Sri Lanka

A room with a view

A room with a view

Sleep, following the journey, was wonderful. Not only was I ready for it but the enormous bed welcomed and accepted me, offering comfort and super soft pillows. I was fearful that I would not wake up naturally and would be late for breakfast and our planned departure at 8.30. As it happened the early morning light filtered gently through the blinds. I was keen to lift them and see what our outlook was like. Wow! We looked out onto a lawned area dotted with palm trees, the other side of which were pristine golden sands and the sea. The sun was not yet up but the fishermen were in clusters, working rhythmically together to haul their nets, laden with fish, from the sea. It was like watching a slow dance. Unfortunately, there was little time to enjoy this beauty as we had to leave, but I left sure that there would be similarly beautiful places that we would be able to spend more time enjoying.

Leaving Negombo, we picked our way through narrow roads to Pinewella and the elephant orphanage. There has been a linear development virtually all the way on either side of the road. Behind this thin band of housing and businesses the land is green with coconut plantations, rubber plantations, pineapple plantations and rice paddy fields. Every-so-often in this spartan linear development, a new, two or three storey, glass fronted showroom would appear with toilets, or other similarly bizarre objects stacked in the windows.

DSC_0016By the time we arrived at Pinewella the elephants were already bathing in the river, so we headed down to watch the spectacle. There was not a lot of water in the river but to compensate there is a fire hose, which sprays water in an arc over the assembled elephants. It is a spectacle but I feel slightly uncomfortable watching it; it is almost turning the elephants into performing circus animals. You have to remind yourself that if Pinewella was not there, then these fifty or so elephants being looked after would all probably be dead, and the money we pay to experience the spectacle helps ensure they have a good a life as possible.

DSC_0033When I last visited the orphanage in 2014, I was disturbed by the number of tourists jostling to feed the baby elephants with bottles of milk. When we left the bathing elephants to go up to the orphanage there seemed to be far fewer tourists and none of the jostling to get close and fuss the animals. Perhaps we arrived too late to see that. There seemed to be more restrictions in place as there was an outbreak of TB among some of the elephants. They are also not taking in any more animals, so the babies I saw three years ago are now that much bigger. The only activity we watched was two young elephants play fighting, just like children. It was enjoyable to watch and gave us nothing but joyous memories as we left to continue our journey.

DSC_0041Before we went to our overnight accommodation, we travelled a little further to visit Minneriya Wild Life Sanctuary. Here, we boarded our open top jeeps for a bumpy journey through the park. Water features a lot in the park and it acts as a magnet for the animals that reside within it, particularly elephants and a whole range of birds. This experience proved to be one of the highlights of the whole trip.

Bonnet causing us to retreat

Bonnet causing us to retreat

As we bumped our way around the park we came across several groups of female elephants and their calves. The males tend to be solitary until it is the mating season. The youngsters stayed close to their mothers. On the one occasion that we did come across a male we backed off sharply. They can be quite aggressive at times and this one had been given the name, “Bonnet”. Hardly a manly name for an elephant but the name was born out of the fact that he had a reputation for slamming his trunk down onto the bonnets of any jeep that got too close.

We had already noticed on our travels across Sri Lanka that wherever farm livestock were, egrets were always nearby. There seemed to be a strong relationship between them and cattle, the latter disturbing the ground and releasing all sorts of tasty morsels. The same applied to elephants and buffalo, they were always accompanied by ever attentive egrets.

DSC_0073But there were plenty of other birds around the water’s edge, pelican, painted storks, heron, Brahminy Kites and stunningly beautiful bee eaters. The latter we would see perched on small branches, ever alert to their surroundings, occasionally darting off to pick up an insect before returning to the same branch. They were easily predictable and thus became excellent photographic models.

As the sun went down the colours became richer.

DSC_0133Leaving the park as the sun set, we made our way to our hotel, the Aliya Resort and Spa at Sigiriya. What a stunning place this was; a long flight of shallow steps with water channelled down each side took us to the open reception area. Beyond was an infinity pool and a view of Sigiriya, now fading rapidly as darkness fell. This was a luxurious place in every respect – the spaciousness of the rooms, the positioning of the public places with outstanding views and the wide range of exquisite food to suite every taste. If all hotels were going to be as good as this we were all going to struggle not to put to weight, particularly as there was limited physical activity to burn off the calories.

The following morning dawned bright and sunny with a chorus of birdsong outside our room.

Sigiriya towering almost 200m above the surrounding countryside

Sigiriya towering almost 200m above the surrounding countryside

Following another morning of over-indulged breakfast, we set out to visit and climb Sigiriya, an ancient rock fortress with a fascinating history. There have always been religious significances in Sigiriya but  back in the fifth century there was a king who had two sons, one, Moggallana, by the queen, the other, Kasyapa, by one of the King’s consorts. Although Moggallana was the rightful heir, Kasyapa sought an opportunity to seize power. Killing his father, Kasyapa took control of Sigiriya away from the residing monks and moved his capital to Sigiriya, a rock outcrop that could be easily defended. Meanwhile, Moggallana fled to India fearing for his life.

DSC_0111In the next eighteen years Kasyapa built for himself an impenetrable fortress 200m above the surrounding land and further protected it with crocodile infested moats. He always knew that Moggallana would, one day, return. When he did he brought an army with him. Kasyapa, as clever as he was, decided to meet his brother in battle instead of staying put in his fortress. Rain fell heavily, turning the ground to mud, mud that made the elephants at the front of the column slip and slide. Unable to hold their stability the elephants turned away from Moggallana and his army. The rest of Kasyapa’s army, on seeing the elephants flee, thought a retreat had been ordered, turned and fled. Kasyapa was slain and the rock was returned to the Buddhist monks.

DSC_0020It is a steep climb up many steps. Part way up there is a deviation up a spiral staircase bolted to the rock face, to see some frescos painted on the rock of semi-naked women. These are beautifully done and, of those that are left, are so well preserved. Back in 2014 I could photograph them but today all cameras have to be turned off and put away. The photo opposite was taken three years ago, so I won’t be in trouble for publishing this today. Continuing, we climbed up to a terrace at the foot of the last section of the climb. Here steps had been bolted into the rock, giving a sensation of being very exposed. Adjacent to the steps were the original steps, merely footprints in the rock.

DSC_0117It is a beautiful place with commanding views all around. The down side is that it is on the itinerary of virtually every visitor to Sri Lanka, resulting in crowds. Hence, where hawkers are allowed to go, they gather in crowds and try to sell all sorts of cheap souvenirs. For a few rupees you could wrap a python around your neck.  It was also stiflingly hot, so it was a relief to briefly return to the hotel for a quick shower before we embarked on the next part of our itinerary.

Choices

Choices

That was lunch. I am not going to write about all of the meals we had but this one was a bit special. We were on our way to Polonnaruwa, the ancient capital of Sri Lanka. En route we called into a traditional home that produces traditional lunches for passing travellers. This must, by now, be a well known place because there was a constant stream of visitors, like ourselves. Sitting under an open sided thatched shelter, our food was immediately brought to a central table. It included fish and chicken but with bowl after bowl of accompaniments  so that our banana leaf plates were straining under such fine food and, of course, we had to try everything.

As we travelled across Sri Lanka we became increasingly aware of a great many lakes, many of which were created by ancient kings to ensure the fertility of the land and for there to be a constant supply. The earthworks to build these were huge and in a day when the only asset was manpower. These reservoirs still fulfil a function today by providing irrigation systems, but also act as a magnet for wildlife.

A raft of cormorants

A raft of cormorants

As we drove to Polonnaruwa we passed one of these huge man made lakes, the road following the route along the top of the earthworks holding back the water. All along the water’s edge, heron and egrets stare, motionless into the water, occasionally making a stab into the water with their long beaks and coming out with a fish firmly clasped. Out in the middle a dark patch appeared on the water, which turned out to be a solid raft of several thousands of cormorants, behaviour I had never witnessed before.

DSC_0151Polonnaruwa was the seat of south Indian Chola and Sinhalese kings almost a thousand years ago. It is rich in culture and history, with the ruins giving us clear pictures of the lives of people during that period. Before we visited the ruins, Sanath, our guide, took us to the archeological museum to give us some background information, to see models of complete temples and to learn something of the history. We then walked from temple to temple, all with their own specific orientation, giant Buddhas made of hand crafted bricks and covered in plaster. The quality of workmanship and the techniques needed were way ahead of their time. Ancient streets were revealed with the foundations of shops on either side, suggesting the city of wealth.

A peaceful reeling Buddha

A peaceful reclining Buddha

The highlight was Gal Vihara, three huge stone statues of Buddha, carved out of the cliffs, in sitting, standing and reclining positions. They are beautiful, with the lines of strata giving texture to the statues. The serenity of the faces captures the whole essence of Buddhism and it seemed only right to take a little time out to sit on the rocks opposite the statues to gaze and to contemplate.

It was a shame that we had visited two very important heritage sites on the same day. We could have spent much longer at Polonnaruwa, to give us more time to absorb and understand the history and culture.

On the way back a number of us were going to de-stress with an Ayurvedic massage but because of some confusion as to the venue it never happened and we remained stressed.

The view from our room

The view from our room

The following morning we left the luxury of the Aliya Resort (4*) and headed north east to Trincomalee for a bit of slumming it in a 3* hotel. Trinco Blu Hotel was far from slumming it for here the coast is beautiful with long stretches of white, sandy beaches and warm seas. Our room opened out onto the gardens that preceded the beach. In the centre of the gardens was an inviting pool. The staff were all friendly, welcoming and informative, so much so that many of us booked for an Ayurvedic massage and a trip out to Pigeon Island for a snorkelling opportunity on the coral reef. One could not ask for more. Here we could relax more, swim, wander along the beach to a small estuary with mangroves on one shore, fishing boats sitting in the sand on the other, all overlooked by a temple.

DSC_0221In the evening, and again the following morning, we were able to watch the fishermen pulling in their nets. The nets were placed, perhaps a quarter of a mile off shore. Either end was brought to the beach by a boat, to be hauled in by a group of fishermen. As they followed a rhythm they gradually pulled the net in. It was a long process, longer if the net was full and heavy. It was like watching a dance and they all worked rhythmically as a team. I would have loved to get involved but it was a long process and I really did not have the time. Anybody who does help haul in the net is given a fish as their reward. Not sure what I would have done with it.

DSC_0239After a relaxing afternoon, Angela and I went for a joint Ayurvedic massage. Having been introduced to our respective masseurs we were given time to change out of our clothes and into a pair of paper pants. They looked like the sort of hat worn by a food processor, only it had two holes for our legs. Needless to say we looked a sight and both of us got a fit of the giggles in time for our returning masseurs. The experience was a mixture of relaxing pleasure with moments of intense pain as pressure was applied. Oh, and there were also one or two ticklish moments. I think, overall, it was an enjoyable experience. As there are no pictures of this I have inserted a fishing photo; a much better image.

The following morning, nine of us kitted ourselves out with flippers, masks and snorkels  before heading down to the beach to help launch our boat and head out to Pigeon Island, a journey of about half an hour. It really was an idyllic spot, although we were not alone as several boats from other resorts were also there.

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Pigeon Island

Prior to entering the water, awkwardly walking backwards over broken coral, we were warned that there were a few jelly fish in the water so we should try to avoid them as their sting is uncomfortable. We were told they were dangerous. This information took a little bit of the pleasure out of the adventure as we were constantly on the lookout for and taking evasive action for jelly fish. As well as lots of colourful fish we also saw turtle and a couple of reef sharks that must have been four or five feet long. I was disappointed I had not brought my underwater Gopro to Sri Lanka. Although there was some really beautiful violet coloured coral, quite a lot of it was dead, and I am sure that our presence there was not helping.

DSC_0250After about an hour in the water, the inevitable happened and three members of the team were stung by jelly fish. There was an element of panic as we had been told they were dangerous. However, there seemed to be no urgency among our crew to get the victims quickly back to shore. After a lot of effort and guidance from ourselves we managed to get everybody ashore where the crew applied some vinegar, which initially seemed to ease the pain. The stings had left some very angry looking wheels around the point of contact.

DSC_0235After some beach time we returned to our hotel, more relaxation before heading to the Hindu temple of Konesvaram, built on a rocky outcrop just to the north of Trincomalee. When the Portuguese took control of Sri Lanka in the 16th Century they destroyed many of the temples and Buddhist icons in their search for treasure. This happened at Konesvaram where they threw the whole temple over the cliffs and into the sea, as they dismantled it in their search. The present temple was rebuilt post Portuguese, during the occupation of the the Dutch. The temple is similar to those found in southern India with towers full of story telling characters in pastel shades and rather gaudy statues with frightening personas and a tendency to be blue. While we were there we were able to mingle among the devotees and experience at close hand some of their rituals. Whilst I find it all very interesting and admire their faith, I must confess to understanding very little.

The following morning we headed south, our destination, Kandy, in the heart of the hill country and tea plantations. I was beginning to feel some concern for Sally’s reaction to her jelly fish sting. While Angela’s and Richard’s looked angry, Sally’s hand and lower arm was beginning to swell alarmingly and she was in some considerable pain.

DSC_0269Our journey was punctuated with a number of stops along the route, to a wood carvers, a spice garden and a batik workshop. Whilst the wood carving was interesting it proved to be quite expensive, which diminished one’s interest in it. The spice garden was much more interesting. We walked around a garden, with a guide, showing us a whole range of plants and telling us of their medical or culinary uses. Later, in a room, we smelt and felt various products and were all treated to a free, five minute, head and shoulders massage. In the shop we bought a number of remedies, despite the high cost, a cost that was only realised once the money had changed hands.

Glamorous models

Glamorous models

Watching the production of batik garments and pictures was particularly interesting, requiring a significant amount of skill. The work is largely carried out by women of middle age and beyond, and one cannot help but wonder how long this craft will continue without young recruits learning and taking on the skills. While the working conditions are uncomfortable at best, with strong chemical smells from the paint, hot wax and even hotter water above wood burning stoves it is not likely to attract the next generation. There were some beautiful examples of their work, and in order to attract us into buying some we were all dressed in batik outfits.

DSC_0334Reaching Kandy, we immediately when to a theatre to watch a cultural show. The theatre was packed and by the time we arrived we were very near the back. The programme was not too long and all the dances were quite snappy. I’m not sure whether they were all choreographed or improvised. The entertainment ended with a bit of fire eating and fire walking, neither of which we could see very clearly.

Adjourning to our hotel, the 5* Cinnamon Citadel, an excellent hotel in a good setting but not a very friendly attitude, and even less friendly clientele who all had plums in the their mouths and thought everybody should stand aside for them. As dusk fell I enjoyed watching thousands of fruit bats fly across our balcony on their nightly search for food.

We were becoming more concerned about Sally’s hand and arm. Her fingers were cold, suggesting no circulation, so we called a doctor to the hotel, who, it turned out, had no serious advice or remedy but was more than willing to take his $50 fee. In hindsight, if he had been a little more pro-active we might have avoided some of the worries that followed.

The following morning Sally’s condition had deteriorated further and action had to be taken as a matter of urgency. Abandoning our plans, Sanath took Sally to the hospital, where, after a degree of travelling between departments and hospitals, Sally was admitted.

CSC_0361Initially we waited for news in the gardens of the hotel overlooking the river. The bird life was abundant with kingfishers darting from branch to water and back to branch, kites flying overhead, very tame red vented bulbuls and similarly tame red wattled plovers who tended to come to meet us as we approached.

It soon became apparent that we were going to have to shelve our plans for the day. We would not be able to visit the Temple of the Tooth as Sanath was so preoccupied in getting Sally settled. He even had to buy bedding for her. A dark cloud hung over the group.

DSC_0366At Sanath’s suggestion we went to the Botanical Gardens in Kandy to await news. These are beautifully laid out gardens with lots of exotic plants and trees, massive bamboos, Mimosa in full bloom (for a while I called the Samosa!) Along the river’s edge were some tall trees absolutely covered in hanging bats, the same bats I had seen the previous evening as they ventured out on their nightly search for food. There were so many of them that some of the branches were straining under their weight. As they sleep, they are not silent. Nor are they still, as they stretch and occasionally fly off to return a few moments later.

IMG_3361Eventually, Sanath rejoined us, having finally got Sally comfortable in hospital and her beginning to receive the treatment she so desperately needed. While we were now able to continue with our itinerary and head to a tea plantation en route to Nuwara Eliya, I was now preoccupied with conversations with Sally’s insurance company and medical assistance.  While all this was going on, the rest of the group had a guided tour around a tea factory. Despite the fact that we had a guide, Sanath could not help but get involved as he had spent twenty eight years working in the tea industry.

St Andrew's

St Andrew’s

Nuwara Elia is a little slice of England in the middle of the Sri Lankan hill district. There are mock Georgian houses, some of which are splendid hotels. We were staying in St Andrew’s with wood panelled walls, roaring log fires, manicured gardens and a snooker room. A golf course ran through the middle of town, crossing the road on several occasions. After, what for me had been a fairly stressful day, what better way to unwind than a game of snooker as a foursome. I don’t think I have ever played on a full size table before. I partnered Richard because he said he had played before and we were against David and Simon.

Another missed shot!

Another missed shot!

It cost 600 Rupees for forty five minutes. At the end of that forty five minutes the score was 27 – 17 in favour of David and Simon. There were still some reds on the table.  We were the four most inept snooker players in the world but it was the funniest evening I have spent in a long time. We were dreadful. Our wives watched with mixed emotions of mirth and shame. Our laughter could be heard throughout the hotel. Afterwards, Richard confessed to not being able to see very clearly through one eye, the eye I suspect he kept open when playing his shot.

The following morning we continued our journey, heading south east and dropping down to the coastal plain and Yala National Park. It was a series of jungle lodges spreading out from a central complex of reception, restaurant, bar and pool overlooking a lake inhabited by crocodiles, numerous birds and occasionally visited by elephants. The roar of the sea, just behind the lodges could always be heard.

DSC_0405Staying here proved to be one of the highlights of the trip. As soon as we arrived, and before we checked in, we met our jeep drivers and we set out on an afternoon safari into the park. It was wonderful to see so much wildlife and there were very few periods where there was nothing to see. Unlike Minneriya, where we saw lots of groups of elephants, here we tended to see single males. There are numerous pools and water holes, all acting as a magnet to the animals. Crocodiles lay at the water’s edge with their mouths open while others lingered in the water with the minimum of scaly skin showing above the surface. Water buffalo wallowed, keeping cool in the strong afternoon sun. And all the while birds waded in the shallows. Bee eaters stood on slender twigs, scanning their surroundings, darting after something and returning to their look out post. Unless you were an insect or a small fish there seemed to be complete harmony among the animals; no one animal was threatening another and, although they were all watchful, they seemed at peace with each other. I am sure it is not always thus.

IMG_3374Two hours into the safari we came to a point by the beach where we could stretch our legs. It was also the site of a memorial sculpture to the 2004 tsunami. It was very simple and consisted of four sheets of metal in the shape of a wave, each one indicating the height of the four waves that swept in and 8.30am on Boxing Day 2004. While animals sensed what was to come and ran, flew or climbed trees to escape, 28,000 Sri Lankans and tourists died that day. In the days to come we were to learn more about, and see the effects of, that terrible tsunami.

DSC_0441Towards the end of our safari we came across some deer grazing. Suddenly they looked up as one, all facing the same direction, stood stock still and watched. They are always a pretty good indicator of what we really wanted to see, a leopard. We were lucky, for strolling among the bushes was a leopard, not necessarily stalking the deer but perhaps keeping them on their toes. No sooner did we see it that it disappeared again and no photographs could be taken. But, at least we had seen one. There are only twenty five in the vastness of Yala National Park and we had managed to see one of these very elusive cats.

Back at the lodge we were told that when we wanted to come to the restaurant for dinner we were to contact reception and they would send a guide. We weren’t likely to get lost but there was a fair chance that we might bump into an elephant, a buffalo or a wild boar. The same service was provided when we wanted to return to our lodge. This service was only available during the hours of darkness. In daylight hours we came across numerous monitor lizards and, on one occasion, a very large male wild boar asleep by the veranda of a lodge with the occupants sitting on their veranda watching it, closely.

Sally was still causing us some concern and it became apparent that the hospital in Kandy did not really have the resources to be able to deal with her appropriately. After several more conversations with the medical assistance centre in France it was agreed that, as a matter of urgency, she should be transferred to Colombo. However, France could not get an ambulance there quickly and asked if I could get one quicker. There was one at the hospital where Sally was but they could not release it without confirmation from France. The Sri Lankans could not understand English spoken with a French accent, so Sally ended up waiting seven hours while ever more frantic phone calls went back and forth. At one point I was told by France that Sally had been picked up by the ambulance and was on her way to Colombo. A few minutes later Sally phoned me to say she was still waiting. It got more and more frustrating and exasperating, until, eventually, Sally was on her way. She was operated on at 1.30 in the morning, shortly after arriving at the hospital in Colombo.

DSC_0463Our second safari was an early morning one, rising at 4.30am, leaving at 5.00am and entering the park at 6.00am. There were a great many jeeps waiting to enter the park but as we all filtered in through the gate they soon dispersed and it did not feel at all crowded. To begin with it was all fairly quiet, not even the animals were up this early but as the safari progressed we saw more and more. We again saw a two leopards, each time those excellent leopard indicators, deer, alerting us to their presence. Still no photographs. I was using my large lens, which is unwieldy without a tripod and difficult to focus. By the time I got myself sorted, the leopard had gone on both occasions. I’ll allow David and Sandie, who both got pictures, to gloat over that one.

DSC_0489We were carrying a picnic breakfast and after a couple of hours, as before, we stopped for a leg stretch and a bite to eat. This was not in the same place as we previously stopped. In the trees there was a waiting reception of monkeys, Toque Macaques,  looking very cute and innocent. This was so far from the truth. They obviously recognise the white, cardboard picnic boxes. They bided their time, waiting for an opportunity to strike. They would change position, distract us and pounce. I did not eat all of my breakfast so I packed it up and put the box under my seat. No sooner had I turned my back that a monkey was in the jeep, under the seat, taking out my apple. Another followed and stole my satsuma. The final act of bravery came when I was sitting in my seat and a monkey leapt into the jeep, under my seat and stole from my box. I reacted, the monkey leapt from the jeep, turned from its position in an adjacent tree and bared its teeth at me. How rude.

DSC_0589In the afternoon, Angela and I strolled down to the beach, first checking in with the security guard in case there were any elephants we needed to avoid. It was a beautiful beach with numerous rounded rocks at the water’s edge, looking like the rounded backs of mighty elephants. The waves of the Indian Ocean crashed over them spectacularly. It was not a particularly windy afternoon but the power of the ocean was awesome and nobody in their right mind would even consider entering it.

Later in the afternoon a bull elephant strolled across the shore line of the lake, close to the swimming pool, in full view of all relaxing around the pool.

We could have stayed in Yala longer but we needed to continue our journey around the south coast, before heading inland and climbing into the rainforest This was the only day we had any rain but it did not come to much.

FullSizeRenderWhen we arrived at the Eco Lodge low cloud hung about the tree tops. Our accommodation was old shipping containers converted into comfortable en-suite bedrooms. A novel idea. This was the only hotel where we did not have buffet style meals. There was a set menu. This made a pleasant change, the moreso because the food really was gourmet. It happened to be Valentine’s Day, the day we arrived, and the starter and sweet had an appropriate theme to them. They acted as useful reminders for the males in the group to be especially kind to their wives! Otherwise we would never have remembered it was Valentine’s Day.

IMG_3398The following morning we went for a guided walk through the rainforest. If you expect to see a lot on one of these walks you will be disappointed. The forest is so dense that views are seriously restricted. Birdsong can be heard but it is virtually impossible to see any of them. Purple Faced Leaf Monkeys live in the forest but we would only see them if they came in the vicinity of the lodge. In the forest, they are invisible. Horizons reduce significantly and we were resigned to looking for small things at our feet, like a skink, or butterflies at eye level. There were some interesting pitcher plants and orchids.

Although the lodge advertises a number of activities, most were not available. We would have liked to have gone to a waterfall and swum in a pool, but there was no water. There has been very little rain, despite it being a rainforest. The night walks were not happening.  It presented itself with so much promise, but failed to deliver on activity.

DSC_0717We were now on the last leg of our Sri Lankan journey, heading back down to the south coast and Galle. Galle has always been a port but it reached its peak during the time of the Dutch occupation when a fort was built, the walls of which rise out of the sea. Interestingly, when the tsunami struck the walls protected the old town within but not the more modern town beyond the walls.

We visited the Dutch Reformed Church, a rather plain, austere building. Many of the gravestones in the floor of the church bear the symbol of the skull and crossbones, not signifying that the incumbent body was a pirate but someone who died of fever. From there we walked around the walls, passing the lighthouse until we reached a restaurant for lunch. Because Galle has so much historical significance, it does attract a lot of tourists, certainly more than we had encountered since we were at Sigiriya. I was pleased to leave and head a little way up the coast to Hikkaduwa.

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Tsunami memorial

All along the coast were reminders of the tsunami, from damaged, rotting sea front properties to little clusters of headstones marking where victims were buried, not on consecrated ground but more likely where they died. This area is where the majority of the victims were. A thousand of them were travelling on a train about 100 metres behind the shoreline when it got swept away.

It would appear that there was no warning. Hotel restaurants were full of people enjoying their Boxing Day breakfast. Nobody understood the signs as the sea retreated rapidly from the shore, leaving fish stranded and flapping on the beach. People went out on to the beach to collect the fish, to watch the spectacle, and when they realised what was about to happen, it was too late.

The hotel where we were staying at Hikkaduwa was one that suffered, being right on the shoreline, in a particularly vulnerable spot. It was a lovely hotel but it tended to cater for a lot of one week package tours of people who only wanted to lounge around the pool and bar area for the duration of their stay. Turtles came up to the water’s edge and became playthings for tourists to feed seaweed to and fondle. It was playing with nature.

DSC_0737I was pleased, then, on our last day, when Sanath wanted to take us on a river safari. Here, a boat, with a sometimes smelly outboard motor, took us through the mangroves, which act as fish nurseries, where the fry can grow in relative safety before they head out into open water. On the narrower stretches there a fish traps set by fishermen. It was on one of these that we met the best fisher of all, a beautiful kingfisher. It sat on a pole with its beady eyes firmly fixed on the water below. In a flash it dived into the water to emerge with a fish between its beak. It perched just next to us on a rope, holding the fish, then with a flailing of its wings and a jerk of it head, the fish was gone. It was such a treat to witness this at close quarters.

DSC_0768There are many islands in these waters, Cinnamon Island being one of them. here a family lives, growing cinnamon, harvesting it, creating cinnamon sticks, powder and oil to sell to passing visitors. Members of the family gave demonstrations as to how they process the crop. The fresh cinnamon smelt beautiful. They also showed how to make string out of coconut fibres and how they weaved palm leaves. The string was incredibly strong and the leaves, if triple layered, keep any water out. The island has no electricity, or any of the benefits of modern living, but they seemed to have what they wanted. And there is hope that the tradition will continue as the children are all involved.

Another island had a Buddhist temple on it and large squirrels that like bananas. We landed, armed with bananas but the squirrels had obviously already had their fill and lay on branches and beams looking bloated and content.

On our way back we called in at a floating fish pedicure centre. The raft is divided up into a number of tanks, each with a multitude of fish in. We were told to avoid the larger fish. There was one tank with a couple of fish about eighteen inches long. You would need to count your toes afterwards.

IMG_3417Most people readily dangled their feet into the tanks. As they did so the fish churned the water up in their eager frenzy to get at some dead skin. It is not something that I have ever craved to do but, when the opportunity arises, you have to take it. Even before my feet were anywhere near the water the fish gathered, their gaping mouths held in anticipation. I have never really considered my feet to be particularly sensitive or ticklish, but the sensation the fish caused sent me into paroxysms of uncontrollable laughter. It was so very funny. I couldn’t stand it for long. I had to give my feet a rest before trying again. I thought the second time would be easier but, if anything, it was worse. I don’t think I will be rushing to have fish therapy again.

DSC_0674And that was about that. We had crammed so much into our two weeks in Sri Lanka, a country that is truly beautiful from the stunning beaches to the national parks and reserves teaming with wildlife, from the historical sites steeped in legend to the ever smiling people of today, from the rainforest to the tea plantations and, wherever we went, the sumptuous food. Sanath was a brilliant guide and he pitched it just right. However, the most important part of any trip is the people you share it with. Despite one or two stressful moments (Sally is making a good recovery) we laughed together a great deal. The company was great and we had a lot of fun together. Where shall we go next?

 

 

 

 

Corvedale Three Castles Walk

Snow on the distant Clee Hills

Snow on the distant Clee Hills

Just as the first autumnal storm, Storm Angus, was fading away, seven of us met at the village of Aston Munslow in Corvedale, sandwiched between Wedlock Edge to the west and the snow covered Clee Hills to the east.  This was an easy 11.5 miles, mostly of gently sloping farmland in this little known corner of Shropshire. I had walked the route a few days previously, before a major storm, but despite the sudden volume of rain the night before, the ground, in the main, had managed to absorb it. The River Corve, which was nothing more than a trickle the other day, was now a muddy, brown, fast flowing river.

Broncroft Castle

Broncroft Castle

As walks go, it is very pleasant without being particularly remarkable. It is well signed but I doubt it is a well trodden route. It takes in three castles, well, one castle really and the sites of two others, which are now nothing more than earthworks, long covered with vegetation, and were it not for information boards could easily be missed.

I was pleased to see that none of my walking companions had brought dogs, as I was expecting us to meet several fields of cattle, which, if they behaved as they did when I checked the route out, might be a problem.

fullsizerenderAs I approached one field on the edge of the hamlet of Peaton, I couldn’t help noticing that there were a couple of bulls, lots of steers and an English Longhorn. I have always been slightly nervous of cattle, they being bigger than me, so I entered the field with some slight trepidation. There was no distinct path across this rather large field but I knew I had to aim for a lone fir tree and a clump of trees beyond which mark the site of Corfham Castle. I was progressing reasonably well when one of the bulls looked up and gave a loud “MOOOOOO”. This caused the steers to look up in my direction. The bull’s call, when translated meant, “Go on, lads, have some fun.” Collectively they started to run towards me, slowly at first but with gathering speed. I was not happy. I looked around for an escape route. There were some derelict buildings to one side of the field. I headed towards them with the sound of hooves getting ever closer. I went round the back of one of the buildings and there stood a lone steer. I was even less happy now. It stared at me, motionless, as if I had caught it doing something it shouldn’t. He couldn’t see the dozen or so friends yet as they were hidden by the building. He let me pass and I managed to get to a point where I could climb over a  fence into the lane, and safety, just as the steers were getting close.

Having warned my fellow walkers that we might have to make a detour, or be prepared to leave the field quickly, we found the field almost empty. The lone steer I had seen the other day was still skulking by the building, but the rest of the field appeared empty. Either that or they were in hiding. The latter was the case, for as we came to the brow of the hill, there they were among the mounds that make up the remains of Corfham Castle. They watched us closely, stood up and then backed away. Today they were cowards, intimidated by the presence of seven, while the other day they felt they had the upper hand and I was the coward.

fullsizerenderOne other field where I had been intimidated into retreating had to be passed, and again, they just walked away. Clearly, on my own I am a cow magnate but in company they lose interest in me.

By 3.00pm, after five hours we completed the circuit, giving us time for a cup of tea in the Swan Inn, a typically ancient country pub. Shame I was driving.

A Meander Through The Forest of Dean

dsc_0055I don’t know whether it was my confession earlier this week on Facebook about getting lost on my recce for the walk, or it’s relative ease and proximity to Worcester, but the turn out was good. Twenty three friends and three dogs met at a car park near Speech House for a walk that nobody really knew where it would take them. The fact that many of the group visited any number of car parks in the vicinity before finding the right one did not bode well. It was lovely to see so many and the conversations never abated throughout. I guess that was largely due to the fairly relaxed pace I set and that, in general it was easy walking.

dsc_0058It was surprising how wet some of the trails were considering how little rain we have had during the autumn. Many of them had been made worse by the damage caused by rummaging wild boar. Huge areas of turf have been turned over in their search for food. This is becoming a real problem in the area as these animals have not confined themselves to the forest but have ventured further afield, into gardens and turned over much loved lawns. I would not enjoy walking these trails during or after a particularly wet spell. The dogs enjoyed it, immersing themselves into deep pools of clay laden water. The fear for the humans was where will the dogs shake when they climb out of the pools.

dsc_0061If I am honest, half an hour into the walk, I was struggling a little with the navigation. What was on the map did not always relate to what was on the ground. Even using a large scale leaflet from the forestry commission failed to give me confidence after a while, when the map did not correspond to what was on the ground. I have never resorted to Google Maps before, always preferring to rely on a “proper” map and my own navigational skills to see me through. It was made more difficult by the fact that there was no sun at all and a sense of direction in the trees was lost. I decided to check Google Maps to see if it could pinpoint our position and I could marry that with what the printed map was showing me. What a difference that made, once I had married the detail on the phone with that on the map. From them on it didn’t matter where we went as I always had the opportunity to double check.

dsc_0059The trees were at their autumnal best, particularly the beech trees whose leaves were a rich coppery colour. If only the sun had shone. It was in a little glade of beech trees that we took lunch. It could not have come soon enough. I wasn’t the only one starving. The change in the hour meant that we were all really looking forward to lunch by about 11.30. We managed to hold off until the proper time. Normally at this time of year it is too cold to linger long over lunch, but today, the 30th of October, it was very pleasantly mild and we were able to relax, enjoy our lunch, without the fear of becoming chilled. If only the sun had shone.

dsc_0062My aim was to reach Beechenhurst by about 3.00 for a cup of tea and a cake. This would leave with just one kilometre back to the car park. As we dropped down through the trees to the very popular activity area and cafe, we realised the group was a little short on numbers. We were missing five. How? For once I had no signal to phone them and, because I had been using my phone for map referencing, I hardly had any battery left. I wasn’t worried, and in any case, a loss of 20-25% of the group is not too bad. When contact was eventually made they were back at the car park. Sandie had been taking photos of fungi and in doing so, she, and others had become detached from the rest of us. I cannot take responsibility for people who disappear into the undergrowth to photograph something that has the potential to kill them. They drove round and joined us.

dsc_0057It had been a lovely day, relatively easy walking. Some had been plotting our route on their phones and I was pleased to see that in the ten miles we had covered, not once did we cross our own path; it had been a genuine irregular circular walk. Inevitably, we saw very little in the way of wild life, just an occasional deer disappearing in the distance. Squirrels were soon chased off by the dogs and as for wild boar, we saw nothing but their destruction. The autumn colours were superb.To have so many on the walk was a real pleasure, a lovely group of friends. I suspect that, with all the chatter that had occurred throughout, it was the jaws that ached at the end, rather than the legs.

 

Mixed Emotions

After the euphoria of a successful week’s walking in Picos, it was back to UK walking, which regularly provides wonderful rewards but can equally be very disappointing. For some weeks I have been carrying a shoulder injury. I cannot say when it actually started or what caused it. It may have been paddling the River Wye or, just as easily, lifting boxes when Angela and I moved house. Needless to say, it is not getting any better and is often worse. It is most comfortable when carrying a rucksack, but that is neither practical or acceptable when driving or sleeping.

Helm Crag

Helm Crag

So, the first weekend back from Spain saw me heading up the M6 to the Youth Hostel in Grasmere to join Robin Humphrey’s Kangchenjunga group. Arriving in good time on Friday, I took myself off for a walk up Helm Crag, affectionately known as The Lion and The Lamb because of the appearance of the summit rocks from below. It is not high and took me a little under an hour to reach the summit. Ascents are not a problem with my shoulder but I wanted to test it out on a steep descent using poles. The descent from the col between Helm Crag and Gibson Knott into Far Easedale is steep. I approached it tentatively, thankful that I was on my own, but eventually made it down without further damage to my shoulder, giving me confidence for the walks that lay ahead.

resting above Grisedale Tarn

resting above Grisedale Tarn

The following morning I and the 14 members of Robin’s group, set out to climb Helvelyn, at 950m, the second highest peak in England. We approached the mountain following Tongue Gill, initially a gentle rise with a steep section up to Hause Gap, skirting around Grisedale Tarn to climb the steep zig-zag path up Dollyewaggon Pike. Once on the Helvelyn Ridge it was easy going, skirting around the summit of Nethermost Pike before reaching the summit cairn of Helvelyn. The clouds that had hung around the upper slopes all morning deposited some light rain from time to time but the conditions were not unpleasant. It was disappointing that we were not treated to the splendid views, some of the best in Lakeland, from the ridge and summit. The most unpleasant part was having lunch in the shelter at the summit, where any body heat we possessed soon evaporated.

dsc_0016The descent was down to Wythburn at the southern end of Thirlmere. As we descended the clouds began to clear, and, although the summit was not clear, the sun did shine on the rounded slopes of the Helvelyn Range. We were able to appreciate this more as we sat enjoying flapjack and coffee and walnut cake carried by Nigel and John respectively. Refreshed, we were soon down, drinking tea and eating more cake in Grasmere. I felt really good about this walk. After my week in Spain, I was mountain fit, despite the shoulder. I had reached the foot of the mountain feeling very positive about myself. I wished I was going to Kangchenjunga with the group next spring.

In the evening I gave a presentation to the group about the work of the Himalayan Trust UK, also giving them an insight into the lower parts of their trek and of the need for reliable water supplies in schools, that the group are so generously raising funds for.

While the group set out for a very wet, and truncated Fairfield Horseshoe walk, I left them to drive up to Inverness to stay with my son, now stationed at Inverness Airport where he flies for Logan Air. We were to have a couple of days walking some Scottish peaks, something I have very little experience of because of the travelling that is involved in getting  there. I gained my love of walking from my parents and Stephen has gained his from me. It is always a pleasure to share something we love together, so the next two days were going to be wonderful if the weather and conditions proved to be right.

Stephen on the summit of Ben Rinnes

Stephen on the summit of Ben Rinnes

We had talked about walking in the Torridon area but, checking the forecast for Monday suggested the weather would be better in the east with rain showers in the west. As a result we chose to climb Ben Rinnes, at 841m qualifies as a Corbett rather than a Munro. Although the summit was shrouded in mist, it was dry, and perhaps the mist would clear before we reached the summit. The climb was on a good path, steep to begin with as we mounted the ridge, but then gentle for some time before steepening towards the summit. On the top the mist swirled around, occasionally clearing to give us views of surrounding hills, wind farms to the north, the Moray Firth and a patchwork of fields in the valleys below.

dsc_0038Wishing not to retrace our steps, we continued along the ridge to an interesting collection of pancake rocks. Here, the path was not as well made and certainly not as well trod, most people electing to return the same way to their cars. En route, a hare startled by our presence, bounded across the heather, pausing at a safe distance to watch our progress. Ptarmigan, also startled by us, leapt out of the heather, cackling as they made their hasty retreat. Somebody needs to teach them the skills of stealth. Perhaps, then, not so many would get shot!

The distinctive pancake rocks

The distinctive pancake rocks

Dropping steeply from the pancake rocks over rough, very boggy ground, we made our way towards the red brick chimney of the Ben Rinnes distillery and a track that would then contour around the mountain and back to the car. On the way we disturbed another hare, which startled me when it shot out of the heather a foot or so in front of me. Beneath the heather was a warm bed of soft material. More ptarmigan flew from their hiding places. Had they not done so we would never have known of their whereabouts.

There was so much water draining off the hill through peat bogs. We realised that this was why the Ben Rlinnes distillery was where it was, collecting all this water to make its special brand of single malt whisky. In a few years time people will notice a change in the flavour. I couldn’t help it, I needed to go!

fullsizerenderAfter four hours of good climbing, steep descents and bog hopping we returned to the car. It was still only 2.30. What can we do with the rest of the day? Well, when you are in Speyside there is only one thing you can do, and that is visit one of the 57 distilleries in the area. We chose Cragganmore. Stephen and I had an hour long tour of the distillery, followed buy a tasting of three different styles, all of which were very nice. Stephen had his decanted into little plastic tubs as he was driving. They were all very different, yet very good. Inevitably, we bought a couple of bottles.

It is funny how the mind works. I woke up on the Tuesday morning feeling tired, lacking in motivation and full of self doubt. Was it simply a matter of feeling tired? Was it because we had chosen to climb a Munro? Did the name daunt me? Was I fearful that I would not be able to complete the route? I have no idea. The only thing I knew was that I did not want to push my shoulder beyond its limits, or was that just an excuse? Whatever the cause of my self doubt, I tried not to let it show and prepared for a day out on the hills.

Checking the weather, it seemed it was going to be better in the west, with the chance of some rain later in the day. We decided to head out west to climb Moruisg, at 928m, a Munro. There was a chance that we might be able to follow the ridge round and climb Sgurr nan Ceannaichean, at 913m it is only just a Corbett. Until 2009 it was a Munro because the height was believed to be 915m, just within the Munro bracket. A new survey by the Munro Society confirmed it to be only 913m, and, therefore, only a Corbett.

dsc_0044Parking the car at the side of the road, we set off across a flat, boggy track towards the mountain shrouded in cloud. It was not cold. Gradually the path steepened without ever losing its bogginess. Every step had to be carefully placed to avoid either sinking or slipping. The steepness continued to increase until we reached a 200m section of really quite steep soft, tufty, boggy grass. I began to feel uncomfortable. I felt we did not have enough time to do the full circuit and that we were going to have to come down this route. Had it been a made up path that zig-zagged up the slope, I would have been happier, but it wasn’t and it did not zig-zag. I expressed my concerns to Stephen, that I was worried about descending this route with a shoulder that made me very careful but also very vulnerable. We turned around. Strangely, the descent of the steep section went without a problem, but I managed to fall over, on my shoulder, three times on less steep ground. It was so wet, I might as well have jumped into a swimming pool.

As we reached the car it began to rain, and continued to do so for the rest of the day. The forecast had changed while we were out and, had we not turned round, we would have had a very miserable time on the hill. Instead, we toured around a little in the car in the hope that we might get some views but none were to be had. Giving up all hope of seeing the Torridon Hills, we headed back east into sunshine, and home. Perhaps we should have stayed east all day. Certainly the decision to abort the walk proved to be the right decision.

dsc_0046Scotland is beautiful. It reminds me very much of New Zealand, and I feel I have seen more of New Zealand than I have of Scotland. The autumn colours are stunning, from the trees displaying the full range of autumnal colours, to copper bracken on the hillsides and golden grasses. Bales of hay still sit in the fields with golden stubble yet to be ploughed in. Autumn is early in this part of Scotland but equally the farmers make the most of the growing season and delay the harvests as long as possible. It is a shame that the sun did not shine often or long enough for me to capture all those colours on film. Over the coming months, while Stephen is living in Scotland, I intend to make the most of the opportunity and make up for lost time.

Ironically, after falling on my shoulder three times, it felt rather better.

Sun setting behind Blencathra

Sun setting behind Blencathra

I was breaking the journey home in the northern Lakes. Arriving in good time, I took the opportunity to stretch my legs and climbed High Pike (658m), probably the most northerly Lakeland peak. It was an easy, steady climb on good paths, without bog. I felt much better and really enjoyed the walk. On the summit I got views to the south of the back of Blencathra, which looked an easy walk to the summit, much easier than from the south. To the north, I looked over to the Solway Firth and the hills of Dumfries and Galloway. It was beautiful and so very peaceful. I stayed up there watching the sun set. By the time I got down it was almost dark and time to visit my friends.

 

A Week in The Picos de Europa

There was no nonsense about KLM. No sooner were all the passengers on board in Birmingham, we were off, no hanging around queueing for a slot on the runway, no hesitation, just go for it. The flight to Amsterdam was forty eight minutes with a further twenty minutes of speedy taxiing to our birth in the spider that is Sciphol. There is plenty going on there and the walk from one section to another was good training for the walking we were going to be doing in the Picos de Europa during the rest of the week.

fullsizerenderThe second flight of one hour fifty minutes was over a cloud laden Belgium and France. In fact, we did not see land until we dropped through the cloud on our approach to Bilbao.

The passage through Bilbao airport couldn’t have been easier, well it could if another passenger hadn’t mistakenly taken Katrina’s case in preference for her own exactly the same. After a few minutes a very worried passenger came running back into the airport with Katrina’s case. Obviously she was a drug mule and was concerned that she had lost her cache. There was no security, no passport control, we might as well have been to the supermarket.

Outside we were met by Mike and Pieter, boarded our vehicles for the two and a half hour journey to Aliezo, just outside Potes in the eastern Picos de Europa.

The shop that sells everything

The shop that sells everything

The journey was broken by visiting a small establishment in the village of Panes, just prior to entering the Gorge De La Hermida. This was an amazing Aladdin’s cave where you can buy walking sticks, bars of chocolate, fresh vegetables, toys, wicker baskets of all shapes and sizes and eighteen San Miguel beers. A truly wonderful place and something that is missing in virtually all UK communities today. The shop at the Stiperstones Inn in Shropshire is the only example I can think of back home that is similar.

Fortified with our beer, we wove our way through the narrow gorge as Mike deftly steered us round the tight bends, occasionally using the horn to remind oncoming vehicles that they should be on their side of the road.

Romeo and Juliet? No Mike & Pieter in the courtyard to our accommodation

Romeo and Juliet? No Mike & Pieter in the courtyard to our accommodation

We soon reached the village of Aliezo and our charming accommodation, a five hundred year old traditional farm house with vines growing up the ancient walls, with uneven floors and nooks and crannies everywhere. If I don’t bang my head on a beam during our week here, it will be a miracle. The rooms are beautifully rustic, even having atmospheric spider webs across the ceiling beams. There wasn’t a surface not covered with the belongings of our hosts, Mike and Lisa Stuart and their family.

After an evening of cold beers and red wine poured from a clay pitcher, we squeezed into the dining room for a lovely meal, soup, gammon steaks, jacket potatoes and red cabbage. We were ready for this but the fact that it was all perfectly cooked made it even better. The mains were followed by the largest slices of melon I have ever seen.

With the shutters pulled across, curtains drawn, our room was pitch black and we slept really well, prepared for walking the next morning.

Although the next morning dawned bright and sunny, it was difficult to come to terms with how late it was. It was almost eight o’clock when the sun appeared, forcing the darkness to dissipate. It was only an hour later than in the UK but it seemed much later. With the shutters closed and the room in total darkness, night could have gone on much longer. We were not having early starts here. Breakfast at nine and be ready for the off at ten.

Tantalisingly beautiful

Tantalisingly beautiful

At the allotted time we piled into the two vehicles with dogs, Tilley and Sue, and drove the short distance to the village of San Pedro in the Bedoya Valley. Leaving the village behind we climbed steadily through beech and oak forests. Views were restricted because of the trees but when we eventually climbed above them on to a beautiful alpine meadow on the flanks of Pena Ventosa, a stunning vista opened out before us of the eastern massif of the Picos. The towering cliffs disappeared into clinging cloud but occasionally peaks appeared through a brief window of opportunity. Sitting there, admiring the view, listening to the jingle of cow bells as their owners grazed, and watching vultures circling overhead made it magical. In amongst the sun dried grass autumn crocus flowered in clusters, adding colour to our carpet.

A taste of views to come

A taste of views to come

Climbing further, we eventually reached a knoll overlooking the Bedoya Valley with far reaching views beyond. The cloud around the summits was beginning to clear, giving us even more stunning views. On this grassy knoll we settled for lunch, a picnic of bread, cheese, ham and tomatoes. Sitting for long enough we were able to see more; butterflies visiting flowers and bushes, making the most of the warm autumn sunshine, chuffs flying in flocks constantly chatting to each other while vultures continued to scour the cliffs for any fallen prey. As we sat there, the cloud descended gently on the upper reaches of Pena Ventosa.

After lunch we climbed a little more, to a hut. A group of Spanish families we picnicking there, having stayed there overnight, all sleeping on the long bench bed down one side of the hut. At the far end a fire still held some warmth from the night before.

Safe among the Yew trees

Safe among the Yew trees

Moving on, we climbed up a wide track through trees and into the mist. We were going up to the ‘Cathedral’. I was not sure what to expect. Were we going to an area of towering rocks? Not at all. We were going to a group of ancient yew trees. The history surrounding these trees is a little blurred. It was either a religious site used when those practicing were banished and they were forced to engage in their beliefs secretly. Alternatively, and a more probable answer, is that it is a pagan site where, again, those worshipping were banished. The yew trees surrounding the site would fend off any evil spirits. Whatever the history, it was spookily eerie with the mist swirling around our heads.

Nearby, was the remains of an old mine with a tunnel disappearing into the rock before dropping steeply to a bottomless pool of clear water.

A leafy descent

A leafy descent

Returning to the hut, we rested briefly, before descending steeply through the trees to the village. Happy children’s voices rang out through the trees (they were the children of the families we had seen at the hut earlier) as they were clearly enjoying the freedom of this beautiful countryside.

On our way back to Casa Gustavo we stopped off in the village of Tamo and visited a small bar. Rehydrating beers all round and plates of free olives was a great way to end our first full day in the Picos de Europa. It had been a good walk but we also knew, having seen the views we had seen on this day, that there were going to be even better ones in the coming days.

The evening was spent on the small balcony (I’m sure we exceeded the recommended weight limit) drinking immeasurable amounts of red wine poured from a large earthenware pitcher into tumbler glasses. By the time dinner was ready at 9.00pm most of us were well lubricated, if not altogether rehydrated. Man-size portions of lasagne filled the hole created by exercise and the lateness of the meal.

The following morning dawn arrived late again but was sunny and clear. By the time we get used to it not getting light until eight, we will be on our way home.

Starting at ten we drove through Potes, over the Puerto De San Glorio Pass to pick up a small track that came to a dead end a few metres below a statue of a polar bear. This bear will feature later, so if you want to find out why, continue reading.

Our ridge

Our ridge

We now started walking up a beautiful ridge with the occasional steep, rocky outcrop, which we tended to traverse rather than climb over. En route we came across a heard of very handsome cows. They were totally unconcerned by our presence, were immaculately clean, unlike many British herds, and were particularly photogenic, especially if the light was from behind, giving an aura to their ears as the light passes through the hair on them.

dsc_0041It was while admiring and photographing them that I was suddenly made aware of a danger. Bounding up to me, barking loudly in warning, was a huge dark coated Mastiff. I found it intimidating rather than frightening but it certainly distracted my attention away from the cows, which, after all, is exactly what it is supposed to do. Farmers take their livestock, cattle, sheep and goats out onto the open hillsides and leave a dog or two to keep an eye on them rather than a cow man or shepherd. The farmers will pay them a visit once a week to check on their stock and to feed the dogs. There were several herds on these hills, each with their own guard dogs.

Whichever direction we looked the view was stunning

Whichever direction we looked the view was stunning

We were gradually gaining height and the final steep climb to the summit of Coriscao was our last hurdle. This was the steepest section of the climb but at least the ground was grassy and smooth with just a small rocky area at the top. Being on the ridge exposed us to a freshening breeze, but it was beautiful to be high with such clear views of the surrounding mountains. Coriscao, at 2234m, is the highest point in the immediate vicinity. The view to the north looked across to slightly higher, but much more serious peaks because of the rocky terrain and numerous sheer cliffs. It was a place you could sit, absorb and admire for a long time. In fact, we made the most of this lofty outlook by taking lunch just below the summit, out of the wind.

Lunch. The Orio magnet is centre picture

Lunch. The Orio magnet is centre picture

The wind was not really a problem for us but it became a problem for Richard. Maybe he was sitting in the wrong place? Maybe Mike’s and my throwing skills were in question? Maybe, and I like to think this is the truth, Richard is an Orio magnet. On two occasions, Mike threw a packet at Sally, sitting some distance from Richard, but on both occasions the Orios hit Richard on the head. Then I had a go. I carefully aimed the packet at Sally but as the Orios arched towards Sally, they were caught by the wind, changed course and hit Richard on the head! It was a perfect shot, but with three packets hitting Richard in quick succession, he was less appreciative and the third packet came back so fast the wind did not have time to catch it.

The Molar

The Molar

Descending to a rocky outcrop called the Molar. It certainly looked like a seriously decaying tooth. From there we traversed round a high valley to cross the ridge we had previously climbed. While engaged in the traverse we came across another rocky outcrop with a cleft in it. Across the cleft was what looked like a washing line with various items hanging from it. Is this some Shepherd’s washing? As we neared it we saw that these items had been there for some time as the wind had frayed the ends. It was not a washing line but a cattle scarer, frightening them so that they did not enter the cleft in the rock, find they could not turn round, and thus get stuck. Simple, but very clever.

Mastiff guard dog

Mastiff guard dog

Also on this traverse we came across a large herd of glossy coated goats. They really we’re looking immaculate, as if they were ready for some prestigious show. They had four mastiffs looking after them and we learned that to stave off hunger the dogs suckle the goats. Amazing!

I now want to turn my attention to something else that was truly amazing. When we returned to the vehicles parked not far from the aforementioned polar bear, Frazer, Nigel and Mike went to have a look at it. I was not fussed as it seemed so out of place. After a while I looked up and saw that Fraser appeared to have climbed on to the pedestal and seemed to be trying to climb upon the back of the bear. He failed, hence it looked as if he was trying something else. This, from a distance, looked like shocking behaviour, behaviour not befitting a man of his standing. Although there are photos of the incident I feel it is inappropriate to show them here. What made it worse was the fact that walking by at the same time was a mother and child. No wonder the English have a reputation abroad! Those who saw it were shocked beyond belief, and I, for one, was determined to make an example of Fraser after dinner when we discussed the events of the day.

That night, Fraser was awarded the “Wally” award, despite the fact that we had nothing to give him. We hoped the shame would be sufficient punishment. Sadly, this story was going to run for several days to come.

dsc_0068Day three required an earlier start because we wanted to take the cable car from Fuente De up to El Cable before the coaches arrived. We wanted to get ahead of any potential crowds, although, being so late in the season, we would not have been held up for too long. That said, we did have a time constraint as we had to be back in time to catch the last cable car down.

The chamois looks back as it nears the top of the ridge

The chamois looks back as it nears the top of the ridge

The terrain here was very different. It was more like a quarry, with very little grass. As we walked up the valley with cliffs all around us, we spotted a chamois walking along the scree at the foot of a cliff. Suddenly, it leapt up onto the cliff face, which from our position looked vertical, and ever so nimbly scrambled its way to the top. It must have been 300m, at least, and it took it no more than thirty seconds to cover the distance. I must confess to being open jawed.

Horcados Rojos

Horcados Rojos

As we progressed up the valley the path became more rugged and, by now, there was absolutely no vegetation. The path began to steepen as it approached the buttresses that made up the peak, Horcados Rojos. It looked daunting but we were not going up that way, we were going to climb around the back of it to climb to the summit by a more achievable route. We were now level with small patches of snow, a remnant of last winter and a reminder of what was to come in just a few weeks.

Lunching just before the col, we were joined by chuffs who were not afraid of us as they hopped among us, hoping for a morsel or two. Needless to say, we made sure their bravery and persistence did not go unrewarded.

Katrina and Mike begin their descent from from the summit

Katrina and Mike begin their descent from from the summit

From the col the view over the other side, into a huge bowl, that looked as if it should have a lake in it, surrounded on virtually all sides by steep, impenetrable cliffs to all but those with the skill to climb them, was fantastic, Here we were given a choice, either to begin the descent or continue an extra 250m to the 2510m summit of Horcados Rojos. It was an easy decision to make to climb to the summit. It was quite steep, but would prove to be more demanding on the descent. The last few metres were a little exposed but the views were stunning and well worth the effort of the extra climb.

Having spent a few minutes on the summit, soaking up the view, we began the descent. It seemed much further on the way down.

A vulture circles the cliffs on which its unseen chicks sit

A vulture circles the cliffs on which its unseen chicks sit

Towards the end of the walk, some of us took a small detour to another col to admire some more towering cliffs. Looking at them there was something on them that was not rock, and, on closer inspection through my binoculars, I could see two fluffy vulture chicks standing on the edge of their precipitous nest. Their parents were souring around the summit looking for tea. This short diversion took us over an interesting limestone pavement before our final descent to the cafe and cable car station.

Having been lucky enough to see the vulture chicks, I was moved to buy a stuffed toy vulture, which would act as the “Wally” award from now on. As Fraser had been given the award for his bear antics, I gave it to him while we enjoyed a beer in the sunshine on the terrace before taking the cable car.

It had been a really good day’s walking with stunning rewards from start to finish.
In the evening, as I was talking to the group, Nigel interrupted me to tell me that he had received an email from the mother of the traumatised child following Fraser’s inappropriate behaviour. He asked permission to read it out. Permission granted he read the following:

“Dear Sir Nigel Godbolt,
It was so wonderful of you yesterday to manage mine and little Fernandinho’s trauma at the incident at the bear statue. You were so kind to take the time to console me and my daughter after we had witnessed the truly awful sight of that horrible and sacrilegious act of …. on our fine nation’s national and almost religious symbol of the bear by that crude Australian (who I understand is called Fraser and who is married to a wonderful lady who, bless her, has to suffer his boisterous and British behaviour).
Your generous and kind words have helped us to start the long and slow journey of recovery required to erase such a torrid scene from our memories. Little Fernandinho eventually stopped crying at 2am this morning and whilst she will never be strong enough to read Goldilocks and the Three Bears ever again, I do think she has a chance for a fairly normal life from now on – but that is only down to you being such a wonderful human being and no thanks to that horrible man, Fraser. You explained to me that you had a nomination for ‘Dick of the  Day’. However, I regret to say that what I saw of his pathetic manhood attempting to hump the bear, he stands no chance. I will clearly have to re-educate my poor daughter on what to expect later in life from a real man.
One again, thank you for being a wonderful human being etc. etc. etc.
Yours etc. etc. etc.”

Having had three beautiful days with some glorious autumnal sunshine it was a little disappointing to wake up to cloudy skies on our fourth day.

With two consecutive challenging days behind us, we chose an easier walk for our fourth day. We were still going to be climbing about 700m but the overall length of the walk was less demanding.

Looking into the Desfiladero De La Hermida Gorge

Looking into the Desfiladero De La Hermida Gorge

Driving into the Desfiladero De La Hermida Gorge we found somewhere suitable for parking the minibuses so that we could climb up a narrow side gorge through forest of oak, beech and sweet chestnut trees. Some of these trees were pretty ancient. This first section followed the Rio Navedo. Despite the overcast conditions it was quite hot and sultry climbing up through the forest. The lack of wind made it more so. The climb was quite long, and steep in places but it led to a summit with two significant constructions on it. The first, and by a long way the oldest, was the remains of a fortress like structure with just a few sections of one wall still apparent. The second was a mobile phone mast giving us excellent reception had we needed to use our phones.

dsc_0105This was a viewpoint overlooking the Desfiladero De La Hermida Gorge with the road snaking through its bottom. Below us were numerous vultures circling around the cliffs in search of food, gradually rising on thermals so that they soured above us. They then followed the cliffs for some distance before descending to the valley floor again, sweeping along it to just below us before, again, picking up the thermals and following the same routine again.

Nigel who had been looking after the vulture award foolishly took his eye off it and it somehow escaped from his rucksack. Upon closer inspection of the creature, it seemed to have developed a new, Mohican style haircut! I wonder how? Anyway, needless to say, Nigel would have to explain his carelessness later in the day.

The descending route

The descending route

Descending, we passed by the village of Pineres and through Cicera, both incredibly sleepy apart from our presence disturbing any canine residents. The descent following the Rio Cicera with its own short gorge, was extremely pleasant, again largely through trees but with the imposing wall of the main gorge, with its Mick Jagger mouth-like cave opening high up on the face, always attracting our attention.

Once down, we visited some hot springs in the river at the side of the road. Inevitably, we could have gone into the spa at the hotel that had been built to capitalise on the feature, but instead, those that chose to, opted for the free dip in the river. It is incredible how, in a country not renowned for its volcanic activity, these exist. Mike told us the hot water comes out of a fissure in the limestone, but, looking at it, it comes from under the adjacent road. The area is divided into two or three small pools of varying heat, some too hot to stay in for more than a few seconds. Climb out of the pools and the water is cold. When wrinkled, we dressed awkwardly on the river bank and joined the others enjoying the, now traditional, post walk beer.

In the evening when the question of Nigel’s ability to care for a stuffed vulture was to be questioned he interrupted and diverted attention away by saying he had just received another message. This is what it said:

fullsizerender“My Darling – what a wonderful surprise to receive your get well gift. Thank you so much for the bag of mixed nuts and dried fruit that arrived just after market day. They are helping me to overcome and block out the memories of that awful moment of bear back riding. 
Also little Florentinha said gracias for the lovely photo of the stuffed toy vulture that you so generously purchased for her. Understandably she is now in tears knowing that it was stolen from your backpack. I am so concerned for you regarding the company you are keeping and yet you say they all hail from Worcestershire?
As you have advised, I have contacted the Police regarding Fraser’s indecent exposure incident and with your generous help of providing his address details, National Insurance number, passport details and dental records (how on earth you managed to obtain those I will never know) – the police believe they will be able to apprehend him before he commits further crimes against decency and shocks yet another young, innocent child. 
Finally, I personallly loved the photo of you laying virtually naked in the hot springs trying to relax and overcome the mental scars of the betrayal of your former friendship with that bounder Fraser.  You looked so vulnerable – yet so strong in your baggy M&S underpants swelling under the weight of your [PAUSE] concerns. 
Anyway it is getting late now and with winter coming and only my thin negligee to keep me warm I must retire to my bed alone at number 17 Bilbao Road, Potes, 3rd on the left 2 short and 1 long ring of the door bell. 
I will try to write to you again tomorrow. 
Regards,”

We were so entertained and amused by Nigel’s creativity we forgot to punish him.

Early morning mist evaporating

Early morning mist evaporating

The following morning the sunshine returned after a misty start and we set out for the two hour drive round to the village of Cain so that we could walk through the Cares Gorge. Unfortunately, an hour into the journey, having climbed up the winding road to Puerto De San Gloria and down the other side, we discovered the road was closed. It is only open between 8pm and 8am and for an hour at 2pm. There was no way through and any other way of getting to the Gorge would have meant far too long in the vehicles.

Decision time in Potes

Decision time in Potes

We returned to Potes for a coffee and to make a decision about what to do. It was obvious that some, having got themselves comfortable in Potes were happy to stay there all day. Others still wanted a walk. So, splitting up, those that wanted to walk went off with Mike while those that wanted to relax and drink copious amounts of alcohol stayed in Potes.

The minibus took us to the village of Mogrovejo, recently the venue for a remake of Heidi. We were to spend a little time in this village at the end of the walk.

The walk was simply a circuit of the hills above Mogrovejo with stunning views of the cliffs, aretes and pinnacles of the south facing slopes of the Central Picos.

A view from an abandoned ruin

A view from an abandoned ruin

Before embarking on the walk proper, we visited a nearby village, now abandoned as a result of a 2013 landslide, which did considerable damage. We entered one house, which was clearly once somebody’s pride and joy. There were some interesting quirks in the interior architecture of the house which struck me as very Gaudiesk. The only inhabitants now were bees, who’s hives were placed on a balcony on the sunny side of the house. I couldn’t understand why the house had been so abandoned. The damage was repairable, and the landslide having already occurred was unlikely to occur again in the same place.

dsc_0126The walk took us up tracks and through more ancient woodland. Some of the sweet chestnut trees were probably growing when the Armada set sail. Their bases were huge and really gnarled. The track led up to a most beautiful alpine meadow, where we broke for lunch. It was warm, so we took advantage of some shady trees but this just enhanced the outlook on to vivid purple autumn crocus and gradually turning trees. The sound of cowbells jingling in the distance rang out across the meadow. And above it all were the majestic crags of the Central Picos. This place was about as close to heaven as you can get.

Reluctantly we gathered our things after lunch and headed back down in a loop to Mogrovejo, where we found a little bar open and took advantage of a little liquid refreshment.

When we returned to Potes, they were all still settled where we had left them, although they did assure us they had moved between times. I was pleased they too had had a good time.

Needless to say, Nigel’s vivid imagination had been working overtime, probably with the help of a little fluid help, and he entertained us well in the evening with the continuing saga of his new lady friend and her daughter. This time the message came with a warning:

WARNING!!!  
This email has been written under the influence of alcohol and any relevance to people living or dead is pure coincidence apart from John. Any offence is therefore probably intended. 
“You Bastard!  Whilst I will never know how he found out where I live, Bill called round just after midnight, followed by Richard for some strange reason with 3 packs of Orios and finally, a first for me when all 3 Mikes came at the same time just before dawn. I was surprised that Spanish Mike even found my house given that he couldn’t find a gorge in the morning.
On top of everything else that I gave Spanish Mike, I gave him a guide book entitled ‘How to read road closed signs in Spanish’ and another book called ‘How to pass the blame onto someone else even when it is clearly your fault.’ 
And  I was so pleased to welcome John who told me he could afford anything as he apparently had something called a kitty in his pocket?? 
I don’t know what you have been telling them about me but anyway, dear dear Bill told me everything. How you, John and Fraser dump your wives on him and he has to chauffeur them around all day going from bar to boutique shop and back to bar. 
And you then berate him for not delivering beer to you at lunchtime at the top of a mountain. That poor poor man. 
He told me how sweet Angela will never truly know the length of a kilometre nor how steep a slight gradient truly is from the daily lies she is told by John.
How poor hot hot hot Clare is drugged every night by her own daughter who pretends to everyone that she is only administering salt rehydration tablets. I understand that Clare is now so weak that her teeth break at the merest mention of a banana. 
And how the very same Catrina with a drug cabinet at her disposal still claims she gets travel sickness just so she can sit in the front of the vehicle every bloody time right next and almost on top of Pieter with the blue eyes and bleached hair, big biceps….
I do so hope that Trish is found to be innocent of the terrible whispered accusations against her that she arranged for the road to be closed just to have a day off from walking. 
Bill then rather surprisingly pulled out his telescopic stick right there infront of me and showed me how he enlarged it. He then went onto showing me how to zoom into the photo you sent me yesterday of the hot spring pool. I now realise that not only were you clearly not wearing your own M&S pants as Bill pointed out the fine Nepalese embroidery of the letters J&A for ever on them, but you were accompanied by 5 other female beauties, 2 men who had the potential to cause the river to go into flood, and one other man who appeared to be drawing up a Venn diagram whilst applying pythagarus’s theory to calculate the span of the bridge. 
Bill did appear to show a degree of remorse when he explained to me how he had suggested to Sally that she leave her rucksack behind with him safely in the car whilst she continued her walk and in so doing, left her vulnerable to last nights rigged vote. 
Bill then went on to explain that far from you being the victim of the stolen vulture toy that you promised for my daughter, you never even purchased it in the first place! Little Fuertaventura will never be able to trust a man again and Worcestershire is now off my places to visit list for good. 
I do not think I will write again, unless of course I have any more visits from your group at number 3 Bilbao Road, 2nd on the left 2 long rings and 1 short one.” 

dsc_0146In order to get through the roadworks before they closed the road we had an early start, leaving the house at 7am. We successfully passed through the obstruction and continued until we came to a pass. Here, we took a short break to look down towards the Cares River just as the sun was beginning to hit the peaks with its golden glow.

Continuing down into the valley we stopped briefly at a spot where there was an old wolf trap. Here the wolves were funnelled between two narrowing lines of stakes until there was nowhere else for the wolves to go but into the pit. Whether it was actually used as such or whether it is an example of how it might have been done in the past is up for debate.
At the village of Cain, nestling deep in the Gorge, we had a coffee in one of the bars before embarking on the 15km walk down the gorge. There were several hostelries, so I was guessing it gets quite busy in the height of the season.

dsc_0148The gorge just beyond Cain is at its narrowest, the towering walls just feet apart. Tunnels have been cut in the rock to accommodate a path. Running parallel to the path for the bulk of the route is a canal constructed between 1915 and 1921 to provide the water power for a hydro-electric scheme. The path we were walking was constructed at the same time but improved after the Second World War to maintain it and to protect it from harm. For many years Spain had suffered political and military hardship and there were some who might have wanted to do harm to the facility. It was an impressive piece of civil engineering. It is also an impressive piece of natural sculpturing, created by the trickle of water running in the Cares River at the bottom. I guess it is much more lively after a period of rain.

dsc_0178I was surprised by the number of people walking towards us, most in a hurry as if they were taking part in a sponsored event. I realised later that most of them would have parked their vehicles at Camarmenia, the village at the northern end and would therefore have to walk the length twice. Hence the hurry. I preferred the pace we were walking as it allowed us to observe and absorb our environment, to turn round and look at the way we had come, without feeling we had to get a move on.

dsc_0197There are some stunning features, none more so than the ringed arch that was high above us. If you were rushing and not taking note of your surroundings it would be easy to miss. It was all stunningly beautiful and a fitting final walk of the week.

Mike and Pieter had not been able to walk with us as they had to do the long drive round to the northern end. They were there to meet us as we finished, armed with lots of good food for our picnic lunch.

Then it was back to Aliezo and Casa Gustavo for our last night and a superb paella cooked brilliantly by Lisa.

That was it. The next morning we split up, those flying had to go to Bilbao, while the drivers all had their own routes to follow.

fullsizerenderWe had a couple of hours or so to enjoy in Bilbao. The sun shone and glistened off the walls of the Guggenheim Museum. Although I did not venture inside, I am sure the outside is by far the most impressive aspect and surpasses all of the art it displays inside. I even liked the giant dog festooned with living plants in the square next to the museum. Buskers played, street artists performed, fountains danced in rhythm and locals and tourist alike were enjoying the warm sunshine and relaxed atmosphere.

All too soon we had to head for the airport and our efficient KLM flights home.

The Picos de Europa have certainly made an impression, not just on me but on all who travelled with me. The pictures I posted on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have spread the word and already six people have expressed a desire to join me when I next return. Can we wait?