First a grey-brown ripple in the bushes. Then a noise: the snap-crack of branches being ripped and stuffed into a large, pink mouth. No doubt about it.

We’ve just seen our first Asian elephant. And more are emerging from the undergrowth. You don’t have to spend long in Sri Lanka to be struck by the superabundance of plant and animal life. And not just in the obvious places.

I’ve taken a morning out to visit Udawalawe National Park, where the elephants rub shoulders with leopards, crocodiles and sloth bears.

Step outside the park, though, and you’re just as likely to be assailed by double-takes: peacocks on the kerbs; a palm squirrel on the breakfast table; a monitor lizard dozing on a restaurant roof beam.

Life seems to be sprouting out everywhere. Sri Lankan tours tend to offer a selection of sites around the country, from the tea-strewn highlands to metropolis Colombo.

But there’s good reason to be a little more targeted with your visit, and my focus was on the deep south. This is what you might call “pocket Sri Lanka”, a place where you’ll find 16th-century forts, tea plantations, wildlife and some of the island’s best beaches – but all within a reasonably compact chunk.

Sri Lanka Holidays 2018

Sri Lanka offers some unique and astounding experiences for adventurers

My journey actually began on the western end of this chunk. Cricket fans will know the city of Galle for its stadium, sandwiched picturesquely between town and ocean. Right behind it, though, is one of Sri Lanka’s historical highlights.

A seaside citadel wrapped in forbidding stone walls, Galle Fort was founded by the Portuguese, built up by the Dutch, then overtaken by the British in 1796.

Wander down the tiny lanes and you can still see those cultures in evidence – including the grim-looking pit where prisoners were stashed. Today, fortunately, the fort has become a place to pick up tourist trinkets, or to stop for a bite beside the sea.

I was staying in a couple of hotels either side of town – the westerly Jetwing Lighthouse is close to the bustle of the fort; the easterly Fortress Resort within decent striking distance of Unawatuna, which is the place to go for palm-fringed beaches and unpretentious seafood restaurants (or, if you’re a fan of ITV medi-drama The Good Karma Hospital, the teaching college that doubles as the fictional hospital; you can spot it from the main road).

One morning, though, I left the coast and rode inland to Tittagalla. The landscape here flashes with colour, lowland paddy fields and banana plantations punctuated by sudden deep-green bursts of forested hillside.

Nestled on one of these is the Handunugoda Tea Estate. Handunugoda may be small by Sri Lankan standards – about 200 acres – but it has bang for its buck. Every few feet of my tour, the guide would stop to wrestle something from a bush.

“Chew this stem,” he said at one point, handing me a strip of bark. The taste was sweet.

“Cinnamon!” he smiled, before steering me past their other crops: rubber trees, treacle flowers, pepper vine on a mango tree. And, of course, tea.

Plus, there’s the estate’s signature Virgin White – which is the newest tips of the bushes, harvested early morning with scissors and gloved hands.

“If we touched it, we might contaminate the structure,” the guide insisted.

Handunugoda tea estate

Handunugoda tea estate

Unsurprisingly it’s pricey by the packet, but you can sample some for free before buying in the tasting section at the end of the tour.

I could have lounged for days at Handunugoda given the chance, but the next leg of my journey was calling. A few hours’ drive down the coast brings you to Hambantota, where lush western Sri Lanka begins to cede to the more arid east.

New developments have been springing up in the area recently, including the luxury Shangri-La Hambantota Golf Resort & Spa. Here the draw isn’t beaches so much as game parks. Further east there’s Yala, the country’s best-known national park.

An hour’s drive north takes you to Udawalawe and its elephants. I completed my trip, though, at the point where the Walawe river meets the sea. It might have seemed rather anticlimactic after the excitement of the park, but it wasn’t.

Within half an hour we had seen bee-eaters, kingfishers, sea eagles, langur monkeys and fruit bats. It was all the pomp of Sri Lanka in miniature, chirruping as the sun sunk slowly into the ocean.

Top 10 things to do in Sri Lanka

1 Swat up on traditional tea production with a tour of the Handunugoda plantation.

2 Take in some cricket at Galle’s famous international stadium.

3 Go whale watching off Dondra Point, one of the world’s premier blue whale hotspots.

4 Track down elephants and (if you’re very lucky) leopards at Udawalawe National Park.

5 Sample some “hoppers” – a battered Sri Lankan cake served with egg, coconut or banana.

6 Explore Sri Lanka’s colonial past by wandering around the ancient Galle Fort.

7 Watch the sun set over the stilt fishermen in Koggala.

8 Hop down to Unawatuna for some of Sri Lanka’s best-known beaches.

9 Quench your thirst with a coconut, freshly macheted at one of the many roadside stalls.

10 Spot bats and monkeys on a short cruise down the Walawe river to the open ocean.

Way to go Olly travelled with Kuoni (01306 747008 or kuoni.co.uk) which offers 10 nights in Sri Lanka, staying two at The Fortress Resort, Galle, in a Fortress Room, three at Jetwing Lighthouse, Galle, in a Deluxe Room and five nights at the Shangri-La’s Hambantota Golf Resort & Spa in a Deluxe Room, including breakfast, transfers in resort and flights on SriLankan Airlines from Heathrow.

The price for May 2018 is from £1,890 per person, based on two sharing.

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