Saturday, November 26, 2016

Memories from the good old days- First time camping in the wilds

I will never forget the first meeting of the Wildlife Society which I attended in 1997.  I was the youngest member, and all the other boys were seniors in their late teens. This did not hold me back and I signed up for the first trip of the year, which was a 5 day camping excursion to Udawalawe. The cost was very minimal back then, and the charge per head was around 400 Rupees.  The master in charge Mr. Nirmal Fernando also known as “A.E.N Sir” due to his initials was a very tough character and I was mortally afraid of him as he was our caning master in school, and I had received quite a few lashings in my first term at College. Nirmal Sir in the future years became a very close mentor of mine, and even to this day is like a father to me.

The plan for the trip was that we assemble in front of the College gate at 4.00 AM in the morning. My mother had to dive me there, and brought along Nishantha one of my neighbors as a chaperone as she would have to drive back alone in the dark, as my father was overseas on work. I remember it was a very organized affair, and there were around four jeeps in total, all provided by one of the parents of the boys named Rohan Kulatunga, who we called Rohan Uncle, who would play a big role in most of my jungle adventures in the coming years. We departed at around 5.00 AM, and I was put in a jeep along with all the other junior members, Daham, Bimantha and my cousin Dilsiri. I was the only fresher as the others had gone on trips before me, and I had a mixed feeling of excitement and nervousness. This is the first time I was off on my own without my parents and my mother ensured that I had everything I needed, from food, to a complete list of clothes and toiletries. I remember my mother was worried about mosquitoes and ensured that I take a dose of quinine as well as a full stock of repellent. She had packed her famous home made pizzas for my breakfast, and as soon as the seniors got a whiff of it, it disappeared before I could even have a bite. The ride seemed long and tiring, reason being that the roads weren’t as good as they are now, and also because these jeeps were old land rovers and land cruisers and were not made for comfort, but I did not mind, the adventure was something I was looking forward to for a very long time. We reached the park entrance by noon, and headed towards our campsite, Alimankada (Elephant Pass). I was tremendously excited about the fact that we were camping next to a river.  But I did not have time to be idling as there was lots of work to do, as 30 of us got together to set up the campsite and prepare lunch. After a good meal we had a nice cool dip in the river, but Nirmal Sir did not let me go too far as he was responsible for my safety and thus kept me close to the riverbank. The evening round was not that eventful and I cannot recall any sightings of elephants. 

Back at the campsite, I had a major dilemma. I need to answer the call of nature, but as I had never been in the outdoors, I was very uncomfortable of going the bush to relieve myself. I asked the cook Ranji to accompany me, and I still remember me being very embarrassed that I had to go out in the open where everyone can see me.  In the night we all gathered around the campfire, and Nirmal Sir, Rohan Uncle and the seniors shared with us their experiences and knowledge about the wild. I was allocated to a tent where all the juniors slept. It was very uncomfortable I remember, because it was raining and the tent was leaking from certain areas, and the heat was pretty unbearable.

In the morning we had a nasty surprise, someone had left some fried “papadam” underneath a jeep at night, and entire army of “kadiya’s” or black army ants, had invaded the campsite. There were literally millions of these soldier ants whose bite was very painful and they were all over the campsite and despite the efforts of using chersonese oil, we were left with no choice but to move camp. The new campsite was called Pansadara, which was much larger and we had more room to spread out our tents.  During the evening I witnessed my first herd of wild elephants.  I also recall an encounter with two big bulls that had a brief face off before engaging in a short duel. I noticed that many of the boys had cameras with them, and I was longing for one of my own, to capture all these memories. This yearning is what made me try my hand at photography many years later.

  The following days got me accustomed to the rhythm of the jungle life, I learnt many camp chores such as how to pitch a tent, how to clean vegetables for the kitchen, and how to light and clean a hurricane lantern. These and many more skills have helped me take on any problem and hardship in life. I will always remember this first venture into the jungles of Sri Lanka, as it not only gave me the first taste of the wilderness, but it made me who I am today.

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