Sri Lanka - Elephants, Beaches & Curry
I was starting to feel drowsy from the steady rumbling of the jeep when an angry and loud trumpeting jarred me back to reality. Directly in front of us, a huge elephant had just emerged from the trees and was charging – head on! I bravely tried to scramble to the back of the vehicle (just in case we were also being attacked from the rear!), leaving Susie to soothe the oncoming savage beast as best she could. (That’s what women are known for…right?) Luckily for all concerned, the magnificent animal decided we really were not worth his trouble and moved nonchalantly to the side, letting us pass unmolested. I fearlessly kept watch on our back end as we moved on down the track...you know…just in case.
Our friend Linsey had arranged an all-day Jeep Safari through Udawalawe National Park for New Year’s Day and we were enjoying it immensely! Arriving at the park just after sunrise we were greeting by brilliant peacocks everywhere – on the road, beside the road and in the trees. And just 15 minutes later we encountered our first elephant, sauntering unconcernedly down the track and into the bush.
Linsey, Nova, Susie and I had the jeep to ourselves, with just a driver and guide, and had a wonderful time driving down the various narrow tracks and trails that crossed forest and plains, lakes, small creeks and low hills. We saw dozens of brightly colored birds such as paradise flycatchers, green & blue tail bee eaters and kingfishers, and various raptors like hawk eagles, serpent and sea eagles.
Several small mammals with curly tails scurried across the road and we caught a glimpse of a golden jackal. Small spotted deer were plentiful in the afternoon, many with large racks of antlers, and of course the usual suspects – monkeys.
And elephants! We saw about 55 of these amazing pachyderms – singles and families – sometimes gathered around a pool or mud hole, spraying themselves with water or even dry dirt to protect themselves from insects. We never tired of watching these magnificent animals who were usually unconcerned with our presence. Two of them really did briefly charge the jeep, probably because we startled them coming around a curve.
These are all Elephas Maximus, a subspecies of Asian elephants, and generally smaller than African elephants. They may reach a maximum weight of 5,500 kg and attain a height of 3.5 meters at the shoulder. A low percentage of males will grow tusks, and we saw a couple with small tusks. The wild population in Sri Lanka has diminished from 19,500 in the early 19th century, to just over 7,000 today, with most existing in national parks.
Linsey and Nova are “digital nomads” that Susie friended on Facebook 3 years ago. They travel around the world extensively and we have missed connecting several times, but finally were able to coordinate plans to meet in Sri Lanka where they were hanging for a month.
After two long days of travel from Budapest, we touched down at the airport in Columbo on the west side of Sri Lanka, where Linsey had arranged a waiting driver. He helped us get SIM cards for our phones and then we were off, heading south on a four-lane toll road in air-conditioned comfort.
Linsey and Nova were renting a nice 2-bedroom Airbnb in a small village called Ahungalla and it was so nice to actually meet them in person! They had prepared a delicious dinner of eggplant, chicken & rice which we all enjoyed, and then Susie and I crashed hard to catch up on some sleep!
Linsey had to work the next day, so she arranged for Krashintha De Silva, the owner of the Airbnb to drive us around the local area. He first took us to Madu River Safari where we enjoyed a nice boat ride on the Madu River and Maduganga Lake. The mangroves lining the shore reminded us of Florida, but the water was a murky brown color. There were large ropes floating across one river bank to the other in various places – nautical speed bumps that required the operator to tilt the outboard engine out of the water momentarily to cross the rope. We stopped at a small temple on an island to explore and walk up to a stupa on the hill, and at a little dock where many tiny fish were penned up, waiting to nibble on your feet. Not today, thanks so much.
Driving back towards the house we stopped by to meet his lovely wife and family. Then we went by the Ahungalla Sea Turtles Conservation Project, a tiny, sad looking operation dedicated to the preservation of sea turtles. I hope the high admission price is really used for the stated cause.
Later on, Susie and I walked into “the village” and stopped at many small stores before we found one that had some eggs that we needed, and also bought some chips and chocolate.
That evening the Krashintha and his wife and 3 children came over and cooked dinner for us – several delicious local dishes featuring various curries. We were surprised that they sat outside while we ate instead of joining us at the table. I had fun playing tic-tac-toe with Mewni, the middle daughter. I think she beat me most games.
Linsey was off work Saturday afternoon, New Year’s Eve, so we loaded up in our driver’s car and headed off on a long drive towards Udawalawe. When we arrived at the rooms we had reserved for two nights just outside the park, the owner wanted to charge double the price quoted unless we also booked the safari tour with him! Not happening – already booked the tour elsewhere. After some fruitless arguing we gave up, left our luggage and went off to the Hungry Monkey for a tasty dinner. Back to the rooms where we toasted NYE with a bottle of Asti and retired early as we were getting up on New Year’s Day at 5 am!
The rooms were dirty, and noisy – and the bathrooms were yuck – so next day we packed everything and took off for the safari, which was awesome! At the end of the day, we drove a couple hours south to the beach town of Dikwella where we had a nice dinner & rooms right on the beach. Just beautiful! Happy New Year to adherents of the Gregorian Calendar!
After a nice, leisurely breakfast the next morning we were back on the road, heading west along the coast. Chamilla dropped Susie and I off in the southwestern village of Galle Fort where we would stay the next 14 days, whilst Linsey & Nova continued back northward to their place in Ahungalla.
Susie had a 2-bedroom flat secured for us at Southern Comfort, which was a 3 story building divided up into a dozen (?) different rooms and “suites”.
Our place had 2 small bedrooms, each with typical small Asian bathroom (one room with sink, toilet & inline shower heater with handheld sprayer – everything gets wet!) and a small living area with fridge & microwave.
Our bedroom looked out on the front courtyard/parking area, and living room looked out on the sea – 500 meters away over some rooftops. Temperature was good but we had to close the windows at night to keep the skeeters out! The beds did have netting over them, but the bugs were just too much. Most days were sunny with highs in the 80s and lows near 70, and rain showers a couple of afternoons. The electricity was turned off for an hour or two many days between 4 and 6 PM, due to fuel shortages to run the power plants.
Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) is a large tropical island, measuring about 210 km wide x 430 km north-to-south, situated just off the southeast coast of India. Prehistoric human settlements date back 125,000 years, and evidence suggests Indo-Aryans began arriving around the 5th century BCE, mixing with the aboriginals to form the Sinhalese, the predominant ethnic group today. Buddhism was introduced 200 years later and spread across the island.
Portuguese traders arrived in 1505, establishing a port on the southern end of the island to take advantage of the prosperous maritime “Silk Road” between Asia and Europe. Feeling taken advantage of, the Sinhalese enlisted the Dutch to expel the Portuguese, and guess what? Same day – different master.
After the Dutch East India Company, aka VOC ruled the island for 150 years, the French Revolutionary Wars and turmoil in Europe weakened the Dutch, enabling Great Britain to take over Ceylon, including the southern fort at Galle.
In 1948 Ceylon became a dominion of the UK, and the Republic of Sri Lanka in 1972.
The latest 26-year civil war between the Tamils of the north seeking independence and the government ended in 2009, and the country of 22 million has been aggressively developing tourism since. However, a combination of war-related expenses, bad luck (Covid) and mismanagement have pushed the country into bankruptcy, requiring Sri Lanka to seek relief from the International Monetary Fund to repay $7 billion in foreign debt.
Galle Fort where we were staying is basically the old fortress on a small, rocky peninsula jutting out into the Laccadive Sea from the town of Galle. It is surrounded by ramparts, punctuated with bastions armed with cannons, guarding the land and sea approaches. Two narrow roadways tunnel through the wall, constricting traffic during busy periods. Galle Fort has been declared a “UNESCO World Heritage Site, for its unique exposition of an urban ensemble which illustrates the interaction of European architecture and South Asian traditions from the 16th to the 19th centuries." *Wikipedia
The fort is not that large, so we got to know the streets, shops, and most importantly the restaurants quickly. Kixi had the best iced coffee by far, so we started many days off from their balcony overlooking Lighthouse Street, watching the school-children get out of morning classes.
VOC had the best drinks (Moscow Mule for Sus & VOC Cocktail for your truly) and a nice view of the sunset over the western ramparts. We enjoyed several nice and several so-so dinners, but our fav was Lucky Fort, a tiny place that served a huge bowl of rice accompanied by 12 different curried dishes! Absolutely delicious! And just a tiny bit spicy!
Linsey & Nova drove back down to Galle on their motorbike to stay with us for the weekend and the ladies had a wonderful time making jewelry at a silversmith in town, hammering out the silver bands by hand, starting with silver flakes . Sri Lanka is world-famous for its rubies, sapphires and topaz, as well as graphite, and there are jewelry shops on every block.
Monday we rode east to funky Unawatuna Beach and enjoyed breakfast at Skinny Toms, who unfortunately did not have the advertised gluten-free bread. Susie and I then walked around the beach and shops and Linsey and Nova motored on east to Mirissi Beach for some surfing. Sri Lanka has some beaches that are perfect for surfing. We had lunch on the beach at Sand Beach Pub where Susie ordered fish’n’chips. The “tuna” (likely some type of mackerel) was hard as a rock, as if it had been sitting over the coals for 2 or 3 days! Haha – oh well.
We also took a day trip to Mirissa to go whale-watching a few days later. It was wonderful to get out on the ocean where we saw many schools of small spinner dolphins. Only two small pilot whales were spotted, and a pair of mating green turtles.
Susie treated herself to a foot and leg massage and loved it so much she booked the same for me the next day, and a full body massage for herself. I had only once had a full body massage, in Bali, and was not impressed, but this time was very nice. Private room, soothing music and a capable masseuse that worked on my back & shoulders as well as legs & feet. Ahhhhhhhhhhh….
Next day – argggggggggghhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh! My back and shoulders were so sore the next day, and the next, and…well for three days I was in pain. Quoth the raven: nevermore!
We walked into the town of Galle a couple times, mainly in search of a working ATM. Had to cross a couple of very busy roads teeming with autos, buses, motorbikes, tuk-tuks and trucks, and the surface streets close to the waterfront were crowded with street vendors, shoppers and people just meandering about.
The beach along the harbor was not fit for swimming and there were several large groups of men pulling in huge nets by hand. We watched for 20 minutes and it seemed like many hours before they would have had the nets pulled all the way up on the shore, so we moved on. A small fish market of 20 or 30 stalls was setup near at hand with a variety of fresh (and not-so-fresh) fishes, like snapper, grunts, mackerel, skipjacks and albacore.
We certainly enjoyed our time in Sri Lanka. Next time we will travel around the island more – 2 or 3 days in Galle Fort is plenty, but we didn’t realize it beforehand.
Next up – Vietnam – picking up where we left off in 2020!