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.
I 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.
After 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.
I 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.
Most 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.
The 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.]
Access 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 …