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

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Safari Jeep Time! Feeling pleased as punch.

There was only one reason we made the trek to Udawalawe: Elephants! I LOVE elephants. I think they are just the most spectacular, majestic and beautiful animals. With their size, they can be fierce and dangerous especially to humans who cross their paths in the wild, but then you see them in their  families playing and being so gentle with their young. They are intelligent and I just adore the family dynamic they create within their herds. 

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This big guy lives in the park but often hangs out right near the road. He had very gentle eyes as he watched the human world go by.

It is such a shame they are hunted and poached so severely and that their habitat is being destroyed by humans. My love of elephants blossomed at a young age and my parents are adamant that one of my first words was a variation of ‘elephant’.  My Udawalawe safari experience wasn’t the first time I had witnessed elephants up close and in the flesh and it definitely won’t be the last but, it was one of the most magical. We took a bus from Ella to a town near Udawalawe (can’t remember the name unfortunately) and then while we waited for the next bus to take us the last leg, we bartered with a tuk tuk driver and eventually agreed on a price of 1500 rupees for the 2 hour journey. The bus would have been cheaper (approximately 200 rupee) but we decided to go with the tuk tuk as it would halve the time we would spend travelling and was still a reasonable price after negotiating him down from 4000 rupee. He was very persistent  and we were a little tired. We spent only one night in Udawalwe which does not have much to offer besides the safari tours. There is a variety of tours and hotel packages available, but we stayed in a brand new guesthouse which was still under construction. Due to the construction, there wasn’t much happening and we had to travel to an alternative restaurant for our meals, but the rooms were brand new with fancy ensuites and it was only 1500 rupees a night for the two of us. Inconvenience was trumped by price! We organised a tour with our guesthouse manager as there was three of us staying at the guesthouse and we decided to do the safari together. 

Tour costs seems to work out in the following ways:

  • Park admission 1500-2000 rupees per person (depends on season and changes often)
  • Tour jeep and driver: 5000 split between how many people go (most have 6 seats, but we only had 3 people so the cost was a little higher)
  • ‘Volunteer’ guide: 500 rupee per person (this was an unexpected charge at the end of the trip that was not explained at the beginning – I always feel a little ripped off when that happens but begrudgingly handed over my money. After all, the safari delivered on the promise of many elephants)

If you are travelling solo or in a couple, there is a chance you can jump onto one of the jeeps that has seats left or there are always drivers and their jeeps waiting on call that you can negotiate for a good price as well. Most safari operators agree that early morning or late afternoon is best (as animals hide and sleep during the hottest parts of the day). Arrive at the safari park gate  around 6am or 4pm and then put on your barter face and be ready to roll just in case you can squeeze on. Of course, if you choose not to organise a your and leave it to fate instead, you do run the risk that there may be no jeeps free or with empty seats especially during peak tourist season.

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A herd of buffalo just chilling out. They don’t seem to care or notice the crocodiles also casually basking in the sun.

Our jeep and driver arrived at 5:30 am to collect us from our hotel. We packed cameras, snacks, water, hats and sunscreen in our backpack ready for the day ahead. I also recommend taking a cardi of some sort as it was quite cool until the sun came up.

The thrill of climbing into our open air jeep and cruising through an eerily silent Udawalawe town made my stomach bubble with excitement and anticipation. After about 20 minutes of driving, we arrived at the park, entered and then moved to the office to pay our admission fee, picking up our ‘volunteer’ guide. He spoke very good English and was knowledgable about all of the animals pointing them out as the sun slowly rose over the park and the heat began. He answered all of our questions and was on the phone constantly discussing animal sightings with some of the other guides on other jeeps. I was surprised at the number of jeeps (there are many different companies in competition) that were waiting at the gate, but we didn’t follow them along Jurassic Park style. Instead, as soon as we entered the park, they all sped off in different directions and we were left ambling along alone for quite some time. We spotted deer, buffalo, peacocks, monkeys, crocodiles and a myriad of various birdlife.

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Keeping my eyes peeled for exactly this!

 After an hour into our trip, I was starting to get little worried that we wouldn’t see any elephants. I furiously scoured the scrub for any glimpse of grey, wrinkled skin while I pondered how I would ask for my money back if we didn’t see at least one elephant in a park that boasts being home to over 3000 elephants. But low and behold, we made our first elephant sighting as a female crossed the road just in front of us. We stopped to watch as she disappeared into the bush which was too thick for the jeep to follow. 

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A lady elephant just strolling.

Then, as we started up again along the path, our guide received a phone call from one of the other jeeps and we were speeding away towards the location discussed where they had discovered a small herd. We stumbled across two males as we made our way and our guide explained that we were lucky to see a male with tusks as only a small percentage of the males actually grow them. 

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Can’t you see that I am hiding? A small male with tusks.

Our time as a lone jeep came to an abrupt end as we rounded a corner and came across the herd along with the six other jeeps all lined bumper to bumper on the road to watch the elephant family do their thing, which mostly consisted of eating, pooing, playing and rubbing their backsides against the trees.

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This family consisted of two females and their babies!

 

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 I snapped away with my camera furiously as baby drank from his mother and they all milled about hardly even noticing the jeeps, the cameras or the many eyes upon them. The rest of the morning was spent following the herd and then we drove back to our hotel to enjoy a well deserved breakfast before moving onto our next destination.

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Aw man!

-rocketandramble

#rocketandramble @rocketandramble

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The Sri Lanka Series: Arugam Bay (July-August 2015)

Arugam Bay

The bay is perfect for swimming and spectacular to look at.

The bay is perfect for swimming and spectacular to look at.

Getting ready to head out for another day of surf and sun. Had to teach the hotel staff how to use an iphone and you can see her finger just in the top left corner.

Getting ready to head out for another day of surf and sun. Had to teach the hotel staff how to use an iphone and you can see her finger just in the top left corner.

We chose to visit the upcoming surfing spot of Arugam Bay as friends had been in previous years and bragged about how great the surf was. It tends to work best in the off season meaning the surfing season is from June – October.  Arugam is a very laid back strip that sits on a large bay with a range of point breaks both north and south. The bay is beautiful for swimming, boasting calm water with rolling waves that break onto a sandy shore. The locals all come down in droves on weekends where whole families scream with glee, jump on each other and play in the shallows. Arugam’s main point is gentle most of the time but does have a bit of a rocky shelf which can attract the odd sea urchin. Some surfers wore booties, but my partner and I both didn’t bother and chose instead to just try and avoid the bottom as much as possible.  My partner was a little disappointed with the surf when we were there, as it didn’t really get bigger than 4ft and there is a minimal tide difference (so it just stays the same) and the wind was howling from about midday. There were also a lot of people (and beginners) trying to do their thing in the shore break which is not ideal when you have come specifically to surf and you have to worry about avoiding them as they bob around on huge foam boards.

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A couple of waves caught by Rhys.

A couple of waves caught by Rhys.

I chose not to bring a board with me (my partner bought two), but hired both a mini mal and malibu on different days and had an awesome time while getting a great tan. Upali is the accommodation and cafe which sits right on the main point and provides a perfect (and shady) reading or blogging spot when my partner was surfing for long hours. Once we were all surfed out, we would walk back to the main strip and score a cabana (usually at Funky de Bar) that looked out onto the water. Funky de Bar was also home to a litter of puppies and anyone who knows me knows how much I LOVE dogs. We would eat, drink, play with the puppies and be generally merry which isn’t hard to do in a place as beautiful as Sri Lanka.

Puppies! This is my happy place.

Puppies! This is my happy place.

Mal sliding was my favourite past time when it was a little smaller.

Mal sliding was my favourite past time when it was a little smaller. We hired this 9ft mal for a couple of days.

We stayed at The Hotel Paradise for 10 days and it catered to our needs really well. Not only is it right in the middle of town, it was clean and cheap plus the staff were very accommodating. I would definitely recommend an air-conditioned room though as it was still quite hot at night and nice to escape the heat in the middle of the day. The Hotel Paradise also do a curry buffet for 400 rupee which was so tasty and filling. You can’t really beat that.

Boats are lined up everywhere and fishing is the main economy.

Boats are lined up everywhere and fishing is the main economy.

The food in Arugam has a lot of variety and can cater to all budgets and taste buds. Some days we lived off roti and Sri Lankan curries (the one from Munchies Shack was the best in my opinion) and other days we would splurge a little more and eat BBQ whole fish done over a fire, delicious burgers and cocktails from Zephyr, and real coffee and breakfast paninis from the Hideaway cafe during the day and fruity cocktails with reggae at night from the bar. There are a few touristy shops if retail therapy is your thing, but I wouldn’t dedicate too much time to it.

The Hideaway Cafe did the best coffee I had in Sri Lanka and delicious brekky paninis. Their bar had a reggae vibe at night and served awesome cocktails too!

The Hideaway Cafe did the best coffee I had in Sri Lanka and delicious brekky paninis. Their bar had a reggae vibe at night and served awesome cocktails too!

Arugam Bay in the late afternoon from Mambos. Enjoying a beer and some peanuts sold by a local.

Arugam Bay in the late afternoon from Mambos. Enjoying a beer and some peanuts sold by a local.

Arugam Bay is the perfect location to make your ‘base’ so you can do day trips north or south and see all that the area has to offer. There is also an elephant gathering place west of Pottuvil near the big waterhole. The two times we went past, we were a little too early and then a little too late. Get a local to take you and time it for late afternoon to witness a spectacular sight.

This was the safari sunset so I will always remember it as a pretty great day.

This was the safari sunset so I will always remember it as a pretty great day.

North of Arugam Bay are secluded accommodation options away from the bustle of the main strip. There are a couple of surf points and I spent two very relaxing mornings at the Whiskey Beach cabanas and cafe. It takes about 10 minutes by tuk tuk and costs around 1000 rupees return (or 1500 rupees to the Lighthouse point) and usually the driver will wait for you, or come back and collect you at an agreed time. Pottuvil Point is worth a look if you are up that way already, but probably not as an individual trip. Most drivers tag on an extra 500 rupee for the trip.

Can I live here? An old house at Pottuvil Point.

Can I live here? An old house at Pottuvil Point.

Pottuvil Point.

Pottuvil Point.

South of Arugam there is Okanda and two national parks. Okanda is a dusty 40 minute drive south and we visited on two separate occasions. The first time was a part of our local led ‘safari tour’ just to have a look. The second time was early in the morning on a surf expedition but there was also a week long Hindu festival on. (Check out Tangent Time below for my story about my ‘celebrity status’.) Okanda beach is beautiful, the surf was little bigger but still quite messy.

The view from the shrine was magnificent! It was VERY windy when we were up there.

The view from the rock near the shrine was magnificent! It was VERY windy when we were up there.

One of the local tuk tuk drivers (we called him ‘No Teeth’ for obvious reasons) drove us to various points a couple of times and we discussed with him the possibility of us taking a safari tour to check out some of the wildlife in the area. We paid 3000 rupee (plus we gave a large tip at the end as we were stoked with what we did and saw) for a couple of hours driving. No Teeth promised we wouldn’t pay if we didn’t see any elephants or were unhappy with the quality of the tour in anyway. It sounded like a pretty good deal to me. He picked us up from our hotel at 1:30pm and we set off. Not even 15 minutes had passed when we spotted peacocks (as plentiful as pigeons in Sri Lanka), a herd of buffalo bathing in a pond, a mongoose and witnessed our first elephant sighting. A large bull was standing just outside of the bush line and was visible from the road. We watched him for about 15 minutes before moving on with No Teeth promising we would see plenty more on his ‘special tour’. We hiked up to the Okanda Kudumbigala Forest Hermitage Shrine and fed the monkeys biscuits we bought from a local stall. They were mischievous and naughty, just as monkeys should be, and I have developed a bit of a love/hate relationship with monkeys. I find they are very sweet one minute being all friendly and cutesy, but as soon as you are out of food, they turn on you (and each other) going feral and vicious in the blink of an eye. Once we climbed to the top of the temple, we were treated to breathtaking 360 degree views of the whole area and it is definitely worth the walk up the stone steps (if you can call them that, they are more like strategically spaced rock grooves). Ladies, don’t forget to enter the shrine you will need to take or wear a long skirt and cover your shoulders. I took two sarongs with me so I could take it all off afterwards.

This is No Teeth and my partner Rhys.

This is No Teeth and my partner Rhys.

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Monkeys and crocodiles.

Monkeys. How cute is this guy?.

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These guys you can see, the others not so much.

I knew what was underneath the water...eek.

I knew what was underneath the water…eek.

No Teeth then showed us crocodiles up close (and a little to close for comfort) in a nearby creek. They didn’t do much, just lazed about on the banks, but I was more afraid of what I couldn’t see under the water as we stood on the edge of the river watching them. I didn’t really want to test fate. We visited Okanda, to see what it was like and saw that they were setting up stalls and shops for some kind of festival which we discovered to be a Hindu event later on. Finally, we went on the hunt for more elephants. We spotted a group of four adult elephants quite far off in the distance opposite a large (and mostly dry) waterhole. Eventually, we found a family of about 7 adult elephants and a baby. We were apparently getting too close as the bull began throwing dirt, grunting and stamping. Needless to say, we backed away slowly. It was amazing to see this whole elephant family out in the wild living (mostly harmoniously) with the villages. The fence in the image actually goes around the village to keep the elephants out rather than to keep them in captivity. I felt honoured to witness these beautiful exotic creatures in their wild habitat roaming freely.

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Daddy elephant. Not so happy to see us.

Elephant family roaming freely.

Elephant family roaming freely. The little baby is too much!

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This male was by himself near one of the roads to Okanda.

Tangent Time: When my partner and I returned to Okanda for the second time to surf it was early morning and the sun had just risen. No Teeth was supposed to pick us up from the front of our hotel at 5:30am but he didn’t show. We found out later that he had slept through his alarm. Instead, we waved down one of the many other tuk tuk drivers. No point getting up this early for no reason! Okanda beach was mostly secluded except for a couple of towels and bags left on the beach by the other 5 surfers who were already out in the water. My partner paddled out and I sat on the beach on a towel in a dress and hat with my camera at the ready. After an hour of taking some snapshots, I noticed that there were a few small groups of locals dressed in their best saris and suits making their way down the beach towards me. As they got closer, there was a lot of pointing and talking (that I couldn’t understand) as they all moved closer and stood around me. The kids waved and said hi excitedly. Some spoke a few words of English and asked questions about my name and where I was from. A lot of the boys stared or asked to take my picture, some wanted to touch my blonde hair or shake my hand. For approximately 3 hours this went on with each group that passed by. Most were polite, others not so much and some started taking pictures without asking or doing anything else. Just waltzed right up and started snapping. I began to understand a little more how celebrities feel. I was reading a book on my ipad mini and many of the children wanted to look at it and touch it as they had never seen anything like it before. I had to explain to a couple of boys that my ‘husband’ was out in the water so they would back off a little and move out of my personal space. One man who spoke excellent English explained that many of the locals were from very small villages far away and had driven for days just to attend the festival. He outlined that most of them would not have seen a white person in the flesh before either and that was why there was so much commotion.  It was such a bizarre experience that I won’t soon forget and I now have an appreciation for what it must be like being an animal in a zoo.

Just some of my new friends on Okanda beach. It seemed only fair that I take a photo of them when they were taking so many photos of me.

Just some of my new friends on Okanda beach. It seemed only fair that I take a photo of them when they were taking so many photos of me.

-rocketandramble

#rocketandramble @rocketandramble