So, leaving Bibi and Clio to the beach, I went off to a sacred temple which was quite a climb; over 500 very uneven steps to the flat-boulder summit, where I admired a magnificent far-reaching view to the sea. Around an hour away, past Tangalle, and then inland going north, is the Mulkirigala Rock Temple. A visit here is advised at either early morning or late afternoon. I opted for the latter.
Situated at Mulkirigala in the district of Hambantota, this intriguing temple is miraculously carved and designed out of an enormous outcrop of rock boulder. The Dutch, during their rule, believed that the tombs of Adam and Eve were perhaps here and termed the site 'Adam's Berg'.
There are many tales around this temple but the obvious spiritual testament today is that of Buddhism. There are seven extraordinary statues of Buddha, including three massive reclining poses, ancient wall murals and seven chalky white stupas – the largest of which resides at the top with spectacular views, 533 steps later.
On my ascent I was blessed by a very old, wise and reputedly holy man who wrapped white cotton around my wrist and smiled intently into my eyes. This temple is an active hallowed site, with many worshippers visiting daily, plus it sits in the centre of a village with a monastery alongside. On this occasion, there were no other visitors besides my guide, the chattering monkeys, crows, and the temple's stray dog.
On the drive back to paradise beach, the sun exited with such fury that we pulled over while the sky blazed a deeper and deeper blood orange. That's what happens here: nature is on fire. My driver was puzzled and asked me what was so special about the sky? Was it really worth a near tuk-tuk wipe out?
That night we had an exclusive beach dinner, dazzling in Arabian Nights allure, with hundreds of candles in hurricane lamps and atmospheric liturgical torches dug deep in the sand. It looked magical. With butter-soft beach between our toes and a cooling sea breeze, we dined on an ocean-rich platter of flame grilled fruits de mer, sensationally barbequed, with a host of salads, local pulses and sauces.
Nature and prayer created a romantic soundtrack mix and we thanked our lucky stars for such a naturally enchanting occasion. The constellations in the jet-black sky sparkled with such exacting brilliance; it was as though someone had turned up the dimmer switch to the skylights.
At 4am on our final morning, I left the other two sleeping beneath their shrouds of white veil (nets are optional) and crept off into the still black, prayer-filled night, to visit one of the most special wildlife reserves in Asia, Udawalawe National Park. Paradise was not lost after all – a new one was gained.
The car was waiting at the entrance, piled up with comfortable cushions and water so the two-hour journey was no hardship. In order to reap the full rewards and, quite honestly, to cope with the relentless sun, you have to visit at dawn or dusk. Besides, there is no more ethereal light in this world than the gentle one at dawn, while the animals love it too.
My amazingly kind, helpful and well-spoken driver, Chamly, woke me up just before sunrise, on the outskirts to the park's entrance, beside a deep amethyst-toned reservoir. A lone man, sitting in prayer position in his canoe, was the only sign of humankind. It all seemed surreal. The wake-up sounds of the tropics were pulsing across a misty forested jungle, while a few feet away, spilling into the road, some slothful cattle were deciding whether it was night or day.
I stood transfixed beside them taking in this vast expanse of dream-like wilderness as the sun gently lifted itself up, warming this intensely tranquil scene as though the sky's oven had just opened its door. The peacocks wailed out their hauntingly shrill cry, another break in the calm, and a cue to continue. All this, and we were not yet in the park. For every hour of sleep lost, you gain a lifelong experience.
The night before, the chef had prepared me a bespoke picnic, including a constant supply of refreshments and coffee. Once inside the park, we met with our ranger, the driver, and switched into an open-topped jeep. Within ten minutes of leaving base, the first elephants appeared, sauntering lazily across the track, swaying their sleepy trunks and occasionally checking to see if the family was in pursuit.
All in good time, a whole herd surrounded us, spanning a couple of generations, with the most adorable babies snuggling under the protective bulk of their elders, or alleviating a little scratch from their heads by rubbing up and down their parents' pillar-solid legs.
These elephants are so unlike the African ones I am used to, which are thrilling to the core but threatening too. The Sri Lankan elephants are adorable and mild tempered, with a gentle disposition; I simply fell truly, madly, deeply in love and without the surging pulse this time. During our drive around the park we saw so many contented herds that I lost count, though there was nothing like watching them at play in that early, soft, dewy light.
An alpine touch
The park's terrain is spectacular, being pretty much evergreen with marshland and lush grassland plains for the most part, which makes viewing easier. The verdant landscape is framed by a mountain range called Sudu Kanda, which, as the light picked up, looked more like a scene from summertime Switzerland than the tropics. We stopped the car whenever the ranger spotted an interesting animal or, sometimes for a less interesting one too, but that didn't matter.
Breakfast was laid out for me, on white with silver, in a sheltered enclave of foliage with a view to the mountains. With fresh hot coffee and a platter of exotic fruits beside a bowl of the creamiest vanilla and cinnamon yogurt, I really did feel blessed. Amanwella ensures that the experience is extremely special and spoiling.
Before we hit the mystical, wonderful, almost eerie area where small lakes, fed from the enormous reservoir, are swamped in mystery and wildlife, it was me that screeched 'eagle!' Turning off the engine we watched an enormous grey-headed fish eagle sitting on a low branch, only a few feet away. Beneath his beady eye a Eurasian spoonbill was slapping his beak into a pool of water while a smooth soft-shelled turtle came up for some air.
This stunning scene was briefly interrupted as a sturdy monitor lizard swaggered to the water's edge for a drink. The ranger pointed up towards the tree above the eagle and there was the prettiest pigeon I have ever seen, feathered in pale to brilliant greenish blue: the pompadour green pigeon. All this profusion of extraordinary wildlife unfolded a few feet from the jeep and in a space no bigger than a small sitting room.
The incorporeal area of motionless small lakes, part of the Uduwalawe reservoir, appears both pastoral and freakishly outback: soft flat grassy banks surround the water pools with the majestic mountains in the distance. Lone black leafless trees stand upright amid the flat still waters with arms outstretched as though designed for birds to perch.
I was displaced, entranced by the stillness and enthralled by the glut of birdlife, including cormorants, kingfishers, herons and Indian darters. We saw the Malabar pied hornbill, and plenty from the comedic stalk family: both the black-necked and the painted stork. A pair of fish eagles circled this scene as though waiting for a kill to unfold.
But, while we watched this delicate, fantastical and tranquil scene, only the lanky, beautifully ugly storks put on a show. The crocodiles stayed almost motionless, bar a momentary raising of their glassy eyes. The burly water buffalo seemed blissfully unaware of the deadly predators sharing their cooling waters.
The park is teaming with wildlife, from exceptional birdlife to animals great and small, rare and common, and while you may not spot a leopard or a crocodile, you will be riveted, even transported, by its soft tempered cradling of this enchantingly captivating habitat. This is a sanctuary after all – one where wildlife and terrain thrive in spectacular fashion. So, for that elusive leopard, you may need to visit Yala, where a sighting is said to be almost definite. That's on my list for next time.
Amanwella made many dreams come true and has defined the template for new ones.