TRAVEL / A trunk call from Kandy: Elephants are bound to feature large in any holiday to Sri Lanka. Rhoda Koenig found them unbearably adorable

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The Independent Culture
IF YOU'RE trying to redeem a disastrous vacation, I can testify that nothing succeeds like an elephant. Two days into a trip to Sri Lanka, I was still feeling the effects of an 11-hour flight, followed by a two-hour wait at the airport for a bumpy three-hour drive to the hotel. The glamorous beach resort turned out to have minute bedrooms that were decorated with grubby orange chenille bedspreads and smelt of damp and despair. The dinner was creme St Germain (dyed green water), steak Madagascar (sliced inner tube) and coffee mousse (something brown and wobbly). Though it was the height of the dry season, the rain had not stopped bucketing down since my arrival, and there was little in the way of entertainment. Sri Lankan television offered soccer or The Colbys, and all the hotel's books and magazines were, like most of the guests, German.

I was running through the methods suggested in the Dorothy Parker poem beginning 'Razors pain you' when the rain began to dwindle and, looking out of my beach-side window, I could see a young elephant ambling along. I flew out of the door and down to the shoreline where the elephant's keeper smiled broadly at me and put out his hand. For half a second I thought he wanted me to shake it; then I realised he was offering his left hand.

Without stopping, I gave him my foot and one second later was on top of a six-and-a-half- foot elephant that followed orders to go forward, turn left, turn right and reverse. Although high, the elephant's back was as flat and broad as a horsehair mattress; as the animal walked, the twin ridges of muscle along its back, about 2ft apart, rippled with a soft, regular motion. The ride over, the elephant obeyed a command to kneel and let me off. As I paid, it stroked its trunk gently along my handbag, reminding me of the banana I had inside, which it enthusiastically accepted as a tip. The entire experience was, in a word, bliss.

Elephants are ubiquitous in Sri Lanka - in name and image, as well as in fact. Sri Lankans live behind double gates made of wrought-iron elephants lifting their trunks in greeting. Small children climb to the top of a wooden elephant in playgrounds, and then slide down its trunk. At Christmas, Santa Claus appears on an elephant (at least at some hotels) and showers children with brightly wrapped sweets. At the Sinhalese new year in April, villages hold elephant races and all year working elephants tread the highway twice a day on their way to and from timber camps. Sri Lankans drink Elephant Brand soda, some of which they buy from Ganesh Stores - named after the god of wisdom, revered by the Hindu minority, who has the body of a man and head of an elephant.

Elephants are even more important to the Buddhist majority, since Buddha himself was once, in one of his many reincarnations, an elephant. As a six-tusked white elephant, he was shot by a hunter who, sawing off the ivory, was shocked to hear the dying animal moan, 'The tusks of wisdom are a hundred times dearer to me than these'. In another myth Buddha's evil cousin Devadatta made a fierce elephant drunk on beer and sent it to kill him. But the elephant recognised Buddha's holiness and knelt before him, while he adjured it to be kind and never hurt anyone from then on. Overjoyed, Buddha's followers came forth and covered the elephant with jewels.

Buddha's command may explain the docility of the elephant, which has allowed itself to be pushed around by a creature one-hundredth of its weight (a full-grown elephant can weigh more than seven tons) for 4,000 years.

The splendour of a bejewelled elephant can still be marvelled at in the perahera, the grand Buddhist-Hindu pageant that takes place in Kandy in August and is repeated throughout the year, much scaled down, in other towns.

Visitors to Sri Lanka who want to see elephants in the wild are often advised to visit Ruhuna National Park, popularly called Yala after its location in south-east Sri Lanka. However, the park's extortionate fees (admission charges, plus mandatory Jeep rental) make elephant-watching an expensive gamble. After nearly three hours in the scrub, I had seen plenty of spotted deer, mongoose, ibis, herons, an eagle and a monotonous plenitude of water buffalo, but only two elephants munching the leaves off a tree about 30ft away. This was two more than were seen by several other visitors I spoke to. With a bit of luck, you can see many more elephants for nothing on the road that runs east from Habarane to the port town of Trincomalee. One hour out of Habarane, my driver suddenly stopped, sniffed the air, pointed and smiled. In seconds, eight elephants - six adults and two babies - plodded into a clearing and settled down for lunch and a generous photo opportunity.

The road is best avoided at night. It may, in fact, be closed by the military, for the area is on the southern border of the territory threatened by Tamil guerrillas. But if it is officially open, it may be closed by slumbering elephants. At night the animals, which like lying on the cool asphalt, often snooze on the road and no amount of 'horning', as infuriated local drivers call it, makes any impression. If you do miss elephants, however, the road offers a fascinating bit of ethnographia. Two-storey wooden platforms, called papets, are covered with wooden figures dressed in old clothes and topped with white, grinning moon-faces or, sometimes, skulls. These scare-elephants are meant to frighten off the foraging beasts, which can gobble up a peasant's entire rice harvest in a day. Elephants don't have their reputation for nothing, however, and it would be hard to find one simple-minded enough to be deceived by these rows of dummies. The villagers now climb the platforms at night and lob firecrackers at the elephants to discourage them.

The best opportunity to see elephants en masse close up is at the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, 45 minutes south-west of Kandy. There, several dozen elephants, most of them well under 4ft high, are cared for by the government-run institution set up in 1975 to rescue elephants which had been abandoned after their mothers had been killed or which, injured or too weak to walk with the inexorably moving herd, had been left behind. (In recent years, a number of injuries and deaths have been caused by terrorist land mines.)

Wijepala Mohat-talalage Ranbanda, the curator of the orphanage, explained that, after a medical check-up and a return to normal health, the babies are introduced to the herd, which is presided over by foster father and mother Anusha and Natali. 'Sometimes there are problems. A present baby will kick a new arrival, just like a human baby - jealous.' Fractious pachyderms are soon sorted out, however, and the new ones join the routine of trooping down to the river twice a day to lie down and have water splashed over them by a mahout. Five times a day the little ones are fed 400g of Nestle Lactogen infant formula. Tourists are invited to watch and snap away, and may even hold a feeding bottle if the keeper is in a good mood. The unbearable adorableness of baby elephants unfortunately does nothing to assuage competition. The dust-up between two women who simultaneously grab the same bargain in a post-Christmas sale is as nothing compared with the ferocity of a battle over feeding rights. Even the losers, though, are ultimately pacified by a crowd of tiny elephants who nuzzle them curiously, impatiently and, most important, harmlessly.

Just down the road from the orphanage, the Concept Elephant Bath provides even more trunks-on experience. As I entered the small compound, three children seated (with an attendant) on an elephant's back were screaming with delight as it waded into a stream and showered them with a trunk full of water.

I opted for a dry elephant ride, during which my mount, a gentle 50-year-old female, not only went forward ('Daha]'), left ('Mehedabal]') and right ('Dahaida]'), but reared like a stallion, dramatically trumpeting. Having taken a crash course in Basic Elephant from Mr Ranbanda, I tried saying 'Ho]' but I might as well have been saying 'Whoa]' to the wind. I suppose it was my accent.

Elephants are so important to the Sri Lankans that, once gone, they are not forgotten. In 1988 the most important elephant in the country, the Maligawa Tusker, fell ill after 50 years of leading the grand procession of 50 elephants in the Kandy perahera.

The nation anxiously read bulletins in the daily newspapers as he finally died, aged 63. Next to the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy he rests - or, rather, stands - in a building all his own. When you visit, turn left immediately after the security check and take the path to the side of the temple and up a short flight of steps to an unmarked white building. There the Maligawa elephant - which has been, as the sign says, 'taxidermised' - regards you with a look as benign as no doubt it was in life.

Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage is open from 8am-6pm every day. Bathing time is 10am-noon and 2-4pm. Tourists are welcome at elephant feedings at 9.15am, 1.15pm and 5pm.


GETTING THERE: Trailfinders (071-938 3366) offers flights to Colombo with Emirates Airlines and KLM for pounds 506 return. The return fare to Colombo with Air Lanka (071- 930 2099) is pounds 518 until the end of March.

TOUR OPERATORS: Kuoni Travel (0306 740888) offers a 10-night tour from pounds 679 and a 14-night beach holiday from pounds 970, half- board. Explore Worldwide's (0252 319 448) 18-night tour starts at pounds 895 including trips to Kandy/tea plantation/beach and hill walking.

FURTHER INFORMATION: Contact the Sri Lanka Tourist Board, 13 Hyde Park Gardens, London W2 2LU (071-262 5009).

(Photographs and map omitted)