Minneriya and Polonnaruwa, part 7

That darn alarm clock goes off at 4:30 this morning, and I  wonder if we shouldn’t have listened to Raj when he advised us it would be better to take the afternoon safari in Minneriya. Naw, getting places early means you will beat the throngs of tourists who laze around in bed, and come to the sites at a sensible hour. I’d rather stumble around before dawn, putting my shirt on inside out, than compete with dozens of vehicles full of tourists. Seriously, I am all for getting to sites as soon as they are open for business.

Raj drives us to the company headquarters, that will be guiding us on our safari this morning. Raj must honk the horn a few times outside the wooden gate, before a young man runs out to unlock and open the gate, allowing us to drive onto the property. Paul and I jump into the back of the open top jeep where I manage to crack my head on the iron frame that holds the canvas roof in place. Ouch, at least I’m awake now.

Sunrise in Minneriya, photo by Paul

Sunrise in Minneriya, photo by Paul

When we reach the headquarters of Minneriya National Park, we note with satisfaction there is no other safari vehicle in the parking lot. There also are no lights on in the main building. Our young driver disappears and eventually returns with our tracker, a very small man who doesn’t speak a word of English. The dawn is just beginning to break when we drive into Minneriya.

As in Wilpattu, we are driving dirt roads with thick forest on either side. We haven’t gone far when the jeep comes to a halt. Our driver points out two huge elephants among the trees, browsing on the vegetation. He tells us that we are lucky to see elephants as normally they only see the beasts on their afternoon game drives! Here I thought Raj just didn’t want to get up this early. As we watch the elephants in the dim light the trumpet of an elephant rings through the air. Our two guides seem to be quite excited on hearing this elephant announcement, so off we go in search of the trumpeter. We hear the elephant give a loud blast of sound one more time, which sends us off in another direction, but we never find the noisy pachyderm.

I soon forget the elephants, when we approach the enormous lake in the park. There are an insane number of water birds. We drive by a small pool of water where the painted storks, spoonbills, and egrets all vie for a spot in the water. The Malayan Night Herons are roosting for the day, landing in leafy bushes that grow from the bank of the creek. I quit counting at fifty birds. Holy Smokes! As we near the edge of the lake, the sun is coming up giving us a beautiful sunrise to watch. In the distance is a large herd of water buffalo, which our driver points out to us, but he has no intention of driving near the herd. He tells us that water buffalo are very mean and will charge a vehicle without warning. No problem I can see them through the binoculars.

Painted Storks, Spoonbills and Egrets

Painted Storks, Spoonbills and Egrets

Later in the morning we reach the area where tourists can disembark from the vehicles, and we are ready to eat our breakfast. Our driver hands us two parcels of food, and when we open the boxes, Paul and I just shake our heads. The boiled eggs, sandwiches, fruits, etc. in one box is enough food for both of us. I stand up, call out to our guides who are walking away, and offer them the second plate of food. Our driver shakes his head no, but the tracker has no qualms about accepting the breakfast plate.  I’m fairly sure that the food was divvied up with some guides whose tourists are eating here too. The only problem with the parks “walk around zone” is there are no restrooms. Paul stands guard as I visit the “designated bathroom” area in the middle of a clump of trees. Oh well, it’s not like I haven’t been in these conditions numerous times on other trips.

After breakfast we walk along the edge of the lake where we watch a langur monkey sitting in a tree, who stares at us just as curiously. These monkeys are much more appealing, in my opinion, than the macaque monkeys. First of all, the langurs aren’t aggressive, and secondly their features are more interesting. We observe some colorful sunbirds sipping nectar among the wildflowers too.

Hanuman Langur, She obviously has a baby somewhere

Hanuman Langur, She obviously has a baby somewhere

Once we are back in the jeep, we continue driving around the lake. We see a Brahminy Kite sitting in a dead tree, a big fish gripped in his talons. The kite hoists itself into the air as we draw near, and somehow manages to fly, while carrying that large fish. Our driver spots a chameleon on the trunk of a tree. We watch the dull-witted appearing creature, occasionally eat an ant that is crawling under its nose. A mongoose, with a baby that presses tight to mom’s side, is walking in the road. The mother mongoose occasionally stands on her hind legs scouting for danger. For some reason the sight of the vulnerable baby mongoose really touches me, esp. considering all the raptors we have seen this morning. Good luck little guy!

Mongoose and baby

Mongoose and baby

A cantankerous water buffalo is coming to drink at the lake, and although our driver stops the vehicle, he never turns the motor off. The bull stops every few steps, paws the ground, and throws his head from side to side. The ill-tempered buffalo looks our direction several times, but finally continues to the lake, and wades into the water. The silhouette of the water buffalo, lake, and the mountains which are shrouded in a haze, makes for a beautiful sight.

Beautiful image of Minniriya

Beautiful image of Minniriya

As we start back through the jungle, our tracker, using the small stone he carries in his hand, raps on the metal frame of the truck bed roof. This sound carries up to the driver who quickly comes to a halt. Just an aside to this story, the tracker would often bang the rock on the metal even though our driver had seen the animal/bird and had already stopped the truck. Paul and I found this hilarious. Anyway, this time our guide has spotted some purple-faced monkeys, rare and tough to see, in the treetops. I barely caught a glimpse of the secretive primates before they disappeared into the jungle, so I can’t claim I really saw the monkey’s clearly.

It is time to head back to the headquarters but on our way we come across a group of elephants feeding in the thick understory. The herd consists of six elephants which includes two youngsters. We hear  but don’t see, more elephants feeding all around in the jungle. The crack of the limbs or small trees they are breaking down sound like rifle shots. We sit and watch the small group of elephants for some time in hopes they will cross the road in front of us, but they never do. We do catch a glimpse of one of the youngsters as he steps into the gap between two trees to take a look at us.

Baby elephant taking a look at us

Baby elephant taking a look at us

It seems the morning is gone already so we must leave Minneriya and all its beauty. I must comment on the enthusiasm of our driver whose name I can’t recall. I usually am the one to ooh and ahh over a colorful bird or about any wild thing as far as that goes. On our safari today, this young man often beat me to voicing these admiring sound as we observe wildlife. He would be oohing over bee eaters or kingfisher’s right along with me, so we made quite a duo. I hope he continues to be awed every day by the wonderful wildlife he gets to experience in his work.

We find a bored Raj waiting for us when we return to the safari tour headquarters. Raj now will transport us to Polonnaruwa, a 10th century ruin, which is also a Unesco Word Heritage Site. These ruins sprawl over a large area so Raj must drive us from place to place. Raj accompanies us at our first stop, but after that he opts to stay with the car. The ruins are magnificent, and as always, I am at a loss to imagine how the people built such structures in these ancient times.

Walls of the Royal Palace

Walls of the Royal Palace

Paul inspecting the remnants of a building in Polonnaruwa

Paul inspecting the remnants of a building in Polonnaruwa

Old man and some ruins in Polonnaruwa

Old man and some ruins in Polonnaruwa

I won’t even try to describe the ruins we saw including palaces, temples, stupas, a hospital, and countless other structures. Many are being restored, some only have walls or pillars left standing, but they were still inspiring to see. Paul and I just wander among the ancient ruins soaking it all in.

My favorite site in Polonnaruwa was Gal Vihara, where larger than life statues of Buddha are carved out of stone. The Buddha’s are all carved out of one rock ledge which makes the site even more spectacular. The natural hues in the rock add to the beauty of the sculptures. To put the statues in perspective the sitting Buddha is 15 feet high, the standing Buddha is 23 feet tall, and the reclining Buddha is 43 foot long. There is also a cave carved into the rock, where a Buddha sits on a throne. Standing there, gazing at these works of art made me feel quite humble.

Larger than life, sitting Buddha. Notice the veins of color. Pauls' photo

Larger than life, sitting Buddha. Notice the veins of color. Pauls’ photo

It is midafternoon, very hot and we haven’t eaten lunch yet. We make our way back to Raj and the car, ready to leave the ancient city behind. Raj pointed out the restaurant we are going to dine at this morning while we were driving to the ruins. The highway has plenty of traffic and I try not to watch as the two land road often becomes a three lane road. Drivers who want to pass a slower vehicle,  just go ahead and do so, regardless if another car is approaching. The two legal cars move over , while the passing vehicle continues down the middle of the road, until they can move back into their real lane. Geez Louise! I am better at handling this than I was a few days ago but still a gasp will escape my lips now and then.

Raj begins to slow the car down and I see the ox cart that sets in front of the restaurant we are dining at. I lean over to gather my camera and purse, as Raj begins to turn the car into the entrance. Suddenly, Raj slams on his brakes and I hear a soft thud. When I look up, I see two men leaning against the front of the car. The older man is wearing a gray hat with ear flaps that is now slightly askew on his head. The driver has a scarf wrapped, turban style around his head, and he is glaring at us through the windshield. It suddenly dawns on me that they are astride a motorcycle , and we have run into them.

Raj gets out of the car, and we are wondering what to do. We were turning across traffic, so our car is blocking the oncoming lane of traffic, while the rear end of the car is protruding part way into the other lane. I want the heck out of the car, but am nervous about stepping onto the highway. Pedestrians don’t get much respect in Sri Lanka.

A group of people soon assemble and help the two riders off the cycle, then roll the ancient machine away from our car. This allows Raj to drive into the restaurant lot and park. I assume that Raj will go back and talk with the motorcycle men, who appear to be fine, but he doesn’t. Raj inspects the area on the front bumper where we collided with the cycle, which is now scraped free of paint. There seems to be no other damage to his car which is good, but his disregard for the two men bothers me.

An excited Raj tells Paul that he had his turn signal on, and asks Paul if he noticed that he had used his blinker. Paul answers in the affirmative, figuring this is not the time to point out to Raj, that he turned across traffic in front of those poor fellows. No policemen are called, so Paul and I assume neither party involved in the accident, wants to deal with the authorities. As we walk to the restaurant, I glance back to see the two men climb on the cycle, and drive off. I think my heart continued to pound all through lunch after this little incident!

Quiet scene from Minneriya to end this story

Quiet scene from Minneriya to end this story

Returning to Wild Grass was just what the doctor ordered. We relax on our patio and consume our supper of bread, cheese, Pringle’s, and beer. Even now, I can clearly see that little old man, in his rearranged hat, peering with bewilderment at us.

Next installment Sigiriya and St. John’s Bungalow.

This Lesser Adjutant is runner up to the Marabou stork for the ugliest bird I have ever seen

This Lesser Adjutant is runner up to the Marabou stork for the ugliest bird I have ever seen

Huge stupa in Polonnaruwa

Huge stupa in Polonnaruwa

I think this Macaque monkey needs sunblock

I think this Macaque monkey needs sunblock

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WilPattu and Dambulla Cave Temples

Wilpattu, Dambulla caves and Wild grass resort, part 6

    

Preparing string hoppers

Preparing string hoppers

When we return from our all day safari, tired but happy, we are informed that tonight we will have hoppers prepared at our table, which we will eat with a variety of traditional foods. We are given a short time to clean up, (at least our shower is luke warm tonight), and before our dinner show begins. Anura the manager will dine with us to show us how to eat the food properly.

    The array of food is overwhelming but the cooking of the hoppers is fascinating. There is also a bonfire flaming in the fire pit below the kitchen, which adds to the atmosphere. Anura takes a helping from each dish of food and places it on his plate.  Anura tears off a piece of a  hopper and uses the thin crepe to pick up a small portion of everything on his plate. This blends the sweet, spicy and in-between foods, so a bite of one food alone doesn’t overwhelm your taste buds. I find that this is a great way to minimize the fiery spice of the curry and I like it!  Paul and I opt to use utensils, though Anura eats his food with his left hand. It was a delicious, fun meal, but boy were we ready to fall into bed as soon as our guests left.

     This morning begins like yesterday morning. Our alarm rings at 4:30, at five a.m. the bugler at the army base, which is on the edge of the village, plays reveille, and we drink tea while the Buddhist monks chant fills the air. We take our luggage with us this morning, as Raj will pick us up at the small village, when our safari ends.

    As we drive to Wilpattu, we see school children dressed in white uniforms, lined up along the road at 6:15! Evidently, the nearest school is quite a distance away, thus the early pickup for school.

     We enter the park at dawn and like yesterday, we are the only vehicle here at this hour. I have no expectations for this morning’s safari after our stellar sightings yesterday. We still see plenty of wildlife, including a jackal, spotted deer, a barking deer, more turtles, tortoise and terrapins. There are the usual bird sightings but this morning we are entertained by a female painted stork. The large stork raises her wings and does a bird’s version of a model walking the runway, stalking back and forth in front of her mate. The male stork pays absolutely no attention to his flirtatious mate. This doesn’t seem to bother the strutting female, because she continues her feather dance as we drive away.

Painted stork preparing to strut her stuff

Painted stork preparing to strut her stuff

   We also see two “wild boar sows” with approximately 20 half-grown piglets accompanying them. The porkers ran for the trees as soon as we drew near, except for one youngster. I think to myself, if this pig doesn’t wise up soon, he will become a tasty meal for a leopard.

    As we make our way back to the gate we meet a half dozen safari trucks filled with school boys decked out in their white uniforms. They act like typical preteen boys do; waving, chattering and some even take photos of Paul and me. We return their waves and take our own photos, which makes the boys act even sillier.

School boys on safari

School boys on safari

     When we reach the village, we see Raj standing next to his parked car, so Lahiru parks the truck beside him.  As we prepare to leave, we give Lahiru and Saran a nice tip for their terrific guiding and for taking such good care of us. They certainly earned these rupees! Saran tells Paul and me that he is so glad he met us, because the two of us really enjoy the wildlife, and we show it with our smiles. He pantomimes to us how some of his clients don’t even react when they see a leopard. Saran makes his face go blank and his lips are unsmiling, showing us a face of someone who is bored. Well, that is sad! We say goodbye to these awesome young men and turn to wave exuberantly to them as we drive away 

     Today, the opposition political party is demonstrating against the ruling party of Sri Lanka. Strikers have shut down the main road to Dambulla to show their disapproval with the leaders of this island.  While Raj is not happy with the detour he must drive, we are delighted with this “inconvenience”. The alternate route is a lovely, tree-shaded road almost devoid of traffic. There is a variety of vegetable crops being cultivated along the road, including sweet corn, tomatoes, varieties of squash, and so on. 

Man selling fish along our alternate route

Man selling fish along our alternate route

    We do pass small trucks, packed with sacks of harvested vegetables, along with a few humans crowded in among the load. When we reach the city of Dambulla, we pass by the huge vegetable warehouse that is the farmer’s destination. The grounds are full of a variety of vehicles from tractors pulling wagons to various sizes of trucks all overloaded with bags of produce. The farmers are selling their crops here, and the goods are then loaded onto semis to be transported elsewhere.

Dambulla Vegetable market

Dambulla Vegetable market

    When we arrive at Dambulla Cave Temple, the sun is beating down and it is hot. Raj hands us our tickets and we make our way to the entrance. We have been so spoiled up to this point with the absence of vendors trying to sell souvenirs to tourists, that we forgot how annoying it can be. Thankfully, the Sri Lankan people aren’t very aggressive, and when we shake our head no at maps, postcards, carvings, and other odds and ends, they leave us alone.

Façade of Dambulla Cave Temples

Façade of Dambulla Cave Temples

     After an uphill walk to reach the famous caves, we must leave our shoes outside with a man who places them on a shelf, in order to enter this holy place dedicated to the Lord Buddha. This shoe check is done on the honor system, with the owners just identifying their foot wear when they leave the temple. I am so thankful I have thick hiking socks on as the pavement is hot! I can feel the heat seeping through my socks, and I don’t know how some of the tourists are managing in bare feet. There are macaque monkeys everywhere, and since they have lost their fear of humans, we keep an eye on the aggressive primates.

    The Dambulla Cave Temple consists of five caves dedicated to Lord Buddha, created over a timeline starting in the first century B.C., by a King with a really long name! Over the centuries there have been additions to and restoration done in the caves. Paul and I wander through the caves and see reclining Buddha’s, the longest one is 43 feet, seated Buddhas, standing Buddhas, along with murals that completely cover the walls and roofs of the caves. It really is mind-boggling esp. when you realize all but the Buddhas in cave five, are carved out of granite rock! The Dambulla Cave Temple is a world heritage site, and also a part of what is referred to as the cultural triangle of Sri Lanka.

Standing Bhudda's. Notice the painted ceiling of the cave

Standing Bhudda’s. Notice the painted ceiling of the cave

    Many people buy lotus flowers to place next to which ever Buddhist statue strikes their fancy, though most folks seem to offer them to the 43 foot reclining Buddha. Often, the flowers have hardly been laid down, when the Macaque monkeys, nicknamed temple monkeys, rush in and begin to devour the flowers on the spot. Sometimes we must wait until a group of monkeys vacate the entrances into the caves before we can enter. The pesky beggars were always snarling at one another and at one time a fight broke out as two monkeys grabbed the same flower. I wouldn’t have wanted to be near that melee, as the monkeys have some nasty canines.

      I didn’t know whether to laugh or cheer as a caretaker tried to evict a monkey from one of the caves. The man is chasing the thieving monkey, holding a stick with both hands. He has his crude weapon raised over his head, and there is an angry expression on his face. The staff member doesn’t have a chance at catching the monkey, but I give him credit for trying. There is some irony in this scenario happening in a place dedicated to Buddha, who believed in not harming any life.

Reclining Bhudda

Reclining Bhudda

     Hot footing it out of the temple area, we retrieve our shoes; make our way back through the vendors. and out the gate. Three beggars follow us to the car which is parked just yards away from the entrance gate. We ignore them, which is hard to do, (though we do give to some beggars throughout the trip), but you can’t give to every beggar you encounter. Raj tells us at one point that some of the beggars are fakes, but it is obvious, most are either physically impaired and/or destitute.

     Raj points the car in the direction of Wild Grass Resort which is on the outskirts of the city. We turn onto a rough, narrow, dirt road, and arrive a few minutes later at our destination. There are three staff members waiting on the steps of the headquarters, as Raj brings the car to a stop. A young man loads our luggage into a wheelbarrow for transport to our room. We are handed hot towels, which we gladly use, after our sweaty visit to Dambulla caves. Paul and I are given a drink that I think is coffee mixed into cold milk. It tastes great but I don’t drink much of it, as I know it will keep me from sleeping tonight. The manager than asks us if it is o.k. if he upgrades us from our reservation, which was the modest chalet with twin beds, to a chalet that normally houses a family. Sure, we say, that sounds great.

    DSCF1009 Paul and I traipse after Anil, who is pushing the wheelbarrow of luggage. We pass by a beautiful pool, and the cut off paths that lead to other chalets. When we walk down the lane that leads to our chalet, I blurt out, “my gosh, it’s a house”!

What a gorgeous place this is, surrounded by trees, tall decorative grass, and a view of a lake that is only a short walk away. Anil tells us we can choose to stay on the ground floor or on the second floor.

     We walk through the door and the living room walls are glass from floor to ceiling. We take a tour of the downstairs bedroom and bathroom with its outside shower. I say this will do. Paul thinks we should look at the upstairs first.

     We walk up the stairs and enter the bedroom which is the same floor to ceiling glass walls, there is a nice balcony adjoining the bedroom. The dressing room is huge, with a sink and vanity, wardrobe and plenty of benches to set your luggage on. The shower is roofless which seems to be the in thing at these resorts. This is great! We tell Anil, we will stay up here, which means he has to carry that heavy duffel up the steps, but he doesn’t seem to mind.

View from our bedroom at Wild Grass Resort

View from our bedroom at Wild Grass Resort

    Later, on that evening, I begin to worry that maybe this isn’t a free upgrade. I mull over the way the manager worded the question about changing rooms, basically getting us to agree to the upgrade. I tell Paul I hope we aren’t paying for the difference in the price of the rooms. Paul isn’t worried but I insist that we find out tomorrow. Paul goes on the internet to see what the price difference in the rooms is and the cost is nearly double. Yikes! In the end my worries were unwarranted as it was indeed a perk in our favor.

   We end this day doing laundry by hand, and hanging it out to dry on a back balcony, that is connected to the dressing room. After finishing this chore, we enjoy a beer, bread, cheese, and Pringle’s that we bought at a small super market in Dambulla. We eat our supper on the balcony enjoying the sound of the chanting of Buddhist monks.

    They have laid out Wild Grass Resort so you have the sense that you are the only people on the property. Our neighbors that we have seen so far are myna birds, egrets and herons flying over the lake, and a gecko that is residing in the rafters of our ceiling. I think we are going to like it here!

    Next episode, Minneriya safari and ruins. Nancy

Paul being silly

Paul being silly

No missing places that sell ice cream.  I found the contrast of the giant cone and the beautiful model interesting.

No missing places that sell ice cream. I found the contrast of the giant cone and the beautiful model interesting.

Can you find the barking deer. You can see how tough it is to spot animals in this understory

Can you find the barking deer. You can see how tough it is to spot animals in this understory

   

   

 

    

    

    

 

   

   

    

Wilpattu, all day safari, 5

Wilpattu day safari, part 5

      Our alarm dutifully rings at 4:30 a.m., and I scramble out of the warm bed into the chilly morning air. I flip on a couple of solar/battery-powered lights, and hustle into the clothes I laid out last night. I pull a fleece jacket on and then wash my face with cold water. Yikes, that will wake you up in a hurry. Paul is dressed in short order too, and we wait for Indika to arrive with tea. He is fifteen

Beautiful light in Wipattu National Park

Beautiful light in Wipattu National Park

minutes late so we hurriedly slurp our tea,  to the chant of Buddhist monks broadcast over a loudspeaker, from the village below Palpatha.

     Paul and I follow Indika, who uses a lantern to illuminate our path, as we walk to headquarters. Saran and Lahiru are waiting by the truck to greet us. We climb aboard and Saran drops a piece of heavy plastic down between the cab and the bed of the truck. Thank goodness for that, as I wasn’t looking forward to a windswept ride on this cool morning. We arrive at the park just as a hint of light is showing in the east. Once again the proverbial paper work must e filled out. The good news is that there are no other safari vehicles in sight. There also is no one manning the gate, so Saran must run back to the office to get the key. Saran returns with the key, along with a smile on his pleasant face. He pulls the gate open as the sun throws a red cast along the horizon.

     We are trundling down the same road as yesterday, and the area is in deep gloom as the sunlight has yet to penetrate the forest. I’m not even looking into the undergrowth because it is just so dark in there. Lahiru stops and says something to Saran. Saran, in turn, tells us that there is an Oriental Scops Owl perched in a tree. With pointing and explaining, we finally make out the dim outline of the owl. Good grief, how the heck did our driver see that bird, in the dark, while driving?

    Shafts of light begin to penetrate the forest, turning the landscape into a subject for a Kinkaid painting. To make it even more magical, there is no one around but us. We drive over the dam of a tank (pond) and see very fresh elephant poo, but no elephants. They must have heard us coming and took cover in the forest. We continue on our wildlife quest, and are rewarded minutes later when we see a robust, jackal standing in a grassy patch near the road. As the healthy canine pauses to take a look at us, the early morning sun makes his thick fur glow, adding to the surreal feel of the morning.DSCF0650

   The word Wilpattu means the land of lakes, and we arrive at one of these natural lakes at the edge of the forest. This lake, like the lake we visited yesterday, and all the other lakes we will see, is teeming with birds. This morning, besides watching the myriad of water birds, we are entertained by three Green Bee-Eaters. The trio is having a quarrel over something, a female or territory, I suppose. The winged jewels, fly about chasing and fussing at one another, and then come sit on the ground next to our truck. Once they are rested, they square off again, but eventually two persevere.  When the loser vacates the premises, the winning pair poses for a victory photo.

Victorious Green Beeeaters

Victorious Green Beeeaters

     We drive along the lake, until we reach the designated area where people are allowed to step out of their vehicles. There is also a restroom, thank goodness, and I don’t even care that it is a long drop! There are two other safari groups having breakfast, as we will soon be doing too. Saran and Lahiru, find a wooden bench to use as a table and bring a couple of containers of food from the truck. There is fruit and some type of grain cake (I can’t even find anything to compare it with), which is wrapped in huge leaves instead of plastic. The mealy cake is tasty but as usual there is way more food than Paul and I can eat. We tell our guides to help themselves, but they will not eat until we are finished.

     We also have other creatures eyeing our breakfast. A troop of Toque Macaque monkeys are scrambling around in the trees above us and the other diners. Paul and I put the lids back on the containers and make sure we are not standing directly under any branches where the uninvited guests are hanging out. All the guides keep an eye on the monkeys, and occasionally a yell or a well aimed stick, thwarts a would-be thief that makes a dash towards someone’s food.

Macaque Monkey with checks stuffed full of food.

Macaque Monkey with checks stuffed full of food.

    We walk down to the lake when we finish breakfast. We can’t go far but it sure feels good to stretch our legs. Saran points out a pair of soaring, white-bellied sea eagles, and identifies a Sri Lanka grey hornbill by its goat-like call. I would love to actually see that bird. We climb back in our safari truck and drive down the sandy road to see what we can see.

    We have been up and down various roads, stopped at more lakes, until I am so turned around that for all I know we may be going in circles. We see plenty of spotted deer, birds galore, and some wild boar tilling up the ground. As we approach the noon hour we are driving down a shady road in the forest. Paul and I are peering into the scrub when Saran calls out “leopard”. Sure enough, a short distance ahead of us is a large leopard walking in the road. I am so impressed when Lahiru doesn’t gun the motor and try to catch up with the big cat. We follow along, keeping a respectful distance until the leopard has had enough of us, and leisurely walks into the forest.

Gorgeous Leopardess

Gorgeous Leopardess

    Once the animal leaves the road, Lahiru speeds up until we reach the approximate spot where the leopard left the road. He continues driving down the road several yards, then he kills the engine, and we sit in complete silence. After a few minutes, Saran leans forward, cupping his ears. He sits like this for a while, then whispers, I hear her. Is he serious or pulling our leg? We sit as Saran concentrates, and then he says, she is coming (they determined it was a leopardess somehow). Saran is now staring into the jungle, as are we. Pretty soon, he hisses, “there she is”. Sure enough we watch as the leopardess glides into view for a brief moment before she disappears into thicker cover. Holy Moly and I was feeling smug for spotting a wild boar. How do you “hear” a cat walking in a forest! To say we were blown away is putting it mildly. Did I mention that there are big smiles on all our faces after encountering the leopard?

     It is time to eat lunch, so we drive back to the lake where we ate breakfast. There are five or six vehicles here, and the few places set up for dining are full. Saran pulls two chairs out of the truck for us, and Lahiru sets our lunch on the vehicles tailgate. Hey, we are tailgating in Sri Lanka! I don’t know how many dishes of food were lined up on the tailgate, but it is enough food to feed six people.  There is chicken, potato curry, a variety of vegetables, and watermelon for desert. When we finish, there is enough food left that Saran and Lahiru, share it with some of the other drivers.

Paul being silly

Paul being silly

    The day that started out so cool is now quite hot, and Saran says we will stay by the lake for another hour, as most animals will not be active at this time. I wander down by the lake to watch the birds and snap some photos. Paul has pulled his mesh topped hat down over his face and is sleeping. At least I thought he was until I took this photo of him. He says his hat is great for watching people who think you are sleeping. The rascal.

    I have just settled down in the chair next to Paul, when Saran strides up to report that an elephant is coming to drink, on the far side of the lake. Evidently, this is unusual behavior for an elephant in the heat of the day. We and one other vehicle are all that remain here, so it is a small group that walks down to the lakes edge to observe the bull elephant. The big fellow wades into the lake, and begins to pull up some of the grass that is growing along the edge of the lake. We watch as he gathers the grass with his trunk, knocks the grass against his foot, swishes the grass back and forth in the air, and then puts it in his mouth. Occasionally the elephant will pull the wad of grass out of his mouth, and shake it off again. When I ask Saran why he pulls it back out of his mouth , he explains that it probably still has dirt on it, so he needs to shake it some more. Well duh, I should have figured that out on my own.

     We notice the other 5 tourists don’t have binoculars, so we offer the use of ours. A woman and her daughter (I assume) gladly accept them, and the older woman actually gives a gasp when she sees how the binoculars pull everything up close and personal! What I take to be the older woman’s husband declines our offer. There is another young couple who refuse to use our binoculars. I noticed when I acknowledged and smiled at them when we joined the group, they did not return that courtesy. When the two use Saran’s binoculars shortly after rejecting ours, it is rather obvious that they are snubbing us. Hmm. In all our travels, Paul and I can’t recall this happening before, and yes, Paul noticed their attitude towards us too. Since we have had no contact with them, we can only conclude that it is because we are U.S. citizens. We don’t know what nationality they are, but they are Europeans. It was interesting to say the least.

Our after dinner entertainment, the elephant

Our after dinner entertainment, the elephant

     We leave the elephant and lake behind, and Paul announces to Saran that to make this day complete, we need to find a sloth bear. Saran knows by now that we are well aware when on safari you take what you get, and he just laughs.  Saran had told us while we were watching the elephant, that in Wilpattu, you had a 20% chance of seeing a leopard, a 10% chance of seeing a sloth bear and a 5% chance of seeing an elephant. With those odds we have already been darned lucky.

Saran preparing a King coconut for us to drink

Saran preparing a King coconut for us to drink

We are happy to return to the shady forest to get relief from the sun and heat. I swear we have not been driving more than 20 minutes, when Lahiru slams on his brakes and speaks a word in Sinhalese to Saran. Saran turns to us and says sloth bear”! I am so astounded that I rest my forehead against the back of the seat for a brief moment. O.K. I admit an “I’ll be damned” slips out of my mouth, in disbelief of our luck. The really astounding thing is how Lahiru saw this sow and her cubs. We only see bits of the black bears, which are deep in the woods, and we know where they are! The bears are on the move and we catch glimpses of one large shape, and two half-grown shapes, here and there, among the trees. At one time I see the head of the mother clearly enough that her grey muzzle is apparent. In another instance, I see the paw of a cub with its long claws, swipe at something on the ground. There is no chance at a photo unfortunately.  This is a sighting that will have to be committed to our memories.

    The trio of sloth bears disappears from sight, but our guides think they may be heading towards a small tank to get a drink. We drive down a road that isn’t traveled much as tree limbs are hanging over the road. The encroaching limbs slap and scratch at the vehicle, but we make it to the watering hole. There is nothing here. Lahiru turns the vehicle around, and we wait for a few minutes. I’m not sure why Saran concludes they aren’t coming but we head back towards the main road.

     Lahiru drives back to where we saw the sloth bears and I see the guides looking down at the road. The guides often check the sandy roads, because animals that are traveling the road will leave clear imprints in the sand. Suddenly, Saran groans, slaps his forehead and tells us that a leopard has been here since we left. His action is so dramatic, yet sincere; I have to stifle my urge to laugh. Saran points out the big cats paw prints that are superimposed over the tracks of our tires. To make it a little more painful, there are two places where the leopard has laid down in the road. He obviously was in no hurry to get where he was going.

     We follow the tracks, oh yes we are in reverse, until they leave the road and go into the bush. Since we have only been gone 15 or 20 minutes, we continue traveling backwards for a 1/4 mile and then we sit. The hope is that the leopard is still traveling in this direction and we might catch a glimpse of him. Saran, Lahiru and I are intently staring into the trees, but Paul has decided to watch the road behind us. After a few minutes we hear “Guys, I think I see something moving”, “I think it’s a leopard”. I whirl around so I am looking over the back of the seat and bring my binoculars to my eyes. Sure enough, way down the road is a leopard moving away from us. The leopardess we saw this morning was good-sized, but this leopard is really big. It’s a good thing Paul was staking out the road or we would never have seen this cat.

     The problem is we are headed the wrong way, and because the road is so narrow, there is no room to turn around. Lahiru sends our vehicle speeding down the road until he finds a place to make a three-point turn which actually turns out to be a five or six point turn! We rush back in hopes the leopard is still trekking down the road but no such luck. The guides find the leopards tracks, and follow them to a point in the road where the feline has made a U-turn and is walking back the way it came. After a short stretch, the leopard’s tracks leave the road for the jungle. We all search the area, Saran listens, but we see and hear nothing of the elusive leopard.

    Our safari ends with the search for an injured leopard, that another guide told Saran about, when they stopped to exchange information along the road. The guides are excited about seeing a third leopard in one day, but Paul and I aren’t really disappointed when our search for the disabled cat turns up empty. The injury they described probably means the leopard won’t survive and that would be a depressing way to end the day.

     We are back at the lake where we ate our meals, and we have a close encounter with the lone elephant we enjoyed watching earlier. At our approach, the huge male turns and fans his ears in a warning, but when he sees it is just a vehicle full of humans, turns away and minds his own business. We enjoy watching the pachyderm for a while as he continues to browse.

Elephant close up

Elephant close up

     The sun is beginning to arc towards the horizon, so we must turn towards the exit gates. We have one more interesting encounter before our day is over with a sambar, the largest deer in this park. The doe is standing like a statue by the side of the road, head high, ears pointed and eyes focused on a spot of thick undergrowth. Lahiru stops the vehicle next to the beautiful sambar. She doesn’t look at us or even flinch. As we watch, the doe curls her leg up toward her body in slow motion, and then slams her leg to the ground, sending a sharp sound reverberating into the air. Our white tail deer do the exact same thing when they feel threatened, by the way. The sambar repeats this leg thumping ritual over and over, as we use our binoculars to try to find the creature that is upsetting her. Saran is fairly certain it is a leopard. After several minutes, the vexed sambar lets out two sharp barks, (the best description I can think of) and then turns and walks away. Huh. Was it a false alarm, was she pulling our leg, or did the perceived threat melt away into the forest? We will never know but her exhibition was worth seeing regardless.

Sambar but not the one that was calling the alarm

Sambar but not the one that was calling the alarm

     We must be on our way and we make it through the gate as the sun is slipping out of sight. What an excellent day we have experienced! Tomorrow we will spend the morning in Wilpattu and then it is time to move on to our next destination.

A group of bucks

A group of bucks

     Next installment, morning safari in Wilpattu, Dambulla caves and Wild Grass resort.

Wild Boar

Wild Boar

I swear this turtle is smiling

I swear this turtle is smiling

Common Kingfisher eating a fish

Common Kingfisher eating a fish

Wilpattu Sri Lanka 4

Wilpattu, Sri Lanka 4

Photo I took as we drove to Wilpattu. I just liked it so here it is.

Photo I took as we drove to Wilpattu. I just liked it so here it is.

 

     This morning we must leave Dolphin Beach for Wilpattu National Park. We were supposed to stay at Master Campers, a luxury tent camp, which is located directly in the park. Yesterday afternoon our tour company, Red Dot tours, called us and said they had received a notice from the forest department that no camping was going to be allowed for the next 2 weeks in Wilpattu. Naturally, we were disappointed as the opportunity to hear and see animals at night was one of the reasons we were willing to pay the rather steep price to stay inside the park. Red Dot booked us a “chalet” at Palpatha eco-lodge instead, and I’m sure it was a scramble for them to find us lodging on such short notice.

     We have more disappointment this morning when our assigned driver, Kevin, has been replaced for good with another driver. Raj is his name, and it appears he is similar in age to us. There really is no reason given to us by Red Dot or by Raj as to why Kevin is unavailable. At least Raj is prompt because he has arrived before we have even eaten breakfast.

     After we finish breakfast, Paul settles up our tab with Dennis, while I finish some last minute packing. We hand our luggage over to the porters and profusely thank Dennis for making our stay so enjoyable. We climb into Raj’s blue car and leave Dolphin Beach behind.

   We travel through a variety of rural sites including prawn farms and a large area of salt pans. This is a series of small ponds (pans) full of salt water which eventually evaporates, and then the salt is collected. Raj stops at a roadside stand where they are selling string hoppers (made from rice flour) and purchases one for each of us. It comes with a small brown cube called jaggery (it is sugar) which is made from the juice of the coconut flower. This isn’t the last Sri Lanka treat that Raj will insist on buying for us, as he wants us to sample the roadside cuisine.

Typical roadside stand

Typical roadside stand

     We see plenty of birds, particularly water birds as we drive by lakes and rivers. It doesn’t take long to realize that Raj is definitely not a birder or naturalist, although he knows a few birds, mostly he will point to a bird perching on a wire, or birds around or in the water, and declare “birds”. Fortunately, I know or can figure out the majority of the birds we see, and Raj is good about stopping to let us snap photos.

There are birds everywhere

There are birds everywhere

    We travel through the city of Putulan which is predominately Muslim. It is certainly a change from Negombo which was predominately catholic. It is interesting to see that the young women wear white hijabs and burquas, but the older women wear black hijabs and burquas. I often wonder how they can bear being covered from head to toe in black, when it is so hot. The men also dress in white. Of course, instead of large catholic churches there are large mosques.

    The most unsavory thing we see on our four-hour journey to Palpatha is the dogs. The poor things are skinny, flea-infested, and some are infected with mange to the point of being almost hairless. For some reason the listless dogs lay or stand in the roads, and many will only move out-of-the-way after the driver of a car, honks at them. Some dogs don’t even bother to move, and the cars dodge around them. After seeing the plight of canines throughout our trip, except in the tea country, I told Paul it made me want to put on a backpack sprayer full of flea killer and spray every dog I encountered with the pesticide!

      When we arrive at Palpatha by late morning, we are greeted by the manager Anura, naturalist Saran, and Indika, who will serve our meals and clean our room. We are handed a fresh, king coconut to sip on while we are listening to Anura talk about Palpatha. It is amazing how much liquid is in these coconuts!

     After our briefing, the trio leads us to our very secluded room. It takes us five minutes to walk from the main area, to this wonderfully private place. We are surprised to find that the chalet, is open-air! By open-air I mean our room consists of a thatched roof, and cement half-walls form the building. The back wall has bamboo blinds that attach to the roof and extend down to make it feel closed in. The toilet is in a small, enclosed room, while the shower has four complete walls but no roof. When you turn the water on for the shower, the water appears to be gushing out of a rock. There are four comfortable, canvas chairs, and the beds are draped in mosquito netting. We have a stand-alone dining area, with a dining table, sink and counter top. We love it! Sometimes being disappointed, as with the canceled park reservations, can turn into a delightful surprise.

Paul checking out our open air chalet

Paul checking out our open air chalet

    After our room tour, Saran (Sah-run), takes us on a walk around the grounds. We take a look at the river, but no swimming please, crocs can be lurking. We see several birds on our walk, and it is obvious that Saran knows birds. Saran shows us a banana grove that they have planted, which in the heat of the day it looks like the small trees could use some water. We walk to the small stream only a few yards from our room, and Saran informs us that birds often come to drink. Saran leaves us at our room, so we can rest up, and prepare for our afternoon safari. As we are relaxing in the chairs, a jungle fowl struts by our chalet, headed for the stream. Jungle fowl look like wild bantams but with an incredible array of colors.

    

DSCF0475

Paul and I climb into the back of the safari truck while Saran, and our driver, Lahiru, are in the cab. We have a windy ride to Wilapattu national park, but it is quite warm so we don’t mind. It took us about an hour to drive here, and in that time we have found that this safari vehicle seems to be made for shorter, smaller people. There isn’t much leg room, plus the edge of the solid roof is right at eye level. This will prove to be a problem when we want to look at something in a tree top. Over the next day and a half we will find ourselves doing the darndest contortions to try to get a look at creatures, especially birds. At one time, I was practically lying down with my head stuck out the side looking up into a tree. Hey, whatever it takes, right. We can’t get out of the vehicle, except in designated areas.

    Saran joins us in the back of the truck once he finishes the paperwork. As we drive through the gates into the park, we enter a different world than the agricultural land and small villages that we passed through on our way here. We suddenly are in a forest, where stately trees shade the sand track we are driving on. There is a thick understory which is going to make it hard to find any animal lurking in there!

    Lahiru puts on the brakes after a short distance to point out a Changeable Hawk Eagle, perched on a low branch, right near the road. This is a beautiful Eagle and the raptor just sits there as we take his photo and admire him. A bit farther down the road, Saran finds a Crested Serpent Eagle, who exhibits the same temperament as the Hawk Eagle. Personally, it seems as if  the bird experts should switch their names since it is the Hawk Eagle which has top feathers sticking up like an added headdress.

Changeable Hawk Eagle

Changeable Hawk Eagle

     As we continue down this pleasant road, we are all peering into the thick brush in hopes of spying wildlife. I cry out “stop” as I think I see something standing in the shadows of a tree. Lahiru backs the truck up, until I say, “right here”. Saran looks at the unidentified animal and declares that it is a wild boar. It is too shadows, and too far away for a photo, but this is our first large mammal! The boar disappears into the forest as soon as he or she (they call both sexes wild boar) realizes it has been discovered.

     I notice Saran gives me a quick glance when he finds that I really did see something. Paul announces to the duo, that I have good eyes, to put them on notice I guess. As we drive away, Paul inquires if the boar moved; it didn’t, and then wonders how I saw it. I tell him the shape just didn’t belong to the rest of the landscape. May I say right here that our native guides blew us away after my initial spotting of the wild boar. They could see a tortoise crawling along the ground in the distance, spot big animals and sometimes small animals in the thickets, as we clipped along at a good speed down the sandy roads. Paul and I both had our moments but the eyes of these two young men were superb!

     We drive out of the forest after a few kilometers and in front of us is a large lake. The birds here are thick, and the lake has lotus flowers blooming around the edges. It is simply a breath-taking scene. There are egrets, cormorants, herons, plovers, storks, peacocks, and many more bird species. We also see spotted deer, but they are so common our guides find them boring, though they gladly stop so we can take photos of the deer. I find them beautiful, and the males sport huge antlers for their medium body frame.

spotted deer

spotted deer

      We must be out of the park before dark, so the last half hour of our visit is a speedy run for the gates. Despite our short safari, around 3 hours, we also saw terrapins, turtles, a land monitor, a mugger crocodile, a tiny barking deer and a mongoose. I’m probably forgetting some of the animals we saw but you can see we had good luck. We reach the park gates as the sun is beginning to set.

     Tonight we are served an incredible meal in our private dining area. The food is carried up to our room from the kitchen, and Indika serves us our meal, under the watchful eye of Anura. Anura told Paul that he is training Indika, thus the reason for his scrutiny. The amount of food they place before us is ridiculous. We have rice, potato curry, long beans (basically green beans), salad (we don’t eat it), tortilla like chips (delicious), a chopped vegetable we don’t recognize, fish for me, and chicken for Paul. There is a whole platter of fried fish of which I eat one piece, as it is full of bones. For dessert we have curds (made from water buffalo milk), which is similar to yogurt, with treacle poured over it. I must say the desert is very tasty. We hardly put a dent in the feast which appalls our hosts.

     Once the meal has been cleared away, and Indika finishes doing the dishes we are left to relax after our active day. We discover that the solar heated shower doesn’t work so well after dark. Taking a cold shower while looking at the stars is an experience in itself!

   We retire by 9 after setting our alarm clock for a 4:30 wake up call. We need to be ready to leave for the park at 5:30. We are both tired so falling asleep isn’t an issue. Staying asleep is another question entirely. I had laughed when I saw the wool blankets rolled up at the end of our bed. It was hot today and darkness brought a welcome coolness to the air. It isn’t long after going to bed, that we both are pulling the blankets up to our chins. Once we are snuggled under the blankets, we fall back asleep quickly.

Beautiful Peacock

Beautiful Peacock

     What the heck was that? We are jolted out of a deep sleep by a loud and raucous sound. The instigator of this noise sets off a chain reaction from the neighbors, which rolls off into the distance. Peacocks! I had forgotten how loud they can be. The peacock that woke us up must be roosting in a tree along the stream. Something has upset him as he repeats his warning ;( Paul says he sounds like a love-sick cat), with regularity. Each utterance our bird voices, causes all the roosting peacocks surrounding us, to respond in kind. Paul finds no humor in the incidence, but every time I listen to the response from our resident peacocks cohorts, I have to giggle. Paul falls asleep while this night music is still playing. I on the other hand listen to the peacocks until the end of the performance.

    Next installment, an all-day safari in Wilpattu. Nancy

Wooly necked Storks

Wooly necked Storks

Asian Openbill

Asian Openbill

Crested serpent Eagle

Crested serpent Eagle

    

   

    

Snorkeling on Bar Reef, Sri Lanka 3

Snorkeling on Bar Reef, Sri Lanka 3

Beach Scene

Beach Scene

     After yesterday’s bone jarring boat ride, I wake up aching all over. Plus I tweaked a muscle in my back just getting out of bed this morning, so the first thing I do is reach for the ibuprophen. Paul informs me that I am walking like an old lady and I reply that I feel like one! I shudder at the thought of another rough boat ride and even contemplate staying behind, but know I would regret that decision so decide to tough it out.

    We eat toast and marmalade before leaving on our snorkeling adventure. Dennis has made all the arrangements for us, including the tuk tuk that will transport us to the launching point. The ride takes us through small

Our tuk tuk driver and guide attaching Sri Lankan flag to the boat

Our tuk tuk driver and guide attaching Sri Lankan flag to the boat

villages and rural areas until we arrive at our destination 30 minutes later.

    The two men who are taking us snorkeling are waiting for us, as our tuk tuk pulls into their driveway. The head guides’ sons (maybe 7 and 10 years) are also there to welcome us. What a couple of cuties these boys are, with their lively eyes and big smiles.

     Before the boat is launched, we are handed life jackets, and told to stow our gear under the prow of the boat. Paul and I sit down in the secured plastic chairs in the middle row. The two brothers gladly occupy the chairs closest to the front of the boat.  Once the boat is pushed into the inlet, the heavier set man slowly guides the boat through the shallow water. I am busy watching all the birds that are flying and perching around the water. Hey, a pied kingfisher. That is a new bird for me and he is a beauty. No photos though, as I chose not to bring my camera due to the rough ride, and the chance of being sprayed with water. We will make do with Paul’s small camera.

    

Terns

Terns

We are nearly to the ocean, when our boat pulls over to the shore near a small shack. There is a uniformed man standing there, and our guide walks over to him, returning with a paper showing us how much the permit costs for us to go to Bar Reef. This comes as a total surprise to us as Dennis never said a word about having to pay a fee. Paul and I inform our host that we didn’t know about the fee. Our guide returns to the shack and while he is gone, Paul and I make a decision on how to handle this problem. We have almost enough money with us to cover the fee but if we give it to the government man, it will leave nothing for tips for the tour people. We prefer to save the money for private enterprise folks!

     When they return they have a calculator showing the amount of the fee, assuming we didn’t understand them when they quoted the price. We shake our heads and say we don’t have it. They ask if we have any money, we shake our heads no and tell them to call Dennis. Our guide gets on his phone, we assume with Dennis, and then hands the phone to the government guy. The men confer among themselves and then the permit giver hands over a piece of paper and we continue to the ocean.  Yes, we told a bald face lie about not having money, but I knew the government would get their money one way or another. Who knows if our boatmen would get our tip if we sent someone back with it?

    

We have one more stretch of very shallow water before we reach the ocean. In fact it is so shallow that the motor can’t be used. Instead there are men waiting to pull boats through the shoals to the ocean. One man grabs a rope tied to the front of our boat, and trudges through knee deep water, as he pulls our motor boat the last several yards to the ocean. I watch the captain hand him money, and I’m pretty sure it is a 100 Sri Lankan rupee. 100 rupees converted to US dollars is about 80 cents.

Our guides sons

Our guides sons

    Before launch, our main guide stands at the front of the boat, crosses himself, folds his hands and says a silent prayer, then crosses himself again. Paul and I both found this unassuming ritual, appealing and calming. You can’t imagine how insignificant you feel once you travel away from land, in a small motor boat on that huge expanse of water.

   Here we go again, even though the ocean is calm, the waves are big enough that we still crash down into the trough of every wave we must climb. I believe sitting farther back from the front of the boat helps, but it still is like riding a bucking bronco. When you’re rising up, it isn’t so bad, but when the bronco’s feet hit the ground the jolt reverberates all through your body. Not that I ever stayed on a horse after the first buck to experience more than one jolt! The young boys are having a great time, punching each other and laughing at the rough sea ride. They look back at us now and then to flash us a big grin.

     It takes an hour to reach Bar reef. There is no land here but the water is calm and shallow over the reef.  Our guide indicates we need to put on our masks, in addition I put on my life jacket since I can’t swim. He also uses a few English words and gestures to show that he intends to pull me around with the aid of a life preserve. He seems to be giving us no choice in the matter. He also inquires if Paul is a good swimmer. I would prefer to start out with Paul, until that initial surge of panic I know I will experience passes, but decide to suck it up and agree with the arrangement. Paul tells me he will stick close for a while which makes me feel a little better.

Our guide that pulled me around the reef for an hour

Our guide that pulled me around the reef for an hour

    My first big test comes when I must climb down the boat’s ladder, let go of the last rung (my hands seem reluctant to do this), so I can grab the orange life preserver, floating a scant foot from the boat. When I reach for that little circle of floatable foam, it slips from my grasp and I panic. I start thrashing around like a fish out of water (I couldn’t resist that description), which just makes the life preserver harder to grasp. I hear the guide tell me I need to get back into the boat at the same time I am forcing myself to calm down. I straighten my legs, put my face in the water, and I am under control again. I hear a surprised “oh” from my human towboat, and then he begins pulling me out over the coral.

     Oh yes, now I remember why I fight through my terror of water to snorkel. The life that is spread out below us is mind blowing. There are colorful fish everywhere, neon blue, yellow striped, yellow and blue striped, black with blue spots. You name it the pattern and color can probably be seen! The fish range in size of a minnow to a big bass. There are big schools of fish, small schools of fish to solitary fish. The smaller fish duck in and out of the coral as we swim over their territory, seeking protection from what could be a danger to them.

       There is a large array of coral in various shapes and colors. Many of the coral appear to be blooming in colors of pinks, whites and light blue. Does coral bloom?? Some of the coral is beautiful to look at while others appear to be from an alien planet.

   As usual, I express my delight with the sea life in a watery garble that exits through my snorkel tube. I ooh and ahh and at times laugh at a particularly comical fish. Now and then, I hear my escort laughing at my reactions, and I’m sure I do sound silly. Paul eventually ventures away from us when he sees that I am relaxed and enjoying myself. I’m sure it is something of a relief to him that he is free to explore without me hanging on to his swim shorts!

    My guide takes me to the edge of the coral where the water is rougher and the depth of the water increases dramatically. Oh my, the obvious shape of a shark, 4 or 5 foot long, disappears into the murky water at our approach. I can make out the shapes of very large fish that are lurking in the deep water. I feel relief when the guide turns back for the calm, shallow water over the coral but the glimpse into the ocean depth was exciting.

   

The boys snorkeling near the boat

The boys snorkeling near the boat

I hate to leave this magical world of plants, coral, and fish but I can tell that this poor man, who has been pulling me all over the place, is getting tired. I tap him on the shoulder and motion towards the boat. I climb up into the boat with a smile plastered on my face. Up until a few minutes ago, we had Bar reef all to ourselves, but three more boats have arrived so that is another reason to quit. Paul and the boys aren’t ready to leave yet which is fine with me. We forgot to bring towels, so I am glad to have a chance to dry off before we speed back to land.

  

  I laugh as the boys hang onto each other, furiously kick their feet, but don’t get very far. What difference does it make though as there are fish everywhere. I was feeling sorry about our leader having to tow me around, until I watch a man from another boat pulling three adults, all hanging onto one small life preserver! My guy had it easy! I watch Paul as he nearly swims into some other snorkelers, when you are looking down into the water this is easy to do. After the near collision I guess he decides it is getting too crowded and he swims back to the boat. Paul climbs into the watercraft, pulls his mask off, and his face is beaming. He proclaims to all of us how great the experience was. Paul says he can’t believe the variety of fish we saw, estimating there must have been at least 50 different species. I wouldn’t doubt that at all, but I gave up after a short time trying to keep a tally on all the fish encountered.  Dad calls to his sons to get in the boat and the two man crew lift anchor and start for home. We were in the water an hour but it sure didn’t seem like it was that long.

Paul just a speck in the ocean as he snorkels

Paul just a speck in the ocean as he snorkels

   

We reach land in half the time that it took us to get to the reef which makes sense, because we are being pushed in by the waves. One of the waiting boat pullers begins tugging our boat back through the shallow water. This time he has help in that the boys have decided to push from behind. I watch the little rascals who often lay down while holding onto the boat and allow themselves to be dragged through the water. I laugh, they laugh and the world just seems pretty good right now.

     When we arrive back at our guides place, our tuk tuk driver is waiting to take us back to Dolphin Beach. Paul asks if he would call Dennis on his phone so he can talk to him. We need Dennis to explain to the guide, why we actually do have money, and the reason we fibbed about not having money to pay the fee. Dennis, after telling Paul that he had no idea there was a fee, translates our reasoning for denying that we had money, to the tour operator.  We see the guide listening and shaking his head, I believe I see a slight smile on his face too.

     Once that is settled, we profusely thank our hosts and hand them the tips they surely deserve. As we are settling into the tuk tuk, our guide returns with a book that clients have written comments in about the snorkeling junket. I am more than happy to share a glowing review for him.

    We are tired but happy as the tuk tuk driver buzzes down the road toward Dolphin Beach. I quizzically ask Paul, if he thinks this will be the last time we snorkel. Paul replies that very thought had just crossed his mind. We both agree that there is a distinct possibility that this could be our last hurrah for snorkeling. Hey, if that proves to be the case, it was a great one to end on.

A herd of goats we encounter on our way back to Dolphin beach

A herd of goats we encounter on our way back to Dolphin beach

   When we get back to the resort, Dennis is there to meet us and we thank him for handling the fee problem, which we now pay to him. After a lunch of fish for me and chicken for Paul and a Lions lager of course, we relax in one of the lounges for a couple of hours before going to pack. Repacking your luggage has to be the worst part of travel as I swear the luggage must shrink. Nothing ever fits back in as easily as when you packed it at home.

    Next chapter, Willapatu National Park. Nancy

Fishing net on beach

Fishing net on beach

  

  

    

     

Dolphin Beach, Sri Lanka 2

Despite our impromptu entertainment last night, Paul and I feel well rested this morning. We make our way down the stairs, stepping out into the refreshing morning air. A smiling waiter seats us at a poolside table, and soon brings us the artfully arranged plate of fruit, that will be part of every breakfast throughout our trip.  Although every resort we stay at has their own style, the plates include a variety of fruits that are in season. This includes wedges of watermelon, slices of juicy pineapple, chunks of papaya (my favorite), and of course bananas. We both order an omelet which is delicious.

Typical of fruit plates at breakfast

Typical of fruit plates at breakfast

We have our luggage packed and ready to go when our driver arrives to pick us up at 8:30.  We were expecting Kevin, who our tour company had assigned to us for the entire trip. Instead, Sunil pulls up in his red car, and explains to us that due to personal reasons, Kevin isn’t available today. Sunil will transport us to Dolphin Beach, where we will spend 3 nights, and then Kevin will take over as scheduled. I hope so, Paul requested Kevin due to a review he read on Trip Advisor, and he is supposed to be a terrific birder and naturalist.

As we are driving through the city of Negombo, Sunil mentions that he lives in this area. He asks us if we would like to go to his house to meet his wife and have tea. Sure, why not. Dolphin Beach isn’t that far away and we have all day. When we pull into the driveway by his house, we both gasp as this place is really beautiful! We admire the landscaping and beautiful porch before going inside. Wow, a wooden spiral staircase is the first thing we see along with a spacious first floor. Sunil’s wife comes out of the kitchen to greet us. We sit on the couch, which looks as if you should just admire it, and wait as Chitna(the wife) goes up to roust their teenage boy out of bed.

Chitna comes back and serves us tea and a filled pancake-like pastry. The filling is rich and spicy, but we are so full from breakfast that I must force myself to finish eating the homemade treat. A sleepy, young man descends the staircase, looking like he would rather be anywhere else but here. We are introduced to the son whose name I don’t recall, and make small talk about school and their family.  We learn during our social visit, that the house actually belongs to Sunil’s uncle, a Catholic priest, who lives in New York and they are live-in caretakers. Also, that Chitna is an interior decorator. I believe that, as the rooms look like something out of an interior decorating magazine.

Sunil family

Sunil family

As we are preparing to leave, Sunil asks if it would be o.k. if his wife rode along with us. Sure, why not, there is plenty of room in the car.  Chitna changes into more comfortable traveling clothes and we proceed down the road.

Sunil speaks English very well, but Chitna only speaks a few English words, so we  just smile at each other once in a while. Sunil does translate some of our conversation to Chitna at times. We drive by lots of coconut plantations and some rice fields. Everything is lush and various shades of green, punctuated by a blue cloudless sky. There are people with small carts or roughly made structures, that are selling vegetables, fruits, and homemade food on the narrow shoulder of the highway. We drive by a man dumping coconuts out of a cart that is pulled by an ox, and Sunil stops so I can take a photo through my open window. There is lots of bird life to be seen as we cruise down the road too.

Unloading a load of coconuts

Unloading a load of coconuts

We stop at a Hindu temple and I am overwhelmed by the thousands of colorful figures that adorn every inch of the structure. We will see a lot of these temples throughout our trip and although I find them fascinating, I also find them overwhelming and frankly on the garish side.

a small section of the Hindu temple

a small section of the Hindu temple

We arrive at Dolphin Beach around noon and meet Dennis the manager. Dennis is very personable and makes us feel at ease immediately. We hand over our passports so the staff can check us in, and then follow Dennis as he shows us around the beautiful grounds. Sunil and Chitna have joined in the tour as they are contemplating coming here with his Uncle in July. There are luxury tents lining the edges of the small resort, with a grove of palm trees growing in the middle. Dennis shows us the open air restaurant, the two lounge areas adorned with couches and pillows, the pool and just beyond this area, the ocean. Lovely. The caveat is that this beautiful place sits in the middle of a wind farm! There are two large towers on either side of Dolphin Beach resort, with a dozen or more of the monstrous machines marching off into the distance in both directions. Truthfully, the sound of the swishing blades, blend into the sound of the oceans surf, so that isn’t an issue. The giant windmills do keep you from imagining that you are living in a simpler place and time!

Once our grounds tour is over, Dennis leads us to our tent. This is so cool. There is a nice lounging patio in front of the tent, settee, pillows and all. The first “room” has a king-sized bed, couch, a table with a mirror attached and an air conditioner. The next section has 2 twin beds and another couch. When you exit through the back door you find the bathroom and shower. Sunil and Chitna have joined our tent tour, and are snapping photos of the interior of the tent. They intend to send his Uncle a photo tour of the place, inside and out, so he can make a decision if he wants to stay here when he comes to visit. Once the tour is over, we say goodbye to Sunil and Chitna, and begin to settle into our comfortable tent.

Our tent at Dolphin Beach

Our tent at Dolphin Beach

Paul and I don’t do a lot for the rest of the day. Paul, once he musters the courage, jumps into the cold water of the pool. While Paul is swimming, I walk down the beach and encounter three fishermen, casting nets into the ocean. It is quite a contrast to see these people practicing the same fishing technique that their ancestors did, with the wind towers in the background. There are also lines of fishing boats upon the beach with a coal plant looming over them. Guess that explains the black dust that is mixed in with the sand. Oh well, there are birds everywhere, and crabs running around in droves, so it appears humans and wildlife alike have adapted to the energy producing technology.

Net fishermen

Net fishermen

We watch the sunset and although it is pretty, the sun disappears quite quickly. I still will put up a Kansas sunset to any I have ever seen in all our travels.

Dolphin Beach sunset

Dolphin Beach sunset

We eat at the restaurant tonight even though the meal isn’t included in our package deal. They are having a barbecue that Dennis is very enthusiastic about. As Paul and I watch the flames that jettison up from the gas grill, appearing to be only inches from the dry thatch roof, we are happy to be seated where we can take two steps and exit the restaurant. We snicker a bit as Dennis will turn the grill down, taming the flames, but as soon as his back is turned; the chef will twist the knob on the grill, sending the flames skyward again. An hour after the barbecue was supposed to be ready, we dish up chicken, prawns, bread, potatoes and I have some fish. It turns out to be very disappointing as most everything is barely warm. All the meat was precooked, and only warmed on the grill so the big barbecue was a big bust for us. We find the cost of the barbecue at sixteen bucks apiece excessive in price!

Oh for crying out loud, we are serenaded in the middle of the night again. This time loud music and laughter is quite audible even though it is coming from outside the walls of the resort. I give up and take a sleeping pill at midnight. Paul somehow sleeps through the noise, but when he wakes up at 2 in the morning the raucous party is still going strong. Thank goodness for ambien.

We are up early as we are taking a boat tour in search of dolphins this morning. We saw the small motor boats yesterday, and had to laugh at the owner’s sense of humor in naming them. Paul and I are the only tourists in our boat which is manned by a driver and a scout. The seats in this boat are just hard, fiberglass slabs running along the sides of the boat. Thank goodness, Paul remembered to bring the inflatable cushions we brought with us and used on our long plane ride. By the way, thank you Doris. Paul’s sister recommended the cushions to us, after she used them in Africa, and found they gave much relief from uncomfortable plane seats and rough roads on safari. We now pass on that recommendation to those of you who find your posterior gets very sore and uncomfortable on long flights!

We appreciated the sense of humor in naming the boats

We appreciated the sense of humor in naming the boats

The captain of the boat attacks the waves with a vengeance, and when we slide up on the crest of a wave, we then crash down in its trough with a jaw cracking thud. You can feel the watercraft shudder as we thump back into the ocean and I wonder what kind of lifespan these poor boats have. After what seems an eternity, an hour actually, our boat slows down and the scout climbs up on the prow to begin searching for dolphins. On occasion, we go dashing off in one direction, other boats are doing the same thing, and I finally figure out the boatmen are watching for birds. Evidently, the birds follow the feeding dolphins so the boats follow the birds.

Yikes, no safety rope as our guide searches for dolphins

Yikes, no safety rope as our guide searches for dolphins

The crews of the motorboats that are scattered about on the water, use hand signals or call each other on their cell phones to find out if anyone has found the dolphins. There is one boat where a man begins waving his arms at us, and we speed over to where they are. Sure enough there is a small school of dolphin and we try to follow them as them skim through the water. I never knew these creatures were so fast. This scene becomes a deja vu experience, as someone will find a few dolphins, the other boats will speed over to that area, we will follow the dolphins to catch a few glimpses of the swimming torpedoes and then they disappear into the depths of the Indian ocean.

There are 9 boats involved in this action and when we catch up with the dolphins, the captains all cut their motors to an idle, and the diesel fumes become quite annoying. This isn’t exactly what I had envisioned and I feel a little uncomfortable with the frenzy of chasing after the dolphins. We were hoping to get lucky and have a day when you can actually see 2 or 3 thousand dolphins swimming, or jumping into the air and spinning. We did see a couple of them jumping out of the water which was fun.

The best photo of a dolphin I could get.

The best photo of a dolphin I could get.

After an hour of rushing here and there in this vast ocean, we indicate to our crew we have had enough. Our guides don’t speak any English by the way. We saw a maybe a hundred dolphin when you add them all up. The biggest group was about 20, it’s hard to tell as they are all around you, and can disappear in a blink of an eye. As we were bouncing our way back to the shore, I was hanging on for dear life, my eyes closed tight, when Paul yells “look at that”. I quickly look in the direction he is pointing and see a beautiful, silvery fish, leaping out of the water and traveling 4 or 5 feet in the air per jump. The big fish did this a half-dozen times before he disappeared into the water for good. That was the coolest thing we saw this morning!

When we finish eating our late breakfast, Paul and I walk down the beach to the small fishing village. We find a small shop and buy crackers and cookies from the rather startled owners. I don’t think they are used to tourists frequenting their establishment!

As we walk back to the beach we come upon a line of villagers pulling a rope that is attached to a huge fishing net. The net is looped in a semi-circle at least a half mile in length. There is a boat on the water that is hooked to the other end of the net. We watch in amazement as these, mostly old, men and women, almost dance as they synchronize their steps while they walk backwards pulling in the net. When the person at the end of the rope, reaches the man who is coiling the slack line up, he or she will unhook themselves from the rope and make their way to the front of the queue. They tie the rope to their waist and begin to heave at the heavy line, starting the process all over again. We would like to stay and watch the people bring the net in but it is really hot, and it appears as though this task will not be over for two or three hours. Man, I hope there is a lot of fish in that net for all the strenuous work they are putting into hauling the net in by hand in this oppressive heat.

Hauling in the net with a human chain

Hauling in the net with a human chain

Later this afternoon, Paul and I put on our snorkeling masks and practice in the pool. We haven’t snorkeled for years, and since we have booked a snorkeling tour for tomorrow, decide we had better acquaint ourselves with the procedure again. We get along o.k. as I hang onto Paul and he pulls me up and down the pool, as I peer through my mask at nothing. Paul suggests we go into the ocean to experience the real deal. The water isn’t deep close to the shore but the waves still slap you around. I have my usual moment of pure panic, but force myself to put my head down, hang tight to Paul and just do it. We don’t stay in the water long but I feel sure I will manage tomorrow.

We go to one of the lounges, order a Lion lager, and enjoy just being lazy. Our lounging is cut short when smoke and ash drifts over the resort from a fire somewhere down the beach. It becomes thick enough to be annoying so we retreat to the confines of our tent.

Sri Lankan beer

Sri Lankan beer

There are two British couples that arrived this afternoon. We visit with them a bit and find out they are going on the dolphin tour in the morning. We wish them good luck. When we see them at noon the next day, you guessed it; they did see the infamous thousands of dolphins. The Brits told us that there were dolphins as far as you could see in every direction. The creatures were leaping and spinning and putting on an unbelievable show. Oh well, I’m happy that they were so fortunate to experience this phenomenon, and know that when in search of wild life it is just the luck of the draw.

View from the lounge area, yeah it was rough.

View from the lounge area, yeah it was rough.

Next installment, Snorkeling Bar Reef. Nancy