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!

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Sri Lanka: around Ella

View of the valley around Ella from a hike to a near-by waterfall

We woke up bright and early and hit the road for Ella at 8:30 am. It was a long day in the car.

If you look at the Google Maps route from Sigiriya to Ella, it says it should take about 4.5 hours. It’s practically a straight shot east and then south. We suggested this route to our driver and he said the roads weren’t good, and that we should go through Kandy and Nuwara Elia, which would take 6-7 hours. Yuck.

But, we decided we should probably go with what he says, given that he is the paid professional driver and it is literally his job to know the best routes. We were wrong. Turns out those roads are in great shape, he just wasn’t familiar with them. Apparently this is a common problem among drivers because the roads are in a part of the country that the opposition formerly occupied. So most drivers simply don’t even know that the roads are there.

Anyhow, we stuck with the driver’s planned route since, at the time, we didn’t know any better. Plus, we  figured we could break it up with a few stops along the way.

Our first stop was Kandy, where we went to the Temple of the Tooth. One of Buddha’s teeth is in a shrine (which you can’t see) in the temple, so it’s a pretty big deal. I thought it was meh and I was glad we didn’t opt to spend more time in Kandy.

Inside the Temple of the Tooth complex. There are several other temples and some museums also.

The bottom level of the 3-story Temple of the Tooth. Buddha’s tooth is on the second floor.

After visiting the temple we went to a hole-in-the-wall for lunch and I was certain we were going to get food poisoning. Luckily we didn’t.

Then we got back in the car to start the drive to Nuwara Elia. After we got out of Kandy and started driving up through the tea plantations, it was a stunning drive. The scenery was beautiful, with waterfalls and green tea fields stretching as far as the eye could see.

Sri Lanka hill country views during the drive to Nuwara Elia

We reached Nuwara Elia, and the driver asked if we wanted to get out. It was about 60 degrees outside, and Nate and Marlowe were in shorts, I was in capris, and we all had t-shirts on, so we said no. At this point we really just wanted to reach our final destination.

We booked a room inside a cottage at Amba Estate, a tea plantation and organic farm that offers farmstays in the mountains outside of Ella. The drive to Amba took us through some rural areas, up and down a mountain and through a valley. We finally reached Amba around 5:30 pm, and we were pleasantly surprised by our room, which had one of the best mountain views I’ve ever seen. The room was spacious and tastefully decorated with a fantastic veranda and even the bathroom had a nice view.

Amba Estate, our favorite part of our trip to Sri Lanka!

Our room on the bottom floor of the Clove Tree Cottage at Amba

The view from our cottage balcony

Once M got out of his carseat the poor kid wouldn’t sit still for the rest of the evening. We tried to take a family photo and, in it, Nate and I are smiling happily while M is in the background running in the other direction.

This path down into the valley through the tea bushes was right outside our room

We loved staying at Amba. The food was vegetarian and absolutely phenomenal, and you can do tea tours and tastings. Also, and this is very rare for Sri Lanka, Amba serves amazing coffee. They grow their own beans on the farm, in addition to tea and all the fruits and vegetables used in the food that they serve.

Amazing curries, plus pasta with butter and cheese for the kids. M was thrilled! Meals are served family style with the other folks staying at Amba.

Coffee beans growing on the farm

They provide laminated cards with directions for a bunch of hikes originating from the estate, and we spent most of our time there out hiking around the valley.

Our first morning we hiked to the top of Rawana Waterfall, and then down a little further to the second level, where Nate went for a swim. I did not because I was too scared of falling over the side of the waterfall.

Green tea, black tea, white tea, and a lemongrass infusion, all grown on the farm

After that we did the tea tour and tasting and ate some lunch, and then around 2:15 we headed out for Ella Rock. The directions said it was a 2.5-3 hour hike; we took 4.5 hours. It was not an easy hikes, especially with a 35 pound pack and baby on your back. The bulk of the ascent was in the first 2/3 of the hike to Ella Rock, which was mostly climbing up overgrown jungle paths. After that there’s a nice stretch going gently up through a eucalyptus forest.

Hiking through the eucalyptus forest. I have no photos of the other part because I was too busy trying to keep breathing and not fall on my ass.

As you approach the top, right after the path forks (go right at the fork), there’s another small fork off to the right that leads down to a beautiful cave shrine with lovely views of the mountains and valley. From here it’s maybe 15 min more to Ella Rock.

A hidden cave shrine along the hike to Ella Rock. The views from this spot were incredible!

View of the valley from Ella Rock

Ella town is on the far side of the valley

The hike down is almost harder than the hike up because it’s so steep and the path is covered in loose rocks. But we made it back by dusk, even with M demanding to be out of his pack and hiking uphill the last kilometer by himself.

With the two hikes combined, we hiked over 10 miles and climbed the equivalent of over 100 stories. It was quite the day!

The next morning we set off to explore a nearby cave and some old ruined tea processing houses, and then we relaxed in a natural pool in the river. After lunch our driver came and picked us up for our next adventure. At that point we were all ready to sit in the car for a few hours and do nothing! My legs were grateful for the rest.

I’d highly recommend including Ella on your Sri Lanka itinerary. There are so many beautiful places to explore and the temperatures are a little cooler than other parts of the country!

Abseil trip to 7th Hole

I’m all about trying to conquer my fears, but I’m not quite ready to do that with my fear of heights. A few weeks ago, when Nate decided to hook himself to a rope and jump into a cave on top of a plateau in the Hajar mountains, I said “F*** no” and stayed behind. So I’m letting him take over to write about it:

When the Embassy fun coordinator (she has an official title, but that is a significant part of her duties) announced that there was going to be an abseiling trip into a 120 meter deep cavern, I first looked up what abseiling was, and then I enthusiastically volunteered. I also asked Kathryn if she wanted to come, but she did not seem super interested in hanging mid-air attached to a rope.

We had heard a lot of good things about the company that was guiding the tour, Twenty 3 Extreme, so I was fairly certain it would be a safe, competently led expedition. Our friend had used them for a trip a month or so back, and said all of their equipment was top of the line and in really good shape, which is what you want to hear when you’re going to be dangling over an abyss in short order.

I also liked that they required nine hours of training over the course of three sessions at a local climbing facility. If I need to use a lot of new equipment to do something, I want to get a lot of opportunities to use it in as safe an environment as possible.

We were given a helmet, a harness, an ASAP (a safety device with metal teeth that attaches to a rope running alongside your descent / ascent rope), an ascending device attached to our chest (a piece of equipment with metal teeth that keeps you attached to the climbing rope, but also allows you to move up it), a Jumar ascending device (a device with a foot loop attached to it that allows you to climb a rope essentially by standing up repeatedly), a descender device, and several cables attached to carabiners that could be used as safety devices when attached to anchors.  Most of these devices rely on weight and friction, and if you take your weight off them you can detach them from the rope you’re on. This became necessary when we were transferring from rope to rope mid-climb.

It took a little while to get used to all these pieces of equipment: I still can’t really describe the process of what I was doing as much as I can say it became much easier as I continuously did it. Pretty soon everyone was going up and down ropes with ease, and using the descender to more rapidly go down. The last part of the training was adding an additional 15 kilos of weight to the bottom of the rope we were using to see if we could still feed it through the descender device. This was to simulate having 200 feet of rope hanging underneath us, which we might need to manipulate at some point.

Getting the ropes ready to abseil into the cave (Photo by Stephen K.)

After the final training we packed up our camping gear and headed to the Hajar mountains, overlooking the town of Fins and some very deep canyons. The mountain road was extremely twisty and steep, and our Mitsubishi Pajero overheated twice before we made it to the hole we planned on abseiling into. We set up camp maybe ten meters away from the hole, and our guides Joe and Justin set up the ropes we’d be using the next day. We got a grill set up and cooked chicken and steak under the stars. The view of the sky was amazing. Joe and Justin regaled us with tales of their cave exploring throughout the world. One of their many interesting stories was Justin’s tale of cannibals threatening his life and the life of a BBC film crew while trying to explore a cave in Papua New Guinea.

The next day we woke up at the crack of dawn, ate some breakfast, and started dropping into the hole. I went second so that I wouldn’t psych myself out, though I don’t think I needed to worry. Joe was at the top, and was extremely reassuring, even though I was literally backing myself off the edge of a cliff. I did not look down very much, enjoying the views of the cave and the cliff above me. When I did look down, I mistook the mouth of the cavern for the ground, so I thought I was halfway down when I was actually about a quarter of the way there.  It took about 17 minutes to make it all the way down.

When we got to the bottom we took some group photos, signed the Twenty 3 Extreme cave guestbook they had hidden there, and hiked a short distance through a dark tunnel. We came out on the other side, rappelled down a ten – fifteen meter drop and then climbed up what was variously described as a 40, 50, or possibly 60 meter rock wall. Another short hike found us climbing a final 30-meter high rock wall. As we climbed we saw two huge lizards fighting it out for dominance of the cave by trying to grab each other by the tails and fling each other off the wall.

Climbing through the aforementioned dark tunnel (Photo by Stephen K.)

Climbing out of the 7th Hole (Photo by Stephen K.)

Another view climbing out of the cave (Photo by Stephen K.)

The cave itself was beautiful, deep, and cool. A nearby wadi feeds into it, and you can see where torrents of water have created a series of deep cauldrons. Apparently it goes another 160 meters down, though exploring that part is another expedition. The initial descent alone is worth the trip. I strongly suggest trying it out, and using Twenty 3 Extreme; their guides are excellent, and will make you a successful abseiler no matter how scared of heights you are.