The kids have fun plucking tea themselves – the flower buds as well as the tender leaves which are later dried for us and packaged as a sweet memento of our trip.
Writer Beate Baldry and her family go wild on the island of Sri Lanka
“Most likely a jaw bone. Or maybe the tail” shouts an excited five year old picking up a huge white bone that does look eerily like something you’d see in a museum.
Binoculars are duly passed over to survey the land – a flat plain of grass that gives way to water and a border of trees in the distance. Water buffalo make their way to the edge of Lake Hambegamuwa just metres away from where we stand, their quiet presence completing the tranquil scene. We are just outside Udawawale National Park in Sri Lanka and our two children, aforementioned dinosaur spotter and his three-year-old sister, have already clambered onto a sun bleached tree that gleams silver in the sunlight. It’s reminiscent of a scene from Lord of the Flies (before the wild rumpus starts).
We had a clear agenda for our family adventure in Sri Lanka: safari, train rides, tea trails, tuk tuks, treasure and… dinosaurs. The kids added in the last three.
We have come to Udawawale for safari in search of elephants (and dinosaurs apparently). Having grown up in Kenya I am keen that my children will get to experience a little bit of life in the wild, and nothing beats the excitement of game spotting. Our Jeep, open at the sides to afford the best views, is a thrilling aspect of the safari for the kids (though it would make us easy prey for a T-rex my son soberly points out).
We see one lone male elephant before we even enter the park. The bull is just off the main road and our driver slows down as we drive past so we can get a good view. We crane our heads eagerly and keep a look out for him long after he’s a mere speck in the distance, not realising the soon-to-come abundance of these endangered animals.
Once we are in Udawawale Park we see another elephant and another in quick succession and then a whole herd, including a very small calf appear and we turn off the engine and just sit in silence and admire these intelligent wild creatures. Our guide has fantastic eyes and we soon see a chameleon, eagles. peacocks, buffalo, crocodiles, a jackal and deer. There’s no sign of the elusive leopard however (nor the dinosaur for that matter).
The safari was the main draw to this part of Sri Lanka, but our nearby lodging, turns out to be just as entertaining. Monkeys wake us before dawn as they noisily dance across the branches no more than a few metres above our heads with only a thin sheet of mosquito netting to separate us.
The lodge treated us to lots of little surprises. From a simple Sri Lankan picnic on a banana leaf after a swim in the river one morning, to a camp fire ready to roast marshmallows in the evening. One afternoon they organised a guide to take us across the lake by canoe in search of treasure, as they had heard this was part of our quest. We walked on forgotten lands scattered with buffalo bones and through a forest of banyan trees that tower like skyscrapers.
We do find treasure. Or rather it is presented to us by our boatman – chilled beers (for us) and chocolate (for the kids) – which we savour from the top of some craggy rocks that we climb to admire the sunset. Just before the last of the light leaves the skies we bundle the kids up – giddy from the highs of sugar and of being out so late in the wild – step into our private canoe and wave goodbye.
Train rides, tea trails, and tuk tuks are all easy aspects of our agenda to tick off. Tuk tuks are pretty much a given everywhere here and elevate any journey to an adventure in the kids’ eyes. Taking the train is high up on many travellers’ lists when they visit Sri Lanka and the train from Kandy to Ella through spectacular hill country is known as one of the most scenic train journeys in the world.
We sit in second class around a table, our kids noses nudged up against the windows taking it all in. Fifty shades of green whizz by – undulating hills tamed into rows of neat tea, vegetable farms, forests, and the occasional patch of flat green ready for a cricket game. Sri Lankans who are known for their friendliness and love of children, smile at us and offer us snacks. Vendors saunter through the carriages selling spicy fritters, samosas and sweet mangos. When the children nap, lulled to sleep by the soothing repetitive chug of the train, my husband and I take turns to precariously hang out of the open train doors under the pretence of getting the perfect picture, but really just for the thrill of the adventure.
We are headed to tea country, Ella. A driver is waiting to whisk us to our guest house, an organic ethical tea farm in the Amba Valley that supplies artisanal teas to Fortnum & Mason, London. On this little estate there’s a warm welcome awaiting us with the owners charming and full of stories to entertain. After breakfast of string hoppers and sambal, buffalo curd and fruits freshly picked from the organic garden on site, we head off for a tour of the community-based tea farm which is staffed by villagers who receive a 10 percent share of the revenue. The tour is richly personal – a refreshing contrast to the more commercial tea visit we had done earlier in the year.
We are taken around the small farm and shown the different tea bushes as well as the flavours like cinnamon, used in some of the teas, and shown how the tea is made from start to finish. The kids have fun plucking tea themselves – the flower buds as well as the tender leaves which are later dried for us and packaged as a sweet memento of our trip. We hike the hills (cue some Sound of Music singing), find a waterfall, cross a precariously rickety rope bridge Indiana Jones style, swim in muddy rivers and generally work up an appetite between meals of tasty homely Sri Lankan cooking.
The journey back to Colombo marks the end of our family adventure. The Sri Lankan countryside is a wonderful thing and we have this last bountiful chance to revel in it from the comfort of our car. We pass higgledy piggledy villages where children splash in the stream right next to the main road, while women scrub at clothes squatting elegantly on rocks just shy of the water. Frangipani trees line the surprisingly well maintained roads, while beyond that, the trademark green spreads out.
Dinosaurs are the only thing on our agenda that remain unchecked though no one really makes too much mention of this fact. Half way through the drive however, as the car turns a bend, a huge reptilian body comes into view lumbering slowly across the road. Our car slows to a stop as everyone in the car urges the massive monitor lizard to make it across safely. When it does, my son hisses “Yes!” and grins from ear to ear. Not a dinosaur exactly, but it will do very nicely, so thank you Sri Lanka.