[ A Birding and Wildlife Trip Report: Sri Lanka]
A fat frog sits on a sunny rock that protrudes from a stream, unaware it is about to die. A heron swoops. The frog disappears. Seconds later I spot the heron, preening on another rock as the amphibian dangles helplessly from its beak. Bird and prey are reflected beautifully in slow-moving water. Larger creatures are the main attraction here but, somehow, this encounter sticks in my mind.
Glance at a map. Shape instantly reveals why the island to India’s south is often likened to a teardrop. Recent history makes the allusion appropriate. But calm has taken hold. Secessionist civil war in the north and east has been replaced by negotiations. A tsunami in 2004 killed 30,000 Sri Lankans.
However, all-important tourists have returned in large numbers and economic recovery has been faster than forecast.
The northern Tamil heartland, anchored by Jaffna, is no longer off-limits and even there tourists are trickling in. Elsewhere – at beach resorts, ancient cities, tea plantations, game parks and in the main cities of Colombo and Kandy, visitors are back.
“Statistics are encouraging: tourism is once again a major industry after being badly buffeted by political troubles and then the tsunami,” says Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne, one of the country’s most prominent environmentalists and nature photographers. “It was touch and go after the tsunami with no-one sure about the outlook – but the numbers were healthy again after about eight months,” says James Whight, a transplanted Australian who operates the Cricket Club Café, one of Colombo’s hippest after-hours spots. “After the loss of life in the tsunami it was very heartening to see because so many families depend on tourism earnings.”
British colonial rulers called this island Ceylon. Uncorroborated oral history suggests it was known in ancient times as Serendib. This name spawned the English word “serendipitous”, describing the making of pleasing discoveries by accident.
I find it a singularly fitting word as I criss-cross this island nation: a splendidy serendipitous place. Tea plantations cascade down hills. Ancient cities invite rambling amid the ruins. Village eccentrics regale me with all manner of tales in flawless English. Ornate Buddhist and Hindu temples dot quaint towns such as Nuwara Eliya. Resort areas such as Negombo and Galle have sprung back to life.
Given Sri Lanka’s many charms, it is unsurprising game parks ranked low among priorities of tourism planners. This changed a decade ago – but then the tsunami wrecked promising projections as well as wreaking wider havoc and claiming many lives.
Best-known of game lodge destinations is Yala National Park. The tsunami destroyed the main hotel, just outside the park’s main entrance. [While it is being rebuilt, tour operators use hotels a half-hour drive away.]
A tsunami mystery: wildlife rangers subsequently found not a single dead elephant, leopard or deer in the Yala area. “Not even a rabbit,” exclaims one official. Close to 30,000 Sri Lankans died – but, as wildlife experts explain, somehow the animals sensed disaster and rushed inland.
Now the safari niche is once again booming. Bird watchers from around the world are again drawn to Yala, an area renowned for its abundant avian varieties. Though an occasional bird-watcher, I am more intrigued by the park’s reputation as home to bigger beasts: elephants and leopards.
True, this isn’t animal-viewing on the immense scale offered in Africa’s southern and eastern regions. Nonetheless, from Australia, it is a not-too-far-away alternative with some of Asia’s most best sightings. Many visitors add this diversion to a visit to Sri Lanka’s ancient cities or even an indulgent beach sojourn in the nearby Maldives (to which there are numerous short flights from Colombo).
Yala boasts leopards, elephants, sloth bears, crocodiles, spotted deer, sambar deer, barking deer, wild boar, wild (as opposed to domesticated) buffaloes, jackals, mongooses, langurs and other monkeys – and birds such as peacocks, hornbills, painted storks, black-necked storks, grey herons and green bee-eaters. Add to this panoply a rich variety of multi-hued butterflies and an abundance of frogs.
The park is reached after a southbound seven-hour drive (all but the final few minutes on paved roads) from Colombo down the pretty resort-studded coast to the historic town of Galle (a small number of resorts remain closed because of delays in post-tsunami reconstruction).
Galle highlights include a wealth of colonial architecture with evidence of Portuguese, Dutch and British settlement. In little more than an hour, I walk along a pathway atop the perimeter wall of a perfectly preserved Dutch fort, built in 1663. The older part of town – including a landmark lighthouse – is mostly within the fort’s walls.
Comparisons with Africa are inevitable. Staff wear khaki and the setting reminds me, and some other visitors, of the Dark Continent. Game drives are in the khaki-painted, open-sided 4WDs so popular in African parks.
No residents may set up homes within the 1259 sq. km. park. Its populace is limited to rangers and guides. [Tourist accommodation is outside the entrance, but close.] Most tourists I meet tell me they were advised to allocate two or three nights to Yala, allowing for four or five game drives.
Rangers’ skills and luck determine what will be seen on any drive. On my first outing, I spot a group of five elephants within 10 minutes. Moments later, a lone elephant crosses the road. Bouncing over gently hills we spot several more – altogether I see more than three dozen.
Peacocks position themselves on the pinnacles of termite mounds, green bee-eaters remain in their trees even after we stop next to low branches where they sit. Two jackals run ahead of us in their characteristically furtive manner. A family of wild boars uses its snouts to explore a clearing near a clump of trees. A mongoose group poses on hind legs to stare at us, before dashing into an intricate network of tunnels. A log seen in the distance turns out to be a crocodile basking on a sandbank, its enormous jaws fixed in an open position.
But we see not one elusive leopard – not yet.
The other day, a ranger tells me reassuringly, a tourist couple eyeballed a cub sprawled on an overhanging branch. Another group of recent visitors drove to the top of a hill beyond which two male leopards fought bloodily at the roadside. The growling animals, still fighting, moved into a thicket – leaving a trail of blood on the ground.
A wake-up call rouses me for next morning’s sunrise drive. Almost at once we spot a group of six elephants, including two babies. I notice baby elephants have the ability to charm even the grumpiest of humans.
Leopards, true to their reputation, remain hidden. Then, around a dusty bend, is a sight I have all but given up on: a female leopard walks slowly along the track’s grass-covered edge. We drive on and, within minutes, are rewarded by another sighting: a sinewy feline casts a contemptuous stare our way before sauntering into thick bushland. Suddenly, spotted deer are racing nervously in the opposite direction. It seems an eminently reasonable course of action.
BOX: Tea, temples, ancient cities – and haute couture
Sri Lankans seldom bother saying how many kilometres one place is from another. Roads are mostly smooth and paved – but they are narrow and winding, slowing travel through hilly countryside but creating ideal conditions for taking in both scenic beauty and the daily routines of the local populace. It makes more sense to say a journey will take three or four hours rather than mention the distance.
Most attractions can be visited within a few hours’ drive of Colombo – or stay at the inland towns of Kandy and Nuwara Eliya which have good-quality hotels aplenty. (Nuwara Eliya’s St Andrew’s Hotel, with sloping landscaped gardens, reminds me of a rather grand English country house).
Diversions include the ruined ancient cities of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Sigiriya (the last-mentioned with renowned frescoes of bare-breasted damsels painted on walls about 1500 years ago), the cave temple at Dambulla with its many Buddha images and the undulating inland tea-plantation country.
Nuwara Eliya’s holiday role developed during the British-colonial era when it was a popular hill-station getaway for officials’ families. Kandy, Sri Lanka’s second-largest city, sits beside an artificial lake constructed almost 200 years ago by Sri Wickrama Rajasinha, who ruled the former Kingdom of Kandy.
Kandy remains a place of pilgrimage because of its Temple of the Tooth, an impressive pink-hued building where a golden casket is said to hold a tooth of the Lord Buddha. (Debate is unresolved over whether it is a genuine relic or a replica placed there by 16th-century Portuguese explorers.). The National Museum is alongside; housing exhibits from the pre-colonial era.
About an hour’s drive from Kandy is Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage, one of Sri lanka’s top attractions. A government-run facility for orphaned elephants and those relocated from farmland, it houses about 50 – including infant pachyderms – which are led each day to a nearby river where they bathe and cavort. Pinnewala is bus-party territory but it is justly famed as wonderful opportunity to photograph elephants. What’s more, it is an all but mandatory excursion if you have children in tow.
Back at the coast, I am pleased to see splendid beaches again luring planeloads of tourists from Asia and Europe to resort areas such as Negombo and Galle, while surfers have returned to Hikkaduwa in the southwest and backpackers once again spill out of cheap guesthouses near Weligama and Unawatuna. Near Weligama, I peer out at a Sri Lankan oddity: fishermen who each perch for many hours on a solitary stilt, embedded in the sea bottom just offshore, as they cast their nets.
Colombo is often described as being like Indian cities but without the pressing crowds. Though a cliché, it’s true. Along the capital’s York Street are elaborately decorated British colonial structures – including the fusty Millers and Cargills department stores with their old-fashioned interiors. Modern malls have snared much of their trade. Towering over the downtown area are the twin towers of the World Trade Centre where the stock exchange and many major corporations are located.
Still relatively unknown – except among overseas Sri Lankans on home visits, air crews and frequent business visitors – is the country’s fashion-shopping allure. Tax-free economic zones have attracted many foreign garment factories, supplying designer outlets overseas. Overflow from factories – including items with minor imperfections such as a missing button – ends up mainly in two spacious, hi-tech stores: Odel Unlimited (with sushi counter, ice cream emporium and wine bar) and nearby Arena at better-than-Bangkok prices. [These are genuine articles rather than fakes common elsewhere in Southeast Asia.] Look particularly for casual, in-vogue gear (brands include Gap and Columbia adventure wear) as well as haute couture. Local fabrics and designs with a contemporary twist are showcased at Barefoot. At Odel Unlimited, I happily hand over the equivalent of $A10 for a shower-proof Columbia windcheater, made for export, knowing that a similar garment of the same brand costs over $A120 in Australia.
After shopping – and perhaps before an aromatic Sri Lankan curry – pause for a drink at the memorabilia-filled Cricket Club Café, a hang-out for fans, touring teams, the local elite and overseas visitors that is located in an imposing villa close to major hotels.
With hostilities ended between Tamils and the Sinhalese majority, the formerly off-limits far-northern city of Jaffna now welcomes visitors and a feisty local carrier, Expo Aviation, has daily flights there from Colombo. Jaffna has several mid-market accommodation options, though nothing opulent. Aficionados of old cars are drawn to Jaffna where civil war isolation created a time warp. Along Hospital Road in the downtown area, I stop at the taxi rank which is akin to a museum for the venerable Austin Cambridge and Morris Oxford. Already, Toyotas are beginning to replace them.
Chris Pritchard was a guest of Sri Lankan Airlines and Jetwing Hotels.
Sri Lanka Basics
Currency: Sri Lankan Rupee ($1 = 74 rupees [LKR])
When to go: All-year tropical destination. However, April is most humid in the south (including Colombo) while November-March is driest, when infrequent rain comes in short bursts and daytime temperatures are mostly in the high 20s.
Getting there: Sri Lankan Airlines (02 9244 2234, www.srilankan.aero) – partly owned by Dubai’s Emirates Airline – flies to Colombo from Bangkok, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta and Singapore, with connections from Australia. [Sri Lankan Airlines flights from Melbourne and Sydney are code-share services, operated by Emirates to Singapore with a connecting flight to Colombo. A similar arrangement from Brisbane is via Bangkok.]
Where to stay: In Colombo, the Cinnamon Grand is an excellent full-service city property with a good choice of restaurants and bars and internal access to a modern shopping mall while the seafront Galle Face is one of Asia’s grand old hotels and still attracts many foreign political and showbiz celebrities (Arthur C. Clarke, author of “2001: A Space Odyssey”, has lived in Colombo since 1956 but based himself at the Galle Face to do much of his writing). Jetwing Eco Holidays (0011 94 11 238 1201, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, Internet stag2.mydemoview.com/jetwingeco) runs Yala National Park tours from the equivalent of about $1600 per person (twin share) for five-day packages including Colombo airport pick-up and drop-off, guides, all meals, six game drives, entrance fees and other charges (excluding flights to Sri Lanka). The company also operates tours to ancient cities and other attractions. Or, cars with driver-guide can be arranged in advance as part of a package or independently at the last minute through any hotel in Colombo