Nakhal Fort and Al Thowarah Hot Springs, revisited

One of the first day trips we took out of Muscat last year when we arrived was a visit to Nakhal Fort and the Al Thowarah Hot Springs. I won’t say it was a disaster, but the drive took forever and it was so hot we didn’t want to leave the car.  Eventually the weather got cooler, and we decided it was time to revisit Nakhal (and now, six months later, I’m finally writing about it).

The fort is a lot of fun to explore, and, even after visiting Jabrin Castle, Bahla Fort and Nizwa Fort, it’s still my favorite. It’s so scenic with the date palm plantations and the Hajar Mountains, it’s practically impossible to take a bad photo. It’s also fun with little kids because there are fewer ledges, outcroppings and steep stairs than you’ll find at some of the other forts and castles around Oman. M loves running around and exploring, especially in the “children’s rooms” and on the rocky foundation on which the fort was built.

If you’re looking for lunch, there are some sandwich shops across from the fort and a biryani shop near the hot spring. You could also pack a lunch and there are some nice shaded tables and benches at the hot spring. The hot spring is a five-minute drive down a windy paved road through the date palm plantations.

There’s a nice big parking lot, but be careful: everything that is wet or damp, including parts of the parking lot, is very slippery. You can climb down the stairs into the spring, or you can take a dip in the soaking tub. I would strongly advise against wearing only a swimsuit; no one else does and you’d get stared at relentlessly. Instead wear clothes that you can get wet, similar to what you’d wear if you went to a wadi. I usually just roll up my pants and sit on a rock so that I don’t get wet past my legs. Also make sure you wear water shoes. If you tried to walk on those rocks barefoot you’d fall in no time.

There are little fish in the hot spring that will nibble on anything that is submerged. It feels weird, like little razors are skimming your feet, and tickles like mad but you get used to it after a while. If you’re lucky you’ll also see my favorite bird: the Indian Roller. They like the trees and the water, and they are stunningly beautiful in-flight.

Between the warm water and the animals (goats, cats, birds, fish, etc), kids and toddlers love it here. M eventually sits down in the neck-deep water and shrieks at the fish, tosses small rocks and has a great time. It’s a particularly pretty place in the late afternoon sun.

Whenever we have guests that want to do some adventuring on their own during the week while we’re at work, this is my first recommendation. It’s a beautiful little slice of Oman and it’s only as intense as you want it to be. If you’re jetlagged you can leave around noon, the drive is super-easy,  you can get lunch there once you arrive, the fort is open until 4, you’re at the hot spring at the prettiest time of day, and then you’re back at home or wherever you’re staying right around dinner time. Plus the fort only costs 500 baisa (about $1.25) per person and the hot spring is free!

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Sri Lanka: The drive to Colombo (and Colombo)

Most of the rainy drive from Udawalawe to Colombo looked like this

We departed Udawalawe for Colombo around 11 am. Google maps said the drive
should take 4 hours. Spoiler alert: it didn’t.

We stopped in Ratnapura to buy precious stones and get lunch. The
shopkeeper said if we wanted to drive the 100 kilometers to Colombo, we
needed to leave ASAP. I thought it would take maybe 90 minutes, but he said
it would take at least two and a half hours.

It took nearly 4 miserable hours.

Shopping for gems in Ratnapura

M and the durians

There was some interesting stuff to look at along the way, but mostly it was boring and I was very grateful we had a driver.

Cows crossing the street

One of the largest elephants I’ve ever seen

We finally reached Colombo around 6 pm, a solid 2 hours after expected. I think our 7 days of non-stop travelling and exploring caught up with us in Colombo, because we didn’t really feel like doing much. We bought some souvenirs and ate some really great pizza, and then it was time to head to the airport.

We had an awesome time in Sri Lanka, and we are already trying to plan a trip back. There’s so much to see and do, the food is amazing, and Sri Lankans are so friendly and hospitable!

Sri Lanka: Udawalawe

Elephants at Udawalawe National Park

 

Our next stop was Udawalawe, where we had only one goal: to see some elephants!

The drive to Udawalawe from Amba was less than 2.5 hours, and within 10 minutes of checking into our hotel we saw a wild peacock, a 6-foot long snake and a hornbill. We were off to a good start!

We stayed at Eliyanth Udawalawe, which was the most expensive of all the hotels during our trip. It wasn’t particularly child-friendly, with lots of ledges with minimal barriers and other safety hazards. We generally let M run around and explore, but here we had to watch him like a hawk, and he wasn’t even allowed out on our balcony. The food also was overpriced and not particularly great.

The very pretty-but-not-kid-friendly balcony off our 2nd story hotel room

But, and this is a big “but,” the 3-hour safari that we booked with the hotel was incredible.

We had an entire vehicle just to ourselves, and the driver knew exactly where to go to see lots of elephants and other animals. We picked up a local volunteer animal-spotter at the visitor’s entrance to the park, and he was particularly good at finding animals we might not have seen otherwise.

No trombone playing either

All the safari vehicles at Udawalawe are open-air 6-seaters, basically exactly like this.

We saw loads of interesting birds, several herds of elephants, crocodiles, wild water buffalo, deer, jackals, and even a leopard!

Peacocks

Parrots, just like the ones we see flying all over Oman

This big guy was hanging out along the side of the road by himself

Crocodiles

Wild water buffalo and pelicans

Jackals

We were initially wary of how M would handle being strapped into a jeep for 3+ hours with no entertainment, but he was a champ. We put his carseat in the vehicle and he napped for about 45 minutes, and dutifully helped search for animals the rest of the time.

M happily watching the elephants from his car seat

In Udawalawe we also visited the Elephant Transit Home, or ETH. Unlike other elephant sanctuaries in Sri Lanka (which are not actually sanctuaries and chain up the elephants for profit), the ETH houses and cares for orphaned elephants and then works with the government to release them back into the wild once they are old enough to join a herd. In fact, when you go to the ETH you’ll see herds of fully grown elephants which previously lived at the ETH hanging around past the fence looking for food. The ETH is situated in the national park, and you can attend elephant feedings at 9 am, 12 noon, 3 pm and 6 pm. We went to the 6 pm feeding, figuring it would be less crowded because there wouldn’t be any large buses of tourists. I don’t know how many people are usually there, but this strategy paid off and there were only about 30 other tourists there.

A baby elephant gets his dinner at the Elephant Transit Home

Juvenile elephants having a snack

We really enjoyed visiting Udawalawe, but I think one night here is really all you need. Arrive in the afternoon, go to the ETH, and then wake up early the next morning for a game drive. In three hours we saw just about all the animals we were probably going to see without getting bored and being tired of taking pictures.

More elephants!

Our driver picked us up after we ate breakfast following the safari. Next stop: Colombo!