After a magical few days exploring the waterfalls, tea plantations and monkey life in Ella, we ventured south, out of the hills and into the flat savannas of the lower inland of Sri Lanka. For this portion of the trip, between the mountains and beaches, we decided to spend our time at two distinctive eco-lodges, immersing ourselves in wildlife with our first legit safari.
Kumbuk River Eco Lodge
We arranged a private driver to take us from Ella to the Kumbuk River Eco Lodge, where we'd stay in a giant elephant villa made out of palm fronds, scavenged wood and other natural materials. Our driver picked us up in a very spacious van, and we enjoyed the ride through mountains and waterfalls with the windows open. Upon arriving at Kumbuk River, we were greeted with cold juices, eucalyptus-scented towels and given a tour around the unique accommodations, which included a re-purposed school bus, a tree house, a houseboat, and, of course, our giant elephant villa, which slept up to 8 but was all ours for the night.
We explored the property and attempted a swim in the raging river. Dave ventured in first, wading carefuly and grabbing onto branches and rocks to steady himself. Erin was feeling a little too confident, and brazenly scurried down the muddy bank, only to take a hardcore fall, resulting in a scraped-up butt cheek and a wounded ego. Without the distraction of internet, we fell asleep early and caught up on some much-needed rest.
We woke early and worked out on some rusty bars on the property and enjoyed a never-ending breakfast of eggs, toast, fruit, oatmeal, granola and a variety of Sri Lankan sweets. The few times on our trip we declined breakfast we received responses of shock and dismay - breakfast is apparently a big deal in Sri Lanka and it is taken very seriously.
After breakfast, we hopped in the car with another driver and headed out to our next eco-lodge, which sat near the border of the Udawalawe National Park, where we would safari the following morning. Upon arriving at Banyan Camp, we were blown away by the architecture - the main lodge and surrounding accommodations were at the same time luxurious, chic, scavenged and eco-friendly. The house, surrounded by banyan trees, was built just on the edge of a giant lake, filled with birds and large trees growing out of the water. The structure was built from plaster, mud bricks, ornate wooden doors, wine bottles and other recycled materials, and included tables, lamps and decor from India and Southeast Asia.
We were immediately taken with the eco-luxe vibe and were super excited for the next 24 hours, even when we saw our room, a wide-open rooftop deck with just a mattress on the ground covered with a mosquito net - no walls in sight. Our host let us know to keep our belongings in the trunk near the bed, as monkeys routinely climb down from the trees to inspect guests' stuff. Sure enough, when Erin went up to change for lunch, she spotted a monkey scurrying away down the hall.
After one of our best lunches - vegetarian lentil curry, spicy veggies, coconut rice and fruit salad, Dave put on some jams and began scaling the banyan trees, while Erin checked out the other houses on the property. By the time Erin returned from her mini-exploration, Dave sat atop the highest tree in camp, jamming to music with his GoPro strapped to his head, beaming with pride.
The highlight of the super cool day was a canoe and hiking trip around the lake with a local fisherman. His very limited English was focused on animal vocabulary, but we communicated well as we were all so pumped to be out at sunset on the perfectly still lake, watching heron, kingfisher and storks among others skim along the water and roost in the surreal water trees.
Our captain paddled us out to an island with the biggest banyan tree we'd ever seen, and to both Erin and the captain's shock, Dave made it to the top within minutes. The captain claimed in all his years, he'd never seen anyone climb the tree, so Dave was elated to set a record and Erin was excited to capture it on video from below, only to step into a giant stinging ant nest. She made a sprint for the water to stop the burning, only to be intercepted by the captain who picked some plants to make an ayurvedic medicine that almost instantly stopped the intense pain.
We continued along our journey, exploring the islands and lake while our captain smoked a giant spliff and delighted at showing us the various local flora and fauna. We headed back to camp just after sunset, and we hung out with the other guests, enjoying fresh coconuts and local beers until the communal dinner was served. We sat with a Swiss anthropologist and an Israeli yoga teacher and shared stories of travel and international living over a traditional Sri Lankan dinner lit by torches.
When it came time for bed, we tucked ourselves under our mosquito net and were stunned by the noises surrounding us. There were no human or man-made sounds, just monkeys, birds, insects and whatever other mysterious wildlife surrounded us - it felt like we were in the middle of a wild jungle CD soundtrack, but in the pitch black. We felt safe under the net, but the sounds were new for us so we had a very restless sleep before a 6am safari wake-up call.
Banyan Camp ended up being one of the coolest places we've ever stayed at, but we definitely did not sleep much, so we rolled ourselves off our deck-bed just after sunrise and ate a giant fruit plate of papaya and passion fruit (Erin) and banana and melon (Dave) before piling our bags into the back of a safari jeep and heading to Udawalawe. Probably defying safety regulations, we rode in the open elevated jeep top for about 40 minutes through small towns and along main roads lined with electric elephant fences until we reached the entrance to Udawalawe National Park.
We chose Udawalawe over Yala because we heard that Yala, especially over the holiday season, would be bumper to bumper with safari-goers, which sounded more like a Disney ride than a true safari experience. Although the entry to Udawalawe was crowded, once we entered the gates and made a few turns, there was plenty of space to feel alone in the expansive protected park. Since we visited a few days after a rainstorm, the jeep paths in the park were muddy and hard to navigate, adding an element of adventure, especially when our driver had to steer up and embankment or gun it through a giant puddle.
On our safari, we first spotted a male elephant chowing down on some trees, then several peacocks (even peackocks in flight which was new for us), water buffalo and lots of birds. Eventually, we came across a family of elephants including a newborn baby, who trailed along its mother's feet. We turned off the car and watched the beautiful mammals from just a few meters away. Erin was super thrilled to observe her favorite animal in the wild. After a couple of hours of safari, we exited the park and hopped in a regular car to take us further south to the beach.
This portion of the trip was Erin's favorite - the mix of the trendy eco-lodges with the elephants and safari were the perfect transition from Ella to our next stop, the southern beaches of Sri Lanka where we'd spend the next week and celebrate the start of 2019.
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