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Our track in and around Sri Lanka

25 March 2007, Galle, Sri Lanka

Dear Friends and Family,

We've just come back from a wonderful tour through inland Sri Lanka.  Sri Lanka, known as Ceylon when the British controlled it, is a tear-drop shaped island just SSE of India.  The northern part is being fought over by the Tamil Tigers, who want a country to call their own, so we didn't go there, but the southern half is usually safe.  The central area is quite mountainous and therefore deliciously cool so that's where we spent most of our time.  Although we were offered a car and driver for only US$35/day, we decided to really get the flavor of Sri Lanka by using primarily public transportation, which was an adventure in itself.

Our first leg, from Galle on the SW corner to the capital of Colombo 3 hours north, we did by old, rickety commuter train (2nd and 3rd class only).  The tracks follow the coast and we saw considerable damage from the 2004 Boxing-day tsunami (foundations without houses, lots of small cemeteries, etc.) even after 2+ years.  There were also none of the warning sirens or posted tsunami directions that we saw all over coastal areas of Thailand.

Some of the many palm trees along the coast sported ropes between the tops.  These are for the "toddy-tappers" who slice the small coconut nodules to make them weep, wrap the bundle of nodules in the husk that hangs over them, and hang a gourd at the end of the husk to catch the juice.  The tapper then walks the ropes to the next tree to repeat the process.  The juice is fermented into a beer (toddy) and also distilled into a liquor (arrack).

Two years after the tsunami, a man sits on the wreckage of his home.
Empty foundations 2 years after the tsunami

Colombo is a sprawling concrete jungle, with traffic all following the Indian driving model (get where you want to go the most expedient way you can).  When we were here in 1980, all of the taxis were old Morris Minors, but now they use Indian 3-wheeled "tuk-tuks" with tiny 125cc (7.5 cu in) engines and crazy drivers.  Since they aren't metered, getting in one usually involves an argument over the fare, which the locals seem to enjoy.  We paid about Rp300/hr ($3/hr) in 2007, but sometimes we had to argue hard to get it.  Beggars, businessmen, guards with AK-47s slung casually over their shoulders, and thousands of street vendors are everywhere, the women wrapped in beautiful saris.

Sri Lankan lunch of curry, dahl, rice & lemon juice
Amanda, Jon and Chris at Pagoda Tea House,
Colombo, for a delicious curry and dahl lunch.

After a very spicy and delicious curry lunch at the Pagoda Tea House (which included our first taste of Watalappan, a cardamom-coconut custard desert made with eggs and palm sugar) we boarded the "first-class" rail-car to Kandy.  Now, 3rd class costs $1 for 3 hours - a pretty good transportation deal anywhere.  Second class costs about 50% more and sports individual seats rather than benches, but still no assigned seat and you have to be fast or you'll end up standing.  First class costs $3 and gets you a fan overhead (no air-conditioning) and an assigned seat in the only first-class car, but all the seats face backwards!  This is guaranteed to induce motion sickness as the rails are none too flat.  The best place to be was standing in the doorway savoring the moist, fragrant tropical breeze.  We never saw any of the huge, comfortable, air-conditioned busses that we took all over Thailand and Malaysia.

Sue in the beautiful Botanic Gardens near Kandy
Sue in the beautiful Botanic Gardens near Kandy

From the coast to the mountains, SW Sri Lanka is a jungle paradise of coconut palms, climbing vines, frangipani trees, banana plants and huge mahogany trees.  The tracks climb to 1,600' (500m) up the side of a ridge which affords excellent views of the plains below.  As we rose higher the air chilled delightfully and the vistas included misty hills, deep forested canyons and small villages of concrete and wooden houses nestled amongst the greenery.

Thankfully, the guest-house manager in Kandy met us at the train and took us "home" to delightful long showers and interesting "tea".  It seems that they don't have a license to sell beer, so they pour it into big teapots when customers want it!  Dinner was extravagant with 4 different vegetable curries, curried chicken, pappadam, dahl (lentils), rice, and ice cream afterwards to put out the fire on the lips.  Strangely, they don't serve yogurt (called "water-buffalo curd" here) or even chutney to cut the fire of the curry, which is much hotter than what we experienced in Indonesia, Malaysia or Thailand.

The candle dance, Kandy
Kandian dancers wear elaborate costumes
and dance with grace and skill
Chris & Amanda at the base of Ramboda Falls, Sri Lanka
Chris and Amanda at the
base of Ramboda Falls

We spent a day in Kandy, enjoying a lazy breakfast (fresh fruit, eggs, toast, jam, and delicious Ceylon tea) on the terrace overlooking the lake and temple where a tooth of the Buddha is enshrined.  Amanda and Sue excitedly checked out the many new birds that sang around us.  A stroll around the lake was enchanting with the Buddhist statues and shrines, families with neatly uniformed school children, the girls with their long black hair neatly braided and tied with ribbons, men selling peanuts and sweets and women under bright umbrellas for the sun.  In the trees above us hung thousands of fruit bats (flying foxes, with their long brown snouts) and scores of white egrets which preened, argued, nested, and swooped in turn to the lake edge to feed.

Kandy, like the other Sri Lankan towns we visited, is a-bustle with lumbering ancient busses, honking tuk-tuks, pedestrians and bicyclists, and the occasional cow or ox cart.  We escaped the street madness with a walk in the elegant Royal Botanic Gardens before enjoying front-row seats at an athletic Kandian dance performance in the evening.  Considered the heart of Sir Lankan culture, the Kandian dancers were bedecked in head-dresses, silver and bangled vests, and foot bells.  While men beat enthusiastic and intricate rhythms on double-ended drums, women wove sinuous patterns with hands and bodies and men performed outstanding acrobatics: up to 6 back handsprings in as many seconds.

Sue & Jon enjoy beer in tea mugs in Kandy
Relaxing in Kandy with beer served in tea pots

Moving higher into the hills the next morning, we opted for a van and driver which meant we could stop for photos, hike to a waterfall and stop to taste fresh cups of excellent Ceylon tea at Blue Fields Plantation.  Despite the van breakdown -- a necessity for any good Hacking road trip -- we still had time for lunch before boarding the afternoon train from Nuwara Eliya to Haputale.

1000 women pick tea each day at the Lipton plantation, Haputale
Tea pickers get US$4 per day for 20 kg
(44 lbs) at Sri Lanka's tea plantations.

This 1.5 hour ride must be a highlight of train travel in the world and only costs $0.40 (2nd class, window seats).  Running along both forested and open ridges at over 1,600 meters (5,300 feet) we passed blooming rhododendrons, manicured tea plantations, and small villages surrounding Hindu and Buddhist shrines.  A thousand feet below spread small, neat fields that provide the majority of fresh vegetables for the country.

We spent a morning outside Haputale at a tea factory where we donned white coasts and had a private 1-hour tour of the processing of tea leaves into the fragrant brown powders that fill Lipton tea bags.  While Jon and Chris hiked on a ridge to enjoy far-reaching vistas, Amanda and Sue wandered the tea fields, smiling and chatting with the tea pickers, and capturing their images on the camera.

Chris, Jon & Amanda laugh hysterically on the bus ride down Ella Gap
Laughing about yet another close call
on our hair-raising bus ride down Ella Gap

A hair-raising and sometimes hysterical bus ride down the Ella Gap took us back to the heat of the lowlands of SE Sri Lanka.  We should have realized we were in trouble when the bus stopped at a Buddhist temple and the ticket-taker got off to make an offering and pray.  The most important pieces of navigational gear seemed to be the (very loud) horn and accelerator, followed by the steering wheel.  Brakes ran a fairly distant fourth.  Our driver seemed to think that every other vehicle on the road was in a race, and he was going to win, no matter the cost to comfort.  One second seemed to be ample time to avoid a head-on collision.  Potential passengers on the side of the road had to signal early and very energetically or they'd likely be passed by.  Enlightening.

Wild elephants freely roam Yala National Park
Asian elephants roam freely
throughout Yala National Park

At the lovely Tissa Inn we arranged an all-day safari into Yala National Park, a wildlife sanctuary on the SE coast.  Bouncing along poorly maintained roads we arrived at the park entrance the next morning at sunrise.  Thus began a day that rivaled some of the best in Africa.  Watering holes and ancient (over 1,000 year-old) reservoirs attracted crocodiles, dozens of wild water buffaloes, and hundreds of birds (Sue and Amanda identified over 45 species).  On the dry, flower-studded plains we spent hours in company with wild elephants (sometimes only a few paces away), monitor lizards, mongoose, wild boars, red-faced monkeys, well antlered Chital (spotted) and Sambar deer, and jackals.

The lovely Green Bee Eater
The Green Bee Eater
is common in Yala NP

Our vehicle was a rather beat-up Mitsubishi knock-off of a Willys "Jeep" with the front wheel drive blown out.  Luckily we never actually got stuck enough that we needed the 4 wheel drive to get out, and only a few times would the (supposedly necessary) 4 wheel drive have helped.  Very few of the nominally 4WD vehicles we saw there actually had working 4WD - most had their front drive-shafts removed, as ours did.  Our driver was excellent and knew lots of interesting and isolated back tracks to take, as well as when to stop and how to track the animals.

We took a 4-hour break in the middle of the day to relax by a clear river, eating our chicken and fried-rice lunch, drinking cool water and lime juice from our 12v fridge, swimming, reading, and napping in the shade on our foam pads.  Later in the afternoon, as a finale to a great trip we reveled in a half-hour of following and observing a Sri Lankan leopard as it ran after a water buffalo, climbed a tree, rested there then descended, groomed and finally blended into the bushes.  There are only 35 leopards in the whole park, so they're not often seen.

A beautiful Sri Lankan leopard, in Yala National Park
Sri Lanka's native leopard is rarely seen. We
were very lucky to spend time with this one

We're now back in Galle aboard Ocelot, having seen Chris off at the ultra-high-security airport in Colombo.  As we wait for the fluky late-season winds to return to some semblance of normalcy we are provisioning Ocelot with 3 months worth of dry goods and as much fresh fruits and vegetables as we think we can store.  The diesel tanks and jerry jugs are full.  We'll be out of here in a day or so, starting the 600nm passage to Addu Atoll in the southern Maldives, just south of the equator.  From there we'll head to the Chagos archipelago (home of the Diego Garcia military base) 300nm further south for 2 months of swimming and relaxing.

Fair winds and calm seas -- Jon, Sue and Amanda Hacking

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