Friday, 19 January 2018

Christmas with Elephants

Christmas was now upon us, but for the most part you wouldn’t know it. Christianity certainly makes up a significant percentage of religion in Sri Lanka, but is dwarfed by Buddhism and Hinduism and Islam more in the north. We spent Christmas day riding up to Udawalawe National Park, home to one of the highest concentrations of wild elephants in the country. We took a room at the Safari Village Hotel and spent the afternoon lazing in the pool watching flying squirrels, chipmunks and monkeys climb around in the trees above us. The inclusive dinner, a Chinese feast, didn’t disappoint either.

Early the next morning we were collected by a driver we had arranged the day before and taken on safari inside the National Park. We’d read horror stories about how National Parks in Sri Lanka often suffered from serious overcrowding with jeeps queued for an hour at the gate just to buy tickets, but we seemed to have chosen exactly the right season and we entered as soon as the gate opened at 6am along with only a handful of other jeeps. The park is indeed a haven for a huge number of species and we spent the next few hours watching a multitude of brightly coloured birds, peacocks, bee eaters and the beautiful painted storks along with lots of other animals, but it was the elephants that really stole the show. 

It wasn’t long before we saw the first, a lone bull elephant walking across the plain next to our jeep. Soon after we came upon a small group of females with youngsters, the youngest only a couple of months old. Watching these gentle, majestic creatures pulling at the vegetation, eyeing us curiously and gently caressing each other with their long trunks, it’s impossible to understand why anyone would want to see them in the tourist attraction ‘sanctuaries’ or worse, performing tricks in tourist shows. We would see many more elephants as we drove through the park, our driver respectfully keeping his distance and watching with as much wonder as we were.

Feeling like we were on a roll, after breakfast we left and rode down to Yala National Park, arguably the most famous of the parks and the most visited. This time we acted on impulse and hired a driver we found in the town to take us into the park that afternoon. Yala is a much bigger park and in hindsight we may have been better off waiting until the following morning, as to really get into the depths of the park takes some considerable time. During the drive into the park we saw wild pigs, a couple of mongooses playing on the road and again, a whole host of birds. For the first hour of the safari we saw a reasonable amount of wildlife, but after this it was almost as though our driver got bored. We drove down tracks for quite some way, but then suddenly would backtrack for no obvious reason. I’m sure he knew what he was doing, but it was a bit tedious and felt very much like he was trying to kill time.

For the next hour we chased reported sightings of the elusive Sri Lankan Leopard, but didn’t see one at any range that was identifiable. One of the mistakes of going on the safari in the evening is that the gates to the park close at 6pm sharp and any jeeps still in the park at this time are fined. At exactly 5.15pm it was like someone had sent a herd of stampeding elephants in our direction, because out of nowhere our driver took off through the park as fast as he could drive on the bumpy, dusty tracks and for 45 minutes we held on for dear life as he attempted to make it back to the gate before the curfew, which we still missed by five minutes. All in all, not anywhere near the value for money that our morning safari had been.

Apparently, there's a leopard in this photo...

Sri Lanka always felt like a very safe country, with honest people, right from the moment we arrived. One morning, whilst drinking coffee and eating samosas in a P&S store, I noticed a 100 rupee bill that someone had dropped from their change on the floor in front of the counter. Intrigued, I watched for over half an hour as almost every customer noticed it, but not one touched it. Even a couple of small children glanced at it and left it exactly where it was. Eventually, a waiter who was clearing tables picked it up, looked around to see if it belonged to anyone there before taking it round behind the counter and placing it on the table. The only incident we encountered in nearly a month there was when someone bizarrely chose to steal the clasp off my bike helmet when I left it on my bike outside a café while we ate lunch.

Onwards, we left Yala headed for Ella, a tourist hotspot in the mountains and the jumping off point for hiking to Adam’s Peak. As we rode away through the edges of the National Park, suddenly a lone elephant emerged from the vegetation at the side of the road and silently walked past us. It’s hard to describe the feeling of riding so close to such incredible creatures, but it’s a picture that stayed in my head for several days afterwards.

The ride to Ella was uneventful, lots of twisty roads and climbs, dodging trucks and monitor lizards that would calmly step out into the road in front of us. Ella was a mountain version of Galle, packed full of foreigners and much too expensive for its poor food and accommodation. We found ourselves a room in the deceivingly named Silent Night Guesthouse, but it was cheap and comfortable enough so we forgave them. Finally, after several weeks of rinsing out our few items of clothing in hand basins, recoiling at the colour of the water that came out of them, we found our first laundry service! Unsurprisingly, it cost about four times what it should, but we really didn’t care by this point. Laundry was no longer a luxury, it was a necessity. We deposited our clothes and made our way to the train station, where we caught a train heading towards Badulla over the famous nine arches bridge, a bridge whose photo is one of the most viewed google images despite most people not having any idea where the bridge is.

Order a boiled egg...get a boiled egg!

The train ride was pleasant and we returned in the dark to witness the end of a public cremation ceremony on a local playing field of what we presume must have been a prominent local monk. We had earlier watched the pyre and surrounding structure being built and by the time we returned it was well ablaze. 

From Ella we rode north again, back through the tea plantations. By this time Evan and I had swapped bikes, him taking the more comfortable Bajaj and me taking the Yahama with its seat made of concrete blocks, but with a bit more power. We took a long route, winding our way through the Victoria Randenigala Rantembe Sanctuary, along one side of the reservoir and back along the northern shores to Victoria Dam before continuing onwards towards Dambulla. The scenery in Sri Lanka continued to astoud us at every turn.

I'm sure the bridge showing on Google maps should be right here somewhere... 

Dambulla is a town due north of Kandy in the centre of Sri Lanka and is home to both the Dambulla Rock Temple and nearby Sigirya Rock, a temple and UNESCO site perched high up on Lion Rock a few kilometres outside the city. The former we decided was probably worth the $10 foreigner fee to visit and after some very frustrating toing and froing to find the ticket office, which due to a land ownership dispute is nowhere near the start of the steps up to the temple, we finally started our ascent. After the 1200+ steps we had to climb to reach the Tiger Temple in Thailand, we were pleased to find this only required 300. The temple itself was indeed impressive, more so for the hundreds of Buddha statues housed in several chambers and the beautifully preserved frescos than the exterior of the building or the view, and after spending some time wandering around we got back on the road headed towards Trincomalee, a town on the north east coast. 

We were now into the last couple of days of the year and we’d done some searching into what happens in Sri Lanka at New Year. The answer seemed to be ‘not much’. To be honest, neither of us cared that much, but with a good few days rental left on the bikes we figured we might as well head up to see the north and do a full circuit of the island and a couple of days on the coast and a New Year on the beach seemed a good plan.

Arriving in Trincomalee town, first impressions weren’t that great. It reminded me of Dominical in Coast Rica, a little surfing village that everyone raves about, but in reality is a bit touristy, but old and tired with a dirty beach strewn with litter. Undecided where exactly we wanted to stay, we decided to go in search of the beach itself. As chance would have it we rode down a little alleyway right to the sand right next to possibly the best accommodation in town. A short walk along the beach brought us to Fernando’s Bar, a wooden palapa building with a bar, swinging tables and a swimming pool. Expecting rooms to be out of our budget we were surprised when the quoted a price half of what we were expecting and then without asking them to, they dropped it a further 500 rupees a night, making it an extremely reasonable $13. We booked two nights.

Trincomalee is like San Pedro island in Belize, but much nicer. It’s clearly a busy place in high season when, we were told, the sea is like a mill pond and perfect for snorkeling and other water activities. At this time of year it usually rains but we were lucky and had caught an unseasonably nice period. Waves rolled gently on to the shore, accompanied by a breeze that kept the mosquitoes at bay with the temperature hovering around 30. 

We walked the length of the beach, watching the fishermen haul their meagre catch and watching the very bold crows pick apart dead puffer fish on the sand. A visit to the main town took us to the old Dutch Fort and Naval Museum, where we were shown around by a very helpful young man, excited to see our number plates that told him we had originated very close to his home town of Puttalam. Within the Fort we visited an old Hindu Temple, walking quickly from shade patch to shade patch along the white painted lines and through puddles of water to avoid burning the skin off our bare feet in the blistering midday sun. It was good to eventually retire to the pool in the afternoon and cool off.

The food at the bar attached to our accommodation was good, surprisingly so in fact, but it wasn’t cheap. We’ve found throughout Sri Lanka that, as everywhere else, the more tourists there are, the more food costs and the worse the quality invariably is. Without fail, the best food we’ve had everywhere we’ve been has been the cheapest. With this in mind we set out in search of dinner. We checked out a few local establishments, but baulked when we saw offerings of chicken fried rice for over 1000 rupees a serving. Stop in any little roadside place and under 500 rupees would buy two servings of fried rice, each enough for two people. 

A board outside a family restaurant caught our eye – fresh ‘catched’ tuna on the grill, boiled vegetables, fried potato chips and lime juice for 750 rupees. We decided to give it a go. A young man, a student at university near Ella served us and explained that this was a new venture for his family and that he was home visiting for the holidays. The food was superb and our hosts even went out of their way to try and fend off the swarms of mosquitoes that engulfed us for a short while at dusk. A loop tape of flamenco cover versions played in the background and we both smiled when Hotel California started to play as our food was served. As we were leaving and saying our thank you’s, we received a very kind invitation to join the family for a special New Year breakfast the next day before we left.

New Year’s Eve was a funny affair. Late in the afternoon the young lads at the bar put up additional disco lights so we assumed that a party was to be had. In reality, at its peak the crowd grew to perhaps a dozen and we spent several hours chatting with an Australian and a Kiwi, friends who were also travelling around the country together, and drinking Gin and Tonic as midnight approached. When it did, there was no countdown, no fuss, just a few backyard-style fireworks and bottle rockets that sent the local beach dog population scattering for cover. But really, it was perfect. A simple evening, spent with good company and no pressure to be anything other than what it was and we retired to bed, content.

We were genuinely reluctant to leave Fernando’s Bar the next day. We had found the Hopkins of Sri Lanka, that rare little village that’s easy to lose yourself in. Fernando’s is what the Dodo could and should be. We stopped in for New Year breakfast of Kiribath or ‘milk rice’ and bananas, then with only a couple of days left we headed up the coast for the most northerly town of Jaffna, the last stronghold of the recently ended Civil War. 


  1. Happy New Year to you , lovely photos , looks absolutely stunning xx

  2. Fabulous again Caroline. That temple was just gorgeous. It all sounds so interesting and such an adventure - have fun xx Jenny xx