So Sri Lanka

Majestic Minneriya

Ruwandi Perera describes the guardians of a special forest

Sri Lanka is blessed with inspiration and protection by its ancient kings, whose strategic vision for harvesting rainwater in the form of lakes and tanks continues to benefit both people and animals to this day.

The village of Minneriya is known for two features: elephants and the vast Minneriya tank. A visit to this neck of the woods is a treat for any traveller because there’s something for everyone: history, wildlife, adventure and serenity.

Yet, the highlight of Minneriya is its elephants – hundreds of them roaming freely on the grasslands and continuing a longstanding tradition known as the Gathering.

These majestic creatures are Sri Lanka’s forest gardeners and the largest land animal in the world. Their lives revolve around water, and this dependency defines the elephants’ astounding lives and journeys. That’s probably why Minneriya, home to one of the largest tanks in the island, is a magnet for elephants who visit it every year.

Finding accommodation in Minneriya itself might be tough if you’re looking for hotels or resorts but you will find several in the neighbouring towns of Habarana and Dambulla. Pack light and smart for it gets very hot around here – and take all your electronic essentials because signals are weak and batteries die down soon.

There’s only one golden rule when visiting this magical forest haven: leave nothing behind – not even your footprints – because this land belongs to the elephants.

There’s only one golden rule when visiting this magical forest haven: leave nothing behind – not even your footprints – because this land belongs to the elephants

Fact File

THE GATHERING Considered to be one of nature’s most incredible animal migrations – similar to that of wildebeest and zebra in Kenya and Tanzania, and the largest gathering of Asian elephants in the world – the Gathering at Minneriya is an unbelievable spectacle. Around 300 elephants from different herds gather at the Minneriya tank in the dry season to drink, eat, bathe, play and mingle with each other. This astounding natural phenomenon is a must-see for nature lovers as it’s one of Minneriya’s greatest treats. And make sure your batteries are charged because the photo opportunities are endless!

MINNERIYA PARK Although elephants usually steal the show, the vast expanse of the Minneriya National Park is home to many species of birds, mammals and reptiles. Monkeys, deer and wild buffalo are found aplenty while the park is also reported to have residents such as the rare grey slender loris, sloth bears and leopards. Waterbirds such as the lesser adjutant, painted stork, spot-billed pelican and grey heron are commonly spotted near the Minneriya tank, while jungle fowl, grey hornbills and several types of babblers, parrots and barbets are found in the canopy. You will also see crocodiles and water monitors patrolling the waters here.

KAUDULLA PARK Located less than 20 kilometres away from Minneriya and connected through the Kaudulla-Minneriya jungle corridor for migrating animals, the Kaudulla National Park showcases the island’s dry evergreen forest. A less visited park and smaller area compared to the Minneriya National Park, Kaudulla also has a large tank where animals gather. You may not be able to make it in time for a morning safari but leave Minneriya after lunch and you’ll be at the gates in time for the afternoon event.

ANCIENT TANKS Minneriya has benefitted from the interventions of one of Sri Lanka’s greatest kings – King Mahasen of the Anuradhapura Kingdom, who ruled the country from 277 to 304 AD. He’s said to have ordered a dam across the Minneriya River to create the great tank, which covers around 18 square kilometres. His vision for water management continues to benefit both people and animals even today. In addition to being a cradle for the giants of the forest, the Minneriya tank is also the centre point of an intertwined ecosystem. Go visit the tank, which is said to be the largest among the 16 lakes constructed by King Mahasen.

ROCK CLIMBING Minneriya is situated in a cosy spot with easy access to Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Habarana and Dambulla. Located less than 35 kilometres away, the great Sigiriya rock fortress is an excellent day excursion while staying in Minneriya. Pack a lunch or be adventurous and eat a village meal, and head over to climb one of Sri Lanka’s wonders. It takes about five hours to explore Sigiriya, which includes the rock ascent; palace ruins; frescoes; mirror walls; and water, boulder and terraced gardens. Try and climb the rock early in the morning since the afternoons can be extremely hot. Wear a sunhat and lots of sunscreen – you’re going to need them!