Posted in travel

Beaches, Animals, and Mountains: Why Sri Lanka is the Greatest

I love Sri Lanka. It is absolutely one of my favourite countries. Back in January, 2017 I spent two weeks travelling around the south of the country and had such a great time that after my long journey through India, I thought I’d pop back over for another visit, this time bringing my girlfriend, Vera.

We arrived separately in Colombo and stayed at the beautiful Canes Boutique Hotel. After more than a month of hostels and cheap guest houses, it was pure luxury. I had some time to kill before Vera’s flight arrived, so I spent a day exploring Colombo by myself. I had totally dismissed it during my first visit, but it was actually quite a nice city – though it indeed doesn’t offer much more than a day’s worth of sightseeing.

Colombo Waterfront

The next morning, we headed south to the beach town of Unawatuna. On my previous visit to Sri Lanka, I’d taken the bus from place to place. It is outrageously cheap and, honestly, it was quite fun. However, this time we had time-constraints and so opted for taxis.

At Unawatuna, we spent two days exploring the beaches, finding that Jungle Beach was far superior to the main Unawatuna Beach. It was pleasant for swimming and snorkelling, whereas the main beach (as with almost everywhere else in Sri Lanka) was quite choppy. While swimming, we were lucky to see a number of small sharks enter the bay and scare the hell out of the Russians who were swimming there.

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Unawatuna Beach

Nursing some minor sunburn, we opted to move on from Unawatuna to our next destination – Yala National Park. Actually, we were heading to the nearby town of Katharagama, which is a pleasant little place right by the entrance to the park. We took another taxi, this time driving for four hours across a big chunk of the country. It was a beautiful drive, though.

In Katharagama, we went to the Katharagama Homestay, where I’d stayed last year. The owners are really friendly and the room is very clean. I had no qualms about going back again, and would definitely recommend it to anyone visiting the area. We explored the town for one evening:

The following morning, we set off to explore Yala National Park. Not long into our safari, we had a very, very close encounter with a leopard:

Of course, there were numerous other incredible animals in the park:

After Yala, we took another taxi north to the little town of Ella, where we spent a couple of days walking around the hills on the train tracks. The town itself isn’t much, but the surrounding mountains are beautiful.

Finally, we spent a day in Kandy on our way back to the airport at Colombo. We explored the forest park and the lake, and walked about the bustling little city.

Finally, our time came to an end. We hopped in one last taxi for the ride to Colombo airport and journey back to China, stopping off for a day in the southern city of Guangzhou.

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Posted in travel

On the Tiger Trail – Periyar National Park

From Munnar, I took yet another overcrowded bus on an unnecessarily long journey south to the town that is known as both Kumily and Thekkedy. All across India, I had encountered towns with multiple spellings or pronunciations, and even ones with names so difficult that they were normally just abbreviated (like Tiruchchirappali, which is thankfully just known as Trichy), but here at the gate to Periyar Tiger Reserve, two names are given for the one little town.

Kumily, as I shall call it, is a tiny little town comprised of gift shops, tour guide offices, and hotels. Pretty much all private residences also function as homestays, and anyone not employed in the above places drives a rickshaw for a living. The reason is simple – Periyar Tiger Reserve, which is located right on the edge of town, is a huge draw for tourists across India and abroad. Although your chances of actually seeing a tiger here about as great as the likelihood of seeing the Dalai Lama while wandering through the Himalayas, people nonetheless flock to this little national park that straddles the border between the states of Kerala and Tamil-Nadu. With a population of around forty tigers, as well as some one thousand elephants, it is certainly the region’s premiere destination for viewing wildlife.

I arrived and walked about two kilometers to my homestay – a nice little house on the edge of the forest, run by a polite elderly couple. From the offset they seemed utterly determined to help me enjoy my time in Kumily. They were almost aggressive in their friendliness, in fact. After being shown to my room and told that I must take a rest, they attacked me with cups of tea and advice about what to do, and then booked four days of activities for me after negotiating slightly lower prices than advertised. “You just tell me whenever you’re hungry, David,” the old woman told me. It sounded like a threat, and I got the impression that I might end up being held down and force-fed at some point during my stay.

The first stop on my itinerary was a spice garden. Kumily – and in fact much of southern India – is covered with these little plantations. They are basically just spice farms that have been turned into tourist attractions in order to boost profits since the Kings and Doges of Europe tend to go to Tesco for their cinnamon instead of having it shipped directly from India. Nowadays, friendly tour guides will take you around and show you where your cloves and cardamoms come from, and what pepper and nutmegs look like when they are growing. It is, in fact, absolutely fascinating, and visitors are encouraged not just to look but to grab a handful of each plant and have a good taste or sniff.

A heavily pregnant woman, who told me she was on her last day of work before maternity leave, guided me and two Indian families around the garden, giving us copious details about every plant. Her knowledge of botany was rivaled only by her ability to deal with the Indians, who treated her with the sort of rudeness I’d never before seen. It was so unbelievably casual that they were almost friendly in how they abused and belittled her. It was India’s infamous caste system in action.

The next morning, I was up at four o’clock for a full-day tour of the local national parks. Bleary eyed, I stumbled into a jeep with my guide – a young man who spoke relatively little English and sped off into the night with awful music blasting from the radio. We tore through the dark country roads until we arrived at the entrance of a neighboring national park a little before six.

“The office opens at seven-thirty,” he told me. “You want to sleep?”

I wondered why we had to leave at four o’clock if we were going to arrive an hour and a half early. Couldn’t I have just slept longer at home instead of, as he seemed to be suggesting, the back seat of a small jeep?

I sat patiently until seven-thirty, at which point the guide went in to get my ticket. He came back out and told me that we just had to wait a little longer – for what, I had no idea. Next, he asked if I wanted breakfast, which was really code for him wanting breakfast. Why couldn’t he have eaten during the time we were waiting for the office to open?

It was nine o’clock by the time we got moving. I had been awake for five pointless hours. This had better be a bloody good tour, I thought.

We set off into the park, a vast expanse of dense forest with only tiny roads and a number of reservoirs to remind you that humans sometimes come here. There were two tour jeeps and four private cars. In the other car was an elderly couple from Scotland who liked to complain about anything and everything, which was fine because I have the same hobby. The other cars were filled with friendly but idiotic Indians who I think were disappointed that the park was not divided up into enclosures like a zoo.

That was it for visitors; the park only allowed six vehicles each day. The cars took off at speed, beeping their horns as Indians are inexplicably wont to do, chasing away all the wildlife to ensure that no one would see a damn thing. It probably didn’t matter, though. My driver drove too fast and had little in the way of a knack for wildlife spotting. This was a skill I’d developed during my many safaris in Africa. I saw several sambar deer by the road that he missed, and a number of interesting birds. When we did see something, he was unable to tell me what it was, and gave me all of five seconds to have a look before he took off again. I was decidedly unimpressed.

Thankfully, during the day my driver had the idea of closely following the other jeep, whose driver spoke fluent English, had a wonderful sense of humor, and knew the flora and fauna of the region as you might expect from someone employed as a guide. We were able to latch on to his finds and whenever we stopped, I would strain to hear what he told the elderly couple in his vehicle. Instead of “It’s a bird,” he would explain the mating and migratory habits of the Malabar hornbill. He would point out tracks and scents, and lead us off trail to spectacular viewpoints. Meanwhile, I was surprised my driver could manage to operate the vehicle at all. He didn’t seem to have the requisite intellect for moving different limbs at once.

By the end of the day, we had seen a number of fascinating birds, a family of bison, and honestly not that much else. The park was incredibly beautiful, but the thick forest that protected the animals made it hard to actually see them from the road. I didn’t mind, of course. I was happy to see that such a place existed in an otherwise grossly overcrowded country. There were places where wild animals could live as they were meant to, and I was honored to get close to them – even if I couldn’t actually see many.

The next day I went on a trip into Periyar itself, where my small group hiked for about ten kilometers to a little lake, and then rowed a bamboo raft for half an hour. Along the way, we got within a few hundred meters of some elephants and saw various signs of tigers – like scratches on trees and paw prints in the mud. We were accompanied by several former poachers who had an intimate knowledge of the local wildlife and showered us with useful information. There was also one man who, thankfully, didn’t have a background in poaching as he was armed with a pump-action shotgun. He explained that if we were attacked by a rogue elephant, he would fire it into the air.

“Have you ever had to use it before?” I asked.

“Oh yes!” he laughed, looking very proud.

Later that day, in another part of the park, a ranger was caught unawares by a sloth bear, who was evidently quicker than its name suggests. The bear snuck up behind him and ripped one of his eyeballs out. Everyone seemed very excited about this and not at all worried for the ranger or indeed the possibility of it happening again.

On my third day I took an even longer hike around the park with a group of four other tourists. We mostly climbed over hills on the border between the two southern Indian states during an enjoyable six hours of walking. Again, we got up close with some elephants, saw more bison and sambar, and a huge variety of birds. But, as was expected, there was no tiger sighting.

I didn’t feel much frustration at not seeing a tiger in the wild. I have been incredibly privileged in my life to go on a number of safaris, nature hikes, and even just boat rides into the world beyond human habitation. I have seen lions and leopards, sharks and whales, and a great many of the most amazing species on our planet. Tigers are elusive. They are good at hiding, and that’s probably the only thing keeping them alive right now. All over the world, wherever tigers live, they are under threat. If it were easy to see them in their natural habitat, they would have been wiped out long ago to make fake Chinese medicine and provide trophies for men with small penises.

I would still like to see a tiger in the jungle, but it would not happen on this Indian trip. That’s ok, though. When travelling, you should always leave something unseen or undone. That way, you have a good reason to come back in future.

Posted in Photography, travel

Matopo National Park

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After leaving St. Lucia, I took a mini-bus to Durban in the hopes of doing some cage diving with the sharks at nearby Aliwal Shoal. While there I stayed at Banana Backpackers, which is hands-down the worst hostel I’ve ever encountered. If you’re a fan of rats and cockroaches, by all means check it out. Otherwise, stay clear. Unfortunately for me, the currents were strong and visibility was down to nil, so the diving was cancelled.

I was not wildly impressed by Durban, mostly because I’m not a city person, so, after only one night I took a Greyhound bus to Johannesburg, and on to Zimbabwe. Mercifully I was only in Jo’burg for a few hours as I waited for a bus transfer. It seemed like hell on earth. In the short journey through the city on the bus, I saw numerous people being arrested, and countless others should should’ve been arrested. At the station I was constantly being approached by scam-artists – many of them who actually worked for bus companies.

Needless to say, I was glad to be on my way to Zimbabwe. However, at the border we encountered a delay. We arrived at 5am and it took until 7am for me to get my passport stamped. What was the cause of the delay? Oh, nothing. There’s just no rush in Zimbabwe… I was furious and thought that I’d miss my bus, but when I returned it was still waiting. “That’s lucky,” I thought.

I took my seat and waited… and waited… and waited.

When eventually we took off from the border and headed towards Bulawayo it was almost three o’clock! That’s more than nine hours waiting at the border!

Although the scenery on the way to Bulawayo was quite pleasing, I was too annoyed to enjoy it. Yet as we pulled into Bulawayo I couldn’t help but feel my heart lighten a little. It really is a charming little town. Bizarrely, it is reminiscent of both old Britain and old America. Trees everywhere, wide boulevards, old manor houses… It is an odd place, but very pleasant.

When we stopped, I got out and followed my iPhone’s directions to the nearest hostel. It was about two kilometers. A few taxi drivers tried to get me to ride with them but I said no. Amazingly, they politely accepted my refusal. What a nice change.

I walked to the hostel and got a reasonably priced bed for the night. The hostel had obviously fallen on hard times, and had a sign outside reassuring me that it was, in fact, open. I went in and the nice lady in charge seemed desperate, offering me a rate that was much cheaper than advertised, as well as an instant room upgrade. I went outside to find food and got a steak in an American steakhouse for $18. Given that my daily food budget had been about $3 until this point, it was quite a splurge.

The next day I book a daytrip to Matopo National Park, famous for its balancing boulders. Whereas in South Africa the parks had all been surprisingly cheap, here it seemed things would be much more expensive. My daytrip ended up costing $100 and didn’t even include a guide – just a driver.

My driver soon showed up and took me to Matopo. On the way, we were repeatedly stopped by police. It seemed that they were stopping everyone, hoping for some excuse to impose a fine. In his case, the driver was simply unlicensed to be taking people to the park. He managed to talk his way through each stop, though.

At the park, we drove around, seeing the main attractions. My driver spoke good English and obviously remembered much of what the guide had said, so he acted as a guide for me. However, he had no idea what any of the animals were, and so when it came to wildlife, I was the guide. He was also super-Christian (like most Zimbabweans seemed to be) and didn’t really understand much about world history. So he’d ask me things like, “Why did God make those rocks like that?” and I’d have to gently explain the finer points of our planet’s history.

We first visited the grave of Cecil John Rhodes, who is now a very controversial figure, with his statues being removed in the West due to rejection of our colonial past. In Zimbabwe, however, he seems more fondly remembered. Politics aside, his gravesite was well-chosen. While there, my guide and I saw a leopard fighting a pack of baboons down below.

After that we continued to a number of caves, where we saw ancient cave paintings. These really impressed me. I’ve attached some photos below, but due to Chinese internet problems I can’t attach as many as I’d like.

After the park, my driver took me to the train station and I got the train back north to Victoria Falls. I shared a cabin with some railway staff who were travelling for free on their work pass. One of them told me that they hadn’t been paid since December, 2014! He cursed the Mugabe government for its corruption and failure to lead the country. They continue to go to work each day, hoping to get paid, while receiving food from their families to keep them alive.

Posted in Photography, travel

Hluhluwe–iMfolozi Park

I left Swaziland after just a few days, and arrived at the border with South Africa at Lavumisa. Upon crossing the border, however, I encountered a pretty big problem… There was nothing there. I’d expected a few minibuses like I’d found at the other buses I’d crossed, but there was nothing at all.

I didn’t know what to do. Looking at maps.me I found nothing nearby that would indicate any sort of transport system. The nearest town I could find was more than 100km. It also seemed that I was pretty much in the middle of a game reserve, too… which meant that even if I could somehow walk 100km (and my feet were still badly blistered from hiking in Swaziland) I’d have to avoid being eaten or gored to death.

After a few minutes of pondering my lack of options, I decided that the only option was to hitch-hike. I’d hitch-hiked the United States back in 2007, and in South Korea a few years later. In all attempts I’d been pretty successful – ie I got a ride quickly and hadn’t been murdered.

This time I stuck my thumb out and waited all of two minutes. A car pulled up and a man asked where I was going. “St. Lucia,” I told him. I hadn’t booked anywhere but I figured St. Lucia was a good place to go. It shouldn’t be hard to find a place to sleep.

“Mtubatuba,” he said.

“St. Lucia,” I replied, not understanding.

“I can take you as far as Mtubatuba,” he explained.

I jumped in and looked at my map. Mtubatuba was only 25km from St. Lucia. I could surely get a combi or taxi from there.

On the road I spoke to the man very little. He wasn’t unfriendly but also wasn’t particularly forthcoming. At one point he said, “I’ve never been to St. Lucia but I hear it’s nice… White people get all the nice things.” From there one things were pretty uncomfortable.

Eventually, the man agreed to take me all the way to St. Lucia for the equivalent of about $15. It was well out of his way and saved me a lot of hassle, so I didn’t mind paying. Besides, he’d driven me a long way from an isolated border post.

In St. Lucia I found a nice “hostel” was which actually a collection of tents on a roof. The tents were pretty luxurious, and I was disappointed to be kicked out the next day due to overbooking.

In St. Lucia I hiked around and spent time photographing the crocodiles and hippos in the nearby river and estuary. Then I booked a tour to the Hluhluwe–iMfolozi Park that offered a good chance of seeing the Big 5. I’d not seen a lion at Kruger so I was excited about my prospects.

The above photos show some of what I saw that day.

My guide around iMfolozi was an interesting old man. Whereas my guides to other parks had been very young, this guy was well into his sixties or seventies, with long silver hair. He’d grown up in Zimbabwe when it was known as Rhodesia, and worked then as a hunter. The irony that he know worked as a tour guide in a park protecting animals was not lost on him… although he did often talk about the importance of hunting in conservation.

We saw a lot of rhino that day and our guide, too, talked about the importance of legalizing the trade in rhino horn. In six years we’ll have no rhino left, and none of our efforts to stop poaching have proven successful. The only choice, he claimed, was to farm it. It was an interesting perspective with which I tend to agree.