So the group met in the hotel lobby and after receiving the ‘joining instructions’ we made our way to a restaurant. Out of the ten in the party then two are older but it is a very middle aged selection apart from two millennials. One of these is Russian and living in China and the other is a Chinese American living in New York. Certainly a lot for a Yorkshire boy to fathom out.
Things were going quite nicely over our first drink until Allan, a Canadian, called our national sport ‘soccer’. Rest assured matters were quickly and authoritatively corrected. Some of the party had only just got to Colombo and were weary; so we all said ‘goodnight’ and retired.
We’ve a spacious bus and it was manoeuvred through the Colombo rush hour heading north. We were aiming for a spot of camping near the Wilpattu National Park. The terrain is completely flat. The urban areas away from the high rise buildings are shambolic with little planning or rules. Houses abut shops and workshops. Different heights, designs and materials. There were also many started but incomplete buildings. The rural areas were a lot more attractive and the traffic thinned out. Now we had fields and woods either side. Often people walked alongside the road. The women in long dresses and throws (saris); the men less encumbered and often not walking but astride a bicycle or motorbike. The tuk-tuks were fewer in number as were cars and trucks.
After lunch on the road, four albums listened to on my iPod and we got to the campsite. Tents and the midday sun are never to be mixed and we swiftly dumped our bags and set off for a 4×4 tour of the park. Now I’m not being stupid to say that it wasn’t a million miles different to the Safari ride at Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Florida. Down dusty orange mud roads we bounced and ‘collected’ a number of animals albeit Disney makes the animals’ attendance easier by heating large rocks in strategic places for them to recline on as people crash by.
The Park is the largest and oldest in Sri Lanka and it generates tourist revenue. Anna loved all this but as we circled for seemingly hours attempting to spot a leopard I did reflect on the fact that there are a lot of leopards in zoos you could see. We did eventually find a leopard. Apparently most tours don’t see one – along with a sloth bear and elephants; so we’re lucky. All my photos were average but Ching (the Chinese American) had brought a camera with sufficient long lenses (to photo his native New York from the truck) and captured a staggering head shot of the leopard along with other astonishing clear close ups of birds and mammals we saw. He photos them on a RAW file format and later adjusts them on Photoshop: he knows what he’s doing as he’s talented and he does this sort of thing for a living. I’m sorry but my iPhone picture of the leopard’s butt is not worth uploading.
Spotted deer (or as the leopard better knows it – lunch)
In the evening at an outdoor dining table a park ranger talked about the park and the leopards. There are 200 in this park, 900 in Sri Lanka and only 3,000 in the wild worldwide, he says. Although that might be of the species we saw? He was passionate about his subject and knowledgeable. Again he said and you had to agree that there was under investment in the park and it’s potential. The biggest threat to the leopard are humans. Some animals are poached for their ‘medicinal’ properties and exported in bits.
Many of the group are well travelled and Joe from Brooklyn is a postman with UPS (and sounds like Danny Devito). He uses his accrued holiday to see the world. He says he regularly works 14 hour days in order to collect as much overtime as he can for these exotic jaunts. He introduced me to the ‘Been’ app. This records and maps how many countries and US States you’ve visited. Go and download it. Joe tends to photograph anything and everything that comes into view.
Anna doesn’t camp. However, in a very nice tent with attached bathroom we settled down to discover that in line with the ‘eco’ commitment there was no toilet paper. (I’m thinking my prospect of a tandem cycling holiday with tents may now be accepted if it includes Andrex).
We ate outside under the stars and the tour guide organised a cake for birthday boy Craig. He’s a software guy from North Sydney who’s last holiday was in Cambodia. He grumbled as we sang ‘Happy Birthday’ and chuntered about not celebrating birthdays anymore. Anyway we enjoyed the chocolate cake.
We settled down under canvas and soon it was Stupid O’Clock for brekkie and then off to Anuradhapura. I sat next to Louise from Tallahassee, Florida who had worked for the US Federal Government as a botanist. She’s a lovely woman but her appearance on the trip is obviously a set up. Her opening words to me this morning was that she ‘cooks for her dogs’. I’d have been less surprised if she said she cooks her dogs. Again Louise is inclined to photograph absolutely everything and ask searching and demanding questions of the guide. She’s so into it all and every meal is experienced thoughtfully with reflections on the ingredients. Sadly I’m inclined to wolf it down rating it good, bad or indifferent.
Anuradhapura is a fairly large town but beside it is a large historic site of the ruins of the town dating back until BC. We visited various parts of the site meeting terribly young monks (Anna can be seen selecting which one to take home) and seeing artefacts.
Rpthe man explains is Prabash our guide for the trip
We then motored to part of the site that is still used for active worship. We went up and around a tree that is sacred where many folk in white were chanting. It was quite unusual. Buddhism is new to me and I was quite impressed about the absence of a god, not believing in miracles and mainly achieving a lot of things by meditation. Where I lost some interest was the belief in an afterlife.
For me it’s intriguing where religion fits into history and politics but the topic of religion itself doesn’t grip me. I’m respectful of the folk who have a faith and today at the site and the shrines etc I more enjoyed my conversation with Karl toward the back of the group. He’s an Aussie policeman and a rugby league fanatic. We debated Super League, how boring rugby union was and where all these sports were headed. We both hoped that New Zealand wouldn’t win the upcoming World Cup in Japan!
From here we went for lunch. The Sri Lankan Tourist Board stipulate that we go to approved restaurants. I suppose this is maybe healthier and it isn’t expensive compared to Europe (although expensive for Sri Lanka) but apart from looking after my health you suspect that there is something in it for central Government. After this we got most of the afternoon off at the hotel. Some swam but I spent most of the time doing this blog. However, my first task was to clean lots of items that I’ve got chocolate on. Yes, a bit of a school boy error to pack chocolate sweets in a bag in such a climate!