UNFORGETTABLE EXPERIENCE IN SRI LANKA
Review submitted by
16 Jun 2017
In October 2012, I spent two and a half weeks volunteering with Frontier after hearing about the organization from a previous participant in Thailand. Gene had spent three months with Frontier and was full of great stories and enthusiasm for the project. I had wanted to visit Sri Lanka since my teenage years and after returning home from Thailand, Gene's tales stayed with me. As a keen photographer of elephants I also wanted the opportunity to photograph them in the wild and see them roaming freely.
I was met in Negombo by the very friendly Aravinda and Sampath and immediately felt at ease in their company. We set off on the 7 hour journey it would take to arrive at the project site near Wasgamuwa National Park and we chatted easily, with me bombarding them with questions! About Sri Lanka, the elephants I would see, the project. Aravinda was very knowledgeable and answered all my questions good-naturedly. The journey went quickly, stopping for a delicious lunch and a bit of sightseeing in Kandy on the way.
Arriving at the project site late afternoon, the sky was a dusty pink and the view from the house did not disappoint. Overlooking a grassy plain with a thin river running through it, usually a full lake during the wet season, and distant mountains we feasted on wonderful curry and rice and turned in for an early night, tired after our long journey. The house had five simple rooms with which to house volunteers but as the only volunteer I had a room to myself!
Aravinda and I set off early the next morning down onto the plain for our first bird watching session and I was immediately amazed at the varied bird life. We wrote down each bird we saw, also recording our GPS location and weather conditions and after just an hour had recorded a staggering 27 different types. Bird watching fast became one of my favorite activities and looked forward the daily, early morning twitching.
We also did transect in various locations recording the signs and movements of elephants. We reordered elephant dung size, its location and age, also measuring footprints to determine the approximate age and size of its owner. As well as recording elephant signs we also did a long trek up into the mountains through beautiful jungle searching for other mammal signs such as those from leopards and sloth bears. Some of the immense trees we passed were awe inspiring and the stories of leopards passing closely to meditating monks at the hut high up the mountain fascinated me.
But by far the most enjoyable activity was afternoon time in the tree hut, a surprisingly comfortable structure high up in a tree which creaked and moved with the branches in the wind. It was the perfect spot to view the elephants as they made their way from the forest to the lake and made it easy to record their movements and behaviour. Monsoon rain became a regular afternoon occurrence and provided incredible lightning storms, also filling the surrounding water catchments with much needed water. Because of the wet some of our tree hut time became jeep time but also gave us a couple of very close encounters with the elephant herds. On one rainy occasion we observed a large herd being followed by a number of males, some of the females obviously in estrous. One large male approached us from behind sending Siriya clambering to the front of the Land Rover! But he turned to return to the females. It was absolutely exhilarating seeing them up close and being able to observe their behaviour, I felt very privileged.
We also did fence monitoring, recording any posts that may have been broken or wire that had become slack. It was interesting to see the electric fences at work and even greater to know that they were doing their job by dramatically reducing the instances of human/elephant conflict.
Visiting the local school was also a great highlight. The kids were so gorgeous, with friendly, open and curious smiles. Aravinda showed them some nature videos as well as one about the work that Frontier does. The headmaster seemed very pleased the whole exercise and was also keen to have the children exposed to things outside of their daily lives. He became very interested in my practice of yoga and so we decided I would teach about 50 of the students a thirty minute yoga practice. Aravinda and I put together a short video presentation about yoga, its history, connection with Hindu and Buddhist religion, etc., to show them before the practice. On the day the kids were great, although the girls remained in their skirts which meant a quick rethink of poses! But they were very enthusiastic, and eager to please, and did really well. It was great fun and I thoroughly enjoyed being able to give something to the school.
Everyone on the project was so accommodating and friendly and I felt very well taken care of. Leela's food was absolutely delicious and I don't think there was a single dish that I didn't love. Siriya provided ample entertainment! Sampath and Aravinda were also kind enough to take me on an excursion to Dambulla and Sigiriya which were both staggeringly beautiful. And our trip into the lovely Wasgamuwa National Park provided lots of great elephant and bird viewing.
All in all it was an unforgettable experience and I leave feeling that I have contributed just a little to the great work that Frontier does. I will definitely be back.