28.12.2014 - 01.01.2015
As we head to the airport for our flight to Sri Lanka news of the Air Asia crash is just filtering in and not what we needed just before we board our Air Malaysia flight (not an airline with the best record recently!). The first leg to Kuala Lumpur goes smoothly and we manage to keep the children awake both on board the 10 hour flight and during our 3 hour stop over at KL. Despite being 4.00am for them they are surprisingly jolly and sit with bowls of chicken noodle soup watching Tom and Jerry on TV.
The next short flight to Colombo is anything but peaceful and probably the most scary I have ever endured. We fly through a huge storm with lightning flashing past the windows and this rather tired old plane is battered around in the turbulence. At one point, in the midst of the storm, it was clear that one of the engines was labouring which causes a ripple of panic down the plane. The Air Hostesses have to remain seated for the duration of the flight and no one is allowed to get up, even for the loo. It was only 3 hours long but felt like an eternity. The only blessing being that the children slept through it all too exhausted to notice the drama outside. We touch down at Colombo to great relief.
We appear from the plane, tired and exhausted, and whilst Ray juggles three bags I try to carry Amy, pull a suitcase and hold on to Jack. An airport representative has been sent to collect us and fast track us through customs. She is resplendent in a turquoise sari and I breathe a sigh of relief knowing that she will help with my load - none of it! She smiles, shakes her head and says she can only guide us to the lounge and cannot carry anything or pull a suitcase. I am not sure what assistance she actually gives us and think dark thoughts as she sashays at speed through the terminal, burden free. We finally make the VIP lounge where our Sri Lankan rep is waiting with cold flannels and water. Life is looking up. He explains that Sri Lanka has been suffering from two weeks of torrential rain, some roads are impassable and our driver has been unable to get to the airport. They have a replacement for tonight and we pile into the car and head for our hotel. We check in to our rooms in the dark and are not sure whether the hotel is a convenient airport stopover or something more.
We wake to the sound of heavy rain at dawn but turn over and fall back into an exhausted sleep. A few hours later the sun comes out and we emerge from our rooms. What an oasis we find ourselves in. The Wallawa is the former residence of the Commander of the RAF in Sri Lanka when it was an important staging post to South East Asia. It is a very elegant property but it is the gardens that enchant us most - part English and part Colonial. We sit on a terrace with rattan fans swirling above us and order breakfast. The children are distracted by the small chipmunk like squirrels that live in the tree and rush onto the terrace in a hasty raid on breakfast crumbs. Amy and Jack head off in pursuit and we sit back, coffee in hand and enjoy the vista and the warmth. It is wonderful to be back in this tropical heat and in a different Asian culture and strangely enough the whole family feel somewhat more at home here.
We decide to let the children relax by the pool today whilst Ray goes on the tour of Colombo. Dilan, our driver for the duration of our Sri Lankan stay, arrives and is utterly charming and efficient. We will be in safe hands. Ray goes to Colombo and visits the old fort area with an architectural historian called Mark Forbes. He has a fascinating time and, without the encumberance of the kids, is actually able to have an in depth tour and an adult conversation.
The kids and I meanwhile brave the icy pool and lie in the sun until industrial sized red ants move us back nearer the hotel. We play croquet and badminton, set up lego figures and devour the afternoon tea. Jack cannot get over the delicate taste of the tea (grown here in Sri Lanka) and has about three cups.
That night we have our first Sri Lankan curry with its nine accompanying dishes - a wonderful introduction to their cuisine and a welcome change to eat spicy food again.
We pile into our air conditioned people carrier and set off on our journey North east towards Pinnawalla. Like Indonesia, driving in Sri Lanka is not for the faint hearted. Here most people travel in motorised three wheeled tuktuks which swerve across the road at will. Dogs lie sprawled on the road enjoying the warmth of the road surface and locals stand and chat a few feet onto the road, oblivious to the oncoming traffic. The rule of thumb seems to be that you hoot and overtake any vehicle going slower than you whilst the rule for the dogs (and some people) is head straight towards them and hope they move, which luckily they do. Jack was concerned that the hooting meant everyone was angry but actually they are merely saying 'Hi, I'm here, wish me luck as I overtake you on a blind bend going rather fast'!
Sri Lanka is a country rich in vegetation and within a short space of time Dilan has pointed out four different types of palm trees - the King coconut palm (used for its milk and water), Fishtail palm and the Palmyra palm (both used for toddy and syrup) and the Beetlenut palm (the fruit of which they chew turning their mouths red). We have stopped by a rubber plantation so we can watch them tapping trees. He shows the children mango, jackfruit and bananas all growing near the roadside and we pass small stalls along the way selling all these fruit as well as King Coconuts which has the water they call Thambrili and drink daily for their digestion. A short while on we stop to see bricks being cut and dried initially in the sunshine still brown in colour. They are then piled up in around a fire in small shelters and baked until brick red.
After this the scenery changes and we drive through the paddy fields. I love being back amongst these lush, vibrant green fields with the water buffalo grazing and the egrets, dazzlingly white against the rice plants, hunting for insects. There is something very serene about these fields and I never tire of looking at them.
Dotted along the roadside are a mixture of brightly painted brick houses (reminiscent of Java) and then rough lean-to structures with roofs of sacking or corrugated iron. Outside almost every dwelling is a colourful row of washing hanging from any available surface and yet more dogs lying in the sun. The men, clad in sarongs and shirts, are whippet thin and usually in flip flops or barefoot. The women, depending on their age, either wear colourful saris or t-shirts and pretty skirts. Strangely, unlike the men, the women hold a lot more weight but still have the same dazzling smile. School children, immaculate in white, are collected from school either in tuktuks or walk along the road sheltering under umbrellas from the midday heat.
After three hours in the car we are nearing Pinnawalla but instead of going to the elephant orphanage, Dillan has arranged to take us to the Millennium Foundation instead. Here funds raised from tickets go to protecting and housing working elephants who have been rejected or are no longer needed. The children are to look after the 15 year old Punja (daughter of one of the older elephants at the sanctuary) and are soon feeding her pieces of melon and bananas. They laugh as her trunk tickles their hands, the tip as agile as fingers as she picks up the pieces.
We are allowed to ride her and the kids and I climb on to her bare back and hang on to each other as she sets off up the path. I feel a bit vulnerable as we cross a bridge high above the river and hang on to the children a big tighter. I needn't have worried. She is sure footed and calm and brings us safely back in one piece. Punja is then led to the river and we wade up to our knees in the muddy water and scrub her sides with rough coconut shells. They ask if we would like to climb on her back as she goes deeper into the water to cool off. They warn you will probably get sprayed but Amy, game for anything, is soon stripped down to her pants and sitting on her back. Sure enough she is soon doused with water and shrieks with laughter as it sprays over her. A moment of pure freedom and joy and results in Ray catching one of my favourite photographs ever. Jack finally plucks up enough courage to have a turn and again gets saturated. He laughs and begins to relax but I can tell he is still apprehensive and feeling vulnerable on this giant animal and needs me close by his side.
I now have two kids wet from the muddy river and have to stand them in a bucket of water to clean them. They don't care and are still high on their experience at the sanctuary. I get fresh clothes and luckily Dilan has two dry flannels so they are soon sorted. Unfortunately as they get dressed they spot a snake charmer loitering by our car and con their father into paying for them to watch. The two of them look on open eyed as he begins to play on his pipe and the cobra uncoils and rears up out of the basket. They stare, almost hypnotised by its swaying movements and then all of a sudden the cobra tries to strike at them. He has no fangs and is harmless but they are not at all sure and leap back in horror. The charmer reassures them but seeing their fear pushes the snake back into the basket and retrieves a python from a bag for them to hold instead. Again my gutsy daughter is soon draped in its heavy coils and demanding a photo.
We finally extract ourselves and drive another hour before stopping for a truly shocking lunch at a restaurant that is obviously used by all the tour operators for this purpose. They have an over priced and inedible buffet and our chicken curry has bones that do not resemble the usual ones found on a chicken carcass! Luckily the kids have an omelet which is actually rather tasty and so drama is averted.
Dilan stops for fuel and I grab a packet of biscuits from the four items available in the 'shop'. These prove to be a lifesaver as the rains have left many of the roads flooded and impassable and we cannot take the most direct route to our hotel. We drive past rivers swollen from the flood water, rubbish still hanging high in the trees marking how high the levels got. We make slow progress as the route is congested with lorries, grounded for two weeks in the rain, now on the road again. Sri Lanka is also investing heavily in improvements to its infrastructure and road works are a common sight everywhere we go. Although obviously needed on many of the routes the works can hold up the traffic for an age as the vehicles jostle for space on the road and try and negotiate round the hole in the ground, the workers and oncoming traffic. A cacophony of noise and chaos accompanies these moments and what was initially amusing begins to wear us down after so long on the road.
After four hours in the car and with the sky turning dark we turn off down a long mud track. Here the rains have made the way almost impassable and Dilan has a tough time navigating around the dips, grooves and holes left behind. We finally draw up at the Ulagalla Hotel and climb wearily out of the car, stretching our tired limbs. The children are asleep and, with a sweet member of staff cradling Amy whilst I hold Jack, we set off in a buggy for the five minutes drive to our villa. A few initial hiccups such as no beds for the kids but this resolved and too tired for dinner we have room service and are asleep by 8.30!!
Jack and I are woken at 5.30 by a noise near to the window. We peek through the blinds to find the trees by our villa full of monkeys. Grabbing a dressing gown and leaving Ray and Amy asleep we dash outside to view our new neighbours. It is like being in the jungle - bright coloured parrots are nesting in the trees, a wild peacock calls out from a high branch and monkeys are literally swinging everywhere. We hold hands and set off down the path almost deafened by the dawn chorus. Ulagalla is set on a nature reserve and is renowned for its bird life but it is the monkeys that grab our attention. As the sun rises and a warm glow spreads through the trees I look at Jack in his pyjamas and smile as he entwines his hand with mine. We both sense the sheer magic of this moment and stand there in happy silence truly glad to be alive. When we have had our fill of monkeys we head back and raid the mini bar for biscuits which we munch on the verandah as an early breakfast. Amy comes to join us and we sit there watching the morning unfold.
Later the four of us set off to walk along the path towards the hotel for breakfast. The villas at Ulagalla are set far apart amidst the reserve and ours is up a small hill amidst some trees. Either side are lush paddy fields and tall palm trees and the air is thick with dragon flies and butterflies. Jack spots a crested lizard and crouches engrossed watching its every move whilst Mimi and I spot elephant tracks at the edge of the road. Apparently a wild elephant tried to cross the rice field the day before we got here and left a muddy churned up mass of footprints in his wake.
Ray has gone before us and when we find him at breakfast I can sense a change in the mood. Poor thing was accosted the moment he stepped into the hotel for money for the beds for the children despite the fact that they had accidentally double booked the two bedroom cottage we had initially reserved. Then on arriving at breakfast and ordering an espresso he was told a cappuccino was free but an espresso was not, that the inclusive breakfast actually consisted of a pastry basket and everything else would be charged. After the incredible hospitality at Wallawa (a sister hotel) and the charm of its staff this bare faced commercialism is a bit of a cold flannel to the face. They soon realise they have overstepped the mark and then follows a Fawlty Towers moment when our table is laden with food and countless members of staff hover around us asking if 'madam would like this or that'.
Dilan appears having sorted out things with the manager and he and Ray then set to altering our itinerary. Sri Lanka in Style (our agents in the country) have compiled a wonderful itinerary but have underestimated the amount of driving and the length of time each journey would take. The roads in Sri Lanka, as I mentioned earlier, are sometimes hard to navigate and their course often winds through hills and the countryside which slows the actual journey down. A good rule of thumb here is take the time they have suggested for the drive and then double it! Complaints about length of journeys was a common theme amongst many of the travellers we came across during our stay and worth taking into consideration if you visit. That said some of our favourite moments of the trip turn out to be the drives as they allow you to really see the make up of this stunning country. After a discussion with Dilan they have decided to focus on Sigirya, a once proposed 8th Wonder of the World, rather than Anuradhapura which was the ancient capital of Sri Lanka. This is because the ancient city is now only foundations rather than standing buildings and they felt it better to spend more time at the rock fortress of Sigirya. The itinerary resolved we can now relax.
The children spot a large water monitor lizard and set off in hot pursuit whilst I explore the hotel. Ulagalla is an elegant hotel set in a colonial style building with beautiful wood floors, teak and rattan furniture and old ceiling fans gently swaying to and fro. The sides are all open and across a small lawn they have built one of the prettiest pools I have seen for a long time surrounded by the beautiful rain trees and with monkeys and peacocks wandering at will nearby.
Ulagalla strives to be an Eco friendly hotel and each guest is given a bike to get to and from their villas on. It became one of my favourite things to do and I would happily volunteer to return to the villa to collect a missing item if it afforded me some minutes of solitude peddling along the path. The hotel is wonderfully remote and set amidst stunning scenery with an abundance of wildlife. We have decided not to move for two days and just enjoy the serenity of it all.
We spend the day relaxing by the pool and enjoying our surroundings or lazing by the pool. More people have arrived and the hotel is a flurry of activity in preparation for New Year's Eve. When we return in our finery that evening the hotel does look beautiful with flowers and lights everywhere and with the tables laden with crackers, party hats and little trumpets. The latter soon put to good use and we are rather relieved we got there early so the orchestral attempts do not disturb child free tables.
The hotel has laid on a seven course banquet - western style. This is a mixture between truly inedible and occasionally quite tasty. It is such a shame not to have had a Sri Lankan feast and we wish the hotels had more confidence to serve their own cuisine rather than trying to emulate a European menu. It was heart breaking to see so many unfinished plates return to the kitchen after all the obviously hard work the chefs had put in to it. That said it was a very jolly evening and Sri Lankan crackers are rather fun as they don't all contain presents but rather one in every six has a pretend gold ring in it. Amy got one of the rings (phew!) and luckily Jack was too busy reading out jokes to care. We didn't make midnight but caught a buggy home clad in our gold hats and waving torches in the air. Jack and I woke at midnight with the fireworks going off and said a sleepy happy new year to each other before falling back into bed.
New Years Day
I wake up at 5.40 as I am off on my bird watching walk at 6.00. I stand outside in the dim light waiting for a buggy to come but after ten minutes and no sign of anyone I decide to walk to the hotel. Waving my rather ineffectual torch around I can just make out the path and luckily the light is beginning to come up so I find my way. Arriving at the hotel I find some of the staff standing out on the verandah drinks in hand enjoying the last gasp of their New Year's Eve. Everyone is rather stunned to see a guest at this hour and the lady on reception does a rather unhelpful 'are you sure you booked the tour' comment. It is only when they check the diary and find my name in large letters that there is a scurry of activity and ten minutes later my lovely guide appears. Luckily he had known of the tour and had got ready at 5.30 just in case.
We set off, binoculars round our necks, along the path by the paddy field and turn off towards the lake. The light is coming up now but as it is a bit cloudy no sign of the sun yet. The path is a quagmire of mud left over from the heavy rains and we slip and slide through inches of squelchy mud as we make our way along the lake. Part of me is wondering if this is a good idea as I look at our shoes and legs and try to spot birds in this dim light, a crested hake eagle a dim shadow in a tree. Suddenly we turn the corner and come to the main part of the lake and it is simply stunning. Four or five fishermen with rubber rings around their bodies are floating on the lake drawing up nets, birds land on the lilies, lapwings wade in the shallows and in the far distance an elephant drinks at the waters edge. A warm orange glow covers the water as the sun breaks through the cloud and as if as a signal, the birds start to sing and land on the branches of the trees. We spot egrets and black headed ibis and the bizarre looking Malabar Pied Hornbill with its double beak. My favourites, though, are the smaller birds, a blaze of colour in the early sunshine. A kingfisher of startling blue, the vibrant green bee eaters and the Black Hooded Oriole with its bright yellow feathers.
My guide is incredibly knowledgeable and passionate about birds and points out numerous species and makes me listen to their calls. We have now left the lake and walk through a forested area and out into the village past a row of rain trees. Apparently the British brought them from Africa and planted them along the roads to provide shade. They are such an iconic shape and the villagers seem to naturally to be drawn to convene below them either to chat to neighbours or rest from the already warm sun. We pass several pigeons but unlike our dull variety these Orange Breasted Green Pigeons are, as their name suggests, colourful and incredibly pretty. As we make our way back to the hotel gates we pass what I assume is a common rooster but turns out to be a Ceylon Jungle Fowl which is Sri Lanka's national bird - so much for my bird knowledge!
As we make our way towards the hotel I apologise again for making him get up early on New Year's Day but he sweetly says that he volunteered to do it as he could not think of a better way to start the year. I have to agree - for me 2015 started with a gentle stranger in the early dawn of a Sri Lankan morning surrounded by true beauty. Let us hope that this year can live up to such a magical start.
I return home to find the others just waking up (it is only 8.30 after all!) and a bit later we set off to breakfast. Amy is determined to bike to the hotel and as the bikes are far too big she finally agrees (after a lengthy discussion!) to sit on my saddle whilst I peddle along. A bit hair raising as we wobble along the bumpy track but we make it and she is happy.
After breakfast as the children go off in search of the water monitor lizard again I sit with a coffee and watch a group of monkeys walk past the hotel and pool. It is a few minutes before I realise that this is the 'ante natal class' and that each of the monkeys has a small baby hanging below her tummy, their little paws clasping round her back. There must have been ten of them and as they get to the trees they rest in the shade whilst the baby monkeys play on the ground and in the low branches. It reminds me of countless mornings spent pushing Jack in his pram to meet up with other mothers in the park and I smile at the familiarity of the sight.
My thoughts are broken when I hear Amy announce to Jack that there is a snake behind her sunbed. I levitate and dash the short distance to them and sure enough there is what looks like a long thing snake disappearing into a hole. At second glance it looks rather still and flat but not wanting to take any chances we retreat and Jack is dispatched to find the gardener. He returns in a matter of minutes and luckily confirms that this is a newly shedded skin and not the actual snake however, not so fortunately the previous wearer of these scales is probably down the hole. He retrieves the skin which sadly breaks in two as he picks it up but the children are thrilled anyway by this awesome souvenir. Sri Lanka has numerous poisonous snakes and not every medical centre apparently carries ante-venom. Not wanting to put the bumpy roads and the hospitals to the test I move us to beds as far away from the hole as possible.
After all that excitement we spend the rest of the day relaxing in these beautiful surroundings, have a Sri Lankan curry at last and a torch lit stroll home.
We have really enjoyed Ulagalla. It is a beautifully presented hotel in a stunning setting and has so much to offer. On the downside we have found the constant hovering and expectancy for tips (even in your villa when they make the beds) rather exhausting as is the bill handed to you to sign before the drink or food is set down. This desire for money and profit detracts from the calm and relaxation of this resort and although the staff are very charming they lack experience and this shows. There is a new manager and hopefully he will be able to sort these elements out and will then have an exceptional hotel under his management.