We headed straight to Horathapola Estate to rest before our grand tour. Horathapola is a working coconut farm with just a few pretty bedrooms, two of which share a private terrace and are ideal for larger families. You feel as if you were invited into the intimacy of a wealthy Sri Lankan family. Walls adorned with black and white portraits of the founding great-grand-father and his family. He bought the land from a British man in the 1930’s and grew it successfully to one of the largest coconut plantations around. Dark woods, pretty tiles, beautiful beddings on four poster beds, a welcoming breeze and a pleasant swimming pool near the oldest frangipani tree in the country. We had our first feast that night with curries, rice, papadom, rotis… you name it. At sunset, the ox carriage took us around the plantation: fresh coconuts picked for us, peppercorns, cashew nuts .. a warm and soft introduction to the two weeks ahead. I am told that there is also a good alternative closer to the airport called the Wallawwa Hotel.
At dawn the next day, we drove 3h North East to the non-profit organization Elephant Freedom Project. I found it after doing a bit of research on how to spend time with elephants in captivity in a responsible way. Our trip in Thailand had taught me a lot about the sufferings of elephants used for riding (and tigers used for cuddling etc..) We discussed it with the children and agreed that we should stay away from those riding places, including the famous Pinnalawa Orphanage and its poor record of caring for its elephants. On that note, Responsible Travel is an excellent source of information. The aim of the EFP is to care for the two elephants that they are renting, and to give them happier living conditions. Seetha and Rajha used to be respectively a logger and a rider. Today, they spend their time walking in the nearby jungle, getting a shower from the visiting children, bathing in the river, and pooing all over.. I am not convinced that they get their 20km a day walks or the 30kg of food daily, but I am sure that they have a much better life than when they were forced to work under the threat of the metal hooks. A day at the project is a sweet way to take it slowly with the elephants, participate in the many chores of the mahout, and prepare your own lunch under the guidance of the Sri Lankan family on site.
From there, we drove straight to Sigirya in the heart of the cultural triangle, making sure that we would arrive before dawn at our next base, Dehiga Ella. Sumudu, who handles the bookings for Back of Beyond, had warned me by email that wild elephants roam sometimes on the dirt road that leads to his property, but it’s not until we got there that I realised how secluded, how close to nature we were. We had our own beautiful treehouse, fully opened onto the jungle yet with a comfortable solar-paneled hot water bathroom on the ground floor. When we all tucked into bed that night (or shall I call it our mattress-on-the-floor-and-a-mosquito-net-above), the stars were out, the frogs were mating, and the fireflies were spreading their sweet dream wishes above us. Pure magic.
Our days were spent taking nature walks with Back of Beyond’s resident naturalist Kazum. He was a mine of information on top of being a wonderful cheerleader when the hikes got strenuous. Climbing to the top of Piturangala Rock with our little Lior literally rock climbing the last stretch will remain in the annals of our family.. Stuti Kazum!
I enjoyed the visits of the Dambulla caves filled with buddha statues. We marvelled at the history of the Sigirya Rock while we took on the 1h30 climb to the top (me pretending that I don’t suffer from vertigo in front of the children). Note: it’s important to get there very early i.e. 730/8am to avoid the crowds and the heat. The children did the dreamy thing of washing themselves – sort of – in the river that runs through Dehiga Ella, free and happy, while I kept an eye out for cobras and tarantulas (me? yeah right.. but Sri Lanka is the country with the highest rate of snake bites in the world!). Ps: did you know that tarantulas’ favorite hiding place is the hole of a fig tree trunk? And that it takes approximately 45′ to die from a cobra bite?! Well, now you know. But it won’t prevent you from visiting Sri Lanka, will it? Hope not.
And we had a very special meal at the local village, eating with our hands, as you should.
That’s when it was time to say thank you, good bye, and head south to the tea plantation region…
Good to know:
The manager / naturalist at Back of Beyond Dehiga Ella takes a few days off every so often to go visit his children and wife in Colombo, so it’s wise to time your visit accordingly. It’s a big plus to have him on site. Back of Beyond is a wonderfully spirited little hospitality group in Sri Lanka that came recommended by my friend Lis. It was founded by a Sri Lankan man passionate about nature conservation. Dehiga Ella is their most remote property, and perhaps the most special of them all.
We hired an official (white shirted) guide at the entrance of Sigiriya Rock, it was worth it as the history is fascinating. Also, there are huge wasp nests when you get to the top and they get aggressive at certain times of the year. Marcelo being allergic to bees and wasps bites, I was a bit concerned to have left my epipen in the van.. Ask your guide if it’s an OK time of the year to climb the last stretch of steps near the nests.