A truly frightening elephant stampede

Trip Start Jun 15, 2011
Trip End Jun 15, 2012

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Flag of Sri Lanka  ,
Wednesday, January 11, 2012

While sitting out storms in Kandy we took a venture to an elephant orphanage about an hour outside of town in a place called Pinnawala. We had heard some great things about it, that they are saving orphaned elephants from all over Asia, giving them a great home and are now raising the second generation of elephants there. We got in a cab and drove through the congested road out of town and through the jungles along back roads to this place, expecting to see something truly special. The guide books rave about it, and the manager of our hotel encouraged us to go. I'm sure you know where I’m going here.

When we arrived, there were two lines to get tickets. There was the local line and there was the tourist line. Of course I got into the tourist line, and paid a whopping twenty dollars per ticket to get in. Once inside we found maybe four hundred tourists standing around with cameras but no elephants. A river of visitors was heading down the road, but since the orphanage had not given us a map, a brochure, or any guidance whatsoever, we didn’t know where we should go. We elected to go the opposite way that everybody else was going, swimming upstream like salmons, and found where we should have been pointed to in the first place. We found ourselves in an arena under a tin cover where two hundred visitors stood around in elephant feces watching three young elephants being bottle fed by volunteers. I began to get angry like I usually do when I sense that I have been had, but tried with all my might to keep it together. I took my family to an area where another herd of humans was milling about on a plateau, and found an area bordered by logs where we could stand and gaze off into the distance at maybe 100 elephants eating discarded jungle fauna carted in by tractor and scattered on the ground. Some of the elephants were retained by chains that ran from their ankles to their necks, presumably to keep them from charging, but there was nothing and nobody to tell us that. What the tourists had to do then was to assume what the orphanage was all about and to reason what their rules were. Workers would approach groups of guests and lead them out into the 'off-limits’ zone for a personal visitation of an animal and allow them to have pictures taken with the animals. We did this, of course, and got some good pictures. But then the worker would ask for a personal donation, requesting ten dollars, and it got my mind into calculation mode to try to figure out where all the entrance money is going.

We stood there looking at elephants for perhaps a half hour; there was really nothing else for us to do. The second part of the ‘tour’ was to walk down to the river to wait for the elephants to arrive to take one of their twice daily baths. But Mason had to go to the bathroom, so I left Estela and the girls at what I saw as the perfect viewing spot. They told me later that this precipitated the most frightening event they had experienced on this trip, when suddenly the elephants erupted from over the hill onto the road the girls were standing beside, charging along it and coming straight for them. These lumbering beasts were being driven hard by guys with sharp sticks and they had the steam of the rest of their herd behind them to keep them moving at a solid gallop. Where the girls were standing, the elephants were coming straight on, and the elephants had to make a course change to avoid hitting them. The entire herd of about one hundred elephants emerged over the ridge in that fashion and it would have taken only one misstep to crush the rest of my family. Mason and I would have become orphans ourselves. During this stampede three giant bull elephants passed by at blinding, stumbling speed and missed the girls by less than a foot. At one point, Adriana was so freaked out about this stampede that she nearly darted across the elephants’ path to get safely to the other side. It was only Estela who kept her from doing that. If she had darted across out of fear she would have been crushed, of that I am certain. My blood ran cold when Estela told me about the incident. But nowhere was there a sign to indicate the path the elephants took to the river, or to request that people stand clear of this area.

I was able to purchase a packet of bananas wrapped in newspaper from an old toothless man and then to get Mason up to the front to feed one of the pups while we snapped pictures. He was led to one small elephant and given free rein to feed the little guy, and then the guide asked me for a donation. I gave him the equivalent of one dollar, which he said wasn’t enough. So I pocketed the money and started to walk away. He of course protested that maybe that was enough, so I returned and pressed the money into his hand and then I grabbed his arm and pulled his face to mine where I said in very precise words, "Don’t… get… greedy." I kept my eyes locked on his until I saw his understanding, then we rejoined the girls. I’d had enough.

From the viewing platform we watched three elephant tots wrestling in the mud in the middle of the river and trying to pin each other under water while a couple of half grown elephants were up on a pile of rocks trying to push each other off some huge granite stones. All that time, the workers poked and prodded the elephants with long sticks that ended with extremely sharp metal points that sent them in whatever direction the worker wanted them to go. These prods penetrated the skin, and it seemed a bit cruel for workers in an orphanage to be using such diabolical weapons. I thought a long stick with a blunt end would have done the trick, but the elephants sure respected the sticks being used. There was absolutely no supervision, and the workers could be as cruel as they wanted to be, and they were.

I made a note to myself to never, ever, swim in a river downstream of any place an elephant had been. A hundred elephants swimming in a river two times a day spending an hour or so each time could create a river of its own. This orphanage is up in the mountains, upstream of 100 kilometers of meandering river flowing through the jungle before dumping into the sea. Some of the downstream villages undoubtedly depend on this river exclusively for their drinking, cooking and cleaning needs. I will go out on a limb here and say that it is unlikely that any of the $40,000 dollars this orphanage collects each day from ticket sales makes its way to the villagers to clean up the water supply that their orphanage destroys. Let that be the end of my public service announcement.

Later in the day we went to the Royal Botanical Gardens that lines the Mahaweli River. Our driver dropped us off at the front gate where we paid another steep entrance fee, and went inside. The rain was starting and we didn’t come with an umbrella, so we made a bee line to the restaurant in the center of the garden to have lunch. Then the rain came down with such force that being caught in it for five seconds would have been like jumping into a lake. When the rain let up we took a walk through the gardens, but since our driver had arranged a pickup an hour and a half later, we were severely cramped for time after spending 45 minutes staying out of the rain. Why I had allowed a taxi driver dictate my schedule is beyond my comprehension now, but at the time the schedule seemed reasonable.

The garden was fantastic. It gets 200 days of rain each year, as we sampled. We never made it to the spice orchard or the orchid house, but took a route around the garden and along the river. The kids truly enjoyed it. Then we spotted some flying foxes in some trees and thought that was kind of cool. Then there were more, and the trees became thick with their hanging bodies, and then the path started to stink and got slippery and we pieced it all together. The paths were coated with a thick layer of bat guano as thousands of flying foxes moved from tree to tree. Shelby asked me how in the world they poop when they are hanging upside down, a question I could not answer. It seemed to take us twenty minutes to get out of that hellish bat habitat. We saw monkeys along the way, and a whole lot of interesting birds, English gardens that Britons could sit with a pot of tea and stare at for hours, and creepy trees that would have made the perfect backdrop of a really good horror flick.

When we got back to the car a tad late the driver glared at us, and I glared back. He then took us to fill up on gas, which he could have done in the hour and a half we had paid him to sit around, at a station in the middle of that famous Kandy gridlock. This day was a ‘tour’ that our manager Dilip had set up for us, the last we will do on this trip. I emphasize to my kids that we don’t go on tours, and we are not tourists. When I mention to Mason the word ‘tourist’ he says, “Dad, we aren’t tourists, we’re travelers.” Right you are, me boy.
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Steve w on

That is quite an adventure. Enjoy reading this amazing and educational travel blog. Keep them coming, please, I am hooked, hehe

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