman hotels; the old Dutch barracks in Galle, the Amangalla (0094 91 223 3388; www.amanresorts.com; doubles Dh818), and its sister hotel, the minimalistic Amanwella (same website; Doubles Dh2,000), 20km away in Tangalle, offers access to a wild and picturesque private beach
More info See www.srilanka.travel