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|A Report from birdtours.co.uk|
Sri Lanka 12-27th December 2004,
My wife and I were looking for a warm Christmas break where we could chill out and do some birding. We have always fancied a trip to Sri Lanka and when we saw a half price offer on teletext for 14 nights half board at a named 3* hotel, we jumped at the chance. The cost was about the same as the normal return flight ticket to Colombo, couldn't be better. Little did we realise this would be a trip to remember for all the wrong reasons. The hotel was the Koggala Beach Hotel on the south coast just 20-km from Galle. The hotel was superb and the staff excellent, it is now devastated and the staff have no jobs. I shall continue with the rest of the report relating to the birding, for those who may be interested I have added a section after the birdlist written by my wife on the plane home, our plane was the first from Sri Lanka to land at Gatwick.
The intention was always that this holiday would be part birding and the remainder the tourist bit. Having booked the package holiday I arranged with Baurs to book for 8 days a driver/guide with a/c vehicle using my itinerary. Baurs would collect us at the hotel and return us there at the end of the trip. The cost was: -
Hire of vehicle = $0.60 per mile travelled calculated
as starting and concluding in Colombo
Driver/guide =$15 per day
This eventually came to a total of $ 697.50, which at the exchange rate we purchased the dollars on was equivalent to £392.00, not bad we felt.
The guide was prebooked and was Sunil Alwis, who has been mentioned in a number of trip reports. I have to say he was very good at finding the birds, the only thing was that if he was not interested in a particular group of birds he would gloss over those not realising that as birders we would like to record all birds seen not just the specialities. He was though very good at producing those specialities and ably assisted at various times by forest guides or other people he knew. I can recommend him.
It was mentioned in one report that he was a slow driver, this was not the case. His driving at times was like Death Race 2000. Only people who have already been to Sri Lanka will know of the near suicidal driving of the Sri Lankans. It has not been mad very clear in some reports regarding travel in Sri Lanka, the time that is required. Due to the poor condition of many of the roads, the volume of traffic and lunatic driving covering even relatively small distances by our standards can take hours. This is no joke, you can literally spend hours on the road between locations. If you can afford it may be better to go for a separate driver and guide, although Sunil was very good, the driving was tiring. Contact me privately through Birdforum.net to receive more private information. This must be borne in mind by future travellers on a birding trip. Also be aware that if Sunil Alwis is used or perhaps other drivers that they may suggest a trip to a Spice Garden. I did not want to go but my wife wavered, next minute we were in the place, which cost 2 hours in time and £35. Simon Platt was also caught in the same sting operation in 2003. So beware of any suggestions made, be firm and reject them.
The itinerary we had which we felt would achieve the most in birds in the limited time after studying various reports on the internet, also from OBC and information provided by various people in Birdforum was: -
Sinharaja - 2 nights
Kandy - 1 night
Sigiriya - 1 night
Nuwara Eliya - 1 night
Tissa - 2 nights
The accommodation was for the most part chosen by our driver and was not entirely satisfactory; it is possible that the selection by the driver may be a quid pro quo arrangement as was the spice garden. This was: -
Sinharaja. Blue Magpie Lodge. The rooms were essentially basic but were clean and had all one would need. The food was very good, as were the staff. This lodge is the one used by Baurs rather than Martins, because it is owned by the Tourist Minister of the previous Government who is a close friend of the chairman of Baurs, enough said. Using this hotel can involve 4 jeep trips a day over a very rough track upto the forest. That is going up in the morning, returning for lunch and then going back for the afternoon and returning at the end of the day. Far better to actually stay at Martins on the doorstep of the reserve and save the cost of unnecessarily hiring the jeep except for the initial trip up and leaving. Martins was by the way having the lodge extended by it looks another four rooms.
Kandy As our guide had not been aware that Macleod's had changed their number when we got there it was fully booked, however I latched onto the Senani hotel 100 metres away, which had excellent rooms and ensuite and very good food at a reasonable rate. Kandy was very full owing to Christmas holidays.
Sigiriya. Ancient Villas. Arranged by our guide was some 8-kms from Sigiriya. A dump of a place even by Sri Lankan standards. The room was poor, unclean and the fittings in the ensiute were falling apart. The bed was damp; we slept on top of the single bed sheet provided. The mosquito net was poorly set and only covered our feet. The food was not good. If your guide tries this hotel on you, decline find something nearer to Sigiriya.
Nuwara Eliya. We knew from previous reports that our guide has used in this town the Eden Hill, which had been described as the worst hotel of the trip. It was made clear to our guide that we were no going there. We settled on a hotel, which is generally used by Baurs on their trips, the Hotel Yenisey. The hotel was very good, the room and ensuite were fine. The food was excellent as were the staff al at a very reasonable rate and 10 minutes from Victoria Park.
Tissa. Vikum Lodge. The rooms were good but since used by Simon Platt in 2003 had doubled in price; the cost of the food had trebled and was decidedly very poor. For my first meal I orders a grilled Seer Fish steak and my Wife grilled prawns. These arrived overdone and small in quantity ringed with Macdonald type chips round the plate and nothing else. This was typical of their food as could be seen from that provided to other guests. Cannot recommend this place.
Accommodation costs: -
||room 4472 SLR x 2
|Senani||room and food||4396 SLR|
|Hotel Yenisey||room and food||4455 SLR|
||room 2300 SLR x 2
|Grand total ex tips
Tips about inc 7000 SLR to Sunil
|Equivalent to £ 206 plus Baurs of £392 and the ground cost was £ 598 for 8 days birding.|
Sinharaja. Arrived mid afternoon and were too late to go into the forest. Birded around the lodge for two hours and picked up 7 endemics, not a bad start. We were too tired and decided to leave the Frogmouth until the next evening, big mistake. The following day was heavily overcast. The forest guide attached to us was a young lad called Ranji. Next to useless in finding birds, more concerned on keeping his trousers clean and checking for leeches. There were plenty about and some even managed to bite through leech socks. However the birds were proving to be unco-operative. They were difficult to see, only one small feeding flock found which stayed in very close canopy cover. Did manage to see Blue Magpie, Junglefowl (owing to the near tame birds at the back of the research station kitchen), heard Green-billed Coucal but could not entice it into view. Seen a few other nice birds but no specialities. At about 11.00 am started to rain, worked our way back to the entrance as the rain was getting heavier and went back to the lodge for lunch. The heavens opened and it rained right through to about midnight. No more birding that day. However met Thandula at the lodge. He is one of the guides and this chap not only knows the forest but where the birds were. Arranged to ensure he was our guide for the following morning. The morning was clear and although little happening in the way of feeding flocks made up for some of the disappointment on the previous day. Thandula took my wife and I into the forest and produced C-B Owlet, Scaly Thrush and Ashy-headed Laughing Thrush. Managed to get a brief glimpse of Red-faced Malkoha, Black-capped Bulbul, Spotted Winged Thrush, Orange-billed Babbler, Legge's Flowerpecker and my wife managed Grey Hornbill and Indian Scimitar Babbler unfortunately I did not. Heard Spurfowl but would not show itself. Finally a last word, Thandula really is good and I know has helped in articles for the OBC magazine. Contact me privately on birdforum.net to receive private information regarding forest guides.
Kandy. Just before leaving the village at Sinharaja had great views of Green-billed Coucal in the garden of a friend of Sunil's. Arrived too late for any birding, but did manage Indian Pitta in a park before setting off to see the Temple of the Tooth. In view of time constraints decided to omit a visit to Uda Wattakalle Park.
Sigiriya. After leaving Kandy at about midday, called at Dambulla to see the Temple of the Rock after wasting 2 hours with the Spice Garden sting. This meant we were to late to go into the area with in the Sigiriya Rock but instead birded for some 3 hours around the outside and had some very good birds [see list], indeed a number of lifers.
Nuwara Eliya Left Sigiriya very early but owing to state of the roads and the new link road being built did not arrive at our hotel until about 2.00pm. The journey had taken some 6-7 hours. More time lost. However birded Galways Forest for an hour and had some very good birds. [see list] Started to bird Victoria Park at about 4.30pm and met a gardener called Tony who knew where all the specialities were. He has worked here for some 15 years. Try and locate him, it will save a lot of searching and time. Seen the important birds here i.e. Pied Ground Thrush, female Kashmir Flycatcher and SL White-eye. A report came in of a SL Whistling Thrush in a stream 2kms away, went to try and see it but no look. Decided to get up early for Horton Plains. Arrived there before dawn. Boy was it cold. However a great mornings birding. SL Whistling Thrush early on but then crippling views from 10 feet at about 7.45am. Picked SL bush warbler foraging the edge of the pond. Also located the SL Wood Pigeon, which proceeded to parade back and forth along its branch. Picked up Dull Blue Flycatcher, brief glimpse of a Hill Munia flying, SL and Oriental White-eye, Male Kashmir Flycatcher, and Yellow-eared Bulbul. Followed by Cisticola, Pied Bushchat and Hill Swallow. A really good morning. In view of the time did not go for the wood owl [seen before in Goa] at the tea estate or call at Hakgala Gardens.
Tissa It took a long drive to get down from Horton Plains to Tissa, eventually arriving in the early afternoon. Birded the tanks at Tissa picked up some more good birds and had excellent views of a Crested Serpent Eagle in a tree about 80 feet above us. Late on before returning to the lodge found the White-naped Woodpecker and was taken to locations known by our guide for the Brown Fish Owl and Collared Scops Owl. Got up early the next morning and had great views of Indian and Jerdon's Nightjar before proceeding onto Yala. We had a great forest guide who knew the birds and had fantastic eyesight. The birds came thick and fast, we had 20+ Pied Hornbills which was one of the highlights of many sightings [see list] We also saw a huge bull Elephant with 6 foot tusks, Wild Boar, Crocodiles, numerous deer but sadly no Leopard. Our guide knew of an area where Leopard had been seen recently, so off we went. It had been raining in the Tissa area for three days before we arrived, consequently there was a lot of water about. So we go looking for Leopard and part way along the track, it had been broken through by water. Our driver investigates and finds that the water goes over his knees. Egged on by Sunil and the forest guide, he decides to have a go and yes we got stuck! Tried and tried for about half an hour to get out but to no avail. So there we are walking up and down the track in a park where you are not supposed to get out of the jeep. The driver and guide decide to go and find help. Some twenty minutes later returns with 3 other jeeps full of tourists and other guides and drivers who have a good laugh at our driver and guide. Anyway towed jeep out and so able to make our way out of the park. Very hot by this time and the birds were now not showing.
Later in the afternoon visited the acacia scrub and scrapes around Bundala picking up loads of waders but not all the birds hoped for as the scrub area was flooded. The following morning returned to the hotel birding on the way at Kalametiya Lagoon, nearby Saltpans and the Karanga tank outside Hambantota. Fantastic area aound here for waders albeit in winter plumage.
Overall we really enjoyed our 8 Days, seen great birds and almost made the two hundred mark, which we felt, was not bad going.
ENDEMICS AND PROPOSED ENDEMICS
Ashy- headed Laughing Thrush 1 at Sinharaja
Brown-capped Babbler pair at Sinharaja
SL Bush Warbler 1 at Horton Plains
SL Grey Hornbill 1 at Sinharaja
SL Hanging Parrot many at Sinharaja
SL Junglefowl 3m, 7f at Sinharaja
SL Blue Magpie 2 at Sinharaja
Hill Munia flying bird at Horton Plains
Serendib Scops Owl not seen
SL Spurfowl heard at Sinharaja
SL Whistling Thrush 1m at Hortons plain
SL White-eye Victoria Park & Galways
SL Wood Pigeon 1 at Horton Plains
Chestnut-backed Owlet 1 at Sinharaja
Dull-blue Flycatcher 1 at Horton Plains
Green-billed Coucal pair at Kudawa village
Layard's Parrakeet many around Sinharaja
Orange-billed Babbler several individuals Sinharaja
Red-Faced Malkoha brief view Sinharaja
Spot-winged Thrush several Sinharaja
White-faced Starling not seen
Legge's Flowerpecker seen at several locations
Yellow-eared Bulbul Victoria Park, Horton Plains
Yellow-fronted Barbet Sinharaja
Pompadour Green Pigeon Sinharaja
Crimson-fronted Barbet Sinharaja
SL Red-rumped Swallow Many locations
Black-capped Bulbul Sinharaja
SL Scimitar Babbler brief view Sinharaja
Greater [Crimson Backed] Flameback Sinharaja
SL Scaly Thrush Sinharaja
SL Crested Drongo Heard not seen Sinharaja
Black-crowned Night Heron
Lesser Whistling Duck
White-bellied Fish eagle
Grey-headed Fish Eagle
Crested Serpent Eagle
Changeable Hawk Eagle
Pacific Golden Plover
Common Ringed Plover
Little Ringed Plover
Lesser Crested Tern
Orange-breasted Green Pigeon
Green Imperial Pigeon
Collared Scops Owl
Brown Fish Owl
Asian Palm Swift
Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher
Little green Bee-eater
Malabar Pied Hornbill
Ashy-crowned Sparrow Lark
Oriental Magpie Robin
Blyth's Reed Warbler
Large-billed Leaf Warbler
Asian Brown Flycatcher
Tickell's Blue Flycatcher
Asian Paradise Flycatcher
All in all, not a bad 8 days birding for a very reasonable ground cost, which compares well to organised company led tours of Sri Lanka. If not for the time lost could well have picked up more birds, but there are always such factors. We were very satisfied.
BOXING DAY 26TH DECEMBER 2004
The most eventful, memorable Boxing day I can ever remember.
It started out quite normally, we had breakfast about 8.15am then went back to the room to pack most things away, just leaving the clothes out that were needed for that night and the following morning when we were due to leave.
At about 9.00am as I was packing, I became aware of the waves sounding louder than usual and Robert said "look at the beach". We went to the verandah to see waves were pounding up the beach and into the garden when an enormous one engulfed the ground floor and almost reached onto our verandah. The Swiss lady in the room below with her broken leg in plaster could be heard screaming for help and her husband Gunter who had been swimming in the sea! He somehow managed to get back to her having lost his trunks in the sea so was bollock naked. We tried to reach her but the waves were coming up the stairs bringing with them all kinds of bits of trees and furniture. A young Sri Lankan managed to climb to safety up the wall away from the water and debris. The water had pounded through the ground floor doors, windows and wall to break through the entrance doors and so flood the front area. This lasted for some 10 to 15 minutes with water pouring through the ground floor rooms to flood throughout. The water then suddenly receded and in doing so sucked everything out to sea that had not been forced inland by the force of the striking waves. The devastation had been instant. All the ground floor rooms were virtually stripped of doors, furniture and any possessions left in the rooms. The water receded for about 500 yards revealing the sea bed and rocks before flooding back to fill the vacuum created by the recession so creating another wave albeit smaller. The reception area was found to be awash, the shops destroyed, the swimming pool from azure blue was changed to muddy, scummy sandy water and the patio area had been wrecked. We wandered about looking in horror at the uprooted trees, the flotsam floating out at sea consisting of chairs, broken furniture, loungers, suitcases, clothes absolutely bewildering. We went into the restaurant where two couples were still sitting calmly eating breakfast. The sun was still shining, a beautiful blue sky above but although the sea had settled it was lapping far higher up the beach than before. The staff then appeared and ordered everyone to leave as they were afraid there may be more waves coming. We went back to our room, finished packing and put the bags on top of the wardrobe. The staff however insisted we leave taking our bags with us. We went downstairs and waded ankle deep in muddy water and sandy sediments. Our bags were left in a hut just inside the gate and we went, as ordered to the Buddhist Temple nearby which was the only piece around of high ground. When we arrived there we were shocked to see some people had only the clothes they stood up in and many with no footwear, others were clutching dripping suitcases or bundles of wet clothes they had rescued.
Robert and Dave Killen from Bradford went back to the hotel to fetch their luggage to the Temple to keep with the other luggage brought there for safety, in the now blistering heat while I sat with Catherine, Dave's wife. Then went back to the hotel again and fetched loads of hard boiled eggs, croissants, and water and soft drinks which was shared with the Morans from Birmingham; who had lost everything, and with Jane and her family who came from Halifax. It could be seen from the temple, that sea had penetrated at least half way up the air base runway before receding some 400- 500 yards.
Throughout the day, the manager and staff worked tirelessly to bring food, water, pop and eventually set up a makeshift kitchen in the grounds of the Temple to serve up hot meals. The Monks to were very kind making their somewhat limited facilities available to us and tolerating scantily clad foreigners invading their holy temple and providing mats to sleep on. The manager came round several times to assure us that we would be looked after and gave us what news he had heard. Initially this was somewhat conflicting but it became clear that there had been a massive earthquake in the sea off Sumatra some thousands of miles away creating Tsunamis which had engulfed India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, the Maldives and Nicobar Islands. The day got hotter and hotter, although I was in the shade of the temple by the evening I was bright red with sunburn from the sun's rays reflecting from the white walls of the temple. I felt that I could get heat stroke if I did not rehydrate myself and got out the rehydrate sachets to mix with water which seemed to help. Night falls early in the tropics and by 7.00pm it was dark, but although I tried to sleep, sitting and lying on a mat, I was so uncomfortable I couldn't manage more than a nap. The manager came about 10.00pm to say a Thomas Cook bus was on it's way to pick us up and take us to Colombo. It was expected to arrive in the early hours. All during the night the airbase next to the temple reverbrated with the sounds of small turbo prop planes and helicopters constantly taking off and landing. The English speaking monk kept us informed of what he had heard on the BBc World services and said 13 Koggala villagers had been killed, that some 800 dead had been taken to the hospital at Galle and overall estimated deaths were in excess of 6000 throughout Sri Lanka. These figures seemed exaggerated and yet I now know they were a very conservative estimate.
At about 5.45pm the staff came to tell us that the coach had arrived for us. Not a moment too soon as water was running low. Jane and I just had time to go to the toilet before conveying all our belongings to a blessedly cool coach waiting near the railway where we learnt that a train had swamped by the waves and 1000 were killed or missing. We had to wait an hour until about 7.10pm to set off, as some people had not yet returned with their luggage from the sister hotel Koggala Village. Some Germans who were not Thomas Cook clients clung determinedly to seats in the mistaken impression they would be flown out with us. Eventually they were made to understand that other coaches were being sent for them and they reluctantly got off the coach.
Eventually the coach set off; with the hotel staff waving us off and us returning their waves, up the road to the first town before turning inland to use the back roads to Colombo as the coastal road was destroyed. The destruction in this small town was horrific and one could not conceive how anybody could have survived. After a couple of stops for a break, the coach finally arrived at the Transasia Hotel in Colombo, a journey that had taken some ten hours to complete. We were told that the hotel was full and we were to be taken to the football stadium, not an hotel but had facilities!! We dug our heels in and said no way. Eventually the Thomas Cook rep turned up and said those clients who were due to fly out today were to straight to the airport where a planes was ready and waiting for us to arrive to take of asap. Two Germans who were Neckerman clients [a subsidiary of Thomas Cook] refused to leave the coach until I pointed out that they could not go to Gatwick with tickets for Munich!
We got to the airport at 7.30pm and had the usual run around to get on board but mercifully we took off just before 9.00pm. I'm tired, I stink, and I'm glad to be going home but deeply saddened to think we are abandoning the Sri Lankans to an enormous uphill struggle of building up their tourist trade which had only just began to recover from the civil war. The hotel staff knew there would no jobs for months and although we may consider them menial poorly paid jobs, they clearly took in doing them well. Our room was cleaned every day with fresh towels and sheets provided with fresh flowers placed in the rooms as well. The restaurant served 3 generous meals every day with a huge choice of dishes. The service was always cheerful, willing and polite even in the dreadful aftermath of the tidal wave. I can't praise the management of the Koggala Beach Hotel enough, the staff worked for hours to minimise any inconvenience to their guest yet must have concerns themselves for their own relatives.
Would I go back? Unlikely, we had a wonderful 13 days the roads are horrendous and the traffic chaotic, journey times were very long and not without danger.
We eventually arrived at Gatwick after an 11 hour flight to be met with the police who wanted our details but were grateful to the relief staff provided who served food and drink for the passengers. We were rushed through passport control so we could be on our way.
Whilst on the plane we heard that Jeff Toh, his wife and his 3 children who were on the table next to us at the xmas dinner had not as yet been accounted for. They had set off in a taxi for Colombo [as they wanted to stay there overnight to have a shorter journey to the airport] some 15 minutes before the wave struck, we still await news.
Not a day to forget easily.