Tantrums and Trumpeting. The Pachyderms of Gal Oya
It is with much trepidation that I set out to spend the long weekend at the Gal Oya Wildlife Department’s Ekgal Aru bungalow. More than the long drive, it is the supposed state of the bungalow that worries me, having been warned of its dilapidated condition.
The route from Colombo to Gal Oya takes me via the Southern Highway, through Embilipitiya, Buttala and Monaragala, notching approximately 340kms. Six hours and 30 minutes later, I reach the Ekgal Aru Park bungalow, which is located exactly at the 36th milepost on the Ampara- Inginiyagala Road. And much to my surprise, the bungalow has been recently revamped with new bathrooms, fresh linen, comfortable beds in clean rooms, and an overall new coat of paint. Phew!
It’s six o’clock in the morning and I’m on my way to the Park Office (located 23 kms from the bungalow) to get a ticket for a boat safari on the famous Senanayake Samudraya. My boatman and tracker are already waiting at the bund and soon we are off. The morning is misty and the air is clean and crisp. The water is clear and still, and breaks into slight waves as our boat pushes forward.
Established in 1954, the Gal Oya National Park serves as the main catchment area for the gigantic Senanayake Samudraya (reservoir), which covers an area of 384 square miles. This is the largest reservoir in Sri Lanka and is at the foot of the Inginiyagala mountains located between Siyabalanduwa and Ampara.
The vast expanse of this gigantic lake is dotted with islands made of rocks of all shapes and sizes, balancing precariously one over the other, and reminds me of a smaller version of Ha Long Bay. On each of these tiny islands are hundreds of birds, either nesting, resting, squabbling, or fighting for space in readiness for their next generation. I spot Indian Cormorants, Egrets, Spot-billed Pelicans, Darters, and plenty of arrogant White-bellied Sea Eagles and Fish Eagles, perched on the decaying branches of trees, possibly from the time this reservoir was built.
Suddenly, the tracker points ahead at a lone elephant swimming in the water. His upraised trunk blows water into the air and his huge body gently bobs up and down like a Loch Ness Monster, as he slowly makes his way from one island to the other. He hears us yet continues on his way until he makes landfall, and then displays petulance by stamping his feet and blowing sand and dust into the air! Elephants swimming across from these islands is one of the highlights of the Gal Oya National Park and quite a rare, yet amazing sighting.
On one of our evening boat safaris, we come across another ‘teenager’ bathing in the water, and as if he got caught with his ‘trunks down’ (no pun intended) he mock charges us, stamps his feet, hits his head on the ground and breaks a few branches of a nearby tree, all the while trumpeting and calling us names! It is as if he was threatening to tell his mother how we disturbed his bath!
During our languorous three-hour boat safaris, we see many more elephants grazing in these lush islands, and the scenery of the morning and evening safaris are distinctly different from each other.
By early afternoon we enter the National Park. Spreading across 25,900ha of vegetation made up of forest, shrub and grassland, this park is quiet, green and devoid of many sightings as the recent rains has filled up the watering holes inside the jungle. Apart from a small herd of about 15 elephants, a few monkeys (toque macaque), even fewer deer and plenty of raptors, it is the stillness and serenity that we enjoy most.
Just before leaving the park, we are blessed with an amazing sighting of the ‘super moon’ as it gently rises over the reservoir casting a long sliver of orange shadow on the waters. The sky around us dances in a kaleidoscope of colour as the sun sets on another perfect day.
Park Office Contact No. +632242002
Park Warden: Buddika Vithanagamage
Cost of Boat Safari (locals) : LKR 650 per person + taxes
Cost of Park Entrance ticket(locals): LKR 40 per person + taxes
Ekgal Aru Bungalow: accommodates up to 10 people. It has three bedrooms with twin beds and en suite baths, an open outdoor upper floor deck with four single beds and a rooftop sitting area. A large expanse of the Aru (lake) is at the foot of this bungalow and acts as a perfect foreground to this location. Swimming is out of the question as we did see a couple of muggers lolling in the water.
Things to look out for:
- Fresh seasonal fruit along the main road
- Elephants on the road at night
- Extremely courteous Park Office officials
- The Makara Kata (Dragon’s Mouth): a natural tunnel where the water mysteriously disappears underground. Thousands of pilgrims visit the Dighavapi stupa annually which is also situated in the area. This stupa was built in the 2nd century BC on the site where Buddha is supposed to have meditated on his third visit to Sri Lanka.