The island has survived civil war and a tsunami. But Sri Lanka remains a jewel in the Indian Ocean, as PAULINE and BARRY LEIGHTON found out on a recent visit

It is like that famous a scene from Walt Disney’s The Jungle Book as they troop contentedly along the red dusty trail in ones and twos, ears flapping in the midday heat.

I can almost hear that song as they pass: “Hup two three four, keep it up two three four.”

OK, it is not quite in a military style, as befitting Colonel Hathi’s soldierly patrol from the film. But there is a definite semblance of order as these sublime creatures process purposefully through the town.

Minutes later around 80 playful residents of the world’s largest elephant sanctuary are having a ball; trumpeting, squirting and merrily splashing and thrashing about in the Ma Oya River.

Sinking ice cold bottles of Lion lager from a riverside bar, we watch in delight and with no little emotion these “big burly boys and girls”, as our erudite guide Jeremy aptly described them, enjoy a leisurely dip. One mighty tusker writhes cheerfully around as three dutiful attendants administer the equivalent of a 40-minute car wash; scrubbing, scraping, rinsing and pitching handfuls of water over the recumbent hulk.

Joyfully waggling his trunk, the big fella is mad for it; definitely a case of an elephant in his element.

Bath time at Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage near Kandy – a Government-sponsored home for orphaned, injured and rescued elephants of all ages and sizes – is a sight to behold and a definite must for anyone visiting Sri Lanka.

The late Sir Arthur C Clarke, author of 2001 A Space Odyssey and former long-time resident there, described the tear-drop shaped island as a jewel in the Indian Ocean.

Having just spent 14 days being ferried around a good two-thirds of the former Ceylon, it is not a description that I – or indeed, any of our party – could reasonably dispute.

“A little land of magic and paradise,” promises our guide. And he isn’t far wrong.

Our Voyages Jules Verne Grand Tour of Sri Lanka begins at its most iconic site. Jutting improbably from the surrounding jungle, Sigiriya Rock has an eerie, almost alien appearance.

It is as though a gigantic boulder, about 700ft tall and boasting a heart-stopping cliff face, slammed into the earth from outer space eons ago.

Incredibly, a Fifth Century ruler built an elaborate “palace in the sky” on top of it; no such thing as health and safety in those days and many lost their lives forging a precarious route to the summit.

On a ridiculously humid morning, we are standing at the bottom of it, gazing up. “Just don’t look down,” is my annoying and completely unnecessary advice to a near-traumatised wife as we begin our ascent. The response is unprintable!

Increasingly soaked in sweat, we clamber up an assortment of stone steps before venturing onto a dodgy looking spiral staircase bolted onto the rock face.

The reward, more than half way up, is the 1,600 year-old “heavenly maidens” – a beautifully detailed tableau of exotic and erotic frescoes depicting the king’s concubines. So fresh and vibrant, they could have been painted yesterday.

The view from the top, with the remains of the citadel and its gardens – is breathtaking.

Ever wondered where your morning cuppa came from? Chances are it was plucked by hard-working women wearing colourful saris from endless rows of pungent, bright green bushes in the Sri Lankan hills.

Stepping into the Blue Field Tea Factory, a fully working relic from the Victoria age and around 4,000ft above sea level is like stepping back in time. Some of the tea processing machinery is more 90-years-old.

Modern equipment is available, but utilising it would plunge the region into an unemployment black spot, so a Luddite-like policy is deployed. Long may it last! More than 2,000 ft higher up and shrouded in moody clouds and mist is Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka’s highest town. With its buzzing food markets and noisy clothes bazaars, filled with much haggling and cajoling, it has bags of energy and atmosphere.

Best of all though, you can get a two hour train journey all the way down!

Sipping cans of Carlsberg Export – OK, it’s the only stuff we could find in town – we marvel at the stunning landscape and intriguing towns which clatter by, while hopping out at every stop to take pictures.

The stations are quaint and well kept, with old fashioned potted plants and fading travel posters, evoking a nostalgia for our own long gone golden railway age.

They come in all shapes, sizes and colours; often exquisitely and lovingly decorated. Buddhas are simply everywhere in Sri Lanka.

The most spiritual of these sites is very likely the Royal Rock Temple Caves of Dambulla, dating to the 1st Century BC, and located around 300ft above the busy town.

Scores of Buddha statues populate these holy caves, the serenity of which are occasionally shattered by screeching monkeys which irreverently swoop down to grab and devour the offerings of flowers before being chased away by robed acolytes brandishing brooms.

Well, you have to laugh!

BARRY LEIGHTON Travel Facts Pauline and Barry Leighton booked the Voyages Jules Verne Grand Tour of Sri Lanka: 0845 166 7008. The 14 day tour involved stays at:

  • Hotel Sigiriya
  • Chaaya Citadel Hotel. Kandy
  • St Andrews Hotel, Nuwara Eliya
  • Mandara Rosen Hotel
  • Dickwella Village Resort
  • Lady Hill, Galle
  • The Palms Hotel, Beruwala