High on the Tibetan plateau, surrounded by soaring mountains, is the dusty little frontier town known as Shangri-La (or xiang-ge-li-la, as the Chinese call it). You may think that the name rings a bell, but you’re probably thinking of James Hilton’s Shangri-La, from the novel, Lost Horizon. In his famous novel, Shangri-La was the name of a utopian society somewhere in Asia. Since then, it has become a stand in for perfection. “My own Shangri-La,” you might say of a place that is impossibly beautiful.
The Chinese, always short on innovation and never ones to pass up an opportunity for intellectual property theft, came upon the staggeringly cynical idea of renaming a town called Zhongdian back in 2001. They called it “Shangri-La” and expected the tourist masses to come knocking on the door. Amazingly, they did. Or rather, as many as you could expect to trek way out into the middle of nowhere – because that’s precisely where you’ll find Shangri-La.
An Interrupted Bus Ride to Shangri-La
Getting to Shangri-La essentially requires travel from Lijiang, which itself is quite a remote place. It’s more than a day’s journey from Kunming, capital of Yunnan province, and Shangri-La is another four hours by bus from there. Along the way, expect to be accosted by police at road blocks. They come onto the bus, take your ID and process it. China is no Land of the Free, that’s for sure. On our little bus, one poor man’s ID was flagged and the police made him go for a urine test – which they announced to the whole bus. As I cursed the police state that caused these unnecessary delays and impinged upon human rights, the people of the bus began denouncing the poor guy. It didn’t matter that his test came back clean – to the people he was now labelled a drug addict and promptly shunned.
Just behind us, a little boy asked his dad what the hold up was. “The police are protecting us from bad people, son,” his dad explained. I seethed with anger. China has become the perfect police state as no one even cares that their freedoms are eroded. No one here knows about Tianamen Square… and if they did they’d probably tell you those stupid students got what was coming to them for questioning the wonderful government.
In any case, that was strike two against the bastards the seat behind… they’d already let their son piss on the floor and the puddle had very nearly doused my bag. Needless to say, I was keen to get as far from the tourists as possible.
When we arrived in Shangri-La it was a relief to get off the bus and find myself in what felt like a different country. The area is also known as the Diqin Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. It is geographically, culturally, ethnically, and even politically Tibetan, yet it is not part of the Chinese province (as it sadly is now known) of Tibet. Everything was different here and the awful Han Chinese acted very much as they were in a foreign land. There were fewer of them and more dark-skinned people in colourful clothes. There were probably almost as many visitors from Europe as eastern China. Animals far outnumbered people, too, with yaks, goats, and boars roaming wild all over the land.
We hopped in a taxi to the Old Town (a well-preserved area of ancient and not-so-ancient buildings) and found our hostel for the night. We then proceeded to explore the Old Town on foot, taking in the Buddhist temple and the fascinating wooden architecture. Across the part of China, the various minority groups developed different but similar means of constructing buildings that are totally different from what you find elsewhere. In particular, we really liked the simple roofs with chunks of wood pinned down by large stones. They don’t look remotely watertight, but they certainly are different from anything I’ve ever seen.
We also took the chance to sample some local food, which was delicious. I wonder why I’ve never heard anything about Tibetan food before. It’s as good as anything else I’ve encountered in this part of the world.
In the evening, we sat at a bar window looking out on a square as a little old man in a cowboy hat began to dance. Soon he was joined by a few more people… then a few more… then more and more… At some point even I was in the middle of the square, dancing to Tibetan music with these oddly synchronized dance moves that all came from the cowboy. Everyone was looking to him. Old ladies in pink and blue Tibetan dresses appeared and joined in, yet even they looked to this ancient cowboy for inspiration. He whirled around with a cigarette in his mouth for two hours before the people began to disperse.
Hiking ShiKa Mountain
The next morning we set out towards ShiKaShan – the nearby mountain. We took a taxi there but when we arrived the guards told us that hiking wasn’t allowed and that we must take a cable car to the top. We angrily walked away, intending to sneak onto the mountain, but soon wandered through some nearby valleys and onto the NapaHai – a sea of grass and red flowers home to vast numbers of yaks. As we walked we experienced something that almost never happens in China – peace and quiet. There were no people anywhere. We had come to the edge of China, more or less. In the town there were tourists, but not many, and out here there was simply no one. Wild horses and great hairy yaks wandered about. At first they were frightening but then we realized that they are terrified of us. Big black wild pigs and goats also scuttled around. Streams poured down off the mountain snow and everything was peaceful.
On the walk home – across many miles of grassland – we saw something even rarer than peace in China. We saw a huge unbroken double rainbow stretched over the whole of Shangri-La. Truly, it was the rarest and most unimaginable thing we could have seen. In a light rain, we stood staring at it from the grass. An old man in a tractor chugged by with a massive smile on his face, pointing excitedly at the spectacle.
It was a perfect end to a perfect day, and indeed the end of our time in Shangri-La. The next morning we jumped on a smaller bus on a bumpier, steeper road heading for the very limits of this vast country – into and above the clouds and towards the borders with Tibet and Myanmar.
I love shooting wildlife. And by that, of course, I mean shooting them with a camera. Wherever I go, my camera is slung over my shoulder, waiting to be pointed at whatever animal comes my way. It’s been with me around Africa as I tracked lions, rhino, crocodiles, and hippos. It’s been with me in South and Southeast Asia as I went in search of leopards, komodo dragons, and elephants. And while in Scotland, it’s also served me well as last week I was incredibly fortunate in spotting a red fox chasing a rabbit through a field.
Around Scotland, you’ll often find deer in the forests and on the hills, but they’re sometimes difficult to see. At best, you can expect them to appear virtually on the horizon, and if you get any closer, they’ll bound off out of sight in a heartbeat. They are beautiful but very shy animals. I see a lot of them in my walks when back home in Scotland, but even the 42x optical zoom on my camera struggles to capture them adequately. However, yesterday I managed to get a closer experience.
I was out walking on my own over Lucklaw Hill when suddenly a small roe deer appeared in front of me. It was perhaps about fifty feet ahead. It clearly hadn’t noticed me, and when it turned away I stalked closer. I was able to shoot a few dozens photos, but as the light was poor, not many of them turned out well.
This was one of the best:
The next photo I took was a bit better, and captured the animal as I finally noticed me:
When finally it realized that I was a person and that it had better not hang about, it turned and ran up a steep hill, making an odd barking noise just once, and then disappeared into the trees.
For the past week and a half I have been back home in Scotland for a wee visit. It’s been three years since I was in Scotland during the summer, and I’ve been making the most of it by getting out on some long walks. Mostly those walks have been near my parents’ house, but I’ve also been to Maspie Den, near Falkland.
The scenery there is very pleasant, and includes the nearby Lomond Hills:
On my walks I’ve been fortunate enough to spot some interesting wildlife:
There have also been a few deer spottings but I have no good pictures as they’ve always been too far away. But the absolute highlight was a red fox I saw yesterday while out hiking with my younger brother.
Aside from Fife I also got over to Edinburgh for a catch-up with an old friend. We mostly spent our time in the bars so there aren’t an abundance of good photos to share. However, I liked this shot of Edinburgh castle behind a thistle.
On my ninth day in Sri Lanka, I set out from the Guillet Beach Homestay, heading for the Matara bus station. It was a long, dusty walk in a blazing hot sun, but I soon arrived and people pointed me to my bus. In Sri Lanka, people are usually shy but very, very helpful. Some old men told me I could get a bus directly to Hikkaduwa, but after asking a few of the bus drivers, it seemed I would have to change buses at Galle instead.
The ride along the coast was beautiful, and more than a few times I regretted taking the bus straight to Hikkaduwa, thinking instead that I should stop off at the little fishing villages and port towns along the way. But it was a relatively short hop from one place to the next, and I knew I could always take a bus back down the coast if Hikkaduwa proved to be unpleasant.
First Day in Hikkaduwa
After a brief stop in Galle, I arrived in Hikkaduwa and made my way to my next accommodation – Chami’s Place. It’s a small hostel in the middle of town, near the railway tracks, which had high scores on all the booking sites. I tried to check in but there was some confusion. The staff were incredibly friendly, and eventually I ended up sleeping in the shared staff room with an English bargirl and two Sri Lankan kitchen porters.
I set out to explore the town, walking up and down the beach and the main road that cut through the middle of Hikkaduwa. Oddly, everywhere I went there were Russian people and signs all in Russian. Big fat, classless, red Russian men and busty Russian women crowded the beaches at certain places. I’d seen this throughout Southeast Asia – they all tend to visit the same one destination in a country or province, and there congregate at the one or two restaurants or bars tailored to Russian customers. These places are, generally, well-worth avoiding.
Walking south, making my way between the sea and a wall, I was hit by a huge freak wave and totally soaked. Actually, the wave only got the bottom of my shorts, but it hit the wall and exploded back, covering me quite literally from head to toe in salty water. Thankfully, my camera was in a somewhat waterproof bag, and I was able to yank my phone from my pocket and add it to the camera bag before the water soaked through. But otherwise, I was drenched.
I hobbled to a nearby bar and sat drinking the local beer until I’d dried out sufficiently to walk back home. In the evening I ventured out and explored the nightlife a little, delighted to find that here in Hikkaduwa, there was no shortage of alcohol, unlike all the other towns I’d visited on my journey. It was a tad pricy, but it was plentiful, and that’s all that mattered.
Snorkelling on Hikkaduwa Reef
When I awoke in the morning, I was completely covered in mosquito bites. It had been a bad night’s sleep anyway, as the staff had woken me up inadvertently when they finished their shifts at the bar, but also there had been a swarm of mozzies chewing away at my flesh for some seven hours. Annoyingly, there was a mosquito net over my bed, but when I went to sleep I really didn’t think there were any mozzies in the room, and it seemed so unnecessary that I hadn’t bothered unravelling it.
I checked out and walked to the nearest ATM that would accept my Chinese bank card, and withdrew more money. I wasn’t sure if I’d need it, but on holiday it’s best not to worry about these things. Then I hiked down the road a kilometer to my new accommodation – Surfing Beach Hotel. This was a little guesthouse on a beach that has grown very popular with surfers due to its huge waves. I checked in and was greeted by a big, friendly shirtless man. He only had two or three misshapen teeth, and his brown belly protruded enormously. He bore more than a passing resemblance to a walrus. He showed me to my room – an old, utterly filthy place where I knew I couldn’t spend more than one night. I actually enjoy bad hotels because they have so much character, and I love travelling around places like Vietnam and Cambodia and Laos seeing the old French colonial buildings that haven’t been cleaned since the fifties, yet somehow maintain their antique charm. This place really lacked any such redeeming qualities. I noted the following in my travel journal after arriving:
An unsteady ceiling fan circulates warm air in a dingy, dirty hotel room. Two small beds have been placed side-by-side and advertised as a double. The walls are thinly painted and plaster seals big cracks in the concrete. Makeshift metal and plastic and scrap-wood furniture litters the room haphazardly. Everything is brown and yellow with dirt. The towels and bedsheets are the only items that seem to have been washed, and even then not thoroughly… and they are riddled with holes. The ancient windows are hard to open, and look out on construction work in the next door building, spilling dust into the room. The bathroom… you don’t even want to know about the bathroom.
After checking in, I immediately set out to find the next day’s accommodation so that I wouldn’t have to worry about being stuck at Surfing Beach Hotel any longer than necessary. Fortunately, I did, only three hundred meters down the road at Sunny’s Guest House. It was a far superior room.
In the afternoon, I went snorkeling on the Hikkaduwa coral reef. This required a long walk up the beach because the seas were too choppy at Surfing Beach. At barely more than ankle depth there were already large fish swimming around, and by the time I was knee-deep, I was surrounded with brightly-coloured sea life. Sadly, however, all the coral was more or less dead. But that is true for most of the world and in a few years we’ll be lucky if there’s anything left anywhere on this doomed planet.
I swam about in the warm waters, but it was a little difficult. No matter where you go, the waves are strong and the tides push and pull you. When hovering over coral, that’s less than ideal. I didn’t want to damage the coral, and I certainly did want the coral to damage me. I spent two hours swimming around, and saw a whip-tailed stingray and some other interesting life. However, at a certain point the waves were churning up so much sand that visibility was terrible. I wanted to swim out and find sharks or other large animals, but I knew I would never see them.
Despite the poor visibility, however, I managed to spot a few large turtles grazing on sea grass. It was difficult to get any useable photos, even though they were docile enough to swim beside me for a good twenty minutes.
Lots of fish
Snorkelling Hikkaduwa Reef
Snorkelling Hikkaduwa Reef
I went out snorkeling again the following day, with the same results – some interesting fish but an overall unsatisfactory experience due to the poor visibility. I saw more turtles and stingrays, but I couldn’t enjoy it while being thrown about on the waves, coming perilously close to being ripped apart on the corals.
Whale Watching from Mirissa
At 5am on the twelfth day of my trip, I was picked up by a tuk-tuk driver outside Sunny’s and driven south to Mirissa. It was a long, cold ride and again I had to wear my winter clothes that I’d brought over from China. It was just getting light as we arrived at the harbor and I was shepherded onto a boat with lots of people of various nationalities, including many Chinese – who were already hiding beneath giant sun hats. As we departed around 7am, the guide informed us that they’d seen blue whales on the previous thirteen consecutive days, so we had “a 90% chance” of seeing one today.
I was excited as the boat chugged out of the harbor and into the Indian Ocean. I’d wanted to see a blue whale for as long as I could remember. Of all the amazing animals I’ve had the privilege of seeing in my life, no whale was among them. I snuck up to the bow and stood there for the entire journey, being hit in the face by waves every minute or so. The seas were typically choppy and people were being violently sick back inside the boat. I was determined to keep my eyes fixed on the waters to get that first glimpse of a whale… but also I knew that looking out at the sea would prevent me, too, from getting seasick.
It was after about an hour when the call went out. One of the guides on the boat had spotted a water spout and, although it took a while for my eyes to pick between waves and waterspouts, I also found it. I couldn’t tell you the distance as I’m not familiar with doing such things at sea, but it wasn’t terribly far away. A dark shape would emerge briefly from the water and a huge white explosion of water would dissipate in the air, and then nothing as it slipped quietly back under. This happened several times before the grand finale as it raised its mighty tail up into the sky and then went down into the deep.
A great roar went up from the deck of the boat as we saw very clearly that iconic image of a whale’s tail above the surface of the water. Of course, I had my camera, but I was too mesmerized by what I saw to even bother taking it from its bag. I just stared stupidly at the ocean, where the whale had been.
This happened again and again. Incredibly, we saw the whale (or other whales – I don’t really know) six or seven times. Sometimes we’d just see a tiny flicker of a tail as it suck down into the ocean, and sometimes its tail would seem to hang there in the sky between huge waves, lingering before it disappeared. The image was burned into my consciousness, but although I eventually pulled my camera out and started shooting (which wasn’t easy with the giant waves and rocking of the boat) I never did get a good picture.
On the way back to harbor, we passed a whale shark. I’ve wanted to see one of these animals for many years, and been to many places where I expected to see one, but this was the first time I had. From a distance all we could see was a seemingly black fin protruding above the surface, very much like an orca, but as we got close we could see the unmistakable colours and pattern – the pink and purple and blue of its mighty back. This would have probably been a more forgettable experience had we not just seen a blue whale – one of only a handful of creatures from the entire history of this planet that could dwarf a giant whale shark! Again, although I could see the animal clearly, I could not get a single decent photograph. And, again, I didn’t care. My apologies to readers of this blog for not better illustrating what I saw, but on personally level I was just delighted to see these amazing animals. I will make sure to get better photos next time.
Then, as we approached the harbor, another cry went out. What was it this time – an orca, a dolphin, another whale or whale shark?
It was something else that I had never seen before – two large sea turtles mating. I’ve seen more than 100 sea turtles in this past year alone, but never have I seen them copulating. The boat drifted alongside them as they awkwardly propagated their species, before eventually the dozens of voyeurs made them uncomfortable enough to stop, and they went their separate ways off into the dark waters.
Final Days in Hikkaduwa
Later that day, as I sat having lunch, I met a middle-aged English man whom I’d encountered the previous day. He had a strong accent and kept referring to the country as “Sreeee Lankaaaar,” and told me he’d been coming here every year since 1992. In fact, he wouldn’t shut up – a common trait among bored alcoholics who spend their holidays in Asia.
After that annoying lunch, I went out snorkeling on Surfing Beach. It was to be a stupid mistake that put an end to my snorkeling for the holiday. I quickly realized as I got into the water that I was being pulled out to sea, albeit not very fast. I had been caught in a riptide in Mozambique a year before, and this was not as terrifying, but it was disconcerting. The tide pulled me out some distance and then seemed to more or less stop. However, when I tried to swim back to shore, I couldn’t. I tried not to panic, and instead made a continual effort to get back to shore, but it was futile. The more I tried, the more I became exhausted.
Eventually, looking at the surfers and trying to figure it out logically, I came to the conclusion that I should use the waves to get back and save my strength. However, the waves seemed to pull me almost as far as far as they pushed me, and soon they were holding me under water to almost the limit of my lungs, and I began to fear that I would drown. As things began to get dangerous, a huge wave caught me and threw me deep under water, ripping my snorkel and mask off my face, though at the time I barely noticed. Fortunately, my GoPro was tied to my wrist and impossible to lose.
With a great deal of effort, I managed to get myself back to the beach and collapsed on the sand. I was angry with myself for having gone snorkeling somewhere that I knew was not suitable, and annoyed that I had lost my snorkel gear – which I’d only used three times since buying. I had another day and a half in Sri Lanka, but my snorkeling time had drawn to a violent end.
Leaving Sri Lanka
Instead of snorkeling for my last few days at Hikkaduwa, I drank beer on the beach, read Ernest Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream, watched the surfers, and saw the sunset over the Indian Ocean for the final time.
Snorkelling had been a big part of my plan for the holiday, but even without the unfortunate end to that, conditions had not been ideal. I was probably not going to see my shark. And besides, I could not complain about a lack of exciting wildlife. I had seen a blue whale and a whale shark! I was never going to get better than that.
Reflecting upon my time in Sri Lanka, I concluded that it had been a thoroughly successful holiday. Most importantly, after a long and tiring semester’s teaching, not to mention numerous writing and editing projects on the side, I had managed to relax and avoid doing anything resembling work. I had seen a new country, eaten new food, met lots of new people, experienced a new culture, gotten out into nature, done lots of hiking, taken some great photos, seen leopards, elephants, crocodiles, whales, and whale sharks.
In Ella, a local man had warned me not to visit Yala National Park, as he claimed it was too hard to see any animals. He recommended, instead, that I go to Udawalawe, where he said I’d be more likely to see elephants. I told him that I’d heard Yala was famous for leopards and he practically laughed in my face. “Nobody ever sees leopards,” he said.
I didn’t have any internet access during my time in Ella, so I couldn’t verify his claims, and had to make the difficult decision on instinct. I sat on the veranda at the wonderful Isuru Homestay, pondering my decision in the cold light of morning. One of the strange things about inland Sri Lanka is the startling difference in temperature between day and night. In the daytime it can be swelteringly hot, yet at night it genuinely quite cold. Come morning, I found myself grateful for the few winter clothes I’d worn on my way out of China. However, as the sun rose in the sky, it seemed as though my feet were in the tropics and my head was thousands of miles away. By ten o’clock, though, it gets truly tropical, and my wooly hat was back in the backpack.
I sat eating another massive, delicious breakfast while I pondered my conundrum, and even threw in a few extra notions – to visit Horton? Adam’s Peak? to head north or even over to the comparatively quiet eastern coast? With little information to go on, I decided to stick with my initial plan and see Yala National Park. In Africa the previous year, my luck in seeing animals was strong, and I felt that it might hold over. Despite the warning, I felt an irrational confidence that I would see a leopard once again.
From Ella to Katharagama
I bid farewell to my delightful hosts at Isuru and set off on a long, hot walk down the road to Ella, regretting that I’d spent so long thinking about where to go, instead of leaving early before the sun had risen so high. Then I stood and waited for long time at a ramshackle bus stop with a mix of foreigners and locals as various buses passed by on their way south. Everyone, it seemed, was heading to the coast except for me. Bus after bus passed by and told me that there weren’t going my way, ‘til eventually one headed for Matara picked me up and told me I could get off at Weerawila, and from there transfer to Katharagama, near the entrance to Yala.
The journey down through Ella Pass (or Ella Gap) was frightening, as the bus took corners at a ridiculous speed. People were thrown about inside the overcrowded vehicle, and I tried to hold on to my bag as well as the seat in front of me. People were tossed about like ragdolls and music blared from the speakers of the old, brightly painted bus, dulling the sound of the engine and brakes.
After a wild ride down the mountain, I got off at Weerawila and took a tuk-tuk to Katharagama instead of waiting for the much cheaper local bus. It cost 1,100, which is about ten times the price of the bus, but of course was faster and more convenient. It was also a lot more comfortable than being jammed in an overcrowded vehicle with my bags on my lap. We meandered through scenic countryside to the small town of Katharagama, which seemed a haphazard collection of little houses and temples and restaurants. My driver had no idea where to go, nor any sense of direction, but together we found our way to my next accommodation: Katharagama Homestay.
I was pleased to see that this little house was exactly like the other houses on the street – an authentic slice of Sri Lankan life. An old woman directed me to sit in a low-slung leather chair outside a concrete building as she finished sweeping indoors and brought me a pot of ginger tea. Later, a handsome young man who spoke impeccable English introduced himself and showed me around the small property. As we spoke, a huge monitor lizard sidled up to us. It seemed unaware of our presence, instead engaged in its hunt for grubs among the plants. In the trees above, some strange half-monkey, half-squirrel animals played noisily, and colourful birds flitted about between the branches.
I spent the late afternoon walking around the nearby area as the sun fell. The dusty streets filled with children playing cricket soon gave way to open expanses of rice paddies, and to the south there was a small lake filled with cranes and, according to the signs, crocodiles. I didn’t see any crocs, but you seldom do until they’re grabbing hold of your leg and pulling you into the water. Everywhere I went there were huge peacocks showing off their tail-feathers and crying loudly. I shot some photos of the sunset and then walked through the town until I found a friendly little restaurant to have dinner. Again, it was curry and rice – the local staple. There seemed to be very few foreigners around, and I felt this was a closer view of real Sri Lanka than Kandy or Ella.
At 05:30 I was met by two young men in a big open-sided jeep. They said very little as we set of through the cold, dark morning towards Yala National Park. I was a little apprehensive as we arrived and they had said nothing to me. The tour was rather expensive compared to those I’d taken in South Africa, and yet the guides didn’t even seem to speak English. Instead, they spoke to each other in the cab as I sat in the back, anxious that this may prove to be a massive waste of time.
The sun edged over the horizon as we entered the park and began to slowly drive around, looking for animals. There weren’t many other vehicles and I had mine to myself, having paid for a private tour. At first we saw a few interesting birds – bee-eaters, kingfishers, Brahminy kites, and serpent eagles – as well as some deer and wild boar. However, the guides didn’t seem to notice everything we passed, nor did they know the names of every animal. They certainly didn’t tell me much about the animals they did spot, as had been the case anywhere in Africa.
Still, there was plenty to see. Soon we passed a whole family of elephants, lots of crocodiles lazing in or by the water, dozens of mongooses (mongeese?), and more. The park itself was quite beautiful to see, and with so few vehicles on the roads it was very peaceful.
At 09:00 we stopped for breakfast by a long beach and once again I was presented with a veritable feast. Sri Lankan breakfasts were really impressing me. There were rotis, hoppers, and fruits. As we ate, I spoke to the one guide who spoke some English, and he told me he was training for the job but that he was embarrassed by his poor language skills. He seemed a nice guy, and he was obviously doing his best to improve his abilities, so I decided to put a bit more faith in him as the day went on.
We continued onwards, seeing elephants and other animals quite close, and stopped for lunch at 14:30, beside a little river. After eating, I climbed a tree and sat on a thick, white-barked branch hanging over the river. As I sat, I watched three macaques climb down from another tree and enter the jeep. I’d left my bag sitting open, with my camera charging on top of it. It was also filled with other somewhat valuable items. Thankfully, the monkeys delicately placed my camera and charger on a seat, reached into the bag passed all the valuables, and extracted only my iPhone charger. They then shot up the tree to the very highest branches and wrapped the cable around the top. Talk about cheeky monkeys…
It took ten minutes of throwing rocks and sticks to knock the charger down, but soon we were off again for the last section of the tour. By now we had seen everything except a leopard, and although I knew the late afternoon was a good time for leopard spotting (pun intended), I was no longer hopeful. I felt that the early morning had been our best chance. We continued to see more elephants and crocodiles, including a very close encounter with a young female elephant who decided she was unimpressed with our proximity to her family group.
Finally, as we headed towards the exit in the dying light, a very large leopard strolled casually in front of the jeep. It stopped for a moment and stared at us, then moved to the side of the road, where it stalked closer. It marked its territory, watched us again for a few seconds, and then disappeared into the bushes. It was an incredibly fortunate sighting – a completely clear viewing of an adult leopard. The guides phoned in the sighting and soon a half dozen jeeps sat around, with long lens pointing everywhere, but no one managed to catch a glimpse of the usually elusive animal.
Later, as we again headed for the exit, another car found another leopard, and my guides took off at alarmingly high speed towards the location. Here, we could see another leopard hiding in the buses. It was impossible to get a good photo, but the piercing green eyes in the darkness left a deep impression upon me. Moreover, this typical sighting – of a well-camouflaged animal hunkered down behind the vegetation – reinforced just how lucky I’d been. It was now six o’clock and the guides were eager to go. Yet as darkness fell, animals kept presenting themselves, and the drive home was filled with closer encounters with elephants.
Back at the homestay, the old lady cooked me a delicious dinner, and I sat and reflected upon my luck. My early anxiety about the quality of the tour had proven ill-founded. Instead, I was presented with another amazing safari experience, getting close to some of the most incredible animals on the planet. Regardless of what came next during my time in Sri Lanka, this day had made it all worthwhile.
After a long, pleasant boat ride across a large chunk of the Indonesian archipelago, our little gulet boat arrived at the island of Komodo, tucked between Sumbawa and Flores. Komodo National Park is comprised of Komodo, Rinca, Padar, and perhaps 26 smaller islands, and is home to a tremendous diversity of wildlife both on land and below the water. It was established in 1980 to protect the Komodo dragon – the world’s largest lizard – but has since expanded to offer protection over the magnificent surrounding seas and their bountiful life.
It was early in the morning, after a night bobbing on the tranquil seas nearby, when our vessel made its move for the port at Komodo Island. While the other passengers were asleep, I stood on the bow, as usual, and watched dolphins jump from the still waters as we moved closer to what seemed a deserted island except for a tiny, mist-enveloped cluster of buildings. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but at this point in the journey it almost didn’t matter. The dragons had been the main lure of the trip. They were something I’d always wanted to see, and really for me the whole point of getting on the boat in the first place. Yet, after four days at sea, I was so happy with the experiences I’d had, the people I’d met, and the photos I’d taken, that I almost didn’t mind if we saw a Komodo dragon… The manta rays alone had made the journey worthwhile.
When we got to the dock, I jumped off and waited anxiously for the others to get ready. I paced back and forward, talking to the fishermen and watching the sea snakes dart among their boats, not allowed yet to enter the park. At the end of the long pier there was a large gate, and I felt like I was standing outside Jurassic Park… In a way, I was. It’s certainly as close to Jurassic Park as you’ll find anywhere on earth. But perhaps that’s my personal bias. I always loved that movie. A better comparison is King Kong, which was actually inspired by the first Western voyage to Komodo.
After what seemed like an eternity standing on the pier, looking at the vast island, we were on our way and soon being introduced to three guides who would take us to look for these incredible animals and, of course, protect us from them. We were warned not to expect to see many of the great lizards because, although they are a very well-protected species, they are naturally quite sparsely populated due to their cannibalistic tendencies. These bizarre, atavistic monsters – essentially just living dinosaurs – are not only vicious killers of any other animal stupid enough to get in their way, but they’ll actually feast on each other quite regularly, ensuring a very steady population. (It’s been at around 3,000 for a while now.) They also have a taste for human flesh, but thankfully they mostly save their appetite for Swiss tourists.
Despite the warnings of their rarity, we saw six dragons on Komodo during a short walk, and later, on Rinca, another eight. Of course, the first sighting was the most exciting. I stuck by the guide and managed to get within ten feet of the animal, snapping numerous photos of his phenomenal, ancient-seeming head and claws. Despite the guide’s warning that they could explode into action with a terrible speed and ferocity, it mostly just sat in view of the tourist group, seeming perhaps a little irritated but mostly uninterested by our presence. When he eventually got up and moved on his way, the lumbering giant did move faster than one would imagine, and the guides were quick to insert themselves between the animal and their tour group.
As we continued on, we saw more dragons. Mostly they were male, but there were a few females. You can tell only by the width and length of the neck – females have longer, more slender necks. Or, as the guide said, “They have very sexy bodies.” Sexy or not, they certainly were a sight to behold. Near the shore on Komodo and near the staff huts on Rinca, the Komodos clustered in small groups of giant males. They lay about, completely disinterested in the people because of the heat. Surprisingly, the also seemed not to acknowledge each other. The guides explained that Komodos are completely solitary. That’s probably not a bad idea when you’re a cannibal species. The young spend the first five years in the trees, venturing down only to grab a quick drink, or else they’d be dinner for the elders.
Although I’m not a fan of group travel, and the National Park portion of the trip was a little too organized for my tastes, it was incredible to see these wonderful creatures as they lumbered about with the dinosaur gait they’ve had since before humans even learned to stand up straight. I find it an incredible privilege to get up close to any large animal in this overcrowded modern world. Although the Komodo treks did not take me back in time to a world of distant memory as I’d hoped, they nonetheless capped off an incredible trip through a stunningly beautiful part of the world. By the time our boat was pulling into port at Labuan Bajo, I felt a great affinity for Indonesia. Moreover, I was very impressed with how the government of this great nation had kept the Exxons and BPs of the world at bay and managed to preserve a large chunk of the country, maintaining its fabulous eco-diversity in a world that has little tolerance for natural beauty.
I went to Lao to see the incredibly rare Irrawaddy Dolphins and yet in the end I had to leave the country before I was able to catch a glimpse of the bizarre purple mammal. The Irrawaddy Dolphin is distributed in discontinuous populations throughout South and Southeast Asia, with the Mekong having one of the larger and more accessible populations. Some viewing can be done above the border, in Lao, just near Si Phan Don. But the best viewing is in Cambodia, north of the town of Kratie (pronounced kra-chay).
I woke early and headed for Don Det’s north beach, which serves as the island’s port, and waited around for half an hour with a group of travellers until the boats were ready. It was only the first of many irritating periods of waiting that day. The next would come on the other side of the river, on the mainland, when we had an hour and a half to wait for the bus to the border. Of course, this is perfectly normal in Lao. It is incredibly rare for a vehicle to leave or arrive on time, and there is, of course, never an honest explanation given. The journey from Don Det to Kratie took some eight hours, and yet there was only about three hours of actual travel time.
So it goes in places like this. I spent the past winter in Africa, where everything moves at a leisurely pace. But at least there they have the decency to say, “We’ll leave eventually. There’s no rush, man.” In Southeast Asia they’ll always try to bullshit you.
Despite the extended periods of unnecessary waiting, and being ripped off at the border by corrupt officials, the journey went largely as expected, and I alighted from the bus at 4pm on the scenic riverside of Kratie. Once again, I was standing on the eastern bank of the mighty Mekong. The nearest hotel was Oudom Sambath, and I checked in for $7 per night. I knew I could’ve gotten a better deal someplace else, but sometimes you have to wonder whether it’s worth it for what would’ve ended up being only a dollar or two.
I love hotels in Southeast Asia. Outside you so often have a French Colonial exterior, and inside there are remains of the original building – ornate windy staircases and intricate cornices – but then of course it’s also fused with the local flavour, and all too often left into a state of total dilapidation. The rooms are invariably dingy and unclean, yet with just a faint reminder of former grandeur.
I woke up at six o’clock without an alarm and headed down to the lobby to negotiate the hiring of a motorcycle for the day. I managed to rent a Honda Dream for $7 and soon I was flying up the road towards Kampi – the little village where the locals thrive on dolphin tourism. It felt exhilarating to be back on a bike again. Between 2013-14 I lived in Cambodia and rode my motorcycle all over the south of the country. By that point I’d been riding motorcycles for seven years across countless countries. You see, I have a major addiction to these machines, and the only reason I don’t ride them anymore is the fear that perhaps I like them too much… There is no greater thrill than pulling back the throttle and bolting along the road, overtaking trucks and dodging cows, potholes, and the like.
I rode a bike last year for a few nights in Thailand, but I was on a small island and I hardly had any use for it. I would just take it out after a few beers and feel the chill night air rush by, taking dark corners and blind hills with the confidence that comes from being on holiday in a strange land, feeling invincible. Here, though, on the banks of the Mekong River, I started off slowly. I had a lot of road ahead of me and after a few kilometres just getting a feel for the bike, I opened it up and started to enjoy myself. Periodically I would slow and take in some of the sights, but the experience of the bike itself was enough to keep me entertained. Roads in Cambodia are notoriously dangerous. Where do you even start in describing the dangers – the dry dust and the wet mud are equally fatal; the drunk drivers, the herds of cows wandering unchecked; the children and adults alike sauntering into the streets; giant potholes and bridges with slats rotted through… I could go on. When I lived here, I’d hear nearly every week of someone who’d died on these roads. Yet a mix of caution and confidence makes these stretches not only rideable, but fun.
Fifteen kilometres north of Kratie I found the dolphin boat dock. It was not signposted, nor did it make itself at all visible. There was only a large empty parking area, which attracted my attention, and then a small stone dolphin. Once inside, I had to ask around, but was eventually pointed to a man in a little yellow boat. He didn’t speak a word of English except for “hello,” which was used every time he wanted me to do something. His long boat was painted bright yellow, with the number eleven painted on the front. I gathered that in the high season, or perhaps even later in the day, there were enough tourists to fill at least that many boats. For now, though, it was just me. I had come early because I figured that’s when it would be best to see the dolphins – on a tranquil river without other boats.
We puttered out onto the river and headed north for forty-five minutes against the fast flow of the water. It was an overcast day, but beautiful in its way. Ominous clouds hung over the trees on either side. We saw men fishing with large woven baskets. The river seemed high – I suppose this is wet season, after all – and there were seemingly tall trees only just sticking out above the water level. The fishermen used these to anchor their boats or baskets.
Eventually my boatman pointed and shouted “Hello!” which I took to mean there was a dolphin. Indeed, as I stood and steadied myself, I saw a large purple shape briefly protrude above the water’s surface and then slip back into the thick brown water. I hurriedly snapped some photos, but fortunately the dolphins – I believe there were three or more – stuck around for several minutes. The boatman said “hello” again and waved me to the back of the boat, from where I could see clearly. These odd alien creatures took turns breaching and making snorting sounds, then disappearing. Unlike their oceanic cousins, the Irrawaddy Dolphins are shy and don’t seem at all playful. They look more like small, purple Orcas with their bulbous protruding foreheads than dolphins. Sadly, these weird and ethereally beautiful animals are endangered and badly in need of protection. I felt privileged to have seen them in their natural habitat before it is too late.
The boatman seemed content that he had successfully delivered a dolphin – actually, at least three of them – and took me quickly back to shore. It was still early and I had achieved my goal for the day.
So what next?
I point the bike north and continued up along the eastern bank of the river, mostly going slow and admiring the beautiful wooden homes on high stilts, sometimes painted blue, and always in a flurry of activity. Kids, chickens, old women, and cows came and went freely, though all careful to keep out of the rising sun. As I headed north, the roads became quieter and yet more treacherous, in their own way. Though hardly perilous, the thick, wet mud made it a challenge to keep the bike upright, and made the going slow. On several occasions I had to support myself with my feet just to keep from falling over, and my legs were covered with mud up to the knee. I never strayed from the road, yet it was at times very much like off-road biking.
Sometimes, though, I was able to unleash the power of the little bike and whip up the road with the wind in my face, causing streaks of tears beneath my sunglasses, which dried in an instant. There were great big dragonflies in the air and periodically they smacked into my face. Once one got stuck under my sunglasses and nearly blinded me for a moment, and elsewhere, when going fast enough, one crashed into my head just beneath the helmet, and left an small, dark bruise.
I passed through small villages and towns and eventually came to Sambour, where I took some backstreets and ended up at a small temple, called Vihea Kaok. There was a mighty tree stretching in all directions, giving much needed shade to weary monks retiring from the heat. Many child monks were practicing in a building nearby, and a huge golden Buddha sat upright in the main temple building. I moved on quickly, finding another temple – this one evidently more important than the first. Whereas Vihea Kaok was sleepy, this temple was positively buzzing with activity. This was the “100 Pillar Temple,” so-called because there were many pillars holding the building up. A swarm of children begged me for money but quickly gave up and fought each other over a coconut.
I had an early lunch at a street-side restaurant near the temple, where, miraculously, the proprietor spoke enough English to take my order, and then I took off once again, heading further north. The road continued endlessly along the bank of the Mekong. Sometimes it was possible to ride fast, and at other times it would’ve been suicide. Sometimes there were just empty fields or trees, and sometimes more houses on stilts. Always, though, the big brown river to my left, the red road underneath me, the blue sky above, and dark green to my right.
I began to feel the sun had taken its toll on me and, at a random bridge – just one of many I’d crossed that day – I turned and headed back. The thought struck me to put my GoPro on my helmet and film the ride. It had been pleasant – scenic, even – on the way up. I stuck the camera on my head and took off back down the road. Halfway down, I realized it was pointing up at the sky, and then it flopped down and filmed my forehead for a while, but eventually I got it filming straight ahead. Driving in Asia has become so normal for me in some ways. I wonder if in 50 yrs I’ll look back at the insanity and laugh…
My ride came to an end when I pushed the bike too hard on an empty tank and it sputtered and died on another rickety bridge. I was able to roll it off and then push it to a nearby shop, where an old woman sold me a litre of petrol. The bike still wouldn’t start easily, and I had to kickstart it into action.
I intended to go all the way back to the hotel without stopping, but I spotted an interesting pagoda – Sombok Pagoda – on the only hill for miles around, and had to stop and take a look. I brought my bike to the bottom of a flight of about a hundred stairs and climbed very slowly to the temple. It was eerily quiet – or at least it was eerie until I spotted a sign that said this was a place of silent meditation. In any case, there were no people around. I wandered about and climbed yet another two flights of stairs to the very highest point for many miles around – a small pagoda with a few stone buddhas littered about. The view was obscured by trees growing from the hillside, but through their branches you can see for miles over the flat lands surrounding Kratie, and across the vast Mekong.
After the pagoda, I finally returned to my bike and gently encouraged it back to town. It limped and whined and eventually rolled up onto the pavement outside Oudom Sambath, completely empty of petrol and encased in solidified mud. I had dinner at Red Sun Falling and then watched the sunset from the roof of Silver Dolphin.