Wildlife in the Chaotic Calm of the Indian Ocean

Peter Sandler

22 Aug 2017

Adventurous Sri Lanka and The Relaxing Maldives

The colours, energy, smell, taste and history of Sri Lanka will blow you away. This is such a varied country in terms of experiences, climate and culture and our 10 day trip only scratched the surface with the help of a fantastic driver/guide, Kushan. 

Our plan was to combine wildlife, history and the Hill country, wrapped up in interesting, small scale accommodation before ending with four days of absolutely nothing in the Maldives. With the help of Harriet Reeves at Natural World Safaris, the trip did not disappoint. 

From the initial planning, NWS were responsive, helpful and enthusiastic in suggesting an itinerary which would work for us and take account of our own flight arrangements, and a clear idea of where we wanted to stay in the Maldives. It helped that Harriet personally knew many of the places she recommended, as well as the different tour companies in the national parks she recommended. So, for example, we were well prepared for the fact that the available camp for the first two days in Wilpattu would be a different type of experience to the classic camps we had stayed in in Africa. That said, Mahoora Camp had what we needed and was close to the park entrance; a useful fact when your mornings start at before dawn at 4:45am.

Wilpattu National Park is in the middle of a drought. The spring rain never came and the summer monsoon is late. This meant that there was even more activity around the remaining watering holes and tanks. While we just missed leopards on two occasions, we saw a wide range of birdlife, monkeys, reptiles and a sloth bear. 

The photographic highlight for me happened at a small waterhole, where we were the only vehicle. 

After 15 minutes watching the birds, first two, then four, then ten wild boars emerged from the forest to drink in a line, while nervously looking for predators. 

Five minutes and they were gone. Blinked or changed a lens and you might have missed it. Wilpattu is much less crowded than Yala, for example, but still rich in wildlife, even if the tight forest sometimes limits photo possibilities. 

After two days at Mahoora, Kushan picked us up for the next stage of the trip, driving us to a fantastic hotel, Ulagalla, with its own horses, bikes for the guests and 22 villas spread across rice fields. 

Ugawalla acted as a base for us to discover the rich religious and political history of the Island. We visited the classic spots of Anuradhapura, Polonnoruwa and Sigiriya, Dambulla’s cave temples and also Kandy’s Temple which houses a relic of Buddha and one of the country’s holiest shrines. 

Here, Kushan came into his own, bringing alive the history of shifting capitals and shifting allegiances, the growth of Buddhism and the later accommodation of Hindu gods. All mixing together to form the rich tapestry of contemporary Sri Lanka.

Almost all of this part of the trip was accompanied by sunshine, very hot days and pleasantly warm nights, with just one afternoon seeing two hours of rain. A highlight of the cultural triangle was climbing Sigiriya’s rock, starting relatively early around 7:30am to avoid the crowds and heat. The route up faces north, so it is manageable and out of the sun as you conquer 1200 steps to the top.  We also spent a further half day at another national park, looking for, and eventually finding, elephants - Kaudulla National Park. 

After one further night outside Kandy and the chance to wander through the city and market to capture its bustle and charm, we took the train up to Hatton and Kushan drove to meet us.

The train was fine, but sitting in the first class, air-conditioned compartment, it felt a little cocooned from the real drama of Sri Lankan trains. 

Indeed, the most interesting part of the journey was probably the hour waiting for the train to arrive (like all trains, it was running late) as we captured the activity of the station in Kandy. 

The Tea Trails Bungalows in Dickoya were perfect. On arrival, Bandara told us to make ourselves at home and we did. 

With just five rooms in each of their four bungalows, looking down to the lake or across to the hills, the staff were able to give a very personalised service. It was noticeably fresher in the mountains and, while we didn't do much (a two and half hour hike through the plantations nearby and kayaking to and from one of the other bungalows for afternoon tea), it was nice to be moving and it helped us prepare for complete relaxation on the Maldives. The bungalows are small, with beautiful gardens, an infinity pool, a fine terrace for all our meals and sofas for pre-dinner drinks. It took you back to a different era. 

Our final day with Kushan saw us leave around lunchtime for a longish (four hour drive) back to the airport and for sad goodbyes to such an excellent guide. 

The Maldives were just 90 minutes away, but brought us to a very different world of sun (mostly), shallow, crystal clear, turquoise water and fantastic food and accommodation at the Gili Lankanfushi Resort

It was classic Maldives. Over the water villas, great food, and a spa and lots of water sports if needed. We mainly hung out at the villa, reading, chilling and editing photos. 

The relaxed style starts on the boat transferring you from the airport, as they bag your shoes and you are only supposed to put them back on when you leave. The soft sand paths, beach and soft wood jetty and floors, as well as the pedal pads on the bamboo bicycles all make this possible. It must be 53 years since I last went four days without putting on a pair of shoes. 


The weather was fine, if changeable, but again NWS had prepared us for August weather. 

We had some great sun, but also periods of grey skies and some rain, but that just added to the romance of the place. And there were the noisy neighbours…. not people, but crabs that inhabit the lower (below water) reaches of the villa…in fact, they were pretty silent throughout. The night skies open to the stars - Milky Way, Jupiter and Saturn - at some stage each evening. 

But what made this venue was the friendly, welcoming staff throughout the resort - friendly to us (of course), but friendly to each other as well. You could see they actually enjoyed working there. 

Two weeks went all too quickly, but we bring back with us some great memories and a few good pictures to freeze many of the best moments. 

So thanks to NWS for their help in making this a holiday to remember. 

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