Anna Leask is senior police reporter for the New Zealand Herald.

Sri Lanka: Elephant in the room

Anna Leask realises a lifelong dream in wild and wonderful southern Sri Lanka
A beach in the town of Mirissa, Sri Lanka. Photo / 123RF
A beach in the town of Mirissa, Sri Lanka. Photo / 123RF

More than 10 years after the Boxing Day tsunami, the tiny village of Mirissa, on the south coast of Sri Lanka, is still doing it tough.

The area is steeped in culture, and the landscape is spectacular.

But it was hard hit by - and is still recovering from - the 2004 disaster. It is also very basic and devoid of easily accessible creature comforts for a first-world traveller like me.

The need to adapt my beach-lounging, cocktail-sipping vision was evident very quickly.

Though I had been dreaming of spending a few lazy days in luxury, the opportunity to have an adventure entirely out of my comfort zone was much more appealing.

The owners of the guest house I stayed at were more than willing to help guide me through my week.

My room at The Spice House overlooked a jungle full of monkeys, lizards, squirrels and birds galore, and was run by expat Brit Phil and his wife Wathsala.

These two know everything there is to know about Sri Lanka and were more than happy to help arrange anything and everything for my stay.

I was after a safari - the objective to see as many elephants as possible - but only if they were in their natural environment and not being harassed by jeeps full of over-excited tourists.

"Easy," said Phil, who organised his brother-in-law to drive me two hours inland to Udawalawe National Park.

it is easy to spot elephants at Udawalawe National Park. Photo / 123RF
it is easy to spot elephants at Udawalawe National Park. Photo / 123RF


We set off at 3am to get to the park by sunrise. The early start was worth it because as we drove down the last stretch to the park entrance, I saw my first elephant, alone, serene and drinking from a lake as the sun rose.

I fulfilled a lifelong dream to see real elephants in their real home - babies included.

Next on the sightseeing list was a visit to the neighbouring towns. Mirissa sits 45 minutes' west of the ancient town of Galle, the fourth-largest city in Sri Lanka.

I had already decided to avoid the main city area and headed to Galle Fort, a world-heritage site and the largest remaining fortress built by European occupiers in Asia.

Just a few seconds into Galle, I chanced upon a local man and his pet monkey, named Cheeky. He beckoned me over and asked me if I wanted to meet his snake. No I did not.

And then it happened. He played his pipe while his cobra reared, hissed and launched forward at him.

All of a sudden, I had his giant python across my shoulders and winding its way around my neck. I lasted about five seconds (just long enough for a lovely Japanese tourist to snatch my camera and take a series of shots of me paralysed with terror) before I was squealing for him to remove the rubbery beast.

My nerves frayed, it was time for some retail therapy. Galle has great galleries full of local art, jewellery and other curios and it's easy to spend hours meandering among them.

Another must-see in Galle is the lighthouse and pathway along the top of the oceanside fortress wall.

With nothing beyond it but the vast and magnificently blue Indian Ocean, it is a glorious place to be in the searing, muggy heat.

After Galle, it was time to investigate the beaches.

The Spice House had a pool, a much-needed amenity in humid Sri Lanka, but was also just across the road from the beach.

Mirissa Beach is stunning, breathtaking at sunset and, with its white sand and warm water, bliss for a weary traveller.

It also boasts a strip of restaurants meaning a cold beer or a generous serving of fresh seafood - one of Mirissa's biggest industries - is just metres away.

No trip to Mirissa would be complete without a visit or three to a local spa for a traditional ayurvedic massage.

At just $20 for an hour, the Secret Root Spa is the best by far.

They not only offer traditional massage, but they also do the most phenomenal foot reflexology, herbal steam baths and - my personal favourite - the Shirodhara head treatment, in which a steady stream of warm oil is poured on to the centre of the forehead, followed by head massage. I defy anyone to stay awake during this treatment.

Mirissa's dhal curries, locally brewed gin, fresh fruit and the sights (including the hundreds of free-roaming dogs, goats and the occasional cow) have left me with memories to last a lifetime.

Checklist

GETTING THERE
Singapore Airlines flies from Auckland to Colombo via Singapore. Economy Class return fares start from $1825.
singaporeairlines.com
From there you can get to Mirissa by bus, train or car (three-hour drive).

DETAILS
Udawalawe National Park Opens at 6am each day. A two-hour is about $170. dwc.gov.lk

- NZ Herald

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