20/4/2015 6:30 PM
Natural World Safaris Sale Manager, Arabella Lakin, has headed off to Sri Lanka where she will spend the next three weeks exploring the best of this beguiling island, known for it's famous tea, ancient ruins, friendly people and the fantastic wildlife that you can encounter in its national parks. Follow her journey with her day-by-day trip report as she travels.
The trip got off to a great start with VIP fast track upon arrival at the airport, straight off the plane into a separate visa line and VIP lounge whilst someone got my luggage then straight into a Mercedes with my driver Rowan. I could get used to being treated like royalty! We headed south along the highway to Galle - an exotic city where the sea-side air carries the scent of spices in the breeze. I check into Why House, a beautiful retreat just outside of Galle.
After settling in I head into town for a walk around the Fort. It was bustling with local people, enjoying the cooler weather at the end of the day. I paused to watch some locals playing cricket in their flip flops by the fort walls and they pretty much took over the streets. There was lots of cheering and a cup was presented at the end; they even had a DJ, music and loud speaker adding to a lively feel!
While in the town I explored with a friend, checking out several bars offering fantastic sea views.
After joining my hosts at Why House for a dinner party I was ready for bed, feeling the glow of a very warm welcome to Sri Lanka.
It was an early start this morning for a bicycle ride around the local villages and rice fields. It is the Sihala and Tamil New Year and the local villages were celebrating; we watched them playing Avurudda (New Year) games including being blindfolded and trying to hit a coconut - I guess its their version of pin the tail on the donkey.
We paused on our cycling trail while our guide scaled a palm tree and bought down delicious coconuts to quench our thirst. The ride captured plenty of culture as we cycled past rickshaws and locals and also delivered some wildlife too, seeing buffalo, large monitor lizards and peacocks.
Later in the afternoon I headed to my next accommodation, the beautiful Cape Weligama, where I was introduced to my butler, Pradeep, who told me he would take me to paradise. Which he did. As our buggy turned the corner there was this incredible crescent shaped infinity pool with the Indian Ocean backdrop. What an amazing place. My room has a large verandah with sea view and a huge bathroom (probably the largest I have seen). I'm currently waiting for my "high tea" - would I like to take it in the main library or would I prefer to get Pradeep to bring it to my verandah? That's my current dilemma.
Unfortunately the sea was too rough for whale watching today so instead my group headed up the coast to Hikkaduwa to swim with the turtles. This turned out to be a magical experience, snorkelling with magnificent green turtles in the clear blue waters, right off the beach. We also visited the turtle hatchery, part of the turtle conservation project where we saw turtles that had only hatched that morning. The eggs are often found on the beach and carefully moved to a safe area where they are looked after until they hatch. Once hatched, they are put into a big bucket of water and that evening, when the beach is quiet, they are released into the sea.
An early start today, heading out before sunrise giving me the opportunity to watch the fisherman on the beach bringing in their early morning hauls.
The reason for the pre-dawn start was that I was hoping to see whales and knew the recent sightings had been excellent (all our clients have had good sightings throughout the season). Unfortunately with only one opportunity, combined with it being the final day of the season we weren’t lucky to encounter any; we generally recommend that anyone with their heart set on whale encounters plans to spend five days in the area.
Nevertheless we made the most of being out on the strikingly blue water and were joined by several spinner dolphins playing in our surf.
I had the opportunity to try some free diving and was overwhelmed by the amazing colours under the water.
After a quick lunch it was time to head to Yala National Park for an entirely different species of wildlife; leopards. By the time I arrived it was too late to join the game drive but returning guests were buzzing about a close encounter with two leopards mating. Hopefully I’ll be as lucky with my big cat encounters tomorrow when I head off on a game drive myself.
Sssssshhh. Last night I discovered Yala’s new secret which will change what we can offer you in Yala National Park. This is big news which I am so excited about it, and here is why.
At NWS our approach to arranging our extraordinary safaris is always around putting our clients in the right place at the right time for the best wildlife viewing opportunities. This can sometimes require a compromise in the quality of accommodation as not all the luxury lodges have the best location.
This has always been the case with Yala National Park. Our preferred camp for spotting the famous leopards in the park has always been Leopard Safari Camp, run by Noel Rodrigo. Our reasons for this are simple. Noel has invested his time and energy into creating a superbly run safari camp which offers access to the park through a quiet area, away from the crowds. All his guides are exceptionally well trained naturalists and his vehicles are Toyota Landcruisers, with added Australian off road suspension. The in camp service is also excellent and the home style cooked, traditional Sri Lankan cuisine is absolutely delicious and continually commented on. In terms of quality of guiding, food, service and location, you cannot beat it.
However, the quality of the accommodation is more basic, while the tents are comfortable and do come with private flush loos and hot water African style bucket showers, they don’t have all the creature comforts that some guest look for. This has stopped some of you who prefer a bit more luxury from experiencing the best of Yala. Or maybe I should say, it did stop you …
Noel has just raised the bar, by building a brand spanking new large, luxury tented suite with air conditioning and hot running water. As an unexpected surprise, Noel handed me the keys and asked me to test it out for him before it opens. Of course I didn't refuse! My timing couldn't have been better as the builders finished the last touches an hour before I checked in.
The massive four poster bed in the centre was inviting and personally designed by Noel, but I headed straight for the bathroom where the rain shower (recycled water and solar heated), was just what the doctor ordered after a hot day out on safari. I didn't actually need the air con as I am cool enough, ah sorry, it was cool enough already.
The furnishings are all natural and use reclaimed wood. Noel advises me that no trees were cut down to build it. The rugs, bought by him in Morocco, gives it an African feel while the raised walkway to get there is beautifully lit up by lanterns at night – perfect for honeymooners, but equally welcoming for couples and families too.
Needless to say, I slept soundly, only waking at the crack dawn by bird-song, ready to head out in search of the leopards. I wasn’t disappointed; during my 2 night stay, I saw leopards, elephant, water buffalo, wild boar, a golden jackal, deers, mongoose, crocodiles, land monitors and I even got my birding hat on as the birds in Yala are incredible. My best experience however was witnessing a male peacock practising his dancing before his hot date that night. The poor red-wattled Lapwing that he was trying his moves out on was not impressed, and wandered off fairly quickly. It was however a wonderful sight and I hope his practising paid off on some lucky bird....
Udawalawe National Park is well known as the best park in the south for seeing wild elephants and it certainly didn't disappoint during my visit. Within three minutes of entering the park I had my own private sighting of a herd of elephants, including three young calves, kept under the watchful eye of the older elephants in the group. They were completely unphased by the presence of our vehicle presence and we spent 20 minutes with the family as they went about their daily feeding (they dedicate 20 hours a day to consuming 150kgs of vegetation).
I spent over two hours in the park with a local driver my national park guide, experienced in tracking the wildlife found here. The chances of seeing leopards are slim to none but aside from the numerous elephants, there is plenty of other wildlife to look out for. It is a great destination for birders as the park is adjacent to a large reservoir, attracting resident and migratory birds, including kites, hornbills, fish eagles, storks and king fishers. There are plenty of other mammals too; I saw buffaloes, spotted deer and ruddy mongoose. With the mountains as a back drop the park is quite scenic, although doesn't feel as wild as somewhere like Yala and lacks the sophisticated set up as the vehicles are outsourced to local drivers with just the trackers coming from the National Park headquarters.
For those who have time you can also visit the nearby Elephant Information Centre which has interactive information about the habitat and behaviour of the Asian Elephant, as well as the conflicts which affect the species.
The chances of seeing elephants are much higher than in Yala so it's definitely a must do for elephant enthusiasts, especially if you can't fit Minneryia (which is further to the north) into your itinerary.
After the excitement of exploring the park I was ready to check out my accommodation for the night, Kalu's Hideaway. Just a few minutes from the park gates this hideaway is nestled in five acres of beautiful garden. Owned by the famous Sri Lankan cricketer, Romesh Kaluwitharana, there is plenty of attention to detail with well-kept rooms, an inviting pool and even a spa where you can relax with a massage or unwind with a spot of yoga.
Heading up a long windy road, ascending through tea plantations high into the hills, I headed to my next stop, Sinharaja rainforest, the most important biosphere reserve in Sri Lanka. The journey here was incredibly scenic with beautiful views over the perfectly manicured tea gardens - although I had to close my eyes a few times. With tuk tuks appearing from all angles, dogs wandering into the road and some sharp bends I was grateful to not be behind the wheel myself; the somewhat hectic drive offered a great glimpse into Sri Lankan life.
Keen to explore, after settling in I headed off for a night walk where I had my first encounters of the wildlife inhabiting this hilly virgin rainforest, spotting chameleons, stick insects, lots of fire flies, glow worms, snakes and numerous noisy frogs.
My bed for the night was at the Sinharaja Rainforest Eco-lodge. Consisting of beautifully furnished chalets that repurpose old shipping containers it really is a true eco-lodge which uses the mantra 'reduce, re-use and recycle'.
The next morning I was woken up early by monkeys fighting in the trees. Heading out into the forest for a nature walk I found myself in a bird watchers paradise. There are several rare endemic birds that can be found in Sinharaja and the sound of bird song throughout the forest is incredible.
My guide was able to show me lots of interesting plants including wild ginger, mint, cinnamon, and a plant is used to treat hepatitis. Arriving at a river I pushed through a mini-gap in the rocks to find a powerful waterfall, getting drenched in the process. I was treated to a natural world fish massage thanks to an eager shoal of stone sucker fish leaving my feet feeling like new, before heading back to lodge for huge feast of local curry, eaten with my hands of course! The skies have opened now with hard, heavy rain cascading down (which seems fitting as we are in a rainforest) but once it clears I'll be heading to the local villages and tea plantations that surround the forest.
It was a beautiful drive from Sinharaja onto my next stop the Ceylon tea region. At 1,300 m above sea level the landscape is dominated by brilliant emerald tea plantations, the smell of tea lingering in the air. Winding roads snake through the manicured tea gardens, with crashing waterfalls completing the picture. Tea pluckers busy themselves picking their last leaves of the day, just small dots in a sea of green.
Arriving at Norwood bungalow owned by Ceylon tea trail I discover Colonial living at its best; croquet lawn, butlers, tennis courts, drawing room with open fire, high tea, and even a fresh cup of tea brought to your bed in the morning). With amazing views, incredible service and exceptionally good food it’s easy to see why so many people fall in love with this place!
I had no idea that picking tea was so complex – this is why woman pick the tea as it requires a lot of patience and diligence as there are only certain leaves you should pick. Men are left to do the heavy work. It was a great tour with tea tasting at the end – definitely worth including on your itinerary.
The same afternoon I hired a local guide and headed off on mountain bikes right up into the hills. It was hard going but amazing, following rocky paths through plantations, heading up and up and up. The uphill commutes on my bike have finally paid off! At top we were treated to beautiful panoramic views of Adams peak. For those who don’t want to cycle this can also be done as a walking trail and I highly recommend it – my photos don’t do it justice.
Heading back to base for dinner with my new friends we compared notes over some port in the drawing room but with a 6am alarm call waiting it was an early night for me.
With my early start I was glad not to have been tempted by the all inclusive policy at Tea Trails and succumbed to that extra port (or two)! I’d made a last minute decision to travel to Kandy by train so headed to Hatton train station.
Travelling by train is romantic and to me gives me a real sense of a country. This was a last minute decision and I wanted to get the first train out, so cattle class it was. There were only three passenger carriages as the rest of the train was carrying petrol. I really wanted to get a window seat on the left hand side for best views and they were all taken – apart from in the last carriage. This carriage was for clergy only but my driver assured me it was fine. Feeling very holy, the train chugged out of the station passing a valley of sea of tea plantations, with my carriage empty but me and one other person, who was playing some beautiful music adding to this already romantic journey.
As the train progressed north my carriage filled up and by the time we reached Kandy, it was a very holy carriage indeed with a mix of Hindus, Buddhists, Christians and Muslims, all of course, clergymen! For those who wish to travel a section of their itinerary by train Tourist trains have observation carts which are well worth it, although I was perfectly content in third class grinning at all my fellow passengers. The girl next to me said 'Sri Lanka very nice’. Huge understatement. She should have said 'Sri Lanka exceptionally beautiful, with some of the friendliest people, stunning scenery, amazing wildlife and yummiest food'.
On arrival into Kandy, my driver met me at the platform and we set off into the botanical gardens which are definitely worth a visit, although despite it not being even 11am it was already exceedingly hot. I loved seeing all the orchids and was pleasantly surprised at seeing many locals enjoying a walk in the gardens too. After getting my fill of the gardens I set off for some retail therapy, exploring the numerous batik shops.
I spent the evening at the Kandy house which is a gorgeous Colonial house on the outskirts of the city. I dined on my private veranda to the chorus of frogs and birds and once again it struck me how nature is everywhere in this country.
My base for the next few days to explore the Anuradhapura District is Habarana, a well located base with good transport links allowing you to easily access the many places of interest in the area. You need at least two nights here, possibly three as there is a lot to see.
Top of the list is finding an elephant gathering which is either at Minneriya or neighbouring parks depending on the time of the year. My guide told me I'd see over 30 elephants in 2 hours and he wasn't wrong. There are a lot in this area and if you travel in August you have a chance of seeing 200 elephants in one drive! I didn't go to Minneriya as this time of year there is plenty of water in nearby forests and the elephants are more spread out so I headed to Hurulu Eco Park.
While in the area there were a number of sites I visited. Polonnaruwa is city of ruins, with a lot of ancient tombs and temples, statues and stupas to view. With a really interesting history it’s an important place to visit and despite the heat, I enjoyed walking around the ruins. I need to give a special thanks to Richard Denyer, one of our regular clients, for the invaluable advice about taking socks to wear as you have to take your shoes off and the ground was far too hot for my feet.
Another popular place to visit is Sigiriya, which I’ve heard referred to as the Eighth Wonder of the World. The massive rocky plateau dominates the landscape and most people opt to climb the rock, which takes around two hours with 1250 stairs to tackle. Unfortunately a knee injury meant I would never get down so I had to admire it from below.
The final leg of my journey was a 2 night stay in Wilpattu National Park. Although it’s the oldest and largest national park in Sri Lanka it is relatively uncrowded with few visitors, especially compared to Yala National Park. The main reasons for this are because there is very little accommodation choice nearby, with most options being fairly basic tented camping. The park was closed for 16 years until 2003, due to the civil war, so it is only slowly finding its feet and opening up to tourists. I was really looking forward to getting back into the wild, having spent the last few days in the cultural capital of Sri Lanka.
My base for my stay was Mahoora Tented Camp who are one of the most established safari operators in Sri Lanka, having operated since 1998. Upon arrival I was greeted by their friendly, local team and even planted a tree, as part of their conservation programme. During my stay I enjoyed a half day game drive, a full day game drive (from dusk till dawn) and a morning nature walk. With numerous ‘Villus’ (reservoirs) which the park is famous for (Wilpattu means Land of Lakes), the birdlife here was excellent and the park enjoys a diverse mixture of wildlife and ecosystems. The highlight of my safari was in the midday heat on the second day.
Spotting a leopard in Sri Lanka, differs to Africa. Whilst in Africa, the leopards are mainly nocturnal, in Sri Lanka, they are active during the day as there are few predators around. This makes full day safaris really well worth while and my guide told me that midday to 2pm are great times for spotting leopard. And he wasn’t wrong. Whilst enjoying lunch at our picnic spot, word got out there was a leopard not far away.
Within minutes we found a leopard sleeping under a bush. Turning off our engine with cameras ready, we eagerly waited, knowing that if she was thirsty, then she’d have to come in our direction to drink. About 20 minutes later the bush stirred. What was to happen next, we would never have predicted. She walked straight past the tiny waterhole and took up a stalking pose. With a low profile she slunk into the sand, she had clearly spotted something. She waited, we waited. Both nervous with adrenaline flowing. It was then that we noticed she was metres away from an oblivious land monitor. She launched her ambush and within seconds, a quick bite into the monitor’s neck, ensured a quick death for the lizard and a quick snack for the leopard!
As well as this marvellous sighting, we were mock charged by a sloth bear, whose growl pierced through the jungle. We were as surprised as he was to see us! I also saw spotted dear, barking deer, water buffalo, crocodile and enjoyed the many birds that live or migrate to this area. Evenings were spent under the stars, listening to the meow like call of the peacocks and the chirping of the crickets.
I highly recommend a visit to Wilpattu National Park. It is only a 4 hour drive north from Colombo, offers great wildlife without the tourists and is a real gem.
It was now time to return back to Colombo before my flight home to end what has truly been a remarkable journey. My first night in Galle, seems like years ago. I have met some truly incredible people along the way, had the best driver I could have asked for, seen some amazing sights, some wonderful wildlife encounters, eaten scrumptious food, had impeccable service and seen a country who has really turned itself around quickly to welcome tourists with arms wide open. I couldn’t recommend Sri Lanka more. For those looking for a holiday that incorporates wildlife, culture, history and beaches, you really can’t do better!
If you want to plan your own trip to Sri Lanka find out more information about travel in Sri Lanka, check out when to go or browse some of our suggested itineraries.
20/4/2015 6:30 PM
19/4/2015 10:30 AM
Sounds as if you're having an amazing time. Very envious!
17/4/2015 7:00 PM
Great stuff sounds like a fun start to a great trip!