News Article

In Conversation with Katharina Raaben from Uga Ulagalla

6 June 2024

Natural Living at Uga Ulagalla. Plus Elephants.

If you think of Sri Lanka as a teardrop, somewhere between its bulging middle and the part at where it begins to taper upwards, you’ll find Anuradhapura. It’s a city of some 50,000 people that’s been knocking around for the best part of three millennia, making it one of Asia’s oldest continuously occupied cities, and the largest in Sri Lanka’s dry-zone. About 20 miles south of the main city (which happens to be UNESCO World Heritage Site), you’ll find Uga Ulagalla, a boutique hotel of 58 acres that’s been around for slightly less than three millennia, but is no less beautiful than its neighbour.

A quick Google Maps-ing and the first thing that leaps off the screen is this area’s greenness: the hotel is surrounded on all sides by lush landscapes, scattered pockets of water and the odd natural reserve. What I’m trying to say is that this is a place largely untouched by us; ‘it’s real Sri Lanka’, our guest, Katharina Raaben informs me, something that Uga Ulagalla is trying to maintain. Katharina is the hotel’s Head Naturalist, a role that encompasses a huge spectrum of activities – and includes heading up the Elephant Research Centre (more on which to follow).

She appears on my Zoom screen in her office, surrounded by posters and prints of the natural world. Through the window on her left, the Sri Lankan countryside is clearly visible as it sprawls away as far as the eye can see. Katharina grew up in Germany, was head buyer for a retailer there before she was bitten by the travel bug and shelled out for ‘the most expensive holiday of my life’ to the Galapagos. It was there that she realised that she wanted to travel differently, to be part of the places she experienced, rather than just an observer. Her annual leave trips began to be centred around volunteering – anti-poaching in Zululand, wild dog research throughout Africa to name just a couple – and, eventually, she handed in her notice and set about planning a year of travel and guiding.

That was 10 years ago. During that period, Katharina met a Sri Lankan, married him, moved to the island, lived in the Cloud Forest – ‘my Jurassic Park’ – and immersed herself utterly in the local culture. When the pandemic hit, she decided she wanted full time employment and, luckily, Ulagalla cropped up. Which brings us to the present day. If it sounds like a bit of whirlwind, that’s because it is. As I’m speaking with her, it seems as though Katharina has seen more in a decade than most people do in a lifetime, and her enthusiasm for her home and for her place of work is infectious.

Ulagalla is a small, 25-villa hotel tucked away in the Sri Lankan countryside. It’s remarkably spacious and open, given how few villas there are, and landscaped areas give way to an abundance of natural vegetation, endemic species galore and the rolling paddy fields that have been worked for thousands of years in this part of the world. As Head Naturalist, Katharina overlooks all of the activities at the hotel, from nature walks, kayaking, horse riding, national park and cultural visits. The thing is, though, she’s keen to stress that these aren’t just activities, they’re experiences. One of her first projects on joining Ulagalla was to set about a wholesale change in how their activities were run. Guests who stay at the hotel now can expect an experience deeply embedded in the local culture and tradition, something that isn’t really possible in the bigger hotels.

The scenic drive, she tells me, is a perfect example of her vision of travel. Guests are driven out of the hotel and plunge straight into the heart of real Sri Lanka. They see the sowers and the harvesters in the paddy fields, the 2000-year-old irrigation tanks that supply them – and have done since the kings reigned over these parts – the ecosystems that have developed around the tanks, before finishing with a sundowner that only Ulagalla guests can experience.

“One of Katharina's first projects on joining Ulagalla was to set about a wholesale change in how their activities were run. Guests who stay at the hotel now can expect an experience deeply embedded in the local culture and tradition, something that isn’t really possible in the bigger hotels.”

The other thing they might see, if they’re lucky, is an elephant. In fact, they might see a few. It was when Katharina and her team were searching for the best spots to which to take guests that they stumbled across – yes, stumbled across – a previously unknown elephant population, starting literally outside the hotel’s gates. No one knew this herd existed because they live outside of a national park area but there is work and research to be done around them.

That’s where the Elephant Research Centre comes in, now in its third year and beginning to establish real patterns of behaviour in the data. This isn’t just a nice to have for Katharina, though; this work really matters. Wild Sri Lankan elephants are often a cause of conflict with village communities, damaging crops, trampling people and, in return, being killed themselves – 176 people were killed last year across the island, as well as 476 elephants. In fact, the first elephant Katharina and her team ever tracked was shot last year. It took 5 months and an enormous number of tears before he was back in the wild but, thankfully, he’s up and running again now.

The research Katharina and her team are carrying out means that patterns of behaviour, movements and group structure will all become clearer, meaning that local communities should find it easier and more predictable to live side by side with these magnificent creatures. In fact, there’s already a fencing programme taking place, not of the elephants’ habitat, but of the villages. That way, I’m told, the animals are free to roam in their natural habitat, whilst the villagers are kept safe. It’s obvious that this is where Katharina’s real passion lies, as she talks about how we have to ‘save the elephants for this generation, not just the next’. It’s her work that’s helping to do that.

As we wind up our chat, I’m struck by quite how much Katharina manages to do at Ulagalla. She’s part guide, part hotelier, part elephant researcher, and it seems as though she does it all with the broadest of smiles on her face. Of course, it helps that she has a supportive team, wonderful guests and a beautiful place to work, all of which seem to be on tap at the hotel. The work at Ulagalla is more than just tourism: it’s a different way of experiencing the places we travel to – at Love To Explore, that’s something we can understand.

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