Friday, November 4, 2011

23. Narrow Escapes 5: THE RAMPAGE

I was stunned to see the 'stranger' standing in the doorway.  Gamini, one of my best friends, standing right here in front of me at the bachelors' quarters of the school in Ampara where I was doing my first year of teaching, on the other side of Sri Lanka! This dude, now a Wildlife Ranger for the Department of Wildlife, has also been a fellow Nalandian who was a few years senior to me.

"What're you doing here dude?"' I asked, "How did you find me?"
"Well," Gamini explained in his usual calm voice,"We came to Ampara to get one of our jeeps repaired. We left it at the repair shop and then I remembered that  you're also here in Ampara." 

I knew Gamini as a cartoonist, a true lover and a cool dude with a gentle manner and a big sense of humor. Still his passion for the Wildlife was novel to me. 

"Dude,now that it's the weekend, why don't you come with me? We can have a good time." 

I had no idea that actually this was going to be the time of my life. He worked at the Kumana Bird Sanctuary or Yala East National Park as a Wildlife Ranger.

I didn't need any more persuasion. I 'd been homesick and  missing the Western Province where I belonged with all my friends and the family. So to be with one of my best friends was a windfall I hadn't bargained for.

I didn't bother to know how far this Kumana  National Park was from Ampara. Come to think of it, I actually didn't know where on the map it was. Remember, no 'Google Earth' Those days. I didn't ask how I was supposed to return to the school or when. I was ready to leave under 10 minutes.

"I can drop you back when we come to collect our vehicle in a few days." Gamini said not because I asked. I was all set except for the flip flops I had left at the doorway. It was nowhere to be found. Then I remembered the milkman dude  pulled such pranks on us every now and then. This was certainly the wrong time for any stupid practical joke!!
"Hey Wimal", I called one of the dudes who were sharing the quarters with me.

"It seems that asshole has hidden my flip flops. Can I borrow yours?

"Okay, you can. But make sure you return them as they are." This statement which he made jokingly had etched deep into my subconscious mind which I was to find out later, the hard way.

So finally we walked to the jeep that was parked on the back road, with several other people who worked in the Wildlife Department. So we got in. Introductions were made as the jeep started to move and  a journey to an unknown destination to me began.

The  driver was Norbert. Some were guides.
The rugged American built Jeep was powered by a Japanese ISUZU engine and had a British Air Condition System, all mounted on US made chassis and bodywork. So it was a real international product I thought amused. 

  We were cruising  southbound down the Eastern Coastal Highway of Sri Lanka. We passed Siyambalanduwa, Lahugala, the famous Arugambay known for the blue water and white sandy beaches, Panama, and then Okanda, the gateway to Kumana. It was an unforgettable journey for me. Anyways I enjoy the journey as much as or sometimes even more than the destination.

It was after the dusk we passed the barrier at Okanda  and arrived at the Wild life offices and quarters in Okanda.

I was so amused to meet the pet mongoose who comes running when the vehicle comes and scurries about the undercarriage inspecting the wheels gearbox, propeller shaft and finally has a nap on the differential. Norbert was very careful about this pet that every time he starts the vehicle he checks underneath for the mongoose.
Even the meals we had at the quarters were special. Served simple and plain. No multiple dishes. You don’t expect gastronomical miracles in the middle of the jungle. What you cook, you cook in bulk. That day it was rice, beef curry and some hot fresh chilies, called ‘kochchi’. And beef curry dominated the plate, not rice. This beef was what we had bought on our way here. Shopping for anything means a jeep ride to one of those faraway towns that we passed on our way there.

It sinks my heart to realize, that some of those staff members I had meal with that day were massacred later by the LTTE terrorists. According to Gamini, this National park was later closed for 18 years in those nightmare years.

Generally one isn’t allowed to get out of the vehicle in a National Park. But I had this rare and valuable opportunity to track in the dense jungle with team of trackers, for hours a day, for several days. I’m forever in debt to Gamini for that.

On our way we saw a ‘villu’ covered with Painted Storks. And I was amazed at the vast knowledge of the wild life  that even the members in the lowest ranks had. They swapped knowledge right on the job. One night when Gamini and I were returning to the bungalow after dinner, there was the largest herd of deer I had ever seen grazing peacefully. Gamini drove the jeep in a tight circle to show them to me in the powerful beam of the headlight.

One morning we were tracking through the jungle in single file. A guide was in front of me with a long bladed slashing knife to hack through the impenetrable thorny bushes.Suddenly he froze in his tracks and I'd have slammed into him, had Gamini who was right behind me not grabbed my shoulder and stopped me. Oh boy. when I looked up I saw the hugest wild tusker I had ever seen in my whole life standing a few feet ahead on the other side of the thorny bush. His tusks reached the ground. It was a menacing sight!!

We'd have rammed into his side if the walked a few more feet!

His vegetarian breakfast  consisting some bushes had been interrupted when he heard our arrival. He had paused and were waiting motionlessly for us, standing there like a dark wall. The leading tracker started to chant an elephant mantra rapidly, which didn't work this time. 

The elephant turned to us in slow motion, crunching more bushes in its progress. and launched at us like an armored tank. One thing that saved us was human's acceleration is much better than that of an elephant. By the time the elephant picks up that speed we can cover some ground, yet  it's difficult to outrun an elephant on a straight track.

Gamini grabbed my hand and started to run for our dear lives when this totally unexpected thing happened. One of my borrowed flip flops came off. God knows why I did what I did! I shook Gamini's hand off jumped back a few feet into the path of the onrushing elephant and picked up the flip flop. Maybe Wimal's remark had sunk so deep into my sub conscious mind.  Gamini grabbed me again and ran for it. He didn't run in a straight line. he ran zig zag a bit then crept under a bush nearby, out of sight. The tusker somehow missed the two of us. It bulldozed past us like a destroyer in full throttle, crashing through the jungle leaving a wide trail. He was chasing behind the others in our team.

This illustration on this incident is done by Gamini himself on my special request.

The elephant failed to catch any of us as we later found out. We called each others names and finally regrouped.
after a little while these dudes decided to track the elephant we just escaped, because this has been a very special encounter with a very special elephant. Now while we were tracking the wild elephant armed with high tech camera equipment and binoculars, I started to feel the full blow of the encounter as a delayed reaction. I felt the same way the day we were stuck on the rail crossing

My knees started to wobble because suddenly they felt so weak. My throat felt parched. I was drenched in cold sweat. I heard my heart beating in my skull. I suddenly realized how much life mattered to me. I was a bit pissed off at the group for being so crazy enough to track the elephant we just saved our lives from, by mere luck. The long tusks could have pierced my torso  and I could have been stomped to pulp.

We didn't find the elephant but we saw steaming elephant dung on a rock. We explored a cave inhabited by bears, which was empty at that time of course.

This elephant is a special one even to Yala, Gamini said. He has described this in his book "Lost Trails in Yala East" the translation of the original Sinhala version  "යාල නැගෙනහිර අහිම වනමං”.   
Gamini also gave me some valuable advice. When an elephant is chasing you, it's best to run zig zag and hide just close by. This is because it's difficult to outrun and elephant on the straight stretch. And his eye sight is weak. And his maneuverability in changing direction is poor due to his size.
We visited the Kumana village situated in the middle of the National Park. These people have to cross the jungle and the Okanda check point every time they go out of their village. Gamini showed a number of  bicycles that belonged to the villagers attacked and  wrecked by elephants while crossing the jungle.  This little village in the middle of nowhere, had its own post office and school. It's a crying shame that we are grumbling about our facilities. You gotta see them dudes. 

After a few days armed with a lot of memories that would last forever, I had to return. Gamini dropped me off at Ampara school quarters when he came to collect the jeep that was repaird, as promised. Wimale asked where his flip flops were as soon as he saw me.
I took them off and threw them at his feet and said,

"Here are your damned flip flops. I nearly killed myself to protect them!"

Wimal stared at me with a frown. When I explained to him, he listened with an amused expression on his face and said.

"You're one hell of a dude."

Today, Gamini is the author of the two blogs "Wildlife - Sri Lanka"  and  "ගාමිණීගෙ විජිතය"


  1. oh God! i'd rather have got the scoldings from Wimale than to run in front of the wild elephant! what were you thinking dude?

  2. Dude,

    Oh! My,my! I cant believe that you have been so stupid to risk your life for an object that doesn't worth at all.


  3. Seems like you've got some thrilling memories. interesting to read. thanks.

  4. Dude, Thank you for the links to Gamini's blogs. Great blogs to read! Seems like great guy too.




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