A friend recently returned from a safari in Africa where she saw and photographed magnificent animals in the wild. Her photos reminded me of my visit to Sri Lanka long ago.
The year was 1975. While living on the island of Cyprus in 1974, before the Greek coup and subsequent Turkish invasion, I met a Swedish millionaire who had yachts bobbing in ports around the world. He had just purchased a new yacht from Taiwan and needed crew to sail it from Taiwan back to the Mediterranean.
Following the upheaval of the war, the captain of the yacht contacted us (my then husband and me) and asked if we would work as crew on the leg from Sri-Lanka back to Cyprus. I remember thinking, oh wow, the adventure of a life time! Mind you I was not a sailor, had never steered a boat, and knew nothing about hoisting and lowering sails. But being curious and always open for learning, I thought why not? So off we flew to join the yacht’s crew.
Arriving in Sri Lanka by plane from Bombay (since renamed Mumbai), we landed near the capital city of Colombo in the western province late at night and discovered that trains and buses weren’t operating and wouldn’t be until the following morning. After negotiating with a taxi driver for the five-hour drive, we placed our suitcases in the trunk of his small car, hopped into the back seat and headed northeast on a two-lane road to the deep-sea port of Trincomalee. Our driver stopped at his house in the outskirts of Colombo to pick up a toolbox. ‘Just in case,’ he told us. He stopped again to fill the tank with gas and off we went through the jungle one magical, full-moon night.
“Wow, wow, did you see that?” I asked again, and again as I spotted one wild beast after another roaming and rummaging in the fields for food alongside the road. “Was that a leopard?” I asked watching a rather large spotted cat leap across tall grass and pounce on something.
“Our number one predator,” our driver explained (in beautiful English). He spoke about the beauty of his beloved country and boasted about the wondrous variety of wildlife living in Sri Lanka.
“I hope we see elephants,” I said. “I love elephants.”
“They’re everywhere, roaming free.” He smiled.
I listened intently to his stories, awe struck by his love of nature. Just before dawn he slowed the car, turned off the headlights, and switched off the car engine.
“This is where the elephants cross,” he said. We waited and watched, searching for movement in the thicket of trees lining the road.
“Look!” I whispered, pointing. “An elephant …” I took a deep breath and watched as a large elephant emerged from the brush, followed by a baby. Moments later, another large elephant pushed shrubs aside and moved forward, crossing the road with a calf close behind. More followed—old and young. I watched the herd as they ambled across the road. We waited a few minutes for stragglers. None followed.
“No elephant crossing signs needed,” he said, starting the engine. “They always cross here.”
Nearing the port of Trincomalee, we passed a man walking down the main road with a young elephant by his side. Our driver pulled his car off the road and got out. “One moment,” he said, asking us to wait. He spoke with the man and then motioned for us to join them.
“You can pet him. He likes people.” He waved us closer.
“Oh wow,” I said, giggling when the elephant swung his trunk and pointed it at me. The young elephant waggled his head and wiggled his body as if he wanted to play. I moved forward and he snuggled up to me. “Ah,” I said, patting his head. He opened his mouth wide. I giggled again and patted his smooth tongue with the palm of my hand. He seemed to smile. “Wow!” I said again and snuggled closer.
Our driver indicated it was time to go. I patted the young calf on the head and thanked him. I bowed to the man. I couldn’t believe my luck. I had snuggled with an elephant and patted his tongue. “Wow!” I said again.
We spent several weeks in port, preparing supplies for the trip and waiting on charts to sail to the Seychelles. I patted many elephants while there. Once I touched them, they seemed to know me and remembered our unique connection. I marveled each time at their extraordinary keen senses and their astounding awareness of the world around them.
We ended up setting sail, across the Indian Ocean, without charts because the ship’s agent couldn’t get them and the captain seemed anxious to get going.
But that’s another story … with many more amazing moments. In Sri Lanka I learned that elephants don’t need crossing signs to cross the road. But road signs do help drivers know where to slow down for the extraordinary elephants.