Driving around Dhofar: camels and cyclone damage

Camels everywhere!

While we were driving around Dhofar and Salalah, I was struck by three things: how green it was, the extraordinary number of camels everywhere, and the amount of remaining damage from Cyclone Mekunu.  I was prepared for, but still surprised by, the first two, but I was shocked by latter.

Waze tried to make us take this road

We drove down some roads that probably shouldn’t have been open, and Waze tried to take us over a bridge that had been completely washed out.

Close-up of the photo above. See how the bridge is washed out?

Cyclone Mekunu struck Oman (and Yemen) in May earlier in the year, and apparently dumped over 10 inches of rain in Salalah in one day, and more than 24 inches over a 4-day period. It was the biggest natural disaster that Oman’s seen in some time, and the water rushing down the mountains caused a lot of damage. I guess I thought that they would have made all the repairs and so forth by now, but it was only 3 months ago.

I’m surprised this road wasn’t closed.

Also, I don’t think it’s possible to write about a trip to Salalah without mentioning the camels. They are everywhere. In the traffic circles, the highways, the hillsides, the ruins, you name it. I read that during the khareef the camels come down off the mountains and into the plains closer to the coast to escape the biting flies.  Whatever the reason, there are camels all over the place and they give zero shits if they are in your way. They will literally walk out into the middle of a freeway without a care in the world. It definitely makes for interesting driving!

Camels in the road

Camels don’t care

We tried to drive down this road, but we gave up (and got yelled at by the camel herder)

“WTF are you guys doing here”

Ruins and a camel

I tried to convince M this was a two-headed camel. He didn’t believe me. He’s no fun.

More camels

That one’s a non-conformist.

Advertisements

Our summer in Oman

How can you say no to water like this?!

Oman in the summer gets kind of a bad rap. It’s too hot, there’s nothing to do, it’s too hot, blah, blah, blah. Lots of expats leave during the summer, but we stuck around. We took a few vacations, but for most of the summer we were here. And you know what? It was pretty great.

Oman knows how to do a nice coastline

We spent a lot of time in the water. We explored some new beaches and returned to our old favorites, where the water was cool and the temperature wasn’t unbearable as long as you avoided the mid-day heat. M finally got used to wearing his arm floaties and now he loves being in the water. Before he liked the sand and splashing in the waves, but now he can actually swim. He’ll jump off the side of the pool and swim to whichever adult is closest, and he doesn’t freak out when he goes under water.

We also completed our Advanced Open Water scuba diving certification. Of all the times we went scuba diving this summer, the heat was truly terrible only once.

When you do more than one dive in a day, you have to spend a certain amount of time on the surface between dives, and this is called the surface interval. Standard practice is to have a 60-minute surface interval, and luckily we were diving someplace with decent snorkeling because I was about to either pass out or start vomiting, I got so hot. So I jumped in the water and snorkeled for the remaining 45 minutes of the surface interval.

I also learned early on that when it’s hot outside and you have to wear a wetsuit, the best thing to do is to put your wetsuit on and immediately jump in the water. Pull it away from your body so that water gets inside, and you’ll be so much cooler while you’re getting your BCD and everything else ready.

Air tanks and Fahal Island. We spent a lot of our summer here.

We went camping at a beautiful white sand beach near Fins towards the end of August. We arrived around 3:45 pm, and it was surprisingly pleasant out. Athena came along with us, and she immediately found a shaded spot under a rocky outcropping in the sand. She loves swimming and playing fetch, and she tired herself out running around in the water and swimming through the waves. The next morning, the minute the sun crested over the horizon it got boiling hot out. We were rushing to pack up camp by 7 am, and I think we finally left around 8:30 after we took a break to go swimming and cool off.

Athena living her best life

Campfire and the moon, with the lights of Fins in the background

Athena protecting the beach tent

In August we went on a snorkeling trip to the Daymaniat Islands and on the way there we saw whale sharks! Swimming with whale sharks is on my Oman bucket list, and finally getting the opportunity to snorkel with them was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever done. There’s nothing like jumping off a boat into the water when a 20-foot long shark is swimming straight at you with its mouth open. That was really something else.

A whale shark!

You’ll almost always see turtles at the Daymaniats

An enormous Arabian Angelfish

Another big thing that happened this summer was that a lot of our friends departed Muscat. In the Foreign Service, lots of jobs end in the summer, so you get lots of folks departing from June to August. It sucks and it can be really hard. Luckily, the world is a surprisingly small place and I know that we’ll see them again! It’s easy to get bogged down in how much it stinks when friends leave, but it’s also fun to meet new people and welcome folks into the community.

We did an overnight trip to Ras Al Jinz, and we took several trips up into the mountains. Then we capped the whole thing off with our trip to Salalah. All in all, it was an awesome summer, and I’m glad we stuck around. I’m glad we still have one more summer left before we have to leave next August. There are lots more fun times to be had, even though it will be hot out!

Exploring the abandoned villages of Jebel Akhdar

Oman’s Grand Canyon, Jebel Shams, on a particularly overcast day

Camping in Dhofar (and Oman beach camping notes)

Our campsite at a random beach in Northern Dhofar before we cleaned up all the trash

For our second night of camping on our Salalah road trip, I had pre-selected a spot that another blog said was nice, but we would have arrived later than we would have liked to have time to set up camp and make dinner. Instead we drove to a beach that looked promising and not too windy, let the air out of the tires to 15 PSI, and kept driving until we found a good spot.

Once again, Nate got started on the fire while I set up the tents and M buried his plastic dinosaurs in the sand. One of those dinos is still buried, and luckily M is too young to care or realize that it’s gone forever.

The tide when out and a patch of pink shells appeared

The temperature on the beach was perfect, and I actually had to wear long sleeves and sleep inside my sleeping bag. There’s nothing like eating a yummy campfire meal and watching the sunset over the ocean, and then falling asleep with a gentle breeze to the sound of waves on the shore.

It was cold enough that I actually had to sleep inside my sleeping bag!

We’re not beach camping experts by any stretch of the imagination, but we have some wisdom to pass on to others planning to go beach camping in Oman. Here are some of our tips:

  • Bring a table. We also bring plastic bins, one for cooking gear, one for other stuff, and they also function as tables. There are no picnic tables here.
  • Buy firewood ahead of time. You can buy it reliably at the Sultan Center in Muscat (one bundle costs 2.500 OMR), and apparently at the OmanOil on the freeway by Quriyat. Do not plan on being able to find firewood or kindling at your campsite.

Beach sunset and the campfire

  • Bring an axe or hatchet to split your firewood. In the absence of an axe/hatchet, bring some fire starter.
  • Bring garbage bags. We always try to leave the campsite cleaner than when we arrived, and unfortunately in Oman you’ll find a lot of plastic garbage on almost every beach.
  • Bring a tarp or mat to put on the ground. You’ll want someplace where you can set things and they won’t get covered in sand. You can buy one of those large plastic mats at Lulu for less than 2 OMR.
  • Be prepared for late-night parties. The As Sifah beach is notorious for this. People will go to bed around 10 pm and then around 2 am the partiers will show up, playing music and making lots of noise until the sun comes up. We prefer to camp in difficult-to-access or off-the-beaten path areas for this reason.

Essential beach camping gear: beach tent + sleeping tent, plastic mat, plastic bins, cooler and water bladders

  • Embrace the sand. You’ll never get rid of all of it. It’s impossible. We keep a towel inside the tent by the door so we can wipe off our feet, but when we get home everything is still covered in sand.
  • Bring a beach tent. If it gets hot, you’ll be grateful for the shade, and if it’s windy, this is where you can prepare and eat sand-free meals.
  • Close your tent zipper fully, with both the zippers pulled up as high as they will go together (rather than pulling the two zippers together along the bottom of the tent). You don’t want scorpions in your tent!

Pork sausage and potatoes for breakfast

  • Don’t plan on finding ice anywhere after you leave Muscat. We bring a cooler with ice packs and we freeze what we can to help keep everything else cold. There is ice at the convenience store/gas station next to the freeway right by the Bimmah Sink Hole exit, and that is the only place I have ever seen ice.

Do you have any other beach camping tips? Let me know!

Ras Al Markaz

Ras Al Markaz: where you feel like you’re on a different planet

Ras Al Markaz feels like the setting for a seaside Mad Max movie. With the wind-blown cliffs, expansive beach, rust-colored water, and abandoned fishing boats, it’s otherworldly.

Ras Al Markaz is so insanely windy, the South Asian fishermen wander around wearing pants and jackets, with fabric wrapped around their heads and faces, for protection from the blowing sand. The wind blows so hard, the sand stings any unprotected skin.

Post-apocalyptic looking fishermen

We drove down to the beach, and while Nate was letting the air out of the tires, I got out of the car to take a few photos. Almost immediately, my hat and sunglasses blew off my head and my camera got covered by blowing sand. We had hoped that it would be a nice stopping point where we could have a picnic and M could get out of the car and run around, but instead he stayed strapped into his carseat while I hesitantly ventured out every few hundred meters to take more pictures (leaving my hat and sunglasses inside).

Rusty water at Ras Al Markaz

Fishermen’s boats at Ras Al Markaz

The wind blows the tops of waves in the other direction, and the beach is littered with fish skeletons. The mineral deposits in the cliffs along the beach make the water in the nearby stream run red. There are definitely lots of interesting and fun photography opportunities!

Waves actually blowing backwards

To get to Ras Al Markaz, take highway 32 south from Duqm towards Ras Al Madrakah. Before reaching Ras Al Madrakah you’ll see a sign pointing to the left for Ras Al Markaz. I would not recommend this beach for anything except for photography. I’d only drive down the beach with a 4WD vehicle. It’s far too windy and the sea is too rough for camping, swimming, picnicking, anything. The views are scenery are stunning and it’s a nice beach to drive along!

I half-expected War Boys to be driving those trucks

The Duqm Rock Garden

Rocks. Yes, this is actually a tourist attraction.

Duqm, a coastal town in the middle of Oman, is an interesting place. And I mean interesting as in “Hmmm… that’s, uh, interesting….” Not “Wow, that’s so interesting!”

Oman is marketing Duqm as a “special economic zone,” and a bunch of fancy new (by which I mean expensive) hotels have been recently constructed there as they try to build up the shipping industry. I’ve been trying for a while to get a full picture of what exactly is the big deal with Duqm, and I guess the objective is to turn it into the port that everyone stops at on their way up towards the Strait of Hormuz or the Indian Ocean. Right now Dubai is the big hub, but Duqm is centrally located in a strategic position closer to shipping lanes.  That’s my understanding of it, anyways. I could be wrong.

We drove through Duqm on our way down to Salalah, and I’d read about the Duqm Rock Garden. It’s a huge space full of interesting rocks, and it seemed like a good place to stop and stretch our legs.

First, however, we had to figure out how to access it. It’s surrounded by a construction project, and finding our way to the parking lot involved driving through construction sites and turning where it looked like we probably shouldn’t.

Surprise! There is a real parking lot and even a sign.

Eventually we found our way to the parking lot, put M in his hiking pack, and walked into the park. At which point we discovered that the park has been overrun by aggressive feral dogs.

Nate and I are dog people, but these ones were scary. They started barking and running towards us, and we made a beeline for the car. You can drive into the park, so we decided we’d just drive around instead and enjoy the park from the safety of our vehicle.

We reached one particularly interesting area, and I decided to get out of the car for a few minutes to take a few pictures. I was maybe 100 meters from the car and I heard a dog barking, so I started hurrying back to the car. The barking got closer, and I started sprinting. I got to the car and could see I a dog perched on an outcropping, watching my every move.

The second of the two photos I took before I sprinted back to the car.

Between the mess that was figuring out how to access the Rock Garden and the potential mauling that one could get there, I’m going to say that a stop here is absolutely not worth it. But it makes for a good story.

Al Khaluf: The Sugar Dunes

The white Sugar Dunes of Al Khaluf

The white sand dunes of Al Khaluf, also called Ras Bin Tawt or, more aptly, the Sugar Dunes, is one of my new favorite spots in Oman. It is amazingly beautiful.

The Sugar Dunes and the coast on a cloudy overcast morning

We left Muscat around 10:15 am and arrived in Al Khaluf 3:45. The majority of the drive is painfully boring, and it took a lot longer than we thought it would. But once you turn off the main road for Al Khaluf, the scenery changes into rocky dunes and the drive is beautiful.

The rocky sandy dunes of Al Khaluf

After leaving the paved road, we let the air out of the tires down to 15 PSI. We used the route in Oman Off Road to reach the dunes, and even with the GPS coordinates, it would have been impossible without the maps.me app. Luckily I’d downloaded it months ago and when we were getting lost with Waze and Google Maps, maps.me came through for us.

First you’ll drive along the Al Khaluf beach, and then you’ll have to drive inland a little ways. Eventually you’ll hit the coast again, at which point you’ve reached the Sugar Dunes. We drove along the dunes until we reached a spot that looked nice, where we pulled over and started setting up camp. We tried to angle the car a little for wind protection, and we set up the tent as close to the vehicle as we could.

We tried to use the car as a wind breaker along the beach

Nate got started on the fire while I set up the beach tent and the sleeping tent. The beach tent came in particularly handy here as a wind shelter. We could eat meals and prepare food without getting sand blown into everything.

That night I slept like crap. We had to put the fly on the tent because we didn’t want the fine-grain sand getting into everything, which turned the inside of the tent into an un-ventilated oven. Plus, it was so windy, the tent was making tons of noise, and I felt like I kept hearing someone outside our tent. We woke up the next morning and there were little fox prints all over our campsite. Thank goodness we put all our trash and food back in the car overnight!

The sky shortly after sunrise. Luckily that storm never blew our way!

After packing up our campsite we explored the dunes a bit more and then headed out. Oman Off Road said there was a neat fish farm to check out at the end of the peninsula, but it looks like it’s now defunct. And if you get out of the car there you’ll be attacked by a pack of dogs. The dogs came running at our car and kept up with us at 25 mph for several minutes, barking their heads off. So, don’t get out of the car!

We are definitely planning to back to the Sugar Dunes. Camping between the dunes and the ocean is an amazing experience, and the white dunes are just gorgeous. I kept running up the dunes to get more pictures as the light just got better and better. (Although now that I’m looking at the photos, I realize I still have some editing to do with the colors.) I’ve heard that the winter is less windy, and that seems like the perfect time for a return trip!

Sunset over the Sugar Dunes

The Great Salalah Road Trip of 2018

The Wadi Darbat waterfall near Salalah

When you go on a trip, it falls somewhere on the vacation-adventure spectrum. During a vacation, you have not a care in the world, and ideally you’re lying on a beach in the middle of nowhere with a good book in one hand and a drink in the other. When you’re on an adventure, you hit the ground running, and you don’t come up for air until the whole thing is over. Most trips are somewhere in the middle, especially when you have kids (because, let’s be honest, taking a proper vacation with small children is impossible).

We recently took a road trip down to Salalah, Oman’s largest town in the south, and it was 100% an adventure. We drove on beaches and off-road, camped in beautiful remote areas, hiked, lost part of our car on a windy mountain plateau, got chased by wild dogs and camels, explored ruins and waterfalls, got nearly blown over by wind, waded through parasite-laden streams, took thousands of photos, and had an awesome time.

Salalah during khareef: mountains, muddy roads, greenery, and clouds

Every year there is a monsoon season in the southern part of Oman, called the khareef, and it turns Salalah into a desert oasis. Plants spring out of the ground, streams and waterfalls with bright blue water appear out of nowhere, and the entire area becomes Oman’s #1 tourist destination.

So much greenery and turquoise water!

The khareef runs from June to August, and we were initially planning to visit over the long 4th of July weekend. But Nate went to Salalah for work in April, and the hotel receptionist told him that the best time to visit is actually September. It’s less rainy, the mountains are at their greenest, and there are less tourists. That receptionist was spot-on 100% correct: September was a perfect time to visit the region.

We took the coastal route to Salalah rather than the inland route, and we spent two nights camping on the way down, followed by 2 nights at a hotel in Salalah. Rather than drive back to Muscat, we opted to fly home and ship our car back with a vehicle transportation company. The total cost of shipping the car and plane tickets was less than $260, which was very much worth not having to drive 12-14 hours back.

Camping at the Sugar Dunes near Al Khaluf

I’ll write more about where we camped and what sites we saw on the way down, plus what we did and where we went in Salalah. For now, here’s a color-coded map of what we did, with the red pins marking camping spots and the blue pins indicating places of interest.


Here is our general itinerary:

Day 1: depart Muscat around 10 am, arrive at Al Khaluf at 3:45, reach campsite in the Sugar Dunes by 4:30

Day 2: depart campsite by 8:30 am; stop at Duqm Rock Garden, Ras Al Markaz beach, and the pink lagoon; reach Dhofar coast campsite by 4:45

Day 3: depart campsite by 8:30 am; stop in Hasik to see waterfall and ruins; stop numerous times along the route to take photos of the coastline; arrive at hotel around 5 pm

Day 4: visit Wadi Darbat: go to hillside viewing point for waterfall and travertine curtain; hike to waterfall; drive up to see ponds, streams and little waterfalls; hike to see travertine curtain from above; drive to see Tawi Ateer sink hole; drive to baobab tree forest; lunch in Mirbat; visit Ayn Tabruk and Ayn Athum

Day 5: visit Sumhuram ruins, Ayn Khor, Al Baleed archeological park and Land of Frankincense museum. Drop car off with vehicle transport guy at 5 pm and take taxi to airport

Also, if you’re planning to do this road trip, you may want to download the maps.me app. You can download the Oman map and it’ll still work well even when you have zero cellular service. Maps.me has all the tiny little tracks through dunes, mountains, and random fields that most people wouldn’t even consider to be roads. But when you want to go off the beaten track, even if you have GPS coordinates, it is very helpful.

Make sure you also have plenty of water, a towing cable, a tire deflator with a  gauge, a battery-powered tire pump, and a shovel. Also make sure you know where your jack and spare tire are. It’s always good to be prepared on a road trip to remote areas!

Camping at a random beach in norther Dhofar

An overnight at Ras Al Jinz

A mama turtle heading back to the sea, with a baby turtle following behind

About a month ago we visited Ras Al Jinz, a turtle nesting and research area on the eastern-most tip of Oman. Ras Al Jinz is a protected nature reserve, and it’s one of the few places in the world where green turtles nest year-round. Peak nesting season is June to August, and peak hatching season is September to November.

We departed Muscat at 10 am, and by noon we’d reached the white sandy beaches of Fins. After a nice lunch and swim, we got back on the road around 2:30. We arrived at the Ras Al Jinz turtle reserve and research center around 4:30; after we checked in, we made our way up to our tent. If you do the drive straight through, without stopping, the  trip from Muscat to Ras Al Jinz takes about 3.5 hours.

Camels along the road en route to Ras Al Jinz

There are two lodging options: eco-tents and a hotel. I can’t speak for the hotel, but the tents are pretty great.  There are tents for 2 or 4 people, and whichever tent size you pick, they are surprisingly large. We got a tent for 2 people, and there was plenty of space for M’s travel cot, plus a table, chairs, an A/C unit, television, and a minifridge.

Our tent

One strange thing about the tents: there is a long paved walkway leading up to the tents (it’s a bit of a hike), and there are signs saying you’re not allowed to drive on the walkway. But then there’s a large parking area up by the tents. We off-roaded a bit to drive up the tents, keeping to the unfinished area next to the walkway. I don’t know if a low-clearance vehicle could do it, but we had no problem in our Jeep.

A view of the tents from a nearby hill. Note the lovely parking area!

There was some down-time between getting settled into the tents and dinner, but there was space for the kids to run around and play. After spending several hours in the car, M was happy to finally be free, and Nate and I were happy with the bottle of wine and snacks that we’d brought with us.

Dinner at the resort starts at 7:00, and the price is apparently negotiable. It was a decent spread, with Indian and continental options. Nothing particularly special, but not bad either.

When you’re staying at Ras Al Jinz, you have two opportunities to see turtles: once at night, around 9 pm, and again in the early morning, around 5 am. I’ll tell you now that I enjoyed the morning viewing a lot more;  it’s also the best one for taking pictures and kids will find it more interesting too. At night you basically just get to see the turtles laying eggs, and there are mobs of people because the tour is open to people who aren’t staying at the resort, whereas the morning tour is only for those staying at the resort.  In the morning you can see the turtles in nests laying eggs, and also making their way back to the sea.

The resort and buildings are set quite a ways back from the beach, and for either viewing, plan on walking at least half a mile out to the beach on a dirt road or in the sand, tromping around in deep sand once you get to the beach, and then walking half a mile back. It’s not strenuous or anything, but it might be difficult for anyone with mobility issues.

A mama turtle digging a pit in which to lay eggs

Around 8:45 pm we elbowed our way through crowds of people and made our way down to the beach with a tour guide. The guides would message each other with the turtle locations so that we could (ideally) quietly and slowly, in a single file line, walk along the beach and see the turtles laying eggs and flapping in their sandy pits. With that many people, you can’t keep everyone quiet and following directions. If I were one of those turtles, I would have been pretty annoyed. But it was a neat experience, and definitely something I’d never seen before!

Another mama turtle heading back to sea after laying eggs

The next morning we woke up at 4:15 am to make it down to the main building by 4:55 to head back out to the beach. Poor M did not want to wake up, and eventually I told him we were going to see turtles. He leapt up and practically jumped out of bed, wide awake and ready for action!

The sun was rising as we walked back down to the beach, and we spent about 90 minutes at the beach, watching the mama turtles make their way back to the ocean. Our guide also had two baby turtles in his dishdasha pocket, which he set free on the beach. Those little guys frantically made their way to the ocean as quickly as possible, and it was one of the cutest things I’ve ever seen.

Another mama slowly making her way out of her sand pit towards the sea at 5 am

All the turtle tracks leading down to the beach

Our guides on the beach with another mama turtle emerging from her nest

After watching the turtles in the morning, we headed back to the main building for breakfast. It was a good spread, but the definite highlight was the espresso machine. I need a solid 8 hours of sleep to function, and 5 hours just won’t do it for me. Coffee with added espresso shots to the rescue!

The view down towards the beach from the main building. It’s maybe a half mile walk each way.

We trekked back to the tent, packed up, and hit the road by 8:30 am. On the drive back we stopped at Ras Al Hadd, the ancient city of Qalhat, and Wadi Tiwi. Other options could be stopping at Sur, Wadi Shab or Bimmah Sinkhole, or even checking out more of the beaches around Fins. There’s so much to do in that area!

If you wanted to make a whole weekend out of it, you could go to Bimmah and then camp at Fins one night, go to Wadi Shab and Sur on your way to Ras Al Jinz the next day, overnight at Ras Al Jinz, and then do Wadi Tiwi on your way home.

I’d highly recommend Ras Al Jinz, especially to those with children. In fact, we’re planning to go back again later in the year!

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!

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!