Colombo, Ratnapura, Ella & Arugam Bay Thurs. 29 September – Thurs. 27 October 2011
We delayed a bit before heading off so we could go to the motor show. In the meantime we relaxed with Tim in Negombo and took a couple of trips into Colombo to catch up with our other friends -the UK contingent Eddie, Sheila and Lorraine. There seemed to be a few sporting events on at this time and we made it into town to watch the TV at the Cheers pub in the basement of the Cinnamon Grand Hotel -as mentioned before a great spot with the added advantage of having really good Sunday roasts on offer -best we've had since leaving home. We saw a fair bit of the ongoing rugby union but due to licensing restrictions they didn't show the Aussie league game live -though Andrew tracked it down afterwards and was really pleased that Manly won.
In Negombo we finally caught up with Alan proprietor of the Tusker restaurant and a fellow self-confessed "Cruiser Head." Alan a Belgian diamond merchant has actually been in SL for over 20 years and he is a real 4 wheel drive enthusiast with a couple of vehicles. He'd spotted us early on and left a note on our windscreen, which we'd lost, but thankfully we were put back in touch by a local mechanic who knew he'd love to see our vehicle. His restaurant had been opened just over a year and was a great spot with very good food so we enjoyed a night out there with Tim. Check out their Facebook page for more details.
We also had our bikes revamped a bit - travelling around in all weather conditions on the back of the truck is a bit hard on them and they needed a good dose of TLC! We'd been recommended a really good (English) mountain bike specialist Peter who turned out to be based at the Grid Restaurant and go-kart race track out at Battaramulla owned by the McLaren Group. We'd been here when we'd been treated to dinner by Dinesh of the Mclaren Group through our Mobil1 sponsorship. Peter sells, repairs, and hires bikes and arranges long or short tours so get in touch with him via the Grid for all your mountain bike needs.
A HUGE breakthrough - we think we may have finally solved a major problem and got the fridge working….hallelujah!!! On Alan's recommendation we went to Gilbert & Co the service agents for Waeco Fridges. They were really helpful and quickly established that in their opinion the problem was that the switch had worn out, thus the fridge wasn't getting the signals to turn on and off. Would you believe it after over 2 years without a working fridge -something so simple! Well done guys -you nailed in 30 minutes what no other operator (and we've tried a few) seemed to be able to!
Fingers crossed they're right -we won't know until we get our new switch which is winging its way to SL -courtesy of Engel in Australia. Thanks a lot to John Fitzgerald of Engel for continuing to sponsor us in this way -see their site for more about Engel's great products www.engelaustralia.com.au
We also did a bit of shopping as we had a couple of gifts to buy -we don't really do a huge amount of shopping on our travels and we managed to nail all that we needed to do in just one great shop. Barefoot is set up in an old Dutch villa by a local designer and is beautifully laid out -full of brightly coloured hand loomed textiles, clothes, furnishing, kids' toys and all sorts really. It also had a really nice outdoor café. See their website for more information www.barefootceylon.com
Meanwhile as ever there was some ongoing car maintenance happening. Andrew had to hunt down a team of "Spring Doctors" who straightened out the mess which the Jaffna roads -or some of them- had made of our shocks. They were really efficient -removing the shocks and straightening them as well as replacing 2 leafs, a huge job -and at 8000 LKR or around $Aus 80 - for a fraction of the cost it'd be in Australia. We'll never be able to live out of Asia again -the price of labour here is so much better!
The weekend before leaving we headed for the motor show in Colombo. A few of our favourite sponsors were there -notably Lanka Toyota, Mobil1 and Maxxis. We had hoped to meet Luke Chen the Marketing Manager from Maxxis in Taiwan who was over for the show's opening but we got our wires crossed and he was back on a plane by the time we got there so sadly we missed him, though we met Percy Maxxis' sales representative here in SL who looked after us really well.
Maxxis' Bighorn tyres have always performed admirably for us and thus we're thrilled that Luke has generously agreed to supply us with a further 2 new tyres -enough "tyre power" to see us through to Europe. Our size isn't available here in SL or in India -so Luke is arranging for the tyres to be included in the next shipment to SL due in the first week of November. Thanks so much to Luke in Taiwan, Percy here in SL and Raj and Yash in Delhi for all their help-we really appreciate it. Check out Maxxis' tyres on their site www.maxxis.com
It was interesting seeing the Motor Show and all the exhibits -particular Maxxis' winning especially customized 4wd vehicle (a "rock hopper" Andrew tells me ) the "vintage" Toyota land cruiser (same age as ours!) and the new model Land cruiser - very deluxe -and costing a cool 20 million lakhs or $200,000 AUS here- with an amazing 400% import tax on top here!
Finally leaving Tim's place in Negombo (our "home from home") once more we had a final night in our fave hotel -Mount Lavinia - where we enjoyed freshly cooked fish on the beach- lovely! Camping in our usual secluded corner of the car park we found ourselves surrounded by drivers and wedding cars - another auspicious day to get hitched no doubt!
On Wednesday 5th October we headed north east into the cool hills, first stop Ratnapura the "City of Gems." It was great to finally leave the hot smoggy city behind.
We'd been to Ratnapura before and knew where we had a good camp spot without looking around- so when we got there in midafternoon we still had time to have a look at the National Museum. Set in an old colonial mansion this was a bit archaic, lots of fossilized remains and old drawings - there were about 5 staff on hand awaiting visitors -but no one seemed to have thought to take a broom to the cobwebs! Good to show support for these things I guess.
Ratnapura is a nice little town with a Victorian looking clock tower in the centre as have so many colonial hill towns - and a humid wet climate which apparently makes it ideal for forming river beds which in turn form gemstones. It was as hot and humid as Colombo during the day but - blessed relief- the temperature dropped sharply at night making it cool for sleeping a big factor for car campers! We pulled in again at Ratnapura Rest House - an atmospheric old colonial mansion on a hill overlooking the town, with darting swallows weaving in and out of the wooden verandahs whilst ceiling fans rotated-a good spot.
Ratnapura is a city built on gems and this was apparent as soon as we ventured into town, everywhere we went shady-looking characters would sidle over and offer us good deals. They don't get too many foreigners in these parts and I think -particularly if you're travelling alone rather than in a tour group- an assumption is made that you're there for the stones -quite a few gem dealers come here to stock up for European shops.
Gem 'museums" abound here - many of them just using the museum tag to lure you into their shop - like the numerous Kashmiri carpet "museums" - but we did go to one -LP recommended - the Ratnapura Gem Bureau Museum and Laboratory. This also had an attached art gallery -displaying paintings and a great variety of the masks still used to treat illness - shock you out of it maybe? - and a varied display of gemstones both local and worldwide. The guide was very knowledgeable -as he should have been after working in the industry for 40 plus years! - and he told us all about the numerous gems found in the region from the most precious/valuable (blue sapphires) down to quartz with a lot in between. All very interesting.
On the way out next day we went via the Maha Saman Devale an imposing looking Buddhist temple in the Kandyan style.
A series of courtyards and pavilions it was originally built in the 13thcentury before being destroyed by the Portuguese and rebuilt by the Dutch. We obviously were there at prayer time and the place was packed! It was interesting, having an old stupa and numerous paintings as well as elephant hedges and even a real life temple elephant. They apparently have their own Esala Perahera in July/August - similar to the one we went to in Kandy on a much smaller scale. Probably a bit less full on and more "local" for all that, so might be a good alternative.
As we'd been travelling we couldn't help but notice we were building up to election time - the President (Mahinda Rajapaksa) had no doubt made a smart move calling the election when he did -with the country still riding a wave of relief that the war is over. On the back of the election numerous building projects are being talked about -new airports (Nuwara Eliya) harbours (Kandy) and roads (all over) being promised to ensure votes - though whether they'll materialize when he's safely back in power is doubtful. There seems to be a simple voting system with each candidate having a number for ease of recognition and we saw the election posters everywhere. He got in again -a bit of a foregone conclusion apparently!
Anyway on we travelled taking the road towards the Uda Walawe National Park and more particularly the Elephant transit park. Supported by the Born Free Foundation in the UK (amongst others) this park cares for injured and orphaned elephants from all over SL. Rather than a full on tourist experience like the elephant orphanage near Kandy, here the elephants can be seen but are kept at a distance, enabling them to better be rehabilitated and eventually released into the wild.
We thought this was really worth supporting so decided to drop in on the way to Ella our next destination. Supposed to be only an hour's drive from Ratnapura the journey grew to over 3 a lot of it spent driving round in circles following conflicting instructions! The police were particularly unhelpful and (no doubt not understanding) sent us off in the wrong direction. When we finally got there (thanks to a helpful Tuk Tuk driver) we realized we'd passed just next to the turn off twice-but no signs in English. This does occasionally happen the way we travel -in out of the way places the only tourists usually come as part of a tour or with a driver. So by the time we got there at 1pm we'd missed the 12pm feed and had to wait for 3pm to roll around. Never mind -we went across the road for a somewhat overpriced (coach party zone!) lunch and waited.
The LP was a bit out of date saying entrance was by donation only -now it's 500 LKR for us and 50 LKR for locals. Hopefully it all goes to support the good work here. It was great to see the young and teenage elephants being fed - there were 39 of them on the day we visited and they each got 5 litres of milk -which they slurped done in seconds using funnels to feed from. Really worth a visit -once you find it!
By the time we got away and down the road it was early evening and starting to get dark so instead of driving on to Ella in the dark -along some very scenic but twisting roads - we pulled over and stayed the night in the region of Belihul Oya, and more particularly at the Pearl Tourist Inn. This area is very scenic, with views over the Horton Plains and Knuckles mountain range, it's a popular base for hill walks. The Pearl Inn were very accommodating letting us camp in their car park which had a great view down over a waterfall. The owner was a bit worried that we had parked too near the bar which (as the next day was a Poya or new moon and thus alcohol free) might be a bit lively. It was a bit noisy and we did get woken by one guy throwing up in the wee small hours -but all in all it was a great camp spot!
Next day we drove on -winding past Haputale a scenic drive through the hilly tea country to arrive at Ella. When we came to SL a year ago -without the car - this had been my favourite spot and I'd been really annoyed that we only had a 24 hour flying visit, so I was really keen to come back for a longer stay.
Thankfully Ella didn't disappoint on the 2nd visit -still lovely -a really friendly little town nestled in the hills with a very relaxed vibe. We bedded down here for 4 days but I could have stayed longer. Last time we stayed in a little guest house right in the centre of town but there was no way we could've parked up there so we headed to Ambiente a more upmarket resort up on the hill -where we'd walked last time to admire the stunning views over Ella's 3 main attractions -Little Adam's Peak, Rawana Waterfall and Ella Gap. www.ambiente.lk
The owner of Ambiente -a yogi look alike- very kindly let us camp in his "car park with a view" for no charge and we were soon happily settled on his balcony admiring the view and patting the local dogs.
Actually 2 were famous having rated a mention in the LP. Tim was still in situ though looking a bit grey around the whiskers - but Tina had gone to that great kennel in the sky. Tim was supposedly the only dog at Ambiente but in reality they were everywhere - including a litter of puppies which was nice for us dog lovers. They all moved in under the car whilst we were there.
Soon after we arrived it poured with rain - a pattern we saw repeated every day we were there bright skies and sun in the morning - perfect for the conveyor belt of weddings moving through for that scenic shot!- with the clouds closing in and rain in the afternoon.
So we spent a pleasant afternoon sitting on the balcony watching the rain, drinking tea and chatting to other travellers.
The waterfall really swelled almost before our eyes as the rains kept falling - ending up a muddy torrent unlike the trickle of a few hours before. It was a great spot for wildlife spotting too -lots of birds, butterflies and squirrels.
We saw 2 gorgeous red woodpeckers at very close quarters - though (as ever!) by the time the camera was out and focused they'd long gone. There were huge flocks of swallows circling we often saw these (once literally hundreds) on some of our walks. They are eating the termites driven out of trees by the wet conditions.
The cooler weather came as a welcome relief after Colombo -great for sleeping and really nice not to need the fans on all night. I even needed to dig out my sleeping bag one night!
That night was Poya -so no booze served anywhere and a full moon at night -this holiday rocks by (obviously!) once a month here - and always seem to coincide with us deciding to throw caution to the winds and treat ourselves to a beer- then finding we can't!
We were up early next day and accompanied (for a little while at least) by a pack of excited dogs we headed to walk to the top of Little Adam's Peak which we'd spent the afternoon looking out at.
It was a gorgeous walk the mountain road winding up through the tea gardens- but the LP under estimated it as being 45 minutes each way…it took me a bit longer with my bodgy leg (sciatica -god help us- makes me feel ancient!) -especially the last steep bit. Still it was worth it, a gorgeous view down over the hills and tea factories with the road snaking down below.
We met all the tea workers heading out for a hard day's toil on the way back at about 7.30am -and stopped for a cuppa before heading back into town for local curd and honey at the Curd Shop.
The food here's really good -loads of fresh veggies produced locally. When travelling here a year ago we'd met up with some French travellers who'd raved about the food at a place here- the Rawana Holiday Resort - which also got a good rap from the LP. That's one thing but when the French rave about the food …well …you've got to have a look!
We booked ahead as we were supposed to -only for the message somehow failed to get through -but never mind -they managed to accommodate us! It was superb -tradition rice and curry -lots of small dishes (e.g.) spicy potato, abergine & garlic curries ) -all made with organic veggies and we paid extra for a fish curry too, and splashed out on a watalappam - a local desert made with coconut milk and jaggery or palm sugar. It was awesome- especially my favourite the garlic curry - all for 1500 LKR for 2 - and they let us bring in a bottle of wine for no charge. Highly recommended and they run cookery classes too apparently.
We did a few walks whilst here - walking down was easy but the very steep never ending staircase back up from town was a bit full on -in our picture I'm half way through and wondering if I'll make it! If I lived here I'd be thin ..all these organic veggies and lots of stairs!
We took a walk to visit an Aussie couple who run a guest house with panoramic views of the Rawana Waterfall. We'd been told to walk along the railway track (a good way to get around but keep a good ear out for the trains!) and then down a little track straight to the Waterfall Homestay. We strayed off the path too early but were rescued by a passing local who took it upon himself to lead us there. This turned into a full on jungle trek scrambling up veggie gardens and crossing rivers - not my forte as I have a problem with my feet which causes me to have balance issues -I know I sound a wreck!- but we did make it. He wanted a fat fee for leading us there - which we negotiated down. We then realized if we'd kept on the track (which we'd just left when we met him) it'd have been very easy to find. Ahh well it was an interesting experience - though I could have done without all the leeches between my toes!
Anyway we turned up muddy dishevelled and leech ridden and met Martin who runs the Waterfall GH with his wife Karen. Martin and Karen are originally from Perth but now live here more or less full time. He made us very welcome and it was a gorgeous spot with great views, highly recommended so book ahead as they only have 3 rooms- see their site for contact details : www.waterfall-guesthouse-ella.com
It was sad to leave Ella again but Andrew was chomping at the bit to get to Arugam Bay before the (surf) season was well and truly over. So after a last curd and honey we drove out past the Rawana Ella falls and eastwards towards the coast - the temperature climbing as we drove
After we hit Pottuvil a little Muslim town on the coast we drove on through the edge of the Lahugala National Park where we were really lucky to have our own ad hoc safari! First we saw a cobra -when we almost hit it when it reared up at us from the middle of the road, then we saw elephants in the wild -first a mother and calf and then a young but pretty large male. We got out and watched the mother and baby for a while then heard some car hooting down the road -we worked out later it was a truck trying to move the male elephant out of the way -you'd think they'd just wait. Anyway we drove on and pulled over and let him go past. He actually gave us the evil eye and started to walk towards us -maybe thinking we were a funny looking white elephant- which was a bit scary -but he soon veered off and headed into the bush. Fantastic experience- great to see them in the wild.
So -back to A Bay! As arranged before we headed back to stay at Chandrapala Place -a bit of a nightmare to get into but we don't plan to move the car much for a while. Actually in a supreme act of stupidly we manoeurved the car into its space -through a very narrow gate with just inches on both side to spare- and then realized that we'd forgotten to full up our near empty water tank so had to drive out and start again …doh!!! The nearby water plant is very impressive and state of the art. Built after the tsunami it had a really sophisticated system in place to inject the water with chlorine and fluoride-all courtesy of US Aid.
Once we backed in (again!) and set up camp we were greeted very warmly by the lady of the house. Not hard to see why -when we were last here just a couple of months ago each cabana was occupied -with Israeli surfers - now we had the whole place to ourselves. Whilst this was great for us, guess it's not so good for her a widow with 4 kids. Now the war is over hopefully more people will venture out here in the non-surfing season -when the sea is better for swimming -but at the moment it's still fairly quiet when there are no waves and anyway these basic cabanas tend to be more popular with the surfers than more traditional holiday makers who stay in the posher places. It's a good place though and she's made an effort to make it nice with shady areas to sit and a couple of good outdoor showers.
Feeling rather sorry for her we paid her a little more than she asked us for for parking. Later though she spoilt our feeling of goodwill by charging us 100 rupees for plugging in our fridge to the mains power for just one hour a day. Bumping into the meter man (we rescued him from "our" camp dogs who were defending the vehicle!) we worked out at this rate we were soon paying her bill many times over. Very entrepreneurial!
As ever we swiftly built up a security team of dogs, with one dog making himself particularly useful. Not for the first time we wish we could take him with us..poor thing -there's a lot of rough beach dogs here and we hear the fights every night -judging by his scars he's not too good at fighting! Our camp spot also abounds with monkeys and lizards. Thankfully these both keep a reasonable distance!
Revisiting an old haunt -Geckos great spot for breakfast- we had a bit of a shock. The undercover areas down to the beach and the decking which had been lovely for lounging was all gone. We thought at first they'd gone in for some radical refurbishment -but no it's all by government orders. Apparently a notice has gone around -enforced by the army in bulldozers - that no buildings are to be allowed within 20 metres of the beach. This is a pretty big call and has lead to a lot of destruction. The idea is to create a green belt, but local feeling is that the plan is -now the war is over and this whole area is really ripe to go ahead - that there will be some big government run hotels introduced so the present occupants are being pushed out. Seems very unfair if so - we wondered if the fishermen's' shack which go all along the beach front here will also be affected? Even the lookout post out at the surf point -which has a very small café underneath - has had half its deck area broken away -seems crazy it's certainly not bothering anyone. Watch this space to see what happens I guess.
We've got into a nice routine here - Andrew gets up early to surf, I walk down a couple of hours later to join him and walk back along the beach - there are huge lumps of coral dotted up the beach incidentally -breakaways from the reef due to the strength of the 7 foot groundswell. We then go for a swim and sit and read our books -all in all the days trickle away very nicely! A couple of times we took a tuk tuk out to Pottuvil Point -a nearby alternative surf point -to give Andrew a different wave to surf and me a different beach to walk along!
Travelling as we do we don't often meet up and socialize with other travellers -we're sort of out of the loop and on the move -but it's been an exception here and we've been a bit more sociable and met loads of nice people from all over - Poland, Germany, Israel, UK et al Weirdly enough we re-met the Polish lady Marta who we met in Diu India (almost 2 years ago apparently OMG!!) Like us she got the bug and is still on the road! Stephan and Sonya in our picture live in Hamburg and have just bought a campervan so they were interested in our vehicle to get ideas -more overlanders -that's what we like!
Whilst we were here the Rugby Union has been playing and Andrew was very keen to see a few games - we had highlighted the Siam View Hotel (SVH) -a really good restaurant in the middle of town - as being the place with a TV so he was devastated when we rocked up to see a match at 1pm to see that it wasn't open until evening. Thankfully we were spotted by a staff member and very kindly made welcome to come in and watch the match -a habit we repeated at every game until the last when there was quite a crowd watching -well done New Zealand -though I actually quite wanted the French to win by the end.
The SVH is run by Manfred and his lovely wife Somlak who's from Rayong Thailand. Manfred is originally from the Isle of Man and he rode here overland on a BMW motor bike back in the late 70s and never left -don't blame him really! The SVH is a great spot, good music a relaxed vibe and really good food- Somlak is the chef and she cooks great Thai food-my favourite. They have a small menu -just 3 dishes - but it's all fresh and delicious. Manfred also imports really good home brew - better than the last home brew I tried at Uni which put me off for a couple of decades! SVH won a Daily Telegraph award for the best of British presumably for service to homesick ex-pats! A great spot, for more info and reviews have a look at their Facebook page. Manfred also very kindly offered us free parking with use of a shower at his hotel -but for some reason we feel obligated to our land lady despite her electricity extortion! It'd be a great camp spot for any overlanders though.
A Welsh friend of Manfred's Trevor is out the back in his tent -nice to meet a fellow hardcore traveller -none of this namby pamby hotel room nonsense!
UPDATE: When Andrew went to take this picture he and Trevor discovered a metre long monitor lizard in Trevor's tent! Should have heard them both screeching and running about like big girls' blouses!!!
At SVH we were treated to a meal by a local army man - Lieutenant Colonel Keerthi Gunasoma - who is posted in the region and is a friend of Manfreds. Despite Somlak's food being so good he had actually brought in a great spread of indigenous local food which his cook had prepared for us all to try. It was a bit different than what we'd tried before - delicacies including red rice, water lily rice and a sort of seed paste- which you swallowed whole in small lumps rather than chewing - though I cheated and chewed and it was still fine! An old favourite Biryani tasted slightly different coming as it did wrapped in lotus leaves. A great meal thanks to the Colonel for inviting us.
Manfred is also an IT whiz (amazingly he told us he organized the first IT connection out here by cable from Colombo back in 2003 - and it was excellent coverage as it'd want to be for a cool $1,000 USD per month!) and has worked on a site giving a lot of good info about the area see www.arugam.info,
Another local guest house we really liked was Galaxy Lounge run by Wayne -an Aussie and his Sri Lankan/British wife Sri. We shared a Mediterranean platter here and it was really good. We had a great evening chilling with them and their guests. It was really nice meeting some other Aussie travellers. I'm always told I don't sound at all Aussie these days -the Aussie twang I acquired whilst down under seems to have totally faded away, just one of life's chapters! Anyway have a look at Galaxy's site on www.galaxysrilanka.com
Sadly we don't eat out in style like this every day and we've been doing a bit of self-catering whilst we can to save funds. Going out to surf a couple of times Andrew ended up spending half an hour helping to launch a fishing boat -heavy work! A couple of times when we saw them return the catch was quite small-just 1 or 2 baskets - though the army (there's a camp down the beach) still sent soldiers down to collect a few for free for their supper!
A few days on though there was a very good catch (11 tonnes) and Andrew's help was remembered! On our evening walk we went past the heavily laden boats coming in and it was all systems go, with traditional bullock carts down on the beach being loaded high with fish.
The boat owner Andrew had helped recognized him and insisted we take 3 huge tuna as payment for his help. We gifted the biggest to our land lady and had the other 2 as sashimi -filleting them quickly so they didn't bleed and eating them raw (to the horror of our landlady "no cook…no cook?" ) dipped in soy sauce -sadly no wasabi. Really nice at first but a bit too much raw fish is somewhat over facing -so the dogs got a real treat when they got to finish off our leavings!
As I write this (Thursday 27 October) we're still hanging quietly at the camp spot - with our faithful security dog under the car and the surf as background music. Supposedly they'll be a last surge of surf before the season dies in a few days but for now the conditions are perfect for non-surfers -nice gentle body surfable type waves only.
Andrew has managed to tear a ligament in his knee out in the surf -his first surf injury ever ironically in some of the smallest waves he's ever surfed! So he is resting up on doctor's orders and doing a lot of reading (Keith Richard's autobiography "Life" very good apparently) -fingers crossed he's better soon.
We head next towards the Yala National Park -the best place in SL to see leopards in the wild allegedly -fingers crossed!