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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.