Sir Russel and Allison Hillhouse


Sir Russel and Allison Hillhouse

[ A Birding and Wildlife Trip Report: Sri Lanka]

In summary, we had a wonderful trip, which fully met our expectations. Our two driver-guides, Hetti and Wicki, were superb. Obviously we had much more time to establish a relationship with Hetti and I hope he enjoyed this as much as we did; through him (and Wicki) we were able to learn a great deal about life in Sri Lanka as well as about antiquities, birds and nature.
As far as the birdwatching went, we did very well indeed, reaching a total of 202 species including a high proportion of the endemics, but, more importantly, enjoying repeated and prolonged observations of most of them, which is what we really like doing. Hetti realised that we were not what he called ‘hard-core birders’ and probably modified his approach a little.
We found the general standard of accommodation very good indeed, we had no problems with the travelling and the food was almost consistently excellent; we usually ate SriLankan, which agreed with us very well, though the excellence of the Western/fusion food at the end of the trip tempted us away. The scenery was consistently much lovelier than we had been expecting (thanks to the beautiful trees and bushes and wonderful rocky outcrops) all the way from the airport at the beginning to Talangama at the end.

We had no difficulties in coping with the drive from the airport to Vil Ulyana on the first morning; and VU was a great place to recover from the journey. It really is a lovely place and we enjoyed the spacious watery site full of birds, butterflies and animals, our beautiful house with our private plunge pool and the stylish common block. The food and the staff were excellent too. The only criticism we have related to the lighting: it was so dim in our room that we could scarcely find things in our luggage after dark and reading (which we like doing) was a severe trial; it was frustrating to find such a beautiful library full of interesting books but to be unable to read any of them in the evening because the lighting there was so feeble; even in the restaurant we had trouble reading the menus! The restaurant staff did however give us a lovely surprise by producing a delicious birthday cake for my wife (which must owe something to you). Our trips to Polonnaruwa, Sigirya, Arunadhapura and Dambulla were all very enjoyable (and mostly very quiet) and gave useful birdwatching opportunities as well.

We also enjoyed our time in Kandy but there were problems with Hotel Suisse: the food was abysmally bad on the first evening (practically no choice, tepid Western dishes badly cooked, dreadful dessert) and only a little better on the second; the room and especially the balcony weren’t as clean as they should have been; the pool was grubby and the changing facilities were disgusting. There seemed generally to be a lack of managerial grip. On the other hand we did have a room with a nice view and we enjoyed being able to walk into town on our own.

Kithulgala was fascinating. The birding around Sisira’s was amazingly good and the river endlessly fascinating. Our trip across to the other side will remain in the memory for a long time, as much for the glimpses of local life (little smallholdings, tiny shops, normal life dependent on a fragile outrigger dugout canoe) as for the birds and for a rather exciting return journey in the dark in a thunderstorm on a rough track with leeches! On balance we enjoyed Sisira’s very much. The people were very nice, the food was simple and good, and the surroundings and bird visitors were lovely. We felt however that the proprietor should have another look at the current standard of things, after having started off with lots of good ideas; for example we had a comfortable super-kingsize bed but the covering sheet was from a single bed which only covered one of us- the other made do with a blanket; and it is all very well having a shower open to the sky but the floor should be reasonably smooth and clean not rocky and algae-covered.

We enjoyed Nuwara Eliya very much, thanks in part to very good weather (only a couple of brief rainshowers – and we didn’t find it at all chilly, though Hetti did) and very largely to St Andrew’s Hotel, which was singularly well run and very comfortable. We thought the management had made a good job of modernising an old hotel without losing its character; the food was excellent and the restaurant service exemplary. The only slight sadness was that the very beautiful dining room had almost no natural light, thanks to the later erection of flanking buildings of lesser quality. The trip to Horton Plains was blessed by lovely weather and was very fruitful.

Yala (Ruhunu) was a great treat in every respect, even if we just missed seeing a leopard; all the other animals and the wonderful birds and scenery made up for that. We greatly enjoyed Elephant Reach – spacious grounds, nice pool, good food – and were sorry it was so empty. We could perhaps have done with a little more time at leisure there to explore the surroundings on our own. As we explained to you and Gehan, we didn’t sense any great tension in the Park on account of the security situation, although we did meet foot patrols from time to time. To make up for the loss of the Uda Walawe trip Hetti subsituted an extra trip in Yala (which nearly yielded a leopard – he saw it but we were too slow); frankly I think that to have tackled Bundala and Uda Walawe as well as driving to Sinharaja might have been a bit too much.

We greatly enjoyed our time at Sinharaja and totally saw the point of being up at Martin’s, which, though Simple, provided everything one needed, including very acceptable food and good company. We had been expecting more difficult walking and were very pleasantly surprised by how easy (and beautiful) it all was; the weather was lovely and we almost avoided the leeches.

Wicki took over at Sinharaja and took us to Galle. The Lighthouse was a very great treat indeed. We had an exceptionally good room directly overlooking the sea and loved everything – the excellent design and comfort of our room and the public spaces, the delicious food, the lovely pools and spacious grounds, the chance to walk on the lovely beach, the attentive staff.

Finally, there was our stay at Talangama. We had read a lot of good things about this but the reality was even better than we had expected – we hadn’t realised quite how lovely the building and grounds would be, how fit for purpose and how beautifully furnished. It was a lovely place in which to relax and prepare for the journey home and of course we greatly enjoyed Mr P’s food. We also had the unexpected bonus of meeting Hema, the owner, with whom we enjoyed a number of interesting conversations (he was surprisingly well-informed about Scottish politics!). We greatly enjoyed our gentle birdwatching walks around the tanks with Wicki and on our own; they added a number of new names to our list but also enabled us to have prolonged views of birds we had seen earlier elsewhere. The mix of traditional little houses and smallholding activities and new architect-designed houses was interesting; we hope that all the open space doesn’t disappear.

To sum up: we had a super trip in which we greatly benefited from the luxury of two such expert guides as Hetti and Wicki and from your planning. With hindsight we might have preferred to have a little more time built in here and there for relaxation or self-exploration, given that we are both in our 70th year and not ‘hard-core birders’ but this is a minor comment. The other point we might make, which we partly mentioned at Talangama, is that Jetwing Eco might consider whether it could find some way of providing a flight-booking service (as you know we fell foul of bad practice when we tried to book through an on-line agency) and also find a way in which British clients could pay for their tour through some agency in the UK. As to our flights, we were glad we had chosen to travel via Frankfurt despite the long interchange times (there were dreadful troubles last Wednesday at Heathrow) and you might care to draw this possibility to the attention of other clients from Scotland.

As you will realise, we are very satisfied customers and would like to thank you for your advice and for making all the arrangements.