Sunday, September 25, 2011

Sri Lanka - Days 5-6

Before starting on days 5-6, I need to recap two events from Day 4 that I forgot.  First, I fell again.  Directly on my already sore knee.  The rug in my room was on top of a very slippery tile floor, and I went flying.  Score two for clumsiness.  So at this point walking was becoming almost impossible.

Second, I had a very sweet conversation with a young girl while on the birdwatching tour.  My counterparts took off for a short hike which, as evidenced by my two falls on my bad knee, I just couldn’t fathom at that moment.  So I sat on the banks of a pond of lily pads and watched for crocodiles.  And a young girl comes shyly up to me and then boldly asks me my name in English.  I reply and ask hers.  She tells me and then runs away.  Then a few minutes later she comes back and asks where I am from.  I tell her and ask her.  She tells me and runs away.  Then she comes back and asks me my favorite color.  I tell her blue and ask hers (red).  She stays.  She asks me my favorite food (mushrooms) and I hers (pineapple).  Then she asks my favorite subject.  I think and say math and ask hers.  She smiles broadly, looks me directly in the eyes, says “English!” and then runs away again, for good this time.  Very cute.

Anyway, day five.

I wake up super early (4:30 am) and quickly dress and head for the van.  The only time it’s worth getting up this early is when I am going on safari and, even then, it’s tough.  The guesthouse proprietor drives me to the park in his van so I don’t have to bump over the roads in an open safari jeep.  We get close to the gates just as the sun is beginning to rise and see a herd of wild boar run in front of us.  Several moms and about 20 little tiny babies.  They are gone before I can get my camera out.  I climb into my safari jeep and head for Yala National Park.  The driver and my guide go buy tickets while I watch the goings on.  The entrance is packed with safari jeeps, pretty evenly split between Western tourists and local Sri Lankan families.  There’s a family of dogs hanging out near my jeep, along with adorable puppies of various sizes.  They all look alike.  A couple of tourists are taking pictures while the puppies try to play with them.  A soldier walks by, and the dogs all take off after him.  Must be the bearer of breakfast.

My team returns with permits in hand, and we take off for the gate.  We’re there just as it opens, with a dozen or so other jeeps. 

The first sighting is of a herd of spotted deer, crossing the road.  There will be many more deer today.

Then we come upon a small pond, complete with large crocodile on the banks.  Finally!

A bit farther on we come across a group of jeeps and an excited air.  A leopard!  Maybe.  Perhaps.  A few minutes ago?  Nobody is quite sure.  We look and look and look to no avail.  There is no leopard here now. 

We go on.  We see more deer, lots of birds, some boar (but only for a moment).  But no leopards.  We take a road off the main path and come to a beautiful spot on the ocean.  I had forgotten the park bordered the coast.  There used to be two resorts here.  They were lost in the tsunami, along with 49 lives here.  About 250 people died that day in Yala.  The resorts are gone, with only a smattering of foundation remaining.  And a nice memorial on the shores.  It’s sobering, particularly on such a beautiful day. 

We move on.  Lots of leopard-friendly landscapes, but no leopards.  On all the safaris I’ve been on in my life (a lot), I’ve only once seen a leopard.  And he was moving and not terribly close at that.  So I have a bit of a complex when it comes to spotting leopards.  And Yala has one of the highest densities of them in the world.  I had high hopes. 

We did come across a herd of elephants, who paused for a drink in one of the watering holes.  More spotted deer.  A great close-up of a bee-eater.  Water buffalo.  Land monitors.  Dozens of peacocks.  More wild boar, who this time allowed me take photos.  Then some grey langurs.  One of which did a fantastic leopard impression.  But no leopards. 

Hours passed.  My hope started to wane.  We turned around and started heading out of the park.

You know what’s going to happen next, right?

We come across another group of jeeps.  I see nothing.  But the buzz is, there’s a leopard in the tree over there.  About a half mile away.  We don’t have binoculars.  But I do have good zoom on my camera!  My guide is first able to spot the big guy.  I don’t know how he did it.  With the naked eye all I can see is a black spot in a bunch of trees.  They keep talking about a tail hanging down.  My eyes just aren’t that good.  But finally with some help I was able to see, through my 80X zoom on my camera, something that kind of sort of looked like a large spotted cat.  I took a bunch of photos.  Then the leopard shifted positions and I could see him a bit better.  And could find him again in the viewfinder without too much help.  He started looking like a leopard.  Very exciting!

We stayed there for close to thirty minutes watching.  While the scale of the sighting was a bit disappointing, it was still a leopard!

We continued on toward the exit.  And came across another group of jeeps.  This time, a really rare find, a sloth bear!  He never quite came into the clear while foraging for tasty termites, but we watched for quite a while and got some relatively good sightings of him. 

The entire safari was good - not quite as good as any of my Africa adventures - but still exciting.  And three of the big five isn’t bad (especially since there are no lions or rhinos in Sri Lanka). 

We headed for the exit, I waved goodbye to the puppies, and we drove back to the guesthouse.  Going slowly in an open jeep was great for observing village life and enjoying the fresh air.  I ate a hearty breakfast upon returning and then took a well-deserved afternoon nap.  One last dinner at the neighborhood tourist trap restaurant and then bed. 

The next day we packed up and headed on our way.  The destination for the day was Sinharaja rain forest.  I had thought I’d be doing a jeep excursion through the forest the following day, but my driver explained that there was actually no road in the forest and the only way to see it was by foot.  Okay, I asked, how difficult is the terrain and how long will we walk?  I was still barely able to walk and wanted to decide whether this was something I could do.  Oh, he said, only about eighteen kilometers through the mountains.  And there are leeches.  Ummm, yeah.  Been there, done that.  Still have the nightmares.  I nixed the excursion, but we headed out to the guesthouse anyway. 

The drive was absolutely gorgeous.  Some of the scenery was familiar, as I’d driven through this region on my previous trip to Sri Lanka.  We passed tea plantations, rubber plantations, spice plantations, and countless roadside stands selling pillow stuffing.  We drove through Ratnapura, where I went a little gem-crazy last time, and saw the gem mines on the outskirts of town. 

Once we left Ratnapura we started to climb higher in elevation and were on less well-kept roads.  At some points we had to have locals help us navigate around exceptionally large potholes/flooded areas.  We took a series of turns, each one taking us into a more deserted and rural (and beautiful!) area.  Finally we saw signs for Sinharaja and eventually my guesthouse for the evening.  It seemed nice as we drove up, if a little run down.  I knew there would not be A/C.  I was not expecting, however, that there would only be electricity for a few hours each day.  Meaning the ceiling fan and light and water.   And, there was nobody there.  No signs of life, except for one employee who finally came to greet us.  I hauled my suitcases up to my room and set them down.  And looked around.  And got that feeling that this just wasn’t going to work.  It wasn’t even the lack of electricity so much but the eerie isolation and some internal ‘hmmm’ sense.  I’ve only ever had to use that sense a few times, but I trust it enough to act on it.  I don’t think anything bad would have happened, realistically, but I decided there was a better option.  So I talked to my driver about driving on to Negombo, the destination for the next day, and staying at that hotel tonight.  While only about 210 kilometers away, I knew it would take a while.  We established that the hotel had another vacancy, I agreed to pay a small fee for the change in plans (well worth it), and I apologized profusely to the nice guesthouse employee.  And we set off at about 3:30pm.

We were in Ratnapura by 5:15pm, having covered the worst of the road conditions and about 60 km. 

And arrived in Negombo at 10:15pm. 

The same thing happened the last time I drove from Ratnapura to Negombo.  That lowly 150 km stretch takes FOREVER to drive.  Most of it is on two-lane roads, like the rest of Sri Lanka.  But the volume of traffic (moped, tuk tuk, car, van, bus, truck, big truck, livestock, and tractor) is heavy and passing opportunities fewer between. 

By the time we got to the hotel, I was starving, having missed lunch and dinner.  The hotel had closed dinner service by then, but luckily there was a decent restaurant across the street.  It was by far the cheapest meal I ate all week.  I guess being in the ‘big’ city has its advantages.  Then I turned the A/C and the fan on in my room, watched a bit of BBC news, and went to sleep. 

(Note: it took a total of 16 hours to upload the following photos, and the interface is not user friendly, so they are completely and totally out of order.  So read the blog before looking at the photos for some semblance of chronology and storyline.)

Leopard, looking right at ya!

See the bear?

That large black blob is a sloth bear

Sloth bear

Grey langurs!

Grey langur doing a wonderful leopard impression

Wild boar
Spot the leopard! Look at the center of the treeline in the photo. Move your eyes left past the slight dip into the next stand of taller trees.  Then just as your eyes hit that stand of trees, look slightly down to the black, dark hole.  That's where the leopard was.

One of the clearest leopard shots I got

Leopard! His tail hanging down was the giveaway

Land monitor


See the leopard??

Heron and stork

Spotted deer with antlers

Baby boar!

Strutting peacock

Wild boar!

Spotted deer baby and mama

How many elephants do you see?

Wild buffalo

Spotted deer drinking!

The steps and foundation pieces are all that remain of two resorts, after the tsunami

Spotted deer!


Beautiful Yala and the Indian Ocean

Fishing Huts on the Beach in Yala