Three Pens and a Table

The forecast promised us good weather but as i drove down the M50, with the roof off, the skies were pretty leaden and it was quite chilly. By the time I reached Crickhowell the cloud had begun to lift, break up and clear, revealing bright sunshine.

Approaching the Darren with Table Mountain and Sugarloaf behind

Approaching the Darren with Table Mountain and Sugarloaf behind

There were eleven of us and a dog as we set out from the car park, working our way through the Darren housing estate towards Cwm Cumbeth. This is a lovely tree-lined valley just to the west of Table Mountain, which brings you out on to the open hillside beneath the massif that is the three Pens. Heading west, we climbed further towards The Darren, an outcrop of rock just below the plateau. By now the sun was shining and we decided to sit, just below the crest for “first” lunch, overlooking the Usk Valley and Crickhowell. Although this was a little earlier than planned it proved a sensible choice as there was still a chill wind on the top.

The view north

The view north

Once on the plateau the going was much easier as we followed the southwestern edge of the plateau towards our first pen, Pen Gloch-y-pibwr. From here there are superb views to the north, of moorland hilltops with a patchwork necklace of fields around their shoulders. The Dragon’s Back Ridge rose via several humps towards the Black Mountains high point, Waun Fach. The surrounding hills were so dry the grass had the colour of August rather than the fresh colours of spring. There were no mud sections along the route and any streams were running extremely low for the time of year.

Having climbed our first pen, a journey that took approximately three hours, the others came more quickly. Following the north westerly edge of the plateau, we soon reached Pen Allt-mawr, the highest point of the walk at 719m. From here we could look across the four main ridges of the Black Mountains towards the hazy Malverns, some fifty miles away to the east.

Preparing to leave after "second" lunch

Preparing to leave after “second” lunch

Shortly after setting south towards the third and final Pen, we dropped just below the ridge line for “second” lunch, where we could enjoy the view in glorious sunshine while being out of the wind. It was very relaxed with nobody wanting to rush off; it was much too pleasant to want this walk to come to an early end. Eventually, we had to prize ourselves away and climb the third pen, Pan Cerrig-calch. From here we had lovely views of the southern half of the Black Mountains, Sugarloaf, Skirrid and to the south the hills above Llangattock. To the west the larger Brecon Beacons stood out distinctly.

Approaching Table Mountain

Approaching Table Mountain

All we had to do now was descend to Table Mountain, an isolated plateau that had once been a defensive outpost with extensive views up and down the Usk Valley. It had never been a permanent settlement, because of the lack of water, but it was a very useful lookout, a place to store supplies and a handy retreat in case of need. The ascent all round is steep and with defensive ditches all round it would have been difficult for any aggressor to attack.

Our final descent brought us back to Crickhowell and a swift drink in the Bear before heading home. A fitting end to a glorious day of Black Mountain walking.

Good Food, Good Company, Good Charity, Good Weather, Good Walk all in a weekend

On Saturday evening we celebrated 20 years of Himalayan Club and Adventure Guide expeditions and trips with a meal in the Michael Baker Boathouse at King’s School. There, fifty of us gathered for an excellent meal provided by Ian Cunningham-Martin and his King’s School catering staff, not the traditional curry but a good, hearty English roast.

IMG_3471As people arrived they were presented with khata scarves of friendship. Playing in the background were films from memorable trips to Nepal, Peru and Iceland. During the meal a “Faces of the Himalaya” slide show played across the screen. These are not just mountain faces but also the characterful faces of the Nepalese people, who give us such pleasure every time we meet them. Also on display were two photo journals of the last twenty years, chronicling twenty seven trips involving 405 people. That is not 405 different people as some have multi tripped with me, the most prolific being Stella Price who has done seventeen of the twenty seven!

The guest of honour for the evening was Rebecca Stephens, the first British woman to climb Everest. In her talk, without pictures, she took us back to 1993 and talked about the strength of the Sherpas and how she relied on their support, good cheer and wisdom on the mountain. She related her achievement to the risks that Sherpas take, particularly passing through the Khumbu Icefall. Sherpas, because they carry the loads and set the routes are exposed to dangers far more often than their clients. In this day and age can this be justified, particularly after the avalanche of 2014 and the earthquake of 2015, which collectively killed 25 Sherpas. Rebecca spoke passionately in favour of reducing their risk and that it will not be long before helicopters can take the loads up to Camp One above the icefall, ensuring that there is minimum exposure to the dangers for both client and Sherpa.

IMG_3472The evening was not just a celebration but a fundraiser for the Himalayan Trust UK, so following the formalities, an auction was held, selling short holidays in Wales, a weekender in London and prints of paintings by deaf and dumb artist, Temba Sherpa. At the time of writing not all the bills have been paid but it looks very likely that the Himalayan trust will have benefited to the sum of £3500. Over the years a deep sense of community has developed around these trips and everybody has been so supportive to the projects I have  drawn their attention to, not least after the 2015 earthquake in Nepal when everybody dug deep to help our Nepalese friends. I am extremely grateful to every one.

IMG_3473On Sunday, after a shortened night’s sleep, not just because we went to bed late, but because the clocks went forward, the sun shone brightly out of a clear blue sky. Sixteen of us met at the top of Fish Hill for a 10 mile walk in the beautiful Cotswold countryside. The forecast predicted lofty temperatures in the high teens but as we set out a keen wind blew across the exposed hill tops.

The route took us to Dover’s Hill with its far reaching views across the Vale of Evesham. From here we dropped down through woodland, that in two or three weeks time will be ablaze with bluebells, towards Western-sub-Edge. We were now out of the keen wind and temperatures were beginning to follow their predictions as we skirted around the base of the hills to Saintbury, where we lunched among the gravestones of the church there.

IMG_3474Continuing, we skirted around the edge of Broadway before beginning the steady climb up to the Broadway Tower Country Park. This section of the walk was much busier and by the time we reached the top the car parks were full and there were crowds enjoying the spring sunshine, particularly mums enjoying a Mother’s Day treat with their families. Choosing not to join the masses at the cafe we continued to Fish Hill where we adjourned to Richard and Stella’s in Chipping Campden for a peaceful cup of tea watching several pheasants on their lawn.

It had been everything, and more, that the title to this piece suggests.

 

Crickhowell Walking Festival 2017

This year the Crickhowell Walking Festival reached double figures as this was its tenth year. Every year we have been blessed with largely good weather. The odd day may have been poor but, on the whole, the programme has always been adhered to. The good luck bubble had to burst one year, and this was it. The vast majority of days were wet, routes adjusted to accommodate the conditions and some walks with diminished numbers as people looked out of the window in the morning and went back to bed.

I spent both weekends at the festival, the first to pre-walk some of my routes, the second to lead groups on those walks. That first weekend I got wet, very wet. I walked a circuit of the Gwrynnefawr Reservoir, and 11 mile ridge walk taking in the highest points of the Black Mountains. I need not have done it as I know the route very well but as the tops were in cloud and the bog between Waun Fach and Pen-y-Gadair Fawr is notoriously difficult to navigate over, I felt I should. When I reached that section, what did I find? A brand new path snaking its way across the bog from summit to summit. By the time I reached my car at the end of a very wet and windy walk, I did not have a dry stitch on me. I was blown over several times and my boots let me down badly.

The next day, in similarly unpleasant conditions I walked the valley section between the Skirrid and Sugarloaf, a walk I had never done before and, therefore, needed to do to give my group the confidence to follow.

Back at home I visited Cotswold Outdoor and exchanged my boots for a pair that would not leak.

Returning to Crickhowell the following Thursday evening, the weather forecast for the next few days was no better. In fact it was probably worse.

Small gathering on the summit of a misty Sugarloaf

Small gathering on the summit of a misty Sugarloaf

My first walk was the Skirrid to Sugarloaf walk, a distance of about 10 or 11 miles, over one summit, across the valley and over the second summit. It was wet, horribly wet. I was supposed to have thirteen walker to follow me. Four turned up, all very keen to and ready to go. We decided to circumnavigate the Skirrid. It can be fairly treacherous in the wet on its steep slopes. The rain continued all morning but as we sheltered in the porch to Llanvihangel Crucorney Church it began to ease. There was hope. As the afternoon progressed the slight improvement continued and we completed our walk. At the end of it we felt good, self-satisfied; we had had a good walk in good company and, at the end of the day, did it really matter that it had rained? Not really, it was good to be out in the fresh air.

IMG_3296On the Saturday the day started well and as the forecast was more promising, I had a full turn out of twenty. We were walking Three Pens and a Table, a route above Crickhowell incorporating the summits of Pen Gloch-y-pibwr, Pen Alit-mawr, Pen Cerrig-calch and Table Mountain. This has to be one of my favourite walks in the Black Mountains. All the hard work is done in the first two hours and for the remaining three hours, subject to conditions, you are blessed with fabulous views across the Usk Valley and beyond.

IMG_3304The plan was to have a two lunch break, an early lunch sitting on top of the Darren and one a couple of hours later. Just as we arrived at the Darren, heavy showers raced across from the southwest with a hint of snow in them. We ended up having a single lunch stop just below the summit of Pen Gloch-y-pibwr with the wind racing past above our heads. The pattern for the rest of the day were heavy showers punctuated with short periods of sunshine. It remains one of my favourite walks.

For several days the forecast had been predicting snow and high winds over the Black Mountains for the last day of the festival. I woke up to snow on the tops but in the valleys where it had rained most of the night it seemed to be easing.

IMG_3462The car park at Blaen-y-cwm was covered with a layer of wet snow. I was again due to have twenty followers but only eight turned up. Having walked the route only a week before I knew how horrible the eastern ridge was going to be with many boggy patches to negotiate and with the forecast 50mph winds the going would be slow. Adjusting the route we avoided being high for so long and took the path that went straight up the valley, passing close to the reservoir. As it was there was so much water on this path that  boots had to be up to task to keep water out. Fortunately, mine were. After about a mile we reached the reservoir where I decided that one of the group was not adequately dressed for the conditions and that he was putting his, and the group’s, welfare at risk if he continued. We were down to seven.

FullSizeRenderThe conditions were horrible. Driven snow hit us face on and we were not yet on the tops. Just below the northern ridge I gathered the group together and told them that I wasn’t sure there would be anything to be gained by doing the walk once we reached the summit. It might prove to be too unpleasant and potentially harmful. With that the sun came out, briefly, so that when we reached the top of the ridge there was no doubt in my mind that we should carry on. The respite in the weather was short-lived but at least we largely had a our backs to the ferocity of the wind. For the next couple of hours we experienced heavy snow driven by strong winds and a wind chill factor of -10.

It was the right decision to continue with this particular group. How did we feel when we got back to Blaen-y-cwm? Fantastic! What a fabulous walk we had. The walk itself was not hard but what made it exhilarating was pitting ourselves against the elements, feeling the harshness of them against our skin and feeling invigorated rather than tired. Those that rolled over and hid under their duvets that morning missed a real treat.

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.

DSC_0249

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.

Photo curtesy of David Thomas

Photo curtesy of David Thomas

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.

DSC_0825

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.