“See!? Only driver recommended by Lonely Planet,” VJ said smiling at us over our milky tea.
He proudly presented a crumpled photocopy of a page from the 2015 travellers companion.
We haggled a little and agreed on a price for the 200km journey south as long as he took the B35 road through Yala National Park.
“Aaah…you want to see elephant?” he smirked confidently. “I show you”.
Folding like napkins
Our destination was the small beach town of Mirissa on Sri Lanka’s south coast.
After spending 4 days sunning on the beach and failing to surf we wanted to get active again. We’d read about blue whale watching in Mirissa so thought we’d head there on the way to Galle.
The train tracks haven’t yet reached the east of the island so to get south using public transport meant heading to Monaragala where you can catch a bus pretty much anywhere on the island.
At the bus stop we were approached by a few different tuk-tuk drivers (as is usually the case) all curious to know where we were from and where we were headed.
Usually we put up a solid front of resistance but VJ penetrated that with his kind eyes and semi-believable Lonely Planet shtick.
We also had decided to skip a proper Yala Safari because of stories of overcrowding and our experience at the stunning Gal Oya National Park.
Stocking up on fruit and roti for the journey we hit the road in VJ’s blue beast. The engine rasps beneath us and the sweet smell of rain on hot Tarmac leaves us behind as the clouds start to break.
After about 45 minutes we reach the northern entrance to Yala section IV. A colourful road sign of a mother elephant with her baby reads “drive slow to keep me alive”.
On either side of the road a thick mass of jungle with the odd opening and discarded waste.
The road is new and seems like a foreign object here. Stretching out like a thick line of lead between the emerald wildness.
“Oh my god!” Hannah points ahead as I’m scanning the bushes on our left. “It’s an elephant!”.
Directly in front of us, in the middle of the road was a giant, grey elephant. He stood confidently as mopeds and buses dodged his presence and flung handfuls of fruit in his direction.
Apples and oranges
VJ turned around and beamed, happy that he hadn’t let down his international reputation.
“You got any food?” He asked as me and Hannah started fumbling for the SLR.
“Yeah. We’ve got apples and oranges,” I answered. “Shall I roll them over?”
“No oranges, just apples and hold on to them, we’ll feed him from the car,” VJ said as he started up our makeshift safari jeep.
With heart rates increasing and stories of wild elephant deaths racing through my mind we ambled towards the apathetic looking, apparently picky giant.
As we pulled up next to him his fumbling trunk felt it’s way around the vehicle to Hannah’s out reached, Granny Smith holding hand.
We giggled like school kids as he took both our apples and raised them gracefully to his mouth.
We moved on and watched him from afar and felt privileged to be in his company. As one of the roughly 600 wild elephants that inhabits Yala park, he was a beauty.
We folded ourselves back into the rickshaw and the safari continued.
Stopping occasionally to startle families of white spotted deer, jungle fowl and peacocks. We also managed to get a couple of photos of two of the angriest looking buffalo.
After 30 minutes though we were at what seemed to be the main entrance to the park.
The wild jungle had now made way to guest houses and restaurants.
VJ continued to rev the accelerator and we left the wildness behind.