In search of elephants and adventure
It's a cool jungle dawn, silent save for the old girl next to me, 5000-odd kilograms and a heavy breather.
Wrinkled, grey and one of an estimated 600 elephants counted in the recent census in Sri Lanka's Ude Walawe National Park and soaked from an overnight dumping of rain, her sound, like air passing through a hose, is noisy and rhythmic.
It's in time with the thwacking of her leathery ears flapping back and forth, so close I could reach over and touch one from our open jeep, wheels jacked high.
For the first time in an age our two offspring, seven and four, are speechless, goggle-eyed behind their binoculars staring at the pachyderm.
It's a long way to travel - about 8000 kilometres - to see children more au fait with Disney's Dumbo enthralled by nature.
Theme parks are yet to make the "I want" list, while poolside cabanas and kids' clubs have a certain appeal but we're keen for more than glimpses of local life through a bus window from airport to resort.
It's also a long-awaited return to the tear-drop island. Our visit with World Expeditions in 2005 with a 15-month-old was a blissful introduction to the country Lonely Planet nominated as the No. 1 destination for 2013.
With the toddler in a backpack, we climbed the 200-metre rock fortress of Sigiriya, with its ancient frescoes of bare-breasted damsels, and on bumpy roads as we drove from coconut palm-fringed beaches to the tea plantations he was lulled easily.
But it was a country in recovery, hit by the Boxing Day tsunami the previous year that killed about 35,000 people damaging more than three-quarters of the island's coastline in the east and extreme south-west, on top of an ongoing civil war with sporadic ceasefire.
An official end to the war in 2009 and we are back, two parents and now two children, with air-conditioned van and a kind and slow driver.
We're searching for elephants and pint-sized discovery on a holiday in a country the size of Tasmania with manageable driving distances and adventure aplenty for our young charges.
We set the pace with impromptu pit-stops at turtle sanctuaries, beaches to watch fishermen in lungis pull their catch from the sea and to talk to kids in smart white school uniforms ("Mama, they have to go to school six days a week!"). One big day of fire-breathing cultural dancers in Kandy and a chance to chew local gum is clocked as the best day ever.
Back in the jungle the quiet does not last, of course, as our male guide with talons to envy taps the metal safety bar surrounding the cruiser in a signal to the driver.
A shrill "ting ting" of a nail and we are off, bouncing in our seats through the park flanked by craggy mountains, passing water buffalo submerged in shallow lakes.
We brake for an elephant calf crossing the track, pause for a riotous peacock courtship dance designed for another and stop, bogged in a creek and sinking fast.
Minutes later our rescuers - cheery Irishmen with a jeep and a frayed rope - arrive. Wheels squeal, mud splatters and we are back on track spotting painted stork, mongoose, a green bee-eater and the changeable hawk-eagle in prime twitcher territory.
As we roar up the dirt driveway to Kalu's Hideaway my boy declares the morning an adventure that's been "true life". There's no sign of the cricketer turned hotelier Romesh Kaluwitharana, aka Little Kalu, but his 1996 Player of the Match award for the Australia versus Sri Lanka Benson and Hedges World Series shines in the glass cabinet alongside other cricketing memorabilia in the modern and rustic hotel.
Elephants have long been venerated in the country, with an estimated 6000 in the wild as well as those used for ceremonies at Buddhist temples, according to veterinarian and wildlife conservationist Dr Deepani Jayantha. While the most recognisable, the elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesha, is ancient, the pachyderm today still represents strength, pride and prosperity.
But reverence and fear keep uneasy company with banana and coconut plantations, an attraction for the species whose habitat is threatened as pressure on developing land increases. While an official census has not been conducted Jayantha estimates there are a further 500 in the north where the civil conflict has been.
At the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage where the siren has rung, the elephant crossing lights are flashing and 47 are lumbering to the river, their mahouts whistling and clicking their tongues. One trainer cups water over his charge, then scrubs her hard with steel wool. She responds with a trumpet of satisfaction and our girl squeezes her arms tight around my leg.
How toilet paper can be made from elephant dung dominates conversation on the drive to Kandy and the Temple of the Tooth. Any excuse to say "poo".
Here at the temple where a sacred fang of the Buddha is said to be housed, we sidestep devotees presenting pujas or offerings and the truth behind confected Western stories that we've filled our offsprings' heads with.
Under golden plaster elephant heads, trunks bending upwards as if to support the roof, tusks smooth and sharp, the girl eyes me suspiciously.
"Mama, why didn't the tooth fairy take the special tooth? Have you been tricking me?"
Untethered from the usual Western routines, we drive in the mornings to escape the heat of the day and stop roadside for coconut juice and bananas, sometimes passing soldiers officiously waving us along.
"The war is over, they need something to do," says our driver.
It's about 80 kilometres from Kandy into misty tea hill country and Nuwara Eliya but an ascent of nearly 1400 metres with endless switchbacks towards the end.
On the descent a few days later we swap wheels for rails, jumping into a wooden carriage for a scream-worthy ride through pitch-black tunnels to the town of Ella.
Here, our waiting driver lifts the little ones from the carriage and we continue on to the plains, passing rubber plantations and jungle.
Our third pachyderm sighting is from behind a high fence at the Elephant Transit Home, where elephants are rehabilitated before being released back into the wild. Under a stern sign that declares "the jungle is silent, you be silent too", a chaotic baby elephant walk plays out as the group comes on cue at midday from the outlying fields for lunch.
As keepers pour jugs of milk into funnels attached to tubes, calves butt heads and grunt in their quest to be first in line.
Garishly painted wooden elephants are the closest we get to the pachyderm in the coastal town Galle where, post-tsunami, streets in the fortified town were subdued and the bus station near the cricket ground a picture of decimation. Now the streets on the UNESCO world heritage site are paved, hotels have opened and once-musty antique stores now sell lattes and lemon tart.
Unchanged are the hawkers. This time, a pretty lace dress is pushed through a restaurant's shutters for the girl. "A matching one for mummy perhaps?"
Like last time, I call at Safa Ibrahima's tiny jewellery store on Church Street to admire his works of silver and gold inlaid with citrine, amethyst and other semi-precious stones. He is upbeat about the end of the war and the return of the tourist.
But as trays of jewellery are pulled from the display cabinet it's down to matters more pressing: the price of the Ceylon sapphire ring on my finger and Australia's performance in the cricket last night.
The writer stayed with the assistance of Mr and Mrs Smith.
ADVENTURE ISLAND: FAMILY FRIENDLY STAYS
WALLAWWA, COLOMBO About 15 minutes from the international airport, this restored colonial manor, flanked by manicured gardens laced with pink cannon-ball flowers and frangipani, is the place to recover from a long flight.
We watch lightning from the sprawling verandah restaurant and the young ones declare the spaghetti bolognese the best they've tasted. The Mountbatten suite has a private plunge pool.
Double rooms cost from US$234 ($282) a night and include breakfast. Family suites have two interconnecting rooms (a king and twin). Window seats in the garden suites can sleep children up to 12 for US$30 ($36) a night.
PARADISE ROAD TINTAGEL, COLOMBO Designer Shanth Fernando's chic hotel of 10 suites, a library of 500 leather-bound books and a lap pool within an internal courtyard has political pedigree.
It was once home to Prime Minister W. R. D. Bandaranaike, who was assassinated on the verandah in 1959.
His widow, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, became the world's first female prime minister. The hotel is in the smart embassy district and five minutes from Fernando's store, Paradise Road Boutique, which stocks fine cotton, leather and silverware. Staff will happily take you there in a tuk-tuk.
Double rooms cost from US$218 ($263) a night, including breakfast. No charge for cots; over fives stay for US$31 (37.4) a child a night.
THE LAST HOUSE, TANGALLE On the south coast's Seenimodera beach, foreign weddings have been held here, with Ananda Ranasinghe overseeing a relaxed efficiency at the final private residence designed by Geoffrey Bawa before his death in 2003.
We have the run of the Cinnamon Hill suite on the first floor with an antique jackwood bed, claw-foot bath, wraparound balcony and brass-bolt concertina doors.
Walk with staff to choose dinner straight from fishermen's nets and watch the same boats, masts illuminated, out at sea in the inky night. While fresh lobster and prawns are always on the menu, the kitchen also caters to younger tastes, perfect fries included.
Double rooms cost from US$175 ($211) a night and include full English or Sri Lankan breakfast. Full board costs US$45 ($54) a person a day; half board US$30 ($36). Baby cots are free and extra beds for older children cost US$65 ($78.5) a child, including breakfast.
AMANWELLA, TANGALLE The stunning Aman property of 30 suites on a 15-hectare coconut grove, each with plunge pool, king bed and terrace with double sun lounger, overlooks a crescent-shaped beach.
Wide terrazzo paths lead to a substantial reference library, sunken bar and restaurant and infinity pool. At the secluded beach club, lifeguards shadow guests in the dumpers, while others will happily join in a game of beach cricket.
Double rooms cost from US$575 ($694) a night; extra beds no charge for children under 12. Complimentary babysitting.
FIVE OTHER FAMILY ADVENTURES
LAOS With light traffic and a slow pace, the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Luang Prabang is an ideal base for families. Children can roam free on the lawns at the front of the palace museum, see tigers and black bears at the open-air zoo near the Kuang Xi waterfalls, or take a ride in a longboat along the Mekong to Pak Ou Caves.
ANNAPURNA, NEPAL A low-altitude trek in the Annapurna foothills especially for families includes time in the traditional Hindu villages where children travellers can visit local schools and markets. It's followed by a trip to Chitwan National Park to ride atop elephants. See worldexpeditions.com.
VIETNAM See water puppets and ride a cyclo through Hanoi and sail Halong Bay. For the adults there's a chance to get something tailor-made in Hoi An. See intrepidtravel.com.
BORNEO Young wildlife lovers can spot proboscis monkeys, macaques and the orangutan in Sarawak and Sabah. Includes a night in an indigenous Iban longhouse and a trip to the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. See worldexpeditions.com.
ULURU For a cultural experience, no passports required, head to Ayers Rock Resort. Family activities include a sunrise camel ride, 9.4 kilometre trek around Uluru, and spear throwing lessons. See ayersrockresort.com.au.
Sydney Morning Herald