A Travellerspoint blog

July 2017

Close Encounters of the Pachyderm Kind

On Safari in Yala National Park

sunny 89 °F

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Up close with one of Yala National Park's male elephants

NEW! Watch these youtube videos from safari in Yala NP

Approach of a male elephant

Nothing beats finding the right tree to sractch that itch!

Sri Lanka is one of the best places in the world to see leopards in the wild. And the best spot here is Yala National Park. I booked a full-day safari through my hotel, trusting them to know a good operator. The way it works here is you show up at the park with your vehicle or tour, and a park ranger hops in and accompanies you. Between the driver and ranger, they pick your route on the numerous, rutted dirt roads through the park. It is up to them — and you — to spot the animals. Some criticize Yala because it does not limit the vehicles per day, which they say could lead to crowds of vehicles around the animals.
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Jeeps lined up first thing in the morning, ready to get a jump on a day's safari

This occurred only once during my safari, and it was near the entrance when a leopard was spotted. It was on the main route in, so a backup occurred. Our vehicle ended up perhaps 10th in line, and by the time we got into position to take a photo, the leopard had walked away. I did glimpse his silhouette through the bushes, though, regal and much larger than I imagined, sunning himself on a rock. After that, our vehicle managed to get lost in the wide open spaces of the park. We saw other vehicles, but wouldn't hit another backup until we were on our way out around eight hours later.
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Water buffalos enjoying a cool, green watering hole

Along the way, we spotted a wide array of animals. The most abundant were probably water buffalo. We'd come upon groups of them wading in watering holes, sometimes with just their heads and huge, curving horns sticking out of the water. We also saw lots of varieties of deer (favorite prey of the leopards). Unlike most animals in Yala, they were usually shy and would bolt off into the brush if we came too close. Even the bucks, with their large antlers, would eventually scurry off. We also lots of wild boar, wallowing in the mud of the watering holes.
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Happy as pigs in...well, you know!

Our ranger pointed out the bewildering variety of bird life, too. We saw eagles, storks, brilliant blue kingfishers, herons, and more. It was kind of humorous how he would get excited about species rare in Sri Lanka, but common back home. I think when I didn't take pictures of the “wild ducks” the first couple of times he pointed them out, he got the idea that I wasn't excited by them. My favorite birds that we saw over and over in the park were the peacocks. None of the males spread their feathers wide for us, but you could see the brilliant colors anyway. Listening to their bizarre calls, I realized that it was the animal that was the giant bird in the animated movie Up was based upon.
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Mama Elephant keeping a watchful eye on us as Baby dines

By far, the best close encounters with animals in the park were with elephants. The elephants in Yala are apparently habituated to people, though definitely still wild. The first time was when we were in an elevated road overlooking a muddy watering hole. A male elephant was in the mud, happily spraying himself with mud. He was would use his trunk to alternate between taking drinks of water and using it to splatter his backs with galoopfuls of cooling, mud. The driver and ranger knew what would likely happen next, so we stayed put as the elephant slowly approached, climbed on the roadway, and approached within one car-length of us. But he wasn't interested in us. There was a nice big tree which he proceeded to scratch on side of his body against, then slowly, leisurely the other side, too. I kept alternating between photos and videos, enjoying the show, being so close to such a great beast. In the afternoon, we had a similarly up close encounter with a mother elephant and her baby. They also proceeded to slowly stroll past our jeep, feeding as they went. It was a great experience, but I was still holding out hopes of seeing a leopard!
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Highland toque monkey, one of the two species I saw in Yala

What else did we see? We saw mongoose several times — including one climbing trees in search of bird eggs. We saw Gray Langur monkeys, as well as the Highland Toque, which I'd been seeing at temples throughout Sri Lanka. We spotted numerous crocodiles — most partially or nearly all submerged in the brown water of the pools. They looked like logs in perfect camouflage. A couple were seen basking in the sun on the water’s edge, one with his jaws wide open. We saw a few jackals, busily trotting about on some errand.
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If I was that bird in the midst of those crocodiles, I'd be a bit more nervous than he appears to be!

The last couple hours I kept scanning the branches of the trees in hopes of spotting a leopard dozing the afternoon away on a branch. When my hotel chose a driver, they chose wisely. Towards the end of he safari, he inexplicably stopped. The driver and range spoke together, then said there was a leopard about 100 meters away in the trees. He slowly pointed out the right tree, then worked his way up to the right branch. I did see a lighter patch in the obscuring foliage. And then I saw the leopard’s tail, which had looked like a branch, slowly curl, then unwind. It baffled me that anyone could spot this while driving the curving, bumpy roads. He had proved himself time and again on the safari to have amazing vision for picking out the animals. I honestly think he spotted more than our ranger, who was in his 30th year with the park service and very experienced.
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My blurry, cellphone camera pic of a leopard in Yala NP

Was that to be the closest I got to seeing a leopard? The coyly curving tail and the earlier, briefly glimpsed silhouette? Well, remember that first (and only, to this point) traffic backup, when we were too far in the rear to get a clear view of the leopard. As we approached that spot, w saw another, smaller logjam of perhaps six vehicles? Could it be? Yes! Two leopard basking themselves in the late afternoon sun. Our ranger pointed them out, then hopped out to direct traffic. It wasn't long before I had a great vantage point. Unfortunately, with no telephoto lens on my phone camera, my pictures suffered at Yala. It had done a great job throughout Sri Lanka, but here it's limitations were apparent. I'll remember that next time I take a safari — wherever that may be. Bring a telephoto lens if you want good shots of animals…especially leopards!
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In the about 90 degree heat, the water buffalos have the right idea!

Posted by world_wide_mike 08:45 Archived in Sri Lanka Comments (0)

Galling End to My Sri Lankan Journey

Bout of Sun Poisoning Clouds Finale in Galle

sunny 85 °F

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Walled city of Galle, Sri Lanka

I have been to Southeast Asia many times, but this was my first foray into what I would term “South Asia.” I don't use sunscreen as a rule on non-beach trips, and it was here that I would pay for that policy. By the end of the safari in Yala, My right arm and knee were fairly reddened by the sun. For some reason, my side of the jeep always seemed to be in the sunlight. Think of the tan you get on a long car trip with one arm hanging out the window, and multiply it with the tropical sun. Still, I awoke the morning after the safari feeling none the worse. I'd arranged a taxi with two sightseeing stops on the way to my final destination in Sri Lanka, the walled, colonial town of
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Sri Lanka's tallest sitting Buddha -- 7 stories tall!

The first stop I'd arranged was at an interesting Buddhist temple. Wewurukannala Vihara has the largest seated Buddha statue in Sri Lanka, along with a very interesting building attached to the back that allows you to climb to the top. The view from half a football field high of the surrounding countryside and the temple complex below is nice. However, it is the journey to the top that makes this temple particularly interesting. Spelled out for visitors in cartoon-like paintings with captions on the walls is a theological crime and punishment law book. The top image may show a man telling a lie in life, and the bottom image his tongue burning in Hell. Hundreds of these images are colorfully painted on the walls, along with scenes from Buddha’s life. As if the scenes of sinners being mutilated isn't enough, there are life-sized statues depicting unfortunates being impaled or similarly punished. Next door, there is a less grim temple with statues of Buddha and other of the religion’s deities. I have to confess that I was unaware of the “sinner’s Hell” aspect of Buddhism prior to my visit. I'll have to do some reading up to see how it fits into the whole theology of reincarnation and “life is suffering” belief.
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Paintings depicting a sin and the resulting punishment on the interior of the temple

A short stop at the coastal town of Mirissa was next. Since my visit to Sri Lanka coincided with the monsoon hitting the southern coast, I decided not to do a beach idyll during my stay. Yet the south coast’s beaches are one of the island’s highlights to many people. So, I wanted to stop off and see what one of their beach magnets looked like. It was very appealing looking. The smooth sand, swaying palms, and beachside cafes made me wish I had squeezed in a day in Mirissa instead of a short stop. In hindsight, that would have been a poor choice, considering what would happen later that night.
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The lovely beach of Mirissa

In mid-afternoon, my taxi finally pulled into Galle. I have come to the conclusion that Sri Lankan drivers don't (or can't) read maps. I had not searched for a phone number for the hotel because its location is unmistakable. There is no way anyone who can read a map couldn't find it, perched at the tip of the old town, overlooking the sea. The driver stared at it blankly and insisted I find a number so he could be talked in. Luckily, my guidebook had Rampart View Guest House’s number, so he could be navigated there verbally. The location was indeed magnificent. I am sitting here looking out at the walls as I type this now, watching the ocean waves swell and crash. A steady parade of holiday makers, Sri Lankan and foreign, parade 20 meters away from me, making a circuit of the town’s walls.
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Strolling the walls and watching the sea are two favorite activities in Galle

Walking the walls is the number one thing to do in Galle. It is what I set out to do immediately upon unpacking as it was a gorgeous, sunny day. After a march in the sun for about an hour or so, I was thirsty. I stopped in to a breezy restaurant called The Taproom for a Lion Lager - Sri Lanka's number one beer. Just as I was about to finish it, the afternoon monsoon arrived. Those seated outdoors poured into the restaurant as the rain came down hard. I was forced to have another lager, and consider a third before it finally let up. The clouds were still threatening, so I hurried back to my hotel. Galle’s old town is small and easily walkable, so I was safe from further downpours.
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Galle's iconic lighthouse

All day long, I had been feeling a sore throat coming on. Now, a headache chimed in. Once I sat down in the restaurant for dinner, nausea made it a trio of maladies. I ate only two bites of my sandwich. I was feeling very ill as I slowly made my way back. As I lay in bed, I began to shiver. Swallowing even water was painful. I took a couple pain relievers that I always carry with me on my travels, but that seemed to do little to help. At one point in the night, I got up and Googled Dengue Fever and Malaria, to see what their symptoms were. I had decided against shots for either because everything I'd read said the risk was extremely low for tourists staying in hotels. There had been no vomiting, and no intense pain behind the eyes, so that seemed to rule out both. When I got up in the morning, I looked up Sun Poisoning. Hmm, all the symptoms fit except for the rash (which appeared later that afternoon). The cool shower I took seemed to help. I had a bit of an appetite at breakfast. I decided to venture out for sightseeing and see how that worked.
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Tiled rooftops of the Old City as seen from the walls

I completed my circuit of the walls, taking my pictures of the colonial fortifications. The gunpowder era walls were stone-faced with earth interiors, sloped to deflect cannon balls. They had the small, Portuguese-style sentry posts on the walls’s vantage points. The walls went right up to the sea, and every angle had a great view of the rolling, blue-green waves and white spray as it crashed against rocks. After a few hours of walking, my symptoms returned again and the rash appeared on my exposed hands. I have never gotten sick like this on a trip, and it definitely put a damper on the end of my two week’s here.
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Another view of the fortifications

After another cool shower, more pain relievers, and rest, I was refortified to head out again. I seemed to have about a 3 hour span before the symptoms crashed down upon me in full force. It had to be sun poisoning. The more I went out, the more the rash spread on my hands. Even the hotel owner looked at my hands at breakfast the next morning and said it happens to tourists who are not as used to the sun. So, there it ended…on a definite down note. Well, all except for the train ride to Colombo, taxi to the airport, and looong flights home. I would continue to pay for my presumptuousness in not using sun screen over the course of that journey. The only bright side is hopefully the symptoms will be all gone by the time I land, back home in America.
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The sun sets on my travels in Sri Lanka

Posted by world_wide_mike 04:36 Archived in Sri Lanka Comments (0)

A Spot of Tea Country

Transitting through gorgeous highlands

sunny 72 °F

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Sri Lanka's highland "tea country"

NEW! Watch this video clip I shot out the window of the train ride

Beautiful "tea country" in Sri Lanka

The next two days were at least partially “in transit” days. I was finally able to score train tickets on Sri Lanka’s most scenic passage, from Kandy to Ella. It was a 7-hour haul, but most of it was through the mountainous “tea country.” Here is where most of the island’s tea plantations are located. The curving rows of tea plants crowned the slopes, making the landscape look settled and neat, despite the large stretches of forest. The air was cool and fresh blowing in through the windows of my second class reserved car. The view was gorgeous, and most passengers’ eyes were glued to the large windows.
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The scenic Kandy to Ella train ride is a beautiful, 7-hour journey

The car emptied out after about an hour or so, and you could stretch out and relax, and enjoy the ride. More than half of the passengers appeared to be Europeans, with most of those British. It was clear everyone was enjoying the ride, despite the side to side jerking of the train, this is definitely not one of those ultra smooth bullet trains, but more of an old school “clickety-clack” choo-choo, its whistle shrieking its warning to those ahead at the road crossings.
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Sri Lanka's highlands is where most of its tea plantations and production is located

It was nearly 6 pm when I arrived at Ella. A tuk-tuk whisked me from the train station up and up on twisting roads to my hotel, appropriately named Ella Gap Panorama. The gap being the cleft in the mountain range where the one Road Town is located. This hotel was a slight step down from my previous ones, so far. No AC, and a bathroom that had a waft of sewage odor. I was here for only one night, and the stunning view from my balcony certainly made up for any shortcomings.
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More amazing mountain scenery

I had been a good boy on this trip, eating local dishes most of the time. The specialty seems to be rice and curry. However, when they say curry they should pluralize it. Each plateful had of rice comes with 4-5 dishes of various curries — meat, vegetable, grain-based ones…you name it. My favorite so far was Dhal, a mustard colored vegetable curry that I first enjoyed at my hotel in Sigiriya. Anyway, I was curried out, and my guidebook raved a out a local place’s pizza. So, I indulged myself with pizza and beer. Afterwards, I explored the strip a bit, then took a tuk-tuk back to my hilltop perch for an early evening.
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The view from my hotel balcony in Ella, Sri Lanka

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The next morning, I'd hired a tuk-tuk (same driver) to take me to my next stop, along with a couple sightseeing breaks along the way. Thinking it'd be chilly on the mountain roads, I'd way overdressed in jeans and a cotton t-shirt. It took us only about an hour to descend into the plains south of tea country, and that is with a stop off at a waterfall and a couple scenic overlooks. Once in the plains, the heat rose quickly. The open air tuk-tuk was breezy, though, and plenty comfortable.
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Gorgeous waterfalls in the mountainous scenery

My main sight of the day would be the seven standing Buddhas of Bunduruvegala. These are carved out of a 50-foot tall cliff face, and are more than a thousand years old. The tallest one in the center is about 20 meters tall, and still holds traces of paint from centuries ago. The grain of the rock compliments the carvings, which are done in a bas-relief, projecting out about a foot from the natural rock face. To reach them, we bounced along a narrow road that was alternately paved then dirt for about 10 minutes. It was clear my driver had never been here, despite the fact they are only an hour away from Ella. The guidebook went on to say few tourists come here, but I can't imagine why. It was an amazing relic of the medieval world, set in a peaceful forest tableau. One group of Sri Lankan college students were here with their professor, and two Aussies, but other than that, it was deserted.
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The 1,000 year old carved Buddhas of Bunduruvegala

Another couple of hours in the tuk-tuk and I finally arrived at my next home for two days: Korovagada Lodge in Tissaharama. I was here for tomorrow's safari in Yala National Park, in the hopes of spotting leopards from among its resident population. I whiled away the rest of the afternoon relaxing at the lodge’s pool, enjoying its rustic (yet air conditioned) amenities. Those who know me may be surprised by such a relaxed schedule. Remember, though, it was a transit day, right?
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The Buddhas are carved out of the rock face

Posted by world_wide_mike 10:47 Archived in Sri Lanka Comments (1)

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