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Up into the hills


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Ella, Sri Lanka
Thursday, 8 February 2019

I awoke shortly after six o'clock, well before I had set my alarm, having had eleven hours of deep sleep. I was not in a hurry so I took my sweet time eating a breakfast of leftover chocolate biscuits, spicy dried chickpeas and an apple that I bought for my bus trip from Matara to Tissamaharama, showering, shaving, reorganising my backpack, packing and searching for my hat.

My hat! My hat! I lost my beautiful hat! That steadfast and trusty companion on my travels that I bought at Big W in Bathurst for about twenty bucks six years ago. That hat was just perfect. It had a wide brim that protected my entire face and neck from the sun, it was made of straw so it collapsed easily into my luggage, because it was made of straw my head still got some ventilation, and it had a sturdy chinstrap with a movable woggle that stopped my hat flying away even in gale force winds.

I know exactly how I lost it, it was somewhere on the floor of the jeep that I went on to Yala National Park. Because the back of the jeep had a roof I didn't need it on all the time so I had stowed it under the seat in front of me. When I disembarked from my jeep at my hotel I did do a quick check of the floor to check that I hadn't left it behind but the hat must have slid away to some other part of the floor. I was also very, very tired and though I pride myself on my organisation, thoroughness and the fact that I rarely lose anything, when I am very tired I let my guard down and get a bit forgetful. It's why I left my daypack in the taxi van on the trip from the airport to my hotel in Colombo.

Oh well. I will just have to put plenty of sunscreen on my head until I come across a suitable hat somewhere else. Slightly pissed off with myself, I paid my bill of Rs. 3,690 to the owner's aunt - and at fifteen Australian dollars a night, that would have to be the cheapest I have ever paid for accommodation on any of my overseas travels - and asked her which bus I had to take to Ella. She didn't understand me so she called over some people from the shop next door. They also had difficulty with English so I got out my Sinhala phrasebook. Then they told me the good news - the stop was across the road and I only had to change once or twice.

Grateful for the glad tidings, I crossed the road and waited a whole two minutes until my first bus of the day, route 335/1 from Tissamaharama to Thanamalwila. I boarded the bus, I told the conductor that I wanted to go to Ella.

"I will help you, yes, I will help you."

It was the strangest bus I have been on in Sri Lanka - the driver stuck to the speed limit, obeyed the law, and was courteous to other road users. He even gave way to traffic already on a roundabout. I should have taken a video. I know that you won't believe me. I scarcely believe it myself. Most of the other passengers were country housewives off to do the shopping.

A few kilometres south of Thanamalwila on the A2 highway, a bus overtook us. "That's the bus towards Ella!" the conductor exclaimed. The conductor went up to the driver and asked him to honk his horn and flash his lights at the other bus. The other bus pulled over and the conductor told me to hurry, the bus was waiting just for me. Sri Lanka is like that - just when you get sick of the touts and con jobs, someone will surprise you with astonishing friendliness and hospitality that restores your faith in this country's people.

Thanking the conductor and driver far too quickly, I hopped onto the next bus, route 35 from Mathara to Monaragala. It was a fairly short journey for me as far as Wellawaya and I spent my time practicing my Sinhala with the middle-aged married couple sitting in front of me. I am starting to fall in love with Sinhala with its sinuous snail-like letters and musical murmuring and bouncy rhythms.

I got off at Wellawaya at about 11am. I had planned on just using Wellawaya as a lunch stop but on my way there I checked my Lonely Planet. There was a place called Buduruwagala, known for its ancient stone carving of Buddha on the side of a cliff, about ten kilometres out of town. I then changed my plans to have lunch then find a tuk-tuk to Buduruwagala.

I got off the bus and was mobbed by the usual crowd of desperate tuk-tuk drivers. One was a bit more persistent than the others and followed me.

"I am sorry, sir, but I don't need a tuk-tuk just now. I just want to find a restaurant so I can have lunch."

He seemed to relax. "It's OK, I will show you a restaurant. Follow me." He led me to one end of the bus station and on the other side of the highway was a Chinese restaurant.

The Chinese restaurant had yet to open for the day. "I'm sorry, sir, but the restaurant is not open. There is no other restaurant around here, you will need a taxi." And - what are the odds! - his tuk-tuk just so happened to be parked right there opposite the closed Chinese restaurant! What an amazing coincidence!

"I told you I do not need a tuk-tuk. I'll walk somewhere else, I know the town centre is just on the next street." I pointed at the busy intersection one block north.

"No, there's no restaurant there, it's too far. You can't walk there, you need a taxi." I ignored him and he followed me a short distance before giving up.

Right-wingers and conservative parties, even some centre-left parties, in Western countries like Australia want to abolish the welfare state, the greatest moral advance of the twentieth century. They dream of some Hobbesian free-market utopia, a war of all against all, the law of the jungle, survival of the fittest, devil take the hindmost. They want to force society's most vulnerable people, the poor, the lonely, the disabled, the single parents, even the elderly into insecure poorly-paid work in the so-called "gig economy" like these tuk-tuk drivers and touts and scammers. The right-wingers claim that any job is better than no job at all and that there is greater dignity in working in such precarious, demeaning work than in being on the dole queue.

Bullshit.

There is far greater dignity in being paid a social security allowance from a system you pay into when you are healthy and able to find work. There is no dignity at all in being forced to lie, cheat, steal and harass innocent strangers by an unjust economic system that refuses to provide secure, adequately paid, dignified work to every citizen. No human being should be forced to degrade themselves and their morals just to put food on the family table and a roof over their heads. If you want to see a place that doesn't have a comprehensive welfare state, come to an underdeveloped country. You will then appreciate social security a bit more. The welfare state, built by the generation that suffered through the Great Depression and defeated fascism, is our most prized heritage. Defend it with all your might.

Only about a hundred metres north of the closed Chinese restaurant at the other end of the bus station was a whole row of restaurants where I could eat delicious rice and curry and drink coffee to my heart's content. Which is exactly what I did. I told the restaurant owner that I wanted to visit Buduruwagala. She told me to wait and got on the phone, presumably to a relative or friend. Soon a friendly man, Savan, appeared. He quoted me thirteen hundred rupees for a tour to Buduruwagala. My Lonely Planet said the going rate was seven hundred. I decided to meet him halfway at one thousand but he wouldn't budge. So we settled on thirteen hundred.

Here's my attitude to bargaining - I come from a country where it simply isn't done and is seen as massively disrespectful to the person providing a service. I do not have the confidence to bargain and I find it stressful. So I try and avoid it. Besides, what is the difference between Rs. 1300 and Rs. 700? It's A$10.35 versus A$5.60. What is A$4.75 to me? I am stingy but not that stingy. It's about what I pay for a cup of coffee with the boys at work every morning. But what's A$4.75 to a Sri Lankan? It's food for a whole family for a day. The marginal utility of A$4.75 is microscopically tiny to me. The marginal utility of A$4.75 to a Sri Lankan is many orders of magnitude greater. So by paying the extra six hundred rupees above what my Lonely Planet said, I am actually increasing the amount of utility within the human race. Jeremy Bentham would be proud of me.

I got in the back of Savan's tuk-tuk and we headed south out of Wellawaya. We stopped at a rice paddy. He ran into the field and harvested a mature stalk of grain for me. I looked at the rice stalk with interest, rubbed the grains between my fingers, even ate some. The grains were hard but not as hard as uncooked rice from the supermarket; the grains are oven-dried during processing before retail sale. They tasted like rice but fresher and more fragrant. It's as rice should be.

We then turned west off the busy A2 highway and down a bumpy gravel track fringed with lakes, rocky hills and more rice paddies. Savan stopped the taxi again so we could look at the teeming schools of flat, black, bulge-eyed fish in a lake.

Soon we arrived at a ticket booth and I paid my Rs. 368 admission. Savan parked the taxi in a car park and I walked a hundred metres to Buduruwagala. Buduruwagala consisted of a cliff on the side of a hill, and on the cliff a large standing Buddha was carved into the stone. The Buddha is fifteen metres tall and is the tallest carved standing Buddha in Sri Lanka. On each side of the Buddha is a group of three smaller figures each representing various figures from Buddhist theology.

Buduruwagala was csrved in about the tenth century AD. As an Australian, seeing such antiquities never ceases to strike me with reverential awe. I come from a country that was first colonised by Europeans in 1788. I work next to a UNESCO World Heritage-listed building that was built in 1817, one of the oldest buildings in Australia. Sydneysiders think this building is extremely old and treat it in much the same respect as Athenians treat the Parthenon. But really, 1817 is nothing. I've slept in a building twice as old on this trip.

Buduruwagala was interesting and I recommend it but it's the kind of thing that takes less than ten minutes to see. I went back to Savan and his tuk-tuk and we made our way back to the Wellawaya bus station. He pulled up outside my next bus and we exchanged hearty farewells. As I said, just when you get sick of the touts and rip-offs, you meet people here who stun you with their friendliness and warm humanity.

The next bus was, to put it mildly, a bit eccentric. My route 998 bus from Matara to Badula was bright pink all over. Pink exterior, pink interior, pink seats, pink frilly curtains, pink ceiling. I felt like I was stuck in a six-year-old girl's doll house minus the Barbie dolls. This bus was also a little bit fancy - it wasn't just playing hideous Sri Lankan pop music but hideous Sri Lankan pop music videos on the screen at the front of the bus.

The mobile doll house left Wellawaya and climbed north into the hills. The bus roared, swerved and honked its way up a twisty mountain highway with few guard rails protecting fifty people from a fiery death in the ravine far, far below. I just tried to concentrate on the glorious mountain scenery and looked away from the road.

After about an hour I arrived in Ella where I quickly disembarked on the main street. I found a lovely, bustling little village surrounded by steep, cloud-fringed hills. It is also very tourist-oriented, most of the people on the streets are foreign backpackers. There has not been such a large concentration of smelly dirty feral hippies in one place since Occupy Wall Street.

It was a ten-minute walk to my guest house, Up Country, which just so happens to be located opposite Ella railway station. Not that I would intentionally pick a hotel opposite a railway station. Oh no! Perish the thought!

Ella is a very steep town. At street level is a small café and shop, and the guest rooms are out the back down the hill behind the café. The station road is on a ridge and it was a great place to relax with complimentary pancakes stuffed with coconut and treacle and a soothing cup of black Ceylon tea while enjoying the recuperative breeze. Ella is 1010 metres above sea level and the weather here is marvellous - mid-twenties, moderately humid but not sweaty, cloudy. I worked on my blog as I watched the occssional train go past.

Ella is famous for its array of cookery classes and I booked one at a restaurant, Nanda's, on the corner of the station road and the main highway. For eighteen hundred rupees I and six other tourists were taught the fine art of how to cook a rice and curry. We all participated in the preparation - grinding the coconut, soaking the dhal, kneading the coconut roti dough, cutting the pumpkin and such like - and we were handsomely rewarded with a magnificent meal of our own making - garlic and pandanus rice, coconut roti, coconut sambal, and three curries (green bean, pumpkin and dhal).

Afterwards I retired to a nearby pub with a thatched roof, open sides and log pillars of the sort you find all around the world in every tropical tourist destination. I am not a party animal so I picked a nice, quiet one a bit off the main drag where I could work on my blog and catch up with friends online.

Soon I fell in with an English chap, Jason. I do have a rule - meeting people is preferable to my writing project; my blog is just a spare-time, chill-out endeavour. So I put away my Samsung Galaxy tablet and got to talking with Jason. This loud but affable fellow is thirty-three, he owns a campsite back home that closes in winter, and so he spends three months a year travelling overseas to a warmer climate with his young family. This year they are staying in Sri Lanka. I am so jealous of those kids. Why couldn't I have a childhood like that? Not fair!

We got to chatting, compared notes, made some terrible jokes, laughed. The Lion beer was way too warm - there had been a blackout for most of the day, the Ceylon Electricity Board was doing maintenance work on power lines in the neighbourhood. I remarked that the beer was a bit warm but that Jason being a Pommy bastard should be used to it, and he just laughed and gave me the finger.

Soon we were joined by a mad fat drunk Czech bastard aged in his fifties who knew we couldn't speak Czech but insisted on speaking only Czech. He would hug me without asking for my leave and would sometimes bring his face right up to mine when he spoke. I found this when I was in Prague in 2017 - Czechs are aloof and gloomy when sober but terrifyingly convivial when drunk. This guy got a bit too huggy, he wouldn't stop laughing and making lewd gestures (I guess while telling bawdy jokes in Czech), and though we tried to use Google Translate to understand what he was saying the translations only came out all garbled.

Later we were joined by a local whose name I forget, a young, sharp-eyed guy with a scar on his forehead who claimed to be in the Sri Lankan mafia and to have served time in prison for murder. I have been in enough pubs in my life to know that they are full of people whose relationship with the truth is rather flexible. But it was enough to make me worried.

"Doesn't this guy give you the creeps?" I asked Jason when the young local had gone to the toilet.

"Just a bit. Yeah, just a little bit," he said.

It was time for me to leave. It was eleven o'clock and though I had had only one gin and tonic and two beers, I was rather tired, had planned an early start for the next morning and the Czech weirdo and Sri Lankan wannabe-mafioso were annoying me. I walked the hundred metres back to my room through the marauding packs of street dogs, occasionally turning to make sure I wasn't being followed.

Lake near Buduruwagala

Lake near Buduruwagala

Buddha carving at Buduruwagala

Buddha carving at Buduruwagala

Pink bus

Pink bus

Savan and a rice stalk

Savan and a rice stalk

Bus from Thanamalwila to Wellawaya

Bus from Thanamalwila to Wellawaya

Complimentary welcome snack at guest house in Ella

Complimentary welcome snack at guest house in Ella

Dinner is served at Sri Lankan cooking class

Dinner is served at Sri Lankan cooking class

Ella railway station

Ella railway station

The beginning of the Hill Country north of Wellawaya

The beginning of the Hill Country north of Wellawaya

Pink bus at Ella

Pink bus at Ella

Tambourine-playing beggar on the bus at Thanamalwila

Tambourine-playing beggar on the bus at Thanamalwila

Sri Lankan cookery class at Ella

Sri Lankan cookery class at Ella

Posted by urbanreverie 16:05 Archived in Sri Lanka Tagged buddha buses nightlife sri_lanka ella tissamaharama buduruwagala wellawaya 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.

Sambar

Sambar

Peacock

Peacock

Mongooses

Mongooses

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

Leopard

Leopard

Elephant Rock

Elephant Rock

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

The dry-light zone

overcast 26 °C
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Tissamaharama, Sri Lanka
Tuesday, 5 February 2019

I awoke early at seven o'clock because I wanted to reach my next destination, Tissamaharama, by early afternoon so I would have plenty of time to organise a safari tour the next day. I had to wait a while before I left, though. The laundry I had given the wife of the guest house owner in Galle yesterday morning had still not dried. It reminded me of the days when I lived in Brisbane where a pair of jeans would sometimes take three days to dry in summer.

At about nine o'clock the sun came out and by ten my clothes had dried just enough that I felt I could pack them. They weren't wringing wet, just damp around the seams.

I checked out of the Old Dutch House, a great place to stay. Yes, it is a bit run-down (it's called the Old Dutch House for a reason), but it's central, the owners are friendly and obliging, and they chuck on a really good feed. I give the Official Urban Reverie Seal Of Approval to the Old Dutch House.

I took a tuk-tuk to the station, I couldn't be bothered carrying eleven kilograms through Galle's sauna-like humidity, and waited to buy my second-class ticket to Matara, the terminus of the Coast Line east of Galle.

I found the right counter, there were only four of them. There were only four people in front of me but I waited forever. "Come on, how long does it take to buy a ticket," I muttered.

The South African backpacker in front of me turned around. "Patience, my friend, there's still plenty of time. Patience helps in a country like this." He had a good point.

After the passage of an entire geological epoch it was finally my turn to buy a ticket. The railway official behind the counter stretched his arms, yawned, swivelled his chair to and fro, turned to gossip with his colleagues, turned back towards me, stretched his arms yet again, checked his watch, and basically did everything possible to ignore my repeated entreaties of "excuse me! Excuse me, sir. I would like to buy a ticket. Hello? Can I buy a ticket please?"

Back in Australia I am a public servant for the state government. Most public servants are reasonably conscientious, diligent and dedicated to the well-being of the society which pays their comfortable salaries. However, there are a significant minority of people in the Public Service who wouldn't work if you shoved a lit stick of dynamite up their rectums and they often make my professional life a living hell. But at least those slackers put on an outward show of pretending to work and when pushed will do just exactly enough to keep management happy. I didn't think it was possible to find lazier, more unmotivated workers until I encountered your typical Sri Lankan public employee.

I decided to try a different approach - studied silence. Maybe if I stopped pestering him he would start to acknowledge my presence. It didn't work. In the end I snapped. "Excuse me! A second-class one-way ticket to Matara, please!"

Mister Yawn sighed and pulled the lever on the ancient, rusty Edmondson ticket dispenser as if he were being asked to carry a one-tonne boulder up Mount Everest. "One hundred," he snarled.

I slapped a one hundred rupee note on the counter and grabbed my ticket, went through the gate where the attendant punched a notch on the edge of my ticket, and went onto the platform. I didn't have to wait long for unnamed express train No. 8040 to Matara which departed fifteen minutes late at 11:20.

The train was crowded when it pulled into Galle but nearly everyone got off. I got an oceanside window seat in a second class carriage in which about a quarter of the seats were occupied. The suburbs of Galle soon gave way to a nearly continuous string of rural villages as the train driver continually blew the whistle before every single level crossing or pedestrian walking in the rail corridor. Occasionally there would be glimpses of the ocean through the houses and trees, long, unbroken, narrow, golden beaches with long waves breaking close to shore.

The track quality was very good, according to my phone's speedometer we maxed out at 75 km/h. We stopped at many, but not all, stations; modest peach-coloured station buildings with generous awnings, lush well-kept gardens and, at several stations, a fish tank of all things. There was once a time when many Sydney railway stations had beautiful gardens and station staff eagerly competed in the annual railways garden competition. Now stations in Sydney are desolate expanses of bitumen, perspex and steel. That's progress. I think. Perhaps not.

After about fifty minutes the train arrived at the terminus of Matara. As I handed my ticket over at the exit gate I met Ted and Dave, an older Australian couple in their sixties from Brisbane. They were backpacking through Sri Lanka like me and had covered far more miles than I intend to, even making it as far north as Jaffna. And they were doing it without a phone or a travel guide, just a sheet map of the whole country, perhaps 1:250,000 scale. They had arrived in Matara still unsure whether they were going to stay there for the night or move on somewhere else. Their modus operandi was to find the nearest tuk-tuk driver and ask him to take them to anywhere with accommodation. Now that's what I call placing your trust in divine providence.

Being Brisbanites, Ted and Dave were talkative and hospitable. They ended up walking with me from the station to the bus imterchange about a kilometre away as we talked about our plans and I gave them as much information about the area as I could glean from my Lonely Planet. They were hoping to see some guest house on the way but there was none. Matara is a thriving, busy transport hub with a beach but it's the kind of place most tourists just pass through.

At Matara bus station we said our farewells and wished each other the best of luck as I went searching for my bus. Most bus interchanges in the Western world, but not necessarily in Australia, will have a nice big list of all the buses that call at the interchange, where they go, and which stand they leave from. Perhaps there will be timetables or route maps. Not in Sri Lanka. I guess that visitors are expected to use extra-sensory perception to divine which stand to go to. Or they can have a friendly helpful random local who came up to Ted, Dave and me who will tell me to take route 334/1 from the stand just over there. Which is, thankfully, exactly what happened.

I stocked up on water and snacks for the long bus trip ahead at the Cargill's Food City supermarket inside the bus station and found a route 334/1 bus waiting for me. I boarded and soon we headed east on the A2 highway along the coast.

The bus wasn't crowded when it left Matara so I choose a window seat on the right hand side two rows behind the driver. There was a solid bulkhead behind the driver. I chose this seat because it would mean I wouldn't be able to look ahead and see the bus on the wrong side of the road barrelling towards a fully loaded petrol tanker. This would mean that I would die blissfully unaware of what happened and I would save all the workers at the morgue and the funeral home the distress of seeing the unspeakable terror etched in my face for eternity. I'm sorry to be so morbid. Sri Lanka does this to me.

The bus was interesting. It was a private bus and so the interior had all sorts of garish decorations, like a row of Hindu figurines above the front windscreen fringed with blinking coloured lights like some poker machine. There was a poster of some Hindu god on the bulkhead behind the driver, and the subwoofers above the luggage racks played Sri Lankan pop music that could be generously described as sounding like cats being strangled.

The bus followed the coast, beautiful beaches and rocky peninsulas and scattered resort villages. The bus called at the major town of Tangalle and after that the population densi dropped off. The scenery became flatter and more agricultural as we went a bit inland through rice fields and cattle farms.

After a while even the farms disappeared as we went through miles of brownish scrub. We had entered what Sri Lankans call the "dry zone", the parts of Sri Lanka with savannah climates featuring lower annual rainfall and a pronounced dry season.

In the middle of the dry zone is the town of Hambantota. This was formerly a small fishing village, the home town of Mahinda Rajapaksa, a populist demagogue who was formerly the President of Sri Lanka and one of the two competing Prime Ministers during last year's constitutional crisis. In the spirit of crony favouritism that is the hallmark of every true populist demagogue, Rajapaksa shovelled billions of rupees into questionable infrastructure projects to turn Hambantota into a world-class port city right up there with Dubai and Singapore.

As the bus approached Hambantota, we entered a dizzying maze of dual carriagways, exit ramps and motorways. We would pass significant new buildings in the middle of nowhere surrounded by nothing but miles of dry zone scrub - a gleaming new multi-storey hospital, a massive convention centre, an imposing government building called something like the Magim Ruhupunu Administration Centre. Off in the distance were huge gantry cranes at the new artificial harbour lifting non-existent containers off non-existent ships for delivery to non-existent customers.

It seems like a thoroughly silly place to put a port. Hambantota is, by Sri Lankan standards, in the middle of nowhere. There is no major centre of population nearby. There are no highways or railways connecting the hinterland to the port. There are no major manufacturing industries, not a huge amount of agriculture, and no mineral resources that I know of within the port's catchment. What Hambantota does have is a failed Commonwealth Games hosting bid. It was the only other contender for the right to host the 2018 Commonwealth Games. The winner was the Gold Coast in Australia.

Not long after Hambantota the bus reached its terminus at Tissamaharama, a small town that is nothing special bus is used as a base used by visitors to the nearby Yala National Park. I got off the bus and walked a kilometre on the shoulder of a busy highway to the Hotel View Point.

I was greeted by Sanjiva, the owner of a two-storey family home, the top storey of which has been coverted into a small hotel. There is a large deck overlooking an adjacent rice paddy. The way booking safari tours worksmis you can either book through your hotel, or go to this place on the village's outskirts where Jeep owners comgregate and bargain with them. I did it the easy way. Sanjiva called his brother, Lalli, who soon came on his motorbike. We sat down and he said a full-day private safari tour would be €105. Deal.

Next - like most Sri Lankans, he would only take cash upfront. There were two banks on my way from the bus station to the hotel. While on my way to the hotel I tried to withdraw cash from both the banks' ATMs. At the first, the security guard told me to go away, they only accept local cards. At the next bank, both my debit card and credit card failed. My cash reserves were running very low after paying my hotel bill in Galle that morning.

Lalli offered to ride me to another bank, the Commercial Bank, where the security guard told me the ATM accepts foreign cards. I haven't ridden pillion on a motorbike since my uncle offered me a ride when I was ten. Motorbikes are scary and terrigying. I couldn't even get on the back of the bike anyway - the seat was too wide at the back and I couldn't get my short legs over.

I got too nervous, then I remembered that the hotel advertised bicycle hire. I asked Sanjiva if I could borrow a bicycle to ride to the bank. He said sure, and brought out my trusty steed - a rust bucket hybrid bike that had obviously seen better days. But any port in a storm!

Lalli said to follow him. The highway into the town centre was flat with a generous shoulder. I got up to quite a decent speed, maybe 25 to 30 km/h. Then suddenly a bus blasted its horn as a warjing just behind my right shoulder and dead ahead parked half on the shoulder, half in the traffic lane was a tuk-tuk. To the left of the tuk-tuk was a pile of rubble.

I couldn't go left over the rubble or right into the path of the bus right behind me so I had to brake to let the bus pass. So I applied both the brake levers. There was no reponse. "Where are the brakes? My God, where are the brakes? There are no bloody brakes on this f×÷$ing thing!"

To go right into the traffic lane would have meant certain death, to go left over the rubble would have at least resulted in serious injury, and I wouldn't have come off lightly if I slammed into the back of a tuk-tuk either. I used my sandals rubbing on the rad as an emergency brake. I managed to slow down but there was no way I could come to a complete stop before hitting the tuk-tuk.

However, I had slowed down enough that there was time for the bus to pass me and the tuk-tuk one second before I could swerve to the right around the illegally parked tuk-tuk. F×#$. How many more life-threatening situations will this country provide over the next fortnight?

I continued on, not daring to go any faster than about 10 km/h. I still hit a tuk-tuk though. A tuk-tuk suddenly pulled oit from the kerb and then stopped in the lane. I used my sandals as a brake again but I still hit the rear bumper at about walking pace. There was no damage to me, the bike or any human being, fortunately.

Lalli met me at the Commercial Bank, I explained why I took so long. I then went to the ATM. I tried my debit card. Transaction declined. I tried my credit card. Transaction declined. I then tried the credit card again but instead of selecting withdrawal, I selected cash advance.

Hallelujah! 30,000 rupees in crisp, new notes! I handed over 19,500 of them to Lalli, trusting that he would keep his word and meet me at 4:15am as agreed to and not take the money and run.

I went back to the hotel a kilometre away on the edge of town, half-walking, half-cycling. I got to the hotel, returned the bicycle, explained what happened. Despite the generally decrepit condition of the bike there was nothing wrong with the brakes per se, the cables just needed tightening. It would have taken me five minutes to fix with an Allen key and a can of WD-40 to pull the cables tighter by an inch or so at the calipers. In any case, that is my first - and last! - cycling adventure in Sri Lanka.

An interesting conversation with Sanjiva, a high school PE teacher who asked a lot of questions about the Australian cricket team I fudged through, a dinner at a restaurant across the road where I met a young and engaging Spanish couple who I thought were Swedish because they were so blonde, and an early night. Please pray for me. I mean, not because I keep nearly getting killed. But pray for me because I have to get up at 3:30am for a 4:15am start. Will this incorrigible night owl make it? You will find out in the next blog entry.

Indian palm squirrel in Galle

Indian palm squirrel in Galle

Second class carriage from Galle to Matara

Second class carriage from Galle to Matara

Hindu figurines and lights on bus to Tissamaharama

Hindu figurines and lights on bus to Tissamaharama

Bus from Matara to Tissamaharama

Bus from Matara to Tissamaharama

On board train to Matara

On board train to Matara

The View from the Hotel View Point In Tissamaharama

The View from the Hotel View Point In Tissamaharama

Swastika Hotel and Pizza “Hot” in Tangalle

Swastika Hotel and Pizza “Hot” in Tangalle

Hindu God on bus to Tissamaharama

Hindu God on bus to Tissamaharama

Ticket from Galle to Matara

Ticket from Galle to Matara

Timetable at Galle station

Timetable at Galle station

Rustbucket bicycle without working brakes

Rustbucket bicycle without working brakes

Posted by urbanreverie 21:57 Archived in Sri Lanka Tagged trains buses cycling sri_lanka matara hambantota yala tissamaharama galle Comments (0)

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