ACROSS THE BEST SITES OF Sri Lanka

A journey BY ROAD from COLOMBO

DECEMBER 23, 2019 - JANUARY 5, 2020

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Sri Lanka, the tear-drop-shaped island near the coast of India is completely surrounded by the Indian Ocean. 

Our decision to visit Sri Lanka over the Christmas/New Year period in 2019/2020 is a last-minute one and we are very glad we did. 

The idea of Sri Lanka conjures us idyllic images of beaches, sunsets, palm trees, and tea plantations. But it's actually a very complex country made of many ethnic and religious groups.

We chose a two-week tour of the island with Capital Lanka Tours. It covers most of the island, with the exception of the still-contentious northern region. Two weeks isn't long enough to really explore this beautiful gem of a place.

TourRadar is a third-party online travel agent. It basically cobbles tours from many companies across the globe, making it very easy to find a tour that is operating at a selected destination for required dates. The other advantage is that payment is in Australian dollars. It is an excellent website and we used it to select and book our tour to Sri Lanka. However, since the COVID-19 outbreak, this company appears to have too much time on their hands and more recently has become very political, making unfair judgments about travellers and the lasting positive effect that travel has on the individual. To this end, I shall probably use their website to find the tours I desire, but I will never book a tour through this company again. 

We had paid for a small-group tour with Capital Lanka Tours, but got a private driver. This had been issue because the driver is not a tour guide, and has little English. Since we had been unwittingly placed in this position, we had requested a more 'grassroots' experience, where we would meet and interact with more local people. Our driver's knowledge of the history of his country had been basic, but we had been more alarmed by the homophobic, xenophobic, and racist statements made throughout the journey. We have travelled the world, and have been on many, many tours, and without a doubt, this is the worst company we've every come across. Fortunately, because we bought local SIM cards, we could research information we required as we went. For this reason, we were able to enjoy our visit to this beautiful country. It's a case of buyer beware when booking a tour in Sri Lanka, but it's worth it.

TOUR: CAPITAL LANKA TOURS

This wonderful dazzling discovery tour will showcase all the highlights of Sri Lanka with stays in some of the best hotels in the country where you will be treated with warm Sri Lankan hospitality that comes from the heart. There is time on the tour to relax and enjoy  the cozy facilities of the accommodation. Travel around in comfort exploring from the exotic streets of Negombo to Rock Cave Temple of Dambulla, home to an impressive golden Buddha; discover the rich tea culture of Sri Lanka in the hillside plantation of Nuwara Eliya; spend a night in spiritual Kandy, home of the sacred Temple of the Tooth Relic; visit the Dutch colonial city of Galle and enjoy free time at the famous Sri Lankan beaches. The tour has been created, so be relaxed and enjoy the amazing round trip with your expert tour leader. You will meet fascinating people as well as see incredible sites and sceneries that will five you a lifetime of memories to make it an amazing and fulfilling holiday.

DAY ONE: AIRPORT PICKUP/NEGOMBO COASTAL CITY

MONDAY, DECEMBER 23, 2019

You will meet your tour leader and you will be transferred to your hotel. The first destination will be Negombo coastal city, which has long been known as the most popular beach in Sri Lanka, famous for its sandy beach, food, fun, and shopping.

For day one, we haven't planned any activity as your tour leader will decide the day plan according to the time you arrive.

We've had a delightful three days exploring Colombo Fort, the central business and financial district in Colombo. Our tour company, Capital Lanka Tours sends a driver to collect us from our hotel and take us to our first hotel and the beginning of the tour in the coastal town of Negombo. We are looking forward to meeting the rest of our tour group and over the next fourteen days we'll visit many sacred and religious sites, national parks, beaches, and other interesting places. 

Sri Lanka is a little smaller than Tasmania and has about the same population as Australia, so there is a lot of people living in a relatively small country. The country has been involved in a bloody civil war, which ended ten years ago in 2009. We hope to learn about the effect the war has had on the people as a whole, and what their hopes are for a safe and united future. We are also looking forward to meeting local people and interacting with them as we travel through the countryside.

After packing our suitcases into the car, we sit into the back of the car as our driver, Camillus, negotiates the heavy Monday morning traffic. Cars, trucks, motorbikes, buses, tuk-tuks, and pedestrians compete for limited space on the road, so progress is slow, very slow. Although the driver's English is limited, he points out some interesting sites along the way. Stopping in front of a Catholic Church, part of which is cordoned off, he turns and explains that this is the Shrine of St. Anthony, the church that had been bombed by terrorists at 8:25am on Easter Sunday in 2019. Suddenly the subject of news reports that had outraged us last Easter is looking us in the face. Christians are a minority in Sri Lanka; they make up only 6% of the population. The driver stumbles through an explanation of the events of the day, droning on and on about the event and its aftermath. After asking a few mundane questions, none of which are answered, I settle back into the seat and watch the world pass by the window.

 

I'm not sure where Colombo ends and a string of fishing villages begin, as the built-up area extends along the entire road. I am an observer and notice that the road signs display different speed limits for different vehicles; 50 kmph for cars, trucks, buses, and motorcycles and 40kmph for tuk-tuks and tractors in built-up areas. However, despite the speed limits, no vehicle could possibly gain maximum speed because of the congested roads. We have been in the car for over two hours and we are still nowhere near our destination, which is less than forty kilometres from our Colombo hotel.

After a while, a canal appears on our left side. Like the ones in The Netherlands and Britain, this waterway had been constructed to transport goods from one place to another quickly and efficiently.  This canal had been built by the British in 1803 to run parallel with earlier canals built by the Dutch. It is 14.5 kilometres in length and extends from Puttalam to Colombo, and passes through Negombo. Tom sees a boat in the canal, which has an Irish name. We ask the driver to slow the car whilst he quickly snaps a picture. Slowing down on a road is problematic as the cars snaking behind are trying to pass or beep their horns to get the traffic moving again. 

Later, I ask the driver to stop as he had arrived at a fishing village. Camillus doesn't want to stop because he says the place smells. Inhaling deeply, I concede that it is a bit smelly, but mostly 'good smelly'. The fish are drying on the sand. People are flicking them over so that they dry evenly in the hot sun. I'm interested in what is going on and approach the fishermen. They seem to be a taciturn bunch, hardly interested in a tourist wandering around the beach. But I do walk along the sand, taking in the sight of so many locally-caught fish. Whilst the smell of fish is strong, it only takes a couple of minutes to get used to it because the fish is fresh.

Finally we arrive at the Beacon Hotel, the end of today's journey. We've travelled a total of 37.5 kilometres in three-and-a-half hours. 

So far we've not been given any instructions on where and when we meet our fellow travellers, so I ask the driver about tomorrow's arrangements. This is when we are told that we've been 'upgraded' to a private tour and that he will be our driver for the next two weeks. 

I'm appalled because this guy is a driver but he is not a tour leader - at all.

DAY TWO: ANURADHAPURA ANCIENT CITY

TUESDAY, DECEMBER 24, 2019

After breakfast your tour leader will take you through the amazing countryside toward Anuradhapura Ancient City. Sri Lanka has a rich heritage and Anuradhapura is one of the greatest and oldest civilisations in the world. It was the first capital, ruled by 113 kings for over 1000 years. The jewel in its crown is the Sri Maha Bodhi, the sacred tree under which Lord Buddha attained enlightenment and that has stood with pride for more than 2200 years. One of the main attractions in Anuradhapura is Ruwanweliseya, a monument built in 140 BC that embodies the culture, heritage, and supremacy of the strongest kingdom in Sri Lankan history.

We have a serious discussion with Camillus about the tour and that we had expected to be part of a group of people, which is the way we like to travel. Having a group of people often is more fulfilling as we all have different interests and desires to see different things. However, it is what it is, but I still have serious doubts that Camillus can fulfil our desire to learn about his country and to be able to answer the questions we would like to ask. However, we do ask that he provide us with a more 'grassroots' experience and to introduce us to opportunities to meet and engage with local people, which is a perfectly reasonable trade-off for the disappointment I feel for not being part of a group dynamic.

We eventually leave Negombo, driving inland towards our destination for today, Anuradhapura, the first capital and and ancient city.

Probably about an hour into the journey, and after several aborted attempts to have a conversation and to ask about things we see out of the window. Oh boy, this may be a looong two weeks!

Have you ever seen the flowers of the cannonball tree? It highly unusual orange and purple fragrant flowers are found on a tree at the rear of the Murugan (Kataragama) Hindu Shrine near Chilaw. I am intrigued by the unusually-shaped tree; spherical, reddish-brown fruit (the cannonballs) appear to cascade down the trunk of the tree, whilst the flower bracts emanate in all directions. The shrine's security guard is happy to chat about the tree for a few minutes, and I must admit that I'm fascinated.  

We don't go into the temple, but enjoy looking at the brightly-coloured statues that adorn the exterior. The walk around the temple is a good opportunity to stretch my legs and also introduce me to the fascinating cannonball tree.

Reluctantly we return to the car and continue on our way, turning away from the coastline and heading into the interior of the country.

The terrain changes dramatically and I reach for my 'Lonely Planet' book, the only means of gaining some snippets of information about this beautiful, but compact country.

We stop at the mysterious Vessagiriya, an ancient Buddhist forest monastery. Now an archaeology site, it is part of the larger group of Anuradhapura ruins dating from the 3rd century. The Vessagiriya monks lived in rock shelters, which were either existing caves or built from locally quarried materials. We walk around the perimeter of the dwellings before exploring the caves themselves. Judging from the various remains, it looks as though this had once been a well-organised and possibly quite large monastery. The rock shelters are fascinating and it's nice to be in a place that has few crowds. Despite the beating sun and immeasurable heat, we find a shady spot where I watch butterflies busily drawing nectar from the lantana flowers growing between the cracks of the rocks. Rousing ourselves eventually, we return to the car and hope we aren't too far away from our destination.

We must remember to wear appropriate clothing tomorrow. Our last stop for the day is the Isurumuniya Vihara, a Buddhist rock temple with two of the most amazing lotus ponds out the front. Beautifully blue, they have a calming effect on me, despite the cautionary signs that warn of resident crocodiles. Before entering the temple, we must remove our shoes, then as we step up to pay the admission, we're both asked to cover 'offending' skin. Tom is handed a sarong, whilst I drag a large scarf out of my bag and fashion into a bolero-type shoulder covering. A museum guide quickly outlines the important features of the temple, along with some historical information before leaving us to our own devices as we wander through the temple grounds. We climb the steps to view the offerings before walking behind and climbing a rock to see the stupa and supposed footprints left by Buddha himself.

It's taken us close to seven hours to travel 170 kilometres. We've had a lot of stops, and thankfully the traffic congestion has decreased significantly. It's time to find out the Gamodh Citadel Resort, where we are staying tonight. It's a fair way from the town, but it's a lovely place with an excellent restaurant.

DAY THREE: ANURADHAPURA ANCIENT CITY - TRINCOMALEE

WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 25, 2019

In the morning you'll travel toward the eastern coast of Sri Lanka and you will visit the city of Trincomalee. It's a fascinating place sitting on one of the finest natural harbours in the world. Trincomalee is an amazing multicultural town with lovely places such as Nilaveli Beach, Pigeon Island, and Nalur Kovil. With its white sands and gentle waves, Trincomalee beach is the ultimate getaway for those who desire a relaxing vacation in Sri Lanka. Here you will experience a quiet bliss on a tropical heaven, far away from the busy and chaotic life.

We may have discovered a major flaw with this tour. It has taken us almost an entire day to reach Anuradhapura, with fewer stops than set out in the itinerary, yet we have not seen any real sites of this important and ancient city. 

It's Christmas Day, and there are no thoughts of having lunch, let alone Christmas Dinner. Our beautiful and thoughtful hotel staff wish us both a 'Merry Christmas' as we leave the hotel.

The Sri Maha Bodhi is said to be the southern branch from the historical tree in India, under which Lord Buddha attained enlightenment. It was planted in 288 BC and is believed to be the oldest human-planted tree in existence. For its historical value, it's worth seeing the tree. There are a lot of Buddhist people about this morning, most of whom are dressed entirely in white and are barefoot. Many of them carry white flowers, lotus flowers and elaborate gifts wrapped in cellophane, which they have bought from stalls around the gate of the Mahamewna Gardens. Our driver lets us off at the carpark, vaguely pointing in the general direction of the tree, and we follow the crowds towards the gate of the gardens. We remove our shoes and proceed to the West Gate, the entrance to the Buddhist temple. It's at times like this that I realise how soft and 'delicate' my feet really are. The local crowds have no problems walking along the gravel surface with their unshod feet. The astroturf strategically placed next to the path (probably for whingeing tourists) is easier to walk on.

I'm surprised to see that we need to go through security; bags checked and walking through airport-style metal detectors. It's easy to see that this year's terrorist attacks on Sri Lankan religious sites has been taken seriously. A stream of devotees, mostly dressed in white clothes and carrying alms pour through the gate and immediately wait patiently in line to climb a staircase to a simple temple in the centre of the grounds. Out of curiosity we fall in line and follow them up the stairs where a statue of Buddha sits behind a small altar. Buddhists participate in a ritualistic form of devotion; their offerings of white flowers, bowls of rice, and other elaborately-packaged gifts, are laid respectfully on the altar before briefly pausing in front of Buddha before exiting the shrine at the site of the Bodhi tree. This is what we've come to see. 

The Bodhi tree (Ficus religiosa) is native to the Indian subcontinent and Indochina. It is the most sacred of all Bodhi trees because it is a direct descendent of the original Bodhi tree under which Buddha gained enlightenment and which has since died of old age. Behind a fence and protected by the temple and other other trees, this tree is huge; its old, snaking limbs are supported to ensure that their weight doesn't cause damage to the sacred tree. Surrounding the tree are groups of people chanting and humming in unison. This simple, individualistic devotion and reverence is beautiful to listen to and one could easily be lulled into joining them. Despite the large numbers of people here today, the atmosphere is of respectful prayer. It may be Christmas Day for us, but for the Buddhists in Anuradhapura, it is a day of spiritual worship and I cannot be anything but touched by the gentle and peaceful ambience inside this very special place. 

We leave by the east gate and on exit, are given a tiny clay bowl with a candle wick floating in camphor oil. We light the candle and place it on a stand; black smoke billows from the candles already burning here. I think these rituals are important and by being able to participate with the local devotees is a very humbling experience.

Unfortunately, the remainder of the day doesn't pan out as well as this morning. Thirteen kilometres out of Anuradhapura is the village and temple complex of Mihintare. At the base of the hill are the remains of a building operated by Buddhist monks. There is a stupa at the top of the hill and a 1.5 path around the base of the hill, which apparently has wonderful views of the area. We've travelled a lot over the years and there have been times when a few pointed remarks are made, snickers behind our backs, laughter at our expense, etcetera. These incidents are few and far between and, let's face it, we've got thick skin and generally we don't worry about them because our overall experiences during our journeys have been wonderful. Today, we bear the brunt of a vile racist outburst that shakes us to the core. And it is so stupid! We know we have to pay to take the walk, but there is no official ticket box and when we walk over to read a sign, we are accosted by two men who accuse us of not paying. Even after asking where we can get the tickets from, the tirade continues and we leave with two disgruntled men screaming abuse at us as we depart. Sri Lanka is a small country with a large population, which is emerging from a ten-year civil war. We are here to visit the country, to see the sights, and to pay our way as we go. But I will not tolerate abuse from anyone. We didn't do anything wrong. It's also been our experience that a tour guide ensures that their group is given the correct information and that they assist when these issues arise. He is on the phone when we return to the car. We then explain to him what had happened. His response is puzzling. He shrugs. So I ask him whether he condones the behaviour of these people. After all, this is a stop that is not included in the itinerary, so what are his motives for bringing us here? He shrugs. 

My advice is to never stop at this place unless you have your guide with you.

We still have one hundred kilometres to cover, and time is fast disappearing. We continue the drive in silence. I can look through the window and view the world outside. This morning's beautiful celebration at the Bodhi tree will, however, outweigh the experience at Mihintare.

Then it rains. Lightly at first, then torrents fall in flat sheets, hammering at the little car, whilst its wipers cannot clear the windscreen fast enough. it doesn't deter the traffic, though. Buses, trucks, tuk-tuks seem to fly past, splashing waves of water at us. Not far from Trincomalee, we turn off the road and travel along an unmade track, potholes filled with muddy water spray out from each side. We have arrived at a hot springs. Again, this is not on the itinerary, but we will have the opportunity to stretch our legs now that the rain has stopped and the sun is shining.

All is good until we pay the tiny admission cost (no problems here) and step into the area, where concrete wells emit hot steam. Then it happens. Without warning, and like a huge bucket being upended, we are drenched within seconds as the next shower of rain hits us full-force. Enough. Christmas Day, 2019 is fast becoming a disaster.

Our hotel, Skandig Beach Resort, is on the beach and our sea-view room is beautiful. But despite how good the rooms are and how beautiful the hotels are, the wifi is useless. Before it gets too late, and ignoring the instruction from Camillus, we leave the hotel, get a tuk-tuk and explore the little village that is close to the hotel. Here, we get a mobile data USB dongle and happily, we now have wifi that we can access from anywhere in Sri Lanka. 

DAY FOUR: PASSIKUDAH

THURSDAY, DECEMBER 26, 2019

After breakfast you will take a short drive along the eastern coast towards Pasikuda. Upon arrival to your hotel you will be given a towel to relax on the beach, sunbathe or grab a cocktail under the shade of the restaurant. This is the perfect way to chill out and enjoy the Sri Lankan coast. The white sand, the clear blue water and the stillness of the sea are captivating and exceptional. The soft sandy beach and the shallow water create a perfect place for sunbathing. The activities you can enjoy here are waterskiing, snorkelling and many more.

Usually a late-riser, I'm not letting a good sunrise get away from me. Black palm trees against an orange sky provides a perfect frame for this idyllic beach resort. We've only got about one hundred kilometres to travel, but with the gift of hindsight behind us, I'm doubly sure we won't be waterskiing or snorkelling or enjoying the coast as per the itinerary today, because, like each day before, we've not seen the local sights yet. We don't even have time to walk along the beach here because we've been too busy talking to the hotel manager.

One of Sri Lanka’s five historical Hindu temples dedicated to Shiva is at the summit of a rocky outcrop in Trincomalee. The temple had been established as a talisman to protect the island from natural disaster. Although it’s an ancient site of worship, the current temple was built as recently as 1952. We walk up to the peak, removing our shoes about halfway up the hill. At the summit, I can see why the Hindu people venerate this site because the view is extraordinary. There are small wooden crates tied to the trees around the temple. I must ask someone what they represent; perhaps our driver would know, or probably not. There are little shrines set into the rocky sides of the hill and from across the bay I can see fishermen in their boats, busily reaping the rewards of the sea. It's beautiful. 

Fascinated by the skill of the coconut-seller, as she deftly cuts a coconut with a machete, making a hole in the top and presenting it with a straw, we sit on stools overlooking the sea. I try not to look at the spindly trees used to hold the platform steady as it juts out over the rocky outcrop. We enjoy the refreshing flavour of the coconut water; as we admire the view and the ambience of this special place.

The peak on which we are currently located is within the Fort Frederick precinct. The fortress was originally built by the Portuguese in 1623, then rebuilt by the Dutch then taken by the British in 1782. This is still a fully working Sri Lankan military base, so parts of it are not open for visitors. The bushland is largely indigenous and spotted deer wander freely throughout.

Lonely Planet describes Trincomalee as sitting on one of the world's finest natural harbours. Perhaps I had been thinking of Sydney Harbour and its accessibility when I ask Camillus to show us the harbour. He drives to an isolated road, pulls up at a sentry box, speaks to the guard, then tells us that this is a secure site and that we can't go there. Umm, that is not exactly what we had intended.

And so, we leave Trincomalee behind us as we drive south along the coast road. The rice paddies are flooded from the recent rain. Small fruit stalls and worker shelters are unusable, whilst trees look as though they are floating in the middle of the fields. Eventually, we arrive at our accommodation, the beautiful Jetwing hotel resort and our room again faces the sea. We decide we need a SIM for our extra phone. This time, Camillus won't let us out of his sight and insists on taking us to the local village because apparently it's 'dangerous'. Dangerous my foot! The people are friendly and respectful and we have no problems getting what we need, despite Camillus' best efforts to steer us into specific stores. I'm not sure what the deal is....

Don't be fooled by the words, 'short drive' because today's journey of 109 kilometres takes over three hours on congested and busy roads. We average a speed of 40 - 60 kilometres per hour, and whilst the scenery is beautiful to view from the window of the car, we are not physically able to visit the places on the itinerary.

DAY FIVE: POLONNARUWA ANCIENT CITY/EVENING SAFARI

FRIDAY, DECEMBER 27, 2019

In the morning you will visit the ancient city of Polonnaruwa. In 1070 King Vijayabahu chose this place as his kingdom, one of the most ancient in the history of Sri Lanka. Cycling in Polonnaruwa countryside is a wonderful experience; you can cycle through Polonnaruwa Lake, meet traditional inland fishermen and get to know their lifestyle and their fishing methods. Afterwards you have free time to relax by the pool of your lovely hotel overlooking the surrounding landscape or to take a herbal massage. If you are interested, you have the opportunity to climb a rock to reach Pidurangala monastery. In the evening, your tour leader will drive you to Minneriya/Kaudulla National Park for an evening safari. This is the best time to spot wild elephants in their natural habitat. If you’re up for a serious rumble in the jungle, then Minneriya/Kaudulla is your ideal destination! Spreading over 8800 hectares, this park is mainly a sanctuary for elephants, but it’s also home to herds of deer, bulls, wild boars, and colourful birdlife. It is well known as the largest elephant gathering place in the world.

This must be a record! I'm up bright and early and decide to walk along the sandy beach near the hotel. I am very much rewarded by the tiny turtle tracks that extend from the sand dunes to the water. This is not a daily trip; the newly-hatched babies make the trip just once and it is a journey fraught by danger. The tiny tracks are clear of predator prints, so I'm hopeful they arrived in the water intact. 

We've decided to give the ancient city of Polonnaruwa a miss and drive straight through. We've got an issue with rest stops and it appears that there are no cafes or toilets between one town and the next, so we ask that we arrive at our hotel by 3pm. This is not taken too well by Camillus. 

We turn away from the coast and I'm almost immediately intrigued by cyclists carrying stacks of firewood on the backs of their bikes. My photos may be a little blurry, but it is an unusual sight. Apparently the wood is sold to bakeries for their kilns. We reach Polonnaruwa at around midday and continue through the town as we are looking forward to this evening's safari. This is the right decision, because, to reach our accommodation for the next two nights we must travel along a road that is nothing more than a bunch of stones. In this little Prius car with bad suspension, the short journey takes nearly forty-five minutes. 

Elephants. We see our first one soon after entering the Minneriya/Kaudulla National Park area. It is wandering along the shoulder of the road. We slow down, mostly to look, but all wild animals are unpredictable and this happens to be a very large animal with a reputation for wrecking things. There is electric fence wires along one side of the road; the side that isn't part of the National Park. Seeing an elephant here is an unexpected surprise. Later, dressed appropriately, we arrive at the National Park and exchange vehicles. We stand in the back of a jeep as a convoy races through the dirt tracks deep into the park. Due to the enormous amount of rain, which has fallen over the past few days, tyre-tracks have gouged trenches into the unmade road and potholes seem to be bottomless as red mud and slosh are sprayed from the sides of the vehicles. Over the sound of the motors I hear a loud shout and one by one, as they arrive at one location, the jeeps' engines are switched off. We've surrounded a family of elephants. They appear oblivious to our presence, but probably are used to being observed by hordes of people each day. This late-afternoon excursion into the forest is a treat; an experience I shall treasure of my visit to Sri Lanka. 

As the sun slips below the horizon, we enjoy the colours spreading across the darkening sky and we're delighted that we've been able to blend into the environment for a short while and to observe the elephants in a habitat that they can call their own.

DAY SIX: SIGIRIYA ANCIENT ROCK FORTRESS/CULTURAL VILLAGE TOUR

SATURDAY, DECEMBER 28, 2019

After a delicious breakfast at the hotel, you will travel towards Dambulla city, which is the central point of the cultural triangle in the country. Enroute you may visit the Millennium Elephant Centre, originally founded in order to protect and look after the wild elephants found wandering in and around the forests of Sri Lanka. Here they are treated before being released back in the jungle. It is a place where you may have the opportunity to feed baby elephants and perhaps you’ll give them a bath at the nearby river.

Upon arrival in Dambulla you’ll experience a bullock cart ride in the beautiful countryside. The bullock cart is one of the most ancient and prime transportation systems in Sri Lanka and nowadays it’s still used in some villages. In addition to that, you will have the opportunity to visit green paddy fields and to enjoy amazing views in the Habarana area. While on the tour, you will have a fifteen minute canoeing ride across the lake and finally you will reach the farmer’s house, where you will experience the typical Sri Lankan hospitality and visit his farm. Moreover you will get to know the different types of cultivation methods.

In the evening you will visit Sigiriya Lion Rock, where you may capture the beautiful scenery of the sun setting. Sigiriya is an ancient rock fortress located near the town of Dambulla. King Kasyapa (477-495 BC) built his palace on the top of the rock and decorated its sides with colourful frescoes. Sigiriya today is a UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE SITE and it is one of the best-preserved examples of ancient civilisation. Sigiriya refuses to reveal its secrets easily; in fact you have to climb a series of vertiginous staircases to reach the top. On the way you’ll pass quite remarkable frescoes and a pair of colossal lion paws carved into the bedrock.

Last night's safari was an incredible experience, and one of the reasons we are visiting Sri Lanka. It had been good to feel the breeze in my hair as we bumped around the back of the jeep to see elephants.

This morning, we visit Sigiriya ancient rock fortress. Unfortunately we don't make it to the top. Not because we're unfit, but because of harassment by tour touts. It is important to engage an official guide when you arrive at the site. By official, I mean the people who are wearing a type of uniform. they are probably all unofficial, but these guys are clean and have good English. You pay for their entry fee. Sadly, we didn't do this. We paid the price because we simply didn't know.

Sigiriya is a rocky outcrop, which rises from the central plains. Its almost vertical walls end in a flat-topped summit on which the ruins of an ancient civilisation. After the 14th century, the site was abandoned and remained ‘lost’ for several hundred years until it was rediscovered in 1898 by British archaeologist, HCP Bell. They were then further excavated in 1907. This was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1982. 

We enter the gardens that extend from the museum to the base of the rock. Some excavations reveal an elaborate garden, which includes a series of small pools and pavilions. These are formally laid out, and probably had been renovated and improved over the centuries. The remains that are here today display the intricate design of the gardens and in my imagination, I can picture water splashing from fountains then flowing through the pools. Steps lead down into spaces that were once pools, whilst trees on the flat ground level provide shade. 

The sun makes its way up through the sky and is beating down upon us as we reach the end of the gardens and prepare to start climbing the stairs that will lead us to the summit. Although I’m looking forward to the views, I realise how unfit I really am, and huff and puff as I make my way up the narrow, worn stairs. Some of them are quite high; a little too high for my short, stumpy legs, but, as always, I eventually get to where I'm going, albeit slowly.

That is when I'm approached by an 'unofficial' guide, who grabs, without permission, my arm and starts leading me up the stairs. As he's going, he's spitting betel nut out into the bushes on the side of the track. When I reach level ground, I thank him politely, and tell him I'm fine and that I don't need help. I start on the next set of stairs and the same thing happens, except he is pushing his grubby hand into mine and is virtually dragging me up the steps. The jibes and laughter from his counterparts do not escape me and when we reach a larger platform with seats, I sit and don't budge. It is at this point that we realise that we should have engaged a guide initially.

That guy doesn't leave us until we decide to abort our climb and return to the car. I'm more than disappointed. I'm angry because no matter where we've travelled in the world, we've always been able to engage a guide without this level of harassment. I understand that these guys are trying to make a buck, but I absolutely will not allow them to touch me.

We take the track to the tourist car park and admire the views and the beautifuls surroundings. Monkeys screech as we pass, making me almost jump out of my skin. There is a formation called Cobra Rock, which, if you stand in a particular spot, look upwards, and squint, you can sort of, kind of see a cobra.

We are getting into the swing of picking and choosing the activities for the day, so we decline a visit to an elephant rescue centre, choosing to visit an indigenous village. But first, we must make the journey to the village by bullock cart and by boat. did I mention rain and potholes before? Our route to the lake is by bullock cart, and we're thrown from side to side as the slow-moving guide clucks and grunts at his beast. At one stage we actually get off the cart and walk the remaining distance. The road is slippery and I don't really need to be squished by a huge bullock. Not today, anyway. 

Our local guide multitasks as he leads us to a vessel; two canoes lashed together with a large wooden box between the two for a set, and he starts paddling across the lake. He's an old, but wiry guy, but he is paddling three quite heavy people. Tom sits in the front and paddles from the front. Hindrance or help? We'll never know, but I'm sure we got there faster.

The village is a delightful place; a tiny open cottage with a kitchen and multipurpose space in front. I'd imagine it's used during the day to receive visitors and as a communal bedroom at night. A small plot of land, a vegetable patch, is next to the cottage.

Here, in this modest village hut, we learn how the husks are removed from rice, how its winnowed and ground into a flour. We learn how to open a coconut and remove the coconut flesh from inside the shell. These ingredients are used to create dishes for our lunch. We are not the only group here today. There are three others; a total of ten people.

I'm mortified when one woman in the group screams at our gentle hosts that she wasn’t eating THAT. There is an embarrassed silence as everyone stares at her before collectively looking away. We had absolutely no problems eating the curry, the rice bread and a crushed coconut and chilli salad, all of which was prepared in front of us and is delicious. I hate rude people.

Fortunately we don't have to return via boat and bullock cart. Our host whips out a mobile phone and calls a tuk-tuk to come and collect us after the beautiful lunch is over. 

DAY SEVEN: VISIT CAVE TEMPLE/SPICE GARDEN/HISTORIC KANDY

SUNDAY, DECEMBER 29, 2019

In the morning after early breakfast visit Dambulla Cave Temple. It would be an amazing experience of you could spot the beautiful scenery of morning sunrise from the top of the rock. Dambulla has the largest and best preserved cave temple complex in Sri Lanka. It has been treasured by many kings since the 1st century BC. The rock towers 160 metres over the surrounding plains and houses five cave temples with some of the most unique and significant historical drawings. The murals cover an area of 2100 square metres and depict the temptation of the demon, Mara, and Buddha’s first sermon.

Afterwards you will visit the Matale Spice Garden en route to Kandy.

Then proceed toward Kandy, the capital of the last Sinhalese Kingdom. It’s set on a plateau surrounded by mountains, which are home to tea plantations and bio diverse rainforests. Kandy is also famous for its sacred Buddhist sites, including the Temple of the Tooth Relic. The other main attractions are the Royal Botanical Garden, Bahirawa Kanda view point, the fruit and vegetable market, the lake and the city centre

In the evening you will enjoy a Cultural Dance Show, which is inspired by Sri Lankan arts and cultural heritage and it is a must-see for any traveller who visits the historical city of Kandy. The Kandy Lake Club Dance started with the idea of having a cultural dance performance bringing together all Sri Lankan dance types to one platform. It has become a tourist attract for many people visiting the country and keen on discovering its rich cultural heritage.

We're back on the road. The map has been checked, and we have about 90 kilometres to cover today. It's probably about a three-hour journey, and we must be in Kandy by a given time to attend the cultural show. We skip the Dambulla Cave Temple and drive straight to the Matale Spice Garden, where we spend a delightful hour with a local guide, who shows us the various plants and describes how they are used in herbal medicines and compounds. It's an interesting talk, and since we like gardens, we find the experience very interesting, even buying a couple of things before we leave. Our sneaky guide, Camillus, slips in at the end and walks away with a bag of goodies. I suspect it's his kickback for bringing us here. I must watch him in future.

To be honest, we could have spent an extra day in Dambulla, as there are a number of sights we skipped just in this tiny region. A return visit to Sigiriya with the benefit of hindsight would have been good. 

Since it's Sunday, there are many families on the move, some attending their temples and places of worship on their day off from work. I'm shocked to see a tiny Catholic Church in a small village surrounded by armed army personnel and the surrounding fence locked. No other temples are under guard. Since the terrorist bombing at Easter, all Christian churches are now under police or armed guard during mass times. It's a very sad state when the devout cannot freely attend their churches without threat of placing themselves in danger. On the other hand, it's good to see that a government will go to these lengths to protect a minority religion.

We arrive in Kandy after 3pm, with no time to visit the local attractions included in the itinerary. Our hotel is perched on top of the mountain, security is tight and there are armed guards at the two entrances.

The cultural show is a novel way of introducing us to the indigenous folk music and dancing. The performers showcase the folk dances from various parts of the island wearing their traditional costumes. Outside, the last couple of performances are enacted as we watch from the balconies; a safe distance from the action. Here, we watch fire-eaters and fire-walkers. 

DAY EIGHT: KITULGALA FOREST RESERVE

MONDAY, DECEMBER 30, 2019

In the morning you will visit the Royal Botanical Garden, exploring the 300 varieties of orchids, a stately avenue of royal palms, the extraordinary, aptly-named cannonball fruit tree and 40m high Burma bamboo. Another big hit is the giant Javan fig tree on the great lawn, with its colossal central trunk and umbrella-like canopy of branches.

Afterwards proceed to Kitulgala, a major eco-tourism venue in Sri Lanka. It is a real paradise for those who love adventure experiences in the mountains, since it offers numerous hill trails that journey across clear rivers, dense forests, waterfalls, and lush tea plantations. The activities are: river rafting, jungle trekking, water sliding and confidence jumps. Here you will stay in a resort close to nature without luxury facilities.

Again, we've had to make a choice to skip the botanical gardens in Kandy. Although our journey today is just 60 kilometres, it is through the mountains, and will take some time. I'm sorry we've had to miss one of the main reasons to come to Kandy. I find out later that the father of a friend actually set up the orchid garden and I am now doubly sorry we missed this iconic place.

On the way down to Kitulgala forest reserve, Tom decides to change some money. Camillus uses every excuse not to stop at any bank we see along the way, waiting until we arrive in a larger town, where he directs us into the Bank of Ceylon; a 'safe' bank, according to him.

I wish I had been able to use a camera inside the bank, because it was like being in a time warp. In fact, the last time I was in a bank like this, we were in Cuba. There are a lot of people in the bank this morning, and at first glance, it looks as though they are scattered all over the place, but they really are in organised queues. Two long queues wait for the services of the tellers along the back wall; the staff stand behind old-fashioned wooden grilles and the queues progress painfully slowly. Along the left side is a line of chair, mostly occupied by elderly people. Perhaps they are waiting for family to conclude transactions or maybe they just like to sit in the bank. In the centre of the room is a large square office. All four walls are made of glass and a single gentleman sits behind a desk within. This is the bank manager. Along the right side of the bank, in front of the large vault is a line of desks, each one with two chairs at the customer side of the desk. This is the 'Customer Service' area, and for foreign exchange, this is where we line up. When we are called, we approach the desk and sit down; our request is easy for them to process. As Australian dollars are easily exchanged, it's a fairly straightforward process. As soon as we are seated, a security guard ambles out of the strong-room behind the large vault door, leans against the doorway and quickly surveys the whole area. He carries a rifle in his hands. It is so large and so old that I wonder whether it is a relic from the civil war - The American Civil War, that is. He walks over to the glass office of the manager and stands in front of it, the whole bank is in his view. A moment later, a second guard, also wielding a rifle from a similar era emerges from the strong room and parades up and down the space between the desks and the back wall, providing advice to the female assistants. On leaving the bank with a wad of local notes, we acknowledge the guards on our way out before returning to the privacy of the car and laughing until tears came out of our eyes. So far, that's been the best fifteen minutes of our trip.

We continue on our way, arriving at the forest reserve resort in the early afternoon. They will organise someone to wash our larger items for a modest cost and Tom decides to go white water rafting whilst I take a breather and watch the river's water tumbling over the rocks just outside our door. It's an idyllic place and at the halfway point of our journey, has provided a well-needed rest from the car and from Camillus, whose English is not fluent enough to be called a tour guide.

DAY NINE: NUWARA ELIYA TEA PLANTATIONS/WATERFALLS

TUESDAY, DECEMBER 31, 2019

After early breakfast you’ll have a wonderful journey through the lush green tea plantations, the scenic view of the mountains and the waterfalls towards the tea region of Nuwara Eliya. It is often referred as ‘Little England’ because many of the buildings in this city retain from the British colonial period, such as the Queen's Cottage, the General's House, the Grand Hotel, the Hill Club and the Town Post Office. In addition, this place is characterised by a cool climate all year long.

Visit a tea plantation. Sri Lanka, tea and tourism are words which cannot be separated. Explore the cold and misty hills that host lush green blankets of tea plantations. You can also visit a tea factory processing a prestigious brand of Ceylon Tea, to observe a rich tradition kept alive up to date. As you see the hissing and swishing of machines, inhaling the heavenly scent arising from these facilities, make sure to end your day in style over a perfectly blended cup of pure Ceylon Tea.

I am so looking forward to today's journey because we are going to arrive at the tea-growing region of Sri Lanka. We have just 96 kilometres to cover today, but through the mountainous central highlands of this tiny island. My eagerness to leave here bright and has a lot to do with the cold water flowing out of the shower. I know it is meant to be rustic, but a little tepid water would have been nice.

Almost immediately after leaving the Adventure Base Camp near Ginigathhena, we start to climb into the nearby mountains. Progress is slow as we wind around the mountain road into higher altitude. Thick forests give way to hills covered in the short, round-shaped Camellia Sinensis or tea bushes. Our driver, unlike most other road users, carefully negotiates the hairpin bends, only passing other vehicles when it is safe to do so. Each bend provides a hair-raising incident, where car, bus, truck, motorbike or tuk-tuk passes, then swerves in front of us just avoiding being hit by an oncoming vehicle. I am really surprised that there are no massive multiple-vehicle pile-ups every few hundred metres on this treacherous road. I’m torn between watching the road with my heart in my mouth or watching the passing scenery. I opt for the scenery, believing that should the unthinkable happen, I would rather not know about it. The tea plantations on these lower slopes are scrappy, untidy; a little overgrown. Perhaps they belong to individuals rather than the large established plantations that provide the bulk of tea to the world. I do notice something, which I didn’t expect. Eucalyptus trees. They are very tall, straight, and dotted around the plantations. So, I ask the driver about them and why they had been planted in this area. I simply got a one-word answer: ‘Gumment!’ I think that the government is the answer when he doesn’t know the answer, so I google it.

Eucalyptus trees had been introduced from Australia to Sri Lanka in the late nineteenth century, and the first eucalyptus plantation was established in 1890 at an altitude of 1200-1800 metres. The main species to be planted was Eucalyptus Grandis, which is more tolerant to soils of poor fertility than other varieties. The trees I see out of the window now are not part of a eucalyptus plantation, but probably were at one stage before the land was cleared for tea. In other areas, eucalypt plantations provide timber for railway sleepers, utility poles, sawn timber, and firewood.

The higher we climb, the more manicured the tea plantations are. We now see formal, well-organised estates with neat living quarters for pickers, managers offices, and even estate stores. Of course, I’m not under any illusion that these facilities are for the benefit of the workers, in fact, I’m quite sure most workers owe the store more money than they earn in a day, making them forever indebted to the plantation.

I finally see some tea pickers and ask to stop. Getting out of the car, I see half-a-dozen women, bags slung on their heads bending down to pluck the delicate top leaves off the bushes. This must be back-breaking work as the shrubs are short and the women have to bend down to pick the new growth from the plants, and ensure that the young leaves are not damaged as they throw them into their bags. Ahead of me is a waterfall, water from recent rains gushes down the steep hillside, filtered by the rocky escarpment. It’s time for tea.

The St. Clair tea rooms are on the opposite side of the road. We order tea and sit outside in the fresh air to savour the flavour of our selected brew. Tom selects the very strong BOPF tea, whilst I opt for the weaker BOP tea. From our vantage point overlooking the road, we enjoy the magnificent view, not realising that this is only the first of the tea plantations, and we are yet to see and to visit many more during the course of the day. Today’s high altitude has provided relief from the hot weather we’ve experienced since arriving in Sri Lanka, and I’m enjoying the slightly cooler temperatures and the light breeze that flows off the mountains. Tea time is over and we must proceed, although another cuppa would be nice. But before we return to the car, we visit the showroom, where many types of tea are on display. There we read about the story of tea production and make some small purchases. Our driver disappears momentarily and reappears carrying a small bag, which he shoves into the boot of the car before we rejoin the vertiginous road. Has he told the proprietors that HE brought us into the tea rooms and store, when it was our idea to stop? I really dislike sly kickbacks like this, especially when they are dishonestly acquired.

We stop a few more times where we see proper lookouts and safe parking areas, and where we can stand quietly and immerse ourselves in the scenery. Despite the plantations being man-made, the view is spectacular. I realise that magnificent views do not always have to be natural. There are fields of tea plants etched into the landscape, some move fluidly with the side of the mountain, whilst others are deliberately patterned, like the circles I see below me. Further on, I see women walking away from the field, heavy loads on their heads as they walk to the highway and wait for transportation. Since it’s midday, it’s probably lunchtime for them. As the estate bus pulls up, the women enter through the front door and sit quietly, probably for the first time today as they are transported to their next field to spend the afternoon picking.

We continue on our way, past estates of unknown and known names, like Dilmah. We pass almost complete, but strange abandoned housing estates, where tiny homes are almost complete, but nobody seems to live in them, nor do they appear to be still under construction. I ask the driver why people are not living in the homes, and why construction seems to have halted. His standard ‘Gumment’ reply is really getting on my nerves. Most workers live in tenements located on the plantations. There are schools on some of the larger farms and I do wonder whether the children of the pickers ever have a chance of leaving the plantation to further their education and to pursue lives away from tea. The women who pick the tea are mostly Tamil, their ancestors had been imported from Southern India a century ago to work in the fields. As I watch the women hard at work, either in the plantations or in market gardens, I wonder how much of the work here is slave-type labour. The basic wage for tea pickers is 620 rupees per day, which is equivalent to AUD$4.96. There have been some rumblings that the workers are demanding an increase to 1000 rupees or approximately AUD$8.00 per day. Nobody will say how much of that wage must be paid into the estate for accommodation, food, healthcare, and other expenses. I rather suspect that there is little left over for these women.

Apart from tea, there are terraced market gardens, where cabbages, leeks, carrots, and other cooler-weather crops are grown. The terraces cut into the hills provide good irrigation for vegetables, and whilst men hoe the newly created paddocks, the women sow leek seedlings, barefoot and bending almost double as they work their way along the furrows. As we near our next stop, I see many stalls, where beautiful, fresh vegetables are on sale. I hope that some of the women who are working in the fields beyond the stalls are able to earn a living by selling what they grow, but somehow, I doubt it.

We arrive at the Damro tea plantation, one that is set up for providing visitors with an understanding of the tea industry. We are introduced to a local guide, who takes us through the factory.

The Camellia Sinensis plant provides all tea types: black, green, and white. It is the method of production that distinguishes the three types of tea. The Damro plantation factory produces white and black tea only, since green tea needs to go through a steaming process, which isn’t available at this facility. The guide gives me a tip of the tea bush. It consists of two leaves and a ‘bud’, the unfurled topmost leaf. It is the bud that is gently plucked and immediately placed in the sun for up to 4 days. Since the bud has not been exposed to oxygen for very long before being dried in the sun, it retains a silvery-white colour, hence it’s common name, Silver Tips. This is packaged as white tea.

The Damro tea factory is a multi-storied building located on the estate. This is to minimise the costs and time between plucking and processing. The tea leaves are taken to the upper floor of the factory where they are spread in troughs. This process is known as withering, which removes 50% of the moisture in the leaf. This afternoon, the withering machine stands still. It won’t start until later in the day when the newly-picked leaves are delivered to the factory. Once withered, the leaves are rolled, twisted, curled, and crushed, allowing the enzymes in the leaves to react with the oxygen in the air.

The leaves are rolled on circular brass or wooden tables and are placed in a rotating open cylinder from above. They progress down a conveyor belt where they are shaken and graded into fifteen sizes from larger leaf to tea dust. After grading, the leaf particles are spread out on a table where they begin to ferment. This process takes three hours and is naturally oxidised in controlled temperature and humidity. As the leaves oxidise, their colour changes from green to brown. Once oxidation is complete, the fermented leaf is placed into a firing chamber to prevent further chemical reactions from taking place. This process also contributes to the flavour. The regulation of the temperature plays an important role in the final quality of the tea, and on completion, the leaves will appear hard and dark.

Finally, the teas are tested, weighed, and packed and then sent to the auction houses in Colombo, where bidding and purchase by the various tea companies takes place. The Damro Tea factory processes 2,000 kilograms of black tea per day. When the pickers complete their work at 4pm, the first process of withering starts and twenty-four hours later, the tea is packaged and on its way to Colombo. To produce 2,000 kilograms of tea per day, 10,000 leaves must be plucked by 700 women in the fields, who pick between 18-20 kilograms and work from 8am until 4pm each day. The work is gruelling. As we finish the tour, we are shown the colour of the different grades of tea.

We spend a delightful hour tasting tea and enjoying an excellent tea cake before selecting a few teas from their showroom to take home. It’s amazing how our driver materialises as soon as we pay for our goods. He has his sticky nose over the counter whilst the transaction is taking place, so he knows exactly how much we’ve spent. As we head for the car, he disappears, only to reappear a few minutes later with a bag of freebies.

We backtrack towards the town of Nuwara Eliya. It is late afternoon and although I ask to stop in the bustling town. That request fell on deaf ears. We pass the Grand Hotel and other buildings of British construction and follow the lake until we are on the outskirts of the town. Again, we are driven down a badly potholed private road and deposited at a Bed and Breakfast place. Our accommodation to this point has been good to very good, but I’m not happy we are dumped out in the country again, and on a bad road. Is this to deter us from ‘escaping’?

It’s New Year’s Eve. We take a tuk-tuk into the town and enjoy a meal. We are back and sound asleep before the new year ticks over. Well, we were, until the locals let crackers off just after midnight. Today's visit to the tea plantation is so enjoyable and is perhaps the main reason we are here in Sri Lanka.

DAY TEN: SPECTACULAR TRAIN JOURNEY INTO THE MOUNTAINS

WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 01, 2020

If you are up to it, take a train journey from Nanu-oya station to Ella village. It is known as one of the most picturesque jo;; country train journeys in the world. Ells is everyone’s favourite fill country village due to the fact that it’s a wonderful nature friendly location. Rawana waterfall is one of the most popular sightseeing attractions in Ella. It currently ranks as one of the widest falls in the country; in fact this waterfall measures approximately 25 metres.

Another amazing spot is the Nine Arch Bridge, a massive bridge built entirely of solid rocks, bricks, and cement without using a single piece of steel. The bridge was finally commissioned in 1921. Ella is a great place for walking and climbing and its most famous hiking route is to ‘Little Adam’s Peak’.

I stand at the open door of the blue train, a soft breeze flows through the carriage, cooling and refreshing. One man stands at the door, hanging half-in, half-out, whilst a German woman sits on the floor, legs dangling out of the door. I’m not that brave. I stand back and hold tight to the handle secured on the side with one hand, whilst taking photos with the other. It hasn't been a very easy day today and a few small incidents could have marred the day, but as soon as the train chugs out of the station, all stress disappears as I watch the passing vista through the open door.

I’m mesmerised by the magnificent scenery before me. I click away at the small area bound by a man’s arm and other obstructions, but I can see the layers of mountains, the terraces, the plantations, the forests. I see people hard at work and I enjoy my small place in front of the door with the wind blowing at my hair as I enjoy the views. We pass eucalypt forests; the trees have grown straight and so very tall; blackened trunks show that some have survived bushfires at some stage. There are grand estates on top of hills, and humpies of the poor tenement farmer. Ahead there are mountains shrouded in mist and waterfalls disgorging many thousands of litres of water down the rocky hills. We stop at stations, standing back to allow people to disembark and embark before resuming our spot near the door. Tom briefly stands near the door long enough to take photos of the train as it rounds a bend. We see more tea plantations on the highest slopes, dark clouds almost touching the tops of the hills.

Eventually, about an hour away from Ella, we find a seat. The activity within the narrow train is every bit as interesting as I try to photograph people without their knowledge. Railway employees walk up and down the aisles offering tea and curry puffs and other small treats. I wonder how they manage to make their way through the crush of people in these carriages. This train is as much a means of transport for the locals as it is for the hundreds of visitors being carried today. There are many interesting people, like the gentle and very tolerant grandmother nearby, whose inquisitive grandchild constantly taps her on the shoulder to ask her something.

After almost four hours, we reach Ella. We are exhilarated and very much refreshed by the experience, albeit ready for a cup of coffee.

But decide to hold the coffee until we have secured our room at the hotel. Sometimes I feel like a backpacker vying for the best spot, but in reality, we have been given more basic accommodation than what we've paid for. My mouth is really watering for decent coffee.

Our room is very nice and we have a lovely balcony, which faces the mountains. I open the doors and from somewhere below, the sounds of Buddhist chants float up on the breeze. Gentle, calming, and beautiful tones somehow match the spectacular views from this location.

The town of Ella is pretty; full of tourists and there are many cafes, shops, and restaurants in the main street. We wander around the street, batting off offers for tuk-tuks, as we enjoy the balmy evening. We are still at high altitude and the night chill sets in before long, but it’s very pleasant. They say that Ella is the home of good quality food, and they are not wrong. We have a delightful meal at Café Chill, which is a huge place with excellent staff and food.

DAY ELEVEN: EXPLORE SRI LANKAN WILDLIFE AT YALA NATIONAL PARK

THURSDAY, JANUARY 02, 2020

In the morning you’ll depart from Ella to visit Yala National Park. It is the largest and most visited national park in Sri Lanka. Thanks to a river running through it, Yala National Park is divided into two sections. Because the river makes crossing to the other side difficult, Yala is really treated as two separate parks. But that doesn’t change the fantastic offerings! From elephant and leopard spotting, jeep safaris, and many historical and religious ruins to explore. This place is blessed with natural resources, so there are many things that will keep you busy.

Why didn't we ask to stay here for another day? The dawn breaks in spectacular fashion; orange and yellow colours brighten even the darkest clouds. As I open the balcony door, the chanting from the nearby Buddhist temple; the sounds of devotion.

We had arrived late yesterday afternoon after being on the train for almost four hours, so it had been impossible to visit the attractions for which Ella is famous; the Nine-Arch Bridge and Ravana waterfall. At breakfast, we discuss our day’s activities with Camillus. Since we had seen elephants in their natural habitat in the Minneriya/Kaudulla National Park, we don’t need to do another safari. The driver mentions leopards, but since he cannot guarantee that we will see them, we opt to visit the attractions here in Ella before taking the two-hour drive to Yala. Secretly, I really want to stay here. Perhaps fourteen days isn't long enough to see the main sights of Sri Lanka after all.

We drive along a pot-holed road; the recent heavy rains have played havoc with not only the roads, but the steep mountainsides as landslides and rockfalls must be cleared before roads can be mended. Out on a remote road, some fifteen minutes from Ella, a group of stalls and tuk-tuks are gathered. We are led to one of the drivers and told it will cost 3,000 rupees (about $24) for the tuk-tuk to take us one kilometre down the road then we would have to walk the remaining 800 metres down to the Nine-Arch Bridge. Last night, it had cost 300 rupees ($2.40) for a tuk-tuk to collect us from our hotel and drive down the mountain to a restaurant, a distance of two kilometres. Since the tuk-tuk driver wouldn’t budge on price, we decide to walk the 1.8 kilometres. 

The road turns into a track, which forks. The sign points in one direction and we follow it. We keep climbing up a hill until the track disappears completely in front of a small house in the woods. Uh-oh. Where did we go wrong?

A lady emerges from the little house and asks whether we are looking for the Nine-Arch Bridge. We nod, as she turns and beckons us to follow. No tracks here as we walk through the bush, stepping over fallen branches and around large rocks. She stops and points. Far below us; a long way below us is the bridge. We are virtually standing on the edge of a cliff and our destination is virtually below our feet.

It appears that when we met the fork in the road, we took the road less travelled!

Gulping, I know what we need to do. We need to walk along a muddy and crude track cut into the side of the hill, which is hair-raisingly steep. I have good walking shoes on my feet, but with the absence of much to hold onto, this part of our journey is going to be challenging to me. There is vegetation, like grass and ferns, to hold onto, but the recent soaking rains have loosened the rick red clay and oftentimes I'm left swaying, trying to steady my feet as I clutch a handful of vegetation, which has loosened itself from its anchors. There in nothing on the other side to hold onto and a wrong step could see me hurtling down that side of the hill. I must look like a wreck as I take the last steps off the track and onto the level ground at our destination because a young man approaches me with a bottle of water; the lid is already removed.

But we are here. The Nine-Arches Bridge.

One of the best examples of Colonial-era construction in Sri Lanka the Nine-Arches Bridge is the last link across the mountains to Ella. British engineers designed it in steel, but the allocation of steel had been reassigned to war-related projects during World War One and the work on the bridge stopped. The lack of steel was no obstacle for locals who so badly wanted the bridge that it was built by P.K. Appuhami, in consultation with British engineers, out of stone and concrete in 1921. Since it is almost one-hundred-years old today, it proves that steel was not really required to build a quality and long-lasting bridge. 

As I watch from above, Tom disappears into the tea plantation on the side of the hill and explores the base of the bridge further, whilst I stand on top still catching my breath from my horror descent into this beautiful valley. In my imagination, I can see dinosaurs grazing in the lush, tropical vegetation. We further explore the bridge, walking along the tracks - the train is not due for another hour - and through the dark tunnel to the other side.

As much as I would like to stick around for a while to watch the morning train, filled with tourists and locals alike, rumble on top of the bridge and through the tunnel, my practical self tells me it's time to leave. We still have things to see and a long journey ahead of us. Fortunately, we don't have to take the same route back on foot, for there are tuk-tuks waiting by the side of the tunnel to take us back to Ella. Perhaps not at the point we had been dropped off this morning, but we can enjoy a cup of coffee before summoning the driver for our onward journey.

Ahh coffee! It has never tasted so good! We linger over our cups, putting off the call to Camillus to collect us. Until I realise that my phone 'out of range' and Tom cannot connect. Another tour guide makes the call on our behalf and Camillus turns up about thirty seconds later, which means he probably expected us to get a tuk-tuk back. Personally, apart from burning thighs, I got nothing out of the walk down the hill, and although the view from the lady's cliff edge was nice, the whole walk down was unnecessary. My advice to people on a time-limit would be to take the tuk-tuk in both directions. It cost the equivalent of $8.00 for our return journey to Ella.

The main road out of Ella is slow going as heavy-duty work is being done to fix the massive landslide, which closed ropads last October. The side of the mountain is being repaired with concrete stabilisers and I'm surprised to see a digger, precariously situated on the sharp incline of the hill. Past landslides have been incorporated into cafes and restaurants on the steep hillsides. One has even built a cafe next to a huge boulder lodged on the side of the road. 

We park the car and walk down to a curve in the road, where many people have gathered. The Ravana waterfall is twenty-five metres in height and cascades from an oval-shaped rocky outcrop near the top of the mountain. It is also the widest of all waterfalls in Sri Lanka. The recent rain means that the water is spilling over at a fast rate. We stand on a viewing platform, where we can get a great view of the falls, and enjoy watching the many people clambouring over rocks at the base. A man, resplendent in an orange sarong, which thankfully must be firmly tied, stands in front of a pipe, through which a torrent of water gushes around his heavy-set frame. The beautiful, water-filled rocky sides of the cliffs provide nourishment for the hundreds of ferns, which live in the cracks and crevasses.

The only hightlight to the long journey to the village of Tissamaharama near the Yala National Park is when our driver spots two turtles sitting in the middle of the road. With the heavy traffic load, I'm unsure why they are still alive. But they are. Camillus moves them, placing them in the vegetation near the road's shoulder. 

DAY TWELVE: IT'S TIME TO EXPLORE THE SOUTHERN BEACHES

FRIDAY, JANUARY 03, 2020

After an amazing journey through the mountains and waterfalls you have finally arrived to the world-famous beach side of Sri Lanka. In the morning you will head towards Mirissa/Dikwella Beach while enjoying the magnificent view of the Indian Ocean. Mirissa is a delightful sandy beach that was a well-kept secret in the past, but now more guesthouses, inns, and bungalows are opening up to visitors. Mirissa beach is also characterised by a sea free from rocks and coconut palms growing right from, the edge of the sand as if in imitation of a postcard of the perfect tropical beach. The most popular attractions in Mirissa/Dikwella are Kalamatiya bird sanctuary and the fish harbour.

It takes four hours to drive the sixty-two kilometres from Yala to a resort near Dickwella. We are lost. The driver is constantly on the phone receiving instructions, stopping, talking, starting, talking, talking, sometimes stopping, eventually stopping outside a coffee shop on the beach. I get out of the car to take photos. I know he's lost, but for now, coffee will be a soothing balm until he sorts himself out. We linger over the coffee for a long time, reluctant to return to the car.

But we do.

Doing a U-turn we return along the road we came on, driving, slowing at advertising signs, gaining speed, slowing, eventually turning, calling someone on the phone. 

My data dongle is required. if that is plugged into the computer, my phone has wifi and I can get some clear directions to our hotel. 

Our new beach resort is wonderful. Our ocean-facing room is fresh; the breeze blowing directly into the room as I rinse out some clothes to hang out to dry. Later, I'll take a walk along the beach. The road into this place is diabolical, there is a large sliding metal gate and a security guard. It's safe here but like a prison. What is the point of being here today, since Galle, where we want to spend a full day exploring is only another hour's journey down the road?

DAY THIRTEEN: HISTORICAL GALLE AND TURTLE HATCHERY CENTRE

SATURDAY, JANUARY 04, 2020

After breakfast continue your coastal drive towards Galle, well known for its fort (UNESCO HERITAGE SITE). This old city, built by Portuguese colonists in the 16th century, is the intersection where classic Dutch architecture meets a tropical setting, creating a vivid atmosphere in beauty. Galle Lighthouse stands proudly on the southeast tip of the fort. 

Afterwards you will travel to Kosgoda to visit the Turtle Hatchery Center. Both locals and international volunteers are battling for the protection of sea turtles since they are endangered creatures. This vibrant tourist destination sitting calm along the southern coast of Sri Lanka, apart from its traditional fishing industries and cinnamon cultivations, was later recognised by the Wildlife Protection Society, which studded the region with a Sea Turtle Conservation Project that operates on a formidable scale.

In the evening, you will relax at your beach hotel in Hikkaduwa, a typical tourist trail beach destination, where you can laze on the sand and soak up the sun. Hikkaduwa is also popular with young and independent travellers who are drawn to the nightlife and surfing. There is a wide range of activities that can be enjoyed here, such as diving, snorkelling, and a boat safari at Madu River.

Yesterday was a total waste of time. But this morning,a small incident at the hotel highlighted the terrible and unfair way in which young workers are treated in their workplace. A tip we gave to a young man who assisted with our cases was ripped off him in spectacular fashion by the 'official' bellboy right in front of us. When we appealed to the staff to help him, they virtually ignored him, as did our driver. We have learnt our lesson. We will only tip when there is nobody around to witness it - even if we have to do so before the service is rendered. Disgusted.

We take a different road out of the hotel , and if anything, it's worse than the one in. As we rejoin the road and I ask about seeing stilt fishermen, we are advised that our accommodation tonight has been changed and that it is a long 160-kilometre distance from Galle. Since Galle, a UNESCO listed fort is, like the tea plantations, one of the most important and historic sites in Sri Lanka. I have a feeling that this bloke, this so-called-tour-guide-who-doesn't-guide-us simply want to go home.

  

Stilt fishing is one of the most unusual traditional fishing methods of Sri Lanka. Apparently starting after World War II, this method of fishing had been widely used all along the coast until the tsunami in 2004, which caused the fishing to cease until recent years. The stilt fishermen today are not fishing, but simply sitting on the stilts for tips. It's a bit of a disappointment, but this part of Sri Lanka was totally ravaged by the tsunami and still hasn't recovered. In a developing country, where poor people are simply eking out a living, it is a shame to reduce something that was highly skilled into a form of busking. But at least they are doing something. I'm not sure how much the tout on the road skims out of the take, though.

We arrive in Galle and ask the driver to leave us in the fortified part of the town. We'll call him when we want to be collected. As we get out of the car, he leaves us with warnings. Don’t eat anything. Don’t go shopping. Now I'm intrigued.

Located on the southern tip of Sri Lanka, Galle has been an ancient port city from the time King Solomon drew ivory, peacocks, and other valuables from the country. It was known as Tarshish then. Cinnamon has been exported from this port from as early as 1400 BCE.

Ancient Greek and Roman geographers may have known about Galle and Ptolemy referred to as Odoka. The Moroccan traveller Ibn Battuta visited Galle in 1342. He called it Qali. During the 12th and 13th centuries, Sinhalese refugees, fleeing from Tamil armies from the north began to settle in Galle and other nearby areas. The Portuguese arrived in the 16th Century, extensively fortifying the port to protect it from future marauders. One hundred years later, in 1649, the Dutch moved in, extending the fortifications and remained there until the British took over Sri Lanka in 1796. The British preserved the Dutch fortifications, including the three bastions, known as Sun, Moon, and Star.

Eagerly escaping the car, we immediately find ourselves a coffee shop, where delicious homemade treats and coffee are served. Enjoying watching the passers by, we plan our next few hours. This part of the city is full of history, full of colour and full of vibrancy. This isn’t an old historic relic; it is a fully-functional and working city, which includes schools, churches, mosques, homes, and a variety of interesting and unique stores. Galle Fort is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and as we walk along the cobbled streets, we are drawn into the quaint architecture, whilst at the same time dodging the small vehicles that use the same cobbled streets. We want to explore the little streets before going out to walk along the wall.

We spend some time walking in and out of buildings; museums and churches and accidentally even a house. We talk to the local businesspeople. As soon as they find out that we're Australians, we are told, proudly, that Shane Warne, our cricket hero, along with Ian Botham raised a lot of money to rebuild the cricket stadium, which is located just outside of the walls of the fort.

As the shadows lengthen, we arrive at the wall. It is possible to walk around the entire fort on the ramparts. The Dutch had designed much wider walls to allow for cannons to be mounted. This innovation gave the walls the extra strength they needed to withstand the surge of water that occurred on Boxing Day, 2004. We position ourselves close to the lighthouse in a spot where we can observe the sunset. Since we are very close to the tip of the country, you could basically look in one direction in the morning at the sunrise and turn to look at the sunset in the other. We wait for the sun to slowly descend, splashing the sky with a bolt of orange before disappearing behind the horizon. The sunset tonight is probably the best we’ve seen so far.

DAY FOURTEEN: VISIT THE CAPITAL OF COLOMBO

SUNDAY, JANUARY 05, 2020

After breakfast you’ll visit the capital city of Colombo, which has an interesting history, running back to the fifth century. Even in the ancient times, this was an important port city in the East-West sea trade. Nowadays it has become a bustling modern city with a unique atmosphere, The glitzy hotel, restaurants, and modern shopping malls attract hordes of locals and tourists alike. In Colombo you have the opportunity to do some last-minute shopping or an optional city tour to visit the most highlighted places.

Sri Lanka, a country the size of Tasmania with the population of Australia, is still emerging from a thirty-year civil war. There has been government corruption, and the recent election of the two brothers to President and Prime Minister status has given the country an air of excitement for a stable future. I mean everyone who we’ve spoken to has a positive outlook for Sri Lanka under these two dynamic leaders. They have a more confident view of a peaceful and stable future, especially following the Easter Sunday terrorist bombings of Catholic Churches, which occurred in Colombo and on the east coast. Last year, Mahinda Rajapaksa, using similar words to India’s Prime Minister, Modi, and before being elected Prime Minister said,

We are first and foremost one. One nation, under one flag and we are free to allow our diversity to be the uniting factor of our people.' This statement has been turned into the nation’s rhetoric; is seen on bumper stickers and T-shirts, and it may well have been the statement that elevated this man to leader of the country. But Sri Lanka is not really united. The people don’t call themselves Sri Lankans. They refer to themselves by their ethnicity then their religion. It's common to hear them say, 

'I'm a sinhalese Buddhist or Hindu or Christain,' or 'I'm a Tamil Christian or Hindu or Muslim.' To the visitor like me, they are all Sri Lankan, and although it’s not blatant, there probably is a type of caste system deeply ingrained within the psyche of the people. It may take generations to believe that they are all equal under one flag and I truly hope that the Prime Minister and his brother, the President, make an effort to combat corruption and to lead with honesty and integrity. We can only wait to see what the future holds. 

Our itinerary is overloaded, to say the least. 

When I had researched the distances for each day, they are not huge. However, with the condition of the roads, the traffic snarls, and the security road blocks, we could have easily been in the car for extended periods each day. But we had opted to miss some attractions to give us a more relaxed tour across the country. If I had looked further into the itinerary, I would have skipped the eastern beaches altogether. Apart from seeing some sea turtle tracks in the sand, this is a waste of almost three days. We should have stayed an extra day in Anuradhapura and driven directly to Sigiriya Rock to provide us with a better overview of the ancient cities and the religious culture. It would also have provided us with an extra day in Ella, and if we skipped the whole wasted trip to Yala, driving directly to Galle instead, we would have been able to absorb more of the Portuguese/Dutch/British history. But if we hadn't taken this route, we would always wonder what we missed. This way we know for the 'next time'.

 

I glance out the window of the car and am surprised that rice is grown this close to the coast. All throughout Sri Lanka there are rice paddies in various stages of cultivation. There are two climactic growing zones; Maha or Major, where planting occurs in October and harvested in February and Yala or Minor, where planting occurs in April and harvested in August. The rice fields, which are ready for harvesting, are bright green, their grainy heads sway in the breeze as workers work tirelessly in the fields. Sometimes they work in tandem with white egrets, who clean the fields of grubs and other pests as the farmers prepare for the next planting season.

 

For much of the past two weeks, the scenery outside the window has changed dramatically. My problem is when I see something interesting, I want to ask questions. Those questions remain unanswered because the spontaneity of getting information as we go is not possible. This is the one real negative aspect of the tour. I am frustrated by this. We’ve loved using the tuk-tuks here in Sri Lanka. We’ve ridden in them in Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, and even in India, and we’ve had some nail-biting experiences along the way. However, here in Sri Lanka, in Colombo and in the smaller towns and villages, we’ve not at all found them unsafe. The drivers on the whole have been marvellous although the traffic has been heavy in some areas, we’ve not had any ‘We’re gonna die’ experiences. There are approximately 1.2 million tuk-tuks in Sri Lanka, causing a huge problem with labour shortages in the booming construction industry. All the drivers we encounter across Sri Lanka are young men, who probably should be at university or learning a trade. Instead, the lure of easy money and self-employment has caused a glut of tuk-tuks. There are plans to raise the minimum age for a tuk-tuk driver from 18 to 35 to discourage young people from entering the service industry, whilst at the same time, raise the minimum wage for construction workers. For us, though, the ability to easily hail or call a tuk-tuk and ride to a restaurant, a shopping centre or return to our hotel is a good thing. They certainly have been handy for us, especially on the shocking roads we’ve encountered during our stay.

As we approach Colombo, I’m surprised, or to be honest, shocked to see shanty towns lining the coastline. Tiny shacks built of wooden offcuts and galvanised iron spread along the side of the railway line, just a block from the beach. Timber mills, cabinet-makers, birdcage-builders; their wares are displayed in front of the little hovels. This is the stark reality that since the tsunami of 2004, little has been done to help those who lost everything and probably half their families are still trying to eke out a living amongst the poorest people of Sri Lanka. It doesn’t matter to them that they have enviable ocean views. To them, perhaps, it is a daily reminder of the death and destruction that took place on that terrible, terrible day. The couple of blurry photos I take don’t provide any idea of the number of desperate-looking shacks along the road, but my eyes see that they stretched for kilometres and kilometres on the Colombo road. It is a sobering end to our tour.

As far as the tour is concerned, I would not encourage anyone to use Capital Lanka Tours or the guide Camillus. Sure, some people might like to listen to homophobic, xenophobic, and racist rhetoric, but we don't. Our driver is a homophobic, xenophobic, racist and two weeks having to ignore his rants and, at times, to ask him to stop, has been exhausting. This, I believe was the biggest blight on the tour. However, despite our constant and niggling misgivings about small incidents that occur during the two weeks, we enjoy our visit to this beautiful country and will forever remember the highlights of this tour; the sights, the history, and the gentle people.

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