The following is an email our fellow traveler, Bob Caplan, sent on Jan. 21. He has given permission for us to publish it here. We will be able to post more of his stories soon.
Below are some of our first adventures. We have had the fortune of being in areas free of the flood, in jungle, mountains, and high tea plantations. None of our itinerary takes us into areas struck by severe and unusual flooding. At home we usually find time for email. Here, however, our days have been filled with hiking and travel, sometimes starting as early as 4:30 AM to reach a special spot in a national park. Tonight we will arise at 2 AM to climb Adams Peak. If our legs and knees hold out, we’ll summit among pilgrims climbing 5500 stairs and witness sunrise. Now…for some adventure stories.
Bob…and Anita, our trip planner and chief birder, says, “Hi,” too.
Real Rovers Don’t….
If the road becomes any rougher, we might need pitons instead of tires. This British racing green vintage 1964 Land Rover, however, uh, how should I say it…kicks ass. Its four-wheel drive crawls us up a rock strewn track that some on foot might find disconcerting. To the sides is a mountainous jungle landscape of palms, arika (the tree that provides betel nut), and tropical ground cover. Tropical. We are in the Tropics, 6 degrees north of the equator.
I like this Rover. Its rivets and body shine with fresh paint, hardly a scratch, but there’s real mud along the fenders, should anyone doubt the vehicle’s authenticity. Scratches will come soon enough for it’s owner, Mr. Martin, a Sri Lanken who has fought to establish this area as a national biodiversity reserve and who operates Martin’s Simple Lodge. If you don’t have a Rover, a REAL one, don’t think of getting to his truly simple, rough-hewn lodge.
I like the Rover. I like the even clatter of its diesel engine, the barebones interior, long stripped down to a smooth, paint-free base metal. (The glove compartment is a hold in the metal that looks like it was the victim of a hand grenade.)
This is not the Rover that soccer moms and dads use to shuttle their kids to dance and music lessons, sport activities, and the mall between stops at the corporate office and the gourmet take-home deli section of an upscale grocery any more than Abercrombie and Fitch sweatshirts are from the Abercrombie and Fitch that once sold safari gear to explorers who thought that the best place for a cape buffalo was either in the bush or sticking out of an oak-paneled wall of their library. Face it; REAL Land Rovers do not drive to malls any more than REAL hiking boots can be bought at shops with names such as “Urban Outfitters.” Face it, REAL Land Rovers look their best spattered with mud rather than gleaming at the finish line of a car wash. Face it, their bumpers gain enviable patina from sliding into the trunks of mahogany trees, something that cannot be acquired in fender benders on the freeway.
Well, snob, snob, snob, snob, snob, snob. All that aside, I am thankful for this vehicle’s toughness and the skill of its driver, especially with the terrific view out the left, a 2000 foot drop off through the land of green viper snakes. (It’s not that bad, but they know I’m here, and I know they are there, and maybe it is better that we both keep our distance.)
I’ll just close this effusive homage to a seemingly inanimate object by patting its fenders as Anita and I head for our simple room at Martin’s by observing that it is no surprise that REAL Land Rovers do not need video players in the back seat for the kids to watch adventure videos. If it’s adventure you yearn, REAL Land Rovers will give it to you without any DVDs and screens at the interface. Just look out the window. Hold on. Hold on!
Bob, Singharaja Biodiversity Reserve, Sri Lanka, January 2011
For the second day, we have set out on foot from Martins Simple Lodge with our guide and driver, “U.L.” and a tracker. Both are experts in bird identification. Sri Lanka leads the world in the variety of species and, for an island, has more than 30 endemic ones and perhaps 200 others. We are in Sinharaja National Park, a mountainous rain forest to the south, so botanically and biologically unique that UNESCO has designated it a World Biosphere Heritage Site. The isolated mountain range is like an island that permits a larger number of endemic bird and plant species to form than are found in most other places (in the last two days, we’ve identified 40 different species of bird). As an amateur ornithologist visiting here observed to us, “Sri Lanka is like a small Australia,” referring to its geographic isolation. To illustrate, yesterday while walking back from a Buddhist monastery in the forest, we thought we saw a large black snake on the road. It was the diameter of your thumb and about a yard long. Nope. No eyes. A millipede? We rolled it over with a stick. No feet. A giant earthworm. Then there are the mixed flocks, the largest in the world, bird cooperative groups, the top layer serving as sentries against falcons and eagles, the middle two layers identifying food for the group at their respective layers of operation.
[There are a few other visitors at the Lodge, only one other who is American (and, purely by coincidence and unfortunately loud of mouth and lacking of judgment. I’ve tried to encourage him to change from bird watching to close-up snake photography, but he’s too busy talking about himself to listen to my sound advice). ]
For two days we have been searching for one of Sri Lanka’s rarest birds, the Serendip owl. It is small, about as tall as the length of your foot, colored like the leaves and bark, largely keeps quiet during the day, and is not common. No surprise that it was first identified just a few years ago. What are the odds that we will see one? Our guide and tracker have seen the Serendip only a couple of times. The bird guide for the country has only a poor photograph in bad light. The odds are close to zero. We’re going to give it a try, but with little expectation of success.
It’s getting late in the afternoon. Anita and I have been climbing with Greg and Louisa, our friends and fellow travelers. Despite the shade of the rain forest, it is hot and humid. My shirt is soaked. We’re descending through a path fortified with a helpful tangle of earth-barraging roots. We stop by a stream. I’m hot. We’re almost out of water. I fill my canteen. The air’s moisture immediately condenses on the cool walls of the flask. Wow, good, clean, sweet tasting, no additives, no need to take anything out. The original water of the Adams and Eves of the world. The guide takes out a small portable phone and starts playing a call. We sit, silent, listening, myself more just contemplating the peace of the spot, the silence, the trickle of the stream, the do-nothing moments that remind me of the ones I spent as a child daydreaming under a tree. Twenty minutes of quiet, peace, drops of sweat rolling down by chest. Whooo. Our heads turn as one. I’ve seen a whole herd of deer do that to the snap of a branch. Whooo. It’s faint. There are other kinds of owls, others almost as rare. Whooo. The tracker climbs up through vines, over the small fall of a stream across black rocks. Our guide follows, motion for us to stay still.
We wait 5, 10, 15 minutes. The tracker and guide are gone. I flick a leech off my shoe. The socks are working (Anita and Greg will later discover that two of these critters hitched a ride all the way back to Martins. I’ll spare you the details, but it’s just yucky, not dangerous). Silence. The whine of cicadas, they sound like dentist drills. A call of a bird, not an owl. “Mr. Robert. Come. Everyone.” It’s the guide’s voice. We follow their track, unsure where they turned up through the tall trees, the tangle, the slick rocks, the water, looking occasionally at our feet. The guide and tracker see us. They motion for silence. We follow for another five minutes. The slope is steep, the ground covered with leaves. Leeches love leaves as much as they love seeking the heat of their meals. The tracker points. None of us sees anything.
“There, 10 feet, 2 o’clock from the trunk, the branch.”
“I see it! Wow!”
“Where? Wait…yes, fantastic!”
The tracker and the guide are very excited. Cameras start recording. Louisa sets up a tripod and starts video filming. We look at playback screens on our gear. The quality is stunning. The bird does not move. We work our way around 90 degrees. It’s body stays still. The head rotates to face us. Someone pulls out an iPhone, snaps a picture. We can send it to Wayaratne. We want him to verify that this is the same as the animal in his guide. None of us move closer. Perhaps we can, but then what if it associates us with fear? Perhaps no one will ever get close to it again, eye level, eye level! Not twenty feet above you and fifteen yards away. Eye level a body and a half length away. The tracker and guide have never been that close. Only they would have the chance to see one, to recognize that what for us was simply tangles, branches, leaves, trunks, the jigsaw puzzle of the rainforest was more than that…that in that pattern, something exquisitely camouflaged suddenly became signal against noise, figure against ground. Only the tracker’s superb sound localization could have lead him to a spot where its eyes saw him but he did not see it. At some instant, as he stood looking at a collection of thousands of small dark patterns and objects, tens of thousands, something popped out, a single object that did not conform to what is leaf, what is tree, what is a jungle. Looking for it was like looking for a needle in a haystack. Here was the needle, a Serendip Owl.
Bob, Singaraya National Reserve, Sri Lanka, January 2011, with Anita Caplan, Greg Scarich, and Louisa Bonnie…and two incredible naturalist/birders, U.L. and Soma. Logistics provided through Jetwings Tours, planning, Anita Caplan.
The day before yesterday we arrived by train in Ella which is at about 3000 ft. elevation. Considered hill country which where the English escaped the heat of the low lands. At this time of year the hill country is supposed to be cool and dry. However like every where else in the world, the weather isn’t following its script., and the two days we were there it rained hard in the late afternoon, and lightly at other times. Temperatures in the 70s and a bit cool at night. Tea plantations are a feature of much of the hill country. They make for interesting planting patterns and also a way of life. Pickers, mostly women, working rapidly to pick their 20kg per day. (We had met a family a few days earlier in botanical garden, and the mother was a tea picker and her handshake would put most men to shame.)
We went for a short hike up to Little Adam’s Peak. If the weather had been better we could have seen down to the ocean. As it was we had views of nearby mountains and Ella. On our way back down the mountain through the tea plantations we met a women posing for photos while picking tea. One has to earn money where you can. We stayed long enough with Louisa taking video that a couple of kids wandered up from a cluster of tea plantation housing. A 14-year old boy and his 18-year old sister. They invited us to their home and offered us tea. Eventually most of their family gathered—mother, father. middle sister. The plantation supplied housing looked to be two rooms of maybe 300 sq. ft. The kids English was quite good. We (Anita and Greg) showed photos from home and other adventures from their iPhones. The parents couldn’t follow well because of their lack of English, but the kids enjoyed it. Was odd to show photos of may Nepal trek because much of the culture is similar—tea pickers are Hindu (Tamil) as is the low lands of Nepal. And both have a heavy dose of Buddhism. But Sri Lanka is much better off than Nepal—GDP is two to three times higher. And they loved Anita’s photo of herself in a Sari. The 18-year old girl was in her final year of school and wanted to continue her education in social work or teaching, but it sounded as if her family couldn’t afford it. We didn’t ask what was likely to happen, but doubtful not anything using her obvious intelligence. As always we were charmed and pleased by the amazing hospitality of third world countries. Unfortunately all we had to offer in return were a few token pieces of fruit.
We enjoyed our two nights at the Hill Top Hotel—some of the best food we’ve had in Sri Lanka and a great owner/manager. One of the things we particularly enjoy is roti for breakfast, because the alternative is plain white bread. Here roti is a thick pancake made from unloved flour and coconut milk. We ate them like toast, but they eat it with curry. (Usual breakfast in our budget hotels is omelet, the aforementioned white bread, margarine and lousy jelly, and equally lousy tea or coffee.)
The next day (now yesterday), we made the 100km drive down to the southern coast, just outside Yala National Park. Not hot and humid, but not excessively so. Partly cloudy, but no rain so far. After many days in budget hotels we’re staying for two nights in a luxury resort. Pool (but with the occasional boar wandering through), but large buffets, house boys, etc. Our reason to be here is to take a safari in the national park. Not quite East Africa, but a wide variety of wild life none the less. Elephants, boar, deer, monitor lizards, crocodiles. water buffalo, mongoose, all kinds of birds, and the star, leopards. We got up at 5 a.m. to start and we we saw all but a leopard. Back for late breakfast, a quick swim, lunch, and off again at 2:30 for the late afternoon safari.
Other than Bob and Anita, we didn’t see any other resort guests on the beach. Worth it to see rocks along the shore, fishing village (only occupied part of the year and it had been wiped out by the tsanami about six years ago. Our resort suffered little damage, but one in the park a few km away was wiped out and 45 people died.)
We now in the middle northern area of Sri Lanka in an area named the Cultural Triangle because many ancient capitals of Sri Lankan empires are located. And also many ancient monasteries and other religious sites.
Louisa is writing about Sigiriya which will be posted soon. (Soon is relative as we currently don’t have an internet connection and are writing on our iPhones). Now a week later and I see that this hasn’t been posted, so here goes.
Sri Lanka has a mixed religious and ethnic heritage. There are still a few pre historic tribal people called the Veddahs who may date from the time when there was a land bridge to India. Two groups of Hindu Tamils from South India—the first came to northern Sri Lanka in over two thousand years ago and modern Tamils brought over by the Enlish to work the tea plantations. The predominate Buddhist Sinhalese who came from Northern India in the sixth century BC. And some Muslims traders who came about 1000 years ago. Many of the temples mix Buddhist and Hindu icons and practices. And both schools of Buddhism are followed, although Theravada is more widely followed than Mahayana. Almost forgot the European invaders—first the Portuguese, then the Dutch followed by the English which brought Christianity. Sri Lankans with European blood are called Burghers and they held power from Independence in 1948 until the late fifties when the Sinhalese took over which lead to discrimination against the Tamils. Which resulted in the Tamil Tigers revolutionary group which caused major havoc until a couple of years ago.
We haven’t been affected by the flooding, which is in the predominately Tamil areas. A major challenge for aid givers and the leaders of Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is a third world country but shows signs of improvement. Some very good roads, many minor roads paved, lots of buses and tuk-tuk for public transportation. Many private motos, but not many private cars. Electricity most everywhere as far as we can tell. Some thatched roofs on out building, but otherwise tile or corrugated metal or some kind of composite.
OK enough social studies. After spending most of the day at Sigiriya we went to the Royal Rock Temple Caves in Dambulla. Five caves about six hundred feet above the generally flat plains. The caves have had significance for Buddhists for 2000 years, but most of what is here is generally 200 years old. Two of the caves have large reclining Buddhas and many smaller standing and sitting Buddhas. Most outstanding though is the wall and ceiling murals which are in good condition. The murals include scenes from Buddhas life and geometric patterns as well as dozens of Buddhas.
We have been on the go and at last have a decent internet connection here in Nuwara Eliya. We at 6000 ft. elevation high in tea plantation area at the atmospheric St Andrew’s hotel a former club for home sick British tea barons. Some things have not changed since 1900—rooms have old coal fires places, elegant arch doorways, the floors are slightly off kilter, creaky stairways, billards room, terraced garden with wrought iron chairs and tables for sipping afternoon tea. Across the street barefoot sarong clad Tamil ladies with burlap bags on their backs hanging by a tump line over their foreheads pick tea leaves on the hillsides. Their grimy concrete hovels, gaily painted fushia, lime green and lavender, surround stately Queen Anne style architectural ghosts of the colonial past.
We went to a Hindu temple near by for the evening puja or blessing. This area is primarily Hindu because of all the Tamil tea pickers. The temple is supposed to be the legendary site where Rama’s wife Sita was held captive by the demon Ravana who kidnapped her from India. The heroic monkey god Hanuman flew to Sriilanka and rescued her. The puja was a lively affair with boys playing drums, cymbals and singing while a handsome young Brahman priest performed the rituals and prayers before colorful statues flanking the small room which held Hanuman swathed in ritual fabrics. Each devotee was blessed with a tikka mark before a flaming vessel and the priest placed Hanuman’s hat on their head briefly. Then the little band led a procession around the temple dancing and clapping with joyous exuberance. After we went on to a Buddhist temple for their puja which was rather a dull affair by comparison but interesting nonetheless.
We were feeling hungry after all this and were dropped off by UL, our Sri Lankan guide, in search of the best hopper and roti maker in town. Hoppers are a Sri Lankan crepe batter that is ladled into a five inch diameter “wok” and cooked on a stove. When it is golden around the edges the hopper chef pops it out and starts making a stack. You can eat these with a little chili salsa or have an egg hopper with a egg cooked on top of it. The roti maker put on a great show for my video camera showboating with all his best moves, whirling the dough around, spinning it, flipping and stretching it in time to Bhangra music blaring from a radio in this little hole in the wall eatery.
Tomorrow we are off to Dalhousie in preparation for our 7 km climb with Hindu and Buddhist pilgrims for sunrise on top of Adam’s Peak or Sri Pada.
For the next seven days we went up the Barun Valley to Makalu Base Camp and returned. About 17 miles one way. Unfortunately and fortunately this was an eventful section. Our lowest elevation was about 12,000 ft. (3700m). This upper section of the valley has no permanent residents. During the summer, animals are grazed. Almost all of the animals have returned to lower elevations and we met several small herds of goats and sheep being herded out. The valley is narrow and rarely more than a hundred yards wide. Surprisingly at this elevation, forests exist. The forest resembled rain forests.
The pastures (kharkas) a spread out along the valley. Most of the kharkas have stone huts and some of them now have tea houses—primitive hotels. Campgrounds are provided at the tea houses. We camped, although a couple of us stayed inside at the first tea house at Yangle Kharka to get relief from being in a tent during days of rain. Camping is theoretically only allowed at approved locations in an effort to preserve the area. Wood fires aren’t allowed either. Trekking companies use kerosene.
Not many people on our way up because of the bad weather, but when we reached Makalu BC we started to see more groups—many had come over several high passes on a northern route from Lukla. Typically two or three groups of ten clients at each tea house camp ground. Also a few independent trekkers, usually young couples; although we met two guys who had teamed up a Lonely Planets discussion board the Thorn Tree.
The unfortunate event was a log on a small bridge that broke under Paul’s boot causing him to fall and break several ribs. That ended his and Judy’s trip. The bridge was near a tiny tea house where they waited for two days for a helicopter rescue. Jhalak, our guide, and a porter had to travel at night to Makalu BC to intercept a group with a satellite phone to call in the helicopter. The phone wasn’t available until about 8 a.m., and when the helicopter arrived at 10 the clouds had come in. Another long day for the Becketts.
The next day we heard the helicopter fly over at 6:15 a.m. to avoid the clouds and succeeded in landing and whisking Paul (and Judy) to the hospital in Kathmandu. (We at Makalu BC didn’t know for sure until the next day they’d gotten out because the satellite phone had left, but based on the weather we were confident that they had.) Although it wasn’t an easy decision, except for one assistant guide and a porter, the rest of us had proceeded on the trek, knowing that in two days we’d be returning to where the Becketts were. We were all very happy when the first helicopter came at 10 a.m. and it wasn’t until we reached the satellite phone later that day that we found out that it couldn’t land. We were above the valley fog/cloud and couldn’t see down the curved valley to where they were. But when we heard the 6 a.m. helicopter we were pretty certain that it was early enough to land. Fortunately we didn’t have to deal with what to do if they hadn’t gotten out when we returned the next day.
The bridge was comprised of four logs about 4 to 6 inches in diameter, and the outer one was rotted near the end.
That day was our day to look at Makalu and explore. I wrote about what I did earlier in the blog here.
The next day we awoke to an inch of fresh snow and before leaving Sharon led us in putting up a prayer flag.
That day and the next we went back down the Barun Valley and headed up towards Shipton Pass stopping the second night in a cold rainy campsite. The porters huddled around a fire.
The next day we made it back over the three passes including Shipton La (Pass)
and ending up back in the Arun Valley at Kauma.
More trek photos here.
Since I couldn’t blog during the trek, I’ll put up a trip description is several blog postings. Our trek was a 28-day trek—two days for getting in and out, and 26 straight days of hiking (chance to take it easy one day, but I did the hike described below). I enjoyed the trek immensely. Fantastic scenery, a good group of fellow trekkers and support crew. The trek was hard, but not always fun. More challenging than any of us expected—long steep ascents and descents and some unpleasant weather.
We started out by flying to Bratnigar, then taking a long SUV trip, followed by a night river crossing, and short ride to Tumlingtar ending up there at maybe 8 pm. We were supposed to fly directly to Tumlingtar, but the airport is closed for reasons that were never quite clear—maintenance or a rain saturated runway. The first few days were along a new dirt road with some sections along the old road and sections of trail. Farming and towns and villages the whole time. And even a couple larger towns with all kinds of stores and markets. The main challenge was the heat and humidity—maybe 85 for both. Farming is rice, millet, beans (lentils and soy) mainly. And some animals—pigs, goats, and cows. Friendly people, mostly from the Rai group—Hindus. Almost everyone enjoyed having their pictures taken and would smile for the picture—quite a change from Africa. For three days we were hiking along a ridge until the village of Num.
From Num we dropped steeply down to the Arun River and climbed as steeply up the other side to Sedua About 2500 ft. up and down and we only went 4 miles (6 km). But by then we had gotten over jet lag, our legs were getting used to walking, a little cooler because of the elevation. More climbing to come and then the rains came. Not heavy rains or accompanied by wind, but as we got higher accompanied by cold. Made for slippery going on rocky trails. We got occasional peak sitings, but hiking in the clouds for some of the time. After the down and up day, we climbed 2200 ft., then 4700 ft. to almost 12,000 ft. (3600m) at Kauma. That was followed by one of the tougher days of climbing over three passes in the rain, and the crew couldn’t find a good place for lunch so we did without more or less. After 2700 ft. of climbing and 1100 ft. of descending we arrived in camp. But the scenery was incredible—lakes, lichen, moss, and small plant.
After a 35 hour trip with about 20 hours of flying we arrived safely in Kathmandu. We being Judy, Paul and I. Three of seven taking a 28 day trek to Makalu base camp to the east of Mt. Everest. We start Monday by flying to Tumlingtar, up to Makalu BC and backtracking a bit then west to Lukla and then back to Kathmandu. Tomorrow, Sunday, our group meets each other (I think I’m the only one now everyone hasn’t met, and the key support personnel. Off to a group dinner. We we arrive early enough Monday to start our trek. A bit apprehensive about walking mostly every day for a month, but here goes.
We arrived late Thursday and by now, Saturday evening feeling a bit over jet lag. Weather is nearly perfect, in the seventies, a chance of rain which makes for nice clouds. Took it fairly slow the last two days. We’re staying at the Tibet Guest House in Thamel. The hotel is large and pleasant spread over several buildings, and inexpensive. Thamel is the center of the tourist district. Not high end, not sure where the five-star hotels are. But here lots of shopping and eating possibilities.
Yesterday we took the two hundred some stairs to Swayambhunath temple. Swayambhunath is a large Buddhist stupa sitting on top of a hill. Gold leaf covering the top, monkeys scampering around and views of the sprawling humanity of the Kathmandu Valley. The population of Kathmandu is about 900,000 and 600,000 in the surrounding areas. Crowded, noisy, and dirty like many third world countries.
Today we spend much of the day at Boudhanath Stupa which is the one most of us associate with Kathmandu with a pair of eyes staring to each point of the compass. Judy and Paul visiting Boudhanath years ago and we arrived by taxi, Judy was sure we were in the wrong place because the stupa was out of site. When they visited before there was nothing else around, now it’s part of the sprawl of Kathmandu. The stupa itself is ringed by building from maybe two to ten stories. Most are stores and restaurants, but there are several temples. Today is the first day of a multiday featival so the stupa was well attended by locals.
When the best thing that’s going to happen all day has already happened at 6:15 in the morning, what’s to be done? And when that thing is a helicopter flying by overhead? I was in Makulu Base Camp in Nepal and the helicopter was almost certainly going to take Paul and Judy to Kathmandu after spending two days and nights waiting in an unheated, drafty, cold, small cabin because Paul broke several ribs in a fall and the weather and communication difficulties prevented an earlier evacuation.
And I was tired from trekking for days and many of the days were rainy. The decision wasn’t that hard because Rich Henke had already told me what he’d one while there about 15 years before. And he supplied maps and photos of the climb to the ridge. He’d climbed to 18,400 ft or so along a ridge coming off of 27,766 ft. Makalu, the fifth highest mountain in the world . Don and Sharon had already taken off up toward the ridge, but I was still doing chores and getting organized. I started up about 10 am and soon caught up with Don and Sharon, but they were going to do some other sight seeing, so I continued up after telling them I turn around at 2 pm. I continued up slowly. Rich had said he’d gone straight up to the ridge and continued up along the ridge. But the ridge looked too difficult or me, so I took another easier route to a saddle on the ridge. I arrived there at ten minutes to two. I could see Makalu the whole time and views to the west of two hugh peaks. One is supposed to be Everest, but I’ll have to sort out what I saw later. Fantastic views of incredible mountains. To the east it was mostly cloudy, but I could catch glimpses of a hugh glacier. This is the highest I’d ever climbed. Only another 9500 ft. to the top of Makalu: have to wait to finish the climb some other day;) I’ll post some photos when I get back home in a few days.
Four hours up and two hours down. I met our guide, Jalek, because he had become worried although my fellow trekkers understood my plans and knew not to expect me quite yet.
PS: I drafted this the evening of Oct. 22, the day of my climb; but finished it in Kathmandu the day after completing the trek.
Thanks to Rich for suggesting the climb and also to Don Middleton for organizing the fantastic trek, and lastly to Paul and Judy for inviting me.