Things you shouldn’t do in Sri Lanka:

park the car underneath a Pelican tree

park the car underneath a Pelican tree

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Balaenoptera musculus

After my encounters with the reef sharks, I was longing for more underwater creatures. But to find the biggest ones of them all, snorkeling gear was clearly not enough. Even a full diving equipment wouldn’t help much. So I hopped onto a whale watching boat in Mirissa.

the first boat out

And yes, the captain found them. Blue Whales, Balaenoptera musculus, according to the leaflet we got 150 to 170 metric tons in weight and 23 to 30 meters long. Only the tongue weights 2,7 metric tons and the heart is the size of a small car. But clearly we didn’t see any of these organs – we were happy with the fins and tails.

big guy

They have a very tall narrow blow up to ten meters high. Typically the whales we saw were moving just underneath the surface, blowing every couple of seconds, and then, at some point, bending, coming out further, in order to start diving. Only then one could see the tail flukes.

blowing

 

 

waving

When I travelled to New Zealand ten years ago, I missed my chance to see whales, so I’m very glad I finally managed to. Actually the operators claim the seas off Sri Lanka are the best spot in the world to see blue and sperm whales. Their success rate in season is 90 percent. I don’t know if that is true – it worked for me.

tail fluke

It was only in 2006 that people in Sri Lanka discovered something big was lurking in the waters off the southern coast. The blue whales are migrating between the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea, passing by the Sri Lankan coast. So since 2008, almost everyone with a boat in Mirissa goes out for whale-watching safaris, they say. But we still managed to see some fishing boats.

fishermen

The early bird

I just can’t stand waking up and realising I have slept through the best hours of daylight. So even though I had decided not to drive to Uda Walawe National Park to see more elephants in the sunrise, I got up at 5.45 am to climb Little Adam’s Peak in the picturesque surrounding of Ella, described by a famous guidebook as “everyone’s favourite hill country village”. Enjoy!

Black, green and white

women's work

Everywhere in the hill country I saw women – not men – picking the tea leaves. At least 16 kilogramm a day, I got told. After seven days the tips of the tea trees had been growing anew and they can be picked again. And again. And again. All year round.

tea picker

But what happens next? To get to know that I visited one of the tea factories along the way. And, of course, inspite of only wanting to look, I ended up buying some green tea.

lovely girl that showed me around

But first I learned. That black, green and white tea comes from the same plant. Camellia sinensis is actually a tree that would grow to a hight of three meters when left undisturbed. But for easier plucking and developing more flavour it is kept short.

three leaves

In the company I went to (Tetley) the first three leaves and the but are harvested. Then, for gaining black tea, the leaves are withered for removing moisture and crushed so they can oxidate/ferment. The damp tea leaves are then rolled and dried. Green tea on the other hand is not fermented. And white tea only consists on the tiny buts that had been drying in the sun.

dust

Of lizards, deer and why we didn’t see elephants

Actually I came for the sheer precipice called “World’s End” to Horton Plains National Park. But then the 1050 meter drop – that actually doesn’t look that high – didn’t prove to be the real highlight of the park for me. I was far more impressed by everthing that lived there than the dead rocks.

When arriving in a safari jeep, our group – two funny english guys, the knowledable guide and me – was greeted by tame (and huge) Sambar Deer. They (successfully) lingered around the visitor’s center in search for some bananas or other delicacies. The male one was coming up so close I was able to touch it’s wet nose and rough fur.

In the montane grasslands and forests itself we found endemic species like the amusing rhino-horned lizards and purple-faced langurs as well as introduced ones like rainbow trouts. Plus many lovely flowers – even though it wasn’t spring (yes, even the tropics have their seasons).

Other creatures we didn’t see, for example the shy Sri Lankan Leopard. But what we did see was it’s footprint, also where it’s narrow and low jungle path crossed the human track and we found some excrements full of deer’s fur and little bones.

We also had no chance to see Sri Lankan Elephants, becuase this sub species was hunted to extinction in the plains. A great deal of the killing was done by the british governor Thomas William Rogers who alone supposedly shot 1500 pachyderms. But, as the legend goes, the elephants took revenge (Sri Lankans believe these animals can control clouds and the weather). Major Rogers had to pay wit his own death when a lightning bolt stroke him in 1845. But that’s not the end of the story. Even his gravestone, as can be seen nowadays, was hit by lightning and split in half.

Seas of green passing by

Hanging out of the window wasn’t enough. An even better glance of the countryside I got when I stood at the ever open doors of the train and felt the wind and the drizzle. First, starting in Nanuoya, rolling carpets of tea were passing by, then the wild scenery and mist of the higher hill country came into sight and finally dozens of farmers were pausing for a moment in their fieldwork and waved to us. What a scenic – and slow – ride! I got off at the lovely village Ella, sitting at a hillside with stunning views into the gap.

the gap

 

Rawana Waterfall

These pictures actually show what I see while writing this blogpost. Sitting in an armchair at the veranda of my guesthouse, I listen to the soothing sounds of the waterfall and singing birds. Shall I add my room has the same views?

An unexpected souvenir

Okay, I already complained about the variety of living creatures in the tropic climate in Sri Lanka that constantly make me move and strike and scratch and swat. It’s spiders, flys, ants, wesps … you name it.

Especially annoying are the mosquitos that cost me many hours of sleep because of the pungent tone they produce when flying around my tired head. They even manage to pierce through my trousers and shirts and manage to sting so softly I don’t even notice when they sit on my forehead or cheek. Luckily enough these Sri Lankan mosquito bites don’t stay long with me.

cockroach in the dirty bathroom

But then I opened my suitcase I found some other type of animal. Actually I was worried earlier this trip I could carry some cockroach with me when I stayed at an infected place. So I closed the suitcase at night.

But last night I forgot. So a 5 cm big frog somehow thought it is cosy in there and made itself comfortabel in my red hard-top case. The amphian saw light again 70 kilometers down the road. It wasn’t difficult to find a suitable place for him. For days it had been raining hard, so I just went out the front door and placed him in the wet.

lover of linen

 

An ancient city surrounded by jungle

Anuradhapura is a place full of history and worship. Once an ancient capital, it nowadays is full with well-preserved ruins, huge stupas, important Bodhi trees and many devotees. For the first time I also saw buddhist nuns, wearing the same orange or brown robes like the monks. But in spite of all of that, I couldn’t help and also wander into the forest…

Peace?

The northeast of Sri Lanka, where a brutal civil war was fought for decades, was just recently opened up for journalists. I happened to learn this by chance when I picked up an old newspaper somewhere, dated october 16th 2012. My eyes fell on the article that stated how “transparent” the government is to allow foreign reporters into the area – three and a half year after the end of the war.

During the final phases of the armed conflict, when the army of the Sri Lankan government fought the tamil insurgents with full force and killed tens of thousands, fighters as well as civilians, no journalist was allowed to enter the rebel territory. This also was the case for every international organisation. The UN wasn’t even able to distribute food to the starving civilians. So no international oberserver could report what kind of war crimes have been commited there.

cemetery

Well, now journalists are officially allowed to go. So I could travel there and ask survivors. I could hear their stories – and not only the government one. I could visit places and have someone describe me how they were displaced over and over again, being caught between the fronlines. How the army shelled the “no fire zones” it especially had announced. Well, I could. If I had a journalist visa. But the Ministry for Foreign Affairs didn’t grant me one.

So I’m here as a tourist. And I do what I should: Spend a lot of money. Even during the civil war tourists from all over the world enjoyed the sun and the palm trees in the south of the island, ignorant or anaware of what happened in the north. When the fighting stopped, more tourists poured in. And the figures are still climbing steeply.

Yin-Yang

Did the crushing of the terrorism by brute military force really let to peace? First I was surprised, how many religions and ethnicities live in Sri Lanka together in superficial harmony: Buddhist, Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims, Malays, the aborigional Vedda people and so on.

But my driver, a member of the Sinhalese majority, warned me I shouldn’t speak to moslems. I need to be careful: He once had his tyres pinched by moslems – this he said without knowing who actually damaged his car. He also told me about the heinous crimes the Tamils commited – bombing trains in Colombo for example -, but never about the human costs the actions of the military claimed. If I asked, he avoided the question.

Well, this is just a glimpse. And I am not able to tell what the situation in the northeast is like. All I can say is that the military checkpoints became more often the further north we drove. If I had gone into the area where the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam once tried to errect their independent Tamil state, I would have had my passport checked – and I didn’t want to risk to be blacklisted. Before I flew in, I got clearly told over the phone: When you come on a tourist visa and do some sort of research, you’ll never be allowed to come back again.

So all I can do for now is watching the Channel 4 documentary “killing fields” and read the book “Still counting the dead. Survivors of Sri Lanka’s Hidden War” by Frances Harrison (here a review of the Guardian). Both I highly recommend.

Pidgeon Island – with animals bigger than birds

“The sea is too rough to go out”, the guy from the beach hotel explained after we checked in. That really dissapointed me, because a trip to Pidgeon Island was actually the reason why I wanted to stop in Nilaveli. Often the world looks different after a night of sleep. And so it was: The next morning the captains of the small boats along the seafront declared the water to be calm enough. So we went out.

sea cow

Pidgeon Island is a small ocean treasure just one kilometer off the shore. It is surrounded by a corral reaf – which in many parts is badly damaged. Not so much by the climate change, it seemed. But by landing boats and the snorkeling tourists who – as far as I could see on that day – were more often standing around and trampeling on the corals than actually lying in the water and looking.

dead corals

more dead corals

Even though visibility wasn’t at it’s best – rain season and rough sea – I was impressed by the variety of fish I saw. Some species I had already known from the Red Sea, others were totally new to me.

All went weel. Until the shark came. It circled me. I was frightened. Then I tried to calm myself down: No, it actually isn’t 1,5 meter long, that’s only the water that makes it look bigger than it actually is. No, it won’t bite, they hardly ever do. No, it’s not a white shark.

But it looked like one! As slow as possible (not very slow, actually) I paddled to the shore. My heart was beating loudly. I always thought I can face danger quite rationally. Well, that doesn’t seem to be the case with sharks. I knew that there are only around one hundred shark attacks reported worldwide each year. And only a handful of people die.

landing place

After a couple of minutes I made myself go into the water again. I went back to the same place where I encountered fear. I looked. But instead of seeing the shark, I saw two of them – the second one being even bigger than the first. Needless to say I again tried to get out of the water as fast as possible.

The lifeguards told me there’s 20 sharks living around the island. But not white ones, as I thought, but only reef sharks. So I gave it one last try, because the guards had also told me about turtles and I was longing to see a turle since many years. But instead of a turle’s shell I saw shark fins again. This time the bigger one came so close I thought I could touch it. And I saw a baby swimming at it’s side. But anyway: I had enough and went out for the last time.

withstanding the waves

showing no fear

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