Thursday, 2 November 2017

Lankan diaries: Habarana elephant back ride

On the second day, we were supposed to visit Pinnawala elephant orphanage, Sigiriya Rock Fortress and go on elephant safari in Habarana. We left Paradise Beach Hotel at 9 am and proceeded towards Pinnawala.

After travelling about 25 km, we realized that our shoulder bag with passports and money had been left behind at the hotel reception. The driver called the hotel and confirmed that the bag was found and the staff had kept it with them. When we asked if someone could get the bag to our next stop, i.e., Pinnawala, the driver said nobody would do that. When we said we can pay the guy to bring the bag to us, he himself readily agreed to go back to the hotel to fetch the bag.

After getting the bag, the driver said he has wasted 25 km and cannot take us to Pinnawala or to Sigiriya Rock Fortress. Instead he took us to do elephant back ride at Habarana. Whereas Pinnawala is only 73 km from Negambo, he drove us to Habarana in a different route. When we asked about the distance between Negambo and Habarana, he said 190 km, and so did the itinerary, while the actual distance was only 149 km!

Elephant ride
When we reached the place, we saw a couple riding on the back of an elephant wading through a small pond nearby. My kid looked excited to see such a big mammal.

Riding on the back of an elephant can be an incredible experience. And doing it in Lanka can be amazing opportunity to be not only close to the majestic beast, but also to enjoy the views of nature and wild life. Moreover, an elephant ride gives us a chance to observe the surroundings in a closer proximity other than getting to know and share a day in the life of an elephant.

Very well-tamed elephants are usually used for such safaris and a mahout accompanies the jumbo. During the safari, we sat in a wooden saddle, a basket like enclosure fixed upon a wooden platform, placed on the back of the elephant. Four people can sit in the saddle at a time.

Slowly, the elephant started to walk with the mahout. It crossed the shores of the lake and then we were alerted to bend down a bit. When the jumbo was passing under a big tree we bent down to avoid being knocked by the branches of the trees along the path. The guy accompanying the mahout kept clicking our pics.

The mahout told us that the elephant we were riding on was a female, and her name was Sita. She was 40-years old and was put for training when she was 8-years old.

Black cormorants
On the way, the mahout stopped the elephant so that we could feed the jumbo with some cucumbers which we had purchased earlier. We saw some fishermen with their catches. On a tree there were so many black cormorants and I was even able to spot a Kingfisher!

Usually, while riding on the back of an elephant and we can not only enjoy the natural surroundings and wildlife of the area, but also observe the behaviors and the habitats of the giant mammal on the earth.

Elephant’s relationship with mahout
Though it’s exciting to see how obedient an elephant can be once tamed, it also hurts to know that they are separated from their mothers in their childhood to be trained. Surpassing the massive physical strength of this giant animal in the wild, the mahout is capable of handling it by giving verbal commands in a special language and using a weapon called “ankush”, or the “goad”.

A mahout and the elephant share an amazing relationship always. George Orwell discusses this strong relationship between the two in his essay “Shooting an Elephant”: “It was not, of course, a wild elephant, but a tame one which had gone ‘must’. It had been chained up, as tame elephants always are when their attack of 'must' is due, but on the previous night it had broken its chain and escaped. Its mahout, the only person who could manage it when it was in that state, had set out in pursuit, but had taken the wrong direction and was now twelve hours' journey away...”

Even mahouts are trained!
Not all can become mahouts. Just getting close or speaking to an elephant is not enough. He has to be constantly with his animal. It’s more or less like a soulmate, a partner to him. I think no other animal is cared and guarded in the way a jumbo is!

Like an elephant even a mahout is trained to be one. Usually, the skills are hereditary. They are passed down from one generation to another, from a father to his son.  But that does not stop new apprentices from trying the job.

Apprentices undergo a strict regimen of training like how to feed, bathe and look after the elephants, command them with not only words, but also with weapons. It’s almost like a guru-shisya parampara. The student or an apprentice has to please the teacher or the senior mahout to learn the tricks of the trade. He has to help the senior mahout in fetching water, bringing food and helping him in bathing the elephants.

Taming the wild jumbo spirit  
Taming jumbos was considered to be a highly regarded job by Sinhala rulers. Taming and training a wild elephant is not an easy job. To quench the spirit of the wild animal, it is tied in a place and constantly exposed to humans and other tamed elephants. Trainers talk to it while touching it by hand or by using the leaves and branches of the trees. The animal is starved and not allowed to sleep. Deprived of food and sleep, the wild elephant subdues.

Once under control, the jumbo is offered water and food. Since jumbos love to bathe and play in water, the newly tamed elephant is taken for a long bath. A captive jumbo is usually given a 3-4 hours bath every day.

Some beetle like insects feasting on elephant dung
Goading the animal
To control and train the wild animals, mahouts use goads or ankush, sticks, spears and chains. There are about 90 sensitive or goading points and a mahout has to master them all. If a jumbo is goaded in the wrong way in a wrong place, the reactions could be adversary.

Once trained well, the elephants need not be goaded always. Some expert mahouts don’t require either goads or commands to say things to their animal. The kind and level of understanding between the duo is such that the mahout just sits on the elephant and merely taps the animal with his feet to do certain things.

Different lingo
They also command them by certain Sinhalese words used in the country by all the mahouts. In Habarana, the mahout used words like “daha” (walk or rise from sleeping position), “diga” or “daha diga” (stretch forelegs forward), “ida” (move to a side), “deri” (pick up with trunk), “hida” (lie down), etc.

Feeding a cucumber after the ride
In India, I have heard mahouts in Mysore using the words like “dhoom” (listen), “aghath” (move forwards), “zook” (bend), “daali” (salute), “barshuup” (fill the trunk with water and drink), “tool maar” (kick), “maar” (push), “nitt” (extend the legs), “bait” (sit), “titch” (leave), “sarak” (come back), “chai” (move), etc. The language is a blend of Bengali, Urdu, Kannada, Tamil and Hindi.

Back ride not a safari
After 30 minutes, we came back. It was not a safari, but was just a back ride. My little one gave one cucumber to the elephant after the ride. Instead of taking us to a forest, our driver had taken us to a private farm where the guy owned two elephants that carried tourists to and fro on the shores of a small pond. It was too late for us to realize our driver's cheating! 

In the excitement, we didn’t realize it was a private farm. The guy asked us to pay Rs 3,500 for each person. When we told the driver that the price was little too much, he insisted that’s the cheapest fare and they charge even more for Westerners, $60, i.e., around 9,250 Sri Lankan Rupees to be precise!

The receipt handed over to us says $60 per person
After a few minutes of negotiation, the guy agreed for Rs 2,600 for each person for 30 minutes ride on the elephant. He handed over two receipts, which had no name of the place or the address or whatsoever, but had only the price in USD!

Our driver Alex looked happy that we went on elephant ride. Little did we realize that he was pocketing commission from that person there! So just be careful and know the places before heading towards Lanka.

Kasapa Lion Rock Hotel
Later, we went to stay overnight in the Kasapa Lion Rock Hotel, facing the magnificent Sigiriya rock in the small village Digampathaha.

Sigiriya rock seen from the hotel
The deluxe suite room or the spacious chalet as the hotel staff call it, we stayed had a beautiful open air bathroom giving a perfect ambiance for our comfortable two-night stay.

My little one running with his dad towards the chalet
The pool just right in front of our room made it even more alluring. Even though it was getting dark, my kid just wanted to play in the swimming pool and he absolutely loved it.

The pool right in front of our room
They have some amazing and friendly in-house chefs and the buffet dinner and breakfast were absolutely mouthwatering and yum.  

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