It was dark and we’d driven into the powerful rains of the eastern monsoon. The roads here were empty and wide, a contrast to those around Colombo in the west. Perhaps it was due to the hour and weather that there were so few vehicles – but I’d wager they’d always be emptier, given the sporadic infrastructure and stuttering development in these parts following decades of conflict.
We were skirting the edge of Gal Oya forest where the thick canopy and cloud cover lessened visibility still further. We rounded a corner on a gentle upward climb to find a couple of cars stopped in the road. We overtook, only to then understand why: ahead, maybe 30 metres in front, stood a huge bull elephant, appearing like a giant, mysterious shadow in the gloom.
My colleague, a local man, was afraid. Apparently single male elephants are likely to charge small cars at night, particularly in these areas where they are less used to human presence.
The elephant turned and advanced towards us; his trunk swaying in front, yet silent through the rain. We backed up, as did the other vehicles, and turned off our lights. At the last moment he disappeared into the undergrowth to the right in front of us and we went on our way.
Near midnight we turned onto a side road to the small coastal town of Akkaraipattu. The clouds shifted, bathing us in pale moonlight and heralding the croaking chorus of a million frogs. They crossed the road in their droves, some mesmerised by the headlights. And finally, as if in a dream, we stopped for an owl out hunting the hapless amphibians. After a cursory glance the bird disappeared into the night.
We’ve been in the east now for nearly a week to spend time with an organisation that is one of the project partners. Our arrival coincided with the start of the monsoon rains that will last until February. It can come down in torrents that within minutes flood the roads, side streets, and houses of those unlucky enough to be low lying. At times visibility drops considerably with the strength and magnitude of the deluge, giving the impression of fog or dense cloud.
Last year the area experienced devastating floods that turned into a minor humanitarian crisis and this year the same is predicted. Next to the office is a small clinic funded by the European Union. It has already been flooded, as have a number of houses in the area. Sluice-like channels have been dug to the coast with the aim of alleviating the worst hit.