Elephants and beautiful beaches on the island paradise of Sri Lanka
- Credit: Emma Knights
From tea and ancient kingdoms to the amazing wildlife and beautiful beaches of Sri Lanka - in the second part of a two-part series, Oliver Franzen and Emma Knights go in search of elephants and explore the island's coastline.
The blazing tropical sun dropped like a stone toward the horizon, casting a kaleidoscope of colours over the surrounding jungle and distant mountains.
But we were looking in the opposite direction – transfixed by something even more magical. Huge numbers of elephants were wading into a lazily winding river to wash in the twilight, illuminated in an orange glow by the sun setting behind us. Mother elephants led their babies carefully into the water to play, while a male trumpeted loudly to let everyone know who was boss.
We were at 'The Gathering' – the largest meeting of Asian elephants in the world.
More than 300 elephants travel from all over the North Central Province of Sri Lanka in the dry season to sip the sweet waters of the Minneriya Tank – a reservoir built by the ancient Anuradhapura Kingdom in the third century.
Not only does the water provide much needed hydration for these jumbo creatures, as the tank recedes in the dry season the exposed silt yields fresh green shoots of grass that provide a feast for them too.
The resulting wildlife spectacle is truly magnificent and the sheer number of these enormous animals must be one of the greatest natural shows on earth.
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The best time to see 'The Gathering' in Minneriya National Park is July to October, and as we were visiting in November we wondered if we would have missed the boat.
Fortunately our fantastic tour guide and driver, Wasantha Silva, had an ace up his sleeve.
He knew of an eco-park near Minneryia where many of the elephants had moved to, and a superb ranger, Athula Bandra, who knew every square inch of the landscape.
Our evening safari in Athula's open-topped truck began by driving through jungle tracks, where we were excited to see a lone male elephant feeding by the edge of a stream. There was also an abundance of colourful birds, all singing their evening chorus, as well as other wildlife. We spotted egrets, eagles, sambar deer, macaques and langur monkeys as well as Sri Lanka's national bird – the Ceylon junglefowl.
Eventually we emerged from the jungle into a vast plain of grassland with a huge tank that stretched out before us.
Everywhere we looked there were elephants on the horizon. By the water's edge about 50 were gathered - some ventured into the shallows while others protected their adorable babies on the shore, and all this was happening just a few metres from our truck.
We were besotted, but Athula could see far more elephants in the distance that were yet to be spotted by any other trucks.
Eager to get there first, he shot round some of the muddiest and steepest tracks with incredible skill, before we reached the bank of a river that flowed into the tank.
On the opposite side was a line of some 200 elephants, their reflections rippling in the water, and we had this spectacular sight all to ourselves. We stayed on the water's edge for nearly an hour, watching the elephants wading into the river, playing together, and blowing spouts of water from their trunks. It was a truly phenomenal experience.
As nightfall loomed it was time to head home, but not before spotting dozens of wild water buffalo packed into a waterhole which was blazing red from the setting sun, and catching sight of a stealthy jackal hunting on the plains.
Sri Lanka is a paradise for wildlife but it is perhaps most famous for its beautiful beaches which make the perfect end to any island adventure - and the country's varied climate means that there is normally always at least one part of the island with ideal beach weather.
We indulged in some beach time on the more remote east coast as well as the more easily accessible south.
The east coast was particularly interesting to visit as parts of it were previously a stronghold for Tamil Tiger rebels during the country's civil war and a no-go area for tourists for many years. But with the war ending in 2009, it is now opening up and offers superb opportunities to get off the beaten track and experience a different side of Sri Lanka.
We stayed in Passikudah, close to the town of Batticaloa, where a breathtaking curve of jungle-fringed white sand meets shallow tropical waters. The bay is protected by a coral reef, which creates a true tropical paradise.
We made the most of this nirvana by staying in two opulent hotels which both blended seamlessly into the picture-perfect sands. The first was Sunrise by Jetwing which had an amazing swimming pool which snaked like a river towards the sea.
Equally fantastic was Amaya Beach Resort and Spa where we had an outstanding ocean view from our wonderful room, and enjoyed sunbathing in the most chic of poolsides that ran parallel to the sea and was flanked by tropical gardens.
Meanwhile on the south coast we stayed at the Beach Cabanas Retreat and Spa, in Koggala, where our gorgeous cabana-style room opened up directly onto a beautiful, unspoilt swathe of beach that was perfect for watching the sunrise and enjoying a romantic candlelit dinner for two under the stars.
As well as having countless beaches to explore, the south coast also has a huge array of other activities to enjoy, from surfing and diving around coral reefs to taking a boat trip in search of blue whales to looking for leopards in Yala National Park.
The south coast beaches are also a very important breeding area for Leatherback, Green, Hawksbill, Loggerhead and Olive Ridley turtles. These beautiful creatures are at threat of extinction and we visited a sea turtle hatchery at Habaraduwa which aims to protect turtles by collecting their eggs, hatching them in sand, rearing them safely, and then releasing them into the ocean when they are big enough to fend for themselves.
More than 500,000 turtles have been released into the wild since the not-for-profit organisation was set up in 1986, and while conservation of course comes first, it was a great experience being guided around the hatchery and seeing the turtles, some of which were only a day old.
One must-see activity in the south that is unique to Sri Lanka is watching stilt fisherman at work. The men fish with a rod and line, sitting precariously on a cross bar, called a petta, tied to a pole driven into the sand a few metres offshore. The practice is believed to have started during the Second World War due to food shortages and overcrowded fishing and, while the fisherman now seem to make as much money charging tourists for photos as from catching fish, it's fascinating to watch.
One of the places Sri Lankan's are especially proud of on the south coast is the old port town of Galle, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Established in 1589 by the Portuguese, largely rebuilt after 1640 by the Dutch, and then taken over by the British before independence, it is unlike anywhere else we visited in Sri Lanka.
Amid the colours and hustle and bustle of the tropics we discovered a vaguely familiar European-style town - one minute we were standing on the ramparts watching Buddhist monks swimming from the beach and the next we were visiting an Anglican church established by British settlers.
We loved exploring Galle's narrow streets as well as walking the full circumference of the town on its wonderfully well-preserved ramparts from which we enjoyed sweeping views of the sea and even caught part of a local cricket match.
Also on the coast of the island is Sri Lanka's capital, Colombo, which is about 20 miles away from the country's international airport.
While many tourists skip Colombo in favour of heading straight to the island's beaches and other delights, it is well worth taking a day to get to know this colourful and vibrant city where east meets west, and enjoy exploring its hectic streets and eclectic mix of sights – our favourite was the beautiful Gangaramaya Buddhist Temple which is one of Colombo's most important shrines.
The city will also soon have a new major landmark – The Lotus Tower – a 350m high lotus flower-inspired construction that is currently being built and when finished is set to be the tallest structure in South Asia.
While in Colombo we stayed at The Kingsbury, a great hotel ideally situated in the centre of the city, and its Sky Lounge rooftop bar was a real highlight, offering superb views of Colombo's skyline - perfect for evening drinks while the lights of Sri Lanka's capital twinkle below and a wonderful place to reflect on the beginning or end of a trip around the island.
In just eight days exploring Sri Lanka we had discovered cool tea plantations and crashing waterfalls high in the mountains, jungles and paradise beaches, an unbelievable diversity of wildlife and many ancient wonders.
Sri Lanka truly is an island that has it all - and its greatest treasure is its people. The incredibly kind, fun-loving and welcoming Sri Lankans who we met throughout our trip were clearly very proud of their paradise island and honestly want to share it with the world.
Our tour was organised by Sri Lanka Tourism - www.srilanka.travel
We stayed at the Kingsbury, Colombo, the Beach Cabanas Retreat and Spa, Koggala, Sunrise by Jetwing and Amaya Beach, Passikudah - www.thekingsburyhotel.com, www.thebeachcabanas.com, www.jetwinghotels.com/sunrisebyjetwing and www.amayabeach.com
We flew with Emirates from London Heathrow to Colombo via Dubai - www.emirates.com
We travelled from Norwich to London by train with Abellio Greater Anglia - www.greateranglia.co.uk