Down Time

Our last full day in Sri Lanka wasn’t billed as down time but we chose to make it so. There was an optional whale watching boat trip but me and modestly sized boats do not get on well at the best of times and I suspect that, given the Indian Ocean rollers constantly crashing on Koggala beach, this would have been considerably worse than the best of times. This is one of the world’s premier locations for the mighty Blue Whale but, much as a sighting might’ve been exciting, nein danke. For those skipping the boat trip, there was talk of the stilt fishermen again, this time at sunrise, followed in the afternoon by a trip into the town of Galle. Some quiet time doing our own thing seemed more appealing.

_19R5297_19R5448We began our relaxed and leisurely morning attempting to capture those Indian Ocean rollers breaking and crashing onto the beach. I’d picked a high vantage point looking down from the grounds of the hotel, while Francine positioned herself on the beach itself. My long exposure attempts didn’t really convey any power so I think they’ll end up in the bin. Francine did somewhat better, with a mixture of slightly blurred movement and frozen breakers.

J18_4558 Indian Palm SquirrelJ18_4560 Indian Palm SquirrelThe hotel grounds were occasionally criss-crossed by chasing Indian Palm Squirrels (Funambulus palmarum). They were very cute little chaps and I reverted to type by abandoning landscape and trying to capture them. One of the wandering hotel security guards, seeing what I was doing, began spotting the squirrels in the palms and trees and pointing them out to me. With his help, I was able to get one shot that shows why the squirrel is also called the Three-striped Palm Squirrel, together with another close-up of one peeking out from behind a tree, which could be of almost any squirrel but I rather like it. What friendly people the Sri Lankans generally are.

We wandered along the front, eventually back to where we had been photographing the stilt fishermen on the previous evening and a little beyond, on the look out for any locations that might prove useful as sunset vantage points this evening. Try as we might, we really didn’t see anything that grabbed as foreground interest. So, rather than make life any more difficult, we ended up back in the hotel grounds trying sunset shots from there. Here’s an impression from each of us of Koggala sunset; these effectively marked the end of our trip to Sri Lanka since all that was left for the morning was a bus ride to the airport for our return flight.

J18_4602 Koggala sunset

_19R5573

We don’t have a ridiculously early start tomorrow morning; it’s a 07:30 departure.

Posted in 2019 Sri Lanka

Sunrise to Sunset

Oddly, we managed to sleep beneath our mozzie net in our fan-assisted oven. We didn’t have to sleep too long because we had yet another 0-dark-30 start, our alarm being set for 04:15. Had there been tea in the tent it would have been 04:00 but we had a 15-minute lie in.

Why the rush? Well, we were off on a morning game drive in Udawalawe National Park. Here’s what happens. The park opens its gates at 06:00. 30 4x4s are allowed in at 06:00 then others have to wait an hour before any more can enter. Naturally everyone wants to be in early for the sunrise activity so a queue/melee starts forming much earlier at the gates. So, you really need to be up near the front or risk twiddling your thumbs outside for another hour. It’s about a 20-minute from Athgira River Camp, where we had overnighted, hence our leader wanting to leave at 05:00. Thus, a 04:15 alarm.

We drove out in two 4x4s. The 4×4 I was in drove back again to retrieve my hat which had managed to escape between the cab and the back seating area. [Who thought the back was attached to the front but couldn’t see in the dark, then?] Hat safely retrieved, we tried again and this time made it to the line of early bird jeeps already queuing at the gate.

The gates finally opened and the melee began. If you’ve never seen a melee of 4x4s it’s a sight to behold. Jeeps get thrown into reverse, then a forward gear before swinging out trying to manoeuver nearer the front. Other queue  jumping jeeps appear from the far side of the road coming and look as if they are set to T-bone a less attentive driver. The crush of vehicles thus created somehow funnels down to get through the gate. It’s like a stock car race, happily without any contact, though I wouldn’t like to swear that there was never any contact. We got through the gate.

Jeep crushGreat, we’re in, I thought. Wrong. What we’d fought so hard to get through was the outer gate. Now our driver screeched into a parking spot on the far side of the track in sight of a building on our left. It was as if the squadron scramble bell had been rung. Our driver’s door was flung open, he jumped out and ran towards what I now realized was a ticket office. Every other driver from the jeep melee was doing exactly the same. This was the Olympic Game Park Sprint. Our man eventually sprinted back triumphantly and were off to get through the inner gate and into the park itself.

J18_4339 Udawalawe sunriseI can’t help but say that this crush and rush felt an unseemly affair: homo sapiens looking far from sapient and more like a ravenous beast. Actually, the beasts look much more dignified by comparison. The fact is, though, that without such tourism there wouldn’t be the incentive for countries to preserve their wildlife and wild spaces. Yala National Park is reportedly much worse with many dozens of vehicles descending on sightings as word spreads via modern communications. In any event, we were in and the sun rose over Udawalawe.

J18_4364 Elephant eye_19R5011This is where the Transit Home elephants re-join the wild population. The park itself is not an open savannah – at least, we didn’t see any – but a series of dirt tracks lined with quite thick, though not dreadfully high, bush. We were very soon seeing elephants. In fact, elephants appeared to be pretty much everywhere. Because of the terrain, there is rarely an unobstructed view of a subject which is usually lurking behind at least some vegetation. Probably because many, if not all of the elephants are accustomed to humans, there are frequent occasions when they get very close to the vehicles out on the tracks. As usual, there were lots of mobile phones snapping away. For once, they were in close enough proximity to be useful. We came across one elephant kicking up moss-like vegetation and gathering it with its trunk. It looked like a lot of work for little return so I hope it was tasty.

J18_4394 Changeable Hawk-eagleThe game drive was much more of an elephant drive, though we did see a smattering of Water Buffalo and an impressive Changeable Hawk-eagle (Nisaetus cirrhatus). We headed back out of the park for breakfast and a drive to Koggala on the southern coast of Sri Lanka. Here, we had an appointment with the well known stilt fishermen.

There was a little not necessarily welcome excitement en route. We’d called in to a neat looking establishment on the coast for lunch and wandered to a table out the back. A menu sat on the table and we set about ordering. When the bills came our resident pro photographer noticed a discrepancy. He’d ordered a dish that had been priced at 450/- in the menu we’d seen but seemed to be being charged 790/-. The waiter returned with another menu in which the dish was, indeed, priced at 790/-. I heard local and tourist being muttered. Yes, there was one menu with prices for locals and another with prices for tourists. A protracted argument ensued and we all ended up paying the local prices. OK, I suppose it’s no surprise that this practice goes on but one doesn’t want it to be quite so blatant. Our leader, who was a local, was dragged away from almost coming to blows with the manager.

Calm was restored and we checked in without further mishap to our accommodation at the Koggala Beach Hotel. This area is one of the better places to photograph the famous stilt fishermen (though I noticed that it was more often translated as stick fishermen on many of the signs). There are many series of posts erected in the surf, the posts come complete with a rudimentary and rather uncomfortable looking seat. The fishermen, armed with their fishing rods, clamber up these “stilts” and sit, fishing. We had dropped off our leader and resident pro to go and scout locations and make arrangements for what would hopefully be an atmospheric sunset shoot.

J18_4534 Stick Fishing_19R5196As shadows lengthened and sunset approached, we were driven back to the chosen location. The clear shot (without rocks creeping into our background), was looking west so this would be a silhouette situation. Were you to try this at sunrise, illuminated fishermen would be possible. Our models had been paid to pose on the stilts and do their thing. After we chose our respective vantage points and planted tripods in the sand, the fishermen took up their positions. Incidentally, tripods can be quite a problem in sand, especially wet sand – they tend to sink in when a hefty camera and lens is placed on top. Seven cameras clicked away furiously with our leaders having a go, too. I resorted to hand held shots to try a few different angles more readily.  Here’s one Francine likes with the sun a little higher and what I think is my favourite with the sun touching the horizon.

Dinner in the hotel was hot and quite noisy, it apparently being another establishment that thinks live music is an aid to digestion. The trio of wandering minstrels happily did not come and pause at our table, though.

Posted in 2019 Sri Lanka

Athgira River Camp

Laundry done – we have enough to last the rest of the trip – after two nights staying in Farm Resorts at Dickoya, our next stop will be the Athgira River Camp. That should be interesting. First and foremost it does what it says on the can and is on a river, so I’m hopeful of some wildlife. Secondly, our accommodation is said to be tented. Yikes! Many years ago we did a tented safari in the Maasai Mara, Kenya. A comparison should prove interesting.

Tea Picker unposed-4267We set off and our journey continued past many more slopes thickly planted with tea bushes. Apparently the bushes, if left untended, would grow to a height of several metres so they are pruned and kept down to 1m to allow for harvesting. Every now and then we would pass a slope with ladies picking the tea. Stopping on a twisting, turning, relatively narrow road is rarely easy/safe but at one field with a group of ladies working, our driver managed to pull in so we could take pictures that were not posed. Even better, this group of ladies did not have garishly branded tea sacks. After firing off about 300 shots yesterday in our posed staged shoot, the vast majority of which have been deleted, I think this is the most natural and my favourite tea picking picture.

Elephant Transit Home_19R4776We were bound for lunch and the Elephant Transit Home at Udalwalawa. Very like the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Kenya, this transit home seeks to look after orphaned young elephants until they can fend for themselves in the wild. Their ultimate destination is the Udawalawa National Park which the home borders and which we will visit tomorrow. With the orchestrated feeding, it may feel a bit like a zoo except that these elephants are not captive and the home actually does good work. With wire fence strands intervening, it isn’t a situation easily leading to any natural photographs that one might want to keep – Francine did quite well, though – but it was encouraging to see the efforts trying to counteract, in some small way, mankind’s general disregard of the planet.

After elephant feeding time, we made our way to the Athgira River Camp. Time was nudging 16:00 when we arrived and I was anxious to get down to investigate the river. Beer would have to wait. [Crumbs, it must be serious.] Well, we’ll be heading to the coast tomorrow and this is likely to be my last opportunity for Sri Lankan dragonflies. We checked in and were given a tent/chalet right beside the river. The reason for my describing the accommodation as a tent/chalet is that the sleeping quarters were a (very) heavy duty tent, complete with a protective rush roof, but it was erected up against a permanent concrete-built shower/toilet facility. On the bedroom side of this wall was the electricity supply so necessary for the battery of chargers required by modern travel. The washroom was open to the elements at the roof line. It was therefore also open to any wandering mosquitos and there was no way of completely closing the door from the washroom into the sleeping quarters, hence the three mosquito nets suspended above our three beds, two single and one double. On the electricity supply wall there was also mounted an electric fan.

J18_4307 Wijaya's ScissortailRight, enough, off to the river. I found a gate through the fence between us and the river and found that I could pick my way through shallow, though quite swiftly flowing water, to the far side. My first customer was on the near side, though, and proved to be a Sri Lankan endemic: the Sri Lanka Shining Gossamerwing (Euphaea splendens) though I managed only a very average picture (too slow a shutter speed – not concentrating). Regrettably I didn’t see it again to correct my mistake. I had much more luck on the far side, though. Here I spotted what looked like a Clubtail/Gomphid fly up and settle above my head. Struggling, I did finally get a half-way decent vantage point and snagged another endemic with the complex name of Sri Lanka Wijaya’s Scissortail (Microgomphus wijaya). This last is classed as endangered and rare so I was very happy to have seen it. I saw five species altogether.

J18_4324 River friendA man had arrived in the river doing his washing, accompanied by his son who ran and splashed about very energetically. Sri Lankans generally like to be photographed and these two were no exception. I obliged but the boy was moving too fast and most shots were blurred. His father, though, was much more successful when I eventually encouraged an endearing smile from him.

J18_4330 Paradise FlycatcherI returned for a long-desired beer. Francine and a companion were beside the pool where I learned that the beer was not exactly cold. Well, there’s a surprise. What is it with this country and beer; they just don’t get it. There is clearly refrigeration to keep the food fresh but the beer seems to take a back seat. One of the managers saw me with my camera and was keen to show me a bird that he’d spotted. I dutifully followed. The bird had, of course, done a runner – well, flapper – but eventually reappeared. I got a picture, of sorts, just good enough to see that it is a most unlikely looking flycatcher with an enormously long, streaming tail, the Ceylon Paradise Flycatcher (Terpsiphone paradisi ceylonensis).

At our evening meal, which was a barbecue together with the frequently seen array of curries and accompaniments, someone overheard the leader of a large German group saying, “my group drinks lots of cold beer; you’d better put more in the chiller”. That’s all well and good but it needs to be in the chiller at least an hour ahead of time. I managed to get a reasonably cool beer to wash down my BBQ.

Time to try and deploy the mosquito nets. Given the heat and humidity, separate beds were appealing but when we tried to deploy a net over one of the two single beds, it looked as if the net would’ve been dangling across ones face all night – not a recipe for restful sleep. The problem was that the support frame was rather too narrow to hold the net out and away, sufficiently. The double bed’s net had a much wider mosquito net frame and looked more successful. We opted for the double. Besides, it was nearer to the electric fan which we stopped oscillating and directed it constantly at us. Somehow, we slept.

I never did see or hear a mosquito.

Posted in 2019 Sri Lanka

Tea Pickers

We had one 2-night stop but that was very early on in our tour, on nights 2 and 3, at  Wilpattu National Park. Now at our Farm Resorts accommodation we have another 2-night stop which is more interesting; it means we have [well, OK, Francine has] time to get some laundry done and it also means that there’s less time travelling leaving more time for photography.

J18_3709 Tea PickerThere hasn’t really been much so far in the way or organized photographic subjects, other than sunset on the beach at Negombo the day we arrived which was, frankly, a bit of a damp squib. I was probably taking it too literally again. Here, some effort has been put in to arrange a tea pickers shoot. This morning, four local ladies have been retained for us to work with for an hour. It’s Sunday and they wouldn’t be working at real tea picking so it’s extra money for them. We’ve driven past a few groups of tea pickers on the road but most of them were wearing rather garish branded baskets of modern material. Here’s a horribly posed snap to show what I mean.

_19R4251J18_3803 Tea PickingFarm Resorts has its own slopes covered in tea bushes so the ladies came to us so rather than us having to travel to them. With four would be photographers and four tea picking ladies, we split ourselves into pairs, each pair of camera-wielding tourists working with one pair of ladies for 30 minutes before swapping. The sun was strong and getting quite high. That made life a little difficult with the ladies’ eye sockets being strongly shadowed, a condition known colloquially as panda eyes. We like a challenge; a spot of post-processing wizardry would be needed.

J18_4088 Elattoneura centralisA post-shoot critique was organized. I had to play truant, though because, at the bottom of the tea slopes was a narrow stream running eventually into the large reservoir  beside the Farm Resorts property. After half time when I had been changing lades, I’d spotted a dragonfly. No post mortem was going to keep me away from that so I stayed behind to investigate. I’m very glad I did because I snagged two lifers, one of which was my first Sri Lankan endemic, a damselfly known as a Sri Lanka Dark-glittering Threadtail (Elattoneura centralis). This was just as much as a photographic challenge as the tea picking, being an essentially black damselfly perched on a brilliantly illuminated bright rock.

A couple of our chiefs had been on a scouting jaunt and had come up with a cunning plan for the afternoon. [I told you this was being worked out on the fly.] They’d found three sites of interest along one of the local side roads so, after lunch, we all clambered on board the charabanc and set off.

First stop was at a small old church which was … well, it was a small old church.

J18_4112 Fruit bat roostJ18_4213 Fruit bat in flightFor those keen on heartbeats as opposed to bricks, the second stop was much more interesting. A colony of Fruit Bats was roosting in some trees just a short step off the road. Furthermore there was access to get closer to the trees. We were hoping there would be some flying action. As we stood waiting for what seemed like half an hour, the odd bat launched itself from one tree to another but usually behind one or more of the trees. Hope was fading a little but for some reason, there was then a burst of flying activity. Regrettably the sky was a bland bright grey which turned almost white by the time the bats were correctly exposed. Nonetheless, they made a very interesting and somewhat different in-flight subject and at least the background is not distracting. Maybe I can find a sky I like better and learn to become a Photoshopographer. 😉

J18_4253 Distant Adam's PeakLastly, the road brought us towards a distant view of a mountain called Adam’s Peak. The sacred Adam’s Peak had been noted on the tour itinerary as an optional climb that would required a middle-of-the-night start to be there for another sunrise. Only one of us had been interested and he changed his mind when his lens fell and was washed into oblivion over Devon Falls – he was more than a little distracted by attempting to rent a replacement for an approaching game drive. So, this was as close as we would all get to Adam’s Peak. It was quite a good second prize, though, because we had a vantage point over an S-bend road and were hoping we’d be able to get some light trails as night fell. The travel tripod isn’t as sturdy as one might hope but this is the nearest close miss.

Back for another nasi goreng, which is Indonesian for fried rice. I’m going to have to learn how to cook it.

Posted in 2019 Sri Lanka

Disappointing Waterfalls

We had our first sensible morning start time, at last. We left our swanky but very busy, large hotel at 08:30 along with three other larger tourist buses. Today we were heading into Sri Lanka’s Golden Valley of Tea.

_19R3853Our first stop to break the journey along the very twisty, turning road around rolling hillsides thick with tea bushes, was at what must be the most touristy of the tea plantations. Here, we had a chance to sample various brews of tea including black tea, white tea and broken orange pekoe. What a travesty PG Tips is but, then, I’ve known that for many years. This place was clearly geared up for larger tourist parties and I couldn’t help but think that one of the many others might’ve been a more intimate prospect. I did find an impressive Datura growing beside the car/coach park which Francine managed to do justice to on pixels.

Second stop was at the Grand Hotel at Nuwara Eliya, known as Little England due to its red phone boxes, Victorian colonial architecture and rose gardens, for lunch. Here, a big deal was made of its brick built post office but I couldn’t find that particularly exciting. Much more interesting would’ve been the bustling bus station opposite which looked very Asian.

_19R3920We continued our journey purportedly to see three waterfalls of which there are many courtesy of all the rolling hills. Our bus called into an overlook of the first; it was distant, not particularly gushing and partly obscured by the all too frequent modern affliction of cables strung across the view. With apparently no way down to get nearer, we scratched it. The second waterfall fell to the cutting room floor in similar fashion.

J18_3717 Devon FallsWe approached a third waterfall, Devon Falls, and took a side road. One of our three chiefs alighted and went looking for access. We were close and he’d found a path to the water’s edge. We followed. Hmmm. We were actually at the top of the waterfall rather than looking at its fall. The water flowed over smooth granite rock, gently descending, before it fell precipitously into the valley below at an edge. Health and safety had not been here – great care was needed. The gentler top section that could be photographed easily might’ve been anywhere. This was not what any of us had in mind and it looked as if this part of the tour had not been planned properly but had been done on the fly. Unimpressed.

J18_3727 Bath timeJ18_3758 Bathing belleWe stayed for about an hour and were joined by a local family who turned up and began bathing and doing their laundry in the river. Whilst that spoiled what there was of waterfall landscape, it was actually the most interesting part of our stay. Our pro photographer approached them and they all joined in playing to the cameras. Our investigator-in-chief managed to let his long lens drop into the water. The poor ol’ lens was swiftly washed downstream and over the edge of the waterfall into the valley beneath.  Oops!

J18_3764 Balcony viewJ18_4101 A room with a viewThe journey continued and we wound up at our accommodation for the next two nights, the Farm Resorts at Dickoya. Being a couple, Francine and I were blessed with a brand  new room – brand new in that it was very nearly finished. Most of it worked though, apart from the electrical wires sticking out of the wall with nothing attached to them (not bare – no problem), and we had a splendid view over the reservoir from our beautifully positioned balcony, looking very calm and restful as evening fell. Naturally, evening fell assisted by a couple of cold Lion beers.

That big water without vegetation didn’t look very promising but the property and accommodation certainly did.

Posted in 2019 Sri Lanka

Even Sillier o’Clock

The pace of this Explore! tour was described as moderate. We, however, have decided we would describe it as full on. This is day #5 and so far our most civilized alarm (yesterday) has been 06:00. Our first three days consisted of a pre-breakfast visit to Negombo fish market followed by two pre-dawn days at Wilpattu, both beginning with an alarm at 04:45. There has been not yet been any down time. Well, it costs a lot of dosh so you might as well make the most of it.

Today our alarm was set even at an even sillier 03:15. The reason for this unappealing wake-up call was a pre-dawn climb up Pidurangala Rock to photograph sunrise and Lion’s Rock, which is nearby. Dawn is roughly 06:00 but you need to be in position at least 15 minutes early to get set up. In position is at the top of a mountain requiring a climb of 60+ minutes manhandling camera rucksacks and tripods, to boot. There’s a 30-minute drive from our hotel to get to the start of the climb. Throwing in some slack for safety – no point arriving just after sunrise – we got to a 03:15 alarm.

We arrived at base camp and, armed with head torches of course (it was pitch black), we carefully began our climb which started as a walk but developed into some hand-assisted scrambling in places, particularly near the summit. We didn’t have to manhandle just our rucksacks and tripods, there was a lady with us who was v. nervous and also needed coaxing and occasional manhandling herself. She was, of course, manhandled in good taste, so let’s call it “physically encouraging”. With a team effort, we all finally made it safely and began getting settled.

J18_3666 Jocund DayI take descriptions like this quite literally. If someone tells me I’m going to photograph sunrise, then I set up to photograph exactly that, sunrise. I’ve invested in a lightweight travel tripod for this trip and I got it set facing the horizon over which “jocund day stood tiptoe”, as Shakespeare might’ve had it. Landscape photographers have a hard time of it: both sunrises and sunsets are fickle characters. Sometimes they fail to appear altogether and frequently they do not reach expectations. That’s bad enough when you just spill out of your car and set up, looking hopefully at the cloud formations. When you’ve roused yourself at 03:15 and clambered up a mountain in the dark with several kilos of equipment, they can be downright annoying. Downright annoying had afflicted us for our “dawn at Angkor Wat” shoot, which, when dawn failed to appear, just became “Angkor Wat”, complete with green tarpaullin. Most of the world’s iconic sights nowadays seem plagued by tarpaulin, scaffolding or cranes. Such was not the case today, mercifully, but it did feel a little less than spectacular to me. Maybe I’m just hard to please.

_19R3736After the dawn show, I looked around. Where previously I had seen Francine setting up her tripod, there was now no familiar face in sight. Oh, I should point out that there were plenty of faces in sight – the summit was now crawling with people doing what seems to have become a general bucket-list activity – just no familiar faces. I packed away and went in search of them. A trip around the summit continued to reveal no familiar faces. I finally found them all hiding behind a huge rock looking not towards the dawn but towards Lion’s Rock, in almost the opposite direction. Their collective target was dawn’s light, as it peeked occasionally between the clouds, illuminating Lion’s Rock softly from the side, and very nice it looked too. That’ll teach me to take things literally.

J18_3672 Post DawnI was getting hungry by now and was quite pleased when our team began packing gear away for the slightly less tricky descent (it was now daylight and we could see). I spotted a post-dawn land and sky scape that I rather fancied and snapped that before heading down. We got back for an indifferent breakfast at 08:45. Where was my lentil curry? I was getting used to lentil curry for breakfast. It felt as if we’d done a whole day already and I was ready for something substantial.

_19R3762Most of the remainder of the day was taken up driving to Kandy. We did, however, make a couple of brief stops en route. The first was to a wood carving establishment making all manner of useless dust-collecting ornaments and an assortment of atmospheric, i.e. uncomfortable looking, furniture. What looked much less uncomfortable was the collection of delightful young ladies wielding the wood chisels and fashioning the items. Most interesting was a swift demonstration given by a young man of a wood, I think endemic to Sri Lanka, sawdust from which changed colour in water as various other chemicals, such as lime juice, were added. Clearly this wood was doubling as a litmus test.

Next stop was to be given a tour of a spice garden. Our host was a stupendously enthusiastic man with excellent English and a seemingly encyclopaedic knowledge of recipes capitalizing on the active ingredients of every spice under his control. I couldn’t resist buying a couple of packs of cinnamon sticks before we all succumbed to the attentions of a gang of trainee masseurs. Since these were trainees, the massages were nominally free but, of course, one felt a little obliged to give a gratuity. After an hour we continued.

Everyone was looking forward to Kandy because we were booked into a premium hotel, which is very un-Explore! It was indeed very plush and very large. Our rooms were cavernous. naturally the beer prices reflected the upmarket nature of the establishment and had doubled those of our original hotel at about 700/- [rupees] each. It felt very decadent.

J18_3673 Rail bridgeThe gang was going into Kandy about 3 clicks away to visit the market and, yes, yet another temple. Buddha, what is it with temples!? The hotel was right beside a river and sported its own boat dock. The river was quite large but I thought I owed it to myself to give it a go anyway. Francine would’ve liked to see Kandy market but there had been talk of a possibility of another go at Kandy market tomorrow morning so she opted to join me. Besides, we both fancied a little down time to enjoy to ourselves and relax a bit. Our side of the river initially looked pretty sterile but I could see what looked like decent habitat (shallower, vegetated) over the far side. I asked the concierge how to cross and he directed me out of the hotel, left, left again and over “a damn”. We exited, went left, left again and what we found was a railway bridge. I’ll let the concierge off since I don’t have a single word of Sinhalese. There was a footway beside the railway running over the bridge and we spotted a local casually wandering across. A little heart-in-mouth, we followed suit. [Spot the red tuk-tuk.]

J18_3674 Riverside trafficJ18_3676 Tuk-tuk repairAccess to the habitat on the far side proved next to impossible, initially being nearly 10 metres down a 45° slope, then blocked by riverside business stalls and shacks. Drat! We amused ourselves looking at the stalls and shacks – there was even a tuk-tuk and 2-wheeler repair shop – but soon, the rather hectic traffic [oh look, another red tuk-tuk] and noise got the better of us and we made our way back towards the much calmer hotel over the railway bridge again. There were several larger-than-foot-size gaps in the rail bridge planking. “Don’t panic Mr. Mainwaring!” We’d been stepping deftly over these gaps but one gave a view of habitat beneath the bridge on our side of the river. There we spotted a few dragonfly friends zooming about frenetically but given the situation, no decent photographs were ever going to emerge.

The hotel had been invaded by hoards of other guests and had now become considerably less calm than when we’d left. On balance, luxury is all very well but we tend to prefer the quieter, less tourist-rich establishments. Dinner was busy with people swarming around the usual buffet but we chose to go à la carte munching a very acceptable nasi goreng taken sitting in the open beside the swimming pool, having requested that we get as far away from the accursed buffet-centred live music as possible. There’s something jarring about Gerry Rafferty’s Baker Street sung poorly whilst I’m working my way through an otherwise delightful nasi goreng

Posted in 2019 Sri Lanka

Templed Out

Have I got a treat for you? Not just one more temple but two. Yes, two temples in one day. When we visited Cambodia we saw eight temples in one day so Sri Lanka is a bit of a lightweight on the temple stakes. Suffice to say that I was not expecting this to be my favourite day.

_19R3476First up was a short drive to Mihintale and a climb to Mihintale Peak. For those who fancy it, the route up from the bottom involves 1840 shallow stone steps [it says here]. Our coach tipped us out near the bottom of the first flight of stone steps so we could get a look. At the base was a collection of stalls selling who knows what memorabilia. A group of school children swarmed past and began ascending the steps. One of our number joined in to climb all 1840 steps but most of us climbed back on the bus to be driven up near the summit.

J18_3539 Bradinopyga geminataWe did then climb the remaining couple of short flights of steps from where our coach was parked. Once at the entrance, we were again faced with, where Buddhist temples in Sri Lanka are concerned, the inevitable shoe rack not before the temple door but before the entire temple grounds. With the combined requirements of exposing my bare feet to the ground and my bared head to the unrelenting rays of the tropical sun, I already determined to remain outside and wait. My wait was made all the easier by the discovery of a modest rockpool at the entrance complete with dragonflies. A Sociable Glider (Tramea limbata) was cruising above it. Having amused myself trying to snag it in flight, my day was made by the appearance of an Indian Rockdweller (Bradinopyga geminata), an uncommon species which I was pleased to see for the first time.

_19R3527J18_3568 Rhyothemis variegataHats with a brim are necessary for those of us with a bald scalp when in hot, sunny climates. The brim, however, can be a hindrance to wildlife observation. Unseen by me, this site was seething above my head with swarms of Variegated Flutterers (Rhyothemis variegata). This was another lifer for me which I’d seen at the big lake but missed getting a shot of. Now I had plenty of chance to try again. Francine managed to capture a group while I was trying for an individual. Some of our number thought they were looking at butterflies which is understandable because the flight is quite similar.

_19R3499While I was standing guard over my rockpool, Francine had been off in a nearby part of the temple [yes, barefoot – brava!] when she had seen the swarm of Flutterers over her head and returned to inform me. There was also an almost constant swarm of people descending part of the temple.

So, for the afternoon’s entertainment, we headed for our second temple. Actually, I thought it was another two temples but it seems that it’s one confusing visitors with two names: the Golden Temple or Rock/Cave Temple of Dambulla.  I imagine the Golden Temple tag comes from an enormous golden effigy of Buddha sitting at the base of the hill at the top of which is the Rock temple, which I think is the actual temple itself. Frankly, this golden monstrosity is complete kitch, the poor old golden Buddha’s chin being defaced with large, dark encrustations that looked like some critters’ nests.

_19R3659_19R3715At the top of the hill, the Rock temple is a series of caves so I could perhaps get away without my beloved SPF50 Tilley hat. I made the modest climb with my companions. However, once again the shoe and hat depository was some way from the shelter of the caves and once again I declined any religion-imposed risk. Francine is made of sterner stuff, though, and got some pictures, sunset being the main event. She got a Buddha, too, and we really should publish one.

J18_3637 Colourful busI descended seeking entertainment elsewhere. I wasn’t so lucky this time. I “enjoyed” an indifferent iced coffee before wandering back to the giant golden Buddha where our coach was waiting. There was what would have been an interesting monk chanting session going on through a microphone to an audience holding candles but it was protected by “no photography” signs. Marvellous. A group of bus drivers was talking beside one of the very colourful buses that abound in Sri Lanka. Four young men asked me to take their photograph, which I did. I have a Farcebook name if I can find the right one.

J18_3644 Dog vs tuk-tukEventually, I found a cold bottle of water and a table to sit at while I drank it watching Sri Lankan life go on about me. A dog insisted on lying in the middle of the track. It reluctantly made way for a large truck, then returned to its favourite spot. Next a red tuk-tuk began heading for it but this time the animal held doggedly onto its position and it was the tuk-tuk that had to give way. I’ve fallen in love with red tuk-tuks.

J18_3651 Night cafeSince sunset had been the main photographic target up the hill, darkness had fallen before my travelling companions returned. I finished my litre of water and returned to the bus to join them.

Posted in 2019 Sri Lanka

Leopard Spotting

Day three and the third early morning start. We were heading back into Wilpattu NP for another half day before moving on. Once again, because we’d be entering the park at 06:00 we had been given a packed breakfast. After yesterday’s dismal packed food and tepid water, expectations were not high.

Jeep Jam 2Jeep JamOur full day in Wilpattu yesterday had failed to bag us a Leopard (Panthera pardus). Since the safari organizers regard no leopard as a failed safari, that would be the main target that we’d concentrate on today. Francine and I had failed to see a Leopard 20 years ago in Kenya. My expectations were not high this time, either. It was known that a Leopard had been seen at one particular waterhole yesterday but there was no sign of one when we had arrived. Today, we made straight there thinking the earlier the better. When we did arrive, it was obvious every other 4×4 driver had had the same thought; six vehicles were lined up side by side with a single gap of only half a vehicle between one pair. We positioned ourselves to try and peer through the gap. (Try mentally to bolt these two photographs together side by side.)

To be honest, I find this kind of safari tourism unseemly. There are thought to be 30-40 Leopards in Wilpattu as a whole. Given modern communications, word spreads rapidly from driver to driver when one is sighted and 4x4s rush to descend like a pack of baying wolves. Don’t forget that this happens day in, day out. The animals must feel hounded and, where predators are concerned, I can’t help but feel that it puts more stress on their hunting ability.

There were two Leopards at the far end of a small clearing. The 4x4s were not allowed to advance more than they had. Joe Tourist was craning his collective neck to try to catch a glimpse. Occasionally, about 50m away, the top of a spotted back could be seen through the long grass but there was no chance of any photograph worth having. Were it not for the spots and the fact that Cheetahs don’t live in Sri Lanka, recognition would’ve been tricky. This status quo was maintained for about 30 minutes with the only entertainment being the shuffling of a 4×4 or two.

I think one of the Leopards began moving. Our guide then made a brilliant call; he ordered our driver to return to the approach road. It seems the Leopard was heading that way. We took up position on the right hand side of the road – the Leopards had been to our left. Then magic happened; a beautiful, sleek Leopard calmly wandered out into the road and lay down, staring at a rather worried looking Peacock that stood in the road between us and the Leopard.

J18_3327 Leopard and Peahen

J18_3297 Who are you looking atThe road was wide enough for only two vehicles and, given the curve in the road, we had pole position for the clearest shots. Another two 4x4s were on the track beyond the Leopard looking towards us. I’ve got 57 shots of this situation, mostly essentially the same but with the Leopard’s head at slightly different angles. You really only need one. Here’s my favourite close up, I think.

Eventually the Leopard got fed up with staring at the Peacock or feigning disinterest and sauntered back into the bushes. Later another crossed the road making for another water hole on the right of the shots above but it never got into a favourable position. We’d broken our Leopard jinx and went back to the safe toilet-equipped picnic spot for breakfast.

J18_3358 Child groomingOur surprise breakfast today was revealed to be a bag of cooked chickpeas with a few shreds of coconut mixed in for variety. Clearly the monkeys had more of a taste for chickpeas than they did cheese(less) sandwiches. We had to be more vigilant as one monkey made off with someone’s breakfast box. No great loss, was the considered opinion. I actually like chickpeas but a bit of moisture would’ve made them easier on the throat.

I was alone in finishing most of my chickpeas and wandered off near the lake stalking dragonflies. This caused some consternation. Apparently there was a danger of those good ol’ Mugger Crocodiles lurking about. Visions of Crocodile Dundee sprang to mind. I was keen not to become an item on a reptilian breakfast menu, so reluctantly had to leave my unidentified dragons and sauntered back. Not a completely safe picnic spot, then.

It was time to head for our exit gate and move on. Our next stop would be at the Lakeside Hotel at Anuradhapura. That name sounded promising to an odonata enthusiast. My anticipation grew.

J18_3390 Scops OwlMy expectations fell off a little as we arrived. The hotel was actually very nice but the lake was HUGE. Big water is often not very good for dragonflies; we’d just have to see. Before we could check-in, though, Sam keenly led a few of us off into some trees where he pointed out a little seen Scops Owl. European Scops Owls are terrific, sounding like a submarine’s sonar equipment. I was actually quite thrilled to see this Indian Scops. I was hoping we’d hear it overnight but sadly it remained silent so I don’t know what the Indian cousin sounds like.

Franco in actionJ18_3418 Ictinogomphus rapaxEventually I got to the lake. There were no crocodiles, at least, so I could get down to the water’s edge safely. For big water, it proved better than I thought. The margins were shallow with vegetation and I started by seeing Rapacious Flangetails (Ictinogomphus rapax) perched on grass stems and flying off to feed. Most of the critters were a little way out over the water but I had shoes I could wade in and, like the drinking water in our 4x4s at Wilpattu, the lake water here was warm. At first I thought these Flangetails were a species I’d seen in Singapore/Cambodia but no, it was very similar but different, according to the books, so another lifer to add to my collection. These characters really do look deadly, don’t you think?

_19R3352_19R3423Everyone but me went off to find their second Buddhist temple and, the trip notes say, the original Sri Maha Bodhi tree under which Buddha gained enlightenment. As a teenager, I vaguely remember gaining enlightenment under some trees near my childhood home [ask no questions] – maybe I should start a new religion myself. The temple was huge and our visitors were treated to an education witnessing something of a Buddhist funeral.

Enlightenment being of little use to me these days, in preference to wandering about barefoot, hatless and increasing my Buddhas collection, I chose to increase my collection of odonata friends so I returned to the lake and notched up a total of 9 species, one of which was a dusk-flying specimen in the hotel hall. Not bad considering I had initially harboured doubts about the size of water.

Posted in 2019 Sri Lanka

A Day in Wilpattu

Our second day and our second early start; even earlier this morning at 05:45 to be precise. We’re heading into Wilpattu National Park itself, which should my main event. Wildlife is mainly active in the earlier morning and again later in the afternoon, so we’d been given the option of going out for the whole day or coming back for lunch then returning. The latter would burn some time driving so as a group we opted for the whole day in the park.

Backwaters Lodge RoomOur accommodation up at Wilpattu is at Backwaters Lodge. It’s intriguing; the rooms are converted shipping containers raised on stilts. That may sound weird but they are anything but shabby including an en suite bathroom and a very necessary air-conditioning unit, shipping containers being very hot. The establishment is into being eco-friendly, which is refreshing. All the furniture in the rooms, including the bed base, is made from palettes. It was very comfortable. No plastic is used. Our shower includes gel in a reusable glass bottle, for example. Of course, if your wet, soapy hands slip and you drop the bottle in the cubicle, it’d most likely break and cause something of a problem. Happily, that didn’t happen.

Much less refreshing is the apparent shortage of refrigeration facilities in the establishment. Yesterday evening after our tardy arrival we had struggled to get cold beers to slake our thirsts and the water (from a reusable glass bottle) at dinner had been served tepid, if not warm. Yummy. Given today’s pre-dawn start we were now provided with a packed breakfast which proved to be pretty dreadful, part being a skinny English-style sandwich requiring a search party to locate the supposed cheese filling. Being out all day, we also had a packed lunch with very similar sandwiches of the now familiar sorry design. Our two 4×4 vehicles carried drinking water for the day but, assuming it had been cold to start with, had it been kept in a cool box? No. Come lunchtime most of the water on board was warm-ish. Not good. Someone needs lessons in catering for wildlife tourists. It can be done; our hired guide, driver in Cambodia six years ago came in a jeep complete with an on board chiller for the plentiful supply of cold bottled water.

J18_2895 Wilpattu trackOur guide, Sam, bought our entrance tickets and we began our journey down the various tracks of Wilpattu. The area appeared to be a collection of water holes connected by dirt tracks through bush/forest. We’d bounce along down a track, then emerge into the open by a water body. It was a very different experience from the open savannahs of the Maasai Mara in Africa. We saw birdlife along the tracks and the occasional wild pig but most of the larger animal action was around the water holes. For those keen on statistics, there are 65 holes in total but they are seasonal and many dry up; 27 of them contained water now.

J18_2979 Elephants feedingEveryone loves Elephants. Fever pitch was reached when, as we emerged beside a very attractive water hole, we were treated to two elephants feeding in the water. Both jeeps stopped followed by a constant rattle of cameras in machine gun mode. Well, first the nearby unused lodge overlooking the water was visited by our female contingent for obvious reasons. Then the cameras began firing. These are, of course, Asian Elephants (Elephas maximus)

J18_3351 Mugger crocodileAs morning continued our team became aware that a Leopard (Panthera partus kotiya), one of Wilpattu’s holy grails, had been spotted by another jeep at one waterhole. As a safari in Sri Lanka is considered a failure without a Leopard sighting, we made for it. What we found on arrival was one jeep parked with two guys snoozing inside, beside a pool containing Mugger Crocodiles [no, I’ve never heard of those before, either]. Here is one, though. What we didn’t find was any Leopard.

_19R3084Our lunch, including warm-ish water, was taken near another water body equipped with a toilet shack and a whole host of marauding Macaque monkeys. The sandwiches weren’t, in truth, really worth protecting against the monkeys but one feels one has to. Maybe they could find some cheese in ‘em. Throughout the vast majority of the park, with elephant and leopard roaming about, one is not allowed outside the jeeps but here it was apparently safe. There were some dragonflies for me to distract me from the warm drinking water and monkeys.

J18_3242 Francine at KudirimalaiJ18_3246 White-bellied Sea EagleAs we did our best to forget lunch, our drivers made the trip to the coast and Kudiramalai Point. On arrival, I began to wonder why we had bothered. OK, we were atop a serious cliff but the view was hardly photogenic, being just sea. Every boring piece of rock has a silver lining, though, and my silver lining came in the form of about half a dozen White-bellied Sea Eagles (Haliaeetus leucogaster) soaring above. I clicked away happily. Only later did I realize that many of my pictures including a fish grasped in an eagles’ talons. What a stroke of luck.

We had to make a 90-minute journey on very cratered roads to beat curfew and get out of the park by 18:00. We clambered back into our two 4x4s and hit the bumpy dirt track back towards Backwaters Lodge. Traffic was still going the other way so presumably there was another gate in that direction. Several buses passed us but I was very surprised to see tuk-tuks going the other way, too, and not sparing the horses. Those little three wheelers are amazingly versatile and were making what appeared to be light work of some seriously bumpy and pot-holed terrain. I want one but it has to be red.

We arrived at the gate with about 30 minutes to spare. Once back at the lodge I went and asked for a beer, then sat waiting. Nothing happened. Nothing continued to happen. I asked about the beer again. “Now?”, said the waiter. “Yes, very much now”, I replied, incredulously. Surely he didn’t think I wanted to wait for the dinner gong? “Five minutes”, he said. Oh Darwin, it’s not cold, is it? For the love of Pete …

Posted in 2019 Sri Lanka

Off to Wilpattu

This was our first full day in Sri Lanka and we were up early to get to the local fish market at Negombo before hoards of other tourists arrived. We tipped out of our bus to get an hours worth of very fishy smells up our nostrils.

J18_2769 Fish market, NegomboJ18_2777 Fish market, NegomboMost of what was going on consisted of pairs of men carrying two baskets loaded with fish strung on poles. They deposited the fish onto mats spread over the sand where their womenfolk set about spreading them out. This was a drying process. Eventually an older gentleman explained in reasonable English that the fish had been strongly salted and that this is why the ever present birds were not bothersome trying to nick the catch. He also said he’d been on a TV programme with Rick, though he’d forgotten the last name – Stein, of course. The drying process took three days, he said. Taking pictures here was all well and good but tended to result in the subjects asking for money. No wonder I rarely take photographs of people.

After returning to our Negombo Hotel for breakfast we hit the road bound for Wilpattu National Park where we’d be staying for two nights mainly in search of a Leopard. Wilpattu should be a highlight for me. In February 2017 we’d made a trip around Namibia where Etosha should’ve been my highlight but it was someway through that itinerary and I’d managed to succumb to a stomach bug from breakfast at the previous night’s lodge. Wilpattu being at the beginning of this trip, I was hopeful of avoiding any repeat performance.

Tile kiln firesTile kilnAs our transport was leaving town, we came across a business firing roofing tiles. Ladies were carrying tiles into a vast kiln where they were being stacked. A similar large kiln room on the opposite side of the building was already being heated by large wood fires looking more like pizza ovens. Our bus pulled in so we could get a closer look.

J18_2832 Potamarcha congenerContinuing the journey, it was refreshing to get our first glimpse of Sri Lanka’s countryside rather than a city. We made our way to a lakeside restaurant at Kurunegala for a comfort break and a coffee. Lotus flowers were growing in the lake margins and a man was harvesting them. Yay, habitat! Personally, I was much less interested in a coffee than I was in the possibility of my first encounter with some Sri Lankan dragonflies. I was not disappointed. My first customer was a new species for me: Blue Pursuer (Potamarcha congener). Two others that looked familiar also proved to be new species so I was off to a decent start.

We continued to the first of our Buddhist temples. I suppose it’s inevitable that we’d get Buddha’d out on such a trip. Frankly I’d rather have stayed at the lake playing with the dragonflies but I went along not knowing where we were going afterwards … and to show willing.

_19R2749Now, we’ve done [plenty of] Buddhist temples before and are familiar with the ol’ take-your-shoes-off-before-entering routine. It’s done at the door, right? Well, no, not in Sri Lanka apparently. Here, at Ridi Viharaya temple (Silver Temple) the shoe rack was at least 200m away from the temple itself. We’re talking 30+°C here meaning that we had to walk across baking hot concrete paving stones covered in dark berries and assorted other detritus, much of which was sharp underfoot. As a wrinkle that was new to me, Buddha was not only barefoot but didn’t wear a hat, so neither could I wear a hat. With the soles of my bare feet getting burned and pricked as well as stained with black berries, and my head getting frazzled in between the scant patches of shade, I gritted my teeth, persevered and got half way before thinking “sod this” and returning to the shoe rack equally uncomfortably. You are permitted to wear socks if you don’t mind ruining them. While a more determined Francine captured the requisite array of Buddhas, I redonned my shoes and hat – I ain’t risking skin cancer on my unprotected head for any religion – so I could go and play with butterflies on a patch of grass outside. Unexpectedly since water was not apparent, I found a dragonfly, too.

J18_2867 Indian DarterFrancine returned quite promptly but some others took what seemed like hours. Eventually, however, they were rounded up and we returned to the lake for a late lunch. Darn, I could’ve stayed playing with the dragonflies instead of killing the soles of my feet after all. Never mind, I got another chance now and there was a cooperative Indian Darter (Anhinga melanogaster), known colloquially as a snakebird because of its snake-like neck, posing on a branch just in front of the restaurant.

The temple had caused a bit of a delay so when we did finally arrive at our accommodation just outside the Wilpattu NP boundary we were running a little late and darkness would soon be falling.

Religion should come with a health warning. If one has to cut ones feet to shreds and die of skin cancer, there’d better bloody well be an afterlife.

Posted in 2019 Sri Lanka