Kiwis in flight: Glamping with elephants in Sri Lanka
We were both woken abruptly by a thud on the canvas. Leopard? Elephant? I scrambled for our tent's window.
It turned out to be a big furry thing, like a mutant squirrel – except the size of a cat. I later found out it was in fact a grizzled giant squirrel. Who even knew that was a thing?
That's the beauty of the Tree House Jungle Lodge – it's a sensory overload, of the wildlife variety.
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Sri Lanka has several national parks teeming with wildlife; but you can't stay the night in them. The Jungle Lodge is one of only a few places where you can get pretty close; it's on the untouched northern border of the popular Yala National Park.
The lodge is deep in elephant country; the region is home to around 500. To get to the tents you even have to tuktuk under an electric elephant fence, put up to stop elephants from eating farmers' crops.
Dozens of leopards and even sloth bears also call the area home.
The lodge delivers one of the most authentic wildlife experiences in Sri Lanka. At the southern, more touristy end of the Yala National Park, you'll find up to 30 safari jeeps surrounding a leopard. But in the remote northern edge, home to the Jungle Lodge, you're likely to be all alone.
The lodge is also recognised for its incredible elephant encounters. During the dry season (March to October) elephants often come right up to tents. It happens in the early evening or at night, and the first warning is usually the sound of branches breaking.
In the morning, you'll be woken by a dawn chorus of peacocks competing to attract peahens. That's followed by a brisk safari walk to watch the sunrise and see if there's any elephants at the local watering hole.
It's rare to do a walking safari in Sri Lanka, most are on jeeps – which can easily scare the wildlife away.
On our afternoon walk, we spotted a leopard scratching just 200 metres away from our tent. We were told it was fresh. That night I reinforced the tent zipper with my shoelaces.
But the truth is leopards aren't interested in the tents, in fact they do all they can to avoid humans.
During our stay we did see an incredible array of wildlife, including a small harmless snake which popped its head up on the table next to us while we were eating lunch.
The three tents at the lodge are set up in a "jungle glamping" style, and it's strictly off-grid; there's no electricity or wi-fi. The glamping theme continues for dinner, with three courses served in a candlelit mud house.
But what I will remember above all else is falling asleep to the soundtrack of the jungle. Never before have I heard so much wildlife.
It's a sound most of us, living in large cities, would never have experienced. Birds, monkeys, giant squirrels, snakes, frogs, bears, elephants, leopards and much much more. They were all out there, somewhere. And yet I was safely wrapped up in a tent – enjoying their symphony.
Last year Brook Sabin and his partner Radha Engling quit their jobs and sold everything to travel. They started a blog onflightmode.com and now call themselves fulltime travellers, making a living selling travel photos and video all around the world. Each week Kiwis in Flight will take you on their adventures.
The writer stayed courtesy of Tree Tops Jungle Lodge, Sri Lanka