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Flatulent bubble baths, splashes and showers: Karen Bowerman watches a herd of seventy elephants enjoy bath time at Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage, Sri Lanka...

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Flatulent bubble baths, splashes and showers: Karen Bowerman watches a herd of seventy elephants enjoy bath time at Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage, Sri Lanka.

The owner of the gem shop closes his shutters, the man with the trinket stall moves his tinkling wind chimes to one side, the tuktuks draw to a halt - the elephants are coming through.

Casually, and in their own time, the beasts of Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage lumber across the main road and into the small side street that slopes towards the Ma Oya river near Kegalle in central Sri Lanka.

They pass within a few feet of me: dusty eyes blink, skin hangs in folds beneath scaly bellies, mothers coax babies closer, youngsters jostle for space. Seventy odd elephants shamble towards the water, heading for a bathe.

At the river they put on an entertaining display a couple link up, trunk to tail and wade in; an elderly matriarch, her skin patchy and pockmarked, showers herself; a newborn delights in his own flatulent bubble bath.

But my favourite is the elephant that balances on a massive rock in the shallows, swirling the current dreamily with his trunk. His ears flap, open and close, like massive, leathery butterfly wings.

I head towards the river, over rocks worn smooth by erosion and the feet of those whove clambered this way before. Beside me two Indian girls in bright blue saris point and giggle, a father hoists his child high, a young couple hold hands and smile. All eyes are on the antics in the river.

A couple of grumpy, elephantine adolescents stand at the waters edge, refusing to go in, wishing they were somewhere else. The crystal clear water washes over their ankles, breaking in bubbles round their stumpy legs. One sways sulkily, its small ropey tail swishing idly from side to side. The other stands bolt upright, its trunk tucked close to its torso. Occasionally its ear twitches or it blinks, but its hoping not to be seen.

A cow elephant with flabby haunches approaches from behind. Theres a moments confrontation, the whoosh of a trunk and a bout of deafening trumpeting. The teenagers look nonchalantly then swing their heads and torsos in the other direction and slosh sullenly through the water. I lose them amid a mass of blotchy bodies and the flash of a curved tusk.

The elephants keepers, most in their twenties but some as young as fifteen, throw the odd, casual glance in their wards direction. Some carry poles with metal hooks at one end. They poke the animals when play gets out of hand and encourage them, with odd bursts of shouting, to lie down in the water. The day is hot, a scalding 35 degrees; the rivers the only chance to cool down.

Splosh! An elephant rolls onto its side; a dome-shaped island rises out of the river. Soon theres a whole collection a path of giant, irregularly placed stepping-stones. The current alters its course. It swirls in and out of sinewy ears, flushes dust from creases of skin and dowses deep-set eyes. Jets of spray shoot up from appreciative, unfurled trunks.

A whistle pierces the splashing sounds in the river: bath times over! I hear a loud rumble, a sign of contentment. Its a chance response, from a beast with a bony body, wart-splattered back, and tusks that could have graced a mammoth. The other side of the river, splodges of grey act unaware. The elephants, cleansed and shining, lumber lazily through the water, wandering and wallowing, against a backdrop of sprawling coconut plantations and steamy, hazy hills.

Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage

Rambukkana Road, Kegalle, Sri Lanka

Many eco tour operators offer specialist wildlife holidays / wildlife and sightseeing holidays in Sri Lanka. One of the leading operators is www.jetwing.com. Sri Lankan Airlines flies direct to Colombo from London Heathrow from 500 return.

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