Our driver was early – a good sign I thought. Nope. Not at all. Our first stop was the Russian embassy that he claimed to know. He took some weird route past the beach saying it was something tourists liked to see. Then got lost. We not only had a map but knew exactly where to go – he would not listen. He finally stopped to ask a couple of cops. They didn’t speak English but we caught a few street names – yes, yes, exactly! So off we went – in the wrong direction. UGH! James got a bit more forceful with him and we finally made it.
The embassy was supposed to open at 9:30 am but at 10:30 am we were still standing in line – well in the imaginary line. When the doors finally opened we somehow were pushed to the back. When it was our turn the very grumpy man told us we would have to fill out the forms and wait our turn to be seen (I’d guess about 1-2 hours more) BEFORE they would tell us how long it would take and how much it would cost. Really? Are you that much of a dick? We worried it’d take longer to process than we had, about 5 business days, before our next flight to the Maldives. We decided if they were this strict it would likely take longer…so went looking for our car & driver. We left very grumpy. Cross your fingers we can do it when we get to India.
The grumpiness didn’t last long…we were on our way to see wonderful Sri Lanka! We drove towards the new highway for about 45 minutes and just before we got on to it I asked if we could find a bathroom first. After a few requests at local restaurants and a stop at the toll booth for directions we found one. Public bathrooms seem to be few and far between.
The new highway was pretty nice after the congested, dirty, bumpy streets that got us here. I just wish the driver didn’t have such a heavy foot. We’d go from 0-60 in 5 seconds then he’d slam on the breaks then 0-60 in 5 seconds. I got motion sick and ended up lying down in James’ lap trying not to puke. I was thankful I’d skipped the curry at breakfast today.
Our first stop of the day was Galle. We pulled off the highway and came to a T in the road. A big sign pointed to the right – GALLE. We went left. Huh? After a few minutes our driver stopped for directions….then again in a few more minutes. Apparently he was having a hard time finding Galle - ya think, it’s the other WAY! We tried to tell him and eventually he listened, we turned around and were back on our way to Galle.
We pulled into the walled city and found a parking spot. When we got out the driver seemed intent of following us and we asked very nicely if we could walk on our own and meet back up at the car later. Unless it’s a really good guide we prefer to be on our own, exploring. He would have none of it and followed a few feet behind the whole way.
Galle (pronounced gawl in English) has a fort built in 1663 by the Dutch. Much of it, the inner buildings and walls that surround it are crumbling but once past the gates you are transported back in time. It sits beautifully on 36-hectares of land jutting out into the sea. Inside the old walls is a working community with administration offices, courts, export companies – and it’s where the workers also live; in cute old houses. We walked a loop past ancient churches, small shops, a few old restored (now boutique hotels) homes/mansions and along the sea wall. Beside the wall there was a park like strip and groups of tourists (mostly locals) were swimming or picnicking. It was a peek into the past, one I think will be gone soon. A lot of the buildings have been turned into shops, restaurants and hotels and the others all seem to be under construction. Someday soon everything will be shiny and new – I understand why but it’s still sad.
Next on the itinerary was the stilt fisherman. Well we thought. One of the reasons we opted for a car was so we could go out of our way to see a few things a local bus wouldn’t stop for. The stilt men were one of them. When booking we assumed -never assume- (James’ Note: We didn’t assume, we asked and were lied to. The lesson is never believe) they knew what they were doing and would have us in the right area at the right time to see them. The driver tried to avoid our questions about where they were and finally told us it was the wrong time of the day. When we got upset he started to stop and ask random people on the road. He finally pulled down a dirt side road that led to the ocean. We got out and he walked us toward the rocky beach and pointed out the empty stilts. He mumbled something like that is where they fish. See? No. We don’t see. In Galle there was day tour adverts on every corner – on every one of them was a trip to the stilted fishermen. Obviously someone somewhere knows when to come see them – just not our guy. UGH!
With a few choice words we got back in the car. On to the next stop. Our drive south took us past the area of coast hit hard by the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. They have rebuilt a lot; you can actually see the difference with the newer hotels. It’s still not back to normal or as built up as the area north of it.
I have to add a side note: the head bobble. Now don’t get me wrong, everywhere you travel they have little quirks; Korea with the crossing your arms for no (as Sandra did on her way to delivering Lucas), the bowing with hands in Cambodia (to list one), the nodding for thank you. I mean I am Canadian eh, and have my own quirks eh. In Sri Lanka they do a head wiggle thing (that by the way is adorable on small children) that confuses me. They are saying the words yes or no but their head is saying both. I hear what you are saying but my brain is register both – so what was the answer? Thankfully James has saved me countless times as I stand there staring like a fool trying to decide who to listen to – my brain or ears.
To make a long story short our driver got lost, asked for directions roughly 12 times and ended up taking us to Yala National park not our hotel, Yala Village. At the park someone pointed him in the right direction and, about an hour later, we pulled up to Yala Village, a luxury (did you hear that, luxury not budget!) resort. It’s spread over 10 acres of jungle, fringed by beach on the southernmost tip of Sri Lanka. It borders the Yala Wildlife Sanctuary and the Indian Ocean. Animals, including elephants, roam free here!
Yala at sunset
We happily got out of our car and went to check in. We were shown to a large deck beside the pool and given fresh wood apple juice (which I really didn’t like not to mention not really knowing what it was). Someone came along and we filled out forms while they explained how everything worked. Most importantly we were told not to walk alone at night. Yikes! By the time we left reception I was back to being excited, our car ride here was less than enjoyable. We’d booked a private car and driver to speed things up, to have less stress about getting from point A to B…and spent a huge part of the trip slightly lost and we’d had to keep a map out all the time and fight with our driver to listen to us – he had no map!
A guy, with a flashlight, walked us to our room. I was chatting away, a few steps behind him. We turned a corner and I was startled. I was caught off guard by the huge water buffalo standing on the path no more than four feet in front of us. No, I am not afraid of water buffalos but I wasn’t expecting it. I jumped and let out a short scream. I startled the water buffalo. He jumped, I swear, and let out a scream of his own, I swear, and took off – letting out short screams as he went. James burst out laughing. I scared the water buffalo more than I scared myself. Too funny.
The last few steps to our chalet were animal free, thankfully. Once in though a family of monkeys ran over our roof. Hmmm…now that might be a problem. I am afraid of monkeys. How would I ever be able to leave my room? The room was so beautiful I quickly forgot to be afraid of the monkeys. We both had steamy hot showers and a rest before having to head to dinner. We called for our chaperone and sat on the deck waiting, enjoying the sounds of the jungle.
Dinner was an amazing buffet and I could barely walk after. Travel Hint: A lot of hotels in Sri Lanka offer room and breakfast, and then hotel room, breakfast and dinner – if booked in advance dinner ends up being really cheap. After dinner we got our safaris booked and returned to our room, with a chaperone. We curled up in the fluffy duvet….ahhhhh.
4:45 am our alarm went off. Whoo Hooo! We quickly called for our chaperone and got ready to go. In reception we picked up our breakfast boxes and went looking for our naturalist and jeep. To be honest it was a bit confusing. When we found our jeep our driver from the day before was waiting for us. He climbed up into the back with us. Now this might seem mean but we told him we wanted to be alone. And we did. Set aside we’d just paid an and arm and a leg for this “private” jeep with a naturalist and you still have the fact that we’d had a horrible day of constantly being lost and arguing with him the day before. He looked pissed and tried to get in the front seat with the driver. The driver waved him away and he disappeared into the dark. Sorry.
After a bit more confusion - we had no naturalist at first- and a stop at the entrance gate we were off! Yala National Park is the most visited and second largest national park in Sri Lanka. The park covers 979 square kilometres. It’s situated in the dry semi-arid climatic region and rain falls mainly during the monsoon season. Yala has a variety of ecosystems ranging from moist monsoon forests to freshwater and marine wetlands. Over 215 bird species, including six endemic species of Sri Lanka, can be found in the park. The number of mammals that has been recorded in the park is 44, and it has one of the highest leopard densities in the world. And that is why we are here. The leopards!
Some of the many safari trucks
The sun was just creeping up as our jeep left the entrance gate. Our guide started to chat about the area, he was full of information. Our driver was crazy. We were staring into the thick jungle at an elephant; he was hiding, when our driver said he had a call telling him where a leopard was. Then we were off, flying over the muddy, dirty, puddle filled road. I clung to the hand straps and tried to duck when we got to close to the trees. I got smacked a few times. The only drawback is the area open to tourists isn’t huge but filled with jeeps so when a leopard call is made everyone takes off. The fastest gets the best sighting spots. We got a good one.
As our driver jockeyed for position (with 20 or so other jeeps) we got a peek at a leopard sleeping in a tree. Wow! It was a first for both of us and we were so excited to see one on the first try. We stared at it for as long as the driver thought was fair and then we were off. I felt like a kid at Christmas.
We also saw crocodiles, lizards, and birds – notably the national bird. The guide and driver got really excited when we saw the very colorful ground bird – the Jungle Fowl (the national bird), but it kinda looked like a chicken to me. I got a video, a chicken right?
Definitely a chicken
(Click on picture for link to video, appx. 7.5MB)
Some of the many birds, including the majestic national chicken.
A few hours into the safari the driver took us to the beach for breakfast. We grabbed our boxes of food and I went and sat in the sand. It was stunning and I somehow managed to block everyone else out (a half dozen or so jeeps were also there) and enjoy the view.
After breakfast we were off hunting again. We were yet again trying to get a good look at an elephant (I think a mom and her baby) hiding in the trees when our driver got the call again. Off we flew! This time was amazing! A leopard was lying in a tree but awake. While we watched he jumped down, walked around, the jumped back up into the tree. So cool! In my excitement I managed to remember to video it.
(Click on picture for link to video, appx. 5MB)
When we got back to the resort I thought I was too excited to sleep but the duvet and early start helped. We both enjoyed late morning naps. We had to check out but could hang out until our afternoon safari. I was planning to go for a swim but ended up content with a coffee and the computer.
An unhappy heron
At 3:00 pm we left for our afternoon safari. Not five minutes down the road, I’m not sure if we were off the hotel grounds and into the park yet, we saw a crocodile take down a heron. We were at the exact right place at the exact right moment, and the only jeep around for the initial kill. Another jeep pulled up and we all watched in fascinated horror as it then fought off other crocs for his dinner. Again I somehow remembered to video it. I’ll let the gory scene speak for itself.
After the croc excitement we continued on…to be honest if we had of turned around and went home I would have been happy – what a day so far!
The end of the heron
(Click on picture for link to video, appx. 2.1MB)
Well hidden elephant
It only got better! Hidden in the trees about 20 feet away was a huge elephant. You couldn’t see much of him but it didn’t matter – I knew he was there. This massive, powerful, enormous tusked (I’m running out of words for big) elephant was no more than 15 feet away. It gives me goose bumps just thinking about it.
About half way through our evening session we got to see another leopard. We were a little late getting there so had to wait our turn to see it. And again we (James) was in the exact right spot at the exact right moment. While our jeep was in position James and our naturalist, who was so excited it was cute, were bent up out of the jeep snapping away. The naturalist sat back down and the leopard, which had been sleeping, sat up and looked right at James. Well maybe not right at James but it looks it by the picture. I was jealous but so excited. He is beautiful.
There were a ton of jeeps and before I was ready our driver moved on. We drove around looking at birds and lizards and mongooses. On the way back to the resort the sun was setting bright pink and outlining rock outcrops. I had a pinch myself moment it was so surreal. What an amazing day!
We grabbed our bags and our snack (we had a long drive to the next place so decided to picnic in the car to save time) and were on our way. I had enjoyed it so much we asked if we could stay another night. Our budget is happy they were full.
Crocodiles, lizards and elephants! Oh my!
I was working my way through dessert (cookies) when James exclaimed – there’s an elephant on the road! Our, always perky driver replied – what? James repeated – there’s an elephant on the road! To which our driver again replied – what? An elephant, an elephant, an elephant is on the road – I screeched, mouth full of cookies. Oh my god, there’s an elephant on the road. There was, walking as calmly as you please across the road and into the jungle. I was jumping up and down in my seat – could this day be any cooler?
I succeeded in finishing my mouth full of cookies without chocking and settled in for the drive. James and I had agreed one of us had to stay awake at all times to keep an eye on the map. The driver didn’t get lost, but he stopped a half dozen or so times to ask for directions. It’s almost funny, almost.
We pulled into Hikkaduwa just before midnight. After looking at a few rooms we kept our budget room and crawled into bed. We were in a beach front hotel but in the back in a room facing the road. We could hear the ocean somewhere in the distance…behind the crazy traffic from the street and the thumping from the bars. Regardless of how loud it was, I was asleep in minutes.
We both slept in a bit, the street traffic was annoying. I went looking for a cup of coffee and ended up in the beach restaurant of our hotel. I had brought the computer and was happy to sit and enjoy. James decided to go arrange diving. We had picked this area to do a few days of diving.
Hikkaduwa is a small town on the southern coast and is famous for its beach, surfing and night life – yup, heard that night life part last night. It was affected by the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. Part of the relief operations involved handing out sewing machines to families who had lost everything. As I would soon find out, this means you can get anything made and buy great/cheap swim shorts – all authentic brand names of course. The town is really just one main road that runs along the ocean. Both sides are crammed with shops, restaurants, hotels and the odd house. The traffic on the road is extremely heavy – and with no sidewalks not very pleasant to walk on.
James returned and said the dive shop looked dodgy so we weren’t diving. If you take no other travel hint from me take this one: if you visit a dive shop and you don’t get a good vibe – leave it. We had hired a private driver to get here quick and it might have been a waste. Hind sight would be nice. Ah well, I guess we had a few days on a beach with nothing to do. James and I both have admitted to being tired. Really, really tired. Maybe a few days on a beach will do us some good. I suggested if we weren’t spending money on anything we should up-grade to an ocean view room. They had comfortable chairs on an outside patio that overlooked the ocean (for me) and air conditioning (for James). James agreed and we went looking for the young manager.
I am now sitting on my patio enjoying the cool ocean breeze watching kite surfers and surfers play in the waves. I’m supposed to be blogging….but it can wait a minute while I go get another cold beer……
Today was perfect, perfectly peaceful. Our room is much quieter on this side and we both slept well, and woke up late. I had coffee on the patio then went for breakfast, banana pancakes. My tea was served in an ancient, chipped tea pot, cup and saucer, all matching (as it is served in so many Sri Lankan restaurants!). James and I went for a walk on the beach then went for a swim. After the swim we had a few cold beers…me on the patio and him in the air conditioning. When we got hungry we went for wood fire over pizza. “sigh”
The only thing I might change: In one bigger than expected wave I lost my sunglasses, the ball from my belly ring and my hair scrunchie. All of it gone in two seconds flat. Yes James, you did ask why I was wearing my glassing into the surf 5 seconds before it happened. Boo to you!
We had late check and I got up in time for a slow coffee on the patio again. I could get used to this. Normally we spend beach side holidays underwater and don’t have hours and hours of time for just sitting. After check out we went for a late breakfast. We had arranged a transfer for later this afternoon. We needed to stop in Colombo to pick up my ring (YEAH!) and then get to the airport. The bus then airport transfer price isn’t much different than our private ride and it gave us more time here. So we had the afternoon to play in the surf again, I had nothing left to lose so why not!
I had a quick outdoor shower right before leaving. It’s still a bit funny to wash my hair and soap up (bathing suit on) out in the open. A lot like a Korean bath. Our ride came and we reluctantly got in. We had both needed this break but I think a day or two more would have been even better.
Traffic was a bit heavy and we made it to the gem shop just in time to grab my new shiny ring, thank everyone and run off. I spent the next 8 hours staring at it. We got to the airport and once through found a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf – a nice treat that Sri Lanka has.
As I sat there I was having a hard time believing we were on our way to the Maldives. We flip flopped back and forth about going; it definitely was not in the budget. To get back here would involve so much time and money (you have to fly via India or Sri Lanka) for the typical one week dive live aboard that it made sense to do it now. So once again we dipped into our condo fund – which might end up being a basement bachelor at this rate.