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.

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Posted in Photography, travel

Leopard Spotting at Yala National Park

Leaving Ella

In Ella, a local man had warned me not to visit Yala National Park, as he claimed it was too hard to see any animals. He recommended, instead, that I go to Udawalawe, where he said I’d be more likely to see elephants. I told him that I’d heard Yala was famous for leopards and he practically laughed in my face. “Nobody ever sees leopards,” he said.

I didn’t have any internet access during my time in Ella, so I couldn’t verify his claims, and had to make the difficult decision on instinct. I sat on the veranda at the wonderful Isuru Homestay, pondering my decision in the cold light of morning. One of the strange things about inland Sri Lanka is the startling difference in temperature between day and night. In the daytime it can be swelteringly hot, yet at night it genuinely quite cold. Come morning, I found myself grateful for the few winter clothes I’d worn on my way out of China. However, as the sun rose in the sky, it seemed as though my feet were in the tropics and my head was thousands of miles away. By ten o’clock, though, it gets truly tropical, and my wooly hat was back in the backpack.

I sat eating another massive, delicious breakfast while I pondered my conundrum, and even threw in a few extra notions – to visit Horton? Adam’s Peak? to head north or even over to the comparatively quiet eastern coast? With little information to go on, I decided to stick with my initial plan and see Yala National Park. In Africa the previous year, my luck in seeing animals was strong, and I felt that it might hold over. Despite the warning, I felt an irrational confidence that I would see a leopard once again.

From Ella to Katharagama

I bid farewell to my delightful hosts at Isuru and set off on a long, hot walk down the road to Ella, regretting that I’d spent so long thinking about where to go, instead of leaving early before the sun had risen so high. Then I stood and waited for long time at a ramshackle bus stop with a mix of foreigners and locals as various buses passed by on their way south. Everyone, it seemed, was heading to the coast except for me. Bus after bus passed by and told me that there weren’t going my way, ‘til eventually one headed for Matara picked me up and told me I could get off at Weerawila, and from there transfer to Katharagama, near the entrance to Yala.

The journey down through Ella Pass (or Ella Gap) was frightening, as the bus took corners at a ridiculous speed. People were thrown about inside the overcrowded vehicle, and I tried to hold on to my bag as well as the seat in front of me. People were tossed about like ragdolls and music blared from the speakers of the old, brightly painted bus, dulling the sound of the engine and brakes.

After a wild ride down the mountain, I got off at Weerawila and took a tuk-tuk to Katharagama instead of waiting for the much cheaper local bus. It cost 1,100, which is about ten times the price of the bus, but of course was faster and more convenient. It was also a lot more comfortable than being jammed in an overcrowded vehicle with my bags on my lap. We meandered through scenic countryside to the small town of Katharagama, which seemed a haphazard collection of little houses and temples and restaurants. My driver had no idea where to go, nor any sense of direction, but together we found our way to my next accommodation: Katharagama Homestay.

I was pleased to see that this little house was exactly like the other houses on the street – an authentic slice of Sri Lankan life. An old woman directed me to sit in a low-slung leather chair outside a concrete building as she finished sweeping indoors and brought me a pot of ginger tea. Later, a handsome young man who spoke impeccable English introduced himself and showed me around the small property. As we spoke, a huge monitor lizard sidled up to us. It seemed unaware of our presence, instead engaged in its hunt for grubs among the plants. In the trees above, some strange half-monkey, half-squirrel animals played noisily, and colourful birds flitted about between the branches.

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I spent the late afternoon walking around the nearby area as the sun fell. The dusty streets filled with children playing cricket soon gave way to open expanses of rice paddies, and to the south there was a small lake filled with cranes and, according to the signs, crocodiles. I didn’t see any crocs, but you seldom do until they’re grabbing hold of your leg and pulling you into the water. Everywhere I went there were huge peacocks showing off their tail-feathers and crying loudly. I shot some photos of the sunset and then walked through the town until I found a friendly little restaurant to have dinner. Again, it was curry and rice – the local staple. There seemed to be very few foreigners around, and I felt this was a closer view of real Sri Lanka than Kandy or Ella.

Yala Safari

At 05:30 I was met by two young men in a big open-sided jeep. They said very little as we set of through the cold, dark morning towards Yala National Park. I was a little apprehensive as we arrived and they had said nothing to me. The tour was rather expensive compared to those I’d taken in South Africa, and yet the guides didn’t even seem to speak English. Instead, they spoke to each other in the cab as I sat in the back, anxious that this may prove to be a massive waste of time.

The sun edged over the horizon as we entered the park and began to slowly drive around, looking for animals. There weren’t many other vehicles and I had mine to myself, having paid for a private tour. At first we saw a few interesting birds – bee-eaters, kingfishers, Brahminy  kites, and serpent eagles – as well as some deer and wild boar. However, the guides didn’t seem to notice everything we passed, nor did they know the names of every animal. They certainly didn’t tell me much about the animals they did spot, as had been the case anywhere in Africa.

Still, there was plenty to see. Soon we passed a whole family of elephants, lots of crocodiles lazing in or by the water, dozens of mongooses (mongeese?), and more. The park itself was quite beautiful to see, and with so few vehicles on the roads it was very peaceful.

At 09:00 we stopped for breakfast by a long beach and once again I was presented with a veritable feast. Sri Lankan breakfasts were really impressing me. There were rotis, hoppers, and fruits. As we ate, I spoke to the one guide who spoke some English, and he told me he was training for the job but that he was embarrassed by his poor language skills. He seemed a nice guy, and he was obviously doing his best to improve his abilities, so I decided to put a bit more faith in him as the day went on.

We continued onwards, seeing elephants and other animals quite close, and stopped for lunch at 14:30, beside a little river. After eating, I climbed a tree and sat on a thick, white-barked branch hanging over the river. As I sat, I watched three macaques climb down from another tree and enter the jeep. I’d left my bag sitting open, with my camera charging on top of it. It was also filled with other somewhat valuable items. Thankfully, the monkeys delicately placed my camera and charger on a seat, reached into the bag passed all the valuables, and extracted only my iPhone charger. They then shot up the tree to the very highest branches and wrapped the cable around the top. Talk about cheeky monkeys…

It took ten minutes of throwing rocks and sticks to knock the charger down, but soon we were off again for the last section of the tour. By now we had seen everything except a leopard, and although I knew the late afternoon was a good time for leopard spotting (pun intended), I was no longer hopeful. I felt that the early morning had been our best chance. We continued to see more elephants and crocodiles, including a very close encounter with a young female elephant who decided she was unimpressed with our proximity to her family group.

 

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A pissed off elephant using her prodigious butt as a weapon.

Finally, as we headed towards the exit in the dying light, a very large leopard strolled casually in front of the jeep. It stopped for a moment and stared at us, then moved to the side of the road, where it stalked closer. It marked its territory, watched us again for a few seconds, and then disappeared into the bushes. It was an incredibly fortunate sighting – a completely clear viewing of an adult leopard. The guides phoned in the sighting and soon a half dozen jeeps sat around, with long lens pointing everywhere, but no one managed to catch a glimpse of the usually elusive animal.

Later, as we again headed for the exit, another car found another leopard, and my guides took off at alarmingly high speed towards the location. Here, we could see another leopard hiding in the buses. It was impossible to get a good photo, but the piercing green eyes in the darkness left a deep impression upon me. Moreover, this typical sighting – of a well-camouflaged animal hunkered down behind the vegetation – reinforced just how lucky I’d been. It was now six o’clock and the guides were eager to go. Yet as darkness fell, animals kept presenting themselves, and the drive home was filled with closer encounters with elephants.

Back at the homestay, the old lady cooked me a delicious dinner, and I sat and reflected upon my luck. My early anxiety about the quality of the tour had proven ill-founded. Instead, I was presented with another amazing safari experience, getting close to some of the most incredible animals on the planet. Regardless of what came next during my time in Sri Lanka, this day had made it all worthwhile.

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Hiking Around Ella

From Kandy to Ella by Bus

I awoke on my second day in Sri Lanka at the Backpackers’ VIBE hostel in Kandy. On my first day I had seen all I wanted, and it was time to move on to someplace new. I decided on Ella, which lies about 140km south of Kandy.

Walking through Kandy in the early morning, I noted how many people were up and about already, walking quickly to work. Everyone was well-dressed in either traditional or modern attire, and most people took time to turn and bow to the various Buddhist deities that dot the little city.

I found the bus terminal, which was busy and confusing. There were so many buses, and only half had the names of their destinations in Roman script, while the rest were only in Sinhalese. I could see none that were going to Ella. Eventually, I asked a few people who pointed me towards a bus heading south to Badulla, with the promise that from there I could transfer to Ella.

As I sat waiting on the bus, numerous vendors came on board selling mangoes, soy beans, samosas, oranges, ointments, and spices. It was getting crowded when a middle-aged Austrian woman took the last remaining seat – the one next to me. She told me that she was relieved because Sri Lankan men could be quite inappropriate. There are some things you never have to worry about as a male traveler.

The bus took a long, circular route to Badulla, taking almost five hours, but there was a curtain blocking out the harsh sunlight that also obscured my view of the scenery, so I simply engrossed myself in a book I had been given by a friend. All I could see when I tried to look out the window were mountains, and I was sure it was a beautiful scene. On the bus, we were packed in like sardines with absolutely no room to breathe, and right in the middle of an aisle a man beat a tambourine and sang sad songs.

At Badulla we changed to a new bus heading towards Ella. While waiting in the bus station I tried some sort of curry wrap, which I was then convinced was the greatest thing I’d ever eaten, though I never did learn its name. The final leg of the journey only lasted about thirty minutes and the bus was only half full. This time I could see out the window as we passed mountains and valleys and forests and rivers, with great fields of rice and tea. In the middle of one rice paddy I saw a huge peacock standing with its tail feathers fully displayed.

We arrived in Ella, which I was slightly disappointed to find was a very touristy little town. In fact, it seemed every business was entirely devoted to providing for foreign travelers. I set out east for Izuru Homestay, following the map on my phone. Very soon I was out of town, following a windy road through the hills. It seemed that the walk took forever, even though it was only 2km. The heat was intense, despite this being high in the mountains. Eventually, I found the house at the end of a long dirt track, surrounded by tea fields and forests. It was totally isolated.

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Izuru Homestay, Ella

I settled in and soon met all the family. Like most Sri Lankans, they were very shy and quiet, but friendly. The owner works for the government, but the place is mostly run by other family members, including his elderly parents. All of them would ask questions in broken English and then hurry away in embarrassment. They brought me cups of tea, papaya juice, and biscuits as I read on the veranda, looking out on a peaceful hillside that was disturbed only by birds and squirrels and chipmunks.

Trekking Ella’s Train Tracks

Despite being tired and having sore feet from walking so much over the previous days, I set out to find a local landmark called 9 Arch Bridge. On a map it looked like it was close, yet in fact the convoluted route that I took wound its way over many kilometers of hillside. I got lost once and a small child guided me through dense vegetation and a few backyards to a road, and soon after I found the train tracks. In Sri Lanka, it is common for people to walk on the tracks as trains move very slowly and noisily, so there is little chance of being hit.

At the 9 Arch Bridge, there were too many tourists – both Sri Lankan and foreign – and although it was a pleasant enough sight, I quickly continued my way, aiming to follow the train tracks back to town, carrying me in a long circle through the middle of Ella to the homestay. Just before dark, I arrived at Ella train station, which is a charming, picturesque little building that even has a friendly station cat. Flanked by a cricket field, it could well have been somewhere in England rather than Sri Lanka.

I spent the evening in Ella, walking around and eating curry at a small restaurant. As it is a tourist town, everything is grossly overpriced. In Badulla, my little lunch had cost 30LKR, but in Ella I could find nothing less than 300LKR, and most menus listed items around 1000LKR. After dinner, I walked back along the now very dark road, and sat on the roof of the house looking at the stars. After the choking pollution I’d endured in China, it was a huge relief to sit out and see the galaxy through the clear mountain air.

Hiking the Mountains and Valleys

The clear mountain air could also be surprisingly cold. Although Sri Lanka has a tropical climate, at night temperatures can get pretty low, and when I awoke in the morning I was glad of the few items of winter clothing I’d brought with me from China. I sat on the veranda reading and watching the shadows cast by the sun move across the valley, and the light hitting Little Adam’s Peak to the south. Occasionally, beautiful, colourful birds flew about, sometimes coming very close to where I sat. One was a grey hornbill.

A young man brought me my breakfast – a large pot of tea, six pieces of toast with butter and jam, fried eggs, bananas, papayas, watermelon, and roti. It was probably the biggest breakfast I’ve ever encountered, filling the entire table in front of me. Did all Sri Lankans eat this way, or was this just put on for tourists, I wondered.

At 9am, I took a much needed walk to recover from breakfast. I didn’t really know where I was going, but I decided I’d walk until I could walk no more, and hopefully see as much of the beautiful countryside as possible. I started out eastward, heading away from the town, and ended up at the Newburgh Tea Plantation. It seemed you could get a tour of the factory, but I wasn’t interested. Instead, I took a nearby winding road and ended up walking through tea fields for a few hours, where little old women with leathery brown skin worked on the steep tea-covered hillsides, wearing potato sacks for clothes and filling hemp bags with tea leaves. I followed winding paths down through the tea fields and between small houses where women bathed children from buckets and shy, skinny dogs lazily slept in the shadows.

Eventually, I turned and climbed back up the rather large hill to where I had begun, and from there set off for a hill known as Little Adam’s Peak. This refers to the more famous Adam’s Peak, which is further west and a renowned Buddhist pilgrimage point. Little Adam’s Peak looks similar but it is much smaller. I climbed quickly to the top, but found there were many tourists here. After the peace and serenity of the tea plantation and adjacent valley, I continued moving along the top of the mountains to where the tourists had given up, and found three empty peaks that I could call my own. I lazed in the sun for a few hours, acquiring a bit of a burn, before realizing that I was not entirely alone. There was a family of black-faced monkeys (which Google tells me are, in fact, gray langurs) occupying one of the only tall trees on the hillside. They seemed very afraid of me, despite there being a big distance between us, and any time I moved nearer to take a better photo, they seemed ready to flee.

I spent most of the day on the top of the mountain, enjoying the fresh air which allowed me to see for miles in every direction. To the east, and far down below, was Ella’s Gap or Ella’s Pass – a steep, winding road running between Ella Rock and Little Adam’s Peak, and behind it a giant waterfall. Elsewhere were forests and tea plantations. To the south the land flattened out with just a few small hills rising here and there. Just about everything you could see was green, despite there reportedly having been no rain for several months.

On my way back down the hill, I found a small shack selling coconuts, and stopped to buy one and speak with the owner. He was friendly and full of advice. I told him I was going to go to Yala National Park soon, and he warned me not to go. “Too many tourists,” he said. “You never seen any animals. All the people come here and complain, ‘Yala is no good!’” He went on to tell me that I should instead go to Udawalawe, where he said you are practically guaranteed to see an elephant.

With that in mind, I continued my walk back to the homestay on tired legs. Along the dirt path, I saw an old man sitting cross-legged and looking very disheveled. He shouted at me, “Hey, look here!” and opened a little wicker basket. I stopped only momentarily to see what he was doing, and saw as he slapped his hand into the basket, withdrawing it very quickly as an angry cobra emerged. It reared up, hissing loudly and striking this way and that, before the man pulled out an instrument called a pungi, and played his song, putting the snake into a trance. It was clear he wanted me to take a picture of him (he was sitting carefully so that Ella’s Rock was visible in the background) and of course to pay him for the privilege. I immediately continued me walk and tried not to make eye contact, for I felt very conflicted. My initial reaction was amazement. Snake-charming is something I’d only ever seen in movies and on TV, and I had associated it with the exotic setting of ancient India. It filled me with a bit of boyish excitement, even nostalgia for a time I’d never experienced. Yet, another part of me was keenly aware of the cruelty most probably involved. Although I’m no expert, I was pretty sure it was common practice to defang the snakes, or to drug them. In any case, the snakes probably don’t much care for being confined and slapped on the head, and I would give no financial assistance to anyone harming an animal.

When I got back, the old woman made me dinner – a huge spread of curry, dhal, pickles, poppadums, rice, and roti. Sri Lankan food, I decided, is among the greatest in the world.

Posted in travel

New Year at Jiuhuashan (九华山)

Although Chinese New Year is the most important celebration in the lunar calendar, the Gregorian New Year is also important and so January 1st – 2nd is a public holiday in China. As such, I decided to take my girlfriend to Jiuhuashan (Mount Jiuhua, 九华山) for a few days.

Jiuhuashan is one of the best-known mountains in Anhui Province, and is considered one of China’s four sacred mountains because of the number of Buddhist temples dotting the landscape. As China’s transport network has developed and its middle class has grown, Jiuhuashan has gone from being a point of traditional Buddhist pilgrimage to a major holiday destination, although it remains far less visited than its neighboring Huangshan (Yellow Mountain, 黄山).

We left Huainan on Sunday evening and took the bullet train directly from Huainandong to Chizhou – a small city on the banks of the Changjiang River (probably better known in the West as the Yangtze River). Chizhou is the nearest town to Jiuhuashan, and after a night spent in a bizarre hotel, we took a taxi for 80rmb to Jiuhuashan.

When you arrive at Jiuhuashan by taxi or bus, you really arrive at the entrance to the Jiuhuashan National Park, and from there you need to take another long bus up the winding mountain roads to Jiuhuashan Town. Entrance to the park costs 160rmb and the bus is 50rmb return.

Unfortunately, it had become apparent from the taxi that our visit might be spoiled by smog. Most of Eastern China is currently engulfed in yet another “airpocalypse” as a massive bank of thick air pollution blankets large swathes of the country. In Chizhou – which my students had informed me the air is “always fresh” – the air was almost unbreatheably bad and visibility was only about 100 meters. However, as we climbed the mountain roads on the little tourist bus, it failed to improve. It is tempting to thick of these smog banks as low lying, but evidently they stretch up for hundreds of meters as well as going on for hundreds of miles.

When we arrived at Jiuhuashan Town, we set out to look for a hotel before doing some hiking. Yet we were immediately hit by another disappointment. The tiny town was crammed with Chinese tourists. Anyone with experience around Chinese tourists knows that they are absolutely the worst, and sadly they behave even worse at home in China than they do abroad. The roads were crammed with honking cars and people shouting and spitting and doing all kinds of unfathomably stupid things.

Our first turn of good luck came when we saw a hotel and inquired about rooms. The sign said all rooms were upwards of 1000rmb, but the manager told us that was just for the holiday, which had ended that morning. Rooms were now just 250rmb.

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After a quick lunch, my girlfriend and I set off hiking, and quickly realized that although the it was January and we were way up in the mountains, the temperature was really quite high – sometimes around 12 Celsius. Our winter clothes were not needed, and soon we were just hiking in t-shirts, with sweaters and coats stuffed into our backpacks.

We planned our route to take us as far from the town as possible, and also to avoid the one road that leads through the park. It was a steep climb up into the hills, and thankfully as we climbed the noise from below subsided and we met fewer and fewer people. Alas, the smog didn’t dissipate, and although it was at times possible to catch a glimpse of a mountain top, we were virtually blind to the scenery. All we could see was the path ahead of us. That was bitterly disappointing, having come to such a famously beautiful place, but more worrying was the fact that with every deep breath we took we were breathing in dangerous toxins.

Of course, it wasn’t all bad. Despite the disappointment of the view, it was still nice to be in the forest and away from the city. We could see the trees around us for at least a few hundred meters, and everywhere we went there were cats of all kinds, and even a few beautiful birds. In fact, the higher we went, the more cats we saw! For a cat lover like myself, it was paradise.

The temples, too, were beautiful. We stopped off at many of them on our long trek, and admired the stonework and big metal incense burners. Generally, the monks were pretty friendly, although quite a few of them rudely begged for money. At a small village in a little valley we saw monks taking care of dozens of cats, and realized that’s why the felines had proliferated to such an extent, whereas throughout most of China they aren’t nearly so common. The village also had giant walls of dried meat hanging outside every house, and the cats we so well-fed that they didn’t even seem tempted by the veritable feast hanging above them.

Near Baisui Palace, which is home to a mummified priest whose body supposedly didn’t decompose over the hundreds of years since his death, we saw monkeys. I think they were short-tailed macaques. These were by far the most interesting wildlife I’d seen in China, and I could hardly believe they lived wild in the same dull, lifeless province that I live! At first they were very shy, but as my girlfriend and I stood quietly and watched them for half an hour, they become bolder and walked very near to us. These monkeys are huge, and seem only to live on the highest parts of the mountain, foraging food from the bins and from the scraps that the monks leave out.

As we climbed down the mountain and sought out some dinner, we reflected upon the day and decided that the monkeys had made everything worthwhile. Having grown up in China, on the edge of a city, this was my girlfriend’s first experience with real wildlife. She was absolutely delighted not only to have seen the animals, but to have had them come so close to us. It was a transformative experience her.

*

The next morning, we set off hiking again, this time with full backpacks as we’d checked out of the hotel. We headed back to Baisui Palace, hoping to trek down into another valley and climb a higher peak. However, our legs at this point were very sore and the extra weight of the bags made it a slow and difficult climb. We were put to shame by the old men and woman carrying giant bags of cement up the steep mountain path for repairs at the temple.

After a few wrong turns that took us on a rather circuitous route up the mountain, we followed a trail heading towards a place called “Tiger Cave” (yes, many places in China are named for tigers and dragons – it’s not just your local Chinese restaurant that follows this custom). We found that along this trail there were absolutely no people, and as it followed the crest between two peaks we were afforded quite impressive views of the valley and mountains beyond. Fortunately, the smog had dissipated a little, and although the view was far from perfect, it was now possible to see the other side of the valley, whereas on the previous day it had been entirely invisible. As we were both very tired, we kept interrupting our walk to stop and take in the view, and soon gave up on the idea of continuing. It seemed that Tiger Cave was actually way down in the valley, and a return up the mountain was a bit unappealing.

We returned to Baisui Palace and nearby we found a troop of monkeys eating from a pile of discarded fruit. There were no people about and we stood in silence, watching the monkeys. A few cats came by, apparently unafraid of the giant simians, and all was peaceful.

After that, we looked around Baisui Palace (really just a temple) and its five hundred gold Buddhas, before descending the mountain and attempting the journey back to Huainan. Alas, as is so often the case in China, the relatively simple trip back was made quite difficult, and it took eight hours on a combination of buses and trains and taxis, arriving home about 11pm. However, after an inauspicious start to the trip, we both agreed that our time at Jiuhuashan had been overall enjoyable – two days very well spent.

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The clearest view during the trip
Posted in Photography, travel

Komodo National Park

After a long, pleasant boat ride across a large chunk of the Indonesian archipelago, our little gulet boat arrived at the island of Komodo, tucked between Sumbawa and Flores. Komodo National Park is comprised of Komodo, Rinca, Padar, and perhaps 26 smaller islands, and is home to a tremendous diversity of wildlife both on land and below the water. It was established in 1980 to protect the Komodo dragon – the world’s largest lizard – but has since expanded to offer protection over the magnificent surrounding seas and their bountiful life.

It was early in the morning, after a night bobbing on the tranquil seas nearby, when our vessel made its move for the port at Komodo Island. While the other passengers were asleep, I stood on the bow, as usual, and watched dolphins jump from the still waters as we moved closer to what seemed a deserted island except for a tiny, mist-enveloped cluster of buildings. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but at this point in the journey it almost didn’t matter. The dragons had been the main lure of the trip. They were something I’d always wanted to see, and really for me the whole point of getting on the boat in the first place. Yet, after four days at sea, I was so happy with the experiences I’d had, the people I’d met, and the photos I’d taken, that I almost didn’t mind if we saw a Komodo dragon… The manta rays alone had made the journey worthwhile.

When we got to the dock, I jumped off and waited anxiously for the others to get ready. I paced back and forward, talking to the fishermen and watching the sea snakes dart among their boats, not allowed yet to enter the park. At the end of the long pier there was a large gate, and I felt like I was standing outside Jurassic Park… In a way, I was. It’s certainly as close to Jurassic Park as you’ll find anywhere on earth. But perhaps that’s my personal bias. I always loved that movie. A better comparison is King Kong, which was actually inspired by the first Western voyage to Komodo.

After what seemed like an eternity standing on the pier, looking at the vast island, we were on our way and soon being introduced to three guides who would take us to look for these incredible animals and, of course, protect us from them. We were warned not to expect to see many of the great lizards because, although they are a very well-protected species, they are naturally quite sparsely populated due to their cannibalistic tendencies. These bizarre, atavistic monsters – essentially just living dinosaurs – are not only vicious killers of any other animal stupid enough to get in their way, but they’ll actually feast on each other quite regularly, ensuring a very steady population. (It’s been at around 3,000 for a while now.) They also have a taste for human flesh, but thankfully they mostly save their appetite for Swiss tourists.

Despite the warnings of their rarity, we saw six dragons on Komodo during a short walk, and later, on Rinca, another eight. Of course, the first sighting was the most exciting. I stuck by the guide and managed to get within ten feet of the animal, snapping numerous photos of his phenomenal, ancient-seeming head and claws. Despite the guide’s warning that they could explode into action with a terrible speed and ferocity, it mostly just sat in view of the tourist group, seeming perhaps a little irritated but mostly uninterested by our presence. When he eventually got up and moved on his way, the lumbering giant did move faster than one would imagine, and the guides were quick to insert themselves between the animal and their tour group.

As we continued on, we saw more dragons. Mostly they were male, but there were a few females. You can tell only by the width and length of the neck – females have longer, more slender necks. Or, as the guide said, “They have very sexy bodies.” Sexy or not, they certainly were a sight to behold. Near the shore on Komodo and near the staff huts on Rinca, the Komodos clustered in small groups of giant males. They lay about, completely disinterested in the people because of the heat. Surprisingly, the also seemed not to acknowledge each other. The guides explained that Komodos are completely solitary. That’s probably not a bad idea when you’re a cannibal species. The young spend the first five years in the trees, venturing down only to grab a quick drink, or else they’d be dinner for the elders.

Although I’m not a fan of group travel, and the National Park portion of the trip was a little too organized for my tastes, it was incredible to see these wonderful creatures as they lumbered about with the dinosaur gait they’ve had since before humans even learned to stand up straight. I find it an incredible privilege to get up close to any large animal in this overcrowded modern world. Although the Komodo treks did not take me back in time to a world of distant memory as I’d hoped, they nonetheless capped off an incredible trip through a stunningly beautiful part of the world. By the time our boat was pulling into port at Labuan Bajo, I felt a great affinity for Indonesia. Moreover, I was very impressed with how the government of this great nation had kept the Exxons and BPs of the world at bay and managed to preserve a large chunk of the country, maintaining its fabulous eco-diversity in a world that has little tolerance for natural beauty.

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Gili Trawangan

The sun has set over the distant figure of the island of Bali, appearing like an eruption of molten rock from the top of Mount Kintamani, and soon the sky is lit instead by the luminous full moon in the east, which comes up over the horizon bright yellow and then moves across the sky an almost blinding white, illuminating the little fishing boats bobbing on the sea, the faint spectre of Gili Meno, and another volcano – Mount Rinjani on the island of Lombok, which is always partially enveloped by thick white clouds.

From La Moomba, a little restaurant on the northeastern curve of the Gili Trawangan (pronounced “tra-WANG-an”) seashore – which stretches, unbroken around the whole of the little island – I take in the stars and the smattering of twinkling lights on the water and the nearby islands. It is quiet except for the lapping of the sea on the beach, and the ever-present Jack Johnson and Bob Marley records that ring out from beach bars the world over.

A day earlier, I arrived on Gili Trawangan – the largest of three tiny islands off the northwestern shore of Lombok, which itself lies to the east of Bali, on the Indonesian archipelago. I stayed the first night in a quite comfortable but crowded little hostel, called La Boheme, in the middle of the town, but it was fully booked on my second night, and so I wandered around, looking at the “no vacancy” signs for an hour. Although the island was undoubtedly beautiful, surrounded on all sides by white sand beaches, crystal clear waters, and coral reef, with volcanoes and flawless blue skies in the distance, I didn’t feel happy here. I’d been looking forward to visiting for nearly ten years, but I’d naively expected a relatively untouched paradise island, or at least a basic backpacker destination.

Instead, it was fully developed and packed beyond capacity with tourists from around the globe. It seemed almost the entire island was covered in hotels and restaurants. Everything was expensive and gaudy, and the tourists were mostly middle- and upper-class families and honeymooning couples. I wondered why all these resorts needed swimming pools when there were calm sea waters on all sides. Eventually I found Alex’s Homestay in the north of the island, rather tucked away from everything else. Luckily, Alex had a bungalow for me, and it only cost $18/night, compared to the $50+ that seemed to be the going rate elsewhere else. My bungalow was basic but had everything I needed, and was set in a small village, surrounded on all sides by trees and roaming buffalo. Alex, the talkative and affable proprietor, leant me his bicycle so I could pick my bags up from the La Boheme.

Suddenly, I felt quite positive about the island, having been rather depressed for the first 24 hours. I sat and talked to Alex for an hour on his little property, surrounded by trees and cats and chickens, and then went to find lunch. I stopped in at a small beach bar on Turtle Beach and befriended the quiet owner, who told me it was safe to leave my phone, camera, and bag on the beach as I swam. I could barely believe it, but when put to the test it turned out to be true – nothing was stolen. I spent six hours sipping cold Bintang beers and chatting with the owner and his friends, who all reckoned they could do a Scottish accent. It seemed they had Scotland confused with London, however, and instead put on some impressive Cockney accents. Mostly, though, I spent the day in the water.

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Your humble reporter enjoying a Bintang on the beach.

On the northeastern shore of Gili Trawangan, the aforementioned “Turtle Beach” area, the snorkelling is fantastic. Although it can be difficult to get over the sharp coral at low tide, in the morning, when the water is high, it is extremely accessible and there are always several turtles swimming around, munching on the corals. There is a peaceful atmosphere here that is lacking in the crowded south, or on the snooty, rich western beaches. I spent the whole day drinking beer, reading Hunter S. Thompson’s The Great Shark Hunt (a fitting title), and swimming with turtles, until the tide was so low that it became impossible to swim. Around this time I began to realize that I was rather sunburned, too, and decided to retire to my bungalow for the evening.

Every place is, to some extent, what you make of it. My disappointment at the gap between what I’d expected of Gili Trawangan and what I’d actually found had darkened my view of this place, but during a happy day spent meeting nice, friendly locals and tourists, and swimming leisurely in the turtle-filled seas, I found a new perspective, and I looked forward to spending more time here.

*

The streets of Gili Trawangan, or rather the dusty paths that criss-cross the tiny island, are mercifully free of motorized traffic, in stark contrast to Bali, just across the water. Instead, dozens of horses pull little carts around, filled with tourists and building materials for the numerous little bungalows being built to cater for the huge influx of tourists that now come to Gili Trawangan every year.

Along the waterfronts, small beach bars and larger resorts are filled with bikini-clad young tourists. They serve the local beer, Bintang, almost exclusively, along with tropical cocktails, and the menus primarily offer Western-style food. All except the most expensive resorts will allow guests to sit on the beach for free, sometimes even using their beach chairs and sun beds, and at night the waiters will whisper to passers-by, “You want weed? You can smoke on the beach… it’s no problem. No police on Gili Trawangan!” Which all sits in seemingly direct contrast to the façade the island now presents as an up-market, bourgeois tourist destination.

Gili Trawangan’s main draw as a tourist destination is its waters, and all through the town and in almost every hotel, guesthouse, homestay, and hostel – as well as the bars and restaurants – diving companies and boat-owners offer an array of scuba and snorkelling trips. Despite years of exploitation leaving most of the reefs that surround the Gilis (including the other two islands in the chain – Meno and Air) dead, there is still an abundance of easily visible marine life. On my first day snorkelling, I saw six turtles, and on the second day I saw fourteen. I also encountered moray eels, banded sea kraits, giant puffer fish, and innumerable colourful fish whose names I don’t know.

The beaches are mostly white sand, but sometimes black, giving way almost immediately to coral reef – or dead corals where a reef used to be. (There have been successes in regenerating the reef, particularly around Gili Meno, in recent years.) It is very accessible during the morning and early afternoon when the tide is high, but less so later in the day as the tide lowers and the reef and rocks are exposed. On the northeastern shoreline there is a bed of seaweed that draws huge numbers of green and hawksbill turtles, and just further out is a steep drop-off into the ocean. On the western side there is a dive site called Shark Point several hundred meters off shore, where I found one white-tipped reef shark. The currents all around Gili Trawangan are deceptively strong, and caution is advised while snorkelling or swimming.

*

I stayed another few days on Gili Trawangan, mostly spending time with two friends from China who’d were visiting Indonesia for a few weeks. We explored the island and its waters pretty thoroughly, and I became very fond of the place – having come full circle from my disappointing first day. However, with my summer holidays drawing to a close, it was time to move on and see more of Indonesia. I booked a 4-day boat trip to Komodo National Park through Wanua Adventures for a cool a1.8 million rupiah (U$140) which would stop off in various places of interest along the route from Lombok -> Sumbawa -> Komodo -> Rinca -> Flores. I had no idea what to expect, but an adventure on the high seas, coupled with some time hunting the Komodo’s famous dragons, seemed like the perfect ending to a long, enjoyable stint in Southeast Asia.

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A panorama of the western coastline.
Posted in travel

That’s a Moray

Or not. This is the story of a moray eel which was not a moray eel.

I’ve been afraid of moray eels as long as I can remember. It probably goes back to a childhood of being fascinated by the sea, and of hearing a story of a man having his faced ripped off by a pissed off giant eel dozens of meters under the sea.

For whatever reason, although I’ve enjoyed being in the sea all my life, the thought of moray eels in the cracks and crevices of a rock face or reef has put me on edge. Even in the past decade when I’ve actively sought out, and often found, sharks in various parts of the world, I’ve never once found myself fearing these atavistic apex predators, and yet I’m always terrified that there may be an eel nearby…

My friends in the diving world have told me that I was being ridiculous, and I believed them, but our fears are not always rational. I’m scared of spiders, too, even though I know most of them to be entirely harmless. (Having said that, I’ve been bitten by spiders many times, including one month ago when a spider in Thailand bit my arse while I sat typing an essay.)

Last week, in Malaysia, I encountered many moray eels, and although I was filled by fear and repulsion on the first instance, I began testing myself. I start swimming closer and closer, telling myself that I needed a good photo of these animals… They were all different colours and patterns, and in different habitats, yet they all moved in the same lethargic, rippling fashion. They all swung back and forth on the current ever so slightly, mouth agape, eyes alarmingly alert. But as I moved forward I began to appreciate what my diving friends had told me – that they are quite docile animals, unwilling to strike unless proved – ie you stick your hand right in its face. Sure, they seemed wary of me and I didn’t doubt any of them would’ve bitten me if I’d gotten too close, but they were not threatening; they showed no interest in moving towards me.

Today I saw a black and grey moray eel partially in the open, searching for a place to hide. It was being bothered by dozens of small, electric blue fish, and seemed uncomfortable to be in the open. I followed it for a while before its posture indicated that I should get no closer, and I left.

A little later, I was in nearly the same place and I saw what appeared to be the same eel, and once again it was in the open. It moved differently, and appeared to be much smaller than the first one… so I reasoned that perhaps it was the same kind of snake – perhaps the offspring of the first one.

I followed this new eel for a while, pushing myself to get closer and closer. I was able to take several clear photos as it moved slowly across the seabed, and I swam down nearly to the bottom, satisfied that this eel was entirely passive. Perhaps, without the protection of their dark hiding places, moray eels aren’t willing to attack…

Finally, as I got right alongside, the eel buried its head in the sand. I took one final close-range photo and left the poor animal alone, not wanting to cause it any undue stress.

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That’s not a moray.

Later that day I was sitting in La Moomba restaurant, using their WiFi to post a photo of a turtle that I had taken earlier. As I looked through my shots from the day, I saw the photos of the moray eel and realized that the final eel was absolutely not an eel at all, and that the similarities in appearance were restricted only to colour. The patterns on the animals’ backs were completely different when viewed closely.

I Googled “Lombok sea snake” and realized that the animal I’d seen was a banded sea krait. I searched a little further and discovered that banded sea kraits are incredibly venomous (50x a cobra’s venom) and kill people when they do stupid things like provoke them by swimming too close to take a photo…

Oh.

So that was a lucky escape. I would say that I have entirely conquered my fear of moray eels, although it nearly came at a very steep cost.

Posted in Photography, travel

Snorkelling in the Perhentians

The Perhentian Islands sit almost 20km off the northeast coast of peninsular Malaysia, in a protected maritime area. As you get near them, you would be forgiven for thinking that you’d died and gone to heaven. Or, perhaps, that you’d stumbled into some giant, elaborate Hollywood film set. It just doesn’t seem real; it’s too damned beautiful. The waters, the skies, the jungles… it’s all too perfect.

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The islands are surrounded by warm tropical waters which were, during my visit at least, perfectly calm. The only swells come from the little speed boats ferrying tourists from one beach to the next. From these boats, you can see right down to the bottom of the sea at any point between the islands. The Perhentians are perhaps even more impressive when viewed underwater than above. Underwater, visibility is almost always high, and nearly everyone who comes here ends up diving or snorkelling – cruising slowly over immensely colourful reefs, teeming with all sorts of life.

The Perhentians have famously great reefs for snorkelling, and that’s what brought me all the way here. In particular, I came to see sharks. I’ve swum with sharks before, but it’s a thrill that hasn’t yet worn thin. I have an obsession with these atavistic predators. On my right bicep I even have a tattoo of a shark. Moreover, I still hadn’t gotten a good photo of these elusive creatures from the deep… All I had were blurry, partial shots from various expeditions over the years.

As recounted at the end of my previous blog post, I found a shark quite literally within one minute of setting foot in the water, although it was just a baby. The next morning, I booked a snorkelling trip to five different locations around Perhentian Besar (the “big island”). At the first stop, we all jumped out of the boat and almost landed on a big hawksbill turtle. It just calmly fed from the coral at the bottom, completely uninterested in the cluster of Homo sapiens above it.

On the second dive, I asked our guide, “So where are we likely to see sharks?”

“You want to see sharks?” he asked, surprised.

I said, of course, that I did.

“Well, maybe here,” he said, waving at an area of water just behind the boat. He didn’t seem convinced.

I swam around for ten or fifteen minutes (it’s always hard to keep track underwater) and then, when it was time to head back to the boat, I suddenly turned and found myself very close to a blacktip reef shark. I’m not good at estimating size or distance underwater, but it was definitely more than a meter and less than three. Possibly it was about the same size as me. In any case, in the crystal clear waters it made a tremendous sight. These creatures are so graceful, so impossibly perfect after hundreds of millions of years of fine-tuning evolutionary processes, that I am simply awe-struck each and every time I have the privilege of sharing the water with one of them. I snapped a few photos with my GoPro and tried to swim after it, but it was shy and far quicker than me, and in a few moments it was gone.

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Blacktip Reef Shark

Later, we saw more incredible reefs just swarming with staggering arrays of life, and yet that one shark sighting made it worthwhile for me. Later in the day I went snorkelling myself and saw yet more incredible sea life – a few big blue-spotted stingrays, some titan trigger fish, massive bumphead parrot fish, a medium-sized moray eel, a kaleidoscopic plethora of brightly coloured fish… But it was the shark that stuck in my mind.

As the red sun began to set over the horizon, over the faint spectre of peninsular Malaysia, I headed back through the jungle to Turtle Beach, looking to swim here in search of more life – specifically, more sharks. However, as I had half-expected, the tide was far out and swimming was nearly impossible. The sharp coral was only a few inches below the surface at some points, and it stayed this way for at least thirty meters. Any attempt to swim would’ve resulted in a severely scarred torso from the sharp coral. I persevered and walked as far as ten meters across jagged and sometimes slippery rocks in a vain search for some inlet, but there was nothing. As I stood looking out and resigned to a wait until the morning, a small shark shot frantically past my legs and out towards the sea. It was the second baby blacktip I’d seen at Turtle Beach. Indeed, perhaps it was the same one…

On day two, I went snorkelling early in the morning by myself, covering a large area of sea over perhaps two hours. It reaffirmed what I’d learned the day before – that the creatures in the water here are absolutely stunning. I saw many more stingrays (but never did manage to get a good shot – those slippery bastards are not only well-camouflaged, but move a lightning speed when they suspect a paparazzo is nearby), giant shoals of smaller fish, several colourful moray eels and one albino, some ludicrously big bumphead parrot fish, a big hawksbill turtle, and another baby blacktip reef shark, just off the beach at D’Lagoon. I chased the shark in circles for a few minutes before it swam off over coral that was too shallow for me, and said goodbye.

I was particularly happy to see several moray eels. All my life, I’ve had an irrational fear of these animals, and although I’ve seen them on several occasions, I’ve always panicked badly when confronted. This time, however, I first kept my distance and watched, and then later got in close for some photos. Hopefully I have now overcome my fear of these solitary animals who, like me, prefer to keep to themselves.

 

I’ve spent many, many hours in the water here on Perhentian Kecil (“the small island”). I try to fit in as much swimming time as possible, although I do trek around the island a little, or sit on the balcony of my obscenely expensive Rising Sun hillside bungalow overlooking the lagoon, reading Aldous Huxley and Hunter S. Thompson. This has been a sober section of my trip… With this part of Malaysia being deeply Muslim, there isn’t much in the way of alcohol nearby, and what there is is expensive. So it goes. I’m happy to spend a few days just drinking in the view, hiking through the jungle, and chasing sharks in circles around the nearest reef.

On the beach, there is also a fantastic array of life. At D’Lagoon this past weekend, all the rooms were filled, and some severely overfilled, with many daytrippers stopping by to spend time on the beach and in the water. There have been a lot of wealthy Malaysians – mostly families, but also one large group of young women, all clad in hijabs except for one, who was somewhat conservatively dressed, but nonetheless conspicuous for not wearing Muslim clothing. It is fascinating to me that these young women wear hijabs or burkhas even when snorkelling or scuba diving. Compare them to the countless French women on the beach here (I don’t know why, but more than half the tourists on the Perhentians are French) who wear skimpy bikinis, sometimes thongs, and often go topless. Yet, the wonderful thing about the Perhentians – and maybe this is proof that I have in fact died and gone to heaven, because I can hardly believe my eyes – is that here in paradise, even this epic clash of cultures means nothing. The Muslims girls don’t look at the French girls in disgust, and the French girls don’t look at the Muslims girls in pity. Everyone seems at ease here by the water, happy to show their true colours, whatever they may be.

Posted in travel

A Difficult Journey to the Perhentians

Due to having no internet access on Perhentian Kecil, this post has been delayed by four days. I’ll post updates from the island in the coming days.

Escape from Sihanoukville

After some five nights in Sihanoukville, catching up with old friends, taking care of business, and mostly just drinking beer, I made my move towards the Perhentian Islands. I’ve been obsessed with sharks since I was a child, and in my quest to view them all over the world I discovered that the Perhentian Islands, off the northeast coast of peninsular Malaysia, have plenty of sharks which are easy to see from the beaches.

It seemed foolproof, but of course life is never so simple. First, there was the small matter of getting there – from one out-of-the-way tropical destination to another. How hard could it be?

Leaving Sihanoukville should have been the easy part. I lived there for more than a year and have made the journey from Sihanoukville to the airport at Phnom Penh on many occasions. Yet this part of the journey, much like the rest of it, would be a series of punches to the gut.

I was staying out near Otres, with a rented motorcycle as my transport back into town when the time came to make my move. I had booked a ticket on a so-called VIP minibus leaving from outside Mick & Craig’s, which seemed like a convenient location, as it was just around the corner from my motorcycle rental outfit. However, from the offset, small problems arose. First, my laundry was late in being delivered. (This is the first time on the trip I had someone else do my laundry – don’t judge me.) Then, when it arrived, my bike wouldn’t start. I had to use the kicker over and over to boot some life into the old engine, which was not easy in the fine rain and deep sand, whilst balancing various heavy or valuable bags.

(Several days earlier, when I’d rented the little bike, the owner told me not to worry about it being stolen, which is generally a big problem in this part of the world. “The thieves won’t bother with this one,” he said, confidently. “It’s too old.” That was good enough for me, and indeed until it refused to start at the most inopportune of moments, I saw no holes in the plan. Even the fact that the engine would stop running any time the throttle was released didn’t trouble me – I’ve never been one to go easy on the throttle.)

After I managed to kick some life into the addled Honda Dream, I set off towards town, determined not to stop for fear that the goddamn machine wouldn’t get going again. But the gods had it in for me from the offset and, within a mere thirty seconds of setting off, the skies exploded and an almighty downpour commenced. There was nothing I could do. Thanks to my late laundry delivery, I only just had enough time to get into town and return the bike before catching my bus. Waiting for a break in the rain simply wouldn’t do.

Cambodia knows a thing or two about rain. In this part of the world, every now and then, when it suits the gods in the clouds, they will unleash an unimaginable volume of water, pounding down so hard that it stings your skin, even when you’re not riding into it on a motorcycle. It can rain harder in the tropics than I ever thought was possible back home in Scotland… and believe me when I say Scottish people know a thing or two about rain. When it buckets down in Cambodia, you can fill buckets in seconds. The water hits the street hard enough that it bounces back and gets you on the chin. When it hits water it penetrates like a bullet. Roads turn to rivers, and rivers burst their banks and consume all the surrounding flatland. It comes down so hard and fast that I swear it goes through you – it soaks you so much that even if you went home, changed, and dried yourself thoroughly with a towel, you’d still feel wet for days. Such is the power of a tropical rainstorm.

And it was one of these – one of the hardest and most unforgiving I’ve ever encountered – that commenced literally seconds after I set off from Mien Mien Bungalows on Otres, for a long ride back to Sihanoukville. By the time I arrived, there was nothing on me that remained dry. I was soaked through to the bone. My bags, too, were utterly drenched – everything I had was wet. Somehow, by some minor miracle, my electronics seem to have survived, but my books are mulch, my money and my passport just floppy bits of thin paper, and my clothes all completely drenched.

So, soaked to the bone and with nothing I could do about it, I walked through the driving rain to Mick & Craig’s and stood outside, under a large awning, and waited for my minibus. After forty-five minutes of waiting, I asked a nice girl working at a nearby travel agency to call and inquire about the bus, which then showed up five minutes later, having evidently forgotten about me.

Yes, it was going to be one of those days.

I got into the little bus and had my first break of good luck for the day – it was nearly empty. I had a whole row of seats to myself, so I took off my hiking boots, which were filled to the brim with dirty brown foot-stink water, and spread myself out awkwardly, hoping to dry off a little. The problem with Cambodian buses, however, and indeed buses throughout Southeast Asia, is that they blast their air conditioning relentlessly. The other passenger on the bus was wearing a thick hoody and a scarf, while I shivered in misery for four and a half gruelling hours. I was already fighting a cold, and I didn’t need this to add to my woes.

At Phnom Penh airport, I lost my temper at a tuk-tuk driver. I have little tolerance for these parasitic bastards, and if there is anything I loathe worse than a parasite, it’s an idiot – and this guy was evidently both. After alighting from my bus outside the airport departures gate, the driver approached me and shouted, “’otobike? ‘otobike? ‘otobike?”

“Do I look like I need a fucking motorbike?!” I shouted. “Where do you think I’m going?” I pointed at the airport, but it didn’t seem he understood. “’otobike?” he said again. These people are not all bad, and they’re certainly not all stupid, but most of them are heavily into crystal meth, and that happens to push people a little into both categories. On the twenty meters I walked to the gate of the airport, another half dozen drivers accosted me. The desperation in their eyes as they saw a white man walking outside the airport overwhelmed them – here was a mark they could scam, someone to swindle or rob. Or so they thought.

I went into the airport, leaving the leprous swine behind. First on the agenda was to change out of my sodden boots and into some flip-flops. I checked through my bags and found I had no dry clothes to change into, but that didn’t matter. I was getting used to sitting in these damp clothes and, by the time I arrived in Malaysia, I was sure I’d finally be dry.

Arriving in Malaysia

The flights went quite smoothly, and at 11:45pm we touched down at Kota Bharu airport. I had no idea what Kota Bharu was like; in fact, I knew almost nothing about the town at all. It was just a jumping off point on the way to the Perhentians, as far as I knew. My credit card expired last month and I had been unable to book a hotel, but that was ok… I have a very long track record of rolling into towns in the middle of the night with no reservations and everything turning out just fine.

But this wasn’t going to be one of those times.

The first small problem was that when I got to the arrival gate there were booths for hotels and buses to Kuala Besut – where the ferry departs for the Perhentians – but, sadly, they were not staffed. In fact, as I walked around the airport I saw that it was almost entirely empty. I found a woman who told me there was a hotel nearby, and walked out of the airport grounds and onto a large road with few lights. I walked around for an hour, finding only one guesthouse and a number of pissed off buffalo, but the guesthouse had no one working on the front desk. So I decided I’d return to the airport and either take a taxi into town to find a hotel, or just sleep on the floor in the airport itself.

However, the airport was now closed.

Fuck.

I took stock of my options, and things looked grim. I could try to find someplace to sleep outside, but I’d only just started to feel dry again, and I didn’t fancy the chances of it not raining overnight. In the end, I resolved to walk downtown and find a hotel. My phone battery was almost dead, but the GPS app told me it was maybe 12km along a single road into the middle of town, where there were dozens of small hotels. One of them would surely have staff at the reception desk.

I took off walking along the dark highway, lugging some 20kg of luggage in flip-flops at almost one o’clock in the morning, while the temperature was still around 30’C. Yet the road was not empty. At this hour, in Kota Bharu, evidently the local young men take to the streets for illegal races in ridiculous suped-up cars, firing along the dark road as fast as they can go. For the first few kilometres, though, they just stood about beside their cars, talking, lingering in shadows. There were more than fifty of these ludicrous vehicles amidst a frenzy of testosterone and petrol fumes.

This left me in a nervous state of mind. Besides the obvious danger of being hit and killed by one of these maniacs, there was also the fact that I was a foreigner in this strange land, wandering along the road with all his worldly possessions – or at least a good few thousand dollars’ worth of cash and electronics – in the middle of the night, surrounded by wild-eyed young men in shady groups. Where I come from, this situation would not end well, whether you are foreign or local – except the locals would know better than to put themselves in such a position. We call these people “boy racers,” which is a polite way of saying criminal psychopaths, or the sort of bored idiots for whom A Clockwork Orange is a sort of watered down biopic.

Around three o’clock, halfway to town, I found a small hotel whose proprietor bore an uncanny resemblance to Breaking Bad’s ultraviolent villain, Tuco. Mercifully, Tuco gave me a room for 80RM (US$10), although at this point I would’ve traded him both my kidneys and hoped for a transplant in the morning. I settled into my awful little room and spread out all my possessions in front of the air conditioner, hoping that they’d dry just a bit before morning. It was freezing and the air conditioning aggravated my sore throat, but I soon fell into a deep sleep.

Heading for the Islands

In the morning I slept through my alarm, but woke about 8:30. Tuco said he had no idea how to get to Kuala Besut, and so I continued my walk – this time wearing my soaked hiking boots, which still slushed with every step. My feet were badly blistered from walking so far in flip-flops.

The heat was unbearable even by 9am, and I stuck to the shadows as much as possible. It occurred to me for the first time that I wasn’t that far from the equator. The roads seemed quieter in the daylight, or perhaps they were just less threatening. I noticed that the “boy racer” car – a suped-up little model with a low-slung chassis, spoiler, and noisy exhaust – seemed to be the go-to vehicle for just about everyone in Kota Bharu, and not just young men. Along the road, people stopped for breakfast at little cafes with tables pouring out into the street, and men sat around in dour-faced groups listening to angry Arabic tirades coming from loudspeakers outside various mosques. I saw one or two people who were clearly not Muslim, but it seemed that here almost everyone was. All the women, certainly, wore hijabs and some were even fully covered except for their eyes. It seemed there were three types of social group – large groups of (usually elderly) men, small groups of women, and young families with a single child. There was little mixing of the genders, except for those who were clearly married. This was all very different from what I remembered seeing in Kuala Lumpur, but then this part of Malaysia is devoutly Muslim.

At the bus station, I wandered around until I stumbled upon the bus to Kuala Besut. I kept asking people and getting nowhere. It wasn’t that people were trying to be unhelpful, but rather that they all pointed here and there very vaguely, and told me different bus numbers. I noticed that when anyone pointed, they wouldn’t use their whole finger – I’d heard this was an Islamic trait.

Soon I was on a bus full of women in full Muslim garb, heading on a very circuitous route towards Kuala Besut. It was nice to see this group laughing with one another. In the West, we see very few positive depictions of Muslims these days, and yet here were lots of Muslim women, young and old, chatting and joking and taking selfies just the same as people anywhere else. One young woman of about twenty was reclined across two seats, seductively biting her lip and sucking on her finger, presumably sending selfies to some lucky beau. I suppose Allah is only one of the important men in her life.

At Kuala Besut I walked around the tiny port town and then found the jetty for the fast boat to the Perhentians. At one o’clock the boat took off across the sea, skipping at speed over the waves. I’d been told that the ride would be very wet and uncomfortable, but it was actually incredibly pleasant. Or maybe I’d just become accustomed to wet and uncomfortable rides and this forty minute hop was nothing I couldn’t handle… Besides, looking out over azure waters at the looming islands was enough to put me in a good mood after the difficult journey. I was almost there.

Once again, without a credit card I’d been unable to book a hotel on the island, and so when the boatmen asked me where I was going, I picked a place whose name I’d seen on the wall of a travel agency – D’Lagoon, on Perhentian Kecil. It was, annoyingly, the last stop, and on the penultimate stop someone accidentally took my bag and we had to turn around and find them. At D’Lagoon, the speed boat dropped me on a tiny wooden floating platform and told me someone would come to pick me up soon. And so I stood there, bobbing on the sea, hoping that no wave would tip me over – which would’ve fit perfectly with my luck for the previous few days.

But it didn’t flip over, and a few minutes later a man in a small boat came and picked me up. At reception I asked for a room but they said they only had one dorm bed left. I wasn’t happy about it, but for some reason I’d picked the hotel furthest from any other on the island, and I was stuck with the dorm bed or long hike through mountainous jungle on unknown trails… He showed me to a dark, cramped, dirty little dorm with one fan and a dozen creaky beds. Oh well, I thought, maybe something would open up later.

The Difficult Journey Pays Off

Perhentian Kecil proved to be staggeringly beautiful, and the area immediately around D’Lagoon is particularly stunning. Dense jungle covers the islands save for small stretches of white beach here and there, and a few winding, steep paths lead from one beach to another – although the most common way to travel is by “water taxi.” The seas are an unreal turquoise colour – more like an idealistic painting than a real place. I trekked through the jungle from D’Lagoon to Turtle Beach, a ten minute barefoot walk. En route I saw numerous water monitors, which are thankfully afraid of people in spite of their massive size, some bright red squirrels, and a few long-tailed birds. However, I’d come to the Perhentians for one reason – sharks. At Turtle Beach, which could be used as a set for any movie requiring a tropical paradise, I stood next to the pristine water and looked out over the sea to the Malaysian peninsula, just silhouetted on the horizon. Just then, within a minute of arriving, something caught my eye. There was a small shark just two meters from my feet! It was a baby blacktip reef shark cruising the shallow tidal pools right next to the beach. I couldn’t believe my luck.

And with that fleeting glimpse, a tiny shark in a rock pool undid all the bullshit of the previous thirty-two hours, and made me glad I’d embarked upon this absurd journey. In life, nothing worthwhile ever comes easily.

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The Baby Shark at Turtle Beach