It's a noisy place, the middle of nowhere. We might have been a long way from the reggae strum and techno thump of the tourist coast, but here there were howls and yaps from the resident dogs, squeaks and squawks of the hornbills up in the trees, the constant static buzz of the cicadas and the slapstick scrabbling of the monkeys, who seemed to be treating the roof above us as their own personal trampoline.
We'd wanted wild and we found it. But how do you do 'wild' with a small baby and a four year old? That's easy, you pay for it. And is it worth it? Absolutely. We were at the spectacular Banyan Camp, an off-grid and eco-friendly luxury retreat a short drive away from Sri Lanka's famous Udawalawe National Park. The camp began life seventeen years ago, a daydream built into reality by Souhaine and Vijayanthi, who wanted a peaceful, natural hideaway in the wake of the country's brutal civil war.
Set down a signless path and around an isolated lake, the camp consists of an elegant, antique scattered main lodge, with communal living and dining areas downstairs and an open, six bed sleeping area above. Walk in one direction past the vast beanbag strewn lounge and you'll find another unconventional bedroom in the form of a huge Mercedes truck, topped with a palmyra roof and parked up amongst the wind chimes. Walk the other way and you'll find the secluded champagne lodge and - our home for the night - the wine lodge.
A curving clay structure which takes its name from the hundreds of recycled wine bottles that stud its walls, the wine lodge was one of the weirdest and most wonderful places we've ever stayed. The veranda came with both shade and cushions, an ideal spot for a rest, if those things still existed. Inside, the ground floor consisted of one four poster bed, a heavy chest and the bathroom. Up the wooden stairs were a mosquito-netted mattress, another chest and a hammock. It sounds so normal when I describe it, like one of those reassuring little IKEA flats in the Croydon superstore. It couldn't have been further from the truth.
Heres the thing. The camp is named after the banyan tree, a beautiful freak of nature whose branches grow downwards and form new roots, stretching through the air to make contact with the ground. It's a strangely perfect analogy for the way the camp itself is: beautiful, interesting and a little upside down. For a start, there was a front door. We found this hilarious as what there wasn't was walls. If we walked around naked in the wine lodge, anyone could see us in theory, though the tall grasses and dense greenery were enough to keep our rooms secluded and our dignity intact. Then, rather than keeping our valuables safe in our hotel room as usual, we had to leave the things we really cared about in the middle of reception, because, you know, monkeys. Lining the paths, there were subtle but electric anti-elephant fences to keep any wandering pachyderms at bay. There was a lot to get our conventional little heads around, but first, there was lunch to be eaten.
We'd been welcomed to the camp by the gentle, smiling Rupa and a collection of friendly if vocal hounds. And after settling in, lunch was laid out, a banquet of homemade curries for four. There were still-warm papad, dishes of hot curried pumpkin and spiced banana flower. And more. And more. We ate until we couldn't. And then, nothing.
Banyan Camp is the perfect place to reset your mind and your expectations. To stop after two months of over-stimulation. It would be amazing for a couple with no responsibilities. For them, I seem to remember, having nothing to do is a wonderful thing. For parents of two young children though, it's a bloody nightmare. These small people need entertaining. So what, you may ask, did we actually get up to?
The first afternoon was dampened somewhat by the torrential rain that lashed the camp for six straight hours. So our plans for a canoe safari may have been dead in the water, but that turned out to be a blessing. We took up residence on a clay sofa strewn with cushions, playing games and attempting phonics. As night fell, the fires and candles were lit, and the atmosphere shot up a notch with strange shadows thrown across walls and the camp transforming into a kind of Sri Lankan take on Barry Lyndon.
We ate fried fish and comforting bowls of creamy potatoes and gentle spice at the long, wooden table, Rupa on a stubborn but ultimately failed mission to feed our unweanable baby with a banana. Our precious bottle of wine gone, the four of us braved the path to our lodge and clambered into bed together, reassuring Olivia that no elephants would be visiting in the night and trying to ignore the creatures scurrying around our mosquito net. We still don't know what they were and we're not sure we want to. The kids slept like logs, we were a little more on edge. But that night was a wakeup call, a reminder of where we were and what was out there.
The morning after, we woke early to that clean, sharp sky that only comes after a serious downpour, so we got our canoe safari underway at last. After a breakfast of Sri Lankan tea, ripe pineapple, scarlet dripping watermelon, and crisp and moreish hoppers drizzled in kithul, the sweet syrup from the fishtail palm, we headed to the water's edge. Covered in factor 50 and heavy duty bug repellent, we climbed into the unnervingly narrow boat and set off with our quiet, gentle guide. Now I may have had visions of this as a peaceful, meditative experience, but River had other ideas. After trying to scream the lake down in puce-faced fury, he made it very clear he wanted breakfast. And so I found myself balanced on a plank, on a canoe, above waters containing hopefully nothing dangerous, breastfeeding. Awesome. But then we pulled up to the shore, waded through knee-deep water and set off into the jungle. River fell asleep on my chest and the rest is history.
We learned about the fascinating and ancient Banyan trees, met a deeply unimpressed helicopter mother of a baby buffalo, and watched Olivia fall in love with the sleeping plants, which curl up and play dead when you stroke them. She has a surprisingly in-depth botanical knowledge thanks to my parents, though their suburban London garden is usually as wild as it gets for her, so to see her wandering among towering tangles of tree roots and hopping between recently created elephant poos was an oddly proud moment. But she's four, and the willingness to walk fades quickly, so we headed back to the camp.
Later that day, we drove with Rupa and the rest of the Banyan staff to a nearby deserted waterfall. As the camp staff set up a fire and began to cook, we swam with our daughter in the blissfully chilly water before drying off in time for a simple, perfect lunch. It was just tapioca, boiled in salt water and slathered in butter, served on a banana leaf with a pile of freshly grated coconut and a spiky onion sambal, but God it was good, eaten in the dappled shade as we watched the waterfall rush by.
We added our voice to the chorus of adoration in the guestbook before we left, heading off on our next adventure with the elephants in Udawalawe. The book was telling, a heavy tome of witness accounts to an eye-opening experience. We could have spent much longer at Banyan, but a night was enough to put us back in touch with the world around us.
It was so good to be in a place where you're taken care of, but left alone. Nobody asked us very much at all, apart from when we wanted to eat or what - if anything - we fancied doing. The food arrived, no options given, no questions asked. It was just right. There are future plans for a restaurant, for more accommodation perhaps. But for now, it's luxury at its simplest. A place that gave us time to be together. To watch rain pouring, lake glimmering, monkey clambering nature without a guide. To watch our city kids get a little messier, a little braver. Even, perhaps, a little wilder.