We were picked up at our hotel in Negomba, Sri Lanka, shortly after 6 am. Two of my sons, two grandsons, one daughter in law and myself aboard the minibus, driven by Sanjeeva, heading North and East to the elephant orphanage. Our aim is to get there for the 9 am feeding session.
When you travel to other countries and are ferried to popular tourist destinations it is very easy to become cynical. Is this a set up to extract as much cash from the tourist? I was uncomfortable on the way there all sorts of thoughts going through my head. Are the animals being properly looked after I wondered, although what do I know about caring for elephants? The only ones I have seen close up and in real life were as a child when visiting Edinburgh zoo, and years later when I took my own children to zoos and circuses.
Sri Lankans are an industrious race, up early working, travelling on as wide a variety of transport as one could imagine. There are lots of new roads being built in the country. Some say it is spoiling the landscape and it will never be the same.
We cross several rivers, sometimes the same river a couple of times. We follow diversion signs to take us away from the delays caused by the miles of roadworks but make the orphanage with a few minutes to spare before the designated 9 am feeding time. Sanjeeva parks the minibus in the car park opposite the entrance to the elephant orphanage amongst coaches, buses, trucks, cars and four wheeled drives.
We join the queues, one entrance kiosk for Sri Lankans and another for foreigners. Tickets are available to buy bottles of milk to feed the baby elephants.
It’s already about 30 degrees and we walk to a sheltered area where the baby elephants are being fed There’s a huge canopy above them, shading them from the searing sun.
The Keepers are very smart and uniformed. Like humans the babies display different characteristics There’s the gentle baby who keeps in the background and who is pushed out of place by the greedy baby when a bottle is proffered through the round bars which separate the animals and the public.
It’s pure entertainment as milk bottle tickets are exchanged for large milk filled suckling bottles which are devoured in seconds.
I am alarmed when I notice the animals, even the littler ones are chained. But I realise in an instant, these ‘babies’ are wild animals and extremely strong so some control is just a matter of sense and safety.
Because of my fall earlier in the year, and the heat, I can’t walk up the hill to where the larger elephants are being fed, but watch them from a distance.
Then the parade begins as the keepers round up the elephants to escort them to the river to bathe. The numbers grow and we have not only the babies but the mums and dads and grandmothers and grandads too and everyone inbetween.
The traffic is stopped as the long line of elephants cross the road down the hill through an avenue of shops to the river. Again the walk is too much for be but a three wheeled tuk tuk and driver quickly take me down the backstreets to the river edge.
One of my sons takes me to a restaurant overlooking the river and the bathing elephants.
It is simply bliss. The keepers sit atop rocks in the river and the elephants do what elephants do best in a flowing river.
They are having fun, get bold at times and wander off in little groups on their own. But a gentle prod from the keepers, a call back to order and like naughty children the elephants return to safety.
One of the grandsons declares, ‘This is the best day of my life.’ His dad bought a ticket so the grandson has bottle fed a baby elephant. He will carry the thrill of the experience with him for ever.
We spend an amazing privileged two hours before the keepers begin to round up their charges. They start to herd the lumbering elephants back up the hill, past the shops crammed with elephant souvenirs, to stop the traffic again and cross the road to the orphanage.
It’s a magical and emotional experience. These animals would simply not be alive were it not for the care they are given in the orphanage. Some are land mine victims and have prosthetics.
The spin off is wonderful to see. The keepers and orphanage staff are employed; the line of shops which flank the road to the river would simply not exist without the tourists and there would be no need for the restaurant where we had lunch overlooking the river.
Sanjeeva explains he had been to the elephant orphanage more than thirty times and never tires of visiting it. I can understand that.