A couple weeks ago I had to pinch myself to see if I was dreaming. Living here in Sri Lanka often feels that way. One of my favorite adventures since I arrived took place the week when we closed the villa and went on a Sunshinestories staff safari to a bush camp near Udawalawe National Park.
We woke up one morning and drove along the coast stopping occasionally along the road to eat rice and curry and see the waves. Eventually, we turned off the coastal road and drove inland until we reached Banyan Camp, a retreat tucked away in the jungle right next to a the peaceful lake Hambegamuwa.
When we arrived, we were served spicy black tea and drank it while watching a small herd of buffalo cool off in the lake. It wasn’t long until we too were out on the glassy lake floating on a black raft with nothing but a couple of homemade fishing poles, two paddles, and a few bottles of cold, bubbly Prosecco. We paddled in the lake until we reached some great climbing trees. The guys made their way to the top and jumped out into the water. One by one we followed them into the lake in our clothes crossing our fingers hoping that we wouldn’t encounter crocodiles. With smiles on our faces and no fish in hand, we paddled back to shore. We didn’t know that this afternoon in the sun was just the start of an incredible weekend.
When the sun set that evening, we all gathered around a bonfire and ate deep-fried spiced onion bhaji and marveled at the stars.
Rain started to drizzle but we were told “dinner ready,” and we walked to the dock to find the square black raft we used that afternoon entirely transformed. Our raft now looked incredible in the warm glow of the oil lanterns. We sat on a Persian rug, leaning against big pillows as we ate a simple but delicious Sri Lankan meal of warm coconut roti with sweet, red onion sambal, and lentil dhal with our fingers. When we finished dessert, we turned off the oil lamps, listened to the echoes of chanting from a temple in the distance, and fell asleep in the middle of the lake under the moonlight. It was magical.
While we dined on the lake that evening, we never heard the sound of the paddle making its way through the water — the oarsman silently and skillfully took us out onto the lake and back to shore without a sound. We woke up at the dock and walked quietly along torch-lit paths to our jungalows, beautiful open air bungalows covered in palm-leaf roofs.
The next morning, the oil lamps that lit our rooms the night before were still burning, and we woke to see the pink and yellow sunrise from our beds.
We made our way to the lake again, this time for a boat safari. We went out on the water in thin Sri Lankan row boats. As the oarsmen paddled, we waved at playful monkeys in the trees and watched all kinds of birds fly overhead. Along the way we made a couple stops to climb Banyan trees and to sit silently and admire the birds.
Our afternoon excursion was the icing on the cake. We jumped in an open Land Rover with music playing and drove past lush banana palms and grassy fields until we reached a trailhead that led to a rushing creek. We climbed down from the trail and swam in the little waterfalls while fish nibbled at our toes (which initially freaked me out a little).
Around lunch time, we walked back to the trail and our local guides served us the best, most buttery manioc root (cassava) with spicy sautéed onion and freshly shredded coconut on banana leaf plates. I haven’t had as good cassava anywhere else on the island as we had out there in the wild, surrounded by monkeys jumping from tree to tree above us.
Our trip into the jungle, away from cell reception and busy roads was short, but it was packed with some of the most magical moments I’ve experienced.