The field trip was a grueling, exhausting, productive, frustrating and eventful one ..all rolled up in one !!!
The main objective of the trip was to meet up with a senior ranger of the Dept. of wild life Conservation ( DWLC) who has reportedly heard about Raja. This was told to me by the park warden, Prasantha. So Dimitri and I decided to make the trip, to check this fairly reliable lead ourselves.
We arrived at base camp at UW, and climbed into our world war II vintage Defender, with the pint sized, but very experienced driver Kapila at the wheel, and set off eastwards along the main Thanamalwilla road towards the Mau-ara DWLC ‘beat’ office, where the ranger was waiting for us. We reached the turn off, and drove northwards into the park and collected Gunawardene, our guide for the day. He has had over 30 years’ experience in the Department, serving about 10 years in the Kalthota area ( north of UW). Like all experienced DWLC rangers he had many a story to tell, and kept us entertained right throughout the trip!
Since we had a DWLC official on board now, we were able to cut thro’ the UWNP, instead of going all the way around the eastern boundary. (see map in gallery). We had to ‘open up the electric fence ( by removing the insulated link of the fence) and get into the park. We traveled along the Mau-ara road and as we reached the park main road, lo and behold, we were confronted with some 30 odd elephants crossing the road. It was obviously about three herds who were together with about 5 juveniles.
We watched them for a while, and reluctantly moved on, since watching elephants inside the park was not our primary aim today. We traveled towards Pokunutenna, and passed the new bungalow that had been built there. It seemed a bit out of the way, and a long distance from the entrance. A little further, just at the border of the park boundary we came across a sad sight. It was a month old carcass of a dead mature elephant lying on its side. Gunawardene told us that it had died after sustaining gunshot injuries outside the park.
We once again ‘opened up’ the wire fence at the Pokunutenne ‘gate ‘ and moved out of the UWNP and drove along the narrow bund. We got on to the road coming from Hambegamuwa and passed Aluthwewe and proceeded northwards to Medabedda, which was close to Gunarwardene’s home, where he had heard of a tusker sighting. We spent a long while talking to the villagers in the area who were quite adamant that some elephants were habituating the area along with a tusker. We also visited the Kalthota DWLC office, and heard more about elephants in the Weli-oya area, with confident reports of two tuskers in the vicinity. The villagers wanted us to come and stay a night to try and spot the elephants.
We bought ourselves some rice and curry packets at a wayside boutique, and started off on our second leg of the journey, to Handagiriya. By now a thunderstorm had developed and the going was tough, compounded by the fact that the trusty old Defender had an apology for a set of wipers, and a tarpaulin cover that unloaded buckets of accumulated rainwater from the hood, each time the vehicle braked! So it was a soggy and rather motley crew that finally reached the Handagiriya DWLC office around 1.30 pm. The Senior ranger, Kaluaarachchi, was very happy to see us and in spite of the heavy rain, we decided to go into the park with him. It brightened our spirits because this was an area usually inaccessible to visitors.
Kaluaarachchi however warned us that the roads and culverts were being built , and therefore he was not sure as to what condition some areas would be in, given the heavy rain. The terrain was different, with the range of hills we normally see in the far horizon from the other side of the park, now very much closer. We could clearly see the Samanala -wewe power station penstock and the Diyawinni falls.
Very soon we saw our first elephant. It was interesting to note that they seemed to be very wary of us. Another herd we came across retreated into the bushes, while one individual charged at us without any warning whatsoever. It was very interesting to note this type of behaviour, which reminded me of the elephants in the UWNP in the late 1980’s. They were not acclimatized to humans and jeeps back then, and I recall it was always two options…’flight’ or ‘fight’! Toady however, a whole new generation of elephants have grown up within the park, and are much more tolerant to visitors. So we wondered whether these elephants on the northern side of the park, were maybe living more permanently in the region, judging by their behaviour towards us.
A while later we came across another carcass of a dead elephant again from gunshot injuries.
Then came the excitement. A rather large and steep culvert had to be negotiated to get across. Everyone was keen to give it a try, although it looked a tall order. So we all alighted form the Jeep, and Kapila started off slowly, negotiating first the steep decline and then the abrupt incline on very low gear. Just when we thought he had made it across, the wheels spun and he went into a skid, and very soon, was well and truly bogged down in the mud. No amount of revving on the 4 wheel drive, could budge the vehicle in the slimy mud. So it was all ‘shoulders to the wheel’, literary speaking, as we pushed the jeep, slipping and sliding all over.
With a lot of effort we finally managed to get two wheels to grip, and the jeep growled over onto firmer terrain. Soaked in rain and caked in mud, we got back but, alas could not proceed much further as the second culvert was much more ‘deadly’ than the first. So we decided to give up, and reluctantly and turned around and returned. The negotiation of culvert no 1 on the return was less eventful, although we did get bogged down again, but with much less complications this time.
We reached back to the Handagiriya office around 3 pm, and managed to wash some of the mud away, and dug into lunch packets…..and boy oh boy! …didn’t those simple village lunch packets taste good? Under the shade of a tree, to our famished and tired team, it tasted better than any 5 star hotel meal!!
We rested for a while, and set off back again on the long journey back . We decided to take another route along a narrow bund, passing some spectacular scenery and soon arrived at the Pokunutenne entrance. We drove back along the main road of the park eager to get back to base camp soon.
But as always, UWNP never fails to deliver. By the side of the main road, we saw a herd with juveniles mud bathing and having a good time after the heavy rains. We watched their antics, as one elephant rolled over another, in blissful happiness. We marveled at what we were seeing, and were thankful that we were a part of it. Even the ‘ battle hardened’ Gunawradene, who has possibly had ‘seen it all’, was also in awe.
Again we reluctantly wrenched ourselves away from the wonderful scene, and in the fast receding light drove back via Mau-Ara , dropping off Gunawardene. A hot water bath, cool beer, and a scrumptious Chinese cuisine at Kinjou Safari Village brought the wonderful day to a close.
Our thanks must go out to the Director Wild life, Mr Ananada Wijesooriya, who wholeheartedly supported our endevours, and gave us permission to access the park. Also UWNP warden Mr Prasantha was most helpful in arranging Gunwardene to accompany us. The Chief Vet at UWNP , Dr Vijitha also called me to extend his support. So I am glad that there is so much support and enthusiasm being extended from all sources.
However the frustrating part of the trip was the total breakdown of the communication system. Although Dr Hans Wijesuriya, CEO, and Viranga Seniviratne of Dialog tried their best, we had very poor coverage in the northern side where we travelled. Quite apart from uploading stuff via the wireless modems given to us free by Dialog, we were even unable to make voice contact with base camp- a serious problem which will warrant total re-thinking of our entire IT/communication strategy.