Today I had another al fresco breakfast and then explored one last set of ruins – the Southern Island Group – that were just next to my hotel. This group gets very few visitors, and apart from some staff from the Archaeological Society and some cows, I was completely alone. These ruins are free to visit, and are less well preserved than in the main site, but make up for this with the peaceful lakeside location. My favourite was the king’s audience chamber, with its throne in the form of a lion.
Now it was time to leave Polonnaruwa to make the short drive to Sigiriya. On the way we passed some semi-wild giant monitor lizards. An enterprising local feeds them fish and up to twelve giant lizards are attracted out of the jungle to get their free food; he then gets money from passing tourists if they stop to take photos – as I did.
In Sigiriya, I had booked a simple guest house, which turned out to be hidden in the jungle. It was the sort of place whose owners have suffered badly during recent years – first Covid, and now the economic and fuel crisis meant that for three years very few tourists have visited Sri Lanka. In the midday sun it was pleasant relaxing outside, and I felt good about supporting a small local business.
Soon though I was on my way again. I had booked a safari in nearby Kaudallah national park. Lots of wild elephants live in the surrounding jungle, but in dry season (which this was supposed to be….although it had rained heavily every day) they are attracted to a large lake as other sources of water dry up – an event known as “the Gathering”. A jeep came to fetch me with a new guide – a safari specialist. After the park entrance, we drove for about a kilometre along a track through thick jungle, which eventually opened out onto the lake. Sure enough, we soon saw a family of elephants……..and five other jeeps. Fortunately for us, the drop in tourist numbers meant that we did not have too much human company and each jeep’s group could enjoy filming elephants more or less undisturbed by the others. I took lots of pictures and videos, especially of this family, which had a cute week-old baby elephant.
The herds consist only of females and children; male elephants leave the group and live alone once they reach adolescence. We enjoyed watching elephants spraying dirt on to their skin, elephants wading into the lake to drink….and this couple doing something strange to the grass with their feet and trunks.
We also saw lots of different types of birds – too hard to photograph with the zoom of my phone camera though. We continued our drive around the lake, and met up with a much bigger group of around 25 elephants.
As you can see from the photograph, the sky was now getting very dark. Sure enough, heavy tropical rain began to fall and my guide rushed to secure the waterproof flaps on the jeep’s roof and sides. We drove back in another tropical thunderstorm, and arrived in the early evening to find our hotel bathed in darkness – the electricity had been cut due to the fuel shortages. Most places in Sri Lanka have two power cuts per day, each lasting roughly two hours. There is a web site that can be used to check when the outages should happen, but I did not find it to be very accurate. Top end hotels have back up generators, and use them, so the power cuts are not problem there. Mid-range hotels like the one I had booked in Nilaveli have generators too but some choose to use them only in the evening, when light is needed; fuel is too expensive to justify using for the afternoon. Cheaper hotels either have no generator or no fuel to run one with. The basic amenities of our simple guesthouse seemed very pleasant during the light of day, with power available to charge our phones and computers. As night fell, sitting in the dark in the jungle listening to the incessant rain was much less appealing. The hotel owner gave me a lift to a nearby restaurant (with generator) and I spent the rest of the evening there. I took my time over dinner (another curry feast) – there was nothing else to do.