First Report From Sri Lanka—Bob Caplan, Guest Blogger

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.

Leave a Reply