Drinking Tea With Elephants
After finally regaining the lost weight post-Delhi Belly, I decided it was time to head back to Asia. My favourite part of the flight to Colombo was the external cameras on the plane’s nose and nose wheel, which gave a bird’s eye view of the world below. The flight plan took us via Male in the Maldives, so on approach, we could watch a world of coral atolls pass by below. Beautiful deep and pale blue waters surrounded clear sandy beaches as far as the camera’s eye could see. It’s the only flight I’ve been on that has had cameras on the plane like that, and it’s a pity that it wasn’t on some other routes I’ve been on since.
The first day in Sri Lanka was spent wandering along the sandy beach outside our hotel, with the warm waters of the Indian Ocean lapping at the shore next to us. After a much needed sleep, we visited the local fish market with its pungent aroma and myriad of fish species, many of which I had never seen before, and some of which, even to this day, I have no idea what they were. It was a hive of activity, not just for the local people, but also for the local cat population that paraded amongst the stalls looking for scraps.
Wary of repeating the previous year’s gastroenteritis, I was very cautious with my introduction to Sri Lankan cuisine. Playing it safe the first night in Negombo, I was a bit more relaxed the next day, and my friend Kat and I enjoyed some delicious food at a lovely roadside cafe. That second day was spent on a bus ride that would take the best part of the day. Throughout the bus ride, Kat’s complexion got whiter and whiter until eventually she had to jump off the bus in order to throw up. She curled up looking miserable, and I empathised with her greatly, memories of the utter misery coming back to me. Learning from my experience, I had at least equipped myself with a supply of anti-emetics, however, even these could not be kept down, and Kat proceeded to fill a few bags on route.
After what probably felt like the longest bus ride in the world for Kat, we arrived in Habarana. She curled up in a ball by the swimming pool whilst the rest of us went off to explore the park by elephant. It was the second time I’d ridden an elephant, but this time, rather than being hustled up a crowded road to a fort, it was a leisurely stroll through the vegetation, ducking under branches, and eventually going for a swim in a little lagoon. I even got to ‘drive’, sitting on his neck behind his ears and rubbing them as we walked. It was a lovely experience, and I thanked him by offering him his dinner. Kat was gutted to have missed it, but still felt rotten. There was still some driving to do before we reached our hotel for the next few nights, and understandably, she crawled straight into bed on arrival.
We stayed in the same region for a few days, which gave Kat time to recuperate. Thankfully, it was a quick recovery, and she was back on form within a few days. The ancient city of Polonnaruwa was a short drive away, and lay nestled amongst the vegetation: a collection of palaces, temples and Buddhas. The remains were in apposition with trees and bushes, and running amongst them all were several troupes of toque macaques, who roamed the grounds with complete abandon, and unflustered by the myriad of wandering tourists in their domain. It was mesmerising to walk amongst the ruins and the grounds, and I could have easily spent all day there in a reverie, however the intense dry heat was oppressive and Kat and I both struggled as our Scottish genes failed to modulate our hydration and temperature. Keeping up with the constant loss of electrolytes was a challenge in that first week where we experienced the hottest temperatures.
Sigiriya is a fortress on top of a large rock which is visible for miles around. Stopping only briefly for some refreshments in the cafe by the bus stop, we started our trek through the gardens at the base of the rock, before starting the ascent up the side. The stairs were either carved out of the rock side, or man-made with metal gangways, and thankfully most of the initial climb up to the lower platform was in the shade, as it was another intensely hot day. The lower platform gave an amazing view over the gardens below and marked the starting point for the final ascent. The entrance to the palace at the top was designed to be a lion’s mouth. All that remains is the giant paws either side of the lower stairwell. Much of the staircase is missing, and as a result, parts of the upper climb are a bit of a scramble, clinging onto anything with purchase in order to let people pass in the other direction. The view from the palace summit is worth the effort, with a complete panorama of the surrounding region with lush vegetation visible as far as the eye can see, and some hills on the horizon. I was struck by how green Sri Lanka is, how lush the vegetation, something which contrasted to the part of India I had visited the year before. As a result of this vegetation, the wildlife was in abundance. From monkeys to monitor lizards, and fruit bats to giant squirrels, there was life everywhere. After spending some time at the top, we headed back down to the bus, passing the obligatory snake charmers which are as much a part of the scenery in Asia as the tourist attractions themselves are. As I often handle snakes through my work, I was deemed the best person to hold the snake for the obligatory photo opportunity.
The last day in the Habarana region was spent immersing ourselves in the local life. We hired some bicycles, and set off cycling through the local villages, watching the parents toiling the fields, and the children either playing by the stream, or helping their parents. We followed the flow of the river which left Habarana lake, and cycled for a few hours, enjoying the countryside. When we returned, we visited the lake-side to watch the fisherman bring in their catch, knowing that we would be eating them in just a few hours for our dinner. I can’t remember what kind of fish it was, but I know that I had never heard of it before, and it tasted delicious, even more so for knowing how fresh it was.
Our hotel was a conglomerate of wooden buildings over looking the lake, and it nestled neatly amongst the vegetation, such that it blended in well, and from the lake side it wasn’t too obvious. It had a spa suite attached to it, and whilst I’d never had a massage before, the recommendation of one of my travelling companions persuaded me to give it a go. I’m sure in normal circumstances, it would be the most relaxing massage ever, but it was difficult to completely relax when the only thing protecting your dignity was a flimsy curtain that failed to completely block off the rest of the room. There was no towel or drape, it was a case of lying completely naked on the board, either face down or face up. My masseuse spoke no English, but from her gesticulating, I could tell she was trying to get me to relax. I wasn’t as bothered when lying face down, but it was easier said than done when I was face up as I became acutely aware of every movement past the gap in the curtain. After the massage, I was shepherded into what can only be described as a giant coffin, with a hole at one end for my head to stick out, and essentially it involved lying on a wooden bench whilst hot coals steamed away underneath. It was at the limit of my heat tolerance, and I was glad to escape, only to be taken through to a giant jar of potpourri where I had to sit sweating amongst the intoxicating smell. It had been an awkward experience, and I gave the masseuse a rather large tip out of embarrassment. She looked at the note in abject horror, and her boss looked first at me in shocked disbelief, and then at her in a rather threatening manner. Whilst the conversion meant it was hardly anything in British pounds, I was immediately aware that this was probably the most she had ever held in her hand, and I hastened my exit, aware that I had clearly made some kind of faux-pas. I just really hope that she got to keep the money, and wasn’t made to hand it over to her boss the minute I left the building.
The day after the bike ride, we boarded the bus to leave Habarana behind and head on to Dambulla and then Kandy beyond. We were not long on the bus when we turned off onto a dirt track and pulled up by the side of a river. Confused, we got out, to be greeted by the sight of some elephants bathing in the river. It turned out that our guide had felt sorry for Kat missing out on the elephant ride, that he had had words with the local elephant herders, and arranged a visit for us whilst they were getting their daily bath. We hauled off our socks and shoes, rolled up our trousers, and waded in, gleefully washing behind their ears and rubbing their thick hides with water. They seemed to enjoy it as much as we did, and Kat was elated. We were both touched that the guide had put in such an effort for us.
Dambulla has an extensive cave temple complex that has been preserved well. It was a day of rain, and we climbed the steps to the temple through a heavy downpour. Littering the steps was hundreds of frangipani flowers. This was the first time I had seen these, and they were beautiful. They have subsequently become my favourite flower, and they were prevalent in many places in the southern half of Sri Lanka.
My main memory of Kandy was the fruit bats. There were thousands of them, either flying manically through the sky above our hotel at night, hanging from the trees in the city’s botanical gardens, or hanging fried from the electricity cables where they had gotten electrocuted on landing. Their silhouettes flitted across the night sky every night we were there. I loved lazing in the hotel pool in the dusk, watching them flying overhead.
I loved wandering around the botanical gardens, not so much for the plant life, but because of the couples that were clearly courting. It was a practice that was very evident in the cities. In the villages, things were still very much a case of being controlled by the father and brothers of the house. In the villages, when a girl hits puberty, she isn’t allowed to leave her room for a month, and only females of the house are allowed to look at her. In the city, this didn’t happen, but yet the younger couples, we were informed, were seen in public at their own risk, and they often went to the gardens amongst the tourists to get some privacy. They were only talking and holding hands, nothing more, but it was lovely to see the unfortunately old-fashioned behaviour of courting in full swing. It made many of us feel sad that this has all but died out in modern Britain. I always enjoy spending a few weeks without a mobile and internet access, and it was nice to see how romance would be in a life without emails and texting.
On the shores of the lake in the central of Kandy, lies the Temple of the Tooth, the city’s most famous landmark. Highly revered by the Buddhist community, it is a site of great importance to locals and foreign visitors alike. It is also a pick-pockets heaven, as I saw a couple of boys milling amongst the visitors to the temple trying to help themselves. On our last day in Kandy, we got treated to a dancing and fire-walking display, and we got to enjoy the adrenalin thrill that is a tuk-tuk ride. I had had that joy in Agra, India the year before, and in Sri Lanka we took several, but every time it feels like a theme park ride as the adrenalin surges whilst your driver ignores any road sense or oncoming traffic and proceeds to weave through the traffic around them, cutting corners, and occasionally mounting the verge.
Boarding our train in Kandy station, we headed through the most stunning scenery and amazing vegetation, climbing higher and higher up into the tea country. The night before I had pigged out at an expensive restaurant with their all-you-can-eat dessert menu so I was feeling slightly sorry for myself for the first half of the journey. The latter half, I spent a lot of time hanging out the doorway in awe at the view, taking pictures of all the tea fields that stretched for miles around. From the station at elevation, we then had a rather interesting bus ride winding even higher in altitude round the side of hills on single track roads. When traffic appeared in the other direction, it was a very precise, and very slow inching forwards on the edge of the road which usually had a sheer drop to the side. There was more than one occasion when looking out the window meant looking straight down a ravine, and knowing that the wheels of the bus were clinging on to the very edge of the road. It was a tense drive, and we were eternally grateful for the expertise of the bus driver. It is well known from news stories about tourists dying due to accidents on just these types of roads.
Nuwara Eliya was our high elevation base for exploring tea country. The tea fields spread for miles around and driving along the roads, it wasn’t hard to spot the pickers up the slopes deftly stripping the leaves for collection. We stopped for a tour of a tea factory and enjoyed a cup of freshly picked tea at the Lover’s Leap plantation on the Pedro Estate, 6200 ft above sea level. The temperature and humidity were noticeably different. Up here, the nights were cold, and it rained heavily and regularly. Waterfalls and streams littered the hillsides, and it was evidently clear why tea grew so well up here. Not normally a tea drinker, even I enjoyed the local tea, and brought a little crate of leaves back to Blighty.
Descending from these heights, we passed more and more mountains and valleys green with lush vegetation, and waterfalls and rivers abounded. The beauty of this small country never ceased to amaze me, and everywhere we travelled there were monkeys on posts or running through the tree tops.
The original plan had been to visit Yala National Park in search of leopards, however whilst we were at altitude, there was a Tamil-led massacre in that region, and a last minute change of plans instead took us to Bandarawela and onwards into Uda Walawe National Park. I was initially disappointed at missing the chance to see leopards as we were informed there were none in UWNP, but on arriving in the national park, I quickly forgot about any disappointment. The national park was stunning. There isn’t enough superlatives to describe a place as this, but within it we saw water buffalo, crocodiles, a jackal, eagles, and hundreds of wild Asian elephants. We spent hours on a game drive just watching as the elephants milled around in family units, wandering around the scrub land, and bathing in the lagoon. We even stumbled upon a very young baby that was shielded by it’s mother and older sister. Nearer Bandarawela was an elephant orphanage where we got to watch the youngsters that were being rehabilitated prior to being considered for release. It was amusing to watch the orderly queue at feeding time, and the greedy bullies that always tried to barge their way back for seconds.
After nearly 2 weeks inland, we finally hit the southern coast. A region devastated by the 2004 tsunami, there were scars of its destruction littered along the coastline for miles. Missing houses, wrecked boats, and holes in the vegetation were all still evident nearly 3 years on. Whole communities had been affected, and some small communities had been completely wiped out. Even our hotel was missing a section of its sea wall, and there were photos displayed in the hotel of the flooded grounds after the waves swept in. We visited a new housing project that was being funded with some of the money donated by international charities, and one of the families living within it was a pen-pal of one of our companions. The project was far from finished with just half the estate occupied, but many people from the community were helping to build it so that finally, those displaced by the tsunami, would once more have somewhere to call home.
We had a brief stop in Galle before visiting the Kosgoda turtle sanctuary, which was definitely a highlight of the trip for me. Fascinated as I am by marine life, it was a joy to visit the hatchery and the play pools where the baby turtles hung out prior to being released by moonlight at the local beach. In amongst the hatchlings were a few injured and rescued juveniles and adults, and the size difference to the babies was phenomenal. Unfortunately, the next batch of hatchlings to be released were going the following day, so we missed sharing the experience of their release into the Indian Ocean. They were absolutely adorable, and utterly cute.
The final day was a rather rushed affair. We got another train ride, passing the wreck of the train that was the grave for many people after the tsunami, and otherwise enjoying the coastal scenery, again evidence of the tsunami’s destruction evident over much of the route. We stopped at a lovely restaurant overlooking a river, and tasted some shark fillets. It tasted overwhelmingly of garlic so I have no idea what the shark actually tastes like, although I had been informed that it is usually cooked in garlic to mask the taste! On arrival back in Colombo, there was a brief tour of the capital city before we transferred to our final eating place prior to flying back to the UK.
Often referred to as the Pearl of the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka surprised me greatly. It was rich in both flora and fauna, and everybody was so friendly and eager to please. There was little of the oppressive begging that plagued my trip to India, and even the cuisine, whilst having some similarities to India, was much more delightful. In short, I loved Sri Lanka. It is a wildlife haven, and the scenery at every turn was beautiful, which means it thoroughly deserves it’s place on my list of places to go back to.