The sun beats down on our open safari jeep, thumping along a muddy track through Hurulu Eco Park in central Sri Lanka. Sporting big hats and a lather of sunscreen, we spot birds and lizards and take in lovely grassland vistas, but it takes a huge pungent pile of steaming elephant dung to really get us excited.
Within minutes, flapping their big, blue-grey ears, we spot our first Sri Lankan elephants: four magnificent mums coaxing bristly infants underfoot, grazing silently and patiently ignoring our close and inevitable rapture.
As the sun shifts slowly overhead, our expert local guide navigates on, detouring along unmarked trails and revving the jeep in and out of bogs. Elephants amble across our path, shepherding infants along invisible routes to join great grazing herds of 30 or more.
Standing head and shoulders above these matriarchal herds, one enormous male enters the scene, close enough for us to see the mating musk glistening on his cheeks in the afternoon sun. He dominates a ridgeline where females shift nervously about, then, to our amazement, the mating begins.
The brief, noisy scene lacks ceremony, but afterwards, when the females move on, they head straight for us: four mothers, a grandmother, and three tiny wrinkled infants. Closing the gap, bringing their remarkable features into clear view, the elephants hypnotise us until they are close enough to touch.
I spy our guide’s hand poised on the ignition and suddenly consider my three-year-old who is sitting just centimetres from the action, but the elephants’ gentle air is palpable and their silence reassuring. When they eventually shuffle on, leading their young into the towering grasslands, we climb a granite knoll and capture ourselves in beaming photographs with distant herds grazing in the golden hour before sunset.
The intimacy of that final encounter stays with us, but our plucky three-year-old has perhaps the most authentic experience of all, unaffected by our preconceptions about how special the elephants are, and simply enjoying their proximity as she would any wild creature.
I suspect this is true about all kids and animal safaris. While adults will happily wait around for the most distant glimpse of some rarely encountered species, children are more enthralled by pedestrian sightings of birds, monitor lizards or spotted deer; patient, entertaining creatures that hang around long enough for kids to enjoy them.
Covering more than 10,000 hectares in the heart of central Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle, Hurulu Eco Park was officially opened in 2008 on the edge of the much older and larger Hurulu Forest Reserve. When water levels at tanks in nearby Kaudulla and Minneriya National Parks are high, covering the tasty fresh pick that elephants love, the beasts move on, migrating to adjoining reserves such as Hurulu Eco Park, where they had congregated on our visit.
Although the elephants share Hurulu’s dry evergreen forests with endangered Sri Lankan leopards and rusty-spotted cats, they are undoubtedly the park’s biggest drawcard and what drives a popular safari business. From the town of Habarana, a 20-minute drive from the park’s entrance, open-top jeep safaris set out in the cool of the afternoon, spending three to four hours locating and observing the elephants.
The simplicity of this adventure – one jeep, one driver, and a prompt hotel pick-up – is matched only by its affordability. In all, our afternoon with the elephants, including jeep hire and park entry fees, set us back less than AUD$60 for three, a fraction of what you’d expect to pay in Sri Lanka’s more famous Yala National Park.
Despite its unmistakably shabby persona, Habarana makes a convenient base for adventures into Hurulu and neighbouring wild lands, including Sigiriya’s World Heritage-listed archaeological ruins located on the summit of an imposing, flat-topped mesa, and the sacred caves at Dambulla that house 2000-year-old Buddha relics and vast rock art canvases.
Ritigala Strict Nature Reserve
While in Habarana, don’t miss a half-day trip to nearby Ritigala to discover overgrown monastic ruins and meditation caves that date back to the 4th century BC. Abandoned for almost a thousand years, this ancient refuge is a tumbledown affair but several eye-catching structures remain, including a magnificent pond at the park entrance, monastic buildings complete with stone urinals, a hospital with grinding stones and stone baths, and a palace.
Climbing through rugged rainforest we discover a chiselled stone lookout providing views down the river valley, and marvel at enormous quarried stone foundations and fantastic staircases all but hidden amongst the undergrowth. Cheeky macaques are easily spotted on the climb, and while driving through the lowlands we sighted mongoose, peacocks, jungle fowl and enough elephant poo and tracks to raise our hopes.
Ritigala’s once mandatory entrance fees and accompanying guides have both been abandoned, leaving travellers free to enjoy an amazing walk and the forest wildlife. Make a donation and hire a park guide if you please, and allow about two hours to hike and explore. Beat the heat by setting out early from Habarana, an immensely scenic AUS$10 return trip away by three-wheeler.