“Dragon!” Mubarak yells, as he swerves our tuk-tuk past a snoozing lizard. “Peacock!” he points, calling above the Bhangra music blaring from the subwoofer on the backseat.
I’d met this 20-something surf instructor earlier that day in Arugam Bay — a sleepy town on Sri Lanka’s southeast coast, famous for its world-class waves. Most visitors to ‘A-Bay’ don’t stray much further than the shoreline beach huts and bars. But, when I chatted to Mubarak after my surf lesson that morning, he’d convinced me to join him on a ‘tuk-tuk safari’. “I’ll show you some amazing things,” he’d promised, with a glint in his eye.
Turning off the music, we swing off the tarmacked road and onto a dirt track, flanked by flooded rice paddies. Lone farmers till the land with hand ploughs, pink-legged storks peck at the wet fields and bony-hipped cows graze beside the track. Ahead, a buffalo calf feeds from its mother — all bandy legs, matted fur and big eyes, it looks only days old.
As we judder over potholes, fields turn to scrubland and the route becomes so rutted that the tuk-tuk’s handlebars jiggle up and down like a pneumatic drill. We’re skirting the fringes of the Kumana Reserve — a protected area bordering Yala, Sri Lanka’s most famous national park. With wildlife spilling out of Kumana’s boundaries, Mubarak insists there’s no point in paying to enter the park itself. “Besides, tuk-tuks aren’t allowed in,” he winks.
Spotting elephants up ahead, Mubarak off-roads towards them across the scrub until we’re metres away. “They’re waving,” I laugh, as a female raises her trunk and lets out a trumpet call. Before I’ve had time to wave back, Mubarak floors the accelerator and we’re speeding away.
As we scoot on, soon a tall mound looms on the horizon. “It’s a sacred mountain,” he explains, pointing out the Buddhist shrine on its peak. When we reach its base, we remove our shoes and begin climbing barefoot up the mound. I can feel the warmth of the rock on the soles of my feet, while the heat of the day drains from the sky. Breathtaking Sri Lankan scenes unfold as we ascend, the panorama growing wider with every step.
“This is my home,” Mubarak breathes as we reach the top, casting his arms over an incredible view: thick jungle blankets the plains, huge rocks sprout out of the green and, in the clearings in between, the ears of toy-sized elephants glow pink in the evening sun.
I could stay here for hours, drinking in the scene as the last of the day’s light mirrors perfect reflections of golden clouds in the glassy paddies beneath. Of everything I’ve experienced during my time in Sri Lanka, this soul-touching scene has made the biggest impression: the surf in ‘A-Bay’ may be exceptional, but there’s so much more to experience.