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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The Emerald Ribbon

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Yesterday marked two years since I saw the Northern Lights for the first time. I remember it was about 5pm when one of the staff at the guesthouse where I was staying knocked on my door to inform me the lights were putting on a show. I’d been working on my laptop and was somewhat surprised by the early display- not that I was complaining! I quickly got dressed in my layers and rushed outside, camera in hand, ready to capture the magic- only to discover I’d left my memory card in my laptop. Hence, I have no photos of the spectacular sky that night, though the dancing heavens left such an imprint on my mind that the memory of it will never fade regardless.

The next day was very cold but the sky was clear- a promising sign for another light show that night. My wish was granted around 9pm, when a rippled green ribbon broke through the darkness and curled its way through the midnight sky. The display was a lot fainter than the previous night, the final remnants of a dying solar storm. Emerald wisps would glimmer and glow, then disappear to leave only whispered memories of magic and mystery. It was not a long display and though I kept a lookout for the next few hours, there was no encore performance.

Although this display was nowhere near as intense as my first aurora viewing, it was still beautiful in its own way. Indeed, this is part of the magic of the Northern Lights- you never quite know what you’re going to get. Plus this time, I’d been able to capture a few photos which I was very thankful for because, despite going on to continue my chase in Norway and Sweden afterwards, and then Iceland later in the year, the weather gods never granted me another viewing and I haven’t seen another aurora since this day.

The Northern Lights are the most beautiful and mysterious thing I will ever see in my life, and the only thing that could ever make me want to leave my bed and go outside on a -30 degree night. Many people regard them as a bucket list item, and rightly so, but for me, seeing them once, then twice, is not enough. Once you have seen them, a part of their magic stays with you forever and I dearly hope I will yet see them again one day.