That darn alarm clock goes off at 4:30 this morning, and I wonder if we shouldn’t have listened to Raj when he advised us it would be better to take the afternoon safari in Minneriya. Naw, getting places early means you will beat the throngs of tourists who laze around in bed, and come to the sites at a sensible hour. I’d rather stumble around before dawn, putting my shirt on inside out, than compete with dozens of vehicles full of tourists. Seriously, I am all for getting to sites as soon as they are open for business.
Raj drives us to the company headquarters, that will be guiding us on our safari this morning. Raj must honk the horn a few times outside the wooden gate, before a young man runs out to unlock and open the gate, allowing us to drive onto the property. Paul and I jump into the back of the open top jeep where I manage to crack my head on the iron frame that holds the canvas roof in place. Ouch, at least I’m awake now.
When we reach the headquarters of Minneriya National Park, we note with satisfaction there is no other safari vehicle in the parking lot. There also are no lights on in the main building. Our young driver disappears and eventually returns with our tracker, a very small man who doesn’t speak a word of English. The dawn is just beginning to break when we drive into Minneriya.
As in Wilpattu, we are driving dirt roads with thick forest on either side. We haven’t gone far when the jeep comes to a halt. Our driver points out two huge elephants among the trees, browsing on the vegetation. He tells us that we are lucky to see elephants as normally they only see the beasts on their afternoon game drives! Here I thought Raj just didn’t want to get up this early. As we watch the elephants in the dim light the trumpet of an elephant rings through the air. Our two guides seem to be quite excited on hearing this elephant announcement, so off we go in search of the trumpeter. We hear the elephant give a loud blast of sound one more time, which sends us off in another direction, but we never find the noisy pachyderm.
I soon forget the elephants, when we approach the enormous lake in the park. There are an insane number of water birds. We drive by a small pool of water where the painted storks, spoonbills, and egrets all vie for a spot in the water. The Malayan Night Herons are roosting for the day, landing in leafy bushes that grow from the bank of the creek. I quit counting at fifty birds. Holy Smokes! As we near the edge of the lake, the sun is coming up giving us a beautiful sunrise to watch. In the distance is a large herd of water buffalo, which our driver points out to us, but he has no intention of driving near the herd. He tells us that water buffalo are very mean and will charge a vehicle without warning. No problem I can see them through the binoculars.
Later in the morning we reach the area where tourists can disembark from the vehicles, and we are ready to eat our breakfast. Our driver hands us two parcels of food, and when we open the boxes, Paul and I just shake our heads. The boiled eggs, sandwiches, fruits, etc. in one box is enough food for both of us. I stand up, call out to our guides who are walking away, and offer them the second plate of food. Our driver shakes his head no, but the tracker has no qualms about accepting the breakfast plate. I’m fairly sure that the food was divvied up with some guides whose tourists are eating here too. The only problem with the parks “walk around zone” is there are no restrooms. Paul stands guard as I visit the “designated bathroom” area in the middle of a clump of trees. Oh well, it’s not like I haven’t been in these conditions numerous times on other trips.
After breakfast we walk along the edge of the lake where we watch a langur monkey sitting in a tree, who stares at us just as curiously. These monkeys are much more appealing, in my opinion, than the macaque monkeys. First of all, the langurs aren’t aggressive, and secondly their features are more interesting. We observe some colorful sunbirds sipping nectar among the wildflowers too.
Once we are back in the jeep, we continue driving around the lake. We see a Brahminy Kite sitting in a dead tree, a big fish gripped in his talons. The kite hoists itself into the air as we draw near, and somehow manages to fly, while carrying that large fish. Our driver spots a chameleon on the trunk of a tree. We watch the dull-witted appearing creature, occasionally eat an ant that is crawling under its nose. A mongoose, with a baby that presses tight to mom’s side, is walking in the road. The mother mongoose occasionally stands on her hind legs scouting for danger. For some reason the sight of the vulnerable baby mongoose really touches me, esp. considering all the raptors we have seen this morning. Good luck little guy!
A cantankerous water buffalo is coming to drink at the lake, and although our driver stops the vehicle, he never turns the motor off. The bull stops every few steps, paws the ground, and throws his head from side to side. The ill-tempered buffalo looks our direction several times, but finally continues to the lake, and wades into the water. The silhouette of the water buffalo, lake, and the mountains which are shrouded in a haze, makes for a beautiful sight.
As we start back through the jungle, our tracker, using the small stone he carries in his hand, raps on the metal frame of the truck bed roof. This sound carries up to the driver who quickly comes to a halt. Just an aside to this story, the tracker would often bang the rock on the metal even though our driver had seen the animal/bird and had already stopped the truck. Paul and I found this hilarious. Anyway, this time our guide has spotted some purple-faced monkeys, rare and tough to see, in the treetops. I barely caught a glimpse of the secretive primates before they disappeared into the jungle, so I can’t claim I really saw the monkey’s clearly.
It is time to head back to the headquarters but on our way we come across a group of elephants feeding in the thick understory. The herd consists of six elephants which includes two youngsters. We hear but don’t see, more elephants feeding all around in the jungle. The crack of the limbs or small trees they are breaking down sound like rifle shots. We sit and watch the small group of elephants for some time in hopes they will cross the road in front of us, but they never do. We do catch a glimpse of one of the youngsters as he steps into the gap between two trees to take a look at us.
It seems the morning is gone already so we must leave Minneriya and all its beauty. I must comment on the enthusiasm of our driver whose name I can’t recall. I usually am the one to ooh and ahh over a colorful bird or about any wild thing as far as that goes. On our safari today, this young man often beat me to voicing these admiring sound as we observe wildlife. He would be oohing over bee eaters or kingfisher’s right along with me, so we made quite a duo. I hope he continues to be awed every day by the wonderful wildlife he gets to experience in his work.
We find a bored Raj waiting for us when we return to the safari tour headquarters. Raj now will transport us to Polonnaruwa, a 10th century ruin, which is also a Unesco Word Heritage Site. These ruins sprawl over a large area so Raj must drive us from place to place. Raj accompanies us at our first stop, but after that he opts to stay with the car. The ruins are magnificent, and as always, I am at a loss to imagine how the people built such structures in these ancient times.
I won’t even try to describe the ruins we saw including palaces, temples, stupas, a hospital, and countless other structures. Many are being restored, some only have walls or pillars left standing, but they were still inspiring to see. Paul and I just wander among the ancient ruins soaking it all in.
My favorite site in Polonnaruwa was Gal Vihara, where larger than life statues of Buddha are carved out of stone. The Buddha’s are all carved out of one rock ledge which makes the site even more spectacular. The natural hues in the rock add to the beauty of the sculptures. To put the statues in perspective the sitting Buddha is 15 feet high, the standing Buddha is 23 feet tall, and the reclining Buddha is 43 foot long. There is also a cave carved into the rock, where a Buddha sits on a throne. Standing there, gazing at these works of art made me feel quite humble.
It is midafternoon, very hot and we haven’t eaten lunch yet. We make our way back to Raj and the car, ready to leave the ancient city behind. Raj pointed out the restaurant we are going to dine at this morning while we were driving to the ruins. The highway has plenty of traffic and I try not to watch as the two land road often becomes a three lane road. Drivers who want to pass a slower vehicle, just go ahead and do so, regardless if another car is approaching. The two legal cars move over , while the passing vehicle continues down the middle of the road, until they can move back into their real lane. Geez Louise! I am better at handling this than I was a few days ago but still a gasp will escape my lips now and then.
Raj begins to slow the car down and I see the ox cart that sets in front of the restaurant we are dining at. I lean over to gather my camera and purse, as Raj begins to turn the car into the entrance. Suddenly, Raj slams on his brakes and I hear a soft thud. When I look up, I see two men leaning against the front of the car. The older man is wearing a gray hat with ear flaps that is now slightly askew on his head. The driver has a scarf wrapped, turban style around his head, and he is glaring at us through the windshield. It suddenly dawns on me that they are astride a motorcycle , and we have run into them.
Raj gets out of the car, and we are wondering what to do. We were turning across traffic, so our car is blocking the oncoming lane of traffic, while the rear end of the car is protruding part way into the other lane. I want the heck out of the car, but am nervous about stepping onto the highway. Pedestrians don’t get much respect in Sri Lanka.
A group of people soon assemble and help the two riders off the cycle, then roll the ancient machine away from our car. This allows Raj to drive into the restaurant lot and park. I assume that Raj will go back and talk with the motorcycle men, who appear to be fine, but he doesn’t. Raj inspects the area on the front bumper where we collided with the cycle, which is now scraped free of paint. There seems to be no other damage to his car which is good, but his disregard for the two men bothers me.
An excited Raj tells Paul that he had his turn signal on, and asks Paul if he noticed that he had used his blinker. Paul answers in the affirmative, figuring this is not the time to point out to Raj, that he turned across traffic in front of those poor fellows. No policemen are called, so Paul and I assume neither party involved in the accident, wants to deal with the authorities. As we walk to the restaurant, I glance back to see the two men climb on the cycle, and drive off. I think my heart continued to pound all through lunch after this little incident!
Returning to Wild Grass was just what the doctor ordered. We relax on our patio and consume our supper of bread, cheese, Pringle’s, and beer. Even now, I can clearly see that little old man, in his rearranged hat, peering with bewilderment at us.
Next installment Sigiriya and St. John’s Bungalow.