Singharaja – Endemic Birds and Inquisitive Young People

I wanted to spend the last full day of my Sri Lankan holidays in one of the many nature reserves to learn more about the country’s biodiversity and to take photos. I would have loved to visit Yala National Park with its incredible wildlife again, which I had already been to with my brother just before the 2004 tsunami. However, the distance to get there was too great, so that I preferred to settle for something easier to reach. Singharaja Rainforest Reserve in the southwestern part of Sri Lanka sounded the most tempting, as it was said to be the last pristine stretch of rainforest on the island and to host many endemic birds and plants. I had arranged a car and driver, who would safely take me from Nuwara Eliya to Singharaja’s western entrance, and had also booked my accommodation in Martin’s Lodge, a simple but very popular place right next to the park entrance, which I reached after 7 long hours in the car and a steep climb up from the rangers’ office. The guide taking me there used his chance efficiently and persuaded me to book him as a guide that same evening as well as on the following day. He was nice alright but annoyed me by flicking his cigarette butts on the ground and being a bit too curious. Since my time was limited though and I didn’t want to argue, I settled with him. That same evening we went out on a quick birding tour, we saw and heard several species, and I gained a better feeling for the rainforest.

The next day was packed with nature experiences. In the morning we climbed up one of the peaks in Singharaja, allowing me to see the unlimited rainforest canopy from the top, as well as little frogs, colourful lizards and huge spiders. In the afternoon, we went bird-watching and again saw and heard several species: drongos, flycatchers, magpies, sunbirds, parakeets, mynas, junglefowl etc., many of which can only be found in Sri Lanka. The giants of the forest mainly comprise the Dipterocarpaceae, a tree family I had already encountered in Vietnam’s rainforests. One of the species was a Nawada tree, which also reached great dimensions and was said to be hundreds of years old. Singharaja was unusually dry, however. It hadn’t rained for a few weeks, many leaves were dead and the undergrowth sparse. “Normally you can’t see very far, as the vegetation is so lush and dense”, my guide explained. Hopefully the rain starts setting in soon again, as the ecosystem with its intricate network of relationships wouldn’t function properly without it anymore.

The dearest memories I have of my Singharaja visit do not involve the beautiful birds and reptiles, however, but incredibly interesting people. During my two nights at the lodge, I became acquainted with a local tour guide, Amila, and his Swedish guest, Andreas, who just seemed to know every living thing in the forest and ticked off the birds they had seen on a long list. It was a joy to see them so devoted to their bird species, and I was reminded of a hilarious newspaper article I once read about super-keen birders and their excitement when seeing a rare but dull-grey-brown bird (an LBJ, a “little brown job”)… Rahula was another great inspiration. Based at the Zoology Department of the University of Colombo and as part of the Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka, he conducts regular field trips and rainforest interpretation sessions for local school children and has visited Singharaja many times. It was wonderful discussing environmental awareness programmes with him, as a lot of our interests overlapped and we could share some experiences. At the time when I was in Singharaja, he and his colleagues were conducting a three day field trip with children from northern Sri Lanka’s Polonnaruva – the first time for the young people to be in a rainforest and see pitcher plants, Blue Magpies, tree ferns and orb spiders. It was also one of the first times for them to be with a “tourist”, so they all inspected me from a distance, watched silently as I ate my dinner and secretly took pictures of me. A brave young girl finally took a deep breath and approached me, asking me all sorts of questions about what I do and where I come from and, having received the answers, acknowledged them with the typical headshake that always makes me smile. This made the others more confident, too, so that by the time we were ready for departure I was being interviewed by several inquisitive youths.

Rahula and his colleagues kindly offered me a free ride back to Colombo this morning, he showed me his workplace and made sure I got on the right taxi to the city centre. A wonderful acquaintance! Because of the political instability in the region, all car passengers got frequently checked along the road by policemen, but luckily I never had to show them my passport or other documents. It is sad to see so many armed men in the streets and to recognise that the tourist flow to this beautiful corner of the world has almost ceased because of the war in the north. I do hope that Sri Lanka finds its way out of this crisis soon and continues to attract travellers to its many natural and cultural wonders.

Nuwara Eliya - Cold Nights and Hot Tea

Colombo has a number of pretty shops with local handicrafts, fabrics and clothes, all for rather little money, which I wanted to explore on my second full day in Colombo. Luckily I didn’t have to go by myself. Felicia, another Soneva Fushi friend, offered her wonderful company and saved me from a lot of confusion and rip-off. With Felicia’s help, the tuk-tuk drivers charged reasonable (local) prices without a lot of discussion and safely drove us from one shop to the next. Having a local companion also gave me a much better overview over Colombo; Felicia was the perfect tour guide and, as usual, made me laugh so many times. After our successful shopping trip, we treated ourselves to afternoon High Tea at the Galle Face Hotel, which included tea and cakes and short-eats without end and which left us with nothing else to wish for.

As expected, my new temporary passport was ready to be picked up on Wednesday (after only two working days and no bureaucratic hurdle, great!), so that I was able to leave the capital and travel towards the high country in the interior. Unfortunately, all trains going towards Kandy and Nuwara Eliya (my preferred mode of transport in Sri Lanka, as the countryside you get to see is just stunning) had already left in the morning, so that I was obliged to hop on a bus. I was assured that there are many air-conditioned busses available for only a little extra charge, but when the taxi driver dropped me off at one of the huge public bus stations, all I could find were rusty, smelly, crowded busses… My backpack and I had no choice but to squeeze into one of them and be stuck in it for about 6 hours all the way to Nuwara Eliya, my next destination. Even though there really was hardly any space, my neighbour would fall asleep on my shoulder several times and I could not understand, why salesmen would offer plastic drawing boards, torches or dusty handkerchiefs to the bus passengers (and actually get them sold!), I had a good and safe and cheap journey. Travelling as the locals do opens your eyes to the real life in a country, offers you a look behind the façade, sometimes even establishes great contacts and makes your day. After having passed numerous scruffy little villages and towns on the way to Kandy, the landscape now opened up a bit more and gave way to tea plantations and green hills before reaching Nuwara Eliya. I arrived in the city centre when it was already dark and was prepared to be immediately surrounded by touts. Luckily only one was quite pushy trying to convince me of the qualities of his own lodge but I stayed firm and asked him to get taken to a guesthouse I had chosen based on guidebook recommendations. When I arrived at the guesthouse, I made immediate contact with two other travellers and decided to join them for dinner at the Hill Club, a preserve built for the British colonial elite, which until 1970 was only open to men. The food was alright, the prices steep and the rooms grand but a bit shabby and very old-fashioned. I preferred my little cheap hotel and spent a cold night under a cosy thick blanket.

The following day was dedicated to my favourite drink, tea. Camellia sinensis, the tea plant, grows in both low and high altitude regions of Sri Lanka and has become one of the country’s main export products. The tea around Nuwara Eliya and Hatton in the cool, misty mountains grows slower than in the warm regions and is therefore said to be more aromatic. A short drive out of the city centre, Pedro Estate’s tea factory allows visitors in and provides them with valuable information about the journey of the tea leaf from tea bush to tea bag. I had visited this processing plant previously, in 2004 together with my brother Henrik, and was therefore surprised to find that the education facilities had improved so much – and that no photography inside the factory was allowed any longer. I was greeted with a steaming cup o’ tea and invited for a private show-around of the facilities. Here a quick overview of the tea processing stages: picking of the youngest tea leaves (the three top-most leaves) in the plantation, withering (air-drying) to remove water, rolling to oxidise the cells and release the tannins (“fermentation”), sifting to separate twigs from leaves, baking to completely dry the leaves, sifting again to grade the tea according to its quality, packaging, and quality control. When my tour was finished, I saw some German guests just starting their show-around and decided to join them once more; this time we were a bit naughty and took some photos of the factory.

In the afternoon, I joined a group of tea pluckers and followed them into the tea plantations, which was a wonderful opportunity to get in contact with the colourfully dressed ladies and take many photographs. Everybody was very friendly, tried to speak English, asked me about my family and job, described their daily routine and was happy to be included in photos. I left them a good tip, which was much appreciated considering that each woman only earns about USD 2 a day for 8 hours in the field. I was very happy about this relaxing day and returned to my lodge in the late afternoon in order to make arrangements for my next travels.

Colombo – Catching up with Cultural Highlights, Colonial Architecture and Café Lattes

After having spent many consecutive months on tiny Maldivian islands it was time again for a short break – on a bigger island! I chose to go to Sri Lanka mainly for the purpose of renewing my passport but since I hadn’t visited the country for about 4.5 years (my brother Henrik and I were in Sri Lanka last just a few weeks before the tsunami shattered the region), I was looking forward to spending some more time in the cool high-altitude tea plantations, in rainforests teeming with wildlife and amongst the welcoming locals. I have arranged to be here for one week, from Sunday to Sunday, and hope that the good times continue in the same fashion as they had started yesterday and today.

After a perfectly-timed flight by seaplane from Soneva Fushi to Male’ and a short connecting flight from Male’ to Colombo, I found myself stretching on the hotel bed for a minute and immediately receiving a welcoming phone call from my friend Dilhani. She is a Colombo-native and had worked in my Maldivian resort for a number of years before moving to Australia, marrying Adam (another Soneva Fushi colleague) and getting pregnant with their child. They are now back in Colombo, which is great for me, as I can enjoy their wonderful company and get to see things I would otherwise miss. Such as the huge Buddhist celebration that took place in the city centre last night right after my arrival! “Duruthu Perahera”, a colourful and cheerful parade of hundreds of dressed-up, acrobatic and musical religious followers (and dozens of elephants!), apparently takes place once a year before a full moon public holiday and attracts hundreds of visitors. This year I was one of them and, together with Dilhani, her mum, Adam and their friends, sat on the roadside and admired the different groups that were passing by with whistles, whips, fire wheels and drums. In between all these human bodies and loud sounds there were beautifully dressed elephants that belonged to different temples in the country. One of them transported a highly meaningful temple item and was only raised for the purpose of carrying this statue once a year; it was only allowed to tread on a white lane of cloth, never directly touching the road! I wondered how all these elephants could stay so calm, slowly trotting down the main street, but then saw the chains between their legs and the sharp hooks the elephant keepers carried… This whole parade went on for quite a few hours and only finished around 10 p.m.!

Today I focussed on getting my temporary passport sorted out and visited the German embassy in the morning. If all goes well, I will be able to receive the updated version within two days, which means that I can then leave Colombo and travel around the more attractive Sri Lankan interior. Dilhani was again a saviour when she helped me with money changers and phone cards – a public holiday, as it is today, means that almost everything is closed, the streets are rather empty and life almost stands still. After a nice South Asian lunch with Dilhani and her mum I strolled through the very picturesque and historic Galle Face Hotel and treated myself to three (!) café lattes and a piece of cheesecake while reading a book in a very comfortable corner of the hotel’s Tea Lounge. I may spoil myself tomorrow again and attend the official High Tea ceremony in the afternoon! It is certainly a great experience being in such cultured and sophisticated surroundings again after so many months of “deprived” island life!

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