Wilpattu, Sri Lanka 4
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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