We are certainly not the only ones out this morning to go on a game drive. Several other hotel guests are being picked up and our driver is waiting for us with a safari jeep, just for the two of us. It’s still dark and we drive about 45 minutes to the entrance of the park. The full moon is shining. I’m guessing about 50 cars are lining up to enter the park. You can tell every driver is doing his best to get in first. The diesel engines roar at 6 a. m. when the gates open. It’s such a contradiction to what this place is supposed to be, pure nature and animal kingdom. Signs by the road keep telling us that “Animals are the true owners of the jungle”, but I’m not sure when I see all the cars. There’s clearly no limit set on the amount of visitors and cars.
As the sun comes up it’s a crazy race on the dusty roads. Ofcourse everyone wants to see leopards, Yala’s most famous residents. And it doesn’t take long before we spot a leopard chewing on a morning snack. Only, now all the cars aredetermined to get the best view and what follows is pure chaos. Vehicles are standing in eachother’s way, drivers are shouting, engines are roaring, tourists are taking the big lenses out, … my god this is a leopard traffic jam! He or she luckily doesn’t seem too bothered and keeps on chewing on the breakfast. It’s a bit in the distance, but the view is alright. We are actually one of the first to get a proper look and after that it’s all about getting ourselves out of this mess and escaping this mega chaos. Jeeps are really standing in a ver very long line, just to get a glimpse.
As it turns out, the leopard was the highlight of the Yala gamedrive. We drive for 4 hours and don’t even see an elephant. We see some birds, a boar, bufffalo’s, a chicken (!), peacocks, crocodile …I remind myself that this is exactly what a gamedrive is about, this is not a zoo, not a theme park and the animals decide where they go. If they don’t show, then that’s just the way it is. I don’t blame them with all the roaring engines. Still, it would have been nice to at leat spot an elephant J I guess we are comparing to African gamedrives where you turn from one amazement into another and that’s just not the case here.
So we leave the park around 10 a.m., back to Tissa for check-out and a new part of the roadtrip down the south coast. Our bags are quickly packed and we enjoy some tea and cake in the garden before we leave. Our stomachs are slowly coming back to life. Rohan is driving us all the way to Galle (pronounced ‘Gaul’) today, Sri Lanka’s fourth biggest city. As it’s Saturday and a long weekend with the poya, it’s very busy on the road. It doesn’t keep Rohan from stopping by a fruit stall to let us discover yet another type of fruit we’ve never heard of. It’s called rambutan and when you crack open the red shell, it’s actually just like a lychee. We like it! We pass many coastal towns, to be honest rather ugly touristy places and we hope Galle will have some more character. Apparantly a lot of surfers like to come here and catch some waves.
We are more fascinated by the traditional stilt-fishing. In many Sri Lanka travel guides this is the archetypical picture on offer: fishermen on stilts in the sea. Let me tell you right away, in most places down the coastline it’s a tourist trap. Men will wait for tourist cars to pass and then try to get you to take their picture on the stilts while they don’t even fish this way anymore. If you try to take a picture driving by in your car they will most likely throw stones at you. Rohan stops the car by the beach, it’s a wild guess who we will stumble upon. We see the stilts, yet no fishermen at first. We walk on the sand and a skinny man with grey hair and beard approaches us. He is the ‘fisherman father’ and he will gladly pose for us if we give him 500 roepie. We agree. What follows is an amazing scene. This man climbs a stilt and poses and bends like he is modelling for a professional photo shoot.
“He could be a Hollywood actor!” Rohan smiles.
And he’s right, there is something about this man. As he comes out of the water again, we hear his story. The fisherman father lost his house in the tsunami back in 2004. Ever since he has been living in a primitive hut on the beach and he has a few tables on the beach where food is served. There’s a big panel with his photo “The Fisherman Father”. We ask him what the story is behind a small boat on the beach named ‘Belgium’. “Ah, the Belgians came and helped after the tsunami!” It’s strange to think that at this exact stop a wall of water came down causing death and destruction. But this man survived and somehow found a way to move on. I don’t know if he lost someone but it looks like he has people helping him. He insists on having his picture taken with us and then we wave goodbye, glad that we didn’t stop at another place where maybe 5 guys would have been waiting.
This was an encounter to remember. Passing coastal towns, Rohan tells us that many were hit by the tsunami. Most of it has been rebuilt by now, but here and there you see a house in ruins. “This is when a whole family died and nobody showed up to claim what’s left,” Rohan explains. It confirms that whole families just vanished in the raging water. Pure horror.
Our destination, Galle, was also hit badly in 2004. Only the ‘Fort’, the old part of town, was saved thanks to the old walls. The modern part of town looks very busy and not very attractive, but once we drive through the entrance gate of the Fort it’s like entering a different place and time. Cobbled streets, colonial buildings, no honking cars and tuk tuks, this is a very easy going, relaxed place. And it will be our home for two nights. As an introduction to this part of town Rohan walks us up to a part of the wall by the clock tower. Many locals are out here today, strolling around, eating ice cream or rice and curry from a paper package (like we would eat chips)… A few teenage girls want to have their picture taken with us. Well, I take the picture and Lesley poses with them :-) They are all giggly about it. It’s strange, it’s not like we are the only European people out here.
The walls weren’t always this peaceful. The Portuguese brought Nigerian slaves here in the 16th century to do the heavy work, the Dutch later expanded the fortifications. Today the old town actually does feel like a European settlement with boutique hotels, stylish villa’s, chic shops, trendy cafés, … Many expats have settled here, renovating the old historic houses. An old historic house is exactly where we will be staying. Rohan is heading to his place to stay in the modern town, while we check into the Fort Printers. As soon as we walk through the old wooden door, we fall in love with the place, its high ceilings, thick walls, dark wood, one room flowing into another, … A young English guy shows us around the place. Our room is all the way in the back around a shady patio. It’s all very spacious. Apparantly the building has served previously as a private home, a bank, even a school and oh, a printing business, hence the name. We chuck our bags in the room and head out again for a drink and a sunset. Apparantly the sunsets here, as seen from the ramparts, are famous. But it turns cloudy by 6 p.m. and we see no sun.
Oh well, tomorrow is another day. We have dinner at the excellent restaurant of our hotel, my first proper diner since 3 nights (grilled mahi mahi fish, really good!) and then go for an evening walk through Pedlar street, one of the main shopping and café streets. The atmosphere is very relaxed here and we enjoy it.
We have to make sure to get enough sleep though, because we have another early morning the next day to go whale watching. But the hotel makes sure guests are all ready for the night. There’s a standard ‘room service’ in the evening. With a little knock on the door, a guy from the staff asks if he can arrange the mosquito net.
We set the alarm clock at 5 a.m.