Arugam Bay, Tissa, Yala NP, Tangalle, Mirissa, Unawatuna to Colombo Thurs. 27 Oct. to Wed. 21 Dec. 2011
Also as mentioned last month Maxxis have agreed to continue to sponsor us, and we have just heard that our 2 new tyres have arrived safely and are sitting waiting for us in Colombo. Great news! Thanks to all at Maxxis but especially Luke Chen in Taiwan and Percy in Colombo -we really appreciate all your continuing support and kindness.www.maxxis.com
Other than this excitement life continued peacefully enough at Arugam Bay. We had been on the point of leaving when as well as Andrew having his tendon damage I developed some sort of horrific leg ulcer which necessitated me a) not going in the water and b)not moving and c) sitting with my leg elevated for a few days whilst the antibiotics did their work. So -we sat in an increasingly emptying wet Arugam Bay as the surfers left and the monsoon kicked in. All in all it was just as well we did delay as the Lieutenant Colonel we had met at the SVH through Manfred kindly got in touch and offered to show us some of the local sites. Usually we'd have driven ourselves but as Andrew was on leg rest we got a lift in the army jeep which made a nice change!
So we set off bright and early the first stop being for breakfast on the road to Pottuvil. We'd driven past this small rural shack many times but never stopped, but this time we did and enjoyed tea and rottis with egg and seasoning made before our eyes and cooked on a hot plate heated by an open fire- very tasty. This roti hut usually services farmers form the surround paddy fields on their way to work, so we were clearly a bit of a novelty as they don't see many tourists!
After breakfast on we drove out into the jungle towards our next destination the small village of Buckmieiyawa. This rural jungle surrounded village has 80 houses and is home to around 600 people. The native people are the direct descendants of a group of devout Buddhists who fought centuries ago against the Tamils when they invaded from India. History repeating in a terrible way the village came under repeated attack from the LTTE or Tamil Tigers -which was why the Colonel had had so much to do with the villagers - and there was still a heavy army presence there. Thankfully no problems like this now -the main problem facing the villagers is rampaging elephants that destroy their crops! For this reason they take turns to sleep in small bamboo structures up trees so that they can spot the herd coming and scare them off before they do damage.
As an aside on the road from Arugam Bay to Pottuvil we always spotted elephants -both huge herds and small groups and we learnt to be a bit wary of them and keep within the car with the engine running as they can turn a bit aggressive -no doubt protecting their territory and young which is understandable.
We heard numerous stories of rampaging elephants wrecking scores of cars and causing carnage. Best to treat them with a healthy respect, though the army guys posted nearby felt ok about having their usual afternoon cricket game!
Anyway the Colonel had arrived to take part in the village meeting -along with the village elders the local monk and various other village big wigs. These meetings are held regularly and make sure any local issues /problems are dealt with so they don't escalate. Whilst he was busy we had a wander around the village, saw their water tank and had a look at the locality -a manmade lake, a small temple and stupa. As mentioned these people are strong Buddhists and there has been a monastery here since the 3rd century.
After the meeting we had lunch which was a real treat. It was in fact similar to the lunch the Colonel had previously treated us to at the SVH and consisted of local food, served to us as guests by the head man of the village. We had 2 types of fish from the lake, vegetable curries -a lot made with coconut and local leaves- lentils, red and white rice and Kurakkun Tulapua -a sort of dough made out of flour made from locally grown seeds which is used as an accompaniment to curries.
All very delicious and we felt honored to be invited into the villagers' homes in this way. The Colonel actually gifted us some of the flour so we could make our own Kurakkan Tulapua -which we did with our landlady back in Arugam which was great fun. Thanks to all the villagers for making us so welcome. We met one of the local teachers and had a quick visit to the local school where the kids go up to about 12 years -after that they have to travel further afield. It was a great building with open plan water tight classrooms -not too stuffy and hot for the summer months. It's really good that education is freely available to all here, very impressive cf with other Asian countries.
Next Next stop was a large man made lake with a great view over the surrounding area. The army have to be very diligent in this whole region during the wet season as flooding is an ever present threat and some of the villages have to be evacuated every year when water levels in the dams reach critical levels. A bit like Bangladesh! During our time at the village the rains had fallen very heavily on and off so the wet season was about to really start with a vengeance-a bit late this year.
Finally on the way back to Arugam Bay we stopped off in Pottuvil to see some Buddhist ruins. The Colonel told us of a local story around these. In the early 5thcentury apparently there had been a Tsunami. The people blamed their King for this and the huge loss of life and property -had he been a better King he wouldn't have been punished in this way -a little unfair! Anyway as penance he was forced to load his only beloved daughter into a boat and push her out to sea from Colombo. Amazingly she survived this experience and landed in Pottuvil, where her Royal blood was recognized and she was promptly married to the local Prince. At the temple near this spot there is a large Buddha Statue and 2 figures before him -thought to represent the happy couple.
We then visited another nearby site set amongst the very evocative overgrown ruins at the Magu Maha Viharaya Temple a bit like a tiny version of Angkor Wat. These remains are thought to be the site of the marriage. A nice story -which we were grateful to be told by the Colonel as we couldn't find any mention of it in the guidebook. However we later became a bit confused about this. When we later went to Tissamaharama (Tissa) where we stayed whilst visiting Yala NP we heard a really similar story-concerning a Princess who was put to sea as the King her father had killed a monk. Again she survive and came ashore - this time at Kirinda 10km south of Tissa and married Kavantissa the local King. There is a statue of her at the stupa in Tissa. We asked and asked but couldn't ever get to the bottom of whether there were 2 separate very similar stories or whether this was the same one highjacked by 2 towns. Someone suggested she came ashore once, was pushed back out and relanded -maybe! Anyway interesting temple ruins at Pottuvil either way! There was a further site nearby which is the scene of an archeology dig but as it involved a river crossing and the rains were pouring in earnest by now we never made it to this one.
Thanks very much to the Colonel for our guided tour-we really enjoyed it. Sadly the time came to leave Arugam Bay for the final time. Not so much sad to leave the waves, which were gone by now anyway the season being over - but gutted to leave our dog. Poor thing -the life of a street dog in Arugam Bay is far from easy and judging by his many scars our dog had had a few run ins. He became very fond of us, sleeping under our car every night and following us wherever we went and he looked so sad we felt awful to leave him, especially when we passed through Arugam Bay and he was trotting around like a lost soul looking for us. I did my best trying to find him a home before leaving but no go sadly. We can only hope he survives.
The season in Arugam Bay is pretty much over by now, as once the waves go so do the people and the place was pretty much like a ghost town, particularly as the wet season is starting to kick in and we had a few torrential downpours. Good wallowing and/or tractor washing weather though!
We drove south to Panama for a quick look at another surf break about 17km to the south of Arugam Bay. It was very wet and the road was underwater in parts -apparently it's not unheard of to spot crocodiles in this stretch of road though we saw none.
Panama is a remote fishing village -set on quite an attractive coastline near a savannah like stretch of a rocky landscape looking a bit like parts of Australia. This area apparently saw a lot of action in the war and there is still a strong army presence as well as a lot of graves of army people killed by the LTTE.
We had planned to drive south to another surf break Okanda and from there onto the national park at Yala, but we were advised not to go this way. Apparently this area was very dangerous during the war years, and whilst now that's all over we were told that the road was probably in an impassable state and with all the rain we decided not to risk it -we're running shortish of time now and didn't want to waste a day back tracking as we couldn't get through -as happened to us on the way down through India to catch the ferry!
So we retraced our way back through A Bay and on to Pottuvil where we bumped into Somlak from the SVH and Trevor. Trevor couldn't resist having a go on our old fashioned horn, unfortunately he chose to do this right in front of the Court which is an offence here, which we know as we got reprimanded for it last time - this time again we got a telling off and the police went through all our paperwork -no doubt hoping something would be wrong -ha ..we were all A Ok and they had to let us go!
We headed out into the rural areas again, lots of fat buffaloes and rich curd -and a wide variety of different bananas -some unfeasibly huge! The black bean crop was drying out everywhere -it's some sort of green lentil. As we'd got away a bit later than initially planned it was dark by the time we made it to our next destination -Tissamaharama or Tissa.
Tissa is a good base for visiting the Yala National Park. We had initially planned to camp right at the park gates -but we weren't clear exactly whether this was possible or if we'd be able to find a restaurant there -so all in all we thought it'd be easier to park at Tissa. As soon as we hit Tissa we were approached by a young guy wanting to organize us a trip to the park.
A lot of the touts lost interest when we told them we intended to go in our own vehicle as there's not as much money for them -but it was lucky we met him as he told us to be up and ready to go by 5am -which was far earlier than we'd have thought to go on our own.
He suggested we park down by the lake which he said would be quite safe -and probably he was right but we tend to prefer to park behind hotel gates- not so much for security but for peace as we are a bit of a crowd puller!
We've never had any problem finding camping spots here in SL -it's a breeze cf India- and this time was no different the very salubrious Priyankara Hotel - www.priyankarahotel.com made us very welcome. We camped under a tree in their front parking area and they arranged to leave a door open to the bathroom for us all night -all for no charge. Big thanks to Mr. Hemantha the manager who was also kind enough to give us a half price meal -on a buy one get one free basis! Thanks for your kindness, we really appreciate it.
Next morning came very quickly and it was still dark when we got up, packed up the car and drove the 20 odd km to Yala, going via the roti shop to get some breakfast/lunch take away. When we got there we had to make our guide redundant as we found out we had to have an animal tracker anyway.
There was a difficult few minutes when they tried to convince me they could both fit in the car but I put my foot down on that one - the Toyota supposedly seats 3 across the front but even that is a bit of a squeeze -3 very petite Japanese maybe! - 4 no way!!! Really our young guide had seen the car and so this should have been glaringly obvious so we didn't feel too mean -anyway we gave him some money for his trouble. Just as well we'd no extra seat as we didn't really need a guide when we had a tracker and it all adds to the cost. We managed to get a good deal on the safari as we only had to pay our entry fees -2,500 LKR each - no vehicle charge - and a payment by donation to the guide. Thus we were able to have a full day safari which gave us more chance of seeing some animals. From what we saw the problem with the cheapest option of a half day meant that the jeeps tended to bunch up like bumper cars and this is low season GOK what it's like at the busiest time!
Anyway we had a FANTASTIC day ..we've missed doing safaris a few times as they are pretty costly - but we were so pleased we'd made the effort- being allowed to use our own vehicle (rarely allowed in India) helped. Our tracker did an excellent job but it no doubt helped that it had rained heavily just before so all the animal prints were fresh so it was easier to see where they'd been.
We saw a real wealth of bird life - numerous gorgeous honey bee eaters, storks, king fishers, an Indian roller and peacocks amongst others. On the animal front - bees, a very energetic dung beetle a mongoose, monitor lizards, elephants, crocodiles, wild boars, a sloth bear ( he was very camera shy sadly!) and DRUM ROLL!!! 3 leopards!!!
This was amazing as it isn't the best season to see them -the rains have started and the water holes are all full so no need for the animals to wander far to look for food - but it helped that the tracker really knew where to look. There are apparently 18 leopards in the zone that is open for safaris (around 36 in all) and the group we saw consisted of 3 leopards -a mother and her 2 sons of around a year old. Like domestic cats they spent most of the day snoozing as they'd had a hard night's hunting. First sighting wasn't so good as they were really well camouflaged -so well we'd never have seen them without our tracker's help- and there was a crazy press of vehicles - so you saw more of the ample bums of other tourists as they barged around the backs of their jeeps trying to get that perfect shot than the animals!
This was why it was better to have a full day here, the bulk of the tourists come en masse at the early slot which is best for seeing animals and they're all gone by 10am -then we could return to where the big cats were still snoozing. We actually returned in the evening just before leaving the park (it shuts at 6pm) and saw one the leopards on the move. He lunged through the bushes to try and catch a bird -just missing- Andrew got the shot but sadly it was very blurry! Never mind, it was a huge thrill to see these stunning animals up close.
Early on in the day we stopped for breakfast (roti and banana) at a beach which had a monument to the people lost in the Tsunami. When the wave hit at approximately 9 am they were on the same breakfast break and 49 lives -mostly Japanese tourists, and locals died. It was eerie thinking of that as we stood there at the same time. There were 2 luxury resorts on this area of the beach within the park when the Tsunami hit but they have never been rebuilt.
It was a long day - particularly with the very early start and we faded a bit by mid-day when it got very hot. We went and had lunch (again our own rotis with avocado and marmite this time) at a nearby fishing village. We had a look round where they were drying the fish, apparently they get good sizeable lobsters here and we were offered one for lunch -too late we'd already finished!
We were very tired by the end but a fantastic day and we were so pleased we'd gone. As mentioned above the resorts within the park have never been rebuilt so there is now just one option if you want to spend the night actually within the park which is run Alan in Negombo whom we earlier mentioned as the proprietor of Tusker restaurant.
Alan together with a Sri Lankan partner Noel runs the Leopard Safari company which offers an up market safari experience and we went to visit their set up whilst there. We have to say this really would be the way to do it if you can afford to splash out a bit. At $385 Aus. a day (including all food drink and 2 safaris ) it's not cheap but it would be a truly superb experience. You get to sleep in luxury tents (proper beds) by the river, a gorgeous setting actually within the park. This is the only way to stay within the park and maximizes your chances of seeing the animals when they are most likely to be on the move -early morning late evening -a real jungle experience. The food looked fabulous and as mentioned that and the alcohol beer, wine and spirits are all included in the price, the guys obviously go to a lot of trouble to lay on every convenience in the middle of the jungle. It really looked like an amazing place to stay, check out their websitewww.leopardsafaris.com
We slept very well that night and were amazed when we woke up to see the great views from the Priyankara Hotel as we ate breakfast on the back balcony - stretching away over the paddy fields - we'd only see it in the dark before!
Before heading on we had a quick look at one of the sights of Tissa a large white dagoba built by a long gone King Kavantissa who ruled this area it stands over 55 metres tall and has a circumference of 165 metres. It has an attractive park like setting near the man-made lake. Next door is a temple where we found the statue of Queen Viharamahadevi . As mentioned above she was the King's daughter who supposedly landed just south of here having been cast out to sea to punish her father and went on to marry Kavantissa. Or maybe she really landed at Pottuvil -who knows! It's a nice enough little town Tissa with a relaxed feel.
We headed back to the coast to arrive at Tangalla (or Tangelle both seem to be in use) a small beach side village which is famously the birth place of SL's President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Perhaps unsurprisingly his popularity is huge here you rarely escape his smiling face -it's everywhere smirking at you from tuk tuks, houses, newspapers etc When we hit town there was a large imposing green gate in the middle of town with an armed guard around it -as the plaque said it was a school I joked to Andrew that they must be very bad kids! We later found out this was his house ( which shares its premises with a school presumably ??) and we saw him come and go by helicopter a few times whilst we were in the area. He flies and his entourage follows on the ground -including his son and political heir who has a very nice red Ferrari -he whizzed past us a couple of times.
That first night we again jagged an excellent camp spot -right at the end of the beach in the grounds of the quite posh Coconut Beach Cabanas - seewww.coconutbeachcabanas.comThey really kindly let us camp there for the night and even gave us a key so we could use one or the cabana bathrooms -think we timed it really well as from next week through to April they are going to be full -we are about to hit high season here and it shows, there's a big push on last minute building as everyone rushes for what is predicted to be the busiest season in a long time.
Tangelle is a pleasant enough little town -but the beaches a few kms to each side are allegedly a lot better - so we only stayed for a day. We walked down around the harbour which was very busy with fish being unloaded and heading off to Colombo. Fishing is the big industry here and later on we got involved in a chain gang dragging the nets up the beach - very hard work and I only did a couple of goes - it takes hours to drag these huge nets up.
After looking at the harbour we had a pot of tea at the nearby rest house - one of the oldest in the country being built by the Dutch in 1774. Framed on the walls were letters from various high ups -latterly the British - thanking them for exemplary service. It still had character but looked a bit clapped cf what would have been its glory days! Wandering back from town we bumped into our Polish friend Marta who is now living down in Unawatuna, so she came back to have lunch with us at the car. Being on the travellers' circuit you tend to repeatedly bump into the same people which is nice.
That night we went with Marta to nearby Rekawa beach a gorgeous beach where turtles lay their eggs. Once the local villagers lived off the turtles -their meat and their eggs being eaten and their shells used to make ornaments -but now after a re-education program they have turned over a new leaf and are employed to protect the turtles and their habitat. The main people behind this are the Turtle Conservation Project -seewww.tcpsrilanka.org We met 2 of the volunteers Rachel from England and Pia from Germany who came to help out with this and a variety of village projects. We were so lucky -no sooner had we got there than a signal was given from up the beach that a turtle was laying her eggs! We were really fortunate as we have really missed the high season for this (April to September) but the turtles do lay their eggs all year around. This one was a green turtle; she measured about 3 feet long and was apparently round 45 years old.
We were told she would be a bit shy at first as she lumbered up the beach and this is when you have to be careful as she can easily be chased off from laying her eggs, but once she has done so (over 100 eggs the process takes about 20 minutes) she goes into a sort of trance and seemed oblivious to our presence. Apparently only around 1% of eggs laid make it to become turtles. Even if the humans have been educated (most of them) not to eat these eggs there are numerous other predators -birds, rodents- and pollution. Turtles eat jellyfish and having poor eyesight they often mistake a plastic bag for a juicy morsel and end up choking to death. Incredibly as turtles always return to where they were laid as eggs to lay their own eggs "our" turtle would have been a hatchling here 45 years ago! She's lucky it was this protected beach…think about the poor turtles who front up to find there is a resort where they want to lay their eggs!
We watched her head back to sea - all in all an incredible experience. We were lucky and particularly in the low season we could have had a wasted journey but it'd be worth it going back once or twice to see if you got lucky. Ours was a green turtle, but hawksbill and leatherback turtles also lay their eggs here. The TCP has been going years but it's still finding its way a bit as this is all very new and different for the locals. You are not charged if no turtles appear, but we were told it was 1,000 LKR each for seeing a turtle. For budget travellers this was a bit steep and we didn't have the money though we gave a donation -it also cost 900 LKR to get a tuk tuk out here and we'd spent much of our money. Whilst 1,000 LKR is nothing to the 2 week holiday set, it's 2 nights accommodation to some travellers. Definitely an incredible experience - really recommended just take some enough cash so you're not caught out like us! They plan to start a shop with locally made products soon which will also bring in funds.
Next day we left Tangalle to go just 3km south to Goyambokka and Paradise Beach. This small cove- like beach was highly recommended in our guide book and we could quickly see why. It was a gorgeous spot white sand beautiful clear water and just a few resorts. It was also a lot pricier than other resorts we'd been to - they get a lot of short term holiday makers here- predominantly French, Russians, German and English- thus the prices are given in Euros which is a bit scary!
We'd timed it really well as it was quite empty but everyone said that within the next couple of weeks all the resorts around would full to capacity, which was hard to imagine really. We parked up and went for a walk around when we saw a sign for the "Eden Reverie Cabana and Spa" - there was some building work going on there but a fair sized parking area so we went to ask if we could park there and use their restaurant. A very nice heavily pregnant lady came down and said that her spa was not yet open and that they were half way through building their house but that we'd be very welcome to park there a and share their dinner. We parked up and stayed 3 days! Amila owns fishing boats and he lives here with his wife Nirosha -and their dogs Bobby and Jack. Before being married Nirsha worked in one of the big spas in a hotel chain and she plans to set one up here..great location for it. Currently as I said she is about to have her first child. Her brother Hasipha who is waiting to go to university is also staying with them helping to build their house. When this is finished the cabana where they are now living will be used as the spa.
As ever we were blown away by the hospitality of the people we met. We had a wonderful time staying there and enjoyed fantastic meals - particularly the night we BBQ'ed a huge fish caught that morning. Sri Lankans must eat better than any other race in the world -everything is organically grown so we had freshly grated coconut and chili samba, and loads of fresh fish /prawns & great fruit and vegetables in the curries.
We got in a great routine where we got up and walked down to the cove for our swim each morning - usually we were the only people on the beach save a few fishermen- and then came and sat on the balcony watching the squirrels and bird life. Andrew even managed to get some pictures of the elusive red woodpecker! We'd seen these everywhere around SL but every time Andrew got his camera out they disappeared. Thankfully there were quite a few local to the area so we got it nailed!
The guys were having building work done as I say and the tractors pulling loads were up and down the muddy back lane. As we finally went to leave this turned out to be lucky as we got badly bogged -first time in ages. The road was actually fine in the main just on the side it backed into a lagoon and we hit a wet soggy path and couldn't get out. The more we tried the deeper we went, we hitched up to the tractor but it couldn't quite get us out. Finally Amila drove off in his tuk tuk and got a JCB which was working nearby and for a small fee he pulled us out in seconds!
Thanks so much to Amila Nirosha and Hasipha for their incredible hospitality. I'd love to come back for some spa treatments when she's up and running. Update: Nirosha and Amila had a little girl born 12 November. Congratulations to them both. They have actually asked me to provide one name for the baby -a big honour here - and I suggested Chloe which they seemed to like.
Next day we made another more successful attempt to finally leave Amila and Niroshas! Heading out of Tangalle again we passed the very funky looking Jetwing Tangalle Bay hotel, which someone had told us was designed to look like a ship. Andrew wanted to stop and have a quick look at it which turned out to be very fortunate as this was the first day of an animal welfare project which was being run from the hotel.
The Tsunami Animal People Alliance (TAPA) is a charity set up after the Tsunami to sterilize and vaccinate all the islands many street dogs - 35,000 done so far! See www.tsunami-animal.orgfor more about the great work they do. We were really pleased to see this here as we'd been really concerned at the state of some of the street dogs in Tangalle -very bad mange and still breeding so anything which helps is great. The dogs are caught humanely using nets, sterilized and vaccinated and released back from where they come after recovery. Each animal costs $20 USD and they rely on donations.
The program was being run by local expats as well as locals and we met Martin from the UK who runs Lords restaurant in Negombo and a Canadian lady Renae who runs the nearby Moonstone Villas. Renae also asked us to mention here an NGO which rebuilds schools lost in the tsunami and does a lot more good work to help locals see www.developingworldconnections.org it's great that people with busy lives take the time out to help others like this.
We next headed out to the Mulkirigala rock temple just 16km away. We had delayed visiting here as Andrew's knee has been a bit sore and we'd heard there were lots of steps, but he was feeling better so we decided to go for it.
We got a bit lost finding it -whilst in season the temple is popular with tourist few of them drive themselves so no signs in English but we got there in the end. It was really impressive -very like Dambulla on a smaller scale.
Built on 3 levels it has been revamped by both the Dutch and the British but the original structure is very old. There were lots of Buddhas within the cave but the best thing was the richly painted murals -telling various stories of Buddha, very beautiful. Due to the cross over with Hinduism there were also painting of Hindu gods, and a series of depictions of the early signs of the zodiac.
The steps (around 200) weren't too bad compared to others we'd done and we took it slow. At the top was a dagoba and a viewing point with fabulous views around the surrounding country -we could see the rain coming so got a move on!
It is considered fortuitous to land a coin on the dagoba and you can make a wish. It's harder than it looks -they all roll off - but Andrew managed to do it properly and I cheated by throwing very close so we both got to make a wish! Worth a visit.
We'd just timed it right and we had to run for the car as the rains came. By the time we got back to Tangalle it was flooded and we had to step ankle deep through a raging torrent to get out of the car. Cargills the local supermarket was temporarily shut as the water had gushed in and fused the electrics so the tills wouldn't work, and all the staff were busy mopping with trouser legs rolled up. When it rain it rains here!
We had planned to head on that afternoon but by this time it was getting dark so we stayed one more night at the Green Garden Cabanas as we didn't want to bother Amila et al again. Green Garden Cabanas was a lovely spot -again just back from Paradise Beach set in a beautiful garden, with birds, squirrels a dog and even 2 resident ponies! Empty now, they'll again be full in a week or so when the European visitors start swarming in. There were an abundance of wood apples in the garden - we've got quite into these -well Andrew more than me. I find they have a tang which is a bit too fermented
Next morning we had our last swim at paradise Beach and headed on south towards Mirissa.On the way we detoured to the Ho -O- Maniya blow hole. It was a really pretty setting -a sort of cobbled street around a little fishing village and a lovely view of the bay -but the blow hole wasn't really doing its thing. Apparently in the right season - June being best- the water goes up 20 metres.
All it managed when we were there was under a foot! A little disappointing especially as the price for admission (for foreigners that is!) had gone up 400% (200lkr each) since our LP was printed!
We drove on towards Matara and on the way we stopped at the Wewurukannala Vihara. This temple is originally very old (not much detailed English info "very old" will have to do!) though much of it was done up in the 1960s including the "largest seated Buddha in Sri lanka" all 50 metres of him!
Lots of brightly coloured statues etc but the real piece de la resistance was a long bat infested tunnel lined with very scary life sized figures and graphic pictures showing what awaited in hell to those who did the wrong thing down here. The stuff of nightmares!
We'd planned to stop and see the Dondra lighthouse which is just short of Matara and the southernmost tip of Sri Lanka but we hit Matara and saw we'd gone too far so had to retrace our steps. As I said you'd think they'd be a sign , and indeed there was but the President's picture -which is omnipresent down here - was in front of it blocking it out!
Never mind we got there in the end though we just missed the sunset. Tennyson the manager of the lighthouse came out to say hello. He and his family live here (with 2 huge Doberman Rottweiler x dogs Ringo and Lassie) and he's been in charge of the lighthouse for over 30 years. There are also a handful of navy guys stationed here permanently .
We were disappointed that we'd missed the sunset but Tennyson very kindly said we could camp the night actually at the lighthouse. One of our more impressive camp spots! We drove just around the bay to the nearby Lighthouse View Restaurant for dinner with said view. Actually we had a bit of a run in on the way over as we drove past a man who really kicked a dog -we saw it all, it wasn't bothering him or anything and he just ran at it and kicked it. We were really angry and Andrew shouted at him. He rounded up some friends and they all followed us to the restaurant which was a bit scary.
Thankfully the staff told them to go and when Andrew went out to face up to them they quickly backed down -bullies and cowards! Not a pleasant experience and generally very untypical of the Sri Lankans. I write this following an email today that asked why I never write anything negative! I don't want to be too Pollyannaish -but I am living my dream and so everyday is great. Of course we have the odd unpleasant experience but overall it is the other way -we're amazed at people's kindness -but having got that email whilst writing this -I decided to include it ..it's not all moonlight and roses!
Anyway we survived and as I say an amazing camp spot. We were (amongst) the first people to see the sun rise over Sri Lanka at 6.20am next morning, as we sat watching the bay and Tennyson's wife kindly brought us a cup of tea. The lighthouse itself was incredible built in 1889 each piece of granite came from Scotland -where it was first built and then demolished, shipped and reassembled -what a palaver! It was an impressive construction and Tennyson takes a lot of pride in maintaining it -a full time job. We climbed the spiral staircase -8 levels - right to the top and there was an incredible view over the surrounding bay and back down to the restaurant we ate at the night before.
There was a great dumb waiter kind of tube system through the centre of the lighthouse where you could talk from the top to the bottom and hear perfectly. Just as well you wouldn't want to hike up and down those stairs to pass on a message! So now we've been to all 4 points of Sri Lanka north south east and west ..and slept at them all too -that's one of the great things travelling as we do you take your bed with you! Thanks so much to Tennyson and family for an amazing experience.
After packing up we drove on a short distance to Mirissa. We'd loved it here the year before, and we'd visited a few months ago with our friend Penny from India. Back where we had stayed at Coral Beach Hotel they were still very welcoming but it was a full on construction camp as they hurried to get building work finished before the hordes arrived. High season is about to kick in -all the accommodation had doubled in price since we'd last been there - not that that affects us badly! The waves were just right -a small surfers break at one end -good for beginner apparently - but still good for swimming not too ferocious. We had a great day and enjoyed a beer at our favourite restaurant with the waves lapping under us as we ate. That night though the building work continued until 2am so not the greatest night's sleep. We headed on next morning!
Next stop Galle and Unawatuna. Galle's a nice city if quite touristy and we went to our favourite the Pedlar's Inn café and had very good real coffee and a sandwich. Unawatuna is much more of a proper resort, quite upmarket and the people look like 2 week holiday makers not travellers - the ladies looking like they're airing out the new summer dresses bought for the trip. We parked at Milton's again- a bit out of town but plenty of good parking room and a great little private bay where we enjoyed breakfast.
We went and caught up with Marta our Polish friend who is working at a little café/guesthouse B's Place. She had some friends over -Sally from the Uk who teaches English here, and Michelle from Hong Kong and we spent a great day catching up with them . Unawatuna is a nice enough little resort but way pricier than we're used to, especially as we're approaching the high season. A little room here is 4,000 LKR or S Aus 40 -huge by Asian standards. It was great to see Marta again and meet her friends.
Next we headed on down the coast towards Hikkaduwa, another great surfing area, which is working now that the waves at Arugam Bay have fallen off though sadly Andrew's still a bit out of action at the moment. Just out of Hikkaduwa we detoured to Mitiyagda the site of the world's only moonstone mines.
It was interesting to see - incredibly tough conditions these guys still work in like something from the Middle Ages tunneling through rabbit warren like tunnels. They climb down and dig the stones out, before they're washed and then cut and polished -all of it happening on site. This is apparently the only place in the world which mines Moonstone - apparently the stuff they have in India is fake stuff is not the real deal! Andrew wanted to buy a few stones which he plans to make into jewelry in Pushkar, as he'd like to do another jewelry making course as we pass through.
As we headed back towards our camp site near Hikkaduwa we stopped off at Telwatta a small coastal village to see the Telwatta Tsunami Museum. This area was really hammered in the Tsunami -the tragic incident when hundreds of people clambered aboard a train for safety but were nearly all drowned was near here. This museum constructed around the shell of the proprietresses' former home, destroyed by the Tsunami is a very moving tribute in pictures and handwritten personal accounts of the tragedy. There are a number of tributes commemorating those lost along this area of coast. The museum itself was very much worth a visit -have a look at their sitehttp://tsunami-photo-museum-srilanka.blogspot.com
So, we watched a beautiful sunset and headed back to our camp spot. This is when the evening started to go very wrong. As usual we like to camp in a secure area, so that afternoon we'd stopped off at a little hotel and asked if we could camp there and arranged to have something to eat. However when we turned up they said we had no food and that we should walk up to the next restaurant up the road, which we did putting this experience down to a communication mix up. We sat outside and got a bit pestered by some drunken guys -not a big deal - only when we got back to the car both of Andrew's surf boards were stolen! Usually they live under the truck but they'd been tied to the roof whilst he was still hoping to maybe get a last surf in at Hikkaduwa though he didn't in the end as his knee was too sore. They'd also tried (unsuccessfully thankfully!) to get into the car and my side had a piece of wood jammed in the lock so I couldn't open it.
Andrew was devastated. It was all a bit strange as the hotel's proprietor gave Andrew what we later found out was the wrong number (on purpose?) for the police so he couldn't get through and he had to hitch a ride to get to the police station. Anyway the police finally came, and we were told that this area (Akurala) was full of "bad people" and that we shouldn't have left the car in what was a public area. We hadn't known it was a public area we'd thought it was part of the hotel -it looked like it - and we felt this should have been made clear. Then we started looking at the behaviour of those at the hotel -i.e.) had it been a set up that they'd not had food for us when we ordered it to get us out of the way!
I'm not mentioning hotel names here but if you go to this Akurala area just outside Hikkaduwa they're only a couple so it's quite obvious. Next day we were planning to head straight to Colombo but instead we ended up in Ambalangoda police station - a few kms away but we were directed here not Hikkaduwa for some reason. We sat there for an hour and no one seemed interested. Eventually we were told to come back later. We were quite agitated about this as we thought if anyone was trying to off load the boards it'd be important to strike quickly.
Finally in desperation we rang our friend the Lieutenant Colonel we'd met in Arugam Bay, as he had asked us to call him if we had any problems. He in turn rang his colleague a General in charge of the army at nearby Galle who in turn called up one of his senior police pals. My God what a turnaround!
We were ushered in, given cold drinks, and our statement was taken immediately. As soon as they heard the name of the 2ndhotel -the one we went to for dinner - they got excited and were soon shouting down the phone at the owner. To cut to the chase we had the boards back in our possession within 2 hours!
I guess the thieves just thought foreigners would go away and file an insurance claim - and the idea of the army and police all looking in earnest for 2 large bulky boards made them a bit keen to get rid of them! Just shows it really is who you know! Huge thanks to the Lieutenant Colonel and colleagues and of course the police. Doubt we'd have been so lucky recovering a laptop or camera say - the good thing about the boards is they were a bit too bulky to hide. We never got to the bottom of who'd had them they were "found" by police dumped in some bushes -we think they really put the frighters on the local criminal community about being caught with them.
This is why we're so careful where we park always asking permission and parking in what we think is a safe area though it went wrong on this occasion! So, happy ending thanks to all who helped us and the boards are now safely back under the car!
Whilst the police were doing their thing anyway we got a chance to have a look around Ambalangoda. It's not the most attractive town being hot dusty and congested but it is renowned as a centre for making Sri Lankan masks. These masks which are still used to treat illness (they appear in a dance to drive out evil spirits from the sick or maybe just scare the poor victim out of their illness!) are handmade from a type of balsa wood and hand painted in gorgeous colours. We had a look at the mask museum and saw the locals hard at work making and painting these masks. A popular souvenir they're shipped all over the world.
So, whilst we'd planned to hit Colombo that day, after all the time spent at the police station and due to the fact we'd had very broken sleep the previous night -we decided to break up the journey and drive on only a few km to the upmarket beach resort of Bentota. You wouldn't want to drive far here if you're tired - the coastal roads are shocking - very narrow with crazy kamikaze buses and no pavements so you've got bikes, kids dogs etc. all over the place and everyone driving way too fast - I actually think it's worse than India which is saying something -less cows though thankfully!
Once we hit Benota we had more trouble than anywhere else in SL (though still not too much!) finding a parking spot. We asked at a couple of the big beachfront hotels but they said it was against policy - though as we're the first car to come over this way since the 1970s beats me how they had a policy! One of those which said no was the very posh the Taj Exotica which had acres of park land surrounding it. Actually it was just as well they said no, as we usually say we'll use their restaurant in return for letting us park and on our way out we had a squizz at the menu and it was extortionate -way beyond the prices of the equivalent or better in Colombo -too many European tourists!
As ever our car attracts a crowd and the tuk tuk drivers had come to see what we were about and one kindly showed us to a good safe parking area near the Red Cross and police station where could have camped.
Whilst it was fine it was a bit airless, a big factor when you're camping so we headed down to the beach to get a camp spot with a bit more natural a/c! We drove down to the beach and parked at the back of the massive BBH or Bentota Beach Hotel. This time we didn't ask we just did it and no one bothered us, so we had a great camp spot right on the beach and went up to have breakfast at the hotel next morning. Benota is ok -but a bit too touristic for us, I prefer Mirissa. Lots of package tourists so you get a lot more hassle to buy things, and the prices are hugely inflated. Not as bad as India on the hassle front -so we're treating it as a warm up! It was a nice beach though and almost empty, so we enjoyed a good swim.
Then finally we drove back to the smog and heat of Colombo. Just on the outskirts Andrew stopped to have a shave and I just went for a look at a nearby temple. It was amazing covered in beautiful ornate paintings. No signs in English but it was 40km out of town on the Galle road. It's quite incredible the hidden treasures here -tucked away and virtually unviewed by tourists -except us!
Once we hit Colombo (back to our old camp site in the Mount Lavinia car park for a night) Andrew finally went to the large lanka Hospital and had his MRI scan on his knee, and the news was good on the whole, he has torn a tendon but the damage could be a lot worse and he's just going to have a course of physio treatment.
First day back in town we got a note on our windscreen and met up with Russell and Karen a couple (from Sri Lanka and Austria) with kids who've done the overland thing, driving from Europe a few times. We had a good night picking their brains over routes etc whilst Karen cooked us a great meal. It's always interesting to meet other overlanders.
We'll be here for at least another week or so back and forth to Colombo getting some jobs done and catching up with the many friends we've made here before we finally get on the ferry to head back to India. We've really got into life on the island and we'll really miss Sri Lanka when we go.
Update: Monday 28thNovember, 2011:For the last couple of weeks we've been splitting our time between staying with Tim in his luxury pad in Negombo and staying with our friend Sheila in her equally luxurious pad (with its great view) in Colombo so we've been very spolit!
We've had some work done, on the car and met up with Eddie Sheila and Lorraine a few times, for Sunday lunch Cheers pub at the Cinnamon Grand and dinner out with Sheila for her birthday which was an amazing night.
We also got a guided tour of the houses of Parliament courtesy of our friend Mr. Kapila and had lunch in the Executive Dining room though sadly as there's understandably very heavy security there no photos allowed.
We're also trying to get any Xmas pressies sorted and posted from here so we don't have to brave the Indian postal service which isn't for the faint hearted. Finally after all this rushing around to fit it all in we went today to book our ferry back to India for Wednesday only to be told that due to "technical difficulties" the ferry service is temporarily suspended! This is a bit of a worry to say the least hopefully it'll be up and running soon or we're stuck! As we await news of the next ferry with bated breath I'm using the time to catch up on my long neglected website.
Meanwhile as mentioned above Maxxis have agreed to continue to sponsor us and we stopped by their warehouse and picked up our 2 remaining tyres -enough to get us through to Europe! Great news! Thanks to all at Maxxis but especially Luke Chen in Taiwan and Percy in Colombo -we really appreciate all your continuing support and kindness.www.maxxis.com
Update Saturday 3rd December: It's official we're marooned! No one can tell us why but what everyone agrees is that the ferry is "postponed indefinitely." Just a week earlier and we'd have made it out. Time to look at shipping by container really not what we wanted but no choice really unless we stay here forever - which is a tempting option but hardly practical!!!
Colombo, Negombo Mon.28 Nov. - Tues. 21 December 2011
Well -as is old news now - the ferry service was well and truly suspended! We never got a clear answer as to why but it was a combination of the practical (too big a vessel, never full) and the political. The powers that be in Tamil Nadu didn't want to help it work as they saw doing so as assisting the Singhalese Government and thus condoning their treatment of the Tamils in the war. Actually cancelling the ferry adversely affects the Tamils as much as anyone as they use it to visit family in India. So a life span of 6 months only for the new ferry -not sure when another one will come-but a good few years I think.
So after saying never again (this trip anyway) we had to ship once more BUGGER! Thankfully our friend Tim who's already done so much for us once again came to our rescue by putting us in touch with his shipping agent who looked after us as far as he could. Shipping is always a headache though and so better avoided - though there was not much else to do in our situation!
In the end it could have been worse but it was a lot pricier coming back by container ship than going by ferry. It cost 59,000 LKR in fees from just the SL end and a further 10,000 Indian RPs in Tuticorin equating approximately $ 720 Aus in total to ship home. This was double the cost of shipping in the ferry which was 19,000 Indian rupees or $360 Aus. As we couldn't travel on the ship with the car we also now had to pay for our flights on top of this price hike.
We loaded the car on Friday the 16th December and spent most of the day (my birthday what a way to spend it!) stuck at the port. Our car fits perfectly into a 20 foot high top container, and this is what it left Darwin in. Unfortunately these high top containers aren't available in Asia, so to fit into a standard 20 footer we have to remove the wheels and slide the car in on rollers.
This turned into a major drama as half way through the process some bloke turned up shouting and took the fork lift away (it'd been double booked) so we were stuck half in and half out! In hindsight if/when we ever ship again we'll bite the bullet and put the car in a 40 foot container which are all high top. What we have to pay for wasted container space is no way as much as what you have to pay for forklifts et al -and the sheer hassle of it all i.e.) waiting around for forklifts, removing the wheels etc…. Ah well, you live and learn! Finally as darkness fell it was all done. We caught the bus home and were too tired to go out for my birthday celebration, though we went to Jetwing Blue (our first SL camp spot!) to celebrate the next night!
So, car-less we braved the mad buses of Negombo road as we shuttled back and forth to Colombo to waste our time at the Iranian embassy (of which more later!) go shopping and do a spot of TV -first for quite a while actually- we were starting to feel quite forgotten!
Mr. Kapila our MP friend arranged for us to meet the Minister of Tourism and we were interviewed on TV. I think Mr. Kapila was hoping that he could assist us with our ferry problem by publicizing our plight but seeing as the problem was at the Indian end there's not a lot he could do! Anyway we met the Minister and then had to speak about the experience on TV. The great man spoke little English so he did his piece and we responded separately.
The worst thing was standing "on camera" whilst he spoke -in Singhalese so of course we couldn't understand anything. It's hard to stand looking attentive/intelligent when you don't know what's being said, and it's easy to look a bit gormless! The same thing happened to me on our first TV spot back in Australia when at the last minute I couldn't be hooked up as the Darwin studio didn't have 2 mikes! Thus I had to stand whilst Andrew rattled on, trying not to look bored! Anyway all done now -though (perhaps mercifully) we were out and about on the night it played and never got to see the interview.
We also decided to use our unexpected extra time in SL to sort out our Iranian visas. We were a bit nervous re: this as we weren't sure how we'd go with the recent hostilities between the UK and Iran. Though we both travel under Australian passports -Ann's English heritage is recorded in hers. We decided to go through a company Iranian Visas www.iranianvisa.com as travellers' wisdom is that this is the best way.
How it works is that to get a visa to Iran you need a letter of invitation. If, as is almost always the case -you don't have friends or relations to provide this in Iran -you use one of the visa agencies who provide sponsorship for you. So, through them you make an application detailing your travel plans and once this is approved in Tehran you are given an authorization code by the MFA or Ministry of Foreign Affairs. You then take this number to your nearest embassy who will have received confirmation via fax from Tehran and then you pick up your visa -all sounds very easy!
As we were keen to get our flights to Chennai booked we paid extra to speed up the process. We had a problem to start with when we couldn't pay due to the same issues we had experienced before of getting money out of SL- but they did have an account in the UK and thankfully dad came to the rescue and paid there - not without an initial problem when they wouldn't accept the money as the account was "already full'???? but we got there in the end.
There was another scary moment when Andrew's code came through first - I actually applied first so we were worried that he'd be accepted but me rejected due to my UK heritage but we got both codes! Whoopee all done! Or so we naively thought…
So -for the first of many times we journied the 2 hours down rush hour Negombo Road to the Iranian embassy. The embassy only opens from 9am to 12pm. It is open Monday to Friday but Tehran and the authorities there operate from Saturday to Wednesday with a Thursday Friday weekend. Thus there were logistical difficulties and the first time we slogged all the way in to arrive too late at 12.02pm on a Wednesday -which meant the next day when both offices were open wasn't until the next Monday!
Anyway there followed a week of utter frustration -we'd go in -they'd say they'd not had the fax from Iran so "come back tomorrow." We'd go home -and repeat the same process again and again. Our agency in Tehran were saying the MFA had sent the codes (you deal with them through the agency and can't speak to them directly) but Colombo were saying they'd not received them ….meanwhile the days were ticking away -the car was waiting in India - and the flights to Chennai were getting booked up and so rising in price, and the expiry dates of our Pakistan visas (we have to enter by the 13th January 2012 or lose the visa) were coming nearer. We'll not sure who was lying and if so why …but we were well and truly stuck in the middle.
In the end we went in one final time -on Wednesday the 21st December - and when they said they'd not received it -as this in effect meant we'd definitely have no answer until next Monday we made a split decision to go. We'd already checked that the codes could be sent on to another embassy -Lahore- so we hope for better luck there!
Thus we turned around got back on the bus to Negombo - went on -line whilst in the bus back and booked our tickets for that day and flew out that afternoon. Kingfisher was a bit pricier than our usual Jetstar which was fully booked but at least we got a free beer -we needed it by then!
Big thanks to everyone who helped us in SL - I guess Tim (who even dropped us off at the airport -perhaps to be sure we were really going!) deserves a special mention, as do Dinesh and team at Mobil 1 the guys at Toyota, and Mr. Kapila and the Colonel we met in Arugam Bay. After a few weeks hanging about we felt we left SL in a bit of a rush and didn't do all the" last time" things we had planned. SL is a fantastic country and we'll definitely be back. In the meantime it's back to Chennai, on a bus to Tuticorin and (hopefully if we liberate the car in time!) on to Fort Cochin Kerala to spend Xmas with our friend Penny at her NGO helping street dogs " Mad Dogs Trust."