Posted in Photography

Budapest Sunset

I am currently in Budapest, where a few nights ago I hiked up Gallert hill to get this shot. It’s one of my favourite ever photos. I will post more from Hungary, which is the last stop on my tour of Europe, later.IMG_4550

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Posted in travel

Final Days in Sri Lanka: Snorkelling and Whale Watching

From Matara to Hikkaduwa

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.

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Lion – the local lager

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.

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The view from my room at Sunny’s Guest House.

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.

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.

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Mirissa harbor

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.

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Whale poo.

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.

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It’s a whale shark. Trust me.

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.

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A rare sight – two sea turtles mating.

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.

Sri Lanka had been a great adventure.

Posted in travel

Matara: Surfer Paradise

From Katharagama to Matara

After a long night’s sleep, mercifully under a mosquito net, as Katharagama is blanketed by bugs at nighttime, I walked to the bus station and looked for a bus to Matara. It didn’t take long to find one, but once I was on the bus, it certainly took its time in getting on the road. I sat in the overcrowded vehicle for more than half an hour, waiting to get going.

Eventually, we did get moving and the bus took off on a long, winding journey along the coast, occasionally moving inland to visit small villages, before returning to the “highway” that leads past white sand beaches and sleepy fishing villages. The bus seemed to stop at every tiny settlement along the way, picking up old women and monks and schoolgirls in their all-white uniforms, so that the bus was never less than entirely crowded. Occasionally, men with tambourines would get on and the blaring rhythmic music from the speakers would cease as the men droned ancient songs for the passengers. At one point it stopped parallel to another bus down a dusty back alley and all the passengers got off and settled into the new bus, which looked almost exactly the same. With no ability to speak the local language, I was left baffled and frustrated.

Some three hours after leaving Katharagama, the bus stopped in Matara and I struggled to get off through the densely packed aisle, practically falling into the bus station. The journey had not been pleasant, and as I stepped out into the heat, I knew I had to choose between a long walk to my next homestay, or else an expensive tuk-tuk ride. I suspected that, as the homestay was in a fairly isolated area, I would be heavily gouged for the ride, so I decided to walk it in spite of the heat and the distance. Annoyingly, the bus had driven right past the street on which my homestay is located some five minutes before reaching the bus station.

I made my way along the waterfront, which was pleasant enough. The beach was very quiet, whereas in town it had seemed rather busy. A number of tuk-tuks stopped to offer me a ride, but I waved them away. After Yala, I needed a few cheap days at the beach to balance my budget. I stopped halfway at a little tea shop and had a sandwich and a pot of tea, which thankfully cost just $0.50 altogether, and then set back out on my long walk. I tried following the beach but it came to a rocky outcrop which, without bags would’ve been possible to climb, but with my luggage was certainly impassable. Instead, I followed a busy road with no pavement up a long, steep hill, with cars and tuk-tuks throwing up dirt and dust.

Finally, exhausted and sweaty, I arrived on a long, narrow street that led down to a white beach. The street had a few hotels and restaurants, but not much else. It seemed like a sleepy suburb that had been half taken over by surfers. Most of the businesses had “surf” in the name, although my destination was called Guillet Beach Homestay. The few people walking up and down the road all held surfboards under their arms, except for one lonely tuk-tuk driver who just grinned stupidly at everyone who passed him.

As with previous accommodations, this was a pleasant little house run by a local family. The chief English speaker was the young daughter, probably about twelve years old, who would talk endlessly whenever prompted. She attended school each day, but in the mornings and evenings she would talk with guests and, as a result, her English was excellent. The rest of the family were friendly but quiet and the father, a tuk-tuk driver called Lucky, was apparently in Colombo for the week. At the house there was a polite young English couple, and a large group of Swedish girls who spent nearly every waking moment on their surfboards.

I spent the late afternoon and early evening walking about the local area. There wasn’t much to see except for the beach, which was clearly the big attraction for the area. The horseshoe bay was beautiful and also funneled waves in constantly at a medium size, making it perfect for surfing. In fact, walking around, I found myself about the only person who didn’t have a surfboard. I sat and watched the sun go down as the stars popped out and began to move across the sky. The waters emptied first and then the beach, and soon it was perfectly quiet.

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Surfing Beach, Matara

Walking Around Matara

The following day, after yet another giant Sri Lankan breakfast, this time eaten in a surprisingly English dining room, covered in floral patterns and dolls, I set off for a walk back into town. This time I intended to follow the coastline all the way around, rather than taking the unpleasant road route. I set off early and clambered over hot, sharp rocks, but enjoyed the peace that came being between the town and the surfers’ beach, completely alone. Even without bags I ended up with bloody hands and knees from the challenging climb.

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Isolated beach, separated by two jagged outcrops

I walked around the bustling little town, admiring the Dutch colonial architecture as it clashed with modern shop fronts, but there really wasn’t much of any interest to see there. It wasn’t unpleasant, but it also wasn’t particularly exciting, and so after a visit to the Star Fort and taking a few photos of the Buddhist island temple, I walked back along the beach to my part of town, getting back by 1pm. I’d expected the trip to take up a whole day.

Finding myself back by lunchtime, I ventured next door to a small restaurant called “Chillz” and, after ordering some reasonably cheap food, I enquired as to whether there was any beer available off the menu… The owner smiled and said, “Yes, today we have.” I was beginning to realize that beer is heavily taxed in Sri Lanka and most businesses simply don’t advertise that they have it in order to avoid certain legal requirements. It had been about five days since I last had a beer and even though this one, called Lion, tasted like crap, it was cold and alcoholic – good enough for me.

After lunch I walked along to a quiet part of the beach (not that any part was particularly busy) where the waves were slightly smaller than elsewhere and swam for an hour or two, soaking up a bit of sun. It had been a long time since I’d swam in the sea. The last time had been in Indonesia during the summer. A few small groups of Sri Lankan men walked by, always friendly, shouting, “Hello, sir, how are you today?”

I returned to Chillz for more cheap food (a roti sandwich) and beer, and then sat on the sand watching the stars until the sandflies drove me to return to the homestay, where I taught Hironi, the little girl, English until her bedtime.

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Surfing Beach at sunset

Matara had proven a nice place to spend a day, but it wasn’t someplace I wanted to stay much longer. Unless I learned to surf, there wasn’t much for me to do. With so much coastline, I figured that there would be better places for me to spend my last week in the country, so I picked a destination and planned on going there the next morning: Hikkaduwa.

Posted in Photography, travel

A Boat Ride to Komodo

Sunrise, sunset. Sunrise, sunset. On the sea, time means very little. There is just day and night. There are those pleasurable hours when the sky is red and the world warms, and then the brutal midday hours when your skin burns when you sit out on the deck. Later, as the sun disappears and the world goes purple, and then innumerable stars beset the sky – where are these stars on land?! – the world seems peaceful, quiet.

*

I had always wanted to see Komodo and its famous “dragons,” and so it had been part of my tentative plan for this summer’s travels, although I knew it wasn’t easy to get there. However, when I found myself on Gili Trawangan, off Lombok, with a week to spare, I decided to ask around and found that there were boats that set off every Wednesday and Saturday for the mysterious island several hundred miles to the east.

So it was that on a sunny Wednesday morning, I walked to the pier and took a public ferry over to Bangsal, on Lombok island, and then jumped on a little wooden gulet headed for Labuanbajo, via Komodo island. It was not a ferry, as I had expected, but rather a tour boat, taking twenty-seven young Europeans to some of the more beautiful spots along that part of the Indonesian archipelago.

Our boat, the gulet, was an entirely wooden vessel, captained by an affable little pot-bellied man called Erren, who joked around a lot with his passengers. His bizarre Indonesian pronunciation made my name sound like the Welsh version, Dafydd, and a man named Blake was simply called “Black.”

“But you’re not black,” Erren would say. “You’re a white man!”

On board there wasn’t much room for the twenty-seven passengers. Most of us slept upstairs on the deck, in a large, low-ceilinged room with rubber mats on the floor. A few people had paid for cabins, which were the same thing except private, and smaller. There was a small area at the bow which got sun, but everywhere else was covered, and for the next four days the sun-lounging area would be crammed full and spots were hotly contested.

We set sail late in the late morning and spent the day moving slowly east along the northern shore of Lombok, whose imposing figure captivated the passengers for hours. Towering Mount Rinjani was visible throughout the whole day and the thick jungle was commented upon by several people as reminiscent of Jurassic Park. I sat on the bow of the ship, soaking in the sun and enjoying the gentle bob of the boat in the waves for some six hours. Flying fish occasionally took flight from the water and zipped along the surface like bizarre alien beings. Normally they made it 5-15 meters, but sometimes they flew as far as 50 meters before plunging back into the deep. Fat blue jellyfish bobbed on the surface, menacingly, and dolphins swam alongside the boat, jumping playfully out of the water every few seconds.

In the evening we dropped anchor and watched the sunset. The sky turned bright red and then it faded to purple and then black, and soon an inconceivable blanket of stars covered the sky from horizon to horizon. I thought how sad it is that, all around the world, we are losing this essential part of who we are as human… We have vanquished nature and cast our light into the sky so bright that, for most humans, the stars are barely visible. Yet out at sea, where man is still not master, the skies remain and it possible to feel fully human.

I went to bed at nine-thirty but, at sea, time means very little. It gets dark, you sit around, and then when you’re tired you sleep. The engines fired up about eleven-thirty and we started moving eastwards again. From the top deck, the bob of the ship was more pronounced, and I was paranoid about being seasick out here… yet throughout the day I had enjoyed the rocking of the boat, and no seasickness befell me.

*

I awoke to watch one of the few sunrises of my lifetime, and certainly one of a very small number for which I’ve specifically woken. It came up into a clear sky from behind the mountains of Sumbawa, burning bright orange at first, and then, very quickly becoming the regular old yellow sun in the sky, burning down upon the world.

Soon the rest of the group was awake and eating pancakes for breakfast, and then we were dropping anchor at Moyo Island, where we snorkelled in the most pristine reef I’d ever seen. The sea life there was beyond my comprehension. In the Perhentians and off Gili Trawangan and Gili Meno I had seen outrageously beautiful fish, and yet here it was better still. The reef was completely untouched and undamaged by man or his evil pollution. The array of colour was staggering in both the coral and the fish, and I was utterly captivated as I swam around in my element. Whether on it or in it, I have fallen even further in love with the sea.

At Moyo we climbed a tall waterfall with no ropes nor any form of safety equipment, which seemed obscenely dangerous, but miraculously nobody died. The wet rocks were oddly course and provided sufficient grip to get up and down, and at the top there was a huge deep pool into which we all dived in the midst of the jungle morning. Erren amused everyone by producing soap and showering under the waterfall. I couldn’t even remember the last time I showered, and it had certainly been more than three weeks since I last washed my hair…

We got back on the boat and set sail once again, this time just a short hop to Sebotok Island, where we did more snorkelling. Again, the life underwater was stunning. I saw two turtles (taking my total for this trip to almost forty) and perhaps a fleeting glimpse of a shark. In general, though, the fish were small here, but brightly coloured and incredibly intricate. Unlike in more popular dive locations, they were unaccustomed to people and had no fear as I swooped down to shoot them with my GoPro.

Then we were back on the boat and off on a longer trip – this time an eighteen hour journey to the Komodo National Park – our main destination. The trip went well until nightfall, when people moved upstairs to bed, tired from the day’s swimming. Shortly after darkness fell, the waves rose in size, and soon the few of us left on the main deck were being hit with continual sprays of salty water which, in the wind, felt cold and unpleasant, whereas in the daytime it had been refreshing. The waves continued to grow and hit us from the starboard side as we forged on into the night. The stars came out and the dark landmass of sparsely populated Sumbawa was all that could be seen. As I watched the lean, muscled old man behind the wheel, I wondered how he could guide the ship. The waves were invisible until the very last second. We were rocked violently and it became hard to stand up, so I sat and held on tightly to my seat. One of the passengers, a ship-builder by trade, was worried because the ship was clearly in bad shape and slung far too low on the water to handle anything bigger than what was coming at us. The crew seemed on edge, too, and they eyed the distant shoreline as though they wondered whether it was possible to make it if we capsized.

I managed to sleep through most of the night, but like everyone else it was a fitful sleep, being awoken regularly as the ship rose and fell on the water, tossing us all around on the communal sleeping deck. Bags crashed about and in the morning we found everything on board a terrible mess, with life jackets having broken loose and nothing where it had been left the previous evening.

*

Again, I awoke to a rising sun, this time rising over the sea as the Komodo Islands appeared on the horizon. We’d lost time during the rough seas and were behind schedule. But what does time really mean out here? It is only the rise and fall of the sun that matters, and after a rough night, it felt good to watch it burn up and over the horizon, illuminating the shape of our destination.

I sat and watched Komodo move painfully towards us as people woke and came out for breakfast, wondering what today would bring. Soon we stopped in an unbelievably beautiful bay, surrounded by Komodo’s bare islands – very different in appearance from those of Lombok and Sumbawa with their thick jungles. Here, there was only grass and the occasional shrub, on top of land that looked like it had been poured loosely from the skies with wet dirt. It was impossible to imagine how the same chain of volcanoes – the Ring of Fire – had created such different landscapes, but I suppose it is just a matter of age.

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This was Gili Lawadarat, and after jumping from the bow of the boat to the shore, we hiked an unforgiving dirt trail up a steep hill to a viewpoint, from which the seas and the mysterious lands of Komodo unfolded. The climb was brutal, but the reward was more than ample. The azure skies and crystal waters weren’t picturesque; they were beyond the description of mere words. Vast yachts and tall sail boats cruised in and out of the islands, treating wealthy tourists to privileged views of this amazing part of the world.

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There was more snorkelling here but I didn’t partake, as I had sunbathed most of the morning and, coupled with the climb, I felt I had now gotten too much sun. I knew there would be plenty more snorkelling later in the day…

Indeed, after an hour and a half of sailing we came to a non-descript area of coastline called Manta Point which, as the name suggests, is famous for the huge, alien creatures called manta rays. The captain steered the boat carefully and a man in a snorkel mask tied himself to the front to search the clear waters from below the surface as we slowly circled around the area. Turtles and fish came by but we were only interested in one animal…

After a failed attempt to follow a small group of mantas, we found unimaginable success. A large group was spotted and we were all eager to dive into the deep waters and follow them, but the captain held us back and told us to wait for a better position. On his word, we all dived in and swam frantically towards where we thought we’d see the giant rays. Soon we had a sighting – three impossibly big black shapes moving ethereally through the ocean. And then they were gone.

A few others and I followed the rays but, going against the current without fins, it was impossible to catch up. We bobbed there as everyone else headed back to the ship, and laughed about how amazing the sighting had been – these creatures are just out of this world. They look as though they are flying through space; not swimming in water. They don’t look like anything else on the planet. We didn’t realize, though, that our experience was just beginning. Soon another group of three swam past us very, very close. As we swam after them, shooting videos and pictures without our underwater cameras, another group came up behind us. A great black ray brushed my leg and scared the hell out of me, before I turned and realized his giant gaping mouth was not intended for eating anything like me. He just wanted me to get out of his way.

Manta rays came again and again, swimming along the edge of a steep reef and out into the deep. I swam and bobbed and watched them come and go for what seemed like hours, loving every second of it. It was an experience so wonderful it would have justified the trip alone – and yet from the beginning, with the exception of the choppy night on the sea, it had been one delight after another.

Soon we were back on board, laughing and talking about how incredible the day had been – from stunning views of paradise to close encounters with otherworldly creatures. The ship continued its way south to Pink Beach where we were to go snorkelling once again, this time for two and a half hours. As I dove into the sea, I noticed how much colder it was here than anywhere else, and the current was strong, too. I held out hope for a shark sighting, as they prefer these waters to the water coral reefs we’d previously encountered.

The waters were once again teeming with life and the corals were vivid and thriving, but the first animal I noticed chilled me more than the water – it was a giant moray eel, trying to hide among coral but remaining almost entirely visible. It was easily ten feet long, with a body wider than my own in places, and a giant, mean-looking head. I’ve been trying to overcome a lifelong fear of morays recently, with great success, but this one was hard to even look at. It had vicious eyes and a massive set of jaws at the end of its powerful body. Whenever I moved in close for a photo it would posture aggressively. I am a firm believer in the adage that no animal is truly dangerous when shown adequate respect, and moray eels are no different. I heeded his warning and watched from a distance, although his menacing grimace turned my blood to ice. In the end it was difficult to turn and swim away because I could so vividly imagine the beast chasing me down, even though I knew it was ridiculous.

Elsewhere, I saw very large versions of animals I’d see elsewhere, and they seemed far more aggressive. I saw a huge, bizarre squid/cuttlefish creature which, when I move near, postured as though it would attack me. I also found several blue-ringed stingrays which proved more aggressive than the incredibly shy ones I’d seen elsewhere. From the sun burning my back to the icy cold waters aching my bones and the hordes of jellyfish stinging my skin, I decided after an hour to escape to the comfort of the beach and its odd pink sand.

Back on the boat, I spotted two eagles attacking a smaller bird, and yet more dolphins leaping from the water, as the sun fell once again – this time over the dark, bare mountains of Komodo. Our boat chugged slowly to its resting place for the night as everyone breathed a sigh of relief that there would be no more waves disrupting their sleep. We would be anchored in a large lagoon with lots of other tour boats, with little canoes of touts selling beer and bracelets coming up to the boat. One by one, the other tour boats turn on disco lights and reggae music, and our captain, Erren, started showing off his dancing skills.

*

This is part one of a two part story. The second, which tells of the Komodo Dragons, will be posted next week.

Posted in Photography, travel

Crocs and Hippos at St. Lucia

Last month, after a few days in Swaziland, I decided to head to the coastline of South Africa. My guide at Kruger National Park had told me that St. Lucia was a great place, and that it was famous because at nights the hippos from nearby rivers would wander into the streets. That brought back another memory… Back home in Huainan, a good friend of mine had told me about St. Lucia, too. He’d visited South Africa ten years earlier and encountered a hippo on the street.

I was excited by the prospect of both hippos and swimming in the sea. During my stay in Mozambique I’d not gotten to do as much swimming as I’d wanted – in fact, I’d done almost none.

So I headed for the border, taking a combination of three combis (pun intended) through Manzini and Matata, and arriving at the Lavumisa border post. From there, I crossed back into South Africa, assuming that I could get a bus…

Big mistake. There were no buses, nor any town to walk to. Arriving in South Africa I found myself all alone by the side of the road, staring hopelessly at the hundreds of kilometers between me and my destination. Even the next town was a hundred and twenty-five kilometers away, through a burning hot landscape filled with deadly animals.

I ended up hitch-hiking to St. Lucia – the first of a good few hitch-hiking adventures in Southern Africa. When I arrived I stayed at a place called Budget Backpackers. Its name suggested an awful little hostel… but in fact it was very luxurious. I was just sad that it was booked out on the second night and I could only stay one day. After that I moved to Shonalanga Lodge, also on the main road.

I’ll write more about the things I saw and did in St. Lucia, but the above photo slide will show what was, for me, the highlight of the trip. Nearby the town is an estuary of sorts, where the Mfolozi River meets the sea. In fact, when I visited, it didn’t meet the sea because a flood had blocked the entrance. Instead there was a body of water filled with 90% of the world’s Nile crocodiles, countless hippos, and apparently a number of bull sharks who’d gotten stuck after swimming up river.

I spent a lot of time watching the crocs and hippos from various vantage points (I couldn’t see the sharks) but those photos were taken from where I got closest. After walking up and down the beach, I explored where the river used to meet the sea, and there was a large sandbank stretching out into the water. The crocs were stretched out in a semi-circle around the sandbank and hippos cooled themselves in the water nearby. I stalked quietly into the middle and shot a few dozen photos from very close range.

People were standing on the banks shooting photos and videos of me, expecting me to be killed. What they didn’t understand, as others don’t, is that animals are more predictable than people. Give them respect and caution, and you’ll be fine.