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Entries about trekking

Sri Lanka an amazing land of vast natural beauty.

... spicy sambol, steep steps, safari, sun and surf.

sunny 28 °C

We touched down at Colombo Airport at around 3.30am and were quickly through customs. There is an official taxi desk inside the airport so we arranged for a driver to take us to Colombo Fort railway station at a cost of 2500 rupees. We watched the day dawn as we raced through the traffic for our 7am departure. Much like the other countries we have visited in SE Asia, the general rule on the road is that the biggest vehicle wins. We spent a fair amount of the time driving around tuk tuks by utilising the oncoming traffic's lane, ducking back for cover to avoid collisions. There is much tooting of horns but it's not aggressive, it's simply to let people know that you are passing so as to avoid any sudden moves.

In the brightness, and heat, of the morning, we arrived at the railway station. Jen had pre-booked tickets and had wisely chosen first class travel, which meant we would have some air conditioned comfort after flying overnight. We found the Expo ticket office and got our tickets without any problem.


First class was a small single carriage behind the engine. We climbed aboard and found our seats. Before too long we embarked on the journey to Kandy, Sri Lanka's second largest city. The porters kindly brought us hot face towels so we were able to freshen up before receiving a morning cup of tea. we relaxed and watched the countryside as we passed. Lunch was served - a savoury roll and more tea. In a couple of hours we arrived at Kandy railway station.


As we exited the station we were eagerly approached by taxi and tuktuk drivers. We declined and headed for the main road, trying to clear our fatigued heads and get away from the pressure of the drivers touting for business. We walked for about ten minutes before agreeing a price with a tuktuk driver and heading to our guesthouse. The tuk tuk battled it's way up the hill. At times, we all inadvertently leaned forward in our seats, so steep was the road. The journey seemed to take an age. We passed a woman and a driver trying desperately to shove a large goat into a tuk tuk, we took this as a good omen and shortly thereafter arrived at the gate of our guesthouse.

The Paradise Kandy is a lovely, Dutch style, guesthouse nestled high on Richmond Hill overlooking the town of Kandy. We were greeted by the manager, Nayagam, and his staff. Our bags were taken up to our suite and we were invited to take a seat and have some tea. The view was really lovely and the location was blissfully quiet. We had a quick chat and explained that we had not slept since the previous day. Nayagam suggested we have a short nap. He said he would have lunch ready for us when we woke, and that he would arrange for a driver to take us into town later in the afternoon for a look at some of the sights. We agreed, excused ourselves, and went for a shower and some much needed sleep. We woke at about 1pm and came downstairs. It was apparant that we were the only guests so it felt much more like we were staying in a home rather than a guesthouse. Nayagam is not only an excellent host but also a talented cook. He asked what we would like for dinner that night. We said we were most interested in trying traditional Sri Lankan cuisine. He told us of his many years as a cook and suggested he prepare a range of traditional dishes. Naturally we agreed.


At 2pm our tuktuk, and driver Cyril, collected us and first took us to the Peradeniya Botanical Gardens. He left us to enjoy a couple of relaxing hours, strolling through the grounds. We found an amazing array of plants set amongst the palms, coco de mer, huge pines, and our favourite mara trees. We saw our first palm squirrels, very cute and twitchy little creatures. We relaxed with a drink, sitting in the sunshine, on the great lawn before returning to the main gate.

Cyril collected us and we drove to see some traditional Kandyan dancing. The performance was about 45 minutes long and featured a number of drummers playing waist-slung double headed hand drums, and tamborine. They were accompanied by a horanava, which looks a bit like a clarinet (in size and shape) and has a very similar sound to the wind instruments played in Thailand, or areas in the Middle East. The dancers were clad in traditional costumes. The men danced in pairs mostly, and each would appear adorned in a different style of dress. They wore various traditional costumes and the Sri Lankan masks we had seen in our guidebook and in many of the shops. They featured peacock feathers, snakes, and flames, beautifully and colourfully painted. The female dancers were very graceful and used very subtle gestures of the hands and head. The men were very energetic, and leapt around the stage, the performance culminating in a series of acrobatic back flips across the length of the stage. The event was capped off by some fire walking. The performance was attended exclusively by tourists, and while the constant camera flashes, and movement in or out of seats, was distracting and annoying, it is of genuine cultural value and very much worth attending. That said, I am sure it would be a more authentic experience as part of a festival.

We walked back towards the centre of town, and visited Sri Dalada Maligawa - The Temple of the Relic. Dusk was upon us and the temple looked splendid all lit up. It has many ornate rooms, across two levels. On the upper level, a long line of visitors waited to pass the entrance to the Tooth Relic chamber. The chamber is said to house one of the Buddha's teeth, rescued from his remains after his cremation in India. We walked from the temple back to town and found Cyril. When we returned to the guesthouse we were treated to the delicious tastes of Sri Lanka - chicken curry, sambal, eggplant, long beans in garlic, finely shredded and spiced cabbage, and fresh chillies. Nayagam, and his two colleagues looked after us brilliantly well. At the end of our meal we were just about dead on our feet. We slept very soundly that night.


We rose early and sat on the balcony watching the day begin, staggered by the beauty of the view. Mornings bring a cool breeze up from the valley and as the early morning fog lifts, Kandy is revealed to the eyes and the ears. Bird calls fill the air and dogs bark morning greetings to each other. We were greeted by the staff and were invited down for breakfast. We discovered a beautiful table, bathed in sunlight, and set with fresh juice, fruits, curry, sambol, and polroti (coconut roti) with butter and jam. It looked amazing. We had never eaten curry for breakfast before but after the first bite we were eager converts. We felt really pampered as we sat quietly in the cool breeze, on our first Kandy morning. We spent the day visiting the sights which interested us most, namely a tea factory, the Bahiravakanda temple, and the Millennium Elephant foundation. We had arranged a tuk tuk and, before long, we were weaving our way in and out of traffic, and gasping for fresh air. On our way to see the elephants, we stopped occasionally to take a photo. We encountered Macacque monkeys by the roadside, hundreds of bats hanging in trees in the bright morning sun, and even some porcupines.


We arrived at the Millennium Elephant Foundation and paid 2000 rupees for a basic package which included a short ride. We had previously spent time at the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre, in Lampang, Thailand. It is a huge natural forest where the Elephants are well looked after. We thoroughly enjoyed our time there. Sadly, the moment we were rushed through the main entrance, dragged through the museum, and virtually thrown on the back of an elephant, which had just returned two other tourists from a ride, we realised this was the polar opposite of the Thailand experience. We immediately felt uncomfortable, even guilty, participating in this zoo like farce. The elephant, it's ears covered in open sores, was constantly poked and prodded by the mahout as it automatically walked the short circuit around the facility. We had a guide imploring us to smile as he took photos but we felt terrible sitting on the back of this majestic creature in such an awful circumstance. Thankfully, after about 10 minutes, we climbed off the elephant. We were then confronted by both the demand of the mahout for a tip, and the touting of an east end londoner to feed the elephant a pre prepared plate of fruit, at a cost of 200 rupee. We gave the mahout a tip to stop him harassing us and asked the cockney if tourists constantly feed the elephant all day. We asked if food intake was monitored and the diet was balanced and appropriate. He assured us that all the food was weighed and recorded against each animal. We didn't feel convinced. The facility felt like a circus sideshow. Using animals inappropriately to fleece tourists from dawn to dusk. We watched one of the animals walked down to a section of water where it was commanded to lie on one side, before being placed on a short chain which tethered it to a point which kept it lying down. A tourist then waded into the water and washed the elephant. We left.

Our driver kept trying to convince us that we wanted to go to a gem museum. We kept trying to convince him that we had no interest. We told him we would like to go to a tea factory and off we went. After a few minutes we turned off the main road and into the carpark of. you guessed it, the gem museum! A man greeted us and invited us in, our flat refusal to exit the vehicle seemed to end any further debate.

Happily, our next stop was a Tea factory. A very pleasant and informative young woman took us through the facility, explaining the various stages of production. The machinery was very old but in excellent order. We learned a little about the different types of tea produced there and were invited to sample some. We were left to look at the gift shop but there was no pressure what-so-ever to buy. We picked up a couple of really lovely items.


Next stop was wood carving. We learned about the different types of wood and what type of carving each was best suited to. We were also shown the natural colours used for painting items, like the traditional masks. We took a slow walk around the shop floor and were amazed at the quality of the workmanship. There were some magnificent pieces, most far too large to even consider taking back home on the plane, we decided on a Peacock Mask, an elephant and a meditating Buddha. The mask symbolises peace and harmony so we thought it an excellent item to hang at home. Our last stop for the day was one we had been most looking forward to. From almost anywhere in town you can see a large white, meditating Buddha sitting high on a hill, as if watching over Kandy. The Bahiravakanda Buddha is more than 80 feet high and sits atop 'Gnome Mountain'. Legend tells of hundreds of sacrifices made, by the Kings of Kandy, to appease a wicked gnome which lived here. Now the site offers a peaceful place to take in the remarkable views over Kandy Town.


We had a final delicious breakfast at the Paridise before heading off for our next leg. We thanked Nayagam and his staff for looking after us so well and took off towards Dalhousie, our next destination. Our driver, from the first day in Kandy, had swapped his Tuk Tuk for a small car and for an agreed price of 7000 rupee we were again weaving left and right as we avoided buses, trucks, motorbikes, Tuk tuks, people, and dogs. Once we escaped the noise and congestion of Kandy, and surrounds, the air was free of smog and the countryside spectacular. We climbed higher up into the hills and entered the tea plantation areas. Tea bushes marked endless straight horizontal lines across the hillsides. The valleys peppered with coconut palm, mara, and bright orange/red African tulips. We passed workers toiling either in the field or carrying bags, or tools, along the roadside. Always offering a nod of the head or a smile. We have become increasingly conscious of the fact that we have been born into an easy life while others are, in all likelihood, going to spend theirs in slogging manual work.

We stopped occasionally to take a photo of the incredible views across the valleys. The last 25km became slower, harder work for our driver due to the poor condition of the tight winding roads. At about midday we arrived at the Slightly Chilled Guesthouse. We invited Cyril to join us for some tea. He accepted, but I think only out of obligation. Our intent was to be courteous but we suspect it only served to cause a delay in his return journey.

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We checked in to our room and found it had a balcony from which we could sit facing the challenge which awaited us, Siri Padaya and the 5500 steps which lead to it's peak. We took a walk to familiarise ourselves with the starting point of the trail in the hope that we would find it in the dark that night. about 100 metres up from our hotel we met a very friendly dog who decided to take the walk with us.The town consists of one main, unpacked, road and an open square car parking area. We stopped in at one of the shops and had a cold drink. The dog sat outside until we were done and then we all walked down the hill to the river. As with everywhere we had been so far, everyone we passed smiled broadly and greeted us with an energetic "Hello" we returned the greetings in kind. We crossed the bridge and found what looked like the start of the trail. Our four legged friend wandered off up a hill pausing to look back at us every few steps. Unconvinced that we had located the start point we decided to retreat to the hotel and check our guidebook and consult with the staff. The dog caught up with us and walked as far as his house, and went back to sleep where we had first found him. Sitting back in our room we read about the climb, and how all the local dogs know the route and will often accompany travellers and pilgrims up Siri Padaya. We had not gone quite far enough to reach the well marked start point. Had we followed our canine companion he would have shown us. That evening we set out our boots coats, chocolate, torches, had a hearty meal of curries and rice, and got some sleep.

At 1am the alarm went off. We rose without hesitation and donned our gear. The staff were up and saw us off wishing us good luck. We kept an eye out for our little mate, but there was no sign of him. We didn't see anyone else on our way to the start point. The pilgrimage doesn't occur until January so the trail was absent of any light, or the many tea stalls and activity which makes the climb so vibrant during the peak period. Much as we would have loved to witness the festivities, we loved the solitude and silence, the darkness and nervousness.


We crossed the bridge and rounded the corner until we came upon the start of the trail to Adam's Peak (Siri Padaya). We paused, took a deep breath, and began the climb. We were feeling really energised and excited but were careful not to adopt an unsustainable pace. The ground was uneven and tree roots, and wet season rains, had taken areas of the path away. We could see about 4 feet ahead of us as we climbed in single file. About 15 mins into the trail we came to a large reclining Buddha, we lit some incense before continuing on. Shortly thereafter, two monks stopped us and tied orange string bands onto our wrists. As they were tying the bands they recited a short sutra to bestow good blessings upon us.

Over the next couple of kilometres we started to see a few other climbers. We would pass, and in turn be passed, like leapfrogging up the mountain. It was gratifying to know that the embarrassment we felt at being passed as we stood motionless, trying to get our breath back and heart rates down, would be experienced in the reverse somewhere further up the track. What was of lasting shame was being passed by a sprightly little dog, who stopped to say hello before he flew past us, on three legs!

About 90 minutes in, we were well above the cloud line. The sound of the river had faded away. The trail was bathed in the light of a full moon, and the sky shimmered with stars. We checked our Garmins and were really pleased with our pace. In fact, we were well ahead of schedule and thinking we had it in the bag. We spoke too soon. The steps were very deep and high, the gradient so steep we had to pull ourselves up each step with the help of the handrail. Our lungs burned dry and cold, but our legs went to jelly if we paused too long. We kept a very slow, steady pace. At this stage the trail was narrow and we were conscious of the fact that we were unable to set too slow a pace without holding someone up, so we all pushed on until we reached a clearing whereupon about twelve of us stood in silence, sipping water or eating some chocolate, while we recovered some energy.

We continued on up the steps, at a slow and steady pace. The steps were divided, and narrow, which offerred us the opportunity to grab a rail with each hand and pull ourselves upward. We saw what looked like a tea stall ahead, there were several people seated there, eating or drinking. As we drew closer we could see the temple in front of us. We were finally at the end of the climb. The wind was strong and very cold, so we put all our extra layers on. We drank and ate as we waited for the sun to appear. Happily, the people were very quiet. I suspect we were all just taking in the experience silently.


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We took an occasional photo and before long, the sky, just above the horizon, began to glow with the first hints of sunrise. We watched the sun rise into the morning sky, revealing the landscape as it did.


The temple gates were opened and we made out way to the three bells which are mounted on the NW corner of the temple. We paused and reflected on this experience, on how fortunate we were to have the opportunity to travel to this beautiful part of the world. It is customary to strike the bell the number of times you have made the journey.


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We each sounded the bell once and there was beauty in the strong, even tone, ringing out from the mountain top. We spent a considerable time taking in the view. In the morning sun, Siri Padaya cast a huge, perfectly triangular shadow across the land to the West. We took photographs and then started the journey home.

About a minute into the return journey, I felt a sharp pain in my right knee. I stopped and stretched, and massaged, the area, but with little effect. We had barely started down the mountain and I was in trouble. I was able to use the handrail to take most of my weight, like a single crutch, and this helped me in the steepest sections. I did however develop a somewhat ridiculous, but almost pain free, style of descent which I employed whenever possible. We christened it the 'Demented Cowboy' and it basically required that I adopt a very wide stance and run down the steps, straight-legged. My joy at having a break from the pain was only matched by our collective fear that I would slip and tumble to my ultimate end! Suffice it to say that the technique was a great success and eventually, we found ourselves on the relatively even ground at the base of the mountain.


As we trod the path along the river toward the tea plantations, we felt what we thought was rain starting to fall. It wasn't rain though, it was a family of very cheeky Macaque monkeys pelting us with twigs and seeds. They followed us in the trees for a while before descending to the path and walking just ahead, or behind us. They were curious and confident enough to come within only a few feet of us. We parted company when they headed into the forest and down to the river. We found some spring in our step as we passed the now familiar buildings on the approach to our accommodation. We stopped for photos at the end of the trail before heading to our room for well earned sleep.


When we woke, later that afternoon, we sat on the balcony and gazed at the mountain. Hardly able to believe we had just made the trek there and back again. We sat in the warm sun with the sound of the river drifting up from the valley. Sri Lanka was proving a vast, beautiful country, and we were only five days into our trip. We ate dinner and got to sleep early. At 05:30 we bid farewell to Dalhousie and made to journey East to our next destination, Kataragama.

The Gem River Edge Eco Lodge is situated in Kataragama, about 250km South East of Colombo. It sits beside the Gem River and is located close to Yala National Park. It is only a short tuk tuk ride to the centre of Kataragama and a large multi-faith Temple.


It is an eco friendly place which provides a really relaxing experience in harmony with the natural surroundings. The rooms are cosy and comfortable, with mosquito nets, and ceiling fan. The cold water shower was not an issue as we were generally feeling hot and sticky at day's end anyway.
The Gem River Edge has plenty of space to sit and watch the palm squirrels, birds, butterflies and monkeys. There are three dogs who live at the guesthouse (all vegetarians) and they have to vigilantly guard their food because every time they wander off, one or more monkeys quickly climb down and start furiously helping themselves to the rice in their feed bowls.The setting is one of natural beauty and the cuisine is worthy of specific mention. Every meal was prepared from fresh, organic ingredients and 'Uncle' cooked them in the traditional Sri Lankan style, using terracotta pots. Carla, Muna and the staff were helpful and informative. On our first evening we travelled into Kataragama town centre. We walked around looking at the various stalls and shops. They were filled with floral, or fruit filled, offerings for the devotees visiting the Temple for Puja.

As it neared the time for the evening Puja, we joined the crowds heading towards the temple with their offerings of fruit and flowers, dressed mainly in all white. Small children noticed us quickly and we even saw one girl actually stop, point at us from about 2 meters away and call out to her brother who was walking behind, to show him the foreigners on their way to the Puja, before they both laughed loudly. People stopped us to tell us the direction of the temples (the way we were already heading), or to just find out where we were from. Children often asked for bon-bons, chocolate or money, but this time it actually seemed more a chance to practice some English rather than actually wanting anything from us.

We walked around the inside of the temple area, watching some of the rituals take place and offerings being given. We lit some incense and received a blessing inside the Buddhist temple. We have been to many Buddhist Temples, but this was the first place we had seen a ritual whereby a devotee lights a coconut on fire, holds it like a candle while praying, then makes a circular movement above the head before smashing it into a small fenced area when the flame went out. We caught up with the only other couple staying at Gem River Edge, a Belgian couple named Cedric & Sophie. We spoke with a few locals keen to share some information about our respective lives, shared some fresh fruit, and observed the various rituals undertaken at each of the small temples.

A group of teenage boys arrived, dressed in similar costumes to those worn by the dancers we had seen in Kandy. Their families proudly photographed them before the drummers started up and the dancing began. Kataragama doesn't seem to be a very large town but there were many people at the temple. The puja happens each and every night, at dusk, and there is no shortage of dancers, offerings made, and prayer. We wandered back to town and got a tuk tuk to the guesthouse.


The next morning we rose at 05:00, showered and lathered ourselves in mosquito repellent. A four wheel drive arrived to take ourselves, along with Cedric & Sophie, on a wildlife safari in Yala National Park. Gelath, from the guesthouse, accompanied us as guide and cook for the day. We entered the park via the East gate, rather than the common route through the main gate. It turned out to be fortunate because within only about 20 mins Cedric quietly, but excitedly, called out "Leopard...leopard" we stopped the vehicle and slowly reversed back about 10 metres. There, through the lush green underbrush we saw Yala's prized inhabitant. A single leopard stood and stared right at us. Too proud to flee, it matched our gaze before very slowly walking off through the jungle. We could hardly believe our good fortune. Gelath informed us that it was becoming very rare to see the leopards. Only six live in the whole of Yala and to see one so close was quite incredible.


As we drove on we saw peacock and pea hen, water buffalo, crocodile, iguana, and deer. We were excited and hungry when we made a stop at a stretch of beach for breakfast. Chairs and a table were unpacked and Gelath served us 'Hoppers' for breakfast. A sort of bowl shaped, paper thin, pancake. Made from coconut milk and rice flour, we had them with some strawberry jam and a small sugar banana. They were a huge hit with all of us.


We chatted about the wildlife we had seen and Cedric reminded us how lucky we were to have him, and his leopard spotting expertise, on our safari. After breakfast we piled back into the jeep and went off in search of more wildlife. We were hoping to see some elephants up close, and were hoping we might even spot a bear. Before long we got our first wish as we came upon a large female elephant with her young calf in tow. We sat and watched them feeding for a few minutes before they were joined by a large male who came along side our vehicle. We thought he might take issue with our presence at any moment, but the trio trod past us and continued into the jungle. The road was rough and very bumpy. We bounced around in the back of the jeep as it raced and strained through the deep mud puddles and rocky ridges which marked the roads after the monsoon season. We took some time out for a break beside the river. We relaxed in the shade of the huge trees, and watched the water flowing past. The river was full and flowed quickly as the rainy season had only recently ended. We returned to the beach for our lunch and had a walk along the sand, soaked our feet in the warm water, and even took a short nap. We woke refreshed and ready for more safari. As the light started to disappear, we reluctantly gave up any hope of seeing a bear. We saw many more animals after the heat of the day had disappeared. Many elephants and water buffalo took to the lush green plains to graze. We saw flamingo, hornbill, black faced monkeys, dozens of crocodile, mongoose, deer and peacock before our day drew to a close.





As dusk decended we drove to the ancient Sithulpawwa Rock Temple. We climbed to the top of the structure and gazed out over the thick jungle of Yala. We tried to trace out some of the spots we had been earlier in the day. A large group of monkeys were seated on the steps down from the temple. They were unfussed by our presence and sat quietly in small groups looking out over the forest and enjoying the cool breeze. At the base of the temple we visited a large reclining Buddha before heading back to the jeep and making our way back home. We soaked in the cold shower and scrubbed off the thick base layer of dirt and dust accumulated on safari.

That evening we dined on fresh vegetable curry, coconut sambol, chutney, and fresh fruit. I took the opportunity to taste the buffalo curd, served with local honey, for my desert. It tasted much like a very strong, quite tart, yoghurt. At 10:00 the following morning we said farewell to the staff and started the drive to the South coast of Sri Lanka and our next destination, Unawatuna.

We arrived in Thalpe (just out of Unawatuna) in the early afternoon, and checked in to what we thought would be our last accommodation of the trip. It was a little bit of luxury, not the sort of accommodation we would normally choose, but at the time of booking it seemed like a nice treat to stay somewhere where we could pamper ourselves before the long flight home. After checking in we sat on the balcony, overlooking the beach, eating dips and bread and sipping on some icy drinks. The room was nice and the balcony provided a fine view of the ocean.


That night we ate in the restaurant, our first selections were not available and the prices were a little unreasonable. The following morning we decided to look for somewhere else to stay, even though we had pre-paid for a couple of nights. Whilst their website looks very impressive, this resort style, luxury hotel had very little to offer, their 'private beach' did not actually exist (it was more of a rocky wave barrier and a red flag indicated it was not safe to enter the water), the 'pool' was the size of a jacuzzi and was located virtually in the restaurant. The very average restaurant charged three times London prices, in addition to adding a service charge, VAT and then expected a tip. We could have managed most of those things (even the 80s style decor and Russian mob boss clientele) but, for two Australians, living in London for nearly 7 years, being so close to the sea and sun and not being able to swim (safely) was pure torture. Sadly, the hotel had no local flavour at all, and like many of the hotels in the Thalpe end of Unawatuna, it was foreign owned. The very next day, we relocated to a beautiful, Dutch Colonial guesthouse, less than 10 meters from the sandy white beach at Unawatuna, which was run by some super friendly local people and had all the Sri Lankan style which the former place had lacked.

We spent the following days ambling between our balcony, various restaurants and cafes, and the sandy beaches. We were lucky to be there right before the start of the tourist rush. The impact of the 2004 Tsunami was not immediately noticeable but walking a little further towards the temple on the point it became very apparent. There are remnants of many buildings which were washed away or reduced to rubble, memorials to people lost, and it was impossible not to stop and imagine the sheer terror endured here that Boxing Day morning. An elderly local man, who was walking along the beach near us, was unable to speak, but managed to communicate his experience that day, and how he ran to the temple and prayed. He pointed out business after business, house after house, holding up the number of fingers to represent the people lost to the Tsunami at each place.


Whilst in Unawatuna we thought we should make the journey into the fortified city of Galle, which is about 5km away. While inside the European world heritage site itself (within the walls), we had a rather peaceful time, walking around the streets and looking out across the water. Once we left the fort walls, and night fell, it was not quite so peaceful. We had an endless number of people giving us their scripts for the same con, over and over again... "My wife is in the hospital and I need to collect a prescription...there is an ATM right there...." ..."Hello! Do you remember me? I am the chef from your hotel, I need to borrow some money until later when I can give it back to you"... and our favourite "We will take you to the official Government souvenir shop...". The delivery of these lines by the experienced conmen around the bus station area was perfectly executed, if a little unoriginal. It was the only time, since we arrived in Sri Lanka, that we actually felt worn out by the need to be constantly on guard. Our plan to have a lazy evening wandering around the markets of Galle town was abandoned as we jumped in the first tuk-tuk we saw and headed back to Unawatuna for some dinner and a sleep.

After a couple of glorious days, relaxing on the beach, the last thing we wanted to do was spend our remaining time in Sri Lanka, in a big city. We decided against a return to Colombo for our last night, and instead stayed on in Unawatuna. The staff at the hotel arranged for a driver to take us to Colombo airport on our final day. The drive from Unawatuna to Colombo is now quite quick and easy (about 4 hours), courtesy of the new motorway. The first half of the journey was a breeze and, when we reached the outskirts of Colombo, our driver's expert road skills, though terrifying, ensured we made it to the airport right on time. He had prefaced the white knuckled inner-city driving with the statement "If you followed the driving rules... you would catch your flight... next week!!". He got us there on time and we are alive to tell the story.

The flight home was long and depressing, as it usually is after such an amazing adventure, and the lengthy stop at Abu Dhabi did not make the home leg any easier. Within hours of arriving back in the cold and rain of London, we started looking at houses for sale in Sri Lanka... well, never say never eh?

Posted by StephenJen 10:04 Archived in Sri Lanka Tagged beaches animals temples trekking safari Comments (0)

Amazing Morocco

from Marrakech to the Sands

sunny 20 °C

We arrived in Marrakech ready to undertake the usual negotiations with the touts and taxi drivers. After declining a few unrealistic prices, and unsuccessfully trying to negotiate the fare suggested by our research, we were finally chased down as we were about to board the bus and ushered back to the cabs. We were given a reasonable price for the taxi ride to our hotel, in the Gueliz (new town), and the driver seemed more than happy to have the fare. He thanked us, 6 minutes later, when we arrived.

After a quick pit stop, to grab a shower and unpack, we walked through the centre of the new town and down Ave Mohummad V towards the main square, Jemaa el-Fna.

We stopped at a cafe in front of Koutoubia Mosque and had a coffee and water before heading to the square. We had a little wander around the market stalls and shops bordering the square before enjoying a delicious dinner at restaurant Agana - chicken tagine for Jen and veggie couscous for me. We sat on the balcony overlooking the square, which was filled with rows and rows of restaurants and stalls selling fresh orange juice, figs, nuts and dates. Musicians, kids selling novelty items, performing chickens, monkeys and even snake charmers filled Jemaa el-Fna.

We walked back through all the activity, past a well lit Koutoubia and home for the night.

Sunday we woke early, walked into town, and did the obligatory hop on hop off bus. It's a good means of getting an overview of the layout and distances between the various areas of the city. We eventually disembarked at Bab Agnaou - a beautiful 15th century archway to the royal kasbah in the southern part of the medina - in search of the Saadian tombs... without success. We ended up having a very lengthy walk through some beautiful alleys in the old Jewish quarter. Wandering around without even a vague idea where we were, or where we were headed, became somewhat of a theme on this holiday. It always delivered some wonderful sights and surprises though, so we learned to embrace the concept of 'Optimistic Disorientation'.

We usually like to be self directed when holidaying but on this occasion we chose to book a tour, as we thought it would be the most effective way to travel to number of areas in a relatively short period of time. We checked for feedback about the various tour operators and one group had consistently good feedback. Our decision made, we chose to take a four day adventure starting in Marrakech then travelling across the High, middle & Anti Atlas Mountains, ride camels into the Sahara before returning back to Marrakech.

We were packed and ready for collection from our hotel at 8:30a.m. We were met by our guide, Essalah, and went to collect the other couple who were joining us for the tour. We had our fingers crossed that they would not be stand offish or awkward to get along with. We were very pleased to hear a confident "G'day" as they climbed into the Landcruiser. Adam & Lauren are an Australian couple, living and teaching at an international school in Switzerland. We began the journey from Marrakech, towards the High Atlas mountains via Tizi nTichka pass. We chatted about our various travels and Essalah explained the history of the region, we stopped occasionally to photograph the amazing landscapes.

Looking from the road to the Atlas mountains

Looking from the road to the Atlas mountains

Roadside seller in the High Atlas

Roadside seller in the High Atlas

The High Atlas

The High Atlas

Berber Village

Berber Village

We spent the afternoon visiting the World Heritage Site of Ait Benhaddou. This village of clustered kasbahs has been used as a backdrop for more than 20 films and was one of the most important fortress strongholds on the old Salt Road where caravans brought slaves, gold, ivory and salt from Saharan Africa to Marrakech and beyond.

View of Ait Benhaddou

View of Ait Benhaddou

World Heritage Site of Ait Benhaddou

World Heritage Site of Ait Benhaddou

Ait Benhaddou

Ait Benhaddou

Jen and Essalah

Jen and Essalah

We passed through Ouarzazate, and the Valley of the Rose, famous for soft Persian rose oil. Our next destination was the Dades valley. We passed through a variety of villages and watched the colours of the country change as we travelled.

Our first night was spent in a beautiful auberge in the Dades valley which overlooked the gorge. We had a delicious tagine and hit the hay
Our hotel in the high Atlas mountains

Our hotel in the high Atlas mountains

After breakfast we jumped in the prado and drove through the Saghro mountains before stopping in Rissani for lunch. The restaurant was beautiful and we started with some fresh carrots which were sweet and full of flavour. We had forgotton what good natural food tasted like. The main course was a delicious traditional dish followed by fresh orange with cinnamon. After eating (too much) we were invited to take a tour of the town. "Have you ever seen a donkey park?" our guide asked. "No but I assume it's a big park where donkeys live" we answered. "Well no... you have car parks, we have a donkey park" he told us. We turned the corner and arrived at the edge of a huge flat lot filled with carts and eeaawing donkeys of every size and colour. The air was filled with the sounds, and smells, of all things donkey.

Donkey parking lot

Donkey parking lot

Donkey parking

Donkey parking


We walked through the park to the livestock market, then through stalls of fresh fruit, vegetables, spices and other items. The vivid colours of the Saffron, Paprika, Cumin, Cinnamon were so rich. Indigo and Henna, fresh beans, carrots and oranges were there in abundance. The market was a hive of activity.
Livestock market

Livestock market

Spice market

Spice market



Next we visited a carpet store and saw a variety of designs perculiar to individual Berber families. All were prefixed with the word 'Ait' (meaning of or from) then the family name. After much deliberation, they were all so beautiful, we bought a small carpet to take home.

Back in the car, we drove further until the landscape gave way to a flat expanse of barron land. We drove for several kilometers across the corrugated dirt roads. Essalah expertly avoiding potholes and rocks. In the distance we could see the Erg Chebbi dunes appear on the horizon. Our destination was the Jasmina auberge, about 30km from Merzouga. We signed the hotel register, donned our recently purchased head scarves and went to meet our camels. This was the part of the holiday we were most looking forward to. The camels were all saddled up and sitting down in a line. The saddles were made with a rolled up carpet which made a U shape around the hump (single humped dromedary camels here) then a couple of thick carpet blankets over the top. Our guide, Ibrahim, told us to climb aboard and hold on very tightly.

The camels stand up by first straightening the back legs, so you almost feel you are about to go flying over its head and land face first in the sand, then it straightens its front legs and often lets out a low toned kind of growl of discontent. Once we were all sitting tall in the saddle (or on the hump as it were) we farewelled Essalah and began our ride into the dunes. The camels had a slow gait and, if you loosened your hips, were quite comfortable to ride. The saddles were surprisingly comfortable too.. apart from some slight 'hump breakthrough' towards the end of the journey. The sun was setting as we approached the bivouac (camp) so we dismounted and began climbing a huge dune to capture the beautiful sunset. Jen, Lauren and I made it about halfway before collapsing and resigning to watch from where we fell. Only Adam made it to the summit, he must have premium quality lungs and legs!

P1020831.jpg Camel_trekking.jpgP1020817.jpgIMG_5954.jpg

After watching the sunset we carefully managed our way down the steep side of the dune and into camp. It was set up with a circle of large nomad wool tents surrounding a central fire. Half a dozen long cussions were layed around the fire with small tables. We drank mint tea and ate lamb tagine for our dinner. After our meal Ibrahim and the other guide built up the fire and brought out some sheepskin drums and iron castanets (of the Gnawa people). They tightened the skins by the fire and then played and sang for us as we lay on the cussions gazing at the almost full moon and the blanket of brilliantly shining stars which filled the sky. We were invited to join in and I leapt at the chance to play the drums with the guys. We retired to our tent for the night, under the almost crushing weight of four heavy blankets, the desert was freezing cold but we slept well.

About an hour before sunrise we were gently woken by the guides. We quickly washed and packed before mounting the camels and riding towards the Algerian border. As the sun slowly rose, the colour and patterns of the dunes changed. We stopped shortly before sunrise and found a quiet place to witness the first rays across the sands. The view was simply breathtaking. It was a most beautiful scene and we had the silence to take it all in. As we rode we looked west and could see Algeria. When we arrived back to the auberge, we farewelled our faithfull 'ships of the desert' and washed before taking breakfast on the terrace. We gazed out to the dunes and chatted about our adventure, each of us feeling very lucky to have had such an opportunity.


Essalah found us and we jumped back into the 4 wheel drive and headed to Tinerhir. Along the way we stopped and wandered across the expansive rock slabs filled with fossils. The density of fossils in the rocks of this region was astounding. The area had once been part of the Mediterranean and, as a result of the slow shrink of the water mass, left an abundance of sea life which became fossilised. We also stopped to visit a fossil workshop and made a couple of small purchases as momentos. Later we took a walk through Todra Gorge, where sheer limestone walls rise to 300m in its narrowest part. We asked Essalah if we could have lunch somewhere that the locals would eat. It was shortly after that we experienced what Adam rightly described as "The best servo food ever". We pulled into a petrol station and as the car was filled and washed, we followed Essalah to a window at one side of the building. It was a butcher shop. We ordered lamb chops and kefta (lean meat combined with garlic, onions, cumin, coriander and turmeric) the butcher passed it through a window to a guy who immediately threw it onto the charcoal barbeque. It arrived with more mint tea and was, quite possibly, the best BBQ ever.

After lunch we drove to our final accomodation - Hotel Tomboctou, an old kasbah in Tinerhir. We showered off the sand from the previous day and then joined a guide for a wander through the local palmeries, villages and gardens. We visited the old kasbah quarter and saw how traditional Berber carpets are woven. After yet more mint tea we made the late afternoon walk back to the kasbah for dinner in the Caidal Tent.

After breakfast the bulk of the day was spent driving back toward Ouarzazate, where we visited the old Glaoui Kasbah Taouirt.


We crossed the High Atlas again, stopping for lunch in a local roadside restaurant. We were all a bit sad knowing this would be our last meal together. We presented Essalah with a toy koala and a genuine Aussie stubbie holder, with indigenous art designs, and toasted our mutual good health and happiness. We drove the final leg down the Tizi nTichka pass before arriving in Marrakech. We dropped off Adam & Lauren and thanked them for being such wonderful travelling companions. Essalah dropped us at our hotel and we thanked him for taking us on such a wonderful trip. We also promised to return again soon.

We spent Fridaylooking at areas of the town we had previously not explored and found ourselves again indulging in 'Optimistic Disorientation'. We bought some items at the market stalls and ate in Jemaa el-Fna.


Saturday we took a taxi to the previously elusive Saadian Tombs. We had managed to walk past it twice during previous attempts to visit.


We ate in a little place on the footpath in the new town. We had regular visits from people wanting to sell us everything from carpets to pens, watches and whiteboards. We also witnessed the generosity of the locals who did not hesitate in giving a portion of thier meal to the passing beggers. We gave change and food to the beggars and... bought another carpet!

Sunday we walked through the new town and visited the jardin Marjorelle, a somewhat overhyped ornate garden designed by a dead Frenchman.

We continued walking to the old town medina and came across a large group of protestors. Unable to read the signs or understand the chants we asked one of those attending what was happening. "It's just some people asking for some people to give them some things because they are not happy about some things" he said. His vagueness was quite deliberate and he was very keen to assure us that this was nothing like what had been occuring in some other countries. The group began marching as we headed into the medina. We had a map of the alleys and souks, and were very keen to locate the 'dyers souk' where traditional wool dying still takes place.

Cue the 'Optimistic Disorientation'... the map was of no earthly help whatsoever. A number of men offered to help us find the main square (for a tip) but we explained we were just wandering around having a general look. We had one very persistent fellow spend a great deal of time trying to convince us that we wanted to go to the main square. He seemed genuinely crazy so I only spoke to him in Mandarin Chinese... he looked confused and left us alone. We walked in circles for another hour or so before stopping for a coke. The shop owner suggested that we should go left and take a look at the dyers souk. We were very thankful for the suggestion. He didn't even want a tip! We eventually arrived at the old souks and found one of the dyers. He was busy soaking wool in indigo before fixing the colour with salt and vinegar. It was the warmest day so far and he was working very hard. He invited us to take some photos and we thanked him for his time, and information, with a cold drink and a bounty bar.


By the time we reached Jemaa el-Fna, the protestors had arrived and were in full voice. The number had swelled so we felt it best to sit for a while until things quietened down. When we made the journey home we saw the trail of discontent which the protest had left. Oranges had been plucked from the trees which line the main road and had been thrown at the windows of some of the businesses. BMC bank, a telephone company and, in particular, the McDonalds were targetted. We spoke to a group of young men who explained that they were unhappy about the divide between the rich and poor, the rising price of staples and thier dislike of the local McDonalds, which they saw as an icon of the wealth gap and something out of the reach of average citizens.


That night we dined close to our hotel. Things were a little difficult because the waitress spoke only French and our French is very limited, but we managed to decode the menu and order. We were the only customers in the place and shortly after the food arrived there was a rush of staff to the front of the restaurant. There was much conversation before the lights were abruptly turned off. The staff hurriedly dragged all the furniture, and the grill and gas bottles, from the sidewalk into the back of the restaurant. We jumped to our feet and offered to help but they insisted that we sit and enjoy our meals. We were left in the dark wondering what was going on, as the roller shutter came down. We could hear the protesters chanting in the distance as the manager urged staff to be silent. The waitress kept coming past and shooting a reassuring smile in our direction. After about 15 minutes things calmed down a little. A single light was turned on and, in it's dim glow, we could again vaguely see our food. As the shutter slowly raised we finished and paid for our meal. The waitress asked if we enjoyed our food, we assured her it was 'Parfait' and that "l'ambiance était très très bon" she laughed and we left.

The next morning we reluctantly headed to the airport and flew home.
Morocco is one of the most beautiful countries we have visited and we were so pleased to have shared some time with Adam & Lauren, and with our wonderful guide Essalah. We WILL return soon.

Posted by StephenJen 13:18 Archived in Morocco Tagged landscapes mountains buildings trekking camel sand_dunes souks Comments (0)

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