A walk in the (Knuckles) park

While in Sri Lanka we organised a three day hiking trip to the Knuckles National Park (two hours north east of Kandy) with a guide called Gamini, whose name I remembered by thinking of a gammy knee. On the first 2015-02-01 11.09.23day, we walked 20km through low bush and scrub with spectacular mountains in the distance. It was an ideal walking day – bright and sunny with not a cloud in sight, yet not too hot.

2015-02-01 12.53.39When we stopped for lunch near a rocky outcrop, Gamini told us that leopards tend to hang around these areas. Numerous leopard droppings confirmed this. Leopards obviously have a very efficient digestive system as all that is left of their prey in their poo is hair and small bones.

2015-02-01 10.10.47We climbed up to a viewpoint where we could see for miles and our only company were a couple of serpent eagles, then we retraced our tracks and walked on a few more kilometres to a permanent camp site for trekking parties. The camp site had a flush toilet, hot showers, a kitchen, an undercover dining / bonfire area, and the tents were pitched under wooden shelters. It was after 6pm and dusk by the time we got there. The rain started shortly after we arrived, softly at first.

There were ten of us at the campsite that night – apart from our contingent of four (our driver joined us), there was a camp master and assistant, and two young guides from another company who were accompanying two Australian university students (who sounded American).

Gamini had told us he was meeting his girlfriend at the camp, and he kept up the pretence until it was time to introduce her to us. His curvaceous girlfriend turned out to be … a bottle of Arak! We’d brought a bottle of wine and between us all we polished the alcohol off during the pre-dinner revelry. The camp master lit a bonfire and the Sri Lankans put on displays of drumming, singing and dancing. Then it was our turn to sing songs from our country. I found it difficult to remember any Australian songs but between the four of us we managed.

After dinner (delicious curries with rice) we went to bed exhausted, but a storm ravaged our tent all night and kept waking us up. I was very grateful the tent was pitched under a shelter as I’m sure it would have blown away if it was in the open. It was still raining heavily in the morning so we didn’t rush to get up.

2015-02-02 14.06.10By the time we’d finished breakfast the rain had eased and Gamini decided to go ahead with the day’s hike, although he had to change the route as the river was too high to cross safely. We only had 12km to walk and most of it was downhill through tea plantations and rice paddies. We passed a few small villages with temples and little shops. On the wildlife side, we spotted a small barking deer and a giant squirrel. We also saw more leopard poo and no stray dogs, giving weight to the theory that leopards are venturing out of the jungle and supplementing their diet with dogs (see my last blog, ‘There be leopards’).

2015-02-02 17.39.26Mid-afternoon our driver met us at a little road side stall and drove us for a couple of hours to a lake. The camp master rowed us across the lake to our next campsite where our tents were set up on flat boats. A water monitor noseying around the boats seemed unperturbed by our presence. This campsite was not as flash as the other one. The drop toilet was situated away from the campsite and there were no showers, but we had a dip in the lake to compensate.

Overnight there was another storm which rocked the boat and blew the tent around, but I was so tired that I slept through it. The next morning we went on an early boat tour around the lake and spotted some night herons. After breakfast we were rowed back across the lake to the car.

2015-02-03 11.40.42It was still raining heavily and too wet to hike so Gamini took us to an Aboriginal village, where an Aboriginal man showed us how to light fires without matches, sang us a traditional lullaby and gave an archery display using handmade bows and arrows. We visited one of the Aboriginal houses which was tiny, very basic and housed six people. Gamini told us that there are a lot of disabilities among the Aboriginal people because of inbreeding, and that three of our host’s six children were disabled.

Our driver drove us back to Kandy in the pouring rain. Several times he had to swerve to avoid heaps of dirt where soil had washed down from above the road. By that evening we were at our guest house in Kandy. It wasn’t flash but had the things we needed most after a few days in the bush – a hot shower, a comfortable bed and a laundry service!


There be leopards

2015-01-30 08.20.04We caught the train from Haputale to Kandy. This route passes through the Houghton Plains National Park and is one of the most scenic railway journeys in Sri Lanka. We treated ourselves and bought first class tickets. The viewing carriages in first class have full glass windows (which you can’t open) and air conditioning, but here’s a tip – you get just as good a view in second class and you can open the windows!

2015-02-04 15.22.50The journey took five and a half hours so by the time we’d arrived in Kandy, done some business in town and got transport to our accommodation in Hanthana it was nearly 6pm. Our tuk tuk driver had told us that Hanthana was a long way out of town, up a big hill and there were no facilities nearby. We thought he was just saying that to get a better fare, but it was indeed a bit of a hike and situated in a residential part of the city.

Our hosts, Lesley and Prabha, were there to welcome us and show us to our room on the top floor of their house. We were the only guests at the time so had the floor to ourselves. The accommodation was fine but I was tired, hungry (as we hadn’t eaten since breakfast), grumpy and didn’t want to stay so far from the city. We told them we’d changed our plans and would only be staying one night, instead of two.

There were no restaurants nearby but our hosts drove us into the city, dropped us off at an Indian café, and then gave us a guided tour of Kandy by night on the way back. Afterwards they gave us a couple of beers for a nightcap. I felt better about our situation after having something to eat and our hosts were very kind. Besides, they had not taken our protestations of only staying one night seriously and had suggested things we could do the next day. Maybe I could handle another night in Hanthana?

The next day, Ian looked at our location on his iPad to work out if there was a shorter route into town by foot (there was). While he was looking, he discovered there was a National Park just a short walk away. Indeed our accommodation was called ‘Jungle View’ and Lesley had told us that they had seen leopards in the vicinity. We decided to make the most of our situation and go to the jungle at dusk to look for the Sri Lankan leopard (Panthera pardus kotiya).

2015-01-31 18.22.27After spending the day in Kandy, we set off on our leopard spotting trip about 5.30pm. There were no obvious tracks among the trees and we were worried about getting lost, so we stayed near the edge of the jungle. We heard lots of birds but not much else. Eventually, we made our way out and sat by a clearing enjoying the lovely night.

2015-01-31 18.23.20 It was then that I heard it. A blood-curdling, guttural growl. It was terrifying and my flight or fight instinct kicked in. I jumped up expecting to see a leopard emerge from the forest at any moment. Then suddenly all the dogs in the vicinity started to bark and howl. Amazingly, Ian hadn’t heard anything.

2015-01-31 15.22.57We found out later that, as their territory and food source is dwindling, leopards have started to eat dogs. Also, when I played the sound of a leopard growling on the internet it sounded exactly like what I had heard that night. So it is very likely that the dogs … and I … heard a leopard that night, and that we had got rather too close for comfort to one of these magnificent big cats.

Lipton’s seat – a view worth waiting for

While in Sri Lanka we had to 2015-01-28 17.42.35decide whether to go to Haputale or Ella as we didn’t have time to visit both. I read and reread the write ups in our Lonely Planet guide book. Ella sounded more touristy and it was further to travel so we eventually settled on Haputale, a small, nondescript town clinging to a steep hillside.

When we arrived it was raining and the town looked rather foreboding, but our guest house (ABC) was welcoming. Guests share the downstairs living area with the family who run it, which gives it a homely feel.

The next morning it was fine and we caught the 8.30am bus to Dambatenne Tea Factory which leaves from behind the main bus stop. The tea factory is 11km from Haputale along a narrow, very scenic road and takes about half an hour (it costs 28RP each way).2015-01-29 08.47.45

Dambatenne Tea Factory was built in 1890 by the Scottish tea baron Thomas Lipton. Lipton wanted to make tea available to everybody by providing good quality tea at affordable prices. To do this he needed to cut out the middle men and sell his tea directly ‘from the tea garden to the tea pot’. To this end, he began buying tea estates in Sri Lanka and arranging low cost packaging and shipping overseas.

But we weren’t there to see the tea factory; our destination was ‘Lipton’s Seat’, a 7km walk from the tea factory (at 1,970m above sea level). This vantage point with a view said to rival that of nearby World’s End, is where Lipton is said to have sat and contemplated his empire.

By the time we set off from Dambatenne Tea Factory it was 9am. The guide book said to leave earlier as it is often too cloudy to see anything after 10am, but we were optimistic. We walked up a narrow road that zig-zagged uphill between terraced tea plantations so steep we wondered how it was humanely possible to pick the tea, past tea pickers’ villages, schools and temples.

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We chatted to some of the early birds we met coming down who told us about the amazing view at the top. But by the time we got there it was 11am and the guide book was right – the view was completely obscured by cloud. So we did the only thing possible in such circumstances … we had a cup of tea!2015-01-29 11.07.42

A Canadian couple we’d met on the way up had told us that the primitive tea stall near Lipton’s Seat sold very good tea at a very cheap price. We ordered tea, but it was accompanied by a tray of breakfast – samosas, rotis, chick peas, tomato chutney and a couple of plates of sweets. Although we’d had breakfast it looked so delicious we decided to have an early lunch. It tasted as good as it looked but the bill was a bit steep (560RP). However, as we hadn’t asked the price before we ate we couldn’t complain.

Then we sat under the rotunda at Lipton’s Seat and chatted to some Dutch people while we waited to see if the cloud would clear. After a while a fragment of cloud rolled back to reveal a small section of spectacular scenery. Encouraged, we stayed and watched until, eventually, the cloud completely lifted and we got to see the whole valley. It was definitely a sight worth waiting for.

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On our way back down the tea-covered hillside we contemplated how a nice cup of tea can solve many of life’s little problems; and how lucky we’d been to see the magnificent view that inspired Thomas Lipton without having to get up at the crack of dawn!

Monkey business at the Primate Centre

Polonnaruwa is one of the ancient cities in Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle, and was the second capital after the destruction of Anuradhapura in 993. The archaeological park at Polonnaruwa has hundreds of ancient tombs, temples, statues and stupas. These are the reason most people come to Polonnaruwa, an otherwise unremarkable town.2015-02-08 14.21.32

We weren’t sure whether we wanted to see more ruins, but Polonnaruwa was on our route around Sri Lanka and we had found an interesting place to stay. A place I was very excited about visiting … the Primate Centre Lodge. This is primarily a research centre that has been conducting studies into three types of monkeys around the Polonnaruwa ruins for over 47 years. Their mission statement is to “advance scientific knowledge for conserving wildlife, and for a better understanding of the evolution of primate society and man’s place in nature.”

My degree was in biology and I find monkeys fascinating so I was looking forward to some interesting discussions. As soon as we started walking down the long drive to the Primate Centre we noticed the monkeys lazing around in the trees. I later learnt that the monkeys around the Centre are toque macaques (Macaca sinica) which are indigenous to Sri Lanka.

We were shown to our room, which was was very spacious and one of the cleanest places we stayed, before being served lunch. All meals on site are made by the male cook, Ukka Banda, who has worked at the Centre since 1978 and makes the most amazing vegetarian food. Already, I loved this place!

2015-02-09 10.10.46At about 4.30pm the monkeys came to life and had a mad half hour, racing around the trees, ricocheting across rooves and scampering over cars. I had to bring our washing in as the monkeys were playing with the line and knocking it off. They were very entertaining, especially the baby ones, and we watched them for a while. Later we went for a walk alongside the tank (a massive lake) to watch the sunset and saw lots of wildlife, birds (including a peacock), a tortoise and a big mongoose.

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There were four others at dinner that night, a British couple and two American men. One of the lovely things about the Primate Centre is that everyone eats at the same big table so you get to chat to your fellow guests. Another is that after dinner one of the researchers plays a video about monkeys. The first night we watched a fascinating BBC wildlife film about the ‘Temple Troupe’ of monkeys who hang out at the Polonnaruwa ruins, and the second night we watched another documentary called ‘Clever Monkey’.2015-02-09 14.44.55

You can do a monkey tour of the Polonnaruwa ruins with a researcher from the centre, but it’s fairly expensive (US$30 for the monkey tour plus $25 for entry into the monuments) and as it had given out heavy rain the next day we decided not to do it. Also the Director, Dr Wolfgang Dittus, was away when we visited and the other researchers seemed very shy.

The next day we were woken early by the birds singing in the trees. We ate breakfast with the guests we’d met last night plus a Brazilian couple who had arrived later, then hired bikes from the Primate Centre. We rode beside the lake in the other direction to our walk last night to two nearby free ruins, a monastery and a statue. There were lots more monkeys here, many with babies. Then we cycled on towards the main ruins. By this time, the sky was looking ominous so we ducked into a nearby hotel called the Lake House and ordered a pot of coffee and a pot of tea.

We sat outside under the shelter of a verandah and watched the rain sheeting down into the lake. It was difficult to tell sometimes whether the water was going up or down! It rained heavily for two hours. By this time we’d decided that it wasn’t worth going in to the ruins as we’d only have a few hours and it looked like there was more rain to come. Instead we cycled along the little lanes beside the river, where we saw a big water monitor swimming up river.

2015-02-09 14.17.26The owner of a little roadside shop where we bought some bananas told us there were some ruins about 1.5km further down the road on the other side of the river where the locals went. We took the second bridge over the river, which brought us to a big stupa, but this turned out to be an entrance to the northern group of ruins, for which you need a ticket. A guy on a bike offered to take us in for $50 (the normal price!) but we turned him down and carried on along a little track then across a patch of grass and through a gate.2015-02-09 14.57.42

We weren’t sure where we were, but it 2015-02-09 15.14.30soon became apparent that we had got into the ruins. As we were there we decided to have a look around. My favourite of the ones we saw was the roofless Lankatilaka Temple with 17 metre high walls and a huge headless standing Buddha. But after about an hour there was another downpour.

We sheltered under a tree and watched a troupe of Grey Hanoman Langurs for a while, but there was no sign of it stopping so we decided to cycle back in the rain. As we walked back to our bikes we had the ruins to ourselves.

A tale of two beaches

Kalkudah and Passekudah are back-to-back beaches on the east coast of Sri Lanka north of Batticaloa. Passekudah used to be an empty stretch of beach while Kalkudah was developed. Since then, the roles have been reversed due to several catastrophes.

These beaches are said to be perfect bathing spots. The sea bed is flat and protected by reefs, so the water is calm and shallow for around 200 metres from the shore. The area became popular with tourists during the 1970s and early 1980s and hotels were built on Kalkudah beach to accommodate them.

2015-02-10 16.53.40When the civil war broke out in Sri Lanka, the hotels were abandoned, and were later blown up by the LTTE (commonly known as the Tamil Tigers) to prevent them being used by the Sri Lankan army. Then, in 2004, this area of the coast was battered by the tsunami, destroying any evidence of the former development. The tsunami memorial nearby is a reminder that 512 people lost their lives here.

Now that the conflict is over and a decade has passed since the tsunami, Passekudah has been earmarked for a special tourist development zone (the Passikudah Resort Development Project) and fourteen luxury hotels have been planned along the bay. Fishermen have had to move their boats away from the main beach, and for now it is a building site.2015-02-10 17.35.58

I was intrigued by this story of the two beaches so we spent a day there. It was raining heavily when we arrived, but when it cleared we walked to Passekudah, which was about a kilometre away from our guest house. I found the construction work going on along Passekudah Bay rather depressing. A couple of the resorts were semi-finished and had a few guests, but the beach has been ruined by the building work and there was a lot of rubbish lying around.2015-02-10 17.02.27

The next day we got up early and went for a long walk on Kalkudah beach, over the headland to the south. Although this bay used to be lined with hotels, for the moment it remains undeveloped, except for a few fishing shacks, two low key resorts and lots of coconut trees. It w2015-02-11 09.06.00as also deserted … apart from the displaced fishermen from Passekudah and a herd of cows.

We watched the fishermen bring in their nets and sell the fish to people who had congregated on the beach to buy them. Unfortunately, their catch included two large dead turtles, which were unceremoniously dumped on the sand for the crows and dogs to dispose of. 2015-02-11 10.37.21

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Overall, Kalkudah beach seemed much cleaner than Passekudah, and it was difficult to tell that there was ever any development there. How long it will remain that way is anybody’s guess.

Serendipity in Sri Lanka

We hadn’t planned to go to Bentota. Hell, we hadn’t even planned to go to Sri Lanka! We made the decision after chatting to other travellers in India who raved about it. The night before we left India I posted on Facebook that our next stop was Sri Lanka.

We’d booked two nights’ accommodation near Colombo through Airbnb, but after that our plans were fluid (I like that expression – it sounds like we were laid back rather than slack!) The day we arrived, I got a Facebook message from Iyanka, who I’d met in the UK but is originally from Sri Lanka. He said that he and his wife were in Sri Lanka for a wedding and were staying at the Bentota Beach Hotel for a few days if we were in the area and wanted to catch up. We hadn’t heard of Bentota so I looked it up and discovered that it was only a couple of hours train ride south of Colombo. As we had loosely planned to head south, our fate was sealed!

2015-01-21 13.49.17Iyanka picked us up at the train station (after a bit of confusion due to there being two train stations in the area), and we spent a lovely afternoon with him and Jay at the Bentota Beach Hotel. This hotel was way out of our budget, but we booked in for lunch, which also included use of the pool and the loungers in the garden.

Lunch was a big buffet and, even though we got there at the tail end of ??????????????lunch time, there were still plenty of delicious local dishes to sample. Afterwards, we swam off a few calories in the pool then lay on loungers under the trees and chatted while we watched the squirrels play. The squirrels were very tame but also very cheeky. One broke a glass when it tipped over while he was trying to get at the dregs of juice at the bottom. He managed to escape without injury – somehow I don’t think it was the first time he’d done that trick!

2015-01-21 17.59.04The garden of the hotel backed onto the beach so we stayed to watch the spectacular sunset from the beach. Then Iyanka and Jay drove us to our (much) cheaper accommodation nearby. It turned out to be a big house that a Russian woman and her Sri Lankan boyfriend were renting. The woman was studying, so to save money they were renting rooms out as a homestay. Most of the other guests were Russians. Our room was fine, but the guests’ kitchen was dirty and ill equipped and the place didn’t have a great vibe to it. It didn’t bother us though as we spent most of our time at Bentota beach exploring the miles of golden sand.

??????????????I’m not a big fan of Facebook, but one thing it is good for is facilitating serendipitous (I like that word too – it sounds mysterious, like what it means in a weird way!) meetings while travelling. It is always more interesting to visit new places with local people, and that day turned out to be one of our most enjoyable days in Sri Lanka. In addition, Iyanka and Jay gave us some great tips for other places to visit during the rest of our time in Sri Lanka.

Bus travel in Sri Lanka

Travelling in developing countries requires a different attitude. Often the road conditions and driving styles are not what would be acceptable at home, but you have little choice when you need to get from a to b and the only option is by road. The drivers themselves often have images of gods at the front of the bus to protect them … and you have to hope that their gods will see fit to protect the non-believers among the passengers too!

After India we thought we had encountered the worst driving conditions and most aggressive drivers, but some Sri Lankan bus drivers gave the Indians a run for their money. We had three bus journeys where we wondered whether we would get to our destination in one piece.

The first was the two hour trip from Kandy to Dambulla where the driver drove erratically and aggressively the whole time. The worst moment was when he attempted to overtake two cars driving abreast while approaching a blind corner. That manoeuvre didn’t come off as a vehicle rounded the corner before we reached it and he had to back off. What surprised me was that two policemen travelling on the bus said nothing to the driver about his obviously dangerous driving.

2015-02-13 12.03.58The second was on another two hour journey from Pelmadula to Haputale, where the bus driver drove like a maniac, trying to overtake every vehicle on his side of the road. Half way through the trip he stopped and took a break. From then on he drove slowly and considerately – it was as though he was a different person. We tried to guess what had happened. Maybe he had been rushing so he had time for a break? Maybe he had urgently needed to go to the toilet? Maybe he was dying for a cup of tea? Or a whisky? Or a sedative? Maybe his twin brother had taken over? Maybe someone had asked him to slow down during the break? We will never know the true reason, but we were grateful.

The third instance was the four hour journey from Anuradhapura to Negombo, which was our last bus journey in Sri Lanka. Before we boarded the private bus, we asked the driver when he was leaving. “In ten minutes,” he said. An hour later he finally left the station! Then he drove very slowly through town trying to pick up more passengers. By this time, even the Sri Lankan passengers were getting a bit toey. However, as soon as he was out of town he tried to overtake everything in his path. He was pulled up twice by police, but was allowed to continue driving. The man next to me said that the conductor would have paid the police a bribe as the man who owns the fleet of buses is very rich.

2015-01-26 15.54.46But, on the whole, Sri Lankan bus drivers were more careful and considerate than Indian bus drivers. They didn’t blow their horns as much and, although they were as skillful, there was not as much ego attached to their driving skills. One very enjoyable bus journey was the trip from Deniyaya to Pelmadula, which took four hours and cost about 74p. This was a very scenic drive, along narrow, windy roads surrounded by tree-lined fields. Despite being a main road, little traffic travels this route. People could get on or off the bus anywhere, not just at designated bus stops, and the driver picked up everyone … even when you thought he couldn’t fit anyone else on the bus. In addition to transporting passengers, the bus served small local communities along the route by dropping off and picking up mail, parcels and newspapers. This fostered a real sense of community, and the driver stopped a couple of times for a quick chat with people he knew.

2015-02-05 14.59.38 2015-02-05 15.24.23On another trip, from Dambulla to Sigiriya, we got on at the bus station and put our backpacks on the engine casing at the front of the bus. The bus was relatively quiet when we pulled out, but at the next stop a lot of people got on, and big bags of eggplants, beans, chives, and other more exotic vegetables were loaded on top of our packs. Eventually, it was difficult to see the driver amongst the bags of produce.

Snacks sold at bus stations are often put into recycled paper bags. Not recycled bags as people in Western countries understand the term, but bags made from old newspapers or children’s homework. I had vegetable rotis in bags made from graph paper with neatly written equations and immaculate graphs drawn on it. This was obviously a top grade student as all the answers had a tick 2015-01-26 12.59.23against them. Another time, my samosas were put into a bag with beautifully neat Singalese writing all over it, and again the answers were all correct. I 2015-01-28 12.35.03wondered if only the homework from clever Sri Lankan children is used for bags?

Besides the usual food vendors that come aboard buses and trains, some people take advantage of having a captive audience to try to sell other things or beg. One man limped to the front of the bus and proceeded to tell his sorry tale. We had no idea what he said, but it must have been sad as many people donated money to him. On other buses, men tried to sell a variety of products, such as medicinal products in small coloured glass bottles, children’s colouring books, and place mats with 3D images embedded in them. I didn’t see many sales. The person sitting next to me told me there is no unemployment benefit in Sri Lanka, so people have to earn money any way they can. This would force them to become entrepreneurial, but surely there must be better products for them to sell to people on buses? Things like blow up travel pillows, or … I don’t know! What would you buy from a vendor on a bus?