Lessons from the back of beyond

19 Mar

We had lots of time, and the Internet at our disposal while planning for our 10-day trip to Sri Lanka. A safari day at the Yala National Park was high on our list while blitzing through the southern coast, and we thought we might level-up the experience by finding a different kind of accommodation for the night — a tent, a tree house, or something. We found Back Of Beyond, and were drawn to its promise of a private eco-retreat in our own solar-powered bungalow right on the perimeter of the Yala park.

It was about 45 mins away from the main town of Thissamaharama, and a long, bumpy drive down a dusty yellow road. We had some trouble finding the house, as it had no gate, and no sign. The bungalow had a single thatched-roof and was nestled in the clearing of a little grove, with one walled-in bedroom. The open-air toilet and bath was to be shared with a family of cute tree frogs (that probably weren’t poisonous). The staff had a separate house a short ways off.

Our driver tried to convince us that he knew of better accommodations in town, but it was too late.

We loved the place.


Walking down the dirt road led us to where the brush meets the Indian Ocean, and the most hauntingly beautiful beach I’ve ever seen. It was heartbreaking to imagine this coastline to be one of the hardest-hit during the 2004 Tsunami.

The rest of the afternoon was spent sitting outside our bungalow, drinking tea and eating Oreos with milk, watching the birds, watching the sky, in awe that we were completely enveloped by Nature.

Chillin in the yard


We had gotten away from it all. No rattling hum of air conditioners, no rumble of traffic, no noisy neighbors, no beeping mobile phones (no signal). Just pure wind, birdsong, and lightness.


Living in the back of beyond

But I was to discover another side to living off the grid later at midnight, when the power went out, plunging our little bungalow into the pitch black of the Sri Lankan brush.

First 15 minutes wasn’t so bad, but as the night drew on darker, and with me unable to see beyond the foot of my bed, I lay there wondering how this blackout could have been prevented. The staff should have warned us about the power supply. I wondered if anyone would come to fix it. Nope, they wouldn’t. It was too late. Did it just go off by itself? Or did someone turn it off?! *Gulp* Oh God why did we even come here in the first place? Two girls spending the night in a little bungalow in the middle of nowhere, by choice. Why didn’t we pick a normal hotel in the center of town, like normal people? I sat blinking in the dark, waiting for night vision to kick in, and feeling tiny pinpricks of panic.

“Hey Bets,” I reached over to shake her arm, “the power’s out!” mostly because I wanted to say something out loud.

She looked around sleepily “I think it should be okay. The moon’s actually kind of bright outside.” She waited for me to calm down a little before going back to sleep. I envied her courage then.

Earlier that day, we discovered that an elephant had broken into the property a few days ago, to the delight of the guests present at the time. Upon verifying the damage on the barbed wire fence, we got excited about the possibility of a pachydermal close encounter during our stay.

Shutting my eyes made no difference to what I couldn’t see. I tried imagining the joyful trumpeting of elephants on parade. But the reality was that I was freaking myself out with sounds of the nocturnal wild I could not identify.

Crickets and frogs were something familiar to me, but all the chirping, flapping of wings, clicks, ticks, gurgles, grunts, hissing were too much for my city girl ear.

Okay, breathe please.

Even as my chest tightened in fear, I had to wonder if I had high cholesterol. What is hypertension, and how do I get rid of it in the bush? Damn! I had read about how to hopefully survive a croc attack (poke in the eye and avoid getting pulled in the water at all costs), a leopard attack (don’t turn your back, snarl and look menacing), but I had neglected to read about surviving premature heart attack a long ways off from a hospital.

Now I was starting to hear soft footsteps creeping towards our house. Cautiously.

I had to wake Betina again in miserable company. “Sorry, I’m afraid.” I said, looking in the direction of the window and the blackness beyond it. Whether it was man, animal, mythical, friend, or foe moving outside our house, I could only conjecture.

“The driver….” began Betina. I shushed her sharply. The driver was a bit dodgy was the thought I was unwilling to complete aloud. The last time we saw him, he was still sulking by the staff house. “I’m sure he’s just as scared of the dark as we are.” I offered. I listened hard, waiting for the footsteps to go away… or for a face to appear at the window… or for me to fall asleep (not likely). Because louder than the shuffling outside the window was my heavily palpitating heart.

I heaved desperately, trying to calm down, and I realized that I had prepared myself for this trip by knowing everything I could possibly know. What to wear, what the weather was like, how to greet people, if female travelers would have any “problems”. But Knowledge wasn’t going to make this trip foolproof. It wasn’t going to keep me 100% safe. There will always be a limit to knowledge. There will always be something, many things I don’t know, and now it was fueling my paranoia. I had invested too much on knowledge, and it was turning on me.

If it was a person, maybe they would have said something. Or not. Mentally, I ran through the items in my backpack, looking for something to use as a weapon. If we make it to the road, we should run to the nearest resort. Wherever that was.

The footsteps were directly by the window now. Louder, more daring.

It was all too much. I threw off the covers and jumped out of bed. “I don’t care anymore, I’m going to look outside!” By now, even Betina was tense from my tossing and turning. She nodded furiously as I groped my way to the window, with head lamp in hand. Like a horror film you watch through fanned fingers I shone the light out the window looking for the source of the sound. A leopard? No, they’d be too stealthy. Please, God, not a rapist. I held my breath.

And right at the edge of the lamp light, I caught the shake of tail bounding away, then all was quiet.

Axis axis ceylonensis. Sri Lankan Spotted Deer.





What You Want and What You are Afraid Of

My brain imploded with all these thoughts I could not process at once. I laughed as I wiped my clammy hands on my pajamas. Relieved, embarrassed, silly, excited, relieved again, stoked, guilty… The driver! WTF was I thinking??

As I went back to bed trying to empty the fear out of my lungs, I wondered why I had been so afraid to come to the window, even when I had been on the night watch for elephants to begin with. I had conjured all sorts of ridiculous scenarios (some of which included vampires and demon monkeys), when I really should have been running excitedly to check, like a child eager for Santa’s arrival on Christmas Eve. The need for more knowledge, or, paranoia kept me in bed, and in the dark.

Knowing this made me calm. I was glad to finally have logic and reason working out for me.

“Are you ok?” Betina opened one eye to check up on me some time later.

“Yes,” I replied, still wide-eyed, listening intently. “I think our deer has come back!” I raced her to the window. This time I wasn’t afraid. We pressed our foreheads against the glass and strained the light out in time to catch a sea of wild cows hoof across the yard.

It’s amazing what a few sounds in the dark can turn out to be, when you aren’t afraid to find out.

Where knowledge falls short, faith is what holds the candle up, that willingness to discover truth.


The power came back on sometime before dawn, but it hardly mattered anymore.

View of our bedroom


4 Responses to “Lessons from the back of beyond”

  1. thanefurrows March 19, 2013 at 9:36 pm #

    Haha! Amazing story – even got my heart racing a bit… creepy driver, jungle cat… DEER!

    I had a similar experience last summer when I was solo-hiking out in the Wallowa Mountains…

    I was camping out by a clearing on Ice Lake and had woken up early in the morning. It was completely dark, I couldn’t see a thing, and immediately had a sharp pang of fear rush through my body. I heard a rustling coming from the lakeshore – it seemed to be getting closer and closer by the second!

    Worrying about the possibility of a bear encounter, my first thoughts were: “Did I hang my food?!?! Did I leave my smelly toothbrush lying out somewhere?!?! Are there any candy wrappers in my tent?!?! OH GOD, I THINK IT’S A BEAR!!!”

    The rustling continued to get louder and closer… I heard heavy, labored breathing seemingly inches from my bivy.

    I tried not to make a sound.

    I tried not to breathe.

    I tried to stop my heart from beating (because I was sure that anything around me could have heard its forceful, incessant pounding).

    And then I shifted my weight and scuffed the side of the tent making a loud SWSSH!

    I thought, “MY LIFE IS OVER!”

    And then I heard it – the sound of hooves tramping and leaping back toward the trees.

    “Phew,” I thought, “it was only a deer or an elk…” Then… “yeah, a deer or an elk that, if it leapt the wrong way, would have trampled the **** out of me!”

    Later on in the night I awoke again with the same feeling of fear. This time I moved around right away to try to see where the rustling was coming from. I immediately heard the same leaping, clopping sound of hooves. I saw a couple of outlines of big animals trotting away and went back to sleep.

    Over the course of the night it happened three more times. I had apparently been sleeping where the deer/elk go to water & feed.

    Although the clearing seemed to be an awesome place to camp (because it had lakeshore access & I didn’t have to worry about falling branches or trees if it started storming), I was right on the deer trail! I could have easily been injured by a misplaced step of a frightened deer.

    My my…

    Thanks for the story from Sri Lanka – I’m leaving for SL myself on the 20th of May!

    Would you mind if I sent you a few questions so I can better plan for my trip?

    Ben @ TravelingThaneFurrows

    • popsix March 19, 2013 at 11:46 pm #

      Hi Ben! THAT is some story! Elk are huuuge! MY LIFE IS OVER is exactly what I would have said! Thanks for sharing this! And yes to your Sri Lanka tips, will shoot you an email so you can fire away!


  1. When “Bears” Attack | Traveling Thane Furrows - March 19, 2013

    […] https://celsbels.wordpress.com/2013/03/19/lessons-from-the-back-of-beyond/ […]

  2. What I want you to know about your trip to Sri Lanka | On the Road - March 23, 2013

    […] something, only to discover something completely unexpected. (I’ve already told you about the one most awesome experience I had in Sri Lanka!) So, instead of boring you with a blow by blow account of everything else I […]

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