WORDS FRIYAN DRIVER
PHOTOGRAPHS VAIBHAV MEHTA
GREAT FROM India
GREAT FOR A savannah-like experience
Peacock calls echo in the background, the air is fragrant with the smell of wild forest herbs, and the mist rises off the grasslands. This beautiful moment suddenly takes a surprising turn – one that leaves you hungry. A creature of the wild has snuck his trunk into your jeep and helped himself to your packed breakfast. They’re not called juvenile elephants for nothing.
The setting of this scene is the savannah-like Uda Walawe National Park in southern Sri Lanka. The lack of vegetation at this sanctuary, which was created for wild animals displaced by the construction of the Uda Walawe Reservoir, makes it easy to spot animals. It’s home to over 500 elephants, a variety of reptiles, the occasional leopard, and bird species like bee-eaters and brahminy kites. And this excursion is just one of the many-curated activities organised by Shangri-La’s Hambantota Resort & Spa – a luxurious hotel that’s the perfect base for exploring this region.
A 15-minute drive from the park’s entrance is the Elephant Transit Home – an orphanage and rehabilitation centre for rescued baby and injured elephants. The location ensures a sense of familiarity with their surroundings once they are released back into the wild, and provides access to both food and medical care, which the smaller elephants would require to survive. You can’t get too close to the pachyderms, so try to make it for feeding time to catch a glimpse of them behaving like rowdy, line-cutting kids. The centre accepts donations in the form of milk powder.
Following your early morning expedition, indulge in a relaxing massage at the resort’s plush CHI Ayurveda Spa. The deep-tissue sports massage will leave you drooling through the face-cradle, as you feel the knots fade away.
Later, get yourself a cup of Sri Lankan tea, and unwind in the in-house lounge Gimanhala, or prune away in the sunset pool for a blissful end to an active day.
The following morning, grab a mountain bike from the resort’s health club and ride to Godawaya viewpoint, which overlooks the beach on one side and the harbour on the other. The 3km path weaves through village lanes, with aunties in nighties sipping on their morning chai and waving enthusiastically as you pedal past. Just before the viewpoint, do stop at the ancient Buddhist temple by a sprawling banyan tree.
The evening is a good time to go on a River Safari on the Walawe River. A short auto ride from the resort gets you to Waduruppa Village, where a boatman called Baby and local naturalist Sirisoma, who proudly clutches his birding bible, greet you.
Ignore his fairly dubious facts on avian reproduction, and keep an eye out for the many birds that call this mangrove home. You will spot the usual suspects such as the grey-headed fish eagle, prinia and crested serpent eagle, but, hidden in a tangle of branches, lives the brown fish owl, which is a rare sighting. Your journey ends at a sand bank, where nothing more than a few feet of sand separates you from the vast, open sea. As you sip on fresh coconut water, pat yourself on the back – you’ve uncovered some of the country’s lesser-known gems.