Posted in Photography

Another Wildlife Spotting

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:

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The next photo I took was a bit better, and captured the animal as I finally noticed me:

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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.

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Posted in Photography

Walking from Elie to St. Monans

Yesterday, on a windy but warm summer day, I walked from the little harbour town of Elie to another little harbour town called St. Monans with my mum. The coast of Fife – and indeed much of Scotland – is dotted with these little picturesque fishing towns comprised of old stone houses that are often painted in bright colours, narrow winding roads, and flower pots dotted around. In the harbour itself there are invariably boats either bobbing in the water or resting on the sand.

We arrived to a busy car park and headed out into the cold, but soon after starting out the coast cut off the worst of the wind, and in the sunshine it was actually quite warm. The walk along the beach was pleasant, and soon we moved up onto the little path, passing by many others who’d spotted a good opportunity for a Sunday walk.

The pleasant scenery made for a good day taking photos:

 

My favourite, however, was a shot I took of St. Monans harbour:

St. Monans Harbour

Posted in Photography

Summer Walks in Fife

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:

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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.

Red fox in a field

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.

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Posted in travel

Where to Travel in Late July?

I have an unusual problem: I don’t know where to go on holiday this summer. Maybe it’s not so unusual, but specifically what I’m struggling with is having too many choices.

I’ve blogged about this before, although in those posts I was leaning towards the Philippines and Nepal. However, circumstances have changed. Right now I’m in Scotland and I intend to stay here another week. At the beginning of August I need to be in China and then, around the 6th, I will take my girlfriend somewhere – probably Thailand – before returning to work in China in September.

That means I have 2-3 weeks to spend somewhere and, quite frankly, that somewhere could be anywhere. It’s not the worst problem to have. I’m very aware of how privileged that makes me. Yet it’s actually driving me a little crazy.

Every day I check www.skyscanner.net and instead of putting in a destination, I put in my point of departure and type “everywhere.” Then I sort by price and places I’ve not been. As I’ve only visited 30 countries so far, surely there’s plenty left to see, right?

Well. It’s not quite so simple.

Firstly, I wanted to go to East Africa. I’ve always wanted to see Kenya and Tanzania, and maybe Uganda, Rwanda, and Ethiopia. Last year I caught the safari bug after trips in Southern Africa. However, the more I thought about it, the less likely it seemed I could do the region justice in 2-3 weeks. Moreover, flights that had originally seemed quite cheap started to rise in price and made it a bit less appealing.

On the other side of the continent is Morocco, which I’ve always wanted to see. (I did write a book about William S. Burroughs after all.) I’d love to check out Tangier, Casablanca, and Marrakech. But then getting from Morocco back to China would be a bit expensive. The same goes for other countries in Western Africa.

Then I was looking at Nepal. I’ve always wanted to go there and it’s on the way back to China, so actually seemed a reasonable option. But it’s monsoon season there at the moment, and Chitwan National Park, which seemed like a cool place to visit, is going to be off-limits. Then there’s Everest and getting to Base Camp and back takes at least a fortnight’s trek. The more I looked at it, the less Nepal seemed like something to do in the summer.

After that I thought about Europe, but where? I’d like to take trains and buses between the capitals and maybe work my way over to Istanbul and the divide between Europe and Asia. Or, if that was unrealistic in terms of time, then maybe fly from the U.K. to somewhere in Eastern Europe and work my way down to Istanbul. It’s a bit expensive, but with night trains and hostels, it’s not out of the question. But Europe doesn’t really excite me… I’m more taken with Africa and Asia.

As I searched for more options, I found there are cheap flights now between Edinburgh and a few locations in New England. But America is pricey, too, and I’ve already seen enough of it for now. Besides, although I love America, I’m not really in the mood for it, especially now that Trump is so-called president and the N.S.A. persists in making life miserable for visitors.

So… where to go?

I realize this is not a bad problem to have, but it’s one that’s really bugging me. For the time being I’m happy to enjoy being at home, but when it comes time to move on, I do want to do one of the following:

  • Explore a new country
  • Have an adventure
  • Relax on a beach
  • See some amazing animals

Suggestions welcome below.

Posted in update

Where to visit in the Philippines?

Way back in 2008, not long after I first arrived in Asia, I took a trip to the Philippines. At that time I was working for a crooked hagwon in Daegu, South Korea, and I was physically and mentally exhausted. I needed a break and so when a group of very new friends I met in a bar suggested all travelling to the Philippines together, I jumped at the opportunity.

Soon we were in Moalboal, a beautiful little village which is popular for scuba diving. I was too exhausted from work to bother with the diving, and so instead I sat on my balcony and watched the fish and sharks in the water below, sometimes tearing myself away from a bottle of rum long enough to join them.

Here are some photos from that trip. (Keep in mind I was a terrible photographer back then and using a terrible little point-and-shoot camera).

This year, I have some time off in the summer and I would like to get back to the Philippines. One of the reasons is that it costs less than $200 for me to fly almost anywhere there from China.

As I’ve not seen much more than Cebu (and even then I mostly sat on my balcony with a bottle of rum for a week), I would like to explore further.

My ideas thus far are:

My main concern is time. I will be travelling with my girlfriend and she only has 10 days off work. We can get to almost any of these places pretty quickly, but travelling around would be very limited. Instead, we need to find a place that would be good for a little over a week’s stay, and which would require very minimal travelling from the nearest airport.

Please type your suggestions below. Any advice is very much appreciated.

Posted in Photography, travel

Mount Fuji and Hakone

It’s been a month now since I got back from Japan, and as I was there with my girlfriend I didn’t really make notes or keep a journal, so my mind is a little foggy as to the exact ins and outs of the trip. Also, I’m stupidly busy with work, so this shall be a short entry…

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After the Guns ‘n’ Roses/ Babymetal concert in Saitama, Vera and I headed to Shinjuku and then took a bus out to Yamanakako. It was surprisingly difficult to find the bus station, but thankfully – as is always the case in Japan – a friendly passer by helped us out. Then, friendly staff at the station ensured we caught a bus within a few minutes of arriving. Japanese people are the best.

At Yamanakako we checked into the lovely Yamanouchi Guest House, where we were greeted by a friendly little old lady who spoke not one word of English, but kindly showed us around her home. Then we explored the nearby lake, where I shot some photos as the sun set over Mount Fuji.

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The next day, we decided to climb Mount Fuji, and headed for Fujikawaguchiko. We were flabbergasted by the price of the local bus. In China, $0.20 can get you pretty far. In Japan, a short hop is $20! We booked a ticket on the hiking bus up to the highest station still open in the winter, and enjoyed the slow ride up the mountain.

Sadly, we found that the highest stop had no hiking trails, and so there was nothing we could do except stand around for an hour and a half in the freezing cold, surrounded by hundreds of rude and noisy Chinese tourists. Soon the clouds pulled in and the views were obscured. Mount Fuji, it seems, is better enjoyed from a distance.

We returned to Fujikawaguchiko and climbed a nearby hill, where there were mercifully no Chinese people, and a few birds to watch diving in the dying light. Mount Fuji was cloaked in cloud, and I realized how lucky we had been the previous day to have seen it in its full glory.

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*

The next morning we set off south for Hakone, a scenic area of mountains and lakes and valleys, connected by a fantastic network of buses, boats, trams, trains, and cable cars. Thankfully, this was all covered under the price of a two-day visitor card, otherwise we would have been broke in a few hours. We checked into a little hostel in Gora, and set out to explore the surrounding area.

The following day, we took in Hakone Gora Park and then took the ropeway to Lake Ashi, from where we could see Mount Fuji once again. It was a beautiful ride there, and a ridiculous ride on a giant pirate ship across the lake to Hakone Machiko. Alas, in Japan everything closes really early and we were soon stuck out in the middle of nowhere, awaiting a bus back to Gora that seemed it would never arrive.

The following day we visited the incredible Open Air Museum, with countless sculptures installed across a vast tract of land in a picturesque valley. We intended only to spend an hour or two, but in fact we lost almost a day explore the artwork, the highlight of which was the Picasso exhibition.

In the evening, as always, we enjoyed the onsen and a few local beers (still not impressed) and sakes (very impressed). It was our last day in Japan.

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The trip back to Tokyo was a long one, but eventually we found ourselves in South Korea for a fourteen hour layover, and then Hefei, before an airport express bus took us home to Huainan. The trip had been short but enjoyable, and unbelievably expensive. Coming back to China is like going back a hundred or more years, and for my poor girlfriend, who had made her first trip out of China, it was a shock to return and see China through fresh eyes – the unnecessary chaos and filth at every turn. Oh well. It is an odd land for sure, but it – for now – our land, and it’s strange good to be back here.

Posted in travel

Four Days in Tokyo

Last year, my best friend told me that Guns ‘n’ Roses were playing in Tokyo and it took me about two seconds to decide that I would be an idiot not to go with him. We’ve both been G’n’R fans since we were teenagers, and now that we both live in Eastern China, it was only a short hop over the Korean peninsula to get there.

In the end, my friend travelled with a few other mutual friends from China, and I went on an extended stay with my girlfriend, Vera, for whom this was her first time outside China. She’s also a diehard G’n’R fan. We planned to do four days in Tokyo, and then four days around Mount Fuji and Hakone, with the Guns ‘n’ Roses concert right in the middle.

From Huainan to Tokyo

We set off early one morning and took the convenient airport express bus from Huainan to Hefei’s Xinqiao Airport, then two short flights via Incheon Airport in South Korea, to Tokyo, where we arrived in the evening. I had booked the Best Westin in Nishi-Kasai, and we arrived to find what it surely the smallest hotel room I’ve ever seen. Nevertheless, it came with a bathtub (which a normal sized person could just about sit down in) and the usual fancy toilet seats that really set Japan apart from the world.

In the morning, we set out to explore the middle of Tokyo. In Kuala Lumpur, I had purchased a Lonely Planet guidebook (I never normally buy guidebooks) and we headed for the Chiyoda area. Vera was immediately overwhelmed by Japan – it is so clean and civilized; people don’t spit everywhere; the drivers on the road don’t actively seek to run you over… It was all so different from China.

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Downtown Tokyo isn’t always so busy.

We explored the area around the Imperial Palace and Tokyo Station, admired Hibiya Park, had lunch from a food truck in Nihombashi, and then took in the impressive exhibitions at the National Museum of Modern Art. In fact, although we hadn’t intended to do so, we spent most of the day looking around the art gallery, and by the time we were finished it had gotten dark and suddenly rather cold. During the day, although it was the middle of winter, it had actually been very warm – but as the sun went down, the wind rose, and it was soon freezing cold.

We met my old friend James at Yurakucho Station and then had dinner at a nearby restaurant where we had some incredible food and sake. I hadn’t seen James in eight years, so we had a lot of catching up to do. After dinner, we walked south to Shimbashi and explored a few of the bars there, before saying goodnight. Unfortunately, Vera and I missed the last train home and had to take a taxi. It was only a short hop, but the price was jaw-dropping. Lesson learned, I thought.

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Tokyo at nighttime.

Harajuku and Roppongi

The next morning, having miraculously dodged a hangover, we set off for Harajuku. Here, we saw the amusingly named Takeshita-dori, where young people from all over Japan come to buy and show off their outrageous clothes. It is the centre of youth fashion in the country, and suitably impressive. All around Harajuku, however, the crush of people is overwhelming as tourists and shoppers alike descend upon this hip neighborhood.

After lunch, we met up with our Guns ‘n’ Roses-loving friends from China and explored Meiji Shrine, then walked fifteen minutes south to Shibuya, where one can see the busiest intersection on earth. It is pure madness when the lights go green and a seemingly impossible number of pedestrians cross the street. Amazingly, such is the level of politeness in Japan that nobody seems to bump into each other. In Korea and China two people would struggle to share a wide sidewalk without crashing into each other, but in Japan they somehow manage to be more polite and organized at every turn. There was also the Hachiko statue – how could you not take the time to pay tribute to Japan’s favourite dog?

As evening approached, we sought out a bar called Goodbeer Faucets, which has 40 kinds of draft beer. Sadly, the beers were not that impressive. Perhaps the Japanese craft beers are too subtle for my tastes. I prefer a very bitter or hoppy beer, but the Japanese ones I tried were constantly underwhelming and bland. Fortunately, we found a nearby restaurant and scoffed down some sushi and raw horsemeat. Yes, that’s right… raw horse. It was absolutely delicious.

What followed, if I recall correctly, was a drunken series of subway rides to Roppongi, during which we lost various members of our group, but ultimately succeeded in making it to the Brewdog Pub, where we tried everything that was on sale. At a minimum of $10 per beer, it was likely an expensive night. Thankfully, I can’t recall what the bill looked like. The last beer we tried was called “Tokyo” and cost $50 for a bottle… But how could two Scotsmen in Japan not try it?

Guns ‘n’ Roses

When I awoke again without a hangover, I began to think Tokyo was a magical place. I could not recall getting home, nor leaving the Brewdog Pub (although we did, apparently, visit several others that night), and the taxi receipt was horrifying to behold. Oh well. I’ve been to Japan many times and it’s never been cheap.

Today was the day of the concert – the reason we’d all come to Japan. Guns ‘n’ Roses headlining, with Babymetal opening. Did I mention I also love Babymetal? I had no idea when I bought the tickets that they were playing. This was shaping up to be a hell of an experience.

Vera and I made our way to the stadium alone, as our friends were staying in another part of Tokyo. The trip to Saitama, north of Tokyo, was long and confusing, as it’s not really part of the Tokyo Metro. But we got there eventually. Things almost went catastrophically wrong, however, when we arrived at the stadium to find it completely empty and no sign of any concert that day. I ran to the nearest 7-Eleven and used their Wi-Fi to check Google Maps. It seemed there were two stadiums in Saitama. Fuck. Although it didn’t specify which on our tickets, we assumed we were at the wrong one. With no good directions for taking the subway, and no way to figure out how long it would take, we were left with no choice – another bloody taxi ride.

Twenty minutes and more than a hundred dollars later, we arrived at the correct stadium. The trip through the countryside had been very pleasant, giving us a closeup view of life in Japan away from the tourist attractions. But, of course, it was hard to enjoy given the nerves and the fact that I was mentally kicking myself for having not considered that “Saitama Stadium” might be the wrong stadium in Saitama.

Fortunately, we’d left in enough time that we still arrived before the gates opened, and soon we were looking for our seats. We found them way up in what some might call “the nosebleeds.” Granted, we could see everything from up there, but it wasn’t exactly a rock and roll experience. We sat for an hour before I heard my name drifting up from hundreds of feet below, on the stadium floor. “Daaaaaaaaaaaaavvvvvvvve!”

I looked down and saw my friends gathered in the middle of the stadium floor, in the expensive seats. Somehow they had spotted me among the tens of thousands of people in the stadium, and they were gesturing for me to go down.

We quickly ran down to the ticket check for the seats near the stage, and managed to bluff our way in. The problem with Japanese, you see, is that they are just too nice. The guard did speak English, and so I just talked quickly and gestured until he let us in. From there, we met our friends, found some nice empty seats.

Babymetal started, in true Japanese fashion, not a minute late. They were incredible. If you don’t know them, they are a fusion of Asian pop idol group and heavy metal. The three young girls who front the band pretty much dance about while an experience group of metal musicians plays blistering death and thrash music behind them. It sounds like it should be awful, but it works. It was a hell of an experience. I looked around to see the audience divided. Babymetal have thousands of diehard fans, but for many “true” Japanese metalheads, they’re just an embarrassment. Still, I noted the ones who laughed and joked still getting into it. How could you not?

In predictable fashion, Guns ‘n’ Roses came on almost 45 minutes late. No one expected them to show up on time. I don’t think many people expected them to play a particularly good show, either, but it was beyond good. It was magnificent. When Axl Rose stepped out, we were astonished by how fat he’d gotten. Would he stumble about and give a half-assed performance? We all assumed he would, but he sang better and ran about more than he ever did back in the early 90s –for almost four hours. They played all the hit songs, as well as a bit of Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd, and they nailed it. I couldn’t imagine a better performance.

After the show, we spent more than an hour trying to find dinner, before settling on a shitty pizza at the only restaurant remaining open in the area. Vera and I managed to take the train back into central Tokyo, but still had to take a taxi part of the way home when the subway closed for the night. It was our last night in Tokyo. Tomorrow we would get out of the big city and see Mount Fuji.

Posted in update

An Overview: Travels in Sri Lanka

Last month, I travelled around southern Sri Lanka. This was my route, with places I stayed marked by a blue dot and a number:

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Map originally from here.

It was not a very extensive exploration of Sri Lanka, but then I only had two weeks. I aimed to take in some of the best places in the southern half of the island, knowing that I wouldn’t have time to get up north. After Sri Lanka, I returned to China for a few days and then headed off to Japan for a week. I’ll post stories and photos from Japan in the coming weeks. The blog posts from Sri Lanka are below:

My apologies to those who got an e-mail notification from WordPress about my last post (Hikkaduwa) with a confusing title. WordPress somehow managed to screw up the title formatting and mashed several words together.

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.