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To the end of the world

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Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka
Tuesday, 12 February 2019

My driver arrived fifteen minutes early at a quarter to five in the morning while I was still getting dressed. This surprised me in a country not exactly renowned for its Swiss-style punctuality. The driver rattled the gate and knocked on it but as I was still in the middle of putting clothes on I couldn't respond.

The hotel manager woke up and showed the driver in and I raced out of my room to apologise. I greeted Raja, my trusty driver for the day, and we promptly took off to my next UNESCO World Heritage Site in the pre-dawn gloom.

We left Nuwara Eliya on pleasantly quiet and empty streets, went a short way on the A7 towards Nanu Oya and turned left. The A-roads in Sri Lanka, the country's principal highways, are rather good. They are narrow, they are congested, and they often lack shoulders and guard rails, but they are smoothly surfaced, crisply lined and clearly signed. In terms of road surface quality they are on average far superior to Australian highways.

When you turn off the A-roads onto the B-roads or the locally maintained roads, it's a different story. We turned onto the B512, a narrow, bumpy, insane little road barely wide enough for one car. Raja's car was an Indian-made Suzuki Alto. I am certain that Model T Fords had more advanced suspension and passenger comfort. The little hatchback bumped and jolted over every single bump, pothole, washaway and corrugation.

The little underpowered car soon started climbing up hairpin bends and steep inclines. As we increased our elevation, the car was enveloped in a thick milky fog. I couldn't see a thing in front of us but Raja negotiated every bend with expert aplomb. I am guessing that he has driven this road many times before and he was navigating by muscle memory.

We passed through the little town of Ambewela with its huge, brightly illuminated milk factory - this cold part of Sri Lanka is the only region suitable for the rearing of dairy cattle - and after one hour and thirty-one kilometres we reached the entrance to Horton Plains National Park.

There were plenty of other cars, tour buses and even tuk-tuks up there. The ticket office opens at six o'clock sharp. I waited in the long line with all the other prospective visitors. Next to me was an Englishman about my age called Adam. I had met him the night before while having a very ordinary dinner in a very ordinary restaurant in Nuwara Eliya. Like me, he was also a solo traveller. While we were in the restaurant he was constantly complaining about the cost of things in Sri Lanka and how everything was a rip-off and how he was trying to travel on a budget of eighty-seven pee a day. I told him to go to Iceland if he wanted to see what a real rip-off is. This is the thing I find about solo travellers - they are either the most interesting, most courageous, most independent, most ingenious, most admirable people you will ever meet; or they are the most tiresome, the most annoying, the most pedantic, the most judgmental, the most penny-pinching people you will ever meet. Adam was definitely the latter. Natalie was definitely the former. Please, please, pretty please tell me that I am the former.

Everyone in line shivered in the cold. I estimate that the temperature was about 5 °C. As Adam stood next to me, he lamented that he had taken a tuk-tuk from Nuwara Eliya to Horton Plains. I managed to suppress my Schadenfreude laughter. Adam complained that he was freezing in the tuk-tuk and that the road was so bumpy and that the tuk-tuk cabim filled with diesel fumes as it spluttered and stalled up the steep grades all the way to the national park entrance, but he chose a tuk-tuk rather than a car because he wanted to save money.

"Oh well, serves you right," I said. Actually I didn't say that. I only thought it.

The ticket window opened at six. I paid about Rs. 4,900 for entry for me and my driver. Foreigners pay around Rs. 4,800, locals only Rs. 60. A lot of travellers complain about this, some claim it is some sort of Soak Whitey tax, but I am cool with these inflated foreigner's fees you see at every park, museum and historic site. Sri Lankans pay for these cultural facilities through their taxes. Travellers do not pay local taxes. I think it is only fair that foreign visitors pay for the maintenance and improvement of facilities that they use without contributing taxes to their upkeep.

I encountered that lovely Sri Lankan bureaucracy again. It is not sufficient to just buy a ticket. Once you receive your ticket, you take it to a nearby office where another national park bureaucrat inspects the ticket, checks it off against a giant ledger, and then stamps your ticket. You and your driver then drive another five kilometres into the park where there is a very large car park at the trailhead. You then take your ticket to another office there to get another stamp. Only then are you free to enter the park. Oh well. I guess all this bureaucracy keeps the unemployment rate low, I guess.

(As a side note, the final bureaucratic step is a bag search. You place your backpacks on a counter and park rangers go through them with a fine tooth comb. They are searching for plastic. They are ruthless. They took my bags of chilli cashews and put them in a paper bag, they took my plastic punnet of strawberries and put them in a paper bag, they got rid of the supermarket plastic fruit bag my apple was in, they even cut the plastic labels and shrink-wrapped bottle cap seals from my bottles of water with a sharp paring knife. No airport security check is as thorough. Of course the strawberries got squashed, the paper bags got wet and burst open from the moist squashed strawberries, and that compartment of my daypack became a mushy mixture of strawberry jam and chilli cashews. Yummy.)

I said goodbye to Raja for a little while and eagerly skipped into Horton Plains National Park. The park is part of the Central Highlands of Sri Lanka UNESCO World Heritage Site and is a unique place. The Horton Plains is a plateau, about two thousand metres above sea level, consisting mostly of gently undulating boggy soil. The plains are perched on the very southern edge of the Hill Country and comsequently get very high winds all year round. A combination of high altitude, poorly drained soil, ferocious winds and topographical isolation have all combined to produce a truly remarkable ecological community - an area of alpine grassland only seven degrees north of the Equator.

The tracks were packed with tourists as I began my nine kilometre hike at half past six. The sun rose over the boggy moors. We all found ourselves in a moody landscape of bogs, grasses, alpine streams with freezing, crystal clear water and the occasional stunted shrub. This was not Sri Lanka. This was Iceland or Scotland or Tasmania or New Zealand. But it couldn't possibly be Sri Lanka. The only hint that this was Sri Lanka was the Sinhala and Tamil script on all the park information signs.

The nine kilometre walk was on a loop track. I took the clockwise route and turned left at the first junction. Soon the undulating moors became more hilly terrain. The tops of the hills were covered in short forests while the lower elevations were open grasslands. This is the reverse of what you usually find in high altitude areas where trees only grow beneath the tree line. There is an explanation for this - the upper, steeper elevations are better drained and consequently trees can gain a more secure foothold than on marshy bogs.

The track headed through the forests as we approached the edge of the precipice. The southeastern edge of the Horton Plains drops away into a wide V-shaped gorge nearly a kilometre deep. There are two lookouts on the trail along this precipice - Mini World's End and World's End, separated by about a kilometre.

The views from both are fantastic. The elevation from the World's End lookout to the river at the bottom of the gorge is 870 metres. To the north the gorge narrows and gets higher and roiling, spiralling clouds were gathering in that corner. Across to the east was the jagged mountain range of Balathuduwa Peak silhouetted against the morning sun. To the south the gorge opened up revealing the coastal plains, a serpentine lake called Samanalawewa Reservoir, and in the far distance the broad estuary-like reservoir in Udu Walawe National Park. Along the western side of the gorge vertical cliffs, some several hundred metres high, dropped off the edge of the Horton Plains.

At World's End the track turns northwest and heads back onto the grassy moors. I loved these alpine peatlands. The weather was moody. One minute there was bright sunlight, fifteen seconds later it was raining, fifteen seconds later it was foggy, fifteen seconds later there was a howling gale and fifteen seconds later it was sunny again. I felt like I had been teleported to Iceland. It's the kind of weather that brings me joy.

The track crossed the moor then entered a stand of cloud forest. This is forest that derives its water from the ever-present cloud that clings to the high-altitude plateau. The ground had no grass cover, it was just slippery mud and a spider's web of tangled roots protruding from the ground. It was a very steep climb over the mud and the tangled roots. My asthmatic lungs were barely coping with the thin mountain air two kilometres above sea level. I have not been at such a high altitude since I climbed Mount Kosciuszko in 1995.

My efforts were handsomely rewarded by the sight of Baker's Falls in the forest. This is an unusual waterfall. It's not particularly tall or wide or powerful but it has an interesting beehive-like shape as the water fans out over the curved rockface. I stayed there for a while sitting on a concrete bench listening to the water and catching my breath.

It was a straightforward walk back to the park entrance. I soon left the forest and was once again in the grassland. Much of the grassland was studded with these tiny little trees with fans of broad dark leaves and wind-gnarled branches. They looked like nothing so much as dwarf frangipanis or bonsai magnolias. I would love to know what these plants are.

There was a little artificial weir and a broad shallow pond called Chimney Pool. After four hours and fifteen minutes I returned to the car park and got back into Raja's Suzuki Alto.

On the way back to my hotel I told Raja that I was interested in going to the top of Pidurutalagala, the highest mountain in Sri Lanka that towers over the town of Nuwara Eliya. Raja called his boss and was told, sure, for another Rs. 2,500. Deal.

I was not expecting to be let up there. At the top of Pidurutalagala is a military radar base of the Sri Lanka Armed Forces. My Lonely Planet was quite clear that the summit is off limits. Wikipedia said the same thing. But I have seen YouTube videos of foreign travellers visiting the peak, and I have seen other travel blogs saying that in true Sri Lankan fashion sometimes they let people in, sometimes they turn people away, and sometimes people are told to wait. I decided to give it a try.

We drove through suburban Nuwara Eliya and turned up a narrow mountain road. We passed the Police Inspectors' Holiday Resort. I guess that constables, sergeants, superintendents and commissioners can just go somewhere else.

A few hundred metres up the road there was a ticket booth. I paid Rs. 250 for a ticket and then a few hundred metres later we reached a military sentry gate. Stern-looking armed soldiers motioned for us to stop. My driver had to fill out his personal details on a slip of paper and I had to write my name and passport number. Raja handed the slip to the sentry guard and we were waved through.

The road became a wide, cracked yet sturdy concrete road, presumably built for heavy military equipment. The vegetation got sparser and more wind-gnarled. The weather was cloudy in Nuwara Eliya and soon enough we were driving through the clouds up the steep concrete road. Sri Lanka went through a desperate three-decade civil war that only ended in 2009 and heavy-handed security legislation is still in place. Raja told me it was not a good idea to take photographs. A pity because the vegetation was really interesting.

We got to the base at the top, a collection of austere military buildings and barbed wire fences and security gates. A soldier signalled us towards a car park. Raja parked the car and told me to go walk to the top while he stayed with the car.

To say that I was nervous would be quite accurate. Here I was, a foreigner walking utterly alone through a high-security military base, with no idea where to find the peak. I saw the highest post box in Sri Lanka, but nothing that pointed the way to the summit. I found a driveway that went up. I climbed the short but steep driveway - very hard work at over two and a half kilometres above sea level, the highest I have ever been - which led up to a padlocked gate topped with sharp spikes. Behind the gate was a high tower festooned with radar dishes. Signs were dotted around the place forbidding photography, forbidding this, forbidding that. The place was forbidding, full stop.

It didn't look like I was able to get past the gate and up to the highest point. Dejected, I started walking back down the driveway when five young air force officers were coming the other way laughing and gossiping with each other.

"Hello," I called out to them.

"Oh, hello!" one of them said in a friendly manner. They seemed quite rightfully surprised by my presence.

"Am I allowed to go to the highest point in Sri Lanka?"

"Oh, of course! Follow us." They led me up a narrow dirt path to the side that I did not see. The dirt path went past the radar tower and looped around it, following the fence surrounding the tower. The path went past a Buddhist dagoba, the highest place of worship in Sri Lanka, then looped around a bit more down a narrow path between high fences, and there it was - a small round stone table with a compass rose on the top. I did it! I reached the highest point of Sri Lanka at 2,524 metres above sea level. The sixth country whose highest point I had climbed after Australia, Singapore, the Netherlands, Belgium and Denmark.

Next to the stone compass rose was a small war memorial with a statue of a soldier, this was some sort of war memorial. Pidurutalagala was completely ensconced within cloud so I couldn't see a thing. After having my photo taken and after the officers had taken a few selfies with me, there was nothing else to do so the officers showed me the way out. They explained that they were medical officers in the Sri Lanka Air Force stationed at Pidurutalagala. They showed me where I wasn't allowed to go and showed me the way back to the car park. I shook hands with each of them, they truly were officers and gentlemen.

I got back into Raja's car and we drove back down the mountain into town. He dropped me off at my guest house and I spent a few hours resting in my room.

In the late afternoon I walked to the post office, a magnificent little mock-Tudor building with steeples and dormer windows and red tiles. I was intending to send souvenirs by post to Australia to save myself the hassle of lugging them around. I love visiting post offices when I go overseas. You can tell a lot about a country by looking at their post offices.

Australia, being an English-speaking country, is one of the countries where the disease of neoliberalism, started by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, has taken the worst hold. All government departments have either been privatised, corporatised or forced to act as if they were commercial businesses. Australia Post used to be the pride of the nation, a much-valued service connecting Australians with each other and the world, and many schoolchildren learned about the exploits of our postal workers delivering the weekly mail to remote rural communities by light aircraft or by boat. Those days are gone. Australia Post has been turned from a service serving citizens into a corporation serving stakeholders that is required to return a profit to the government. In a bid to increase profits, post offices have been moved from beautiful heritage buildings on high streets into soulless shopping centres on the edge of town. These cramped little shoeboxes have been stuffed chock-a-block with useless things nobody really wants from a post office. The ever-growing queues find themselves hemmed in by shelves selling Michael Bublé CDs, Smiggle stationery, iTunes gift cards and inkjet printers. I don't know about you but if I wanted to buy an inkjet printer, Australia Post would not be the first retailer to come to mind. Come to think of it - has anyone, anyone, ever seen a customer at Australia Post ever buying this useless junk? All the people in the queues I have seen are only there to pay their bills, apply for passports, buy stamps or pick up parcels.

Post offices in Singapore are gleaming white and clinically efficient. Post offices in Malaysia might look like the ones in Singapore, you can see that they so desperately want to be like Singapore, but the service is so slow and inefficient that I once had a German traveller give me money to buy a stamp for her postcard and asked me to post it because she was sick of waiting. Post offices in Iceland have what seems like grumpy service but when I had trouble with a SIM card I bought from them, they were incredibly helpful and even called the telephone company to fix my problem. Post offices in Belgium are grey and generic, apt considering it is the most generic European country, while the minimalist Dutch have inventively decided to get rid of post offices altogether so if you want to access postal services you have to go to a convenience store or a supermarket service counter.

I was curious as to what Sri Lankan post offices were like. It was quite late but it was still open. There were various counters - stamps, parcels, registered mail, et cetera - but only the stamps counter was attended. There was nobody in front of me in a queue. The lady behind the counter was busy doing paperwork, or maybe it was a crossword in the daily newspaper. I am not sure, the antique timber counter was quite high.

Finally she beckoned me to the counter. I explained that I wanted to send a parcel to Australia but I didn't have a box. She told me she couldn't help me, I was at the wrong counter, I would need to go to the parcels counter.

"But there's nobody at the counter," I said.

"I know. But you still need to go there."

I explained that I didn't have the goods I wanted to send with me, I just wanted to know if I could buy a box at the post office. She indifferently pointed at a shop in a side room that offered photocopying and scanning services and the like. "You can buy a box in there," she said as she returned to her paperwork. I decided that I was better off carrying my souvenirs around and posting them to relatives from Sydney. As appalling as Australia Post has become, I know that they will reach their destination within six months.

Posted by urbanreverie 21:46 Archived in Sri Lanka Tagged national_park sri_lanka post_office nuwara_eliya horton_plains worlds_end pidurutalagala Comments (0)

The Mexican staring frog of southern Sri Lanka

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Tissamaharama, Sri Lanka
Wednesday, 6 February 2019

I set my alarm for half past three, I got out of bed at ten to four, and after a quick breakfast and change of clothes I was out the door at a quarter past four eagerly anticipating my wildlife adventure.

As I walked down the stairs and through the frontyard to wait for my jeep, I encountered my first wildlife of the day - an aggressive, snarling dog that was the owner's pet. The dog, who looked like a cross between a border collie and a rottweiler, thought I was an intruder as he snarled and barked at me between where I was standing and the front gate. I don't have a fear of dogs - quite the opposite, I have always loved doggies - but my doctor in Sydney put the fear of God into me when he talked about rabies in Sri Lanka. He advised me to include the rabies vaccine with the five other travel shots I got, but at something like $700 I decided against it. Now I sort of wished I had spent the money.

The barking of the dog and my shouts of "get away from me, you stupid dumb mongrel!" awoke Sanjiva who came out in his underwear to calm the dog down. I apologised for waking him - I shouldn't have, it was the stupid dumb mongrel's fault - and waited in the cool, misty darkness to be picked up at 4:35am.

The jeep finally arrived - actually, a Mahindra four-wheel drive pick-up truck with seven seats in the tray enclosed in a roll cage with a sheet metal roof - and the driver continued his rounds picking up other Yala National Park safari-goers at various hotels. There was me, a friendly and intelligent young Austrian couple, Jurgen and Helena who were chemical engineers back home; Alison, an aloof and no-nonsense American master's student who was studying in China, and a dirty filthy smelly feral Dutch hippie couple who showed no interest in socialising with the rest of us and spent the day behaving with astonishing disrespect, putting their feet on seats, treating the driver like a slave and smoking in the jeep without so much as asking the rest of us if we would mind.

After everyone had been collected from their hotels we headed east for about twenty minutes until we got to the Yala National Park entrance. As we were waiting in the queue of jeeps dawn broke on a cool, cloudy morning. As we waited the driver served breakfast on a tray - hoppers (bowl-shaped pancakes made of fermented rice and coconut batter) and coconut roti flatbread with bananas and various sambals. We passed the tray around the back of the jeep so we could all have our share. There was plenty of bottled water too to keep us hydrated throughout the day.

We soon entered the park after the driver had handed over the paperwork and paid for the tickets and our safari began. Yala National Park is huge, even by Australian standards it would be big. The park is divided into several blocks. Some blocks are completely off-limits to everyone except park rangers and authorised scientists. In other blocks, tourists are allowed but their numbers are strictly limited and managed (I think the current limit is two hundred jeeps a day). I think the block we explored was Block I, the southwestern most portion of the park.

Yala is in the heart of Sri Lanka's dry zone. It is mostly flat with occasional stone monoliths protruding through the plains, and the vegetation consists mostly of stunted little trees, shrubs like acacias, and thickets of twisted, scrawny wood. The scenery reminded me a good deal of the countryside in Queensland's Dry Tropics around Bowen and Townsville.

There is a spiderweb of red dirt four-wheel-drive tracks throughout each block which the jeeps use to get close to the animals. Despite being commercial competitors, all the jeep drivers communicate with each other using mobile phones. When there is a significant sight - a group of leopards drinking at a waterhole, say, or two male tusker elephants fighting - word spreads like wildfire and all the jeeps race each other like a Formula 1 race to get to the place to get the best viewing spots before the animals leave.

The first mad race was to see a male tusker elephant. There are a few dozen elephants who live in Yala and only a small minority have grown tusks. The jeep raced over the rough, rutted tracks at breakneck speed. We occupants in the rear bounced, rattled, jolted and swayed around over every single corrugation. There was only one thing to do - hold on tight!

Soon we came to our first significant sight - a male elephant happily munching away on a shrub, the twigs snapping off as his trunk tore them off the plant. The elephant didn't even seem to be aware that there were dozens of curious eyes looking at him and dozens of cameras snapping. This old fellow had only one tusk. The driver explained that he had lost the other in a fight with another dominant tusker.

We then saw our first herd of spotted deer. These deer have tan fur with dozens of bright white spots on their sides. These deer are probably the most numerous and easy-to-find large mammals in Yala National Park. They looked cute, they looked friendly, and they also looked delicious. I don't blame the leopards and crocodiles for wanting to eat them. Unfortunately fresh venison was not on our lunch menu!

We passed Elephant Rock, a massive monolith that surges hundreds of metres above the plains. It is so named because from a certain angle it actually does look like an elephant.

The next major sighting was a herd of buffalo. These are also a common sight and easy to spot. They are mostly black all over though I saw a few during the day that were brown, tan, or black with white markings around the head and neck. We came across one who was laying on its side in a large mud pool. We all thought it was dead, then we saw that it was breathing. Someone said she thought the buffalo was stuck in the mud but the driver assured us that it was just enjoying a nice mud bath.

The jeep continued its aimless ramblings in the cool morning air. This place is nowhere near as humid as Colombo and Galle. It was cloudy and I guess that the temperature was about 25 °C. It was unexpectedly pleasant weather.

The driver got a message on his phone - there was a leopard drinking at a watering hole! There was yet another mad dash over the rough roads to this little pond. By the time we got there, a driver of another jeep said the leopard had retreated into the bushes. Sometimes leopards get thirsty again and come back for another drink so we waited for twenty minutes to no avail.

We went away, then got another message - the leopard had returned! But when we got back to the watering hole, the leopard had once again disappeared.

We were not to be deterred. The driver drove to the next track behind the bush where the leopard had retreated. His thinking was that the leopard's family was behind the next track. So we parked on that track and - hallelujah! We saw the leopard, casually strolling across the track. It was some distance away, maybe fifty metres, and it was only visible for maybe ten seconds at the maximum, but we saw it. We all snapped our cameras like crazy. I managed to get three photos with my iPhone, on all of which the head was obscured. But I got photos! I saw a real leopard in its natural environment yesterday and you most likely didn't. So nur nurny nur nur.

We then checked out some of the less charismatic species in Yala National Park. The park is home to thousands of wild pigs, big, black, bristly things that are so huge I kept mistaking them for buffalo from a distance. They looked quite fierce and resentful, they were nothing like Babe.

The driver received another message - there was a bear sighting! Yala National Park is home to a very small number of sloth bears. We raced to the place where it was seen and we saw it, a shy, retiring fellow with cute fuzzy fur and a furtive look on its face as if it were concealing a secret. These are small bears, not much bigger than a mature merino sheep, and they look very cuddly and friendly, nothing like that most stereotypical of ursids, the North American grizzly bear.

I am a dreadful pun addict. My colleagues, my friends, my family, people who follow my social media accounts all despise me for it. My addiction to puns is so bad that I have now branched out into different languages. So I told the following joke to Helena and Jurgen:

Me: 》In welcher Stadt in Deutschland wohnt dieses Tier?《 (In which city in Germany does this animal live?)

Helena: 》Ahhh, ich weiss es nicht.《 (Ummm, I don't know.)

Me: 》Bär-lin!《 (Bear-lin!)

Helena and Jurgen: 》Hahahahahahaha!《 (Hahahahahahaha!)

It's great to know that of all eight billion human beings in the universe, two appreciate my humour.

We saw the same tusker elephant we had seen earlier and then it was time for lunch. The block is closed to visitors between midday and two o'clock, this allows those diurnal species who don't like the presence of humans time to drink at watering holes or cross the tracks or catch prey or generally just roam around. During this period visitors are restricted to small designated areas.

We spent those two hours at Patanangala Beach. There is a large parking area where the jeeps congregate and the people have lunch. The driver spread out a rice and curry buffet with plates and cutlery - proper ceramic plates and stainless steel cutlery. The rice and curry were cold but was still nonetheless delicious.

Patanangala Beach was beautiful. It was a lot like beaches in New South Wales, the main difference being the golden sand was coarser and the water was more opaque. It was a long, gently curving beach that ended at a rocky outcrop on a peninsula to the west. Swimming was prohibited; the water was very deep and the currents were very strong.

As beautiful as Patanangala was, there wasn't much to keep one amused for two hours. It started to rain again, cool, refreshing drizzle, and I retreated to the jeep with Jurgen and Helena from Austria. We talked about the universities we went to, all of us having degrees from technical universities, chatted about the unfolding disaster that is Brexit, and compared notes about our countries and all the travels we have done. This is one of the reasons I love travelling - I meet more people with whom I feel I have things in common than if I were back home. Travellers on average tend to be curious, adventurous, open-minded, free-spirited and, most importantly of all, intelligent. I have such fond memories of all the conversations I have had like the one I had with Jurgen and Helena on my trips around the world.

Next to the jeep parking area was the Yala tusnami memorial, an art installation consisting of three sinuous pieces of sheet metal representing the deadly wave. Forty-seven visitors to Yala National Park died on Boxing Day in 2004 with several more reported missing. Next to the memorial is a large concrete platform decorated with floor tiles and steps leading up to the platform. Many of the jeeps, including ours, had set up our lunch spreads on the platform. The platform was once a beach bungalow guest house. The tsunami wiped the walls and roof away leaving only the concrete foundations and steps and the floor tiles. You can still discern the floor plan of the house where the internal walls used to be.

At two o'clock we resumed our safari. Yala National Park is also home to many reptiles and a colourful variety of birds. We saw sunbirds, little tiny black and blue things that darted around the trees like a hummingbird, and bee-eaters. These striking small green birds choose a perch. When they see an insect flying nearby, the bee-eaters take off from their perch, swallow the insect mid-air, and return to exactly the same spot. They will then repeat the process every time they see an insect fly past.

The most famous bird in Yala is the peacock. They are everywhere. The females are appealing enough but the males, even when their fan isn't showing, are resplendent with an irridescent blue-green neck. Whenever a lady comes within their view, the gentleman shows his fan. If the angle is right the sun glitters on these fan feathers.

Many different water birds can also be seen at the many watering holes, some of them migratory. Among the species we spotted were grey herons, white egrets, sandpipers, spoonbills and black-winged kestrels all enjoying themselves in the water.

We mustn't forget the reptiles. Freshwater crocodiles can be found at every large watering hole. Some are in the water with only the eyes poking out of the surface, while others sit motionless on the ground just outside the water like so many sunbathers at Bondi Beach. Some of the crocodiles will have their mouths wide open. I always thought this was so prey would walk in seeking shelter and the crocodile would then close its mouth and swallow the prey, but the driver disabused me of this fallacy and said they are "drinking the breeze". The open mouth faces the direction of the wind, and it's all about thermoregulation. Much like an air-cooled Volkswagen Beetle.

There are also monitor lizards, large, slow-moving reptiles, one of whom we saw eating a pile of dung. Another unusual mammal we saw was mongooses, large, dark ferret-like mammals that run quickly along the ground with bristly tails that curl upwards. The mongoose is famous for being one of the few mammals that preys on snakes. Mongooses will fight snakes and actually win.

Towards the end of the safari we saw our last major animal we had not yet seen, the shy and reclusive sambar, an antelope-like creature with dark brown fur and impressive long, curved, sickle-like antlers. We saw only one, browsing half-hidden in the bush on higher, rockier terrain.

Visitors to Yala National Park have the option of booking either a half-day or full-day safari. I had booked a full-day safari, which is advisable because there might be an animal that doesn't reveal itself in the morning but will come out in the afternoon. Nonetheless towards the end we all sort of started to regret buying a full-day safari. It was a long, tiring day and towards the end most of the animals were those we had seen many times throughout the day. Many of us openly expressed to each other that we all just wanted to go back to our hotels and sleep.

Yala National Park closes at 5:45pm sharp at which time all vehicles must already be out of the park. We left the park at about 5:20pm. We were all dropped off in turn at our respective hotels and I got back to the Hotel View Point at 5:40pm.

I had intended to walk into town, grab some dinner, stock up on water and top up my toiletry supplies. But I was too tired. I did need some water though, I had run out of bottled water and desperately needed some more. My hotel is on the outskirts of Tissamaharama and I had to walk a fair way until I found a shop that was still open that sold water. What things we take for granted in the West - drinkable tap water! In wealthier middle-class and upper-class neighbourhoods in Sri Lanka you will see fleets of water trucks delivering brand-name water to households in those big twenty-litre water cooler canisters. I don't know what poorer households do. Maybe they spend a fortune on electricity or fuel to boil the tap water, or they just drink the tap water straight (I have seen someone, a very poor older man, do this at a tap on the platform at Galle railway station which other people only used to wash their faces).

I went to bed at seven o'clock. That is not a typo. I went to sleep exhausted but happy that I had seen every animal I wanted to except for the dreaded Mexican staring frog of southern Sri Lanka. I want my money back.







Yala Tsunami Memorial

Yala Tsunami Memorial

Spotted deer

Spotted deer

Monitor lizard

Monitor lizard

Yala National Park safari jeep

Yala National Park safari jeep

Sloth bear

Sloth bear

Buffalo enjoying a mud bath

Buffalo enjoying a mud bath

Beach bungalow at Yala National Park destroyed by tsunami

Beach bungalow at Yala National Park destroyed by tsunami

Tusker elephant

Tusker elephant

Jungle fowl

Jungle fowl

Patanangala Beach

Patanangala Beach



Elephant Rock

Elephant Rock

Posted by urbanreverie 15:53 Archived in Sri Lanka Tagged safari national_park sri_lanka yala tissamaharama tusnami Comments (0)

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