The Sri Lanka Series: Unawatuna (July-August 2015)

Unawatuna is a popular beach destination during peak season, but I found it had a bit of a ‘tired’ vibe. A lot of the restaurants we tried really lacked compared to the delicious Sri Lankan food we had come to expect. The only place I remember fully enjoying the food was at a poorly lit burger place tucked in with all of the other beach restaurants (I think it was this one). It boasted huge burgers with chunky cut chips and a variety of condiments (the way to my heart is condiments). We did discover a prettier beach a couple of minutes east along the coastline (behind the aeroplane playground) that had white sand, no rubbish and glorious warm, blue water. It was definitely worth the tuk tuk trip (or scooter ride) away from the standard tourist hub.

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Safety first?

 

From Unawatuna, we did a day trip to investigate the city of Galle, which is about 20 minutes drive away. We hired a scooter with helmets from our accomodation for AU$8 per day and were hyper vigilant about keeping our distance from everyone else on the road. Our mindset was to just expect everybody to do the most unpredictable thing ever and that seemed to keep us safe. (To read about Sri Lankans and their love of horns, go here.) The scooter meant absolute freedom to travel at our own pace without having to hail and barter with tuk tuk drivers all the way. From the fort’s walls, we spectated the local spectators of a Sri Lanka versus India cricket game at the stadium. Afterwards, we wandered around and stumbled upon markets before hunting down street food for lunch and then devouring ice cream later on. I am not much of a history buff, so though the fort was cool to see, what came next was the highlight of the day for me.

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Galle Fort.

 

After swerving through the frantic traffic of Galle and along the main coastal road for another 15 minutes, we arrived at our next destination: a turtle hatchery! I researched a couple in the area on trip advisor to make sure they seemed legit and were not exploiting the animals for the tourist dollar. The reviews I read were vital for informing which hatchery to choose and which ones to avoid.

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Rhys and I happily handed over the AUS$5 donation at the door and walked in to volunteer some of our time cleaning the tanks and feeding the turtles. It warmed my animal loving heart to see the good work that the hatchery was doing in an effort to protect the turtle’s breeding grounds and help injured (usually due to rubbish, boats or fishing nets) turtles recuperate. I was very conscious of a tourist scam which might result in further animal captivity, but the owner’s authenticity was clear from his first hello. He explained that he had actually inherited the hatchery from his father and was trying his best to keep it operational with help from volunteers. He outlined the story of each of the captive turtles and how every day was spent caring for them, helping hatchlings or releasing the older ones back into the wild. I loved every minute of splashing around in the pools with the bigger turtles, learning about the different species and going crazy over the cuteness of the newly hatched babies. It was a pretty awesome day for any animal lover. Afterwards, we cruised back to Unawatuna as the sun went down and dined on delicious, fresh fish for dinner.

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Aren’t they just the cutest?

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This guy lost his leg in a boating accident.

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Even Rhys couldn’t deny the babies and their cuteness.

 

Another highlight from our time in Unwatauna was our search for the (not so) mysterious Jungle Beach. We had heard about this particular beach and people had told us of the adventure to get there. As it turned out, the track was fairly well signed, but it still seemed to elude us for quite some time. The 45 minute walk included tropical forest, beaches, crossing streams, muddy slopes, spiders and a hilly decline down to the beach itself. This is really one of those cliche times where the journey was more fun than the final destination. The beach is not all that fabulous (there is a restaurant that offer a decent meal with bathrooms and a few cabanas) but the walk was a fun venture through scenic surroundings as we wove our way through people’s backyards and soaked up the nature all around us.

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Finally, it was time to hitch our train from Galle to Colombo in preparation of our departure. We had heard that the trains get packed very quickly, especially in economy class (only a couple of dollars per ticket). We waited with our backpacks at the ready in an attempt to beat some people to the few free seats. Unfortunately, most were much pushier than we were jumping on before the train had even pulled into the station (it was clear it wasn’t their first time) and instead we spent 3 hours taking turns sitting on our bags in the walkway as salesmen stepped over us to sell their refreshments and trinkets. It was a unique and somewhat funny experience, but not necessarily the most comfortable position for the 3 hour journey.

-rocketandramble

#rocketandramble @rocketandramble

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The Maldives: Thulusdhoo II (Aug 2015)

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As we flew through the clouds, snippets of the turquoise water and sandy island atolls confirmed we had made the right decision. After the stress of the previous week, I could not wait to lay on the beach in my bikini, soak up the sunshine and sip on a cocktail until I remembered that the island Rhys and I had chosen was a surf camp on an inhabited island. This meant no bikinis and definitely no alcohol due to the strict Muslim culture. My visions of decadent resort living with manta rays swimming under the glass floor of my private bungalow began to quickly disintegrate.

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No decadent beach bungalows and swimming pools but this did happen, so close enough for me.

As we walked out of airport, we noticed a distinct divide between the type of travellers arriving. There are those that arrive in large groups trailing designer luggage who have booked lavish packages through Maldivian resort companies. They dash quickly from customs to their air-conditioned glass boxes for refreshments often involving cocktails and canapés as they await the arrival of their seaplane so they can be promptly whisked away to their island utopia.  And then there are people like us. We look for directions to the local ferries, then stand in line in the humidity holding our backpacks and boards just hoping to catch the right one for a budget price. We are travellers on the hunt for surf, sea life and adventure trying to get wherever we can for as cheap as we can and that is just the way I like it.

Our ‘fancy’ waiting area.

We paid for the ferry and settled in for the short ride to Male (from Hulhule) in order to catch a connecting ferry to our island of choice Thulusdhoo. All up our trip would take around 2 hours but only cost a couple of dollars. Little did we (or the other Australian couple we met on the ferry going to the same place) know, the ocean had been deemed ‘too rough’ for the ferries and an expensive speedboat was our only other option if we wanted to arrive on the island that day. We tried to wait out Mother Nature in the hope that the last ferry of the day would run if the weather calmed. Meanwhile, we walked around town, purchased some very cheap thongs to replace a plugger blow out, surfed in rough, sloppy waves while watching planes land on the runway as our backdrop and then waited some more until it was confirmed: no ferries would run until tomorrow. Mother Nature had won yet again.

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Our choices were: stay on Male and catch the ferry the next day which meant we would be forfeiting our accommodation or, split the cost of the speedboat between the four of us. We bartered a little and managed to get the US$200 cost down to US$160 but it still hurt the hip-pocket. I tried to console myself with the image of the four of us, bikini and board short clad standing on our sleek, black and white luxury speedboat as the wind swept my hair and we raced across the waves to our destination and the shirtless, handsome captain waved at me. Thirty minutes later we were indeed making our way across the waves but at more of a mild speed in our fairly average fishing boat with two scrawny but smiling locals at the helm as we sat in the back getting splashed in the face with sea water. Finally, we arrived at Thulusdhoo and departed the boat with our luggage ready to try and find the guesthouse we had booked just the night before. Unfortuantely for us, the clouds began to roll in and looked a little angry.

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-rocketandramble

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The Maldives: Thulusdhoo I (Aug 2015)

It wasn’t until the The Great Indian Visa Debacle (read about that shmozzle here) that we seriously considered the Maldives as a possible destination of our around the world trip. Sri Lanka and the Maldives are practically neighbours and after some intense researching, Rhys and I decided it was going to be worth our while booking a new adventure after the stress of missing our flight to India and connecting flight to England.

Funnily enough, we had entertained this idea only a week before while feeling a little silly after a couple of cocktails. The weather forecast began to look bleak for our remaining time in Sri Lanka, so we began daydreaming about alternative plans. As the rain remained (mainly on the plane of Spain?), we fantasised about spending a couple of days on a scenic Maldivian island basking in the warm sun, but after our alcoholic haze wore off, we realised it would be an expensive venture for only a couple of days and not really the best use of our time or money. We hadn’t given Sri Lanka the chance it deserved to impress us. Fortunately, the weather cleared and we enjoyed the rest of our Sri Lankan escapade. Little did we know, the Mystical Fate God’s of Destiny (depending on what your beliefs are) worked their magic and we ended up there anyway. Theose celestial beings do work in mysterious ways.

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This was my  imagined ‘happy place’ while on hold. Turns out it does actually exist.

During The Great Indian Visa Debacle, it became clear that we couldn’t simply change or cancel our flight to England (that would just be TOO easy), so we attempted to forget about the money we were rapidly losing and instead booked a flight to the Male airport on Hulhule with Korean Air for less than AU$200 (Score!). We then secured a connecting flight for seven days later with Qatar Air to England so we could land on our original date and enter the United Kingdom on our working visa as we had hoped. We arrived at the Sri Lankan airport (again) after spending six days hanging around Negombo. We had wasted our week calling customer service representatives, sitting on hold to multiple airlines (while freaking out about our credit running out before we got through with every passing moment) and our travel insurance company trying to get answers and information. After all the stress, I’d say I was truly ready to depart for my impromptu island paradise escape.

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Our future island home.

When people mention the Maldives I tend to conjure images of underwater playgrounds teeming with amazing, aquatic wildlife. The Maldives are an array of stunning islands surrounded by bountiful reefs and recently the government permitted locals to open their own guesthouses removing the elitist resorts-only mantra of previous decades and instead providing a plethora of affordable options for those of us with a more ‘sustainable’ budget. With hundreds of islands to choose from, there are a numerous possibilities for every traveller’s style. Islands inhabited by locals contain schools, mosques and corner stores, whereas others are man-made for the sole purpose of hosting fancy pants 5 star resorts with multiple restaurants, cocktail bars and seaplane airstrips.

There are a variety of ways to plan your Maldivian trip too from surf camps, surf charters, luxury live-aboard boats, to long term stays in local guesthouses or resort hopping by speedboat and seaplane. Due to the misconception about affordability, the Maldives had never really made it onto my possible travel list (which gets longer every day). A flight from Australia is particularly expensive and arduous and I was under the presumption that it was well outside my monetary limit, but if you have an opportunity to visit the Maldives as a stop over or final destination, you won’t regret it. It is truly as stunning as any scene you can imagine.

– rocketandramble

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The Maldives: Thulusdhoo Part III

The thing I noticed first when we stepped off the boat is the unbelievable, turquoise water lapping at the white sandy shores, the second thing I noticed was the rubbish in the water and strewn across the beach. It is such a pity that nature’s beauty can so easily be scarred by mankind’s touch.

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After walking across Thulusdhoo (it isn’t very big) to the surf side and desperately asking people of they had ever heard of our accommodation name, it became clear that there had been a double booking and we were out of luck as an older couple had already moved into our room. Thankfully, a lovely local called Thol (from Isola Maldives) saw us looking a little distressed and took pity on us as the rain began to fall from the clouds overhead. He ushered us into his guesthouse for a cold drink and to help sort out what had happened by ringing the owner of our guesthouse. Our fears were confirmed, we had been double booked but fortunately Thol did have a spare room available and it was the best decision we made. Thol’s new guesthouse has four rooms with ensuites for US$80 a night including all meals. It was a little more expensive than our original place, but by this stage we were thankful for a bed! The facilities were brand new and quite luxurious (if luxury had a slightly tighter budget) and Thol made us feel very comfortable.

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My next surprise came when we were heading out the door in just our swimwear and Thol kindly pulled us aside and explained that because we were on an inhabited island with locals, we would need to cover up a little more unless swimming in order to adhere to the strict Muslim standards. Whoops! I had researched enough to realise that the Maldives is a Muslim country (and the call to prayer which goes off multiple times a day was a friendly reminder) but the pin never dropped that I would not be able to lay on the beach in my bikini and soak up the rays without dishonouring their values. I felt a little ashamed of myself for not observing this simple guideline and hurriedly wrapped myself in a sarong and Rhys put on a t-shirt before we went off exploring. It did turn out that there was a 15 metre strip of beach near the boat moorings that tourists were ‘allowed’ to wear bikinis and board shorts. It is acceptable to freely wear togs and boardies on uninhabited islands (or in resorts) or while out on the reef in a boat. The final shock was when Rhys asked if he could purchase beer anywhere on the island and Thol smiled and explained only if he swam out to the surf charter boats that moor off the points during the day. It was like a mini detox from the Australian lifestyle and I was happy to oblige the conservative dress rule in order to be a respectful traveler. Thulusdhoo is a whole community with almost everything you need (except ATMs which are very scarce, bring plenty of cash) and the locals were friendly and curious. They are only just growing used to seeing tourists regularly appreciating the beautiful island they call home as the industry expands.

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Heading out to the reef for a day of snorkeling on the Isola boat.

 

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Spotted something good.

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Chasing a school of fish.

Our time on Thulusdhoo was mostly spent doing one of four things. Surfing, snorkeling, relaxing or eating. There are two close proximity surf spots just off Thulusdhoo. Many of the surf breaks are named after the island’s main industry. So ‘Cokes’ is a right hander with a quick take off which works best with a bigger swell. It is named after the Coke factory that still functions on the island. They encourage recycled bottles and use desalinated water in their recipe. A short boat ride away (around US$10) or a decent paddle across a channel is ‘Chickens’ a slower, but fun left-hander which has long runs and an easy paddle out. Finally, a couple of islands away is ‘Jailbreaks’ named after the old jail, which is not in use and now hosts a unique accommodation experience instead. Rhys surfed both breaks most days depending on the tide and conditions or until his arms gave up. I spent my days reading, writing, relaxing or exploring.

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Exploring ‘Chickens’.

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The bridge to ‘Cokes’.

Isola Maldives organised and ran snorkeling trips so we booked with them the two times we went. The trip cost us US$15 per person and included multiple locations and underwater GoPro footage of us. The first location was only a short distance from our island and offered a stunning underwater display.  ‘Coral Garden’ boasts an array of sea life including huge schools of colourful fish, eels and turtles.

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Can you spot ‘Terry’ the turtle?

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Observing ‘Terry’ during our manta ray hunt.

One of the other spots we tried was a little further away just off one of the resort islands and I even got to glimpse two reef sharks while snorkeling there which was pretty exciting, albeit a little terrifying. I was pretty keen to see if we could find a manta ray even though it was out of season. It is a big selling ticket of the Maldives with video footage and images everywhere. Thol and his crew tried hard to help me out by stopping in known manta spots in deeper water, but to no avail unfortunately. I guess I will just have to go back when it is season to get my manta ray fix next year.

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Working the camera.

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I’m a merMAN, not a mermaid.

 

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-rocketandramble

@rocketandramble #rocketandramble

 

The Sri Lanka Series: Mirissa (July-August 2015)

The south coast of Sri Lanka is the one you see featured in most of the staggeringly beautiful photography that pops up on your computer screen when you are googling or pinterest-ing as a means of procrastination at work.

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This is where I spent many of my days reading a book when the sun got too hot.

The crystal, blue waters are teeming with wildlife and the stick fishermen brave the waves for their dinner. When in season (Nov-Feb) the south coast is a tourist mecca of snorkeling, scuba diving, whales, dolphins, never-ending beaches and warm sunshine. It can get crowded and you will likely have to book accommodation in advance as well as organise dinner reservations for larger groups the day before. We left Udawalawe behind and arrived in Mirissa via Matara after another long bus ride and then a 15 minute tuk tuk.

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Rhys made a furry friend. I wanted to take so many stray dogs home with me. They are treated quite poorly in Sri Lanka.

Mirissa beach is breathtaking regardless of the season as restaurants spill out onto the white sandy beaches serving up cocktails and scrumptious seafood BBQs. The beach itself has a rocky headland at one end which contains champagne pools which makes a great swimming spot, while the rest of the stretch consists of easy soft, sandy shorelines.

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One of the many sticks planted in the rocks along the coastline. This was also the champagne pool I swam in.

Mirissa has a fully functioning tourist strip which includes a ‘beach club’ with a pool and lilo beds. We lazed about most days, took long walks up the headland to see the views and ate so much delicious food. We stayed with a local family as a part of an airbnb for our first two nights, but it was a little far (and dark) to walk at night to the main area. So we moved to a very affordable room (1500 rupee per night with ensuite) just behind the beach club with much better access and a cool, laid-back garden to chill in.

During the off season, it is still sunny and warm (it’s always warm in Sri Lanka) but my lazy beach sessions were often interrupted by sudden downpours of rain for around 15 minutes. Everyone did what I was doing: hastily collecting all of my stuff and madly dashing for cover under nearby trees or into the cafes. After the 15 minutes of torrential rain ended, everyone sheepishly heads back out and sets up their towels again. I recommend taking at least a raincoat with you to the beach as I was caught out a few times and when I did have it, I could throw it over everything and keep it all dry.

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The storms roll in quickly and soak everyone only to leave 15 minutes later.

Most of the beach front cafes turn into bars at night and they were happy to let me sit there for hours and use their wifi and lilos even when I only bought a bottle of water. My favourite restaurant was Zephyr. It is affiliated but not exactly the same as its Arugam Bay counterpart. Instead of burgers being their specialty, they served up delicious wraps for lunch and spicy prawn pasta for dinner.

Avoid the Coffee Shack’s coffee. It claims ‘Italian espresso’ but serves hot water which tastes like you licked a battery terminal. No amount of sugar and milk could fix the acidic taste. I watched (with glee) as others around me made the same face I did and then put their coffee down never to be touched again. On the positive side, their pineapple smoothies were sweet and delicious! Each night we ate at many of the beach front restaurants often hand picking our fish fresh from the esky out the front and then having it cooked to perfection or embracing the multi-dish Sri Lankan curries which are still one of my favourite!

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Late afternoon is always the most magical.

See the Tangent Time blog for my whale watching recount.

-rocketandramble

#rocketandramble @rocketandramble