Category Archives: wildlife

postcard from paradise

Model poses on our own little beach View from the beach Giant monitor lizards Palm trees in the morning

We are finally leaving the Perhentian islands after a week and I am really going to miss this place. I’ve been out diving most days, hanging around the dive shop chatting to the owner Jakub and looking at his amazing photos of sea horses and cuttlefish, lying on our balcony with the boys from next door, Steve and Ben, playing guitar in the evenings, drinking M&M milkshakes, swimming in the warm waters, wandering through the jungle to find our own private beaches, hanging out with guys who work here (one of whom Pappa, has kept the python they found in one of the chalets and is feeding it rats he catches behind the kitchen), eating French toast and drinking pots of Earl Grey tea. The diving has been really good fun and there is some fantastic coral around the reef, bamboo sharks who seem to permanently lie under the rocks doing nothing, colour-changing cuttlefish, playing with the tiny Nemo fish and coaxing them out of their sea anenomes, crazy coloured nudibranches, huge Jenkins whip rays and brightly patterned blue spotted sting rays, giant angel fish, batfish, schools of mean looking barracuda and grumpy looking giant moray eels. Is it any wonder I don’t want to leave!

gecko heads The wonderful milkshakes of Pulau Kecil the boys next door! View from the restaurant

under the sea

The beach on Redang for our surface stopOkay, I am actually on holiday now, there is no way I can call this week even slightly difficult, stressful or challenging. Then again, I’ve been on the move for 13 months and quite frankly I think I deserve a holiday before coming home.

Right now I am in the Perhentian islands with Bron, on Pulau Perhentian Kecil. Imagine a stretch of cobalt blue ocean with gently undulating waves. You are speeding across this stretch of water in a speed boat heading for two small islands almost interlocking into one another. They rise up to hills in the centre and are covered with dense, thick green jungle. Around the shores are small idyllic white beaches and rocky outcrops. As you round the corner there is a long beach ahead of you with pale creamy sand, a few brightly coloured parasols dotted along the length and a few locals and tourists playing volleyball. The sea morphs from dark blue to turquoise as you get closer to the shore. A few restaurants and wooden bars are dotted about the place with most of the simple wooden A-frames and bungalows set back in the bush and palm trees, large spotted geckos hanging out in the eaves and snap up the insects and huge monitor lizards sulk around in teh shadows. Waking up to go for a morning dive you can see the sun rising over Long Beach and shining through the palm fronds and in the afternoon you can walk five minutes through the jungle to see the sun set over the clear waters from Coral Beach. Jealous yet?

This place is lovely, relaxed, beautiful, laid back and easy. The Malay people generally are just the loveliest warmest people which makes such a difference after Vietnam and Cambodia where there is a reasonable amount of hassle and rip offs. No, the Malays are relaxed, helpful, friendly and all seem to have an excellent sense of humour. We’ve been here for three days and I’ve been on some fantastic dives, I’ve seen turtles, Bamboo sharks, Bat fish, Blue Ring octopus, Cuttlefish, Moray eels, seahorses, huge mangrove rays, angelfish, scorpion fish, Titan trigger fish, lionfish and barracuda to name but a few. I’m loving the diving, just the feeling of being under the water and looking up a bank of coral to see the sun shining from above the water through shoals of hundreds of tiny fish, looking down on tiny orange and black clownfish darting in and out of their anaenome homes or staring out into the blue and seeing crowds of hunting trevallis swimming by. I took a digital camera out for the first time and turns out underwater photography is a lot harder than it is on dry land but I’ve included some of my better efforts.

This afternoon I went down to a huge sunken boat called Sugar Wreck which was just like something from a Jules Verne novel. Huge baracle and clam encrusted sides towering above us with bamboo sharks hiding under the base, cuttlefish changing colour as they swam over the sea floor and we even came up into air pockets nine metres down under the wreck and had a quick chat! Bron has been entertaining herself and has gone off snorkelling in a secluded beach with one of the very lovely guys who works in our chalets. She said something about needing to go and improve her Malay language…

Coral baySadly as I came up from the Sugar Wreck dive I had to move away from the line as another group were going down. So I swam alongside their boat as ours was behind. The current here is really strong so I was staying close to the boat. Now if you dive off a boat you usually enter the water with a backward roll. You always check behind before you do this and usually the boat driver or the instructor (who should be the last one off the boat) also keep a look out. Unfortunately for me this didn’t happen and this guy just rolled back without checking and clunked me on the head with his air tank. Those things are big and heavy. By the time I reached my boat it was bleeding profusely and there was blood in my mask. Our dive master pulled me out whilst yelling at the other boat’s driver. None of them apologised which I thought was more than a little rude, they just sawm off for their dive. I am fine though, it throbbed a bit but otherwise I’m okay and the guys at the shop have covered it in antiseptic and antibiotic cream. Still I’m taking it easy for the rest of the day just in case. Luckily the afro hides the bump. Now if I can just go and find the monitor lizard that lives behind the kitchen…

Bron and Claire’s jungle day of fun

Bron and Claire playing Rambo in the jungle Bron and I bade farewell to the others and caught what has tho be the best, most comfortable public transport in the whole of SE Asia along wide, wonderfully smooth tarmac highways up to Jeratut where we had a scenic three hour boat ride along the fringes of Taman Negara National Park where we’d decided to stop for a day en route to the islands. As we only planned to spend one full day in the park we decided to get our money’s worth and have a jam packed jungle day of fun. After breakfast on the floating restaurants down on the river we caught a boat over to the entrance and set off through the jungle to the world’s longest canopy walk. It is a fantastic swaying bridge suspended in the canopy about 40 metres above the ground and the sections are 450m in total length, worthy of an Indiana Jones movie certainly and with fantastic views across the jungle canopy from the platforms. Canopy walkway in Taman NegaraTaman Negara is the world’s oldest rain forest which makes it roughly 130 million years old, give or take a millenia or two. Huge trees tower above you, giant ants scurry around the forest floor, the sounds of geckos and birds echo through the dense foliage and far away from prying eyes tigers and wild boar lurk about. Sadly we didn’t see a tiger but we did spot two wild pigs trotting through the entrance area as we were eating cookies outside the souvenir shop! After the canopy it was only a 2.6km walk to Ear cave. Somehow, due to the steep up and down paths riddled with tree roots, a torrential downpour, a prolonged photo stop by on the park’s largest trees and several slides it took us nearly 90 minutes to reach the cave. Sunset over the rainforestBy this time we were absolutely filthy, covered in mud and thoroughly damp but with that wonderful dismissive-ness that comes from being dirty enough not to care. It was a rough and slippery scramble to get into the cave with our torches. We went in just far enough to see the colonies of cute furry bats clinging to the overhangs with tiny clawed feet and inhale the unmistakable stench of piles of guano! It was getting late so we made our way out and managed to get back to the village before dark. Bats in Ear CaveI must have picked up a few leeches on the way back as when I took off my trousers my feet and leg were covered in blood – nice! That evening after dinner we went on a night walk with a guided group. Sadly the six or so British 18-year old backpackers could not grasp the concept of walking and talking quietly to maximise the chances of spotting the wildlife. After the guide had asked them repeatedly to be quiet I asked them rather curtly to attempt to talk a little more quietly and the girl just rolled her eyes at me. Seriously, youngsters these days have absolutely no respect! We did see a green tree snake, a viper about a foot above my head, wood scorpions, huge furry spiders, massive stick insects and a beautiful flower called a one night stand which only blooms at night. It was 11pm by the time we made it back to our little dorm bungalow, muddy, damp, dishevelled but nicely jungled out!

to base camp and back

jump shot in Ghorepani Fishtail morning shadowA tale of trekking, mountain volleyball, Indiana Jones-style-bridges, making momos, leeches, midnight runs in the rain to the outdoors toilet and soaring snow capped Himalayan peaks…interested? Let me elaborate…for the past twelve days I have been hiking the Annapurna Sanctuary trail in Nepal to Annapurna Base Camp. My guide, Sunita, was lovely, really friendly and very funny, especially on our last night when I made her share two beers and a Mustang coffee, turns out Nepalese women, not so used to alcohol! As I was the elder, certainly not the wiser, I became didi (older sister in Nepalese) and she was bahini (younger sister). I’m almost at a loss as to where to begin, it has been such a brilliant twelve days.

the route

Map of the route Fishtail (Machhupuchhre)
We began at Naya Pul and from there trekked up via Hille to Ghorepani, over across to the sanctuary route and via Chhomrong up past Doban, Deurali and to Machhupuchhre Base Camp (MBC) and finally Annapurna Base Camp (ABC). The heights given for the various villages and guesthouse stops are hugely misleading on the map. For example when you look at Ghandruk village at 1900m and then Landruk at 1595m, you think, great, only 400m to descend for the morning. Only once you actually look at the path it turns out that actually you are going to be descending about 850m to cross the river at the base of the valley and then climbing all the way up the other side. Chhomrong flowersMy knees are currently looking in to divorcing the rest of my body for malpractice! The scenery however was fantastic, climbing up and down stone pathways through small Gurung villages, getting occasionally jostled out of the way by munching Buffalo or run over by hoards of locals carrying huge bundles. Sunita thought it was hysterical to get me to try carrying the local’s baskets or huge mounds of grass every now and then whilst taking photos, I thought I was doing pretty well lugging my 10kg rucksack, nothing to what the villagers carry around! We also trekked through Rhodendron forests, groves of bamboo trees, across mountain streams, along hillsides, passed terraces of rice and millet and finally up through the scrubland and boulders to 4130m which is ABC.

the guesthouses

Ghorepani guesthouses Tadopani route
This is my idea of trekking. You walk four to six hours in the day and when you reach your destination there is a friendly guesthouse with stone rooms, clean (usually) sheets, toilets, occasional hot water and meals on request. For twelve days I have eaten large steaming bowls of porridge, pancakes, pizza, momos (Sunita persuaded the cook at the guesthouse in Chhomrong to let us watch (and help) him make momos for lunch so I could see how it was done!), dal bhat (Nepali rice and curry), noodles, rosti (fried potato pancake things topped with cheese and egg) and drunk a hot cup of Mustang coffee every evening. Now Mustang coffee is basically the Nepalese perversion of an Irish coffee. It contains the local alcohol made from Millet, smells and tastes like paint stripper with caffeine but definitely puts fire back into the body after a hard day’s walk. On our last evening Sunita and I drank cold beers whilst overlooking the hills surrounding Pokara and I then I suggested we both had a final cup of Mustang Coffee. Turns out Sunita is not as used to booze as myself and got quite tipsy! We were sitting in the smoky kitchen of the family who owned the guesthouse, listening to Hindi songs on her mobile phone and trying to get their 15 month year old son to mimic our Bollywood dance moves!

the dark side of trekking

Hungry hungry leech beetle
It wasn’t all fun and games, we had four days of torrential rain, whatever the weatherman says the monsoons have definitely not left Nepal. It takes some will power to get out from inside a warm sleeping bag when you can hear the rain of the corrugated roof of the guesthouse and you know that all your trekking gear from the day before is still damp and cold. Plus when you venture out onto the path, the earth has turned into a bog of squelchy mud, the stone steps have become slippery steps of doom and the leeches are out and looking for blood. I’m not joking these buggers get everywhere, in your socks, onto your walking poles and I even found one particularly big one having a grand old time sucking on my neck.

friends and family

The gang in Chhomrong
Even though the season has not fully begun we met a fair number of people along the way, villagers, porters, other tourists and Sunita is extremely friendly to everyone and as the all-female trekking group she belongs to most people had heard of her, or know who she was! Chhomrong was one of my favourite places, I ran into three Israelis and an Irish girl; Aviv, Sagiv, Ben and Jenny with their guide Bush for the second time when I arrived at a beautiful guesthouse overlooking two valleys. Local lady in KimrongPersuaded by the nice rooms, excellent food, stunning views and, I like to think, first class company they decided to spend the afternoon and night there instead of hiking down to the bottom of the valley. So we sat drinking beers and eating Pizza on the terrace, looking out over the mountain sides and relaxing away the afternoon. They had all come from the Annapurna circuit so had been going for nearly three weeks…actually I think Jenny’s magic red pills (whatever they were) had been keeping Ben going at least! My guide Sunita (Bahini)In Deurail at 3100m Sunita and I arrived early and were staying overnight to acclimatise to the altitude (she was carefully monitoring my water intake to make sure I got through at least three litres and wasn’t letting me have any Mustang Coffee that evening!) so we ended up playing mountain volleyball with the other guesthouse owners for a few hours. Mountain volleyball is just the same as regular volleyball only it’s played on the side of a mountain, figures! Gurung lady!The Nepalese Sunita’s been teaching me on the trek definitely came in handy although most people seemed hugely amused by my blundering attempts at the local lingo. Still it got us free tea and corn at one teahouse and when in Ghandruk we dressed me up in the traditional Gurung dress and I asked one old lady how she was doing in Nepali, I thought she was going to choke on her cigarette!

the destination

Lunch at MBC mountains
The day walking up to ABC was definitely one of my favourites and at the risk of waxing lyrical, here is what I wrote in my journal at the end of the day:

“This morning we awoke again to brilliantly clear blue skies and after my usual breakfast of strong black coffee, porridge with apple and chapatti we set off to climb the two and a half hour path to reach MBC at 3700m. The trees had all but disappeared by now, occasional small ones cropped up between the ferns, wild flowers and scrub. About one hour from MBC we got our first sight of the awesome peaks of the Himalayas, Fishtail spearing up into the blue sky and the achingly white peak of Gangapurna straight ahead of us. By the time we reached MBC after a short detour to take photographs of me posing by a huge ice bridge over the mountains stream, the sheer circle of the mountains was unbelievable. How can I describe the feeling of standing surrounded by moss and grass covered hills with snow and ice covered peaks reaching up around you? Route to MBCIt’s enormous, magnificent, beautiful, nature on a truly awe-inspiring scale, totally untouched, unaltered, and in the case of Fishtail, unscaled by mankind. We spent about two hours at MBC eating garlic soup and Gurung bread. As we sat warming ourselves in the sunshine the clouds began curling and rolling their wag in again over the mountain tops. Two ravens briefly soared overhead before disappearing down the valley. Around 1pm we said farewell to the English couple I’d been chatting with and started up the final path to ABC. The shrubs had now gone, replaced with thick, white-tipped grasses rippling and flowing in the wind. A gushing noisy stream tumbled and tripped down its rocky bed to our left, tiny brown sparrows jumped up from out of the grass beside us. In-between the grasses grew tiny violet buds, tall dark purple flowers like foxgloves, large yellow wild daises and red and green wild con. Huge boulders lay strewn across the valley as if disguarded by giants. In the distance through the white clouds rapidly overtaking us, we could just make out the outlines of the guesthouses ahead. As we got closer they seemed to tantalizingly slip further and further from view. The altitude had begun to kick in now and although my legs felt fine my head felt compressed by a prevailing dizziness and it was possible to walk only at a snail’s pace, putting one foot in front of the other as slowly we climbed the track. Finally the entrance sign bidding us welcome to ABC appeared and a short flight of stone steps brought us into base camp.”

Sadly the following morning began the two and a half days of torrential downpours so we didn’t get to see the final views from ABC but all in all I was still pretty damn chuffed!

back to civilisation
The way home

Today was the hardest trekking, partly because it was the final day and mainly because it rained like the very final monsoon last night and the steep steps all the way down to Phedi were slick as the sweat on my skin. But we made it and I am now showered, smelling less like I’ve been wearing the same sweaty t-shirt for two weeks (I have), and relishing the prospect of a comfortable warm bed tonight, I might even go and find myself a real Irish coffee!

the elephants’ bathtime

We left Pokara early in the morning and caught the bus down to the village of Souraha on the borders of the Chitwan National Park in the southern strip of Nepal known as the Terai. Our bus was greeted by a near desperate group of hotel touts as it’s destination and I was quite thankful that we’d already arranged the accommodation and could navigate our way through them to our waiting jeep. The Maruni Sanctuary Lodge was a lovely little network of thatch roofed bungalow rooms on stilts in a garden of tall slim trees hidden back from the road and run by probably the most effeminate man in the whole of Nepal, Madhav, who was lovely. On the first afternoon we went to visit an elephant breeding centre with two Austrian girls, Sylvia and Andrea, and watch their feeding. Initially though we were too preoccupied with two furiously fighting cockerels on the path to pay any attention to the elephants! The younger elephants aren’t tethered so two of them came bunddling out onto the path to search us for potential bananas and bread. They may still be babies but they are still a good ton of charging elephant and watching one come running directly at me down the path was a little intimidating. Don’t worry, Madhav said helpfully, just don’t be afraid, they can smell the fear in your sweat. Great, just act natural I thought. Luckily the bounding baby halted before turning me into a serious insurance claim, felt me up and down with her trunk looking for food and then disappointed bounded off again with a slightly sulky expression!

Chitwan National Park

The next day we all got up early to be taken on a Jungle Walk. I did suggest strongly to the guide afterwards that this should maybe be renamed Leech-feeding which would be a more accurate description. We were told the appropriate responses to a tiger or Rhino encounter, Tigers – gather together and look scary (!), Rhinos – hide in the bushes or better climb a tree if they charge. We needn’t have worried, unlike the foolish tourists the animals stay well under cover and hidden after any torrential rain. We did spot plenty of monkeys and a peacock on the canoe ride down the river but once on foot the only creature apart from the bright red cotton bugs that were out and about were the leeches. Luckily they didn’t seem to fond of me although I caught a few hopefuls making their way up the backs of my trousers, three managed to get a good drink out of Sylvia’s stomach (none of us worked out how they got there!) but they really seemed to like Andrea who it turned out had somewhat of a leech phobia and I don’t think massively enjoyed the walk!

Climbing onto the elephant When we got back to the riverside it was time for the elephant bathing. Very simple, the elephant’s handler, the mahout, brings the elephant close to the edge of the river (I would like to point out the self same river we’d just spotted the snouts of two large, hopeful crocodiles in) and you grasp the tough ears on both sides, place your feet on the trunk and at a signal the elephant raises its trunk propelling you onto the head where you climb over and sit on the animal’s back. Now when they say elephant bathing they do, in fact mean tourist bathing, because the elephants rise up and fill their trunks with rather muddy monsoon river water and liberally spray it all over their passengers, several times. We were still gasping and laughing when the elephant then suddenly dropped down into the river, rolled over and threw us in (you can tell they love this part). The mahout helps you back up (he has miraculously stayed standing on the elephants back during this whole interlude and remained bone dry!) and you do the whole thing all over again. It is absolutely brilliant, so much fun and completely worth getting soaked!

elephant bathing! In the afternoon we had a slightly more formal elephant ride on the safari into the national park, it’s a curiously sedate, rocking and mildly uncomfortable way to ride, and given the size of the elephant not the best way of trying to happen unawares on any jungle animals but still a bloody cool way to get about. We did spot a mother and baby rhino feeding in a clearing, several peacocks and a family of large Sambur deer. When we got back to the lodge Kristy and I were inducted into the game of Carom, Nepalese billards played with discs on a flat wooden board, the guys working there were very patient with our initially feeble attempts to flick one disc into another and sink them in the corner holes but by the end I think we’d almost got the hang of it!

Our final day in the Chitwan we ended up on a traditional Ox-drawn cart ride out to visit a Tharu village, the main ethnic group in the area (originally driven out from India to settle in the previously uninhabited Terai region). The houses are all constructed from mud and dung with hay rooves, many of them with stilts. Mothers and children sat talking or playing on simple wood and hemp beds on the front porches, buffalo and goats fed on large hay bales under open sided barns and chickens and families of ducks ran all over the road and paddled in the adjacent ditches…it really was like stepping back in time.
Tharu village

So now I am back in Kathmandu, Kristy and I had time for shopping yesterday and dinner at Fire and Ice which does the most surprisingly wonderful pizza and then today visited the beautiful restored Garden of Dreams. It was originally built in the 1920s and then abandoned to disrepair before being rescued about six years ago and restored. It’s an oasis of calm, with pavillions, marble statues, white benches and fountains in the general craziness of Thamel. Really peaceful and incredibly beautiful.

Garden of Dreams

So now, back to being the lone ranger and a final (hopefully) attempt to get this bloody Indian visa, seriously if there are problems this time, heads with roll! Also, the most bizarre group is staying at the Kathmandu Guest house right now. Now fair enough, if you seriously want to prescribe to a cult-like religion that believes that an evil alien race of beings has parasitised every bodies brains and that only by paying vast sums of US dollars and the proper meditations can you free yourself, on your own sanity be it. But why oh why would you parade around in a t-shirt to let everyone know. At least these were my thoughts upon spotting the yellow t-shirted Scientology International Volunteer Group at breakfast. I shall be steering well clear!

searching for that most elusive of beasts, the air conditioned bus

Having spent the last six days sheltered from the tropical heat in the comparative cool of the hill country, the coastal climate has hit me like a large red hot steam train smashing into a small limp goldfish!

Beautiful Ella Soaring view from Ella Rock
I spent two days up in the beautiful little village of Ella, tucked into the hillside and looking over the immense views of Ella Gap that stretch all the way towards the sea. The guesthouse I stayed in, the Rawana Holiday Resort, was lovely, the couple running it were adorable and the garlic curry that I had for dinner was the most wonderful meal I’ve had yet in months! I did sweat out the garlic for the next 36 hours but no mosquitos came near me during that time so totally worth it! The second day I got up early to explore the route up to Ella Rock, a large area jutting out from the forest on the very edge of the valley. The most exciting thing had to be the first 2.5km which was walking along the train tracks, mainly because it’s precisely the kind of thing you’d never be allowed to do in England. The wooden planks were just shorter than my stride so I felt like I was doing a Geisha-walk as I tottered along them. I did run into one of the trains en route, but as there is a 15kph speed limit along most of the area, I had plenty of time to squeeze myself out of the way before it trundled slowly past! After the tracks the path wound its way up through tea plantations, past waterfalls and random buddist shrines until I popped out of the forest at the top next to a huge eucalyptus tree and simply gaped at the view. Ahead the layers of green hills slowly faded into greys and blues until they merged with the sky and behind me I could see all the greenly forested hills and tea plantations surrounding the village far below. Really stunning.

45 minutes of self-portrait taking and banana eating, I headed back down stopping to give knowledgable directions to the two of three tourist couples I passed on their way up. Turns out I was the only one sensible enough to ask their guesthouse for a detailed map before setting off (or maybe just because I know just how bad my sense of direction is!) I spent the afternoon chatting to a British couple on the terrace about their two years of working for VSO in Rwanda, some more food for thought for the post-travelling life crisis…

The hot and sweaty ride to Deniyaya and the kindness of strangers
There are air conditioned buses in Sri Lanka, and I haven’t managed to find a single one. So it was a very sticky and crowded local bus which took me three and a half hours from Ella to Pelmadulla (30 minutes of which I was standing until thankfully a few seats became free) and a further four hours from Pelmadulla south to Deniyaya, the distances are pretty small but the road is wigglier that a twisted worm and only about one and a half buses wide which produced some amusing stand offs with trucks and buses coming the other way. Couple that with a steep, certainly fatal, drop on one side of the road and you have all the ingredients for a thoroughly white-knuckle ride. Also from my seat I could appreciate just how often our driver leant all the way out of the window to spit a stream of red liquid from the tobacco he was chewing into the road, taking his eyes off the oncoming traffic for a good five seconds. I buried myself in my book and told myself it was bound to be okay. I wasn’t reassured by the amount of Buddist decoration around the driver either, in my experience the more religious the driver, the more reckless! We arrived in one piece however and Suresh, the guy next to me who I’d been chatting to for the last half hour very kindly dropped me at my guesthouse in his tuk-tuk before saying goodbye.

Three lizards, one cobra and leeches-a-plenty
Deniyaya is the nearest big village to the untouched Sinharaja Forest Reserve, a name which translates literally as the Lionking forest, there aren’t any lions of course but Sri Lankans are fairly obessed with naming everything, even the national beer, after the large maned cats. I set off with two dutch couples, a Englishman named Jim and our guide, Pali, who was lovely, entertaining, if a bit smelly due to eating garlic and onion sandwiches all day. He was, however, an expert on every bush, shrub, insect, bird and tree that we passed and it was one of the most enjoyable days I’ve had in the country so far. We stopped by a waterfall in the early afternoon to swim and have lunch and got chatting to a family from Negombo who were very entertaining. We saw golden orb spiders, which are pretty damn big and surprisingly the photographer in me is bigger than the aracnophobe in me and I managed to inch close enough for some good shots. Golden orb spiderThere were tiny kangaroo lizards, horn nosed lizards, fisher owls, black eagles, yellow headed bulbuls (small birds), huge millipeeds, giant red hornets, a spectacularly lazy cobra streched out on a tree log, spice plants and the lovely little leeches. Actually it was a dry day (despite the fact we were in the rainforest) and the leech count was pretty low. They are tiny thin black creatures that don’t do any harm but draw a little blood and I was rolling my eyes at our guide as the others squealed everytime they saw one…and then I looked down to see two of the wee blood suckers burying their way into my socks, I screamed like a litle girl and hopped around like a madwoman until I calmed down sufficiently to flick them off! Apart from the leech attack, a really good day, rounded off with dinner at Pali’s of chicken rice and curried aubergine, carrot and lotus plant stems with buffalo curd and palm honey for desert…mmmm!

Ants on the wild orchids

Onwards and southwards
So now I am back in the immense heat in the pretty dutch fort of Galle on the south coast, fighting off offers from tuk tuks drivers. I finally finished my book “Shantaram” by Gregory David Roberts which is one of the most fascinating books I’ve ever read. It’s the true life autobiography of a heroin addict who escaped from an armed robbery jail sentence in Australia, fled to Bombay where he lived in a village, started a slum clinic, worked in Bollywood and for the Bombay mafia and fought during the Russia Afghanistan war. I actually finished it for the first time a few days ago and it’s the only book I’ve ever read where, upon turning over the final page, I closed the book, opened it again at the beginning and started reading it all over again. However the time has come to move on and since the Sri Lankan bookshops firmly favour the classics, I have brought Treasure Island to entertain me on the beach.

piranha fishing and other stories

a shifty looking Caiman

I arrived in Campo Grande after a very quiet and peaceful fourteen hour bus ride and upon arriving in the bus station was met by a whole load of tour guides offering tours to the pantanal. So within an hour of arriving I have a tour booked to leave that day, have had a shower and a delicious freshly squeezd orange juice and cappucino to boot. It was another six hours journey into the pantanal to our camp, a series of palm thatched huts containing lines of hammocks, a few toilets and showers, no electricity and no hot water but there were palm trees, flocks of broght green parrots with black heads in the trees and a few friendly dogs sniffing around. That evening the group currently staying there had brought sugar cane alcohol and mixed upon two huge watering cans of incredibly strong caiparinhas to drink around the camp fire that evening…after which I slept pretty well in my gently swaying hammock, despite the ongoing scuffling and flapping of mice and bats in the roof!fishing!

Over the next three days we would be woken up at dawn (6am, luckily I took off my watch for the whole trip so the time was less of an issue!) by the bell for a breakfast of jam, bread, coffee and huge slices of pineapple and watermelon. We went on early morning walks through the palm forests, wading through thigh deep water (apparently the dry season it´s fairly uncommon to get anacondas, all very well but still deep water that you can´t see into still quickens the pulse) and spotting beautiful blue and green & red macaws, toucans, howler monkeys, coatis peering down at us from between the palm leaves, storks, cormorants, herons, egrets, hawks, vultures, red deer and capybaras or water pigs; these are like giant guinea pigs that make the funniest hiccuping noise when you spot them and literally bounce back into the water. We went swimming in the refreshing river next to the camp which is full of caiman and aligators but our guides assured us that it was safe. Then in the evenings we would have dinner and sit drinking beer and chatting around the fire until one by one everyone would drift off exhausted to sleep in the hammocks.

The catch of the day!

Horse ridingThe second day we went piranha fishing, well I say fishing, piranha feeding would be a more accurate description. You get your bamboo rod, lace some tender red meat onto the hook at the end and then flick it out into the river. Thankfully this is not a sport that requires much patience. Within seconds you feel the line beginning to pull and one of two things then happen. Usually you pull it out to discover that the fish have cleaned the hook completely of meat and you are totally empty handed or as happened to me you get a huge tug and eagerly whip out the line to find a particularly large piranha has bitten off the whole hook! But sometimes you get lucky as out pops the line with a round, sharp toothed angry looking fish squirming away on the end. I caught a far number but all but two were too small to eat so I had to grasp the fish firmly and placing my fingers perilously close to the biting mouth pull out the hook and toss back the fish. A risky process and the frech guy Remhi´s hand attested to by the end of the morning! We deep fried the piranhas and had them for lunch on a farm, they were delicious, all the more so for the fact that we´d caught all of them ourselves!  Continue reading