In the wilds of Kumana | Sunday Observer

In the wilds of Kumana

Sir Christopher Ondaatje and Lady Valda Ondaatje
Sir Christopher Ondaatje and Lady Valda Ondaatje

Continued from last week

It was overcast and wet but we woke up at 5 am, had coffee and tea, and drove into the Kumana forest to search for game. A sloth bear put on a good performance for us, digging underneath a log at the side of the Park track until we disturbed it with our photography. It was a beautiful beast that attended to its toilet a few feet off the road until we moved on. The Ceylon Sloth Bear (Melursus ursinus inornatus) is a sub species confined to Sri Lanka and the only bear species found on the Island. Its range is confined to the receding parts of the lowlands of the Dry Zone. It appears to be the least carnivorous of the carnivora here. Its diet consists of mainly insects and larvae, wild honey and bee grubs, with fruit, flowers, bulbs, and roots according to the season of the year. In the wet season when the ground is soft it digs out termites and their larvae from the white ant hills that abound in the forest jungles it inhabits, or else it searches for beetles, grubs and other insects and larvae beneath rotting logs and boulders. In the dry season it lives more upon fruit, berries, flowers and honey. The principal jungle fruit on which it feeds are Palu, Mora, Kon, Timbiri, and Damba and at times the strong smelling flowers of the Mee tree. It sometimes feeds off the carcass of a dead animal. To man, the trouble with the bear is that both its eyesight and its hearing are not too acute and his nerves are tenuous. It follows, therefore, that when he is engrossed in his business of finding food he might suddenly and unexpectedly find himself in close proximity to a human. He loses his head and panics. He charges straight sweeping the man to the ground with the force of his rush or with a blow of his paw, and then mauls him with a bite or two (generally to the face or head) or another sweep of his destructive claws. He then usually retreats into the jungle and to safety. Had the human appeared from windward, or had the bear some warning, it would probably avoid any confrontation. The fact remains that the bear is more feared by jungle villagers than any other animal except perhaps a rogue elephant. Generally, bears are seen alone, in pairs, or in family parties of a female and her cubs. Sometimes, a female bear in season, may be followed by two or three quarrelsome males. Most bears usually remain in a given tract or range in the forest unless driven to water during a severe drought. Bears seem unable to sustain thirst.

Elephants and Birds

A brown fish owl, the first I had seen for some time, exposed itself to us. More spotted deer and a lonely elephant in the plain – a black animal that Shirley Perera explained to us was the lowest of the three elephant castes. I did not know that elephants had a caste system. The senior caste elephants are lighter coloured and have five toes rather than the four – together with obvious mottling shades. Shirley Perera’s knowledge of wildlife – particularly, elephants and birds – is boundless.

Shirley Perera joined the Wildlife Department in 1956 when he was twenty-one years, bypassing attractive jobs in Colombo, which were not that difficult to find for a young man with an English education. The Head of the Department at that time was the Cambridge educated scholar C. W. Nicholas who encouraged his staff to question and learn while instilling the discipline needed for a ranger’s job. Shirley Perera came from a railway family but jungles were his fascination. He went where his father went with the railways and attended eight schools in different parts of the country. He majored in English and Latin in senior school. His wildlife training was in Yala and there he developed his love for Kumana where he later served as Ranger from 1966 to 1972, as Warden from 1979 to 1985, and later as Assistant Director Eastern Region. He finally served as the second highest officer of the Department (Deputy Director), based in Colombo from 1987 to 1990. Long years in Kumana have taught Perera to know every nook and corner of the area like the back of his hand - along with its legends and lore.

Traditional cuisine

We had stringhoppers - a traditional cuisine, originating in Sri Lanka, and several curries for lunch. Christopher Perera had somehow found a cook with a rare culinary talent. We rested until 3 pm when we set off for our afternoon game drive. Another sloth bear, kingfishers, flying Malabar pied hornbills. We stopped to climb to the millennia old Bowatta Gala – a large turtleback rock outcrop south of the Kumana Wewa - difficult terrain – but fascinating. The turtleback contains several Gal Kem (rock waterholes), caves with inscriptions, remains of a small dagoba and scattered brick and stone works, and is a good habitat for the sloth bear. An engraving of a fish (symbol of a local chieftain) is seen in one of the caves. The view from atop the rock is outstanding with a commanding view of the Kumana Wewa and surrounding jungles. Still no leopard sighting – but again the stinking persists of the putrefied buffalo carcass.

Both, Sir Christopher and I have been to Yala Game Reserve many times, and we have often heard stories of trackers being able to speak to elephants – sometimes with disastrous consequences. The stories were scarcely believable – but on the next morning game drive we witnessed something extraordinary. A large bull elephant blocked our jeep just as the sun was coming up. It was impossible for us to pass him. However, Shirley Perera stood up in the back of the jeep and spoke calmly and with authority to the elephant and reasoned with him. We were speechless. He continued to talk with the bull elephant literally inches from the front of our jeep. “Good morning. How are you? You are a fine fellow. Why are you blocking our way? Don’t you see that we want to go along this road? Be a good fellow. Why don’t you step backwards and let us pass?” Perera continued to talk for probably about five minutes and then we witnessed – the first time I had ever seen anything like it – the elephant taking, first, one step backwards then two steps, then three and four for about fifteen yards. Then, continuing to back up, the elephant backed into the jungle on the side of the road. It was an amazing sight. Our jeep slowly moved forward, with Shirley Perera turning to the elephant and saying, “Thank you very much. You are a good fellow. Have a good day”

We worked hard on our game drives. The roads were muddy and it was tough slogging. We got some good photographic shots of a striped necked mongoose digging for food along the soft muddy road. It continued to be overcast – but in the late morning we saw a large male leopard moving briskly away from us seemingly in a hurry. We sensed that he knew something that we didn’t – and very soon the heavens opened and there was a downpour. We returned to camp – jubilant that we had seen our first leopard.

Plagued by rain

Rain! We were plagued by rain, but consoled ourselves with the excellent food given us by Christopher Perera’s cook: fish curry, coconut sambol, roti, papadams, basmati rice. There were lots to eat – and usually followed by delicious buffalo curd and kitul pani.

These rains in the middle of October were persistent. We wondered if they were the start of the North East monsoon. If they were they could continue for three months. Alternatively, they might just be a passing low pressure system from the South-West. It didn’t matter. We were doing what we loved best – camping and looking for wildlife in our favourite nature reserves. Painted storks huddled in prayer – looking down silently in shallow lagoons of water in the sodden plains. Herds of spotted deer - stags leading the rush across and in front of our jeep. Another brown fish owl, and an oriental scops owl – which I hadn’t seen before. Later on, our hosts alerted us to the distinct call of the oriental scops owl marking its territory on the banks of the river - “buk tak tarak” Only darkness forced us to stop our game drives after which we returned to camp for more superb food and tall wildlife tales. “This is the best life in the world” Sir Christopher said. He had come a long way – in fact from Nova Scotia and London - and he wasn’t disappointed.

Fourth and last day

On our fourth and last day in Kumana – on our final game drive - we luckily glimpsed an old territorial leopard resting in a glade on the side of the road. He was old – probably about 12 years – and was territorial. Some good photography. Sir Christopher, I know, was having trouble focusing with his new Lumix 300 camera. It was a new lighter model and had a lengthy 600mm range. Unfortunately, if a branch or twig stretched across in front of the animal or bird the result was that the photographic quarry would remain slightly out of focus. I somehow tinkered with his camera settings although I did not have access to the manual, so that he could pinpoint his focus – to correct the photographic result. I don’t know how I did it – but I adjusted the focus on both the automatic and the program modes. We both decided to adjust the camera to an “Intelligent Auto” setting for general wildlife photography. This worked quite well. But we still had a long way to go.

Strangely, on the final morning when we left Kumana at 5:30 am it was a bright sunny day. The birds seemed to welcome the change in the weather and we saw pied kingfishers, adjutant storks, crested hawk eagles, serpent eagles, and a black-necked stork. We headed to the Park exit with our bags, said goodbye to the Pereras, and started our long journey to the Gal Oya Lodge at Rathugala, in the foothills of the Mahakanda Range.

The Gal Oya Lodge is a relatively new wildlife destination – owned and operated by Tim Edwards – son of Jim Edwards the former owner of Tiger Tops in Nepal. Sir Christopher and Valda had not seen the Edwards for 23 years. It was a surprise for them. We arrived about 1:30 pm and were met by Brent Barber – a Rhodesian who had been working at the Lodge for less than a year. The Gal Oya Lodge is a small tasteful lodge designed by Architect Cecil Balmond.

The Lodge -a unique out of the way boutique hotel – is situated near an ancient abode of the Vedda people. In these mountains, scattered with caves, lived hunter-gatherers who have now moved down to lower elevations and integrated into the agricultural society. However, there still retain some of their customs and traces of their language. In this area is a rock called Danigala (2,565 ft.) that contains one of the largest and the last Vedda inhabited caves, called, Pattiyagalge.

The Gal Oya Lodge

The foothills of the Range are covered in acres and acres of aralu, bulu, and nellie medicinal forests - a beautiful and flourishing orchard - a veritable ‘jungle pharmacy’ believed to have been planted during the glorified time of early Lanka kings. This whole area encompasses the medicinal forests called, Bulupitiya Talawa. The area is also the home of the rare and endemic painted partridge. The Gal Oya Lodge is about a half hour drive from the Gal Oya Reservoir known as the Senanayake Samudraya, the largest freshwater body (25,900 hectares) and a very special reservoir in Sri Lanka. The Lodge itself is an amazingly brave development and well worth visiting. It is comfortable, and different from any of the other lodges that I have seen in the country. There are original bird walks, journeys to archaeological sites – particularly, to Rajagala where it is believed that relics of Arahat Mahinda who brought Buddhism to the Island are enshrined - and extraordinary boat safaris on the Senanayake Samudraya. There we searched for elephants, travelling through the dead carcasses of century old trees which provided perfect roosting places for terns, egrets, fish eagles, cormorants, and herons. The Gal Oya Reservoir was the first large reservoir and irrigation project undertaken in independent Ceylon. Gal Oya has almost become a household word. It is symbolic of the New Lanka. “May it attain fulfilment speedily and herald the progress of our march towards self-sufficiency” – so said Rt. Hon D. S. Senanayake, Father of the Nation and the first Prime Minister of Ceylon after it was granted Independence in 1947. It is in his honour that it is named Senanayake Samudra or Sea of Senanayake. The reservoir is the heart of the nearly 100 square mile Gal Oya National Park.

At the edge of the reservoir one has to search for the elephants who come down to the water to drink and bathe. If one is lucky one will see them swimming between the islands in the reservoir, with only their trunks protruding out of the water, like periscopes, a marvellous and a rare sight. We only stayed three nights at Gal Oya – resting from our Kumana camping experience. I had to go to Namal Oya about 15 miles away because there was no telephone coverage at the Lodge area. Sir Christopher however spent the time writing, or going for long walks with Lady Ondaatje along the adjoining paddy field bunds. One morning he and I spent four hours in a boat exploring the Gal Oya reservoir – which is enormous. We took many photographs of birds roosting on the tree skeletons -fish eagles, cormorants, egrets, white-bellied sea eagles. We also got quite close to a pair of elephants enjoying the lush reservoir grass. Later in the day, we were told by Belinda Edwards that she had videoed the two elephants swimming across between the islands. Interestingly, the roofing of the Gal Oya Lodge is entirely of iluk grass, an indigenous thin tall grass slowly being overtaken by invasive grass. Traditionally, this grass was a thatching material but now, because of its scarcity and the labour needed to thatch, this roofing is seldom seen.

From Gal Oya we drove for five hours to the Ulagalla Walawwa – originally owned by Anula Kumarihami hailing from an old Sinhala chieftain family. She married Kiribanda Panabokke who was from Kandy. Wallawwas are manor houses that date back from Portuguese and Dutch times. The rains continued to follow us all the way up to Ulagalla – just over 15 miles from Anuradhapura. The Walawwa was actually built in 1915 but during the worst part of the civil war in 1985 Anuradhapura became a military town and it was taken over by the army as their headquarters in this strategically important part of the country. It is the gateway to the North. Ulagalla Walawwa was bought by the current owners Uga Escapes in 2007. They have done a masterful job renovating the old building. The staff was very pleasant and welcoming, and the landscaping of the sprawling grounds provided us with a comfortable hideaway before our next ‘extreme experience’ in Wilpattu.

We spent two nights at the Ulgalla Walawwa resting and writing. Sir Christopher had a lot to talk about. In between work sessions we experienced the delightful cuisine of the Walawwa, cycled around the property, used the well outfitted gym, sauna, and made visits to the spa with their Balinese therapist. It was a wonderful experience and Sir Christopher talked fondly about his friends Sam Elapata Jr and Siran Deraniyagala whose Walawwas in the Ratnapura district he visited in the 1940s and early 1990s.

(To be continued)

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