The wind skims across our skin in the back seat of the open-air Bolero as we hurtle along the asphalt roads on the outskirts of the national park.
At 6.30am, everything is bathed in the glow of a milky golden light.
Before we reach the reservoir, a field guide's worth of bird life greets us from the trees that line the highway. There are herons, kites, luminous green bee-eaters, kingfishers and Sri Lankan swallows with puffed-up orange chests.
Beautiful though the birds are, we are here to see something considerably more sizeable and elusive, so I can barely believe my luck when the guide calls out "There's one!" moments after we have stepped out of the car.
Through binoculars, I make out the unmistakable silhouette of the Asian elephant: its 2.5m stature, small ears and twin-domed head, atop which sits an egret like a winged, breathing fascinator.
A sighting of this gentle giant is a pleasant surprise, given that we are visiting Sri Lanka's Gal Oya National Park during the off season in May.
During the September and October peak period, herds of about 70 elephants can be seen, sometimes swimming between islands.
The 25,900ha park was established in 1954 and incorporates Sri Lanka's largest inland body of water, Senanayake Samudra reservoir - the only place in the country where you can see elephants on a boat safari.
It is also home to Sri Lankan leopards, several types of monkeys (including the endemic toque macaque), sloth bears, water buffalo and three species of deer.
But once our boat pushes off from the shore, it is mostly birds we see - from large flocks of cormorants to a pair of sea eagles. This is perhaps unsurprising - there are 150 bird species in the park alone.
However, we also pass a marsh crocodile lurking on the surface of the reservoir, just metres from an unsuspecting grey heron.
There is a fisherman napping in his wooden canoe and one other tourist boat - just one because, unlike tourist hot spots such as Yala National Park, Gal Oya remains largely untouched by tourism.
"The main purpose of the national park was to protect the water. The wildlife was secondary," says Mr Arun Bandara, a dreadlocked 26-year-old naturalist from Gal Oya Lodge, an eco resort in the jungle on the fringe of the park.
"Gal Oya is unique compared with other places in Sri Lanka. The park is less busy and there's unspoilt natural beauty and untamed wildlife."
I have come here with Amala Destinations, a travel company that delivers bespoke private journeys - far from the beaten tourist path and which usually involve people who live there and learning their traditions.
THE VEDDA PEOPLE
It is a similarly tourist-free and awe-inspiring experience the following day, when Mr Bandara takes me to meet Sudhawaninila, chief of the local Vedda tribe, one of the last remaining hunter and gatherer tribes in Sri Lanka.
Together with his second in command Poromala, a shaman, the chief takes curious travellers on tours of the land near his home, where he points out plants and their myriad uses and explains how Vedda life has changed in recent years.
When they greet us - bare-chested, with long hair, full beards and a small axe slung over the left shoulder - they look like characters from a history book come to life.
Then Sudhawaninila's granddaughter steps out from behind his legs, wearing pink shorts and a yellow tank top emblazoned with an image of a little girl surrounded by flowers - and the speed at which their culture is disappearing becomes startlingly evident.
In Gal Oya, Sudhawaninila and Poromala are two of just seven men who still live largely in the traditional way. But even they have succumbed to modernity.
In the space of one generation, their bark loincloths were swopped for cloth dhotis and their cave dwellings replaced by huts made from concrete bricks and plank roofs.
The latter is a direct result of the construction of the reservoir - the Vedda were enticed to move away from the area, so it could be flooded, with the promise of building materials.
As the next generation chooses to adopt a more modern lifestyle - the chief's family now runs a roadside convenience store next to its home - Sudhawaninila and Poromala represent the end of an extraordinary era of indigenous living.
But it is not lost yet.
As the chief leads us through the jungle, he tears a leaf from a native citrus.
"We boil these and inhale the vapours to ward off colds," he says. "And we use the spikes of the plant for piercing ears because they don't cause infections."
The bark from another tree is used for making ropes and its soft, palm-sized leaves are an obvious choice for natural toilet paper.
After our hour together comes to an end, I return to Gal Oya Lodge.
Its nine sustainable wooden bungalows and two-room villa are scattered across 8ha of private forest just beyond the border of the national park.
Inside, king-size four-poster beds draped in netting sit atop brushed concrete floors, accented with natural materials such as illuk (sword grass), cadjan (mats made from coconut palm leaves) and wood.
While rooms are sparsely furnished, their subtle trimmings convey a comfortable ambience without being overly cluttered and allow the natural beauty beyond the floor-to-ceiling windows to be the focus.
Outdoor bathrooms come replete with solar-powered hot water and amiable little frogs, which seem to favour the dark, wet interiors of the taps to their jungle home just over the wall.
Those who already like the sound of this retreat will love this next bit: While there is electricity, there is no air-conditioning or Wi-Fi, so prepare to switch off and connect with your surrounds.
But who could miss such mod cons when there is the opportunity to spy an Indian palm squirrel leaping through the trees as you take a shower?
Animals are the beating heart of the retreat, which has partnered organisations such as the Wilderness & Wildlife Conservation Trust and recently opened a wildlife research centre on its premises to allow its naturalists, and visiting scientists, to monitor and study the local wildlife.
Camera traps on the property have already discovered wild fishing cats, which had not previously been recorded in the area, along with creatures such as mouse deer, jackals and pangolin, the most trafficked mammal in the world.
Their aim is not just to identify all of the species that live here, but also to help protect them, so the lodge has introduced awareness programmes to ensure the local community understands the importance of conserving native flora and fauna, and knows how to safely avoid dangerous encounters with elephants and snakes.
Guests are also encouraged to get involved in the monitoring project or to join the naturalists in the evening as they set up camera traps.
Wish as I might, there is no sight of any gentle giants on the property during my stay.
But one week after I visit, Gal Oya Lodge has a new post on Instagram. It is a black-and-white still photo taken at 10.25pm by one of its camera traps of an elephant wandering through the property.
Let's hope it is the first of many sightings to come.
• Rachel Lees is a travel writer and editor based in Australia. She was hosted by Amala Destinations.
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.
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