A Travellerspoint blog

Jeep Safari in Northern Sri Lanka

sunny 31 °C

The roadsides around the town of Minneriya in Northern Sri Lanka are littered with billboards offering Jeep safaris so we thought we should give it a try.
After almost an hour driving on rough tracks through a dense jungle of teak and bamboo our guide spotted a lone Jeep at a watering hole...
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We approached cautiously, but the Jeep seemed skittish and took off before we could get our cameras properly trained. We quickly forded the shallow river at the same place and hoped to pick up the Jeep's tracks on the other side. Unfortunately, it looked to our guide as if a herd of Jeeps had recently passed the same way and he was unable to identify the tracks of the one that had fled on our approach. Undaunted, we pressed on. The Jeep tracks were quite fresh and we still had a few hours before nightfall.
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A large monitor lizard slithered off into the bush at our approach, but there was still no sign of the Jeeps. But then we stopped to listen and to our delight we heard the purring of Jeeps just ahead of us. We crept silently through the undergrowth, cameras at the ready, and there, in a wide clearing by the side of a lake we found a group of 50 or 60 Jeeps of all ages and species...
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We watched for awhile and marvelled at their agility on the mud that had been churned up by the pack leaders. We were so engrossed in admiring these magnificent specimens that we didn't notice a commotion behind us. Finally a warning shout went up and we turned just in time to see a herd of wild elephants charging towards us...
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Caught between the Jeeps and the elephants we had no choice but to stand our ground and take photographs...
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A female with babies was clearly not happy at our presence and flapped her ears aggressively as a warning...
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We began backing off but our path was blocked by some belligerent Jeeps and for a few moments we seemed trapped, then the Jeeps slowly backed off and we were able to get several more shots of the elephants...
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In no time we had counted more than a hundred wild elephants – many with young - What a bonus – two herds in one day. And when we finally got back to civilization in Minneriya we found a wild elephant wandering along the highway...
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Maybe he was going to the tourist board to get them to change the roadside billboards from “Jeep Safaris” to “Elephant Safaris”. Just a thought!

Posted by Hawkson 17:43 Archived in Sri Lanka Comments (8)

The Sacred Caves of Dambulla

semi-overcast 30 °C

We've been climbing again. This time to visit five natural caves that have been a place of worship for more than two thousand years. According to our knowledgeable guide, the entrance to the Royal Rock caves in Dambulla has been jealously guarded by two competing monks for many years...
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This monstrous, garishly gilded image of Buddha sits atop one of the monk's temples on one side of the mountain – the side where the main car park is situated. The competing temple, on the other side of the mountain, is far less ostentatious. However, it is the monk of this other temple who currently owns the right to charge admission to the caves. Therefore, having been dropped at the car park on one side of the mountain, someone had to climb up and over the top to reach the ticket office on the other side! (Anyone correctly guessing who was sent on this arduous journey will receive two free tickets to visit the caves – airfare not included).
The climb to the Royal Rock temples of Dambulla is far less strenuous than Sigiriya, and there are no scary stairs, so we arrived with breath to spare.
Despite guidebook warnings about the crush of tourists, we seemed to be alone as we entered the first of the five caves...
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In total the caves are home to more than 150 statues of Buddha and while you may think that once you have seen one Buddha you have seen them all – think again. While many of the figures are just 10 or 12 feet tall others are so big they have to lay down...
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Some of the statues were here before the birth of Christ, (though we have no idea which ones)...
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Every inch of the walls and ceilings of the five caves is embellished with ancient murals which, we are assured, are painted entirely with natural pigments from the trees and plants in the surrounding jungle...
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King Valagamba started this place in the 1st century BC and subsequent kings each added to the collection of religious statuary...
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And the last king of Sri Lanka – King Kirti Sri Rajasinghe – managed to get himself in the line-up of Buddhas with this statue...
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King Kirti was deposed at the end of the 18th Century when Ceylon became a British colony.

Now, in case you are wondering how we managed to get these photos without hordes of tourists blocking our view - we used our people free camera. Here is a true picture of the crowds we encountered at the caves...
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And this little chap with a bad hair cut was chuckling to himself as he sat in the shade and watched all of us humans struggling up a mountain in the heat just to look at a bunch of old statues...
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Who says monkeys are dumb animals?

Posted by Hawkson 17:42 Archived in Sri Lanka Comments (4)

Sigiriya - A Place in the Sky

sunny 32 °C

The task for today's blog is for us to scale the heights of Sigiriya in North Eastern Sri Lanka to visit the remains of a monastery and palace complex that is some 1,500 years old. From a distance the outcrop of quartz on which the palace sits rises from the jungle floor like a giant toadstool as it thrusts more than six hundred feet into the clear blue sky...
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The climb is arduous and expected to take as much as two hours in the hot afternoon sun, but our guide assured us that we could do it – however he didn't come with us! Two thousand steps forge a path to the top and begins with a steady climb up numerous flights of stone steps...
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There is a cave with ancient murals at the halfway point, but access is only gained by a nerve-racking ascent up a fifty foot high spiral staircase dangling over the edge of a three hundred foot precipice...
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No photos are allowed during the climb to the cave – possibly a good thing as we don't need reminders. However, no photos were permitted of the murals once we had reached the cave. So, we have no proof that we did it – you will have to take our word. The climb back down the spiral staircase was equally scary and we still had three hundred feet of sheer rockface to ascend to reach the summit. From this point the palace water gardens below us already seemed very far off and we were beginning to wish we had simply stayed there and sent up our guide with our camera...
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The foundations of many buildings, their purposes now obscured by time and by the destructive forces of later civilizations, were cut into ledges at various heights. This was undoubtedly an important structure in the 5th century AD...
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We paused, but still had a long climb ahead of us. Many of the steps are cut into the rock while others are steel staircases that cling perilously to the sheer cliffs...
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The metal ladders looked sturdy enough, and plenty of people had gone before, so we pushed on until we arrived at the summit, and the base of the great plinth on which the palace once stood...
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Just one more climb and we were on top of the world. The views across of the jungle were stunning...
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And at our feet was the foundation of a great palace built by King Kassapa (477-495 AD) that had once stood proudly atop this mountain. The king built his palace here to protect himself from his enemies after he murdered his own father.
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Having climbed to the top we can say with certainty that anyone thinking of attacking the place should think again. All we had to do now was to climb all the way back down.

Posted by Hawkson 07:56 Archived in Sri Lanka Comments (9)

The Dawn Chorus

sunny 31 °C

As the sun rises over the misty jungle we are woken by a heavenly choir unmatched by any sounds created by man. A symphony of sound greets us as the wild creatures herald the start of another sun-filled day. The birds in the canopy are the coloraturas, the altos, sopranos and tenors. These exotic flyers sing point and counterpoint with an agile range of runs, leaps and trills. Lower down the scale, in the branches, the orchestra of sound is provided by chattering chipmunks and howling monkeys, while the elephants on the forest floor pulsate the air with their deep baritone calls.
Here are a few of the many wild animals we have encountered so far...
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Troupes of mischievous monkeys can be seen everywhere here in north central Sri Lanka, but wild elephants are more elusive. This is the first one we spied...
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This fine creature watched us warily from his roadside hiding place while, at the elephant orphanage in Pinnewala, we had a grandstand view of the elephant's bath...
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Sri Lanka has a very long and rich human history beginning some thirty two thousand years ago when nomadic settlers called Veddahs came across a land bridge from India. The bridge eventually disappeared but invasions of other civilizations continued, bringing with them their religions.
Anuradhapura was the capital of Sri Lanka from 380BC for nearly a thousand years. Few of the ancient buildings remain apart from the many Buddhist temples with giant stupas known as dagobas. This dagoba was built in the 3rd century AD and is said to contain the collarbone of the Buddha himself...
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While King Dutugemunu had this dagoba built in 150BC in penitence for eating a hot curry without first praying...
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Anuradhapura is the religious centre of Sri Lanka and our visit coincided with an auspicious time in the Buddhist calendar – the February full moon – when thousands of congregants from all over the country bring great rolls of cloth to ceremoniously wrap around the stupas...
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Before visiting the temple the white clad worshippers purify themselves by bathing in the nearby lake...
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The enormous dagobas were badly neglected for centuries during the colonial times that began with the Portugese invasion in 1502, but today they have been restored to their former glory and rise like shining beacons above the surrounding jungle. The historical site at Anuradhapura covers a vast area and ruins of ancient buildings can be seen everywhere. However, perhaps the greatest treasure of the city is the Bodhi tree...
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This carefully guarded tree was brought from India some two thousand years ago and is claimed to be a sapling from the very tree where the great Buddha once sat to meditate. It is the oldest documented tree in the world.

Posted by Hawkson 22:30 Archived in Sri Lanka Comments (8)

Just Another Sri Lankan Day

sunny 31 °C

The perpetually warm Indian Ocean, fed by the great rivers of Africa and Asia, is a perfect breeding ground for fish of every kind and we began our day on the beach in Negombo where the fleet had come ashore with the night's catch...
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It was still early morning for us and our friend Christine, but the main business of the day was already done. The fish market opened at 4am when the serious buyers vied for the swordfish, marlin and tuna, and by the time we arrived the locals, and the gulls, were scrapping over the small fry of whitebait, shrimps and blue crabs...
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Negombo's seafood market is just a ragtag assortment of flimsy stalls along the seashore, so the fish has barely left the sea by the time it ends up on the slab. However, even the freshest fish has a sell by date counted in minutes under the blistering tropical sun, so much of it is dried for export to China and Japan. Relatively rare red squid command a premium in Tokyo and these women are braving the heat to lay out the night's catch under nature's broiler...
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Entire families live and work in shanties along the shore and scrape a living by catching and drying all manner of fish in a round-the-clock operation that will continue until the monsoons come in October.

But our day has just begun and we head to the capital to witness Colombo's biggest annual cultural event – the Perahera of the Gangaramaya Temple. Three days of celebration take place around the February full moon every year and is kicked off with a incredible parade of some five thousand dancers in splendid costumes...
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Along with the dancers are numerous gaily attired musicians...
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There are hundreds of monks, flag wavers and parasol carriers...
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Troupes of plate spinners, acrobats, and stilt walkers add to the excitement with daredevil displays as they slowly pass the cheering crowds...

We, being foreign visitors, have front row seats and, like everyone else, we are anxious to see the highlight of the show; the mighty Sri Lankan elephants...
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Twenty or thirty? We lose count as one after another the giant beasts in their flowing robes are led sedately past surrounded by dancers, musicians and mahouts...
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The hours tick by until the grand finale when three giant tuskers sway into view carrying a relic from the Buddha himself...
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Colombo's Perahera is a magnificent and unforgettable sight and we go to sleep dreaming of elephants. Tomorrow we head north to the tropical jungles where we will undoubtedly see many more of these magnificent creatures.
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Posted by Hawkson 20:14 Archived in Sri Lanka Comments (7)

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