Elephant Riding in Sri Lanka

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Riding an elephant in Sri Lanka

View from the back of the elephant while riding in sri lankaOn the way to Sygiria Rock we have arranged a special treat for the children – a ride on an elephant. We’re not quite sure what to expect and as we set out in bright sunshine which is already scorching even at 8.30 in the morning there is an air of expectation in the car. The children are all still talking about seeing elephants yesterday but we were all a still a little groggy from the flight then. Now everyone is wide awake and the holiday has begun in earnest!

The drive is not long (in fact it was literally only 5 minutes) and we arrive at a beautiful lake. The lake is about half a mile wide and perhaps a little longer. It is teaming with birds and surrounded by thick forest or jungle. As we walk up to the edge of the lake we see set of large wooden steps which lead up to a platform which must be 3 metres high at least. This is obviously the way to get onto the elephants and I think it starts to dawn on all of us, just how big an elephant is. After 5 minutes of nervous excited waiting, Kate spots an elephant walking slow towards us on a track that comes over a small hill. On its back is a colourful platform (which from what we can understand is known as a Howdah although original Howdah’s were very ornate carriages for carrying rich people on the backs of elephants) upon which two people, obviously tourists are sitting. The elephant is enormous and walks at a slow steady pace and as it does the howdah sways, sometimes alarmingly, left and right.

The sense of nervous expectation increases as the elephant walks up to the platform, two Mahouts (which is the Indian name for the people who care for elephants) on each side and stops, neatly below the edge of the platform so the two riders can dismount. What looks like it could be a tricky manoeuvre goes off without a hitch which is reassuring but suddenly it’s our turn!

We climb the steep wooden steps one at a time and then arrange ourselves on the howdah on top of a surprisingly steady elephant. It is a bit awkward for 5 of us all but we settle down for the ride, not really knowing how far or for how long but it does feel like the start of an adventure. I’d love to say that we felt like brave adventurers, setting out on an intrepid safari with our trusty elephants but it wasn’t quite like that!

The elephant ride

A cameleon on a tree as we ride the elepantsAs the elephant backs up and starts on her way we get a first taste of the swaying that we’d see the previous riders experience. It’s not quite as alarming when you’re on top and soon our attention is guided to the beautiful trees, plants, flowers, birds, insects and other living creatures such as a stunning camelon (see photo) that are common in Sri Lanka.

We ride the full length of the lake, stopping every so often for our Mahouts to show us some marvel (and to us they honestly do seem to be marvels). The children then each get a chance to ride directly on the neck of the elephant while she walks. This is again greeted with much apprehension.

Children riding the elephant in Sri LankaAs the oldest, Kate goes first. She makes her way slowly across the platform, picking through the variety of legs from the rest of us and nervously climbs over the howdah’s railing. I can see as she does so that she is very worried that standing on the elephant’s neck will somehow hurt the elephant but the Mahouts encourage her on and eventually she steps onto the neck briefly before quickly sitting down. Once in the sitting position we get underway again and all nerves are banished as the exhilaration of sitting bare backed on elephant takes over! Callum is emboldened by Kate’s success and also has a ride which leaves Tom. At six years old, Tom is probably the most outwardly confident of the three children and is quick to accept the offer of sitting on the elephant. However he is small and I end up having to hold onto him from the platform while he rides which is a strange experience as I can feel the strength of the elephants head as it moves and sways while walking.

Riding the elephant throught the water in Habarana Sri LankaAt the end of the lake the Mahout takes over the position on the elephants next. The elephant obligingly lifts a knee to allow a handing stepping stone for the Mahout to climb aboard. At the same time the other Mahout takes our cameras, so as to get a good shot of us all aboard. We are however thoroughly unprepared for what happens next. The Mahout turns the elephant around to face the water and with slow deliberate steps walks down to the lake side and then picking her footing carefully, walks into the water. The journey down into the lake is as graceful as all the other actions of the elephant however the angle of the platform as the front feet enter the water is rather perilous!

We don’t go far into the water; it’s really just an opportunity for photos and to enable the elephant to turn round, getting ready to return to base camp. As we’re sitting aboard, Tom notices some unusual, green balls floating in the water a bit larger than a tennis ball. This causes much hilarity as the children realise the elephant is going to the toilet in the lake!

We make are way steadily back towards the start again, where Chris our driver is waiting for us. However, while marvelling at the gracefulness of the elephant despite her size, Lisa and I also start to become aware of a less appealing side of the ride. The elephant is amazingly calm and “behaves” well. We have two people with us (who I believe are known as Mahouts) who keep the elephant on the straight and narrow but the method of keeping such a magnificent animal in check is all too apparent.

Our Mahouts in Sri LankaThe Mahouts carry with them a stick, around a metre long with a metal hook on one end. In general, control of the elephant is maintained through the Mahout’s voice, sometimes shouting but occasionally when the elephant is not responding or clearly does not want to do what the Mahout want her to do, they will use the spike as encouragement. For us this takes a bit of the shine off the ride and gives us some food for thought. That said, I don’t think either of us regrets taking the children on the ride, it was an experience they will never forget and along with the visit to the orphanage it has forged a close affinity with elephants that I suspect will remain with them throughout their lives.

With the Mahouts tipped (100 Sri Lanka Rupee’s each) we set off in search of Sygiria Rock, also called the Lion Rock because it has been shaped to emphasise its natural likeness to a Lion.