Sri Lanka for beginners – 4

Our fourth day in Sri Lanka was the busiest of them all. We worked our way down the mountains to the sea on the South Coast.

We began our day at 3:30am, before the sun reared it’s head, before the birds cleared their throats. Our hotel staff farewelled us, handing us each a box of breakfast- an orange, an apple, a sandwich and a muffin for the road. We needed it and were very appreciative.

Our drive to Udawalawe was long and windy. Through the mountain mist, skinny dogs raced in front of the car as we swerved around pot holes and bumps. Every so often someone would emerge from the darkness, in a beanie and a sarong, standing roadside. It was spooky.

Udawalawe National Park has roads etched through it for jeeps to take tourists on safari. There’s apparently 600 elephants in the park, in herds of about 50, and there are other animals about, languid in the heat. We were excited to see them, but less excited for the motorcade of grumbling jeeps which stumbled through the entrance gates in single file at dawn.

We broke from the pack like a renegade gazelle and took our chances. It paid off. We saw water buffalos going about their business, jackals darting in and out of the shrubs and eagles soaring. There was life everywhere, even the smallest of chameleons and tiny bee eaters had us gasp in awe. See there, on the river bank, a crocodile! See there, up in that tree, a painted stork! A peacock, a herron! The elephants stole the show. At first, I spied them through the thicket, just going about their business, but later, they came, right up to the jeep all cautious-like, eyeing us and swinging their trunks. What beautiful and gentle creatures.

Once we had our fill of great beasts, we raced down to the sea. Galle sits on the south coast and has a very interesting history of Portuguese, Dutch and British colonisation on display through it’s architecture. The Galle Fort is a quaint little township with boutique shops and bed and breakfasts peppered across narrow alleyways. One can stroll along the top of the rampart the whole way around, and see the Dutch Hospital, the Clock Tower, the Lighthouse. There’s cafes and restaurants every few meters and all offer something tantalising.

We came for the main event- the Galle Literary Festival. What a fabulous occasion it was! Charles Cumming and Anthony Horowitz in conversation about  crime fiction, Sir David Hare interviewed about his career as a playwright, Lucy Fleming in a duet with her husband discussed her uncle, the great Ian Fleming. An intellectual feast!

We stayed at an aborable bed and breakfast, with polished hard wood furniture and a bathroom less spacious than advertised. But our hosts were fantastic, so warm and accommodating, and we went hunting for dinner. We found a little cafe recommended in Lonely Planet and tried the Kotta, and Dhal and Rotti. Such divine flavours, and fresh tuna from the sea! A fabulous day, as we collapsed soon after.


Sri Lanka for beginners – 3

Instead of the typical wake up call from the city, the call to prayer, the blare of horns, we were treated to a different kind of cacophony. Up in the mountains, 1300 feet above sea level are all kinds of birds, all screaming at the top of their tiny lungs to herald the dawn. I think I heard each and every one as the sun swept out the carpet of stars.

Breakfast was a fantastic platter of fruits and hot foods and sweet breads and coffee. We amused ourselves until we decided to go for a walk to Melheim View Point. As we trekked through the trees, I kept turning back to see clouds descend over the mountains. The sun was bright and fierce in the sky, and yet we could both feel the light sprinkle of rain from somewhere above us. Mist raced down the mountains swallowing whole trees as it climbed.

They were still a long way from us, though. We had enough time to reach the view point and gasp. A panorama. True beauty. The horizon was just layers of blue, shades of distant blue, causing you to stop and think hard- is that an outline of mist rising from the valley, or is it a a mountain peak?

Around midday, we traveled to Ella. There, we walked through a tea plantation, past the cows that grazed on the weeds there (milk tea perhaps?) and up an almighty set of stairs that reached into the sky. Mini Adam’s Peak is no mean feat. It’s not terribly intimidating, but when you’ve got a staircase that has no end in sight, and your thighs burn, and you weren’t aware that it would be this much effort, you’ve got to dig deep into your soul and push through.

True majesty awaits at the top of Mini Adam’s Peak.

Stray dogs curl up in holes they’ve dug for themselves in the shadow of a serene golden Buddha. Perhaps they’re guardians.

The hills roll through emerald and moss greens. Ochre roads cut into the mountainsides like veins. Ella Gap is deep and lush, dropping away from the cliff and ending somewhere far below. As the sun peaks through thunderclouds, a bruised grey brewing fast, light spills over the mountain range. The colours are vivid. And then they’re gone.

We trekked back down, a journey much easier than the climb up, then made our way to a nursery for some tea. Sri Lankan tea, served with milk, is not bitter. It is light and refreshing and it is best enjoyed slowly, surrounded by succulents while peering our over the valley. That, is the perfect cup of tea.

Before dinner, our driver checked the train timetable and saw that the Blue train, the very same that carried us from Gampola to Haputale, would be passing through the Ella Gap and the famous Nine Arch Bridge in precisely 45 minutes. We had to go. Take that paved road up past the lake to a fork in the road. You must take the left, do not go right. Walk until you see a small shop but do not stop there. You can buy things if you want to, but I suggest you don’t. Keep walking until the tuk tuks. There will be plenty. When you see them, take the stairs straight down and follow, follow until the train tracks. Be very careful. There is a viewing area. Watch the train.

So we did. We followed these instructions carefully and picked up a few other confused tourists along the way. Some Germans, who nearly took the wrong path at the first fork joined us as we made our way to the bridge.

Sri Lanka has been voted number one for Lonely Planet’s Top Travel Destinations in 2019. It feels like it’s on the cusp of a boom, but it’s not there yet. The path we took down to the bridge was a little goat track worn down over time by tourists and locals. The little shops along the way were shacks attached to homes, and they sold bags of chips or bottles of water. Some charged to show directions to lost foreigners. It seems as if tourists have been told to come to Sri Lanka, but noone’s told the local people that we’d be coming. Residents scramble to make the most of the tourist influx. It’s raw and exciting. In fact, I sighed in relief that there was no escalator down the mountain, no Starbucks or McDonalds or wifi. The infrastructure and corporations haven’t come here yet, and nor should they.

Tourists flock to the most instagrammed bridge in South Asia, like seagulls to a bag of chips. They set up Go-Pros between the rails to capture the train passing over. They sit poised, ‘candid’ on the guard rail, swinging their legs over the chasm. They offer a king coconut husk to the bareboned dogs who aren’t the least bit interested.

5:30pm, the train leaves from Ella.

5:40pm, the train crosses the bridge.

Right on time, a brrraapp echoes through the valley and the train is heard before it is seen. Two headlights push through the darkness of the tunnel and out comes the Blue Train, charging through over the bridge, waiting for noone. There’s a clap and a cheer, and then it’s gone from sight, rails thundering through the trees.

We had dinner in Ella. The town is a small strip that carries backpackers and those in the service industry. It feels like Franz Josef Glacier, a town made up of a strip of shops and transience. It feels a little bit grimey, like anything could happen here on the cheap cocktails, in the side alley tattoo parlours.

The food is good, however. “Best in Sri Lanka” said our driver, who wasn’t wrong. We tried lumprais, which is rice and ten types of curry steamed in a banana leaf and served with chutney and sambal. Food heaven.

Sri Lanka for beginners – 2

I woke up to the call to prayer from the local mosque. It was nice to hear something familiar in this city of unknowns. We headed up to have breakfast in the dining area- it’s all lovely and open plan, with panoramic views of a blue-skied Kandy. One thing I’ve noticed about Kandy is the amount of potted plants on each residence here, each windowsill and ledge. The plants spill out of the pot and reach up to the sun; orchids and bougainvillea and crepe myrtle. Such stunning bursts of colour really add a welcoming warmth to the town.

Breakfast was a delicious selection of tropical fruits; rambutan, papaya, pineapple, sugar banana. We also had scrambled eggs, rice (laced with coconut) and chutney. The meal was wholesome and delicious.

The sounds of Kandy wafted up to us as we sat on the balcony. A school marching band was parading through the streets practicing for their next sports meet. A crackly megaphone was blasting  pop songs. An anvil hitting metal, a dog barking. The overwhelming cacophony of horns blaring in the traffic. A military helicopter carrying none other than the President of Sri Lanka. It was nice to sit mountainside away from the noise.

We left Kandy and drove towards a tea factory, but not without stopping at the local supermarket first. I always love going to supermarkets in other countries, there are  minute differences in the way things operate. There was a jewelry section, a pungent fish section, a weighing station for fruit and aisles and aisles of packaged goods. We grabbed some bags of chips and left.

The tea factory smelled of woodfire. We were served a cup of tea each before entering and my goodness, the tea was light, clear, unsweetened amber and I loved it. The tea factory seemed rustic, as if the processing machines had been running since the 1940s. We were shown the difference between two camellia varieties and how they create different teas, and how to categorise the leaves into different grades- Best, Below Best and … something starting with P. I was very impressed. Did you know that there’s a machine invented in Japan that can categorise tea leaves by colour? Remarkable!

We made our way to Gampola, the town were we were to catch the train. Our host at the bed and breakfast was telling us how Gampola was his hometown and he was very proud to have us visit there. It’s small and sits in the shadow of a mountain. I probably would have walked right past the train station had I not been shown it. The station is has all the original train paraphernalia which still in use. The switch room still has a thousand levers for all the different train lines, and there’s a scale of the watermarks left by different floods since the 1930s.

The blue train came, picked us up, and jolted onwards.

We were given first class tickets, which Snidely and I were a little bit disappointed by at first. We wanted the authentic, original Sri Lankan train ride through the mountains, and instead we got a sealed capsule of foreigners, all pressing up against the window for the perfect snapshot of the tea country. After a while, however, we were happy to have comfy seats and air conditioning, so we can’t complain.

The train jerked it’s way up the mountains and through little communities on the way. We passed through tunnels and over bridges and gained speed on on the flats. I had to use sports mode on my camera to make sure the photos weren’t just a blur of green. Once you emerge from the congestion, the mountains open up to reveal terraces of tea plantations. The landscape soars and the tips of trees become shrouded in mist.

The wind picks up and clouds race the train.

We pulled into Haputale, then traveled a short distance down the mountain to a little community called Beragala. I watched rains smear from the clouds from the window. All the townsfolk had knitted beanies.

At our accommodation, we settled in, then gorged ourselves on Ceylonese Fried Rice and a hundred types of curry- all so flavoursome, all so delicious.

Sri Lanka for beginners – 1

We were supposed to land in Colombo at 11am, but were delayed for some reason, perhaps crosswinds, or maybe air traffic control coming out of Bangkok. Either way, we were slightly late to meet our driver. I desperately needed to use the bathroom and happily used the squat toilet- the very first I’ve used with a flush!

Immigration was easy enough and we stood patiently in line as a family of Russians barged through, with a small child and a green plastic bag of clothes. We paid for our visa online, so as we waited to be processed we made small talk with the Immigration officer, who had a warm smile and taught us that ‘Ayobowan’ means a lot of things, generally in the ballpark of a greeting. Snidely made nice with a woman in our row on the plane and she came up to him desperately seeking help. She spoke only Thai with not a skerrick of English, and she was trying to call for a taxi through a man who only spoke Sinhalese. I don’t know how he managed to get to the bottom of it, but through some patchy translation app and wild hand gestures, Snidely figured it out and managed to help the lady.

The drive from Colombo to Kandy is long and windy. We passed villages along the way; a strip of storefronts became peppered with derelict building projects which thinned out onto stalls covered in king coconuts and finally the landscape opened up to reveal rice paddies. Sri Lanka is so green. The humidity encourages all the plants to grow and grow and they become overgrown and muddy as the palm fronds along the main road collect dust.

The traffic is ordered chaos. Buses screech to a halt, pick up one or two saronged people  and start with a cough and a splutter of diesel. Cars navigate this at a reasonable speed and always remain in a state of overtaking, so that when they get a clear shot, they speed up and swerve in front. Add tuktuks to the mix, bleeping and coming up on the inside, you get all the threads necessary for a braid, decorating the countryside.

We stopped for lunch at a roadside restaurant that put on Western pop songs, just for us. Their menu boasted submarines and steak and fries, but we were mostly interested in trying some Sri Lankan cuisine. We had rice and curry, dhal, eggplant, potatoes, an array of delicious sides and fresh rice, and prayed that we would not get sick. Although the saying goes that hunger makes the best sauce, I disagree- Sri Lankan chicken curry is pretty good too.

Our driver recommended a few stops on the way to our hotel in Kandy. Snidely and I were yearning for a unique and authentic experience that shows ‘the real Sri Lanka’, but I guess all tourists are after that as well. We chose not to ride the elephants, or smell the herbs and spices factory, or see the silk factory. We elected to wander Kandy so onward we went.

Kandy is loud. Kandy is a mess of everflowing cars and trucks and tuktuks and this is the single most intimidating thing about Kandy. The street vendors are particularly intimidating too. Like hungry hyenas they encircle and follow you, with a handful of fridge magnets or popcorn.

The streets are a mixture of dusty shopfronts, secret alleyways and colonial architecture. There’s not a lot to lure a tourist, and yet foreigners are called and waved inside (for a toaster or a wedding photography package or something?).

We agreed to a cultural dance in the evening. Only an hour of sitting in a hall that was filled with seats and busloads of us. The performers showcased dances from the local surrounds, some representing demons, others representing peacocks. The program outlined that many of these dances were traditionally performed at festivals or in rural settings. Bright, colourful acrobatics, the tinkle of ankle rings, shells and the twang of drums. We skipped the firedancing, however. We didn’t want to watch a spectacle put on just for us.

Our driver took us to see the Buddha’s Tooth Relic. This Buddhist temple sits beside the lake and is much more peaceful in the cool of the evening without the blare of traffic. We followed pilgrims through decorated tunnels, around pagodas of incense and up the stairs to the relic. There’s a half hour wait on the queue to see the casket that holds the relic (noone can see the relic itself, or as legend goes, the alleged relic). Monks from overseas stood in line, pilgrims sat all in white on the floor and prayed, others brought in jasmine and lotus blossoms as tribute. There was a lot of hustle and bustle to see the casket through three doors, so we chose to pay our respects and move on.

The bed and breakfast we stayed in was lovely. Out of the city, up on a hill, we had a panoramic view of the city lights. After such a long day, we collapsed. A beautiful hot shower and a soft mattress sent me right to sleep.

On first meeting: Marrakech

It’s late at night. Your taxi moves through a sea of people, there’s horses and motorbikes and people clogging the streets. The roads become passageways, it’s too tight for a car but your taxi competes against a mess of people and honks and blares. A handicapped woman hails, “taxi taxi” and you drive past her. Your driver mimics her voice under his breath, cursing that she only needs him when he is occupied, and can’t find a fare when he’s available. You look out the window at the chaos before you. He stops. Leaps out of the car and says: “too narrow”. He cannot drive any further. He has thrown you to the wolves.

Cake street, St Kilda, Melbourne

Acland Street is famous for it’s strip of cake shops and bakeries. Wandering past all the window displays makes you feel like a little kid again, mouth watering, nose pressed up against the glass. Some of the shops have been here since the 1930s and they’ve got a cult following. I guarantee you’ll find cakes here from your childhood. And they’ll taste perfect.

Clarence River, Grafton, Australia

Day Two

We went off-road in our 4WD and had access to sites deep within the national forest. Station Creek has twisting angopheras and hidden waterways where the water is electric blue.

We drove through bush to the beach, saw where the brolgas teach their young to fly, saw the blue bottles washed up with the tide. We drove through the sand.

We drove to a village that is only accessible via the beach, and the beach is only driveable at low tide. Only one permanent resident lives there, everyone else is a blow-in. There’s an adjacent caravan park too, but there’s not road to that. Swim, or bring your boat.