CREATURES FROM THE EMERALD FOREST AND SAPPHIRE SEA
Distant memories of twenty one years ago... as part of Colonel John Blashford-Snell's expedition team, I saw wild Asian elephants in the Nepalese jungles. We searched the forests of Bardia National Park for a particular pair of towering males with enormous domed heads, believed to be direct descendants of the woolly mammoth. Exciting times for sure, but we only saw a few elephants during the three week adventure.
Brand new memories... Dave and I recently returned from fifteen days travelling through the lush green paradise of southern Sri Lanka where we saw hundreds of elephants... and so much more.
2016 was coming to a close and we were feeling devastated; Vishnu, our loyal companion for over fourteen years, had just died. My Aunt Joan too was clearly nearing the end of her life and I knew deep down she wasn't going to last beyond winter's end. We craved a silver lining to shine through the dark cloud that had loomed over the year and Sri Lanka has long been on our 'to do' list, for elephants, leopards... and possibly blue whales.
The Blue whale is the largest creature to have ever lived. At one hundred feet long, it dwarfs even the biggest dinosaur. Its tongue alone weighs the same as an elephant and the heart of the Blue whale compares to that of a small car!
THE HUGE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE BLUE WHALE IN OUR LIVES
During the twentieth century whales were hunted to the brink of extinction and it was feared they may never recover. As children in the 1960s, Dave and I both remember reading about the bloodbath.
This sowed the seed for Dave wanting to do something to save whales and other creatures. In 1978, after gaining a degree in photography and coincidentally in the same year we met, he began volunteering with conservation groups; 12 months with WWF, then onto the fledgling Greenpeace as the official photographer on the 'Rainbow Warrior', sailing to hostile Icelandic waters. Four years later he went to arctic Norway on the independent anti-whaling vessel 'Balaenoptera' and finally in 1984, co-founded the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA). For well over a year, he was voluntary there too, such was his passion and drive to make a difference. He became EIA's executive director for six years and their lead undercover investigator and board member until retiring in 2007. He'd become burnt out from more than two decades of witnessing and photographing many horrific sights.
Dave also inspired my involvement in conservation. Through his influence I drew pictures for WWF, BBC Wildlife magazine, EIA and Friends of the Earth, but my major breakthrough happened in 1987. Encouraged by the unexpected success of my first limited edition prints with Greenpeace, I realised my drawing talents could raise money for wildlife and offer me a living too. I became a full time wildlife artist in 1989.
First on our packed agenda was a four hour cruise on the Indian ocean with the possibility of seeing the Blue whale.
It was just days prior to the Sri Lankan New Year and the mood in the fishing port of Mirissa was electric. It teemed with chattering humans, tooting tuk tuks and barking dingo-like dogs, all vying for the precious space on the dusty terracotta track. As we weaved our way through a tapestry of saris and sarongs, the colourful crowds gradually filtered away leaving us, the dogs and a far less joyous scene ahead.
Fishermen lined the harbour displaying their catches; thousands of fish of many hues, painted the ground with death. The stench assaulted my nostrils, an overpowering mix of fresh and not so fresh corpses and rotting garbage wafted around us. This attracted opportunistic crows, terns and gulls swooping above so there was something appealing skyward for me to focus on rather than the grave sadness below. I was relieved to board our boat and deeply savour the salty sea air in my lungs. Whales beckoned and filled me with optimism again.
Within twenty minutes of setting out we were joined by a jubilation of spinner dolphins, riding the bow. Constant clicking of cameras ricocheted around deck. I captured just one good ethereal shot of them beneath the waves as a mixture of heat, jet lag and the previous sad year had sapped my usual energy. I put this to the back of my mind as my eyes scanned the horizon.
Soon our dream surfaced and thirty land lubbers staggered towards the bow... the collective mood mirroring that of the now departed dolphins. Far, far away, a mist of water burst forth from a whale's giant blow hole... then a tantalizing dorsal fin appeared above the waves and finally the enormous seven metre tail fluke, before the leviathan plunged back down to the depths of the ocean. Our boat sped full throttle in the whales direction and drawn like magnets were ten other boats, all carrying up to 100 people. A bit of a rat race ensued.
For the next hour and a half, the creature surfaced six or seven times, giving us a merry chase. On one particular occasion it came within a whales length of us. Dave shot some fantastic photos, me not.You can read his blog "Finally smiling (with a blue whale)" here. I couldn't muster up enough energy to concentrate and even nodded off a few times. But I still had an exhilarating experience and it created a key page in my life's diary.
SAFARI IN PARADISE
No time for rest as immediately followed a four and a half hour car journey winding towards Uda Walawe National Park. Strangely, I still couldn't keep my eyes open to watch this brand new world flash by.
Once settled into our lodge I fell into the deepest of sleeps. At dawn I was worse still, not even the temptation of a full day safari could entice me from under the embryonic sheets. So surrendering to my body's needs I dozed all day while Dave searched for wondrous creatures.
IS THERE A DOCTOR IN THE HOUSE?
Dave and Kapila, our trusted driver/guide throughout the whole trip, returned at 6pm with cameras full and tales to tell. They had been away on safari for nearly 10 hours and I had been sleeping for at least seven of those. Kapila was concerned I may have symptoms of diabetes (he has it), high blood pressure or cholesterol problems. I had been tested with good positive results for all three a few years before, but feeling more anxious, I dragged myself out of bed and together the three of us visited a local doctor. At the tiny surgery we joined parents with wailing ailing infants and a white haired women whose haunted expression looked like she was staring into the grim reaper's eyes. This chilled me to the bone and I wanted to leave, but was persuaded otherwise, quite wisely...
Soon, with the doctor's head cocked sympathetically to one side, he listened intently to my symptoms, then fired back with many questions. At one point words came out of his mouth and simultaneously he 'nodded' at me in a highly intoxicating manner. I was dumbstruck. Stars flew from his eyes and swirled around the room as I transformed into the star of a Disney tale meeting his destiny. Maybe I was hallucinating? As I hadn't visited the Indian sub continent before, this was my first experience of the famous head nodding and I liked it a lot!
I walked away enchanted and with my pockets full of potions. Take eight tablets, two times a day, the good doctor scrawled on the prescription, 'After three days you will be better' he said in a soothing Sri Lankan accent. Who knows what was in them, but they worked. Next morning I was back to 'normal' and raring to safari.
THE GHOST TREES OF UDA WALAWE
Uda Walawe National Park is home to the highest concentration of wild elephants in southern Sri Lanka as two giant reservoirs feed the human population, fauna and flora all year round with its life blood, keeping the area lush and enticing for wildlife.
The landscape and atmosphere felt beautifully bleak. Skeletal trees reached up from the mirrored surface of the reservoirs like ghostly porcelain fingers praying to the skies. Many species of bird called these branches home; from white pelicans to turquoise kingfishers; purple herons to extraordinary long necked oriental darters, fishing from the limbs of life long departed.
Slate grey elephants freckled with burnt orange mud, wallowed in the shallows. They made Lock Ness monster puppets with their trunks, thwacking the water furiously for fun and cooling themselves from the scorching sun. Wild and domestic water buffalo followed suit. Mugger crocodiles basked on the mud banks, scales caked in green algae and terracotta earth. A paradise for both them and us.
We spent four days there with loads of intimate times in the company of docile, wild elephants, sometimes feeding just feet from us, unconcerned by our presence. I'd return in a heartbeat!
Dawn woke, so did I and my thoughts turned to Born Free. Their impact is felt in many countries across the globe. In Sri Lanka they have endorsed and supported several turtle and elephant projects including the highly successful 'Elephant Transit Camp' (ETC). Here you can observe orphaned or injured elephants being nurtured back to good health before reintroduction into the wild. Over one hundred elephants have been fitted with radio collars and live back as nature intended, 'born free and living free'.
At 9am on the dot, along with a few hundred other wide eyes, we watched from a viewing platform at ETC as the morning sun baked us. A parade of baby elephants ran out from the forest towards the concreted area where they're fed six times a day and took it in turns to be given their special formula milk and juicy jack fruit leaves. The elephants seemed rather happy.
Back into the coolness of the air-conditioned car, we drove for nearly four hours towards Yala National Park. But an hour before our destination an unwanted guest appeared as the skies opened... after all it was the rainy season. Water keeps the forests resplendently emerald, but it also meant no leopards that day. They hate rain and shelter in caves and deep in the undergrowth.
We were spending four more full days in Yala, so plenty of time to look for them. In fact on the second day we saw very fleeting glimpses of both a leopard hunting (5 seconds and it was gone) and a sloth bear's furry bum (possibly 3 seconds at most). Both were very exciting and unexpected.
HARASSED BEASTS & FRAZZLED EMOTIONS
Yala is world famous for leopards and has the highest concentration on Earth. Fortunately for them, about nine tenths of the park is closed to the public. The 600 plus jeep drivers stationed there really want to find you a leopard... happy customer, big tip, right? After the first full day traipsing around and focusing on looking for them, we decided we didn't want to be part of that whole circus. It involved too many back to back jeeps, too many incessant mobile ring tones from drivers phoning updates to each other on the cats' whereabouts and too many down trodden drivers faces as they looked at each other despondently. It created an uncomfortable tension in the air and for us, it was the opposite of the peaceful experience we craved.
We informed our guide and driver of our 'strange' wishes, but I think they couldn't believe their ears 'You don't want to see more leopards?' their thoughts (must have) screamed incredulously. So the phones kept right on ringing, they kept on searching all the regular leopard haunts, the same intrusive chatter and long, long faces remained. As the day progressed we mentioned a few more times 'really, no leopard chasing'. My face grew longer too as I reached boiling point.... the harshest words spun around my head as angry thoughts. This hardly ever happens to me... I'm rarely a hot head. I think the wonderful calm that wafts over you on safari opens up heightened states of emotions... I've never felt negative ones before, but boy was I feeling them that day. Dave 'felt' my extreme mood, and calmly talked to them at the day's end and stated emphatically we absolutely didn't want to search for leopards.... end of. If one had appeared dancing in dappled sunlight of course we would have been happy bunnies, but not at such a cost to our sanity and the poor harassed beasts.
The message got through and we had two more fantastic days looking at anything and everything else... elephants, various birds of prey, peafowl, bee eaters, rollers, many wading birds, giant squirrels, wild boar, sambar, spotted deer and much more.
We were two thirds through our adventures, with a few more brief encounters to go. Next up was a morning journey into Bundala National Park, a wetlands haven. The light was stunning, the luscious landscape bejewelled with birds.
After dusk, we revisited an old haunt of Dave's, Rekawa beach. In 1994, he and an EIA team travelled to Sri Lanka and the Maldives to make a documentary film; it was one in a seven part prime-time series on ITV called 'Animal Detectives'. Their undercover investigations and the subsequent film gave EIA possibly their fastest success story to date.
Tortoiseshell (Hawksbill turtle shell) was illegal to buy or sell in Sri Lanka as turtles were an endangered species. But it was in fact flaunted and sold openly at airports, government shops and hotel lobbies all over the island. And as importantly much of the tortoiseshell was being smuggled into Sri Lanka from the Maldives, sandwiched within sacks of dried fish. EIA campaigned the top tour operators to use their local contacts to assist change. Local NGOs joined in the fray. And EIA gave their information to the governments of the Maldives and Sri Lanka. Within months the Sri Lankan government ha enforced the tortoiseshell ban and the President of the Maldives had ordered an immediate clamp down on the tortoiseshell trade and in addition that of dolphins too. They both remain solidly in place today.
In 1994 the turtle 'sanctuary' at Rekawa was a quiet beach where two young men showed the EIA team a turtle coming ashore so they could film egg laying. Now it is a turtle project run by the community. We met Mr Saman who spearheads the project with enthusiasm. He had a copy of the EIA film and expressed the view that Dave and the EIA film had kick-started the project that now protects the beach and educates locals and tourists about turtles.
GOLDEN TICKET FOR A GOLDEN OPPORTUNITY
It really shouldn't have been an intimate affair, what with 80-100 people all wanting to see a turtle laying her eggs, but it did feel intimate and very special. Us tourists paid for the privilege of a 'golden ticket' while locals watched for free to encourage their support. Unlike the leopard fiasco, it was a respectfully controlled, information packed operation. With Mr Saman at the helm using strict school teacher-like control, he was blunt. 'No flash photography or torches, keep noise down to an absolute minimum and follow my lead down the beach. We have a turtle about to lay!' Years of experience paid off as we reverently followed him into the velvety darkness to the seashore.
Three hours whizzed by accompanied by huge crashing waves, starlit skies and palm trees towering above us as the magic of a forty year old turtle laying her precious cargo unfolded before our eyes. We each got our special minute watching close up, bathed in unobtrusive red torchlight. Then from a distance we all observed as sand catapulted from her powerful flippers and she covered her eggs from the world, The four foot giant lumbered back down the beach leaving just a patterned trail in her wake until she merged again into the weightlessness of the water.
I burst with pride knowing that EIA were possibly the very reason for her survival and that of many thousands of other turtles.
MOUNTAINOUS RAIN FOREST RETREAT
Three hours up a long and winding road, snaking over high mountains led to our second to last stop off before flying home. It was clearly going to be a happy couple of days because our host was a giggly 64 (going on 18) year old local man who brightened everyone's day he touched. He had 23 years experience of his beloved rain forest and went in with groups most days educating with lots of laughter.
The Sinharaja National Park is the only primary tropical rain forest remaining in Sri Lanka. The three of us, plus a friendly stray dog who 'sang sweetly' upon meeting, took a 7 hour trek into the forest. We stopped to be shown little treasures every few minutes; a sleeping tarantula nestled into a tree trunk, a giant 9 inch millipede we 'bravely' held in our hands, numerous brightly coloured birds, a green pit viper, a giant squirrel, a kangaroo lizard... and information galore on the trees and the traditional benefits of their leaves. 'Our dog' was respectfully silent the whole time, just looking up at me adoringly for affection or biscuits. I think this may have been his full time profession!
The humid forest was like a sauna and my clothes became drenched within minutes. After a few hours walking and squelching we swam in the river with picturesque tumbling waterfalls and nibbling fish, to cool down.
On the winding way back in our little tinny Tuk Tuk, we stopped off at Lumbini, the local eco friendly tea factory. After viewing the many hand finished steps in the drying and selection processes, I'll never take my morning cuppa for granted again.
The last project we visited was back on the coast, a turtle hatchery programme. Unfortunately it was a circus, with visitors being allowed to hold the poor turtles, so we only stayed briefly to quickly take a few photos. There are many dotted along the south western coastline of varying degrees of quality. They aren't legal but there are plans to make them far more regulated. Once the regulations are in place most of the hatchlings would then be immediately released to the sea giving them far more hope of survival. Evidence shows they have enormous energy reserves for the first 24-48 hours of their lives to help them get out to sea away from most predators.
As a final treat before flying the 11 hours back to the hustle bustle of London, we booked ourselves a relaxing Ayurvedic massage. 'Like no other massage you've ever had before', stated the blurb on the enticingly serene poster adorned with pure white lotus flowers. In for a penny in for a pound we decided... although it turned out to be about £25.
The massage started serenely with scented oil and firm rubbing of tired leg muscles. The tension of many days being bounced around the back of a jeep began to float from my body.
Ten minutes of more rubbing of even more relaxed flesh when I suddenly felt an unusual pressure applied to my eyes while hands were massaging a bit further down. A pair of soft squidgy breasts, well I assumed that's what they were as I had my eyes tightly closed, were lowered gently onto my forehead. I froze, bit on my stiff upper lip and remained very, very still. 'Pretend that didn't just happen' I thought to myself. 'Maybe it was an innocent mistake'?
A seductively soft voice shocked me back to reality. 'You want nice feeling now sir'? I gulped. 'No, I want a nice massage thank you' I replied in a clipped, terribly English accent, one I'm certain I've never uttered before!
The massage continued and all was quiet again except for my heart beating like a big bass drum. More rubbing on muscles now more tensed than ever before. My masseur obviously had lots of time to kill. 'I give you a head massage?' 'Yes please' I said tentatively, feeling that would be a pretty safe bet. Five minutes of tickling and shining of my bald head and it was all over.
I've never felt a poster offered so much and delivered so little. And in hindsight, I did think the women were wearing rather too much bright red lipstick.
And then we flew home... what a wonderful and at times, weird trip it had been!
Our adventure had a strand of sadness running through it. At nearly 93, my Aunt Joan died on 9th February 2017. Dementia took over most of her life more than ten years before and she was ready to go. She generously left my sister Lynne and I money in her will. Dave and I decided to use some of it to fund this trip. I thought of her often and it brought a smile to my face knowing that she'd unwittingly created such a happy, adventurous holiday for us.
DETAILS OF OUR TRIP
We booked through TikaLanka, an independent eco-friendly tailor-made travel company recommended by Responsible Travel which is supported by Born Free.
Dave compared three companies, all were around the same price. TikaLanka were the smallest. It cost us £2,200 each for the 15 days including half board at all hotels, guest houses, and tented camps. All park fees, jeeps, petrol and guides were included too.
Our driver/guide Kapila was a warm friendly man in his forties, with 12 years experience in wildlife tours. He was eager to please and his knowledge exceptional.
All tips were additional. They are expected and considered polite to be given throughout Sri Lanka. Places tend to have tip boxes on view, which are divided between all staff, including those working behind the scenes. This is what we tended to do as it seemed the fairest way.
Flight costs weren't included. We travelled with SriLankan Airlines direct from the UK.... 10 hours flight out and 11 hours back. They cost £750 each flying economy.
Dave loves planning our adventures. He researches to find the best, most ethically sound places to visit, and tailored to fit our artistic and photographic requirements. Apart from the last day turtle hatchery and the massage (which were both very last minute additions) everything else was great.
Unlike in Africa, you can't lodge within the National Parks of Sri Lanka, so we stayed at tented camps or lodges near to the park and drove in each day. You pay either for a reduced cost entrance for a full day safari (you can't leave the park during this time so need to take pack lunch with you). Or you can just pay for morning and/or evening safari. All park fees were included in our costs.