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Volunteers' Stories




The Elephant Experience Voluntary Project at Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage in Sri Lanka

Overall I gained a unique experience and amazing memories. It was a great opportunity to be so close to the elephants and observe their behaviour. I cleaned up elephant poop, which is not something I ever thought I’d do!

I was able to experience a new country and culture. I met some lovely people, including the locals and some of the other volunteers.

I would definitely recommend this placement to other people. It would suit anyone who is looking for a fun and unique experience. Elephants don’t necessarily have to be your favourite animal, but you will definitely have a soft spot for them when you leave.

Working as a volunteer and going to the river each day, you realise how much more you are able to experience than by visiting as a tourist. Mucking out is like a healthy work out and you always have a shower and lunch to look forward to.

This is an elephant experience, so be prepared for chilled out, relaxing afternoon. This placement would suit someone who wishes to experience a new culture and very different way of life. There is lots of time to socialise and opportunity to arrange weekend trips, so it suits friendly people who are keen to explore the country.

My favourite parts of the placement:

► Washing Raja and some of the other elephants – a surreal experience. An elephant’s skin is not as hard as I expected; more spongy and hairy. It was wonderful to grab a coconut, wade in to the river, dodge the floating elephant poop and give the ellies a scrub. It didn’t matter being half soaked for the rest of the afternoon, as not many people can say they’ve washed an elephant before!

► Watching the elephants walk down to the river and then chilling out – it is a special sight to see around 70 elephants wandering past the shops down to the river. The babies get very excited and rush ahead. When it rains they enjoy crossing to the other side to slide down the mud banks. It is also great to see Sama walking, because even though she has only 3 feet, she is accepted by the herd and makes it down to the river with the rest of them.

I still find it amazing how the mahouts control the elephants by vocal command. Working elephants have been trained to put their own chains on and prepare the food. Sometimes they carry their mahoot’s stick.

I saw one mahout say a command and the elephant bent its front knee and lifted its foot off the ground so that the mahout could climb up onto its back. As volunteers we were able to sit very close to the elephants; they are curious creatures and like to sniff you and say hello, and it is lovely to watch them interact with each other.

► New born babies – two babies were born whilst I was at Pinnawala. The first was born on a Saturday, so we saw him the following Monday; small, for an elephant, and very cute. His mum didn’t take to motherhood at first and had to be chained to give her baby a chance to reach the milk, but by the end of the week she seemed to be getting the hang of it.

The second baby surprised us as it arrived on my penultimate night at 12:30am! We didn’t know that another elephant had been pregnant, and we saw this baby taking its first steps, when it was just 12 hours old; that was really special and such a unique experience. One elephant was pregnant with twins; she was huge! I wonder if they’ve been born yet.

► Making some great friends – this was a bonus; I was lucky enough to arrive with some great people and we had fun during the project and at the weekends whilst travelling. Some of the other volunteers who were just at the end of their stay were also really helpful and willing to answer any questions.

On my final weekend there were 5 of us (3 girls and 2 guys) who went for a beach weekend; we were all very excited and knew we’d have fun because we got on very well. We travelled to Hikkaduwa, on the south coast, and after a hectic couple of weeks of acclimatising, mucking out and taking in all the culture, we made the most of relaxing by the pool with a cocktail or two.

This area had been affected by the Tsunami. It was an emotional experience because the people there are very brave and are rebuilding their lives as best as they can. They are glad for the tourism and the south coast is a beautiful place to visit. We took some pencils and paper and walked down the street handing them to children – they were so happy and grateful. We also bought them some toys and jewellery from a near by stall. It reminds you how lucky we are living in the West and we really admired the people we met.

► Meeting the local people – praise and credit should go to the people who looked after us during our placement. The house boys were very hospitable and smiley. They kept the house clean and were super cooks. Mandulla, our mini bus driver at the weekend, was an excellent guide. He knew the best places to sight see and found us accommodation and places to eat.

The roads and highway code is quite different in Sri Lanka, but I think we always felt safe when he was driving. Hiruni, our house mother, was brilliant at her job; she was very helpful and always willing to answer questions, find out information and arrange trips for us. Hiruni was able to tell us about the elephants at the orphanage and arranged for us to wash Raja and go around with the vet. She was very sociable and enjoyed chatting, playing games and watching scary movies with us in the evenings.

► The elephant shower at the Millenium Elephant Foundation – an amazing experience. Whenever I’ve seen pictures of people on elephant rides they’ve always been in a seat, but we rode bare back and went down to the river for an elephant shower! We got completely drenched, but it was worth it! Our elephant was wonderful; her name was Rani, which means Queen, and she had a flat back so she was comfortable to sit on. She was also not camera shy, which was good as I have some great photos. There is a small museum to look in afterwards, which has a lot of interesting information.

► The wild elephant Safari – whilst Pinnawala is a haven for orphaned ellies, I was glad to see these creatures in the wild. Our guides were great and pointed out every single elephant; solitary males and groups of females with babies. They gave us lots of information about elephants and also showed us other local wildlife.

► Climbing Sigiriya Rock Fortress – although it’s perfectly safe, some steps are narrow and scary! The views on the way up are stunning and I took some good photos of the frescos (wall paintings). It is an achievement to reach the top and fun to explore the ruins and appreciate the view.

Can you describe a typical day?

Most people are awake by 7:30am. Breakfast is at 8:00am; alongside bread / toast, we were always served either pancakes or coconut rottis (a small, round flat bread, tasty with some jam).

The mini bus would collect us at 8:30 for the half hour journey through Kegalle to the orphanage at Pinnawala. Mucking out usually begins at 9:00 and goes on until 10:30. There are 3 sheds for the volunteers to muck out and you should take water as you will get hot and sweaty! At 11:00 you arrive back at the house and join the rapidly moving queue for a much needed cold, refreshing shower!

Lunch is as soon as everyone has finished showers, quite early sometimes at 11:45, but by then everyone is hungry and the food is so good that you can’t say no! There is a variety of food; traditional Sri Lankan rice and curry, noodles, pasta and on some days, sandwiches and chips. We got delicious deserts too!

After lunch you are free to chill out until 2:00, when the mini bus returns to take you back to Pinnawala. During this chill out time if you like you can browse around Kegalle to get a feel of the local atmosphere, or even get a tuk tuk (great fun!) to Pinnawala in time to see the elephants march down to the river at 2:00pm. The mini bus gets to Pinnawala at 2:30 so the elephants are in the water by then, and you can sit and watch them or wash some of them when the tourists have had their photos taken.

You can also do some shopping. At 4:00 – 4:30 the mini bus picks you up to go back to Kegalle house. There is time for a shower and chilling out before dinner, and more socialising after dinner and time to reflect on the day. On Fridays, instead of mucking out you can do litter picking by the river and in the orphanage, then after lunch travel to your destination for that weekend.

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