There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Thursday, 29 January 2015

The Sinharaja Rainforest: Part 11 of Sri Lanka, Isle of Serendip


The next morning we set off down the Ella Gap towards the southern coastal plain.

Down the Ella Gap
 Our journey had broken neatly into three parts, first the 'Cultural Triangle' in the north central part of the island, then the Highlands in the south centre and now the southern plain. We had avoided the far north and east of the island partly because this is the majority Tamil area where the aftermath of the civil war is most keenly felt - though it is now safe to visit - but mostly because of the weather. Sri Lanka is a small island (4 times the size of Wales, or a bit smaller than Scotland if you prefer) but has two distinct climate zones - in January monsoon rains still fall on the northeast while in the south and west it is the dry season.

Southern Sri Lanka (Locations relevant to this post are marked in red)
Reaching the plain we turned west on one of the main roads across the island and made good time. 

The temperature had risen considerably since leaving the highlands, but speeding along in air-conditioned comfort we hardly noticed. Passing the Udawala National Park we stopped to look at ibis, egrets and pelicans squabbling around a pond.
Pelicans, Ibis and Egrets, Udawala National Park

Further along, an elephant had strayed onto the neck of land between the park fence and a lake. Cars, and buses were stopping and young men were approaching visitors with the cry 'mango, elephant lunch!'

The beast had been lured into this spot and effectively trapped so that a gang of youths could profit from selling ‘elephant food’ – against the rules of the national park. We declined to buy a mango, but could not resist the photo op.
Unfortunate elephant, Udawala National Park

Beyond the park we turned north, pausing for petrol at the small town of Godakawela and using the ATM in the garage forecourt.  From here we took a minor road which climbed steadily back into the foothills of the highlands.

Spotting some clove trees Ravi stopped. I prefer to use dried cloves in moderation, the flavour can overwhelm and not always pleasantly. Fresh from the tree, though, green cloves have a powerful sweetness and chilli-like heat with none of the unhappy overtones of dried cloves - pure delight.

Hey, look, there's cloves on this tree!
 Further on and higher up it started to rain. Having made generalisations about Sri Lanka’s climate, I must now note some exceptions. Parts of the island are surprisingly arid, while a small area in the south west sees rain all year round. We were heading for Sinharaja, 82km² of virgin rainforest, saved from logging by its inaccessibility and now a forest park and UNESCO world heritage site.

Cloves, fresh, green, undried and utterly lovely
We soon reached the Blue Magpie Lodge just outside the park entrance. Holding up umbrellas, the staff clustered round the car, grabbed our cases and led us to a room in one of the long, low wooden huts surrounding the central grassy area.

With a concrete floor, wooden walls and a wooden table and chair the room was Spartan, as was the bathroom, though it had all that was needed. A sign even promised hot water from 6.30 to 10 in the evening and 'in the early morning'.

We had been forewarned that the Blue Magpie would be basic, but it was clean and entirely adequate. We washed our hands in cold water and dashed through the rain to the open-sided thatched hall that was the communal dining area. Although there was a scattering of houses outside the lodge, a hamlet rather than a village, there were no facilities and we were on full-board.

Dining area, Blue Magpie Lodge, Sinharaja
Lunch was served as soon as a party of a dozen or more British birders returned from wherever they had been bothering the local avifauna. Unsurprisingly it was a rice and curry buffet, but pleasant enough.

Afterwards we left the birders looking through books, arguing about identifications and ticking birds off lists and retired to our room. Outside the rear window was a feeding station, where watermelon rinds and coconut husks attracted both birds and stripy bushy-tailed squirrels. The birds were mostly pigeons, smaller and more colourful than the wood pigeons that infest our garden at home. Suddenly another bird rose from a low branch. It was a startling brilliant white, like gloss paint, a little smaller than a blackbird with an elegant tail several times its body length. It flapped into the air, body and tail moving sinuously, until it grabbed whatever morsel it had risen to catch, then settled back onto the nearest branch. We watched as it repeated the performance again and again. It was, by far, the most exotic bird we have ever seen.

Squirrel on the bird feeder, Sinharaja rainforest
(because I failed to get any pictures of the birds)
Returning to the dining area we set our sights on another bird feeder. There was a greater variety here - though the people who could identify them were donning their waterproofs and heading out into the rain - but there was nothing like the shimmering white wraith we had been watching before.

After the birders left, the rain eased and then stopped. We set out for a stroll and were soon accosted by two small boys who asked our names and tried out their rudimentary English. Their names were long and unpronounceable, at least by us. Sinhalese personal and place names can be of extraordinary length and native speakers often appear to become bored half way through; the ends of long words becoming the verbal equivalent a squiggle at the end of a signature. 

The houses looked well-built and prosperous but we wondered why people who live on a sun-drenched island should choose to live in the only place where it is always raining, about to rain, or has just stopped raining.

The hamlet outside the Bue Magpie Lodge, Sinharaja
On the way back we were passed by a truck loaded with tea. It stopped to drop off a woman and the two lads we had spoken to earlier climbed into the back. It was the school run, of sorts.
The school run, Sinharaja

We passed the rest of the afternoon chatting with Ravi and making some notes before all the residents reassembled in the dining hall in the evening. The birders covered their tables with books and laptops as photos were downloaded, additions made to lists and discussions held about what they had and had not seen.

We found ourselves seated by a young French Canadian on a five month solo tour of the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia before returning home to embark on a PhD. He had spent much of the last year cataloguing arctic birds, so he too was an expert birder, if a little out of his area. We described the graceful white wisp of a bird we had seen and he knew exactly what it was. Leafing through one of his books he found a picture of a paradise flycatcher. The species is polymorphic, the common form being reddish while we had been fortunate to see the rarer brilliant white version.
Asian Paradise Flycatcher
Photo by Munish Jauhar, sourced from Wikipedia
This one was photographed in northern India - ours had only a small patch of darker colouring on its head
Predictably, dinner was rice and curry. Given the limited repertoire we were happy it was our last main meal there. Dessert was buffalo curd and treacle, the first time we had encountered this Sri Lankan favourite. The curd was not unlike Greek yogurt, and pouring on the thick product of the island’s cane sugar industry completed an unexpected pleasure.

In the morning the sun was shining, though the overnight rain had left humidity hanging in the air and mist clinging to the trees.

Mist clinging to the trees, Sinharaja rainforest
Last night’s curry and rice had upset Lynne so she made do with bread and jam, but it had done me no harm so I enjoyed a spicy omelette.

The surrounding hamlet had no shops so travelling tradesmen made morning calls, music blasting from their tuk-tuks. The baker announced his arrival with Disney’s 'It's a Small World After All' while the swelling melody of 'Swan Lake' was a slightly surreal call from the grocer.
Ready to set off in unexpected sunshine

Ravi drove us the short distance to the park where we paid the entrance fee (more modest than some we have encountered recently) and engaged the services of a local guide. Intending to walk out for an hour along the main path and then return the same way, the guide was not for navigational purposes but we hoped a park ranger would be able to spot and identify birds and animals we would miss on our own. Sinharaja means ‘Lion Kingdom’ though there are, of course, no lions and the probability of seeing any of the 15 resident leopards was vanishingly small there was still the potential to see much of interest.

Tundu, our ranger, told us was it would not rain that morning. Showing remarkable (and, as it turned out, well placed) trust we returned our rainwear to the car.

We had walked a very short distance when he proved his value, spotting this rather cute female green garden lizard from the far side of the path despite it being camouflaged and motionless.
Green Garden lizard (female) Sinharaja Rainforest
We spotted the very obvious giant wood spider ourselves. Lynne claims that this spider is not horrific because its body and legs are in proportion. Maybe she has a point, but had I blundered into such a web with such a denizen my reaction would probably have involved a little mild panic. This would not be arachnophobia, that is an irrational fear of spiders; according to Tundu said this one's bite was 'slightly poisonous' so my fear is entirely rational.

Giant Wood Spider, Sinharaja
Tundu then saw a male green garden lizard to go with his earlier female.
Green garden lizard (male) Sinharaja rainforest

We followed the track as it rose through the trees, crossing many lively little streams bubblingly full of fresh rainwater.

The Sinharaja Rainforest
Tundu was good on vegetation as well as animals. He showed us bright yellow hibiscus, and spiky lianas and described their uses in traditional medicine. Had Tarzan been a Sri Lankan resident his preferred method of locomotion (which in any case defies the laws of physics) would have shredded his hands.

Looking down I saw something about size of a match torn from a book of matches end-over-ending its way up my trouser leg. I brushed it off. Then I realised there was another on my sock. 'Leeches, ' said Tundu, knocking that one off too. 'Tuck your trouser legs into your socks.'
Here is a picture of some fungi - they are less ugly than leeches
We did as advised. Ravi, who had joined us on this walk, tucked his sharply creased dark trousers into short black socks above shiny black shoes; an incongruously urban look in a jungle setting. Tundu’s leech socks, closely woven and as impenetrable as chain mail, reached almost to his knees We had read about the advisability or otherwise of leech socks before leaving home. 'Leeches can be a problem after rain,' we had learned, which here means always, but we had, naively, assumed that if we were not wading through streams there would be no difficulty; we had not expected them to be tiny things jumping up off rocky paths.

Ravi - a little too urban for the rainforest?
The only other thing we saw before the ridge was a giant millipede, indeed we saw several and I have included Lynne's foot in the picture to indicate its size. I sometimes have difficulty coordinating two legs, how it copes with all those I have no idea.

Giant millipede, Sinharaja
There was a hut on the top of the ridge where we paused to sign the visitor’s book.

In the small tree beside the hut, in an area of full sunlight, Tundu spotted a green pit viper. Curled round the branches a metre or more above our heads it was sleeping in the sunshine. It was not presenting itself well for the camera and showed no inclination to move, but poking a viper with a stick seemed foolhardy. 'It is poisonous,' Tundu agreed, but added reassuringly, 'but a bite would probably not kill you.'

Green pit viper, Sinharaja
 We walked along the ridge for another fifteen minutes into a cleared area but saw nothing more of interest except an army of ants rebuilding their nest after yesterday's downpour. 'They do that every day,' said Tundu. 'Wouldn't it be easier to move?' Lynne asked.

Back at the hut the viper was still motionless and we headed down the path, chatting with Tundu as we went. He had lived in the village by the Blue Magpie Lodge all his life and had started working in the forest as a volunteer twenty years ago when he was 13. He joined the park service straight from school and had been trained up as an ecologist on the job. His wife also came from the village and they had a six year old and another child expected imminently.

Tundu showed us a pitcher plant, a carnivorous plant, trapping and digesting its prey in pitcher shaped leaves.
Tundu and a pitcher plant

Lynne and I lingered to look at it as he moved on, then I looked down and saw a large red patch on my sock. At the centre of it was one of those tiny little leeches, now grown to the size of a pencil stub and obviously intent on growing further, and at my expense.

Everyone knows you should not pull off a feeding leech, they leave their mouth parts to fester in the wound, but the traditional method of burning them off with a cigarette was unavailable. 'In the African Queen,' Lynne said, 'when Humphrey Bogart became covered in leeches, Katherine Hepburn removed them with salt.'

Lynne’s handbag contains all manner of useful and unexpected items, including a packet of Thai Airlines salt, removed from a dinner tray a year or two ago and kept for just this situation. What foresight my wife has.

The leech reacted to a bag of salt like the Wicked Witch of the West to a bucket of water, instantly shrivelling and dropping onto the path.

Leech attack - the aftermath
I cannot believe I have just posted a picture of a bloody sock - this blog used to have standards, you know
We had just caught up with Ravi and Tundu when Lynne spotted the Sri Lankan blue magpie. Rare and endemic to this rain forest it is the 'poster bird' for the park and, of course, the lodge we were staying at was named after it. With a raucous cry it flew from the tree behind us, right beside us and settled in a tree just ahead. It could not have behaved better if it had set out to show itself off.

The rain forest had saved its best for last, even if the picture is not my own (thank you Wikipedia).

The Sri Lankan Blue Magpie
(Photo by Thimindu, taken Sinharaja, 2010, sourced from Wikipedia)
We said goodbye to Tundu and drove back to the lodge, hot and sweaty after immersion in the steam bath that was the rain forest.

Lynne says 'goodbye' to Tundu and his impressive leech socks
Although the water heater was off, there was enough warmish water for some sort of a shower. When clean I applied antiseptic to my leech wound which was still bleeding freely; leeches are cunning, their saliva contains an anaesthetic, so the first I knew about the attack was when I saw the bloody patch on my sock, and an anticoagulant, so they can just carry on sucking - and the wound carries on bleeding long after they have gone.

Sri Lanka, The Isle of Serendip

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