STOP PRESS – VANUATU

Uppermost in our minds over the past few days as we cruise through the beautiful atolls of The Maldives, is that picturesque island chain of Vanuatu which has very sadly been devastated by Cyclone Pam.  We were fortunate enough to spend a month there on Pipistrelle in June 2013.

Our thoughts are very much with the friendly islanders, and those not only  in Port Vila on Efate, but the thousands who live a very simple existence on less populated and accessible islands. Their villages are simple, and for us Westerners, very humbling; they are generous; they smile and we have fond and lasting memories of our time there.

Starting in Anatom in the south, we sailed to Tanna, then to Port Vila and left to sail onwards in Espiritu Santo.

To read about how we found it then, just click on ‘A Month in Vanuatu‘ and ‘Postscript to Vanuatu‘.

We sincerely hope that casualties have been kept to a minimum, and that international aid can help the population rebuild its life within a relatively short period of time.

Island Children

Island Children

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Sun and Snorkelling in The Maldives

Who could resist diving from Pipistrelle into the tempting crystal clear waters of these islands?

So we’re getting way ahead of ourselves here, and publishing this post out of sequence.  This is because it is delightful to be back in the aquarium after such a seemingly long but fascinating stint of admiring the different cultures of South East Asia albeit without such beautiful underwater opportunities.

A particularly magical anchorage called Rasfushi is within a coral reef at 06.42.82N and 72.55.37E.  We have spent the last two nights here exploring the reef either direct from Pipistrelle or taking the dinghy and tying up to one of the strategically placed mooring buoys.  Apart from a fishing boat, we were the only other vessel here.  The snorkelling is fantastic, in fact the best we have had since Labuanbajo, Indonesia (click on link to see ‘Diving and Dragons‘ in 2013)!  A great way to cool off in the heat of the day – and it is HOT!

Here some below the water line shots.

Following shortly will be a summary of how we reached the Maldives – our passage from Trincomalee in Sri Lanka to Uligan, the northernmost island in the chain where we cleared in to the country.

Our travels up country in Sri Lanka are still pending publication and will appear on your screens in the next few days.

A Tale of Two Ancient Cities, ‘Up Country in Kandy’, A Great Train Ride are all  just published!

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World’s End

At the unsociable hour of 05.30 we were collected from our hotel for the drive to the Horton Plains National Park, a high plateau and the World’s End Walk where the plateau stops abruptly.  Clouds can roll in from 10.00 and at a height of 2,000m, views are obliterated.  We had bought entrance tickets (US$20 each), eaten our packed ‘breakfast’ and were walking by 07.30.  It was still very cold and fellow hikers were wrapped up in hats, gloves, thick anoraks etc.  Just like being at home at this time of year with mists and heavy dew.

The hike is a circular 9km and was busy with walkers, the more so later in the day especially as many Chinese tourists were on holiday celebrating their New Year.  World’s End is a 780 metre sheer cliff, offering spectacular views and on a really clear day it is possible to see the sea – we didn’t, even though we were blessed with cloudless skies.

By 8.30 we were thankfully warming up and in T-shirts and walking our way to Mini World’s End with its look out point and on to World’s End proper where we admired the undeniably breathtaking scenery from the viewing platform. But unfortunately the idyll was shattered in seconds.  Having moved away from the unfenced edge to go and sit on some rocks, we heard female screams, as a young Dutchman on honeymoon fell over the edge.  A bush broke his fall about 50-60 metres down, and he could be heard by his distraught wife and friends, but could not be seen.  We were obviously extremely relieved to learn later that evening he held on for the next 3.5 hours until he was finally rescued by the army and helicopter.    A very lucky man indeed, and the first person to survive such a fall there.  The incident was widely reported in the international media at the time.

In reflective mood we continued our walk looping back across the plain to Baker’s Falls, and then to our driver and van to take us back to Nuwara Eliya in time for lunch.

The Verdict: good exercise and spectacular views in clear air and sunshine.

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A Nice Cup of Tea!

What was it to be? Premium quality silver tip – green leaf – orange pekoe – broken orange pekoe (BOP) – broken orange pekoe fannings (BOPF)?  Or just simply ‘dust’, available in three different grades?

A cup of afternoon tea was definitely high on the agenda, having just travelled for 5 hours on the train from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya.  After a quick snack at Mount View Cottage we set off with our driver for the Mackwoods Tea Plantation, which is geared up for visitors to watch the tea manufacturing process and enjoy a cuppa in their lovely old café.

Mackwoods is one of the largest plantations, employing over 1,000 staff.  We saw pluckers outside, watched leaves being withered and rolled in the factory to start fermentation, then dried using heat and graded before finally being packed in bags or tea chests for transportation to Colombo and the tea auction house there.  It is then distributed across the world.  Though the British began the industry in the 1870’s, interestingly the Middle East is the biggest export market today, followed by North Africa.

In this region the scenery is spectacular in its own way, as manicured tea bushes grow wherever possible, covering total hillsides and valleys in varying shades of green.  No wonder, because the warm climate, altitude and sloping landscape are ideal for growth and make Sri Lanka the world’s 4th largest producer.  A plucker’s objective is to pick by hand between 20 and 30 kg (that’s 44 to 66 lbs) a DAY and the whole process from picking to bagging for shipment takes just 24 hours.  Some statistic!  But remuneration is a pittance, the labour Tamils, originally brought over from India who live in basic huts called linehouses.

Nuwara Eliya became a singularly British creation, having been ‘discovered’ by John Davy in 1819, and subsequently became known as a place where English fruit and vegetables could be grown.  Coffee was one of the first crops grown here, but after its failure due to disease in the early 19th century, the colonists switched to tea, and the town quickly found itself becoming the Hill Country’s tea capital, a title still proudly borne, though we understand all plantations are now owned by Sri Lankan people.

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A Great Train Ride

The next stage of our journey took us from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya, a tea growing area in the Hill Country south of Kandy and a five hour train ride away.  The nearest railway station is Nanu Oya, where we were met by a car to take us the 8 km to our accommodation at Mount View Cottage.  Set high in the hills above Nuwara Eliya, it was so cold we had to ask for a fan heater to take the chill off the room!  Wearing thick clothing we were soon feeling cosy again.  The views and the hospitality were good, and made up for the low temperature.

But first back to the rail journey…

At Kandy Station we tried to book 1st class seats the previous day, at a price of about £4.00 each.  But they had been sold out days or weeks before.  We had been assured that we would get seats in 2nd class at the vast sum of £0.80 each, even if we had to stand to begin with.  The train arrived a little late from Colombo, and everybody piled on.  After much jostling and a slight altercation Elaine got a seat immediately, and Bob was left standing.  But it turned into a really sociable trip with the initial problems promoting conversation.  Bob chatted to an interesting American lawyer, and then a delightful Muslim lady from Harrow travelling with her brother.  Cries of vendors struggling through the overcrowded carriages selling their wares all added to the atmosphere.  From samosas and roti to spicy peanuts, segments of pineapple to tubs of yoghurt and water, all were on offer!

We had imagined travelling 2nd class in a boneshaker of a train with wooden seats, but none of it!  Ours consisted of a modern diesel engine pulling carriages with comfortable seating.  Imported from China we understand.  Some of the station paraphernalia was definitely not state of the art as we know it!

After about an hour Bob got a seat, and the train wound its way up through the valleys, with the scenery changing from urban to country, and then forests giving way to tea plantations.  The train weaves its way along the sides of the valleys, across bridges, and as we climbed so the views became more spectacular.  Not having been able to choose our seats, we found ourselves on the wrong side of the carriage going up, but were able to ensure we were on the correct side coming back to Kandy as we boarded an almost empty train from Nanu Oya.

Kandy is at 500m, Nanu Oya at an elevation of 1,623m with Nuwara Eliya at 1,889m .  No wonder the British used to come here to holiday, built a sanatorium and other residences to give it the name ‘Little England’.

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‘Up Country’ in Kandy

Chance meetings and coincidences play a big part in our sailing lives!

So it was for our second excursion.  We had a chance encounter with a tuk tuk driver, Sanju, on the roundabout outside the quay at Trinco (where else?!), who we had met the previous day whilst he was helping another yachtie.  Sanju also runs a tour company, is reliable, knowledgeable and has a great sense of humour.  For more information about his range of offerings click on his Facebook site.

It turned out that he had been booked by another UK couple who were holidaying in the area to drive them to Kandy, so we were able to negotiate a really good price for the journey.  Far more comfortable than the local buses, and in air conditioned luxury of a saloon car as well!  We left early, and after stops for curd (very tasty with palm syrup), donations to a roadside Buddha, a wood carving workshop and a herbal garden, we arrived in Kandy in the late afternoon.

At our small hotel, the Kandy Hills Resort with its views across the valley above the lake, we received a great welcome and were extremely well looked after.  The staff could not have been more helpful.

Another UNESCO world heritage site, Kandy nestles inland in hills 500m above sea level and enjoys a cooler, therefore more relaxing climate than coastal areas.  After Colombo, it is the second largest city in Sri Lanka with a population of about 125,000.  Sights, smells, traffic and noise abound.

Created in 1807 the lake is artificial.  The central island was used by the last ruler of Kandy as his personal harem and after the city became a British protectorate in 1815 it was used as an ammunitions store!

Having seen so much Buddhist culture recently, in Thailand, Myanmar, Indochina, and here in Dambulla, we gave the famed Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic a miss, and instead visited the Ceylon Tea Museum by tuk-tuk in the morning.  Set in the old Hantane tea factory in the hills above Kandy, it explained the history of tea.  With exhibits about Thomas Lipton and James Taylor, two of the most famous pioneers, the processes of tea making were described, and machinery used in the 18th and 19th centuries displayed.

We then used the same tuk-tuk driver to take us to spend the afternoon at The Royal Peradenyia Botanical Gardens, which were an oasis of calm with interesting and exotic plants and trees.  Dating back to the early 19th century and covering 60 hectares, at one time they were the preserve of Kandyan royalty.  Now we commoners are admitted to admire the impressive collections.  The Flower Garden, Great Lawn with its huge Java Fig Tree and drunken looking Cooks Pine and Palm Avenues are all striking.  Our highlight was the Orchid House.  We thought we had been lucky to see the fruit bats roosting in Tonga, but on this occasion there were several hundred of them, many taking a daylight flight.

We also came across this beautiful flower and plaque bringing back memories of our recent visit to Burma (Myanmar) ...

Returning to our hotel in the late afternoon, we enjoyed delicious Sri Lankan curry dining on the balcony and watching the lights twinkling across the valley.

So impressed were we with the Kandy Hills Resort, we booked in for a further night to break our journey back from Nuwara Eliya to Trincomalee.

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A Tale of Two Ancient Cities

From our base on Pipistrelle in Trincomalee we managed separate trips that took us to the interior of the island.  Both were interesting and fun in very different ways.

Continuing our cultural activities, the first was a visit Sigiriya and Dambulla, two ancient cities off the main road south west to Kandy, the cultural capital of Sri Lanka.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Sigiriya is famous for its massive rock, which towers above the plains, and dates back millions of years.  It is perhaps Sri Lanka’s single most impressive site.  Near vertical rock walls soar to a flat topped summit that contains the ruins of an ancient civilisation.  Controversy remains amongst archaeologists as to whether it was originally an unassailable palace, or a monastery.

The route to the top is hard work, and also needs a good head for heights, as vertical spiral staircases take you to natural cave shelters that are home to very well preserved frescoes, thought to date after the 5th century, but the exact date is not known.  From there the path clings to the sheer side of the rock, before emerging on the north side on a large platform where two enormous lions’ paws were excavated by the British archaeologist HCP Bell in 1898.  This later gave the rock its name, Lion Rock, and originally a gigantic brick lion sat at this end of the rock, but has since disappeared.

A series of open steps and grooves in the rock from here provide access to the terraced summit, and more splendid views, as well as interesting archaeology.

There is a separate museum set amongst the gardens that lead to the rock, but we were not impressed by the fabric of the museum, or its exhibits which was all looking rather tired and not good value for money.  At $30 US each, the admission price to the site we considered expensive. There are separate prices for locals and foreigners throughout Sri Lanka, and we very much got the impression that the government is taking advantage of us ‘tourists’.

But without paying the fee we would not have been able to admire this awe inspiring site, nor appreciate the rock caves at Dambulla – again a charge of $25 US each.

Dambulla’s famed Royal Rock Temple is situated about 160 metres above the town, and is reached after an ascent on foot up the sloping rock face from the modern Golden Temple.  Happily it seems far away from the bustling commercial centre and one of the biggest wholesale markets in Sri Lanka, and  similarly to Sigiriya, the views from the top are very good.

Five separate caves contain about 150 Buddha statues, paintings.  The Buddha images were first created over 2000 years ago, and over the centuries subsequent kings added and embellished the superb cave art.  It is believed to have begun in the 1st century BC, when King Valagamba took refuge here.  After regaining his throne, he had the interior of the caves carved into magnificent rock temples.

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