Elephant Freedom Project (PM)

13th February 2017

***

The sun is beating down intensely as we follow Manika back to the Elephant Freedom Project. Once we arrive back in the enclosure, she is hosed down with cool, refreshing water. A layer of dust and grime, accumulated on the morning’s walk, steadily trickles off her body and onto the floor. We all take turns spraying Manika. The water sparkles on her grey skin, making it look as though diamonds are dancing on her back.

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After her shower, Manika retreats into her enclosure for an afternoon nap. The morning’s activities have left us feeling hungry, so while Manika is resting, we all eager to take part in a cooking demonstration. We are invited into the kitchen, and help to prepare the ingredients for fried rice and a potato curry. I take particular note of all the spices being used, so that I can recreate the dish at home. When lunch is served, about half an hour later, there are another five accompanying dishes. It’s a traditional Sri Lankan feast, and all the food is delicious.

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After lunch, we head down to the local river, where we spot Manika in the water. She is lying on her side and enjoying what looks to be a very relaxing bath. Her mahout is using a coconut husk to thoroughly scrub her body. We’re told this is usually done twice a day to prevent the accumulation of bacteria.

What follows next is the most amazing part of the day. We’re given our own coconut husk and are invited to help wash Manika in the river. It’s an incredibly humbling experience. Here is an animal of enormous power and size, and I’m standing right next to her, giving her a bath, as she lies in the water, placid and content. Manika is the very definition of a gentle giant.

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It’s strange to say this about such a massive creature, but she is lying so peacefully in the river that she almost seems vulnerable. I am in such close proximity that every detail of her features is observed as if in high definition. One is immediately drawn to her gentle, brown eyes, which shine like smooth, tiny gems amongst her crinkled exterior. Her skin is criss-crossed with deep-set wrinkles. Her rusty coloured trunk looks like a long concertina fold. Depigmentation has decorated her floppy, pink ears with polka dots. I stroke her leathery back, which is covered with coarse hairs that bristle at the touch, like a broom.

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Further down the river, we catch sight of another elephant. This one stands forlornly in the murky water, and there is a look of sadness about him. It’s such a stark contrast to the blissful water experience that Manika is having only a couple of hundred metres away. While Manika splashes around, this elephant is chained to a tree, and he stands silent and still, as if resolved to his fate. His mahout is crouched on the bank of the river, and our guide goes over to him to ask if we can approach his elephant. The mahout has no objections, so we make our way over to the lonely elephant and give him a scrub, too.

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When we return to Manika, her mahout is prodding at her to stand up so he can wash her other side. She is obviously feeling very relaxed, as she doesn’t want to budge. Eventually, she lifts the massive bulk of her body out of the water and heaves herself onto her feet, with a great effort. She turns around slowly, readjusting her position before plopping down, delighted to be back in the water. It’s fascinating to watch the relationship between Manika and her mahout. He’s a bit of a gruff man, and his tone of voice often sounds harsh, but he obviously cares deeply for Manika and is committed to looking after her. In return, Manika seems to trust him explicitly.

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When bath-time is finally finished, we walk back to the enclosure with Manika, and bid her farewell. It’s been an unforgettable day, and my heart is happy to know that after a tough life lived in the logging industry, Manika is now free, and will never have to live in chains again.

I leave the Elephant Freedom Project around 4pm, and since I am not pressed for time now, I decide to walk back to my hotel. This time, there’s no shortage of tuk-tuk drivers that stop to say hello and ask where I’m going. I keep insisting that I’m happy to walk, which seems to baffle them, as if no-one in their right mind would be happy to walk 4km. But I do, and I arrive back at my hotel in time for the golden hour of twilight. I sit out on the balcony and read my book until the horizon turns a russet colour. A noisy chorus of  birds erupts from the trees and I watch as the never-ending flock takes to the heavens and streams across the sky, reflecting on the day, and the beauty of creatures, great and small.

Elephant Freedom Project (AM)

13th February 2017

***

I wake up feeling excited. Today is the day I’ve been looking forward to more than any other during my stay in Sri Lanka. In fact, you could say the experience I’m about to have is what inspired my whole trip. As it goes, when I first became interested in visiting Sri Lanka, over a year ago, I didn’t really know much about the country, and what there was to see and do, except for one thing- elephant encounters.

Of course, there are many experiences available, but when it comes to animals, my main priority is to support companies who truly care about the welfare of the creatures they are looking after. I want to know they have an ethical approach to working with animals, as opposed to an exploitative one. When I came across the Elephant Freedom Project, I knew it would provide the perfect ‘up close and personal’ elephant encounter for me.

The Elephant Freedom Project has been operating since 2013, and was established in response to the many ‘sanctuaries’ and ‘orphanages’ which encourage elephant rides. There is a lot of mistreatment and suffering which elephants endure in order to perform these rides for tourists. The aim of the Project is to allow their elephants to ‘just be’. Human interaction revolves around participating in the daily routines of the elephants, such as walking, feeding and bathing.

It’s 8am when I set out from my hotel in Pinnawala bound for the Project’s headquarters in Kegalle. I walk up the road, thinking it will be easy to flag one of the many tuk-tuks passing by, but they all seem to be occupied by locals. Fifteen minutes tick by, and I’m aware that if I keep walking, I’ll end up being late, so I decide to head back to the hotel to see if they can arrange some transport for me. I’m almost back at the hotel when a local man asks if I’m lost. I tell him my situation, and he offers to drop me off at the Project on his motorbike. By now, it’s almost 8.30am, which is the designated meeting time, so I hop on. He gives me a helmet, but when I go to clip it under my chin, I realise there’s no buckle at the end of the straps, which makes wearing it seem somewhat redundant.

Thankfully, he weaves through the traffic without incident and drops me off about ten minutes later. I enter the house where you can stay if you are volunteering at the Project for longer than a day, and meet four other girls, all from Germany, who’ll be joining me for the day. Shortly afterwards, we all meet our guide, Kelum, who runs through the itinerary for the day.

First up: cleaning the elephant’s enclosure. It’s not every day that you start your morning by picking up huge balls of elephant poo with a group of strangers. Talk about an icebreaker! It’s all for a good cause, though, as the balls of dung are actually processed into paper at a nearby dung factory.

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After we’ve all emptied our buckets of elephant poo, we head out onto the street, where we come across the creature we’ve just been cleaning up after. Her name is Manika and she’s ambling down the road, past oncoming cars and tuk-tuks, who are completely unfazed by her presence in the traffic. I find it amazing that it’s completely natural to see an elephant as you drive to work in this neck of the woods.

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We continue climbing up a sandy pathway which slopes gently upwards through a valley of lush green fields. After a while, Manika stops and refuses to budge. We quickly discover the reason: Manika is hungry- and she requires a lot of food to satisfy her appetite.

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Once Manika finishes her meal, she breaks into a smile. She must’ve enjoyed her greens!

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Manika the Magician then decides to perform the ‘Disappearing Trunk’ trick for us.

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I think she needs a little bit more practice with ‘Hide and Seek’, though.

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Suspicious Dog and Curious Bird decide to pay a visit, highlighting the obvious difference in size between creatures great and small. Even in the face of Suspicious Dog’s barks, Manika stays calm. I think she’s the Miss Congeniality type, who is happy to be friends with anyone.

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Manika also proves to be a natural model, looking absolutely beautiful from any angle.

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Another reason Manika is a great model is because she’s not the slightest bit vain about her wrinkles or saggy skin- even when you take close-up shots.

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Neither does she care about eating again twenty minutes after her last meal. This model is not worried about diets! Instead of feasting on foliage, this time Manika feeds on some chopped pieces of cabbage and pumpkin. We are invited to feed her, and her trunk tickles my hand as she cheekily scoffs her vegies with a delighted snuffly sound.

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Now that we have got to know one another better, Manika obliges me with a photo.

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By now, the morning is almost over. Manika has been on her feet for a long time, and she’s getting tired. Slowly, she turns around to overlook the valley. Rows of palm trees stretch along the distant hills, and the horizon looks like an emerald wave, shining in the bright light of the sun. It makes me happy to know Manika is able to enjoy this view every day. But for now, it’s time to head back to the Elephant Freedom Project.

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My Furbaby

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Say hello to my little friend! His name is Oscar, and he’s actually not that little. This crazy dog has been part of my family for four years now, and whenever I look at that happy face, my heart brims with contentment. Oscar absolutely lights up my soul. Not surprisingly, he is who I most look forward to seeing again when I return home from my travels. Probably because the excited welcome I receive from him is unparalleled.

Oscar has always been full of energy (at least, when’s he not sleeping on the couch for half the day), and never do you feel that more than when you take him for a walk. In the past, it’s often felt like he’s the one taking me for a walk. During the last couple of weeks though, my mum has been doing some training with him, and when I took him for a walk tonight, it felt like I was walking a completely different dog. There was no pulling, and he trotted steadily next to me. Who said you can’t teach an old dog new tricks! I was so proud of my pup.

As we walked silently under the stars, I reflected on how much I love exploring the world, and how lucky I am to be able to travel and go on adventures. And yet, at that moment in time, despite all the amazing places I’ve wandered around the world, there was no place I would rather be than my quiet neighbourhood, with my beautiful dog by my side.

Kataragama and Yala

Day 4 of my tour began with a two hour drive to Kataragama, which is a holy town sacred to Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, and the indigenous Vedda people of Sri Lanka, as well as being one of the most important pilgrimage sites in the country. We spent an hour and a half walking around the temple complex and observing the religious traditions of the many devotees at both the Hindu and Buddhist areas of the site. It was very busy, possibly because it was also Sri Lanka’s Independence Day, and we were the only tourists in the area, which made for a really authentic cultural experience.

Kataragama is considered to be a very powerful deity in Sri Lanka, and our guide explained that many people come to the site to ask for success with professional enterprises, or to seek help for personal problems. There was a very long queue extending around the perimeter of the Hindu section, with people holding fruit baskets as an offering. We also observed some people throwing coconuts. Our guide later told us that this ritual is performed in the hope of removing personal difficulties from one’s life. If the coconut breaks, you should be able to let go of your struggles.

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At the Buddhist section, there was another procession of religious followers. Here, they held colourful lotus flowers instead, which were placed around the central stupa. The air was laced with a combination of incense and the sweet scent of flowers, and for a very brief moment, I was actually reminded of Poland for some strange reason. It was as if I was remembering that I’d smelled this perfume before, only in a time and place far removed from here. The feeling of this forgotten memory was borne away on the breeze as suddenly as it arrived.

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After lunch, we drove out to Yala National Park for our second safari. Yala is the second largest national park in Sri Lanka, covering an area of almost 1000 square kilometres. It is also the most visited national park, due to its variety of wild animals, and perhaps most renown for its leopards. It was certainly high on the list of ‘want to see’ animals for many people in the group, but even though Yala has one of the highest concentrations of leopards in the world, I was not optimistic about seeing one when the tracker mentioned that this ‘high concentration’ equates to 35-40 leopards.

Yala had a very different feel to it than Udawalawe, which we visited yesterday. While Udawalawe consisted largely of open grasslands with sweeping views of the plains, Yala gave off a more confined feeling, with tangled trees and dense scrubs and bushes. We saw a number of warthogs (or Pumbaas looking for Timon, as we called them) and a couple of mongooses before we’d even officially entered the park, and although there were sightings of crocodiles, water buffaloes, monkeys, deer, and various birds, what we all really wanted to see was undoubtedly a leopard.

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About an hour into the safari, it looked as though we might not be seeing much else at all, as one of the three jeeps in our group broke down in a huge mud puddle. When it became apparent that it wouldn’t be possible to get it out anytime soon, the five people in the bogged jeep divided amongst the two remaining jeeps. Half an hour of confusion followed about what to do next, but it was eventually decided that a replacement jeep would be sent out. However, as it would take an hour to arrive, we would just continue on with two packed jeeps for the time being. Number of bogged vehicles seen- one. Number of leopards seen- zero.

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The day before, we’d seen heaps of elephants at Udawalawe, and we’d all joked that we now had enough elephant pictures to last a lifetime. As there had not been many sightings of big animals this time, we were actually all rather excited to come across a lone elephant towards the end of the safari, especially as this one had a tusk, and we hadn’t seen a tusked elephant the day before. The only problem was that it was standing right in the middle of the road, and seemed to have no intention of moving. As dusk was falling, the drivers were keen to get us out of the park, so the jeep in front revved its engine several times, which prompted the elephant to move off into the bushes.

The jeep in front had had several minutes to take photos so they drove off, while the jeep that I was in now rolled up to have a closer look. At first, we were disappointed that we no longer had a good view of the elephant for our own Kodak moment, but suddenly, the elephant turned, his ivory tusk pointed squarely at our vehicle, and started to move towards us. When your tracker starts looking fearful and shouts for the driver to put the pedal to the metal (or so I assume that’s what he said in Sinhalese), you begin to suspect that perhaps a new episode for ‘When Animals Attack’ might be imminent. I was trying to remember whether an elephant with its trunk down, like this one, is bluffing or serious about charging. (It’s bluffing, apparently.) In any case, it’s not the sort of situation where it’s particularly wise to wait and find out. We drove away to see the elephant emerge back out of the bushes, but it no longer seemed as though it was a threat, and proceeded to resume standing in the middle of the road.

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We’d all experienced a surge of adrenaline, and we were in for one final heart-stopping moment. We’d caught up to the first jeep and their faces expressed an excitement that could only mean a leopard was in the vicinity. One of the girls in my jeep thought she saw some movement in the bushes on my side of the vehicle, and we all went silent and craned our necks, hoping to finally catch a glimpse of the animal that had been eluding us all day. We strained our eyes for several minutes, and although we could hear some rustling, we had to concede defeat. The elusive leopard had eluded us once more.

When we arrived at the entrance to the national park, the members of the first jeep were exhilirated and confirmed they had seen a leopard run across the road in front of them. It had been too quick to capture on camera, but they had definitely seen a leopard. While those of us who had been in the second jeep were happy for our friends, we couldn’t help being disappointed that we had not had the same luck, especially since the rustling we’d heard had almost certainly been the same leopard they’d seen. It had just been too well hidden by the time we’d got there. But that’s the nature- and thrill- of going on safari- it’s just the luck of the draw as to whether you’ll be in the right place at the right time. It wasn’t to be for me this time around- but I’ll be adding ‘see a leopard on safari’ to my bucket list now, for sure.

Kitulgala to Uduwalawe

My favourite experiences whilst travelling are definitely those that involve nature. Considering the theme of today was elephants, Day 3 has become my favourite day on the tour so far. We drove four hours to get to Udawalawe, where we started our afternoon with a visit to the Elephant Transit Home. The facility was established by Sri Lanka’s Department of Wildlife Conservation in 1995 in order to look after orphaned baby elephants, with the ultimate goal being to release them back into the wild when they reach five years of age.

It was very cute seeing the baby elephants running lopsidedly to be fed their milk, although the viewing platform was already very crowded by the time we arrived, making it somewhat hard to catch sight of them. Once the elephants had been fed, they wandered over closer to the platform to munch on leaves for dessert, and to play in the mud. By this point, some of the crowd began to disperse, leaving those of us who remained with a delightful view of a number of calves spraying themselves with mud. A couple of them even submerged themselves fully for a proper mud bath.

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After half an hour, the elephants were rounded up and returned to their main shelter, while we departed for our own accommodation- a tent campsite in the vicinity of Uduwalawe National Park, where we’ll be spending the next two nights. On the way, we spotted a lone elephant bathing in the vast expanse of a baby blue lake- it was a magical preview of things to come.

Shortly after unpacking our bags at the campsite, we split into three groups and went off on a three hour jeep safari of Uduwalawe National Park. I had been unsure whether to go on this safari, as we have an included safari tomorrow, but I’m so glad I decided to go. We saw a number of wild elephants, as well as water buffalo, crocodiles, various birds, and even a turtle! I had actually dreamt about running away from a crocodile the night before, but luckily there were no close encounters of the reptile kind- though there was a curious bird who came very close to being snapped up for afternoon tea. As mean as it is to admit, we were actually a bit disappointed when it flew away unscathed.

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Some of the elephants, though, came almost right up to our vehicles. It was so humbling to appreciate these majestic creatures in their natural environment, and absolutely incredible to be able to observe them up close, from the creases in their skin to the wrinkles on their trunk; from the outline of the bones in their enormous body to the tiny, silver hairs glimmering in the sunlight on their back; from the folds of their floppy ears to the toes of their padded feet, but above all, their gentle eyes gazing out at the world as they graze contentedly on the grass. Nature really is the best.

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Pimp My Husky

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During my stay in Ivalo at the beginning of January 2015, I spent two nights at a wonderful place called Guesthouse Husky. Not surprisingly, the guesthouse offered husky safaris. I booked one to finish off my stay in Finland, excited for the opportunity to experience these amazing creatures in their element.

This particular snapshot was taken just before we commenced the husky ride, when I still had enough feeling in my hands to operate my camera. The husky dog’s expression in this photo always makes me laugh as he was such an energetic boy and kept jumping up and down, tail wagging wildly and howling to high heaven in his desire to get going. I managed to capture the exact moment he turned around to look at us, as if saying what are we still doing here, come on, let’s GO!!!

It was an unforgettable experience, and not only in the sense that it turned out to be the coldest I’ve ever been in my life. I’m glad, though, that I braved the freezing temperature of close to minus forty degrees so that I could see these huskies in action. It gave me a newfound respect for these friendly dogs which, as a team, could easily run distances of over 60km at a consistent speed of about 20km/h. Now that is what you call endurance!

A Family of Furballs

When I was about eight years old, I went through a phase of chasing butterflies around the garden for my butterfly collection. I was actually successful in catching a few, though in hindsight, and certainly from the butterfly’s point of view, it was probably paramount to kidnapping. It didn’t really occur to my young self that butterflies would much rather be flying around in the great outdoors than flapping on the curtains in my bedroom and I soon had a butterfly graveyard under my bed.

Luckily, I got older and wiser and learnt to appreciate the value of freedom. I also came across this beautiful quote. It is one of my all-time favourites.

“You can chase a butterfly all over the field and never catch it.
But if you sit quietly in the grass it will come and sit on your shoulder.”

I have always loved this saying but it wasn’t until my Rottnest trip on Friday that the words really resonated with me. I had just had a zen moment relaxing by one of the salt lakes on the island and had recommenced my hike when I came to a fork in the trail. I was in the midst of deciding which path to follow when a curious quokka scampered out of its shady surrounds and wandered right over to me.

What on earth is a quokka, I hear you ask?

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Quokkas are adorable little furballs. Ok, so that may not quite be the proper scientific description but there’s no denying they are extremely cute, right? Technically, they’re a type of macropod, which means they’re cousins of the kangaroo and wallaby. Only difference being, quokkas are about the size of a domestic cat.

They can only be found in Western Australia, and though there are populations on the mainland, the largest population of quokkas, by far, is on Rottnest Island, where, in 2008, it was estimated there were between 8,000 to 12,000 of them living on the island. That’s a whole lot of quokkas for an island with an area of only 19 square kilometres.

Quokkas are actually the inspiration for how Rottnest got its name. Willem de Vlamingh, a Dutch explorer, mistook them for giant rats when he landed on the island way back in 1696. He named the island ‘Rotte nest’, a derivation of the Dutch word rattennest meaning, you guessed it, rat nest. (The traditional owners of the land, the Nyoongar people, know the island as Wadjemup.)

Quokkas are generally nocturnal so I was quite surprised when my active little friend appeared by my side at three in the afternoon! I was even more delighted when his little family followed him. Meet Mummy, Daddy and Baby Quokka!

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I chilled out with this furry little family of three for a good half hour. It was amazing to be in such close proximity. I always find it such a humbling experience when you encounter animals in their natural environment and they allow you to observe them go about their daily life.

I sat on the ground, still and silent and absolutely enchanted. I have encountered many quokkas in my past trips on the island but never have I witnessed a family quite like this one, interacting with such tenderness towards each other. I felt so lucky for this rare glimpse into their life and it reminded me that animal families love and care for each other just as much as (some) human ones do. I even managed to capture some family portraits!

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After Mummy and Baby hopped off back into the bushes, Daddy decided it was time for some personal grooming. A male who takes care of his personal hygiene, what a nice surprise! 😛

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After that, this friendly little dude (honestly, he’s the friendliest quokka I’ve ever come across) was more than happy to strike a pose and get up close and personal. What a handsome little dude. Definitely a natural born model who can work it from any angle! 🙂

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Though I suspect that, actually, he was only really interested in the dried mango I had in my backpack.

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Quokkas are often described as the happiest creatures on earth. I definitely think they’re deserving of that title, don’t you think?

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To top off a great day, one of the darlings posed for a happy snap with me.

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Until next time, my furry friends!

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