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Sri Lanka Self drive?

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Dave Williams

You have got to be joking! I did consider it but Claire told me not to be silly and as soon as I arrived I realised how right she was.The attached clip shows a typical street scene. When other forms of transport are inexpensive why go to the hassle of trying to navigate your way around the island and through the traffic.

You'd have to be a mad as a March hare ( or even a Black-naped one) to even contemplate it !;) 

 

 

49479444362_e3de52239f_b.jpgBlack-naped Hare by Dave Williams, on Flickr

 

You have been warned.

Over to you to decide

49479546441_e325d93693_o.jpgSri Lanka traffic by Dave Williams, on Flickr

Edited by Dave Williams

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shazdwn

Oooooh, I'm looking forward to this.  Sri Lanka may be on the itinerary for 2021.

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Kitsafari

Even the hare needs to hitch a ride sometimes, especially when the traffic is as manic and chaotic as....

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xelas

 

6 hours ago, Kitsafari said:

Even the hare needs to hitch a ride sometimes, especially when the traffic is as manic and chaotic as....

 

Well, it depends on the hare ... and the traffic :D.

 

Before entering any deeper into the car&driver vs. self-driving discussion, what kind of car&driver have you used, @Dave Williams? Was it different drivers for point A to point B transfers, or was it 1 car&driver for the entire length of your trip?

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Dave Williams
6 hours ago, Kitsafari said:

Even the hare needs to hitch a ride sometimes, especially when the traffic is as manic and chaotic as....

 

The hare actually did a self drive trip to SL. Hat off to him but I wouldn't attempt it. Taxis are inexpensive, tuk tuks even cheaper . Then there's public transport which is very cheap, even if you manage to get hold of tickets for the pullman carriage on the Kandy-Ella railway line.

 

@shazdwn Don't consider Sri Lanka...make a firm plan! This trip report won't help too much but if you check out my blogs for trips in 2013/15 they will point you to some firm ideas.

It's a superb island with a multitude of things to do. It's inexpensive if you want it to be,has wildlife, culture,scenery, good food and all within a reasonably small island. I consider the island very safe, despite the fact there were terrorist attacks last year. One of the big benefits is they are malaria free too.

You need to check out what time of year to go to which part of the island as it does vary. We have always been in the UK's winter months to escape the miserable grey weather. You might need to think when is best for you, especially as far as wildlife goes.

Anyway, read on and check out the self drive trip @xelas took too. 

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Dave Williams
12 minutes ago, xelas said:

 

 

Well, it depends on the hare ... and the traffic :D.

 

Before entering any deeper into the car&driver vs. self-driving discussion, what kind of car&driver have you used, @Dave Williams? Was it different drivers for point A to point B transfers, or was it 1 car&driver for the entire length of your trip?

 

We used a tuk tuk for some local trips and booked a different taxi to take us from hotel to hotel. Safari vehicles picked us up from the hotel we were staying at for the three trips we /I made.

We spent roughly £200-£250 on transport ( excluding safaris) including toll roads. We travelled from the airport to Yala NP and back again.

Some roads are without a doubt less challenging than others. The new toll road is  traffic free once you leave Colombo but it's when you are in the towns that the fun begins. The public buses are a nightmare who just toot the horn and overtake in the craziest of places. As a driver you have to be aware that at any time it's down to you to make room for an overtaking vehicle coming the opposite direction. The rule of the road is "might is right", not the Highway Code! You can now apparently hire a tuk tuk for self driving.  Nooooooooooo! Don't do it. You are almost at the bottom of the food chain in one of those.

The other option is a driver and car but for us it would have been a waste of time this trip as out of 20 days we only travelled on 4 of them.

Public transport can be great fun too, the only thing that puts us off is the amount of luggage we lug around on holidays. I look at those backpackers with envy sometimes.

 

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JayRon

@Dave Williams Looking forward to this. I was in Sri Lanka last year february 2019 (before the terrorist-attacks) and found the national parks badly managed and overrun by tourists. But I liked Sri Lanka, but just to many tourists . Bu maybe we did it the wrong way...  

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xelas

Thanks, Dave. Even if you would have double the travel days, hiring car&driver for door-to-door transfers is much better idea than self-driving. Although, as reported also here, we have had no problems at all to adapt to the local traffic rules. And boy, those bus drivers are the in a category for themselves!

 

The end result of having a car&driver for the whole length of the trip very much depends on the driver. To minimise the chances of being exploited by one of less scrupulous drivers, changing them for each transfer is a good idea. I might do this next time visiting Sri Lanka. Looks like his hare is getting old :lol:.

 

But more important, please start with your trip report! I only have 6 more days before leaving the internet behind.

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xelas
Just now, JayRon said:

Bu maybe we did it the wrong way...  

 

Might be. Our experiences were good even in Yala ... but we have had our jeep driver firmly under control. He took us always where there were no others. We have missed the leopards, but we have enjoyed the parks (Wilpattu, Kaudulla, Udawalawa, Yala and Bundala).

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Dave Williams

This trip was planned at fairly short notice, just around 6 weeks in fact. We should have travelled to Goa in November but our package tour company, Thomas Cook, went down the tubes and our holiday went with it. We weren't bothered, in fact we were quite happy about it as we were due to leave just three weeks after returning from the four week trip we'd had in South Africa. Fortunately, the package was covered by ATOL so we got our money back very promptly and all we had to decide was were to go instead.

We did want to go to Goa but the prices seemed to have shot up, both for packages with the one company still operating, and for flights, with Qatar now asking almost £1k for an economy return. Out of the question when you can go to Sri Lanka for less than £600. 

So, that was it then. Sri Lanka it would be. 

This however would be a different trip to the previous ones we had made to the island. Well, the previous two at any rate. This was to be our fourth visit and this time the emphasis was on R&R rather than touring and sightseeing. Claire was due a relaxing holiday as the previous one had been non stop driving and wildlife watching for a month. 

No, the objective would be a good standard of accommodation, hopefully some wildlife for me to wander off to watch whilst Claire relaxed with a good book. ( That's why I love The Gambia so much, you can just wander off when you are bored and find plenty of avian subjects to photograph).

We decided the dates we could fit in a visit, booked the flights then went to Booking.com to book hotels.

How did it work out? Well, as you'll find out, the accommodation and food was where we wanted it. Very good indeed. However, my planning could have been tweaked for a better experience with less "living out of a suitcase" and certainly my wildlife expectations didn't meet with the plan.

So, on with the trip! 

Leaving home on the 7th of January, it wasn't that long after the Christmas holiday period at home. Qatar Airways chosen again as we could fly from Manchester rather than travel to London for other alternatives. We don't mind the break in the flight at Doha, an opportunity to stretch the legs although it can be an extremely long walk, especially with 12 kilos of camera gear on your back. 

Doha airport.

The first place I'd booked to stay was called Optimum Residencies in Negombo, a short distance from the airport. What attracted me wasn't just the incredibly low price of £27 per night but that it included an airport pick up too. I'd booked 2 nights knowing it takes time to acclimatise and get over the time difference of 5 1/2 hours, especially after a 17 hour journey to get there.

We were pleasantly surprised. The owner of the hotel/guest house was waiting for us at arrivals and we were soon at the hotel and flat out on the bed fast asleep at around 10am!

Optimum Residencies Negombo

The room was simply but perfectly adequate. Spotlessly clean, we had a TV, a fridge with water and beer chilling, the bathroom had a "wet room" shower arrangement, oh and we had aircon too.

Stepping out of our room through the French window we were next to a small swimming pool.

Optimum Residencies Negombo

They served freshly made meals and although the choice was limited the food was outstanding value and delicious. The breakfast was quite a spread of Sri Lankan food and again, more than enough to set you up for the day.

OK, not everyone would order fried garlic as a starter, and I have to say I was taken aback when it was served but I ate the lot! As for the consequences, don't ask!

Fried garlic

This was indeed a gem of a find being so close to the airport and compensated for the fact that the place we have used before didn't respond to my email enquiries. Apparently they only opened the business 2 years ago, starting with 2 bedrooms. They have now increased to 11 with plans for further expansion. While we were there they were adding a new swimming pool and a new kitchen and covered dining area. 

If you are looking for somewhere I can thoroughly recommend this place. Lovely hard working people who are giving it their all to succeed. They go beyond the call of duty to help you make your trip a success, happy to arrange onward transport etc, etc.

Oh, I didn't mention did I, Sri Lanka was hit by terrorist bombings in early 2019. In fact the worst atrocity, a local church, was just 500m away. 153 unfortunate people died in the one attack by a single suicide bomber and amongst them, some relatives of our hosts. This didn't halt their determination and although the tourist trade took a hit, their business continued to grow.

On the second day of our trip I decided to hire a Tuk Tuk and take a ride up to Waikaal  to see what had happened at our previous favourite stopping place. I also knew I could do a spot of birding there too! Leaving Claire behind off I went.

What would I find at the guest house. Why no replies to my email enquiries? I suspected perhaps the owner had sold up but no, they hadn't. What I did find though was a bit of a shock.

Sri Lanka

The once beautifully manicured gardens and pristine swimming pool were now totally overgrown.

Sri Lanka

The swimming pool was now full of green water and had been planted as a wildlife pond it seemed!

And the owner was still there.

She'd only just that week taken over the business from her parents on our last visit. She claimed it wasn't making any money and the terrorist attacks finished it off. When I told her I had attempted to email her she said she'd changed all the email addresses as she got fed up dealing with enquiries which was odd considering she'd told me the business wasn't there.

No, I think she just couldn't be bothered and had turned this once magnificent property in to something resembling a hippie squat. Her parents must be dismayed.

Ah well. I bade farewell and headed down to the beach via the Ranwelli hotel, the first place we stayed in on our original package tour holiday in 2013. 

That wasn't looking well occupied either with just a handful of guests in evidence in a once thriving business. Maybe the bombings had contributed but complacency and greed wouldn't have helped them either, they had been heading that way already. 

Ah well, the beach was much the same with many of the usual suspects so I spent and hour or so with the camera before heading back to Negombo.

Lesser Sand Plover  Charadrius mongolus

Lesser Crested Tern   Thalasseus bengalensis

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xelas
43 minutes ago, Dave Williams said:

Optimum Residencies in Negombo

 

This looks very nice indeed. BTW what was the other place name? Lovely shore birds photos, as expected from a 12kilos gear:D!

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pedro maia

12 kilos is a lot of kilos :P.

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Dave Williams
1 hour ago, xelas said:

 

This looks very nice indeed. BTW what was the other place name? Lovely shore birds photos, as expected from a 12kilos gear:D!

 

https://davewilliamsnaturephotography.blogspot.com/2015/12/sri-lanka-novemberdecember-2015-part-2.html

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xelas

Oh boy, that was a birding galore, back in 2015! 

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Dave Williams

Refreshed and nearly acclimatised we were ready for the next stage of our journey which was to take us down to the southern tip of the island and the wildlife area of Yala NP. To get there it's possible in a day, especially as they have just opened a new dual carriageway which takes you a good deal of the way. We however were in no rush and decided to make an overnight stop in Galle, one of the most popular tourist spots on the island. The taxi ride was only 2.5 hours and cost 11000 rupees including a 10% tip and the toll fees ( 230 rupees =£1, 180=$1 at the time of our visit).

We'd booked a room at Sam Villa which is inside the old fort, the popular tourist area.

Once again, I'd picked well!

Sam Villas, Galle

Just £26 for B&B in a wonderful old building in a quiet spot just off the main drag.

Sam Villas, Galle

We had a lovely spacious room with a modern bathroom.

Sam Villas, Galle

I'm not sure if there was a fan or aircon but these old buildings were built to withstand the heat.( Since been told by Claire there was aircon)

It was a short stroll down to the main restaurant/shopping streets which were busy with tourists.

Quiet up our end though!

Galle

From the fort walls you can overlook the international cricket ground where England play Sri Lanka in the next month or so. 

Cricket ground, Galle

Apparently you can't get accommodation for love nor money now and the fort walls are crowded with folk hoping for a free view!

In January though the fort walls were crowded for another reason. The sunset!

Galle sunset

We were there on a public holiday so I'm not sure if it's always that crowded, however it did mean one thing. Alcohol sales are forbidden. Fortunately we'd already purchased a bottle of gin the day before!! Our sundowners were guaranteed.

One thing we did notice though was that the prices in restaurants were much higher here than elsewhere. On that evening we decided on a straight forward simple burger and chips and , together with a couple of lime sodas the bill was around £18... not exactly going to break the bank but probably on a par with UK prices.

Talking of breaking the bank, if you are planning a heist this is the ideal place!

Galle

You can get away with the whole outfit!!

We were pleased we'd spent an afternoon in Galle but to be honest, it's enough.Well, for us anyway.

I would highly recommend Sam Villa but last time I looked they were not on Booking.com anymore but they do have a website.

Without a doubt the breakfast we had there was excellent.

Fruit to start

Sam Villas, Galle

Then Claire has "English" and I had local.

Sam Villas, Galle

Washed down with plenty of freshly brewed coffee I wouldn't be needing any lunch that day and when we saw what was inshore for dinner at the next place we were heading I was pleased I'd not eaten all day!!

Edited by Dave Williams

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Dave Williams

The journey from Galle to Yala took a bit longer than expected, 4 1/4 hours to be precise. The taxi driver was making noises that it was further than he's realised when he'd quoted R9000 for the journey although he did acknowledge he'd been there once before. I gave him R10500 and he went away happy. I'd been looking forward to this hotel, the Cinnamon Wild Yala 4* as one of the , if not the highlight, of our stay in Sri Lanka. The hype surrounding it makes it sound as if you are going to see lots of wildlife wandering around locally in the grounds of the hotel that back on to the Yala National park itself. Happy days I thought! It was somewhere I wanted to try but when I'd looked previously it was always beyond my budget but I'd been browsing Booking.com on Black Friday and the deal they were offering looked excellent. Just £75 per night for D,B&B ! Just one catch though, the dates were limited. No problem, a cunning plan was hatched. We booked in for two nights, we'd then go somewhere less expensive for 5 nights and then return for a further 3 nights the following weekend at the special rate! Considering if you go on Cinnamon's website right now and book their special offer on D,B&B with 40% discount its $330 per night this coming weekend . Booking.com has it for £271. So yes, we'd got it at a bargain price. Was it worth it? Yes and no!!

There's no doubt the rooms were well appointed, we had a 'Jungle chalet".

Cinnamon Wild Yala

Surrounded by bushes there was no view but hopefully they might attract some birds to photograph.

Inside the room, it was very comfortable indeed.

Cinnamon Wild Yala

The best thing was there was a TV showing Premier League matches so I could watch my team playing live. Mind you it was hard keeping awake when the kick off was 1.30am!!

No, you couldn't fault the room and the huge choice included with the buffet dinner was pretty good too, especially at the price we'd paid but that's were they can catch the unsuspecting. The hotel is in the middle of nowhere so there are no alternatives. We chatted to a couple of ladies who'd paid a mere £50 for their room but then had to fork out £32 for breakfast and I'm not sure what they did for dinner but the  BBQ would cost them $60 so their deal wasn't so clever after all. Drinks in the rooftop bar were not extortionate but at R850 for a bottle of beer they were twice the price of everywhere else we went. Happy hour was more of a smile than a laugh as the price reduction was only 15% and only applied to cocktails!

Oh, and as for safaris they were outrageously priced. They weren't going to get me though. Oh no, I had had a cunning plan, well at least I thought I had. I was taking my safaris from the next place we were staying  in between Cinnamon stays. More of that later but suffice to say, Cinnamon quoted me $120 more than the price I'd agreed to pay. Even a taxi fare to get us out of there had an additional 25% premium. Fortunately we had come prepared for all that and my objective was to just spend my time at Cinnamon exploring the grounds.

That however, was the big disappointment. 

The hotel hypes up the fact that you are in a wildlife environment and after dark they insist you are accompanied back along the well lit paths to your chalet by a member of staff. Yes, a sizeable lake is in front of the hotel, yes it has large crocodiles in it. Yes, there are Water Buffalo wallowing in the lake and yes, one might wander in to the grounds on occasion. Yes, there are "wild" boars wandering around too but I witnessed a member of calling them to come and get some scraps of food he was dealing with at the recycling plant! They are totally harmless, the Buffalos are disinterested and the monkeys leave you alone too. The odd elephant intruder might pose more of a threat but as the hotel grounds have security posted all over I'm sure they'd be aware if one entered. If they are not they wouldn't be much point would they!

So my plan of taking in the wildlife was dashed by the limitations of the grounds which was largely made up of narrow pathways lined with bushes. Access to the lake was extremely limited and the minute you set foot outside the property you were instructed to return by security. I was told that the hotel could provide a guide for my safety if I wanted to go for a walk. 

Of course they would if I paid .

No, for the money we paid it was a good deal. They get excellent reviews on the likes of Trip Advisor but their clientele by and large have different objectives to mine. Most stop one or maybe 2 nights, take a morning and/or afternoon safari that lasts just a few hours and then leave. I rather suspect that their safari experience is only judged successful if they see a Leopard although maybe an Elephant or Bear would suffice. They tend not to be interested in anything else and a 3 or 4 hour trip is the limit of their attention span.

The safari business is big in Yala and the nearby town of Tissamaharama. There are jeeps parked up everywhere. They seemed to have grown in number even more than on my last visit 4 years ago.They were causing chaos back then and from what I was hearing in the hotel, even more so now. The problem is that most folk just want to see a Leopard so consequently that's exactly what all the jeeps try to do, satisfy their clients hoping for a bigger tip. The result is a rush to get to the latest sighting with speeding vehicles desperate to get ahead in the queue to view. 

I decided to cancel my two booked trips to Yala and instructed the owner of the next hotel that was my intention. I would stick with the one to Bundala and if that was a success I'd go there again. 

So, what did I see at Cinnamon?

The only bird species I saw there and nowhere else was the Indian White-eye but the view was brief and the photo opportunity difficult.


Indian White-eye  Zosterops palpebrosus


The one benefit of being on foot as opposed to being in a safari vehicle is the point of view.

Being on a level plain with the subject always makes for a better shot and this Spot-billed Pelican is a good example.

Spot-billed Pelican  Pelecanus philippensis

As is this Monitor Lizard that was so close I couldn't fit the whole beast in the shot!

Land Monitor Lizard

Sometimes the problem isn't fitting the whole subject in the frame, it's having it all in focus. Using a telephoto lens has the advantage of getting closer to your subject without frightening it away but the shallow depth of field these lenses have present their own problems.

Garden Lizard

All in all, I was perfectly happy at Cinnamon Wild. I can see why most guests think it's great but personally I probably wouldn't have returned for a second visit if I hadn't already paid. I much prefer somewhere where I can wander freely even if the standard of accommodation isn't quite as high. 

As for the buffet meals, and the huge choice that invites gluttony ( well you have to try everything don't you?!), maybe I'm better off with a freshly made meal made especially for me!

Anyway, I'd sent a message asking our next hotel to send a taxi over to pick us up. The hotel owner came too as he wanted to check out the pool signage so he could get some ideas for the pool he'd just had built.

First stay over, maybe the next one would now be the highlight.

Fingers crossed!

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xelas

The deal was out of this world ... but was not worth your time! No photos of the pool??

 

Edited by xelas

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Dave Williams
6 hours ago, xelas said:

 No photos of the pool??

 

 No but it was huge and for most of the day no one around while when stayed.

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Dave Williams

Our next stop over was to be the longest of the trip. Five whole nights in one hotel! The Serene Park is set back from the main promenade that fronts Tissa Lake and is surrounded by rice fields.

Serene Park hotel, Tissa

As with everywhere we stayed it was spotlessly clean and although it wasn't the cheapest at £42 per night for B&B it was probably the simplest room we had.

IMG_1332

No fridge, TV, or even much space to store clothes so as with everywhere else we just lived out of the suitcase.

We managed perfectly well although it isn't ideal and is one of the biggest drawbacks of touring holidays. The room had the two things we did need, a decent bathroom

Serene Park hotel, Tissa

and aircon because it was pretty hot in the room until the early hours of the morning.

The best thing about the hotel though was the friendly owner and his staff,  well his main man who seemed to do everything from carrying our bags up to the second floor to taking food orders and serving drinks. 

Oh and the food was excellent!

Who needs a buffet with maybe 100 things to choose. This simple curry and rice did me well!

Serene Park hotel, Tissa

Yes all those dishes are mine, Claire opted for a simple chicken and chips. My curry came to R1500, around £6 and with large bottles of beer at R500 it was happy days.

Breakfast was superb too!

We had 4 full days here and my original intention was to take 3 safari trips. One to Bundala for $130, two to Yala at $165. But after seeing how many jeeps were milling around everywhere and hearing tales of Leopard jams I had decided against Yala and asked if it was possible to go to Udawalawe NP, one I have never been to, instead. I was dissuaded from going on the grounds of distance from Tissa and instead it was suggested we try block 5 of Yala NP. Yala is divided in to 5 blocks, Block 1 is the most popular by far as it's closest to Tissa and has the highest density of visible game.

Ok, I agreed we'd try it but first we'd go to Bundala NP, a firm favourite of mine.

Bundala is low lying, has a lot of wetland area and is a magnet for birds. 

They are everywhere, particularly in winter when it holds migrating species as well as the resident ones.

Best of all those it's practically deserted as far as safari vehicles are concerned and only attracts avid birders!  

Bundala N.P.

I think we probably saw about 6 other safari jeeps during the course of our day and we were definitely the only ones to spend the whole day in the park. Our host hotel owner who had arranged the trips seemed surprised I wanted to spend a whole day there but I was insistent. I certainly wouldn't be bored. In fairness he arranged a driver who had an excellent knowledge of birds and we also picked up a park guide at the gate too. 

Guides are definitely an advantage as it seems their eyesight is so much better than mine.

I would never have spotted that!

Bundala NP Sri Lanka

This turned out , as expected, to be an excellent day's birding. Some of the highlights were as follows

Pheasant-tailed Jacana

Pheasant-tailed Jacana   Hydrophasianus Chirurgus

Yellow-wattled Lapwing

Yellow-wattled Lapwing  Vanellus malabaricus

and some stunning close ups of Blue-tailed Bee-eaters

Blue-tailed Bee-eater  Merops philippinus

Out on the salt flats there were hundreds of gulls and waders, my favourite being a pair of Small Pratincole

Small Pratincole  Glareola lactea

and best of all, a Black-necked Stork, a lifer for me.

Black-necked Stork.  Ephippiorhynchus asiaticus

My biggest disappointment was that a superb area of reed bed no longer existed having been destroyed by elephant.

Yes, there are Elephant in Bundala, not many. maybe 25, but we managed to see 6 of them during the course of the day.

Bundala NP Sri Lanka

No, on a previous visit I managed to see Black Bittern, Yellow Bittern and Ruddy-breasted Crake all in the one small area, this time there was just a couple of small pools with no reed whatsoever there.

I did manage a Yellow Bittern at another spot but the views were distant and the photo opportunities poor.

Despite the disappointment though, my trip was judged a big success. I would recommend anyone to spend the day there.

Nice spot overlooking the sea for lunch.

Bundala NP

Not only birds but a few mammals too.

Ruddy Mongoose

Bundala NP Sri Lanka

and Toque Macaque

Bundala NP Sri Lanka

With no traffic there was no need to get there early either, just two vehicles entered the park at opening time and I think we were the only two of the morning too.

To be honest a whole day trip works out at far better value for money too so for me it's a no brainer.

Tomorrow we would be exploring a new place all together, Block 5 of Yala.

I wondered how it would compare.

Edited by Dave Williams

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pedro maia

Great photos as expected, looking forward for more.

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shazdwn

Great Jacana shot.  I'm very curious to see how block 5 went.

 

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xelas

Great job on finding all those excellent accommodations, Dave. Duly noted for next visit to Sri Lanka.

 

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Dave Williams

Our safari to Yala block 5 started no later than it would have done to go to Block 1, if anything, slightly later in fact despite it being a much longer drive.

Why?

Because no one else was at the entrance gate when we arrived just before opening time at 6.00am.

This was more like it, we had the whole of the park to ourselves it seemed!

Not far from the entrance you arrive at the dam and the fast lake it has created behind it.

Block 5 Yala N.P.

A huge area of land was taken , presumably from the national park, in its making. I think it's been there about 20 years now.

Our driver stopped the vehicle below the dam and we searched the surrounding terrain for what might be there. Just the driver today, but we had every confidence he'd find whatever was about as he'd demonstrated his ability at Bundala. He told us he'd seen a Leopard at this very spot just a couple of days ago.

Leopard? Yes, it would be nice to see one but he knew the reason we were there was to avoid those Leopard jams that make wildlife viewing so unpleasant.

We started quite well with some good bird sightings even if they were mainly distant. Birds like Pygmy Woodpecker were a first for me

Brown-capped Pygmy Woodpecker  Picoides nanus



and within 30 minutes I had added quite a few species previously unseen on this trip, such as Jerdon's Bush Lark.

Jerdon's Bush Lark  Mirafra affinis

Moving on we descended into woodland before emerging up above the bed of the river  flowing from the dam.

Block 5 Yala N.P.

The scenery was quite spectacular and better still, as we drove alongside the river we came across this not so handsome bird!

Lesser Adjutant   Leptoptilos javanicus

No doubt the Lesser Adjutant's mother thought he was beautiful though.

Further downstream we stopped to have our picnic breakfast overlooking some rapids, small waterfalls and lots of birds fishing.

Block 5 Yala N.P.

Back in to the forested area we tried quite a few different tracks only to turn back where they had become judged impassable as vehicles had churned up the mud. We didn't seem to be getting much joy and the day was getting hotter and hotter. 

I suggested to our driver that maybe we should find some shade and park up for a while but he didn't take note and just carried on driving alongside what appeared to be a man made channel of water. We stopped to look at a Mugger Crocodile resting on the bank.

Marsh Mugger Crocodile

On we went and the early start and lack of action was starting to take its toll. I was sat with my eyes closed when the vehicle lurched to a stop.

"Owl!" Cried the driver.

And there it was, no distance away whatsoever.

I rattled off some shots.

Brown Fish Owl  Ketupa zeylonensis

Checked my camera to see that they were over exposed and quickly adjusted the settings.

However, in my torpid state, I turned the dial in the wrong direction and added to the problem!!

Brown Fish Owl

Fortunately for me, despite the bright sun reflecting off the top of the Owl's head, the shots were recoverable if not perfect.

I would have been as sick as the proverbial parrot otherwise.

The Adjutant and the Owl were without doubt the highlights of the day. Mammals are very hard to find in Block 5 it seems due to the nature of the terrain and the lack of traffic making them shy when they do come in to contact with humans.

We saw a few Spotted Deer here and there.

Spotted Deer

Some Water Buffalo

Water Buffalo

and the odd Ruddy Mongoose.

The one animal that wasn't shy was this Sambar Deer which appears at the lunch time picnic spot to get fed any spare fruit on offer.

Sambar Deer

He's extremely confiding and very placid but has, as all wild animals seem to have, an incredible sense of smell. Having polished off a few bananas offered by the driver of another vehicle he headed directly to me as he could smell the watermelon juice on my hands.You have to be careful of those horns which could inflict a nasty injury quite easily even if no malice was intended.

Block 5 reminded me of Wilpattu. Scenically even prettier but similar in wildlife opportunity. We did see things that we didn't find elsewhere but the photo opportunities bar the best two sightings were mostly difficult because of proximity, light and vegetation.

What I did like was the lack of traffic, even if the arrival of another safari jeep had flushed the Owl.

During the course of the day we saw maybe 10 individual jeeps, and most of them later in the afternoon.

There was a reason for this it appeared. Come the hour we turned off the main route in to the park and headed off down a side road where to my amazement there were about 10 vehicles all parked up.

 Block 5 Yala N.P.

It was pretty obvious what was going on. You could hear the alarm call of a monkey that signalled the presence of Leopard.

There was near silence bar the people in one jeep laughing and chattering. Idiots!

Suddenly one of the jeeps fired up his engine and the next minute all hell let loose. Our driver who had been so careful in his choice of routes and avoidance of getting stuck, was calm and collected in his driving on public roads, suddenly become a leading contender to win Whacky Races as he cut up his rivals and jockeyed into his preferred position.

It was a moment or two of madness before everyone stopped and turned off their engines again.

We sat patiently for 15-20 minutes but there was no sign of the Leopard and the warning cries of the monkey stopped. One by one the assembled jeeps gave up and left although our man stayed to the bitter end. In fairness he gave it his all and we were the last jeep to leave the park at exactly 6.00pm closing time, 12 hours after entering.

Was it judged a good day? Not exactly. Wildlife watching involves a lot of luck. Finding the Owl was indeed outstanding luck as the Brown Fish Owl is largely a nocturnal hunter but the rewards for $165 and 12 hours could not be described as outstanding.

Would I go again? Probably not, in fact having made the southern end of the island my main target area on this trip I may well never go back now and if I do it will be to discover previously unseen parts of the island. 

I gave our driver a R3000 tip and bade farewell. I wouldn't be taking any more trips, not through our hotel at that price anyway.

The next couple of days were spent in the hotel in Tissa, much of it spent processing shots taken over the last couple of days but we did walk in to the town and I had the odd foray to the edge of the lake with my camera. Opportunities were not the best though so I came away with little to show for it.

In the back of my mind though I had a nagging doubt. I'd come all this way to Sri Lanka, would spend around £3500 in the process and was in danger of going home wondering"what if?"

On one of our wanderings into "suburbia" we passed a simple house with a jeep parked outside. I decided to ask the question.

How much for an all day safari to Yala, pick up at the Cinnamon Wild hotel? This of course needed no further description of which part I meant. Everyone goes to Block 1!

"R9000 for the jeep plus R4500 per person entry tickets" was the reply.

" I'm going to book it" I said to Claire and to my surprise after the 12 hours in Block 5 she said count me in.

18,000 rupees is the equivalent of  nearly £80 or $100. Half what I had paid previously.

It was Friday and I booked for Monday. I didn't want to be in the park at the weekend, it would be far too busy. 

I asked him for assurance he wouldn't let me down and not turn up and the deal was done. He was obviously as nervous about us not showing and took details of Claire's What's app number as we didn't have a Sri Lankan SIM card.

Back at the hotel we discovered a message asking if we wanted to be provided with a packed lunch but we declined. Still, looked likely he's turn up at the agreed meeting time of 4.45am.

What the hell, I was prepared for the worst.

Bring it on! Traffic or not.

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Dave Williams

Our 5 nights were soon gone at Tissa and it was time to return to Cinnamon Wild for another three night stay which would include the whole day safari into Block 1.

Before we left Serene Park we feasted on a special breakfast, a token of appreciation from our host for our patronage. Most of his guests appeared to be groups of touring Chinese who descended late in the evening and left the early following morning never to be seen again. The half day safari brigade.

We on the other hand had eaten there every evening and drank copious quantities of beer to help boost his takings! I had also taken some snaps of his new pool for him to post on his website.

Serene Park hotel, Tissa

Fair do's, they had worked hard to build up this business, it seemed the hotel hadn't been there very long and had only got planning permission in the prime lake frontage location as his farm house had been there before. They still owned some of the surrounding rice fields.

I paid my bill but did pass comment that the price of the safaris was a bit expensive compared to the advertised rates in town. The main man helper who handled payment asked if there was a mistake to which I replied, no mistake, it's what was agreed.

I had always had a nagging doubt that I was paying over the odds but it was still a lot cheaper than Cinnamon had quoted. Time had passed since my last all day safaris four years previously but I could have sworn I only paid £60 or there abouts for two of us then.

When I had enquired about a taxi to leave Cinnamon to go to Tissa, reception there had quoted R3750. A message to Serene and they sent one for R3000. It's not that far, and time wise it's only 30 minutes due to the state of the road to Cinnamon being very poor but compared to the trips from Negombo and Galle it still seemed expensive but you accept what it is. The 3000 had been added to my bill.

Now we were leaving, it would be interesting to see what the taxi charged on the return journey as I would be paying directly. As we bade our genuinely fond farewells I was told by our host the taxi back was on him. We thanked him for this kind gesture but at the same time my suspicious mind wondered if this was so we didn't find out how much the ride really cost. Maybe his way of making amends for the overpriced safaris too.

Anyway, the moral of the story is "shop around" or "put up". We all have a choice!


Back in the same room in Cinnamon by request, it was very conveniently placed for the safari pick up point at the rear entrance. How many of these safaris are booked through the hotel I wouldn't know. Many people have signed up for tours of the whole island and these trips are part of the package.

Anyway, the alarm went off at 4.15, so it was a particularly early start! Claire was feeling unwell and asked if I minded her not coming. More to the point I asked if it was OK for me still to go. 

She replied that it wasn't a problem, she'd be OK. She was suffering badly with a bad chest, sore throat and blocked sinuses which had been plaguing her for sometime and certainly not something she picked up in Sri Lanka.

Anyway, with her blessing off I went. 

The benefit of being at Cinnamon is that it's a very short drive to Yala Block 1 entrance gate. We were there an hour before they opened and about jeep number 30 in the queue. 

It was still dark and I sat there alone wondering what I was doing there. Was this a dreadful mistake!

I had already told my driver who'd brought along a teenager, his younger brother perhaps, as an extra pair of eyes that I was not interested in Leopard jams and he was to stay away from them if possible!

He told me had he known he would have arranged to pick me up an hour later! The whole point of getting to the top of the queue was to be first at the Leopard sightings!

I wondered if he had any knowledge of birds whatsoever but he soon demonstrated that he did.

Once inside most jeeps shot off in the same direction. We didn't!

We headed down to the sea and were soon on to some good sightings.

Little Stint

Little Stint   Calidris minuta

and Little Ringed Plover in the early morning light looking good.

Little Ringed Plover  Charadrius dubius

Next we headed off down a side road and although there were other jeeps about they were not interfering with my enjoyment.

Both driver and the youngster had superb eyesight too, spotting things I would have missed.

Frog

I was asked what I specifically wanted to see and I listed Indian Pitta as my top priority.

Much to my delight they found me one in shaded undergrowth I would never have spotted myself.

Indian Pitta   Pitta brachyura

"What next?" 

"Chestnut-Headed Bee-eater" I replied.

They duly obliged!

Chestnut-headed Bee-eater Merops leschenaulti

These two were good, very good. Better still they understood where I needed to be for a photo opportunity too. The youngster in the back instructing the driver where to put me in the perfect position for a shot.

As the morning wore on we started to see fewer and fewer jeeps and as we headed deeper in to the park most if not all of the traffic was heading out the other way.

Soon we found ourselves on empty trails! Magic.

Block 1 Yala NP Sri Lanka

Further along this particular track we suddenly spotted a Leopard walking right across the front of us at the upcoming crossroads. We had a clear view of the animal too but unfortunately by the time the vehicle stopped it was too late to get a shot, while it was moving, impossible to keep focus.

We took a right in the direction the Leopard had gone but he had left the road and was heading in to the bush.

Just missed!

Just too late but we'd had the sighting all to ourselves!

It was lunchtime and the safari vehicles are obliged to gather at a given lunch spot leaving the park free of traffic for an hour or two. There were just 13 jeeps here, the sum total of those on all day safaris which when you consider there are usually around 200 plus jeeps in the park. it wasn't a high percentage.

We set off again around 2.00pm and the number of jeeps stayed minimal until around 3.30-4.00pm when the evening safari vehicles arrived. Once again, we steered clear of the jams. Leopards had been seen but we were not party to it as instructed.

The afternoon continued in much the way of the morning session, we saw lots of species, most which I'd seen before but this time the sightings were much better.

Crested Hawk-eagle  Nisaetus cirrhatus

We didn't just see birds either, we had fabulous close up views of Elephant as well.

This particular one was interesting as it was feeding in a manner I haven't seen before. Food appeared to be plentiful with greenery everywhere but he was after something different. Kicking the ground he created clumps of turf which he then shook free of soil with his trunk before eating. The roots must have been tasty!

 

Indian Elephant   Elephas maximus indicusAll in all it was a very successful day and I wouldn't hesitate to do it again, I just wished I'd found this guide from the off. Still, I have his details for future reference and he sent us some video footage of a Sloth Bear right alongside his vehicle the other day too.

Had we had another spare day I might have booked another full day out but alas, it was too late, we were moving on, next stop Mirissa and the Spice House Guest House.This was somewhere I have stopped twice before, it's a special place and knew what to expect...or so I thought.

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NancyS

This is what a leopard sighting looked like when I was there 2 years ago. And that's all I saw of the leopard. It seemed that the guides only concern was to get a leopard sighting. Terrible! The next day we did go to zone 5 and there was hardly anyone there. No leopard, but much better!

 

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