Saturday, November 26, 2016

Wasgamuwa- Myexperiences in this little known park

Wasgamuwa as one of the first parks that I had the privilege of visiting during my early years at school. I have a particular fondness for elephants and this place was an instant hit for me. We did not see many elephants during my initial trip in 1997 due to the severe drought. There were hardly any animals around, but I do recall coming across a large herd during one of our evening park rounds.

I remember the time when I went there with my family during the April holidays of 1999. I had management to convince my father to make a bungalow booking, and he had booked the Gale Bungalow outside the park. We were joined by two of my mother’s very good friends and keen wildlife enthusiasts Aunty Prithiva or Leggy as we all call her and Aunty Shyami. Also among our group was Uncle Mahesh who was a very good friend of my father and his wife and daughter. This was only the second time I am visiting the park, and none of the others have ever taken this route. Thus we took our time in finding our way, and we ended up driving through Variyapola, via Matale and through the beautiful Riverston area down to Rattota and finally to our destination Gale Bungalow. What I remember of the place was that it was situated next to a big rock, hence the name (Gale of gala means rock in Sinhalese). The place was unbearably hot due to the rock heating up during the afternoon sun and reflecting this heat to the bungalow. We were infact in misery as this was the height of the dry season. We had a white Nissan Serena Van back then as we decided to venture into the park in this vehicle as we did not own a four wheel drive vehicle back then, and finding a safari jeep was difficult in this area. The first round was to combine with a dip in the Mahaweli River inside the park in order for us to get out of the heat. I remember coming across many elephants along the way along with a few mock charges which were quite alarming for my parents. 

My father was very cautious, as it was the first time he was driving around in elephant country, and with the reputation of the Wasgamuwa elephants of being extremely aggressive we did not want to take any risks. But we did have a near miss when driving along the Medha Pitiya road I suddenly saw a large elephant facing us inside the forest just few feet away from the road, and asked my father to immediately stop. The problem was that he stopped right in front of the angry elephant and he came charging at us, and missed us by inches, as my father raced a few meters ahead to avoid him. If not for my father’s reflexes he would have hit the window where I was sitting first. We noticed several bullet holes in him which was a reminder that this was one of the worst hit places in the country for Human Elephant Conflict. The poor elephant would have been maddened by the pain of the infested wounds.

We spend the daytime of our stay walking around the village of Handungamuwa bordering the park. The villagers in this area are all chena and paddy farmers, and are facing unimaginable hardships due to the conflicts with the elephants. Due to the lack of sustainable food in the park and the temptation of an easy meal at the expense of the villagers, the elephants wander into the villagers at night, raiding and destroying month’s worth of hard labor by these poor farmers. In one night these people lose a livelihood and sometimes even their very lives as the elephants kill many villagers during these conflicts. In retaliation some have resorted to poisoning vegetables and leaving them for the elephants to eat. The gunshot wounds on the elephant who charged us was also a reminder of the methods used to chase away these giants. The park has an electric fence around its border which they turn on at night, but these intelligent animals have found ways of breaking these down. The villagers have set up tree huts spread all over their village where they spend all night on vigil, waiting for these raiders. During the nights sitting on the verandah of the bungalow we could see fire crackers going off and people shouting alarm calls warning every one of the arriving pachyderms. I remember the elephants coming very close to our bungalow on the last night of our stay. We used our torches to try and spot them, but they were deep in the bushes behind the bungalow. In the morning we discovered our door mat outside the back entrance of the bungalow, torn to pieces by elephants during the night.
I visited the park a few more times after that through the wildlife society.

 I recall in particular one trip during December 2002 where we set up camp at the Mahaweli Campsite bordering the river. It was the height of the rainy season, and the river was full and very rough. I remember that we could not bathe there safely and Nirmal Sir ensured that none of the junior boys were allowed to venture near the river. I was vice president of the society then, and had a very good team who were well coordinated and organized. Gihan was my treasurer who organized all the finances, Sisira was the camp master who took care of all the lanterns and lamps for the night, Tinesh was the quarter master who was responsible for all the food and provisions and Senaka who joined us newly was indispensable around the camp as him being a senior scout was very useful and innovative in organizing the camp chores. His experience played a great role in making the camp a success. By the second day the rain was becoming unbearable, and upon returning from a park round we found our entire camp flooded. The rivers water level had come up and our tents were all wet. We immediately moved camp to higher ground and by next morning we could find no trace of where we had camped earlier, as the river level had reached much higher than the previous day and had engulfed that entire area.

Soon after the trip, I decided to go again, privately to try and photograph more elephants. I did not have a proper camera back then, and I borrowed an old manual camera from Senaka. Sadly due to lack proper knowledge and experience in using a fully manual camera, I ended up ruining all my photographs. But the trip as a whole was very memorable. I hired Rohan Uncles jeep and camping services, and headed back to the park with Tinesh, Sisira and Dharshan. Due to the bad experience few weeks ago we booked the Medha Pitiya campsite which was very far from the river. This was the same place where I camped for the first time back in 1997. The campsite was next to a small stream which was fed by seven springs close by. Thus the water was clean and crystal clear and even good enough for drinking.

Rohan uncle was an excellent cook and we had some of the best meals during this trip. I still recall the taste of delicious roast beef which Rohan uncle’s wife had prepared for us. We thoroughly enjoyed our selves and I recall a few dangerous moments. I decided to walk along the stream to see where it leads. In my stupidity I ventured on my own, after venturing about a Kilometer I started getting a feeling that I was been watched. I was all alone in the wilderness, and I felt so stupid for making the decision. Suddenly I heard the grunt of a bear, I froze and chill ran up and down my spine. Bears are the most dangerous animal you could come across in the Sri Lankan wilderness. They have very bad eyesight and tend to attack without any provocation. This will be the first of two occasions where I came close to a bear all alone in the wild, the other being in Lunugamvehera National Park. Luckily Sisira and Dharshan had managed to follow me and the bear probably afraid of the human voices made a hasty retreat as I did not hear its angry sound again. I was so relieved to see my friends again, and feeling a little shaken up, walked back to the camp. Another close encounter was when Rohan Uncles Land cruiser started giving trouble while on safari. The engine went dead ,right when we were in the middle of an elephant herd. The herd had surrounded us and was now getting agitated. We were stuck in a vehicle which would not start. Uncle whispered for us to slowly get down from the jeep and try and give it a push to start the engine. The road was very muddy and slippery due to the rains, and with difficulty, and without annoying the herd we managed to get down, and we slowly started pushing the jeep to see if it would start. Dharshan was the smallest of us, and while we pushed he slipped in the mud and went sliding under the jeep. We looked around to see where he was but could not find him so we kept pushing till he appeared from under the jeep. We suddenly burst out laughing which alarmed the elephants whom we had for a forgotten about, and they made a hasty retreat into the jungle whilst we made a hasty retreat back into the relative safety of the jeep. Once the herd were out of sight we got back down and managed to push start the jeep.

I had seen very few animals other than elephants during all my visits to the park, but during the August holidays of 2003 whilst on a family trip to the park, we came across a leopard cub that darted across the road. It was a very quick sighting and lasted only a few seconds. But nevertheless I had finally seen a leopard in Wasgamuwa which is extremely rare.

Wasgamuwa has a unique personality to itself which differs from most of the mainstream national parks, perhaps due to its remoteness and the apparent scarcity of visitors. The animals always seem wilder and less used to humans. The park holds its own mystery of which I have only scratched the surface. 

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