Tim Lott takes a steampunk safari in Sri Lanka.
I’ve never been a fan of safaris. So-called “wild” animals are extremely lazy, unless they are trying to kill something. So when you’ve spent three or four hours trundling in a jeep through veldt or jungle, the chances of finding an interesting creature that is doing anything other than yawning or sleeping is fairly rare. The hope that you’ll catch them chasing some smaller or weaker animal – now that’s entertainment – is a long shot.
This is why you need to balance the safari experience with some high-end idling opportunities – essentially, paying tribute to the wild by loafing about just as much they do. This is why I was drawn to the Wild Coast Tented Lodge in Sri Lanka, which, even if you have no interest in stalking animals whatsoever, you still have the opportunity to pass the time very pleasantly.
It’s located on the edge of 98,000 hectares of Yala National Park and unusually for a safari destination, is built on a beachfront. It’s a “tented lodge”, although it isn’t really comprised of tents. It comprises pods, or cocoons (they call them “loopers” or “urchins”) all built on stilts and constructed out of PVC-coated polyester. Bizarrely these spacious pods are done out in Edwardian steampunk style, all brass pipes, antique desks, leather chairs, portholes and curtained four-poster beds. It’s like a Jules Verne-inspired vintage train carriage. There is a brass bath with feet, rugs on hardwood floors and a large balcony outside ceiling-to-ground windows.
The pods themselves and the architecture of the communal areas are inspired by the giant red boulders, hanging wasps nests and termite mounds that are typical of the landscape in this part of Sri Lanka. It gives the property an organic, natural feel. This is added to by the adobe structures used for toilets and outbuildings.
It has a library, an infinity pool and an open-air restaurant and bar overlooking the pool. The food in the restaurant is a mixture of Sri Lankan specialities – my favourite was the egg hoppers they serve for breakfast, a kind of Dhosa with fried eggs and spices – and international cuisine. Both bar and restaurant are reminiscent of cathedrals, with bamboo simulations of organ pipes hanging over the bar space. From the outside, the roof is divided into serrated sections, and at night the artificial light glows through the gaps, creating a magical, or spaceship, atmosphere. Blue-grey outside, pink within.
Standing as it is in the middle of the jungle, you are greeted on arrival with wild pigs gathering around a water hole. Animals frequently wander in and out of the hotel grounds, among them elephants, boar and buffalo. The property is unfenced so you really are part of the wild.
The safari itself lasted about three hours and – compared with some of the experiences I have had on safari in Africa – was extremely civilised. Although the park itself can get very busy, on the day we went out, it seemed fairly quiet. That is until we spotted a leopard snoozing under a rock (there is the highest concentration of leopards in the world here). After about 30 seconds of silent observation, the first of a battalion of jeeps began to turn up (some sort of bush telegraph operates), skidding and screeching behind and in front, packed with tour groups.
We set off shortly after this, listening to our guide instruct us about the creatures existing, mostly unseen, around us. Elephants of course, but also snakes (vipers, boa constrictors, the Sri Lankan ying snake), mongooses, warthogs, a tapestry of colourful birds and the baddest of them all, the sloth bears, which apparently are the “most psychopathic bears in the world” despite their cute name and cuddly appearance. They don’t like humans in the slightest so I was rather hoping we didn’t run into any of them.
We didn’t meet any sloth bears, but we did meet some curious elephants, some with a tusk missing, which they had lost in a fight for dominance with another male. Just to gaze at this imposing creature in the wild is an excitement – slightly added to by the fact I had just watched a YouTube video of one attacking
a jeep full of terrified tourists in a nearby location.
Returning to the tented camp, I necked a sundowner on the beach – a whisky sour as I recall – while
the waves sent up clouds of spray behind me as they crashed on the rock. Then I relaxed into my evening meal.
The excellent meat in that night’s barbecue had been killed for me, but, standing as I was at the top of the food chain, I was quite happy to leave that to others. After that I made my way back to the cocoon – watching furtively for rogue sloth bears – but made it back to a deep and pleasant sleep in a sumptuously appointed four-poster-bed. Now that’s my idea getting back to nature, Idler style.
This piece appears in Idler 61, available to buy in selected Smiths, indie bookshops or direct from us. Tim Lott will also be speaking the Idler Festival on Sunday 15 July. He’ll be running a workshop on how to write a story. Buy tickets here.