191 posts in this topic

Posted (edited)

A few months ago, I was asked to post my »decision making process«; probably because Sri Lanka is not a very well known destination on this forum. I was reluctant to do it before the trip, also because it involved one thing strongly recommended not to do, and I just didn't want to jinx the trip. Now, safely and happily back at home, here I go:

 

Africa captured our hearts, and with 2 trips absorbed and the third one already booked for, I wanted to go somewhere else. In September of 2015, after just finishing 3 weeks of the Azores, I knew it would have to be green, and with prolific wildlife, and with some colourful cultural parts. Asia is colourful, yet I have had no real information about its wildlife side. Luckily my co-worker was travelling through Sri Lanka a month before. Experienced in Asia (Vietnam, Malaysia, Cambodia) his words were encouraging; this was the part of Asia that has still retained some of its old ways.
First step was to find out about flights costs. Turkish Airlines is our preferred airline company, both for decent on-board quality given to economy class passengers, but more for its daily flights between Ljubljana and Istanbul. As I liked what I have found, my decision was easy. Not so for Zvezda. She has visited Sri Lanka in 1991, after 2 weeks in India … and according to her words, it was a disaster. Weather, roads, food, environment, general vibe, the only country she has been to and did not want to go back. Me, being a bit of a stubborn guy, dismissed her words as obsolete and outdated.
The next step was to go on the relevant Tripadvisor forum, always a good source of useful information. This was not my first impression about the Sri Lanka forum. And then a shock; while researching for self driving options I have encountered replies by local DEs (Destination Expert) and regular members that went from »do not attempt to self-drive« over »only for suicidal persons« toward »plain stupid« . What the heck, it is a 21st century out there, and I am not asking about driving from Sana'a to Mogadishu?!
Back to my co-worker. Although more of a backpacker type, he has rented a car for his family, one week. According to him, traffic is chaotic and dense, and one should drive utmost defensively (which he doubted I would be able to do) but if following the rather simple local road rules, possible. Phew! Now I needed to find more first-hand experiences. Most of the folks I contacted did not drive themselves, and warned me against it. But those that did it, said it is entirely doable although not for those with weak hearts or short temper. Maybe not for me, then?!
So, either car&driver or to join the organised tour. Second option sounded even worse. Then I reread the only post about Sri Lanka on Safaritalk: http://safaritalk.net/topic/12314-wildlife-expedition-to-sri-lanka/ by @Nature Traveller . One company is on the list. Going through relevant birding sites I have found two more. A tentative itinerary was sent to them, for 20 days. After a month or so of tweaking the itinerary I also received their quotations. Not happy with what I saw, I turned to car&driver option. Again, three recommended drivers sent me their respective quotations. This time costs were better but the correspondence with them did not meet my expectations. If I am about to spent 20 days in a car with a person not my wife or my daughter, I want to be sure we will »click« even before the journey starts. Didn't happened.
OK, let it be self-driving then. A Dutch birder, Alex Schouten has posted his self-driving & birding trip report, and luckily also his email address. He gave me enough assurances that I am not either suicidal nor stupid, and if I have enough experience in driving on the left hand side in the foreign countries, I should go for it. So last piece of the puzzle was solved. And the most important piece, I have to add. And words of our own @@PeterHG were also encouraging enough, although he chose the other way.
Not yet entirely sure about my decision, I thought that having a local person in the car for the first few days would add to my driving confidence. One reply on Tripadvisor, one email and one »click« was all I needed. After 5 days spent with Prasanna, I have to thank my guts for telling me he is the man. Self-driving it is!
Comparing the quotations received by various car&driver options, and the quotations from specialised birding related tours, the difference between the two was north of 1000 USD border. That says using a driver who would act also as our birding guide would cost us at least 50 USD per day. Not a huge amount, if using one for a week or so. But for 3 weeks, I recon, we are still not so dedicated birders to afford one. Another decision done. Self birding it is!
Edited by xelas
12 people like this

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted (edited)

Great start, thanks for doing this and all the details. But I'm confused....in the end, you decided on self-driving + self-birding, right? Where/how does Prasanna fit?

What about the "when to go" issue? I assume different seasons have different wet/dry days and different temperatures?

 

I am amazed that Zvezda, after her initial experience agreed to such a trip. You are a lucky man :)

Edited by xyz99
1 person likes this

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

@@xyz99

 

Didn't you read that I am a stubborn man :P !! Zvezda just has to stick with me, in good and in bad, ... :wub: .

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted (edited)

About Prasanna Ambigaibagan and his role:

 

Although being a stubborn man, and having plenty of self-confidence when driving a car is involved, all the negative vibes did made me a bit nervous. Thus I was looking for a person that would join us for first couple of days. Seeing one of Prasanna's posts on Tripadvisor I have contacted him. He is a nature photographer also. Not only useful for his knowledge of local driving habits but also for knowing Wilpattu NP very well, and having contacts with local jeep drivers, it looked like a good idea. And it turned out into a great idea. Now we have another friend abroad!

Edited by xelas
3 people like this

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

@@xyz99

 

Didn't you read that I am a stubborn man :P !! Zvezda just has to stick with me, in good and in bad, ... :wub: .

 

Oh yes, I read that....and as I said, you are lucky, very lucky my friend :)

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I've already enjoyed seeing your beautiful Sri Lanka bird photos, @@xelas, and reading your report will undoubtedly bring back good memories. I'm glad you were not put off by all the negative advice ( putting it mildly..:)) and in the end chose your self-driving option. Looking forward to the next episodes!

1 person likes this

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted (edited)

Itinerary was relatively easy to put together. There are two monsoons that influence the weather, and thus itineraries in Sri Lanka:


WHEN TO VISIT (QUICK SUMMARY)


BEST TIME

January - April (Entire Country)

Mid-July - September (Entire Country)

February - September (North and East)


MONSOON SEASON

May - July (South-West Monsoon)

October - January (North-East Monsoon)


BEACH SEASON

January - April (South)

May - July (East)


WILDLIFE

December - April (Bundala National Park - birds, South coast - whales)

November - April (Kalpitya - dolphins)

July - September (The Cultural Triangle - The Gathering of the Elephants, Yala/Wilpattu - leopards)



Yet monsoons are important only for those that are spending any time on the beaches; we are not those folks. Also, mid July-September is Best Time for entire country. This was our final itinerary:


29.7.2016 departure LJU 20:05

30.7.2016 arrival CMB 15:20, Negombo

31.7.2016 Negombo – Wilpattu 150 km, Wilpattu

01.8.2016 Wilpattu NP full day, Wilpattu

02.8.2016 Wilpattu – Habarana 100 km, Wilpattu NP half day, Habarana

03.8.2016 Habarana - Polonnaruwa - Habarana 100 km, cultural tour Polonnaruwa, Minneryia NP tour, Habarana

04.8.2016 Habarana - Sigiriya - Habarana 50 km, Sigiriya Rock Fortress, Pinduragala rock, Habarana

05.8.2016 Habarana – Kandy 100 km, via Dambulla Caves, Kandy

06.8.2016 Kandy 50 km, Peradeniya Botanical Gardens, cultural tour Kandy, Kandy

07.8.2016 Kandy 0 km, leisure day, Kandy

08.8.2016 Kandy - Nuwara Elyia 100 km, Victoria Park, Nuwara Eliya

09.8.2016 Nuwara Elyia - Horton Plains - Nuwara Eliya 100 km, Horton Plains NP, Hakgala Botanical Gardens, Nuwara Eliya

10.8.2016 Nuwara Elyia – Ella 100 km, (?? train ??), Ella

11.8.2016 Ella 50 km, Ella Rock, Little Adams Peak, Rawana Falls, Ella

12.8.2016 Ella – Tissamaharama 100 km, Tissa Lake, Tissamaharama

13.8.2016 Tissamaharama 50 km, Yala NP full day, Tissamaharama

14.8.2016 Tissamaharama 50 km, Bundala NP birding, Tissamaharama

15.8.2016 Tissamaharama - Udawalawe 150 km, Udawalawe NP, Udawalawe

16.8.2016 Udawalawe - Sinharaja 50 km, birding Sinharaja FR, Sinharaja

17.8.2016 Sinharaja FR 0 km, Sinharaja FR tour, Sinharaja

18.8.2016 Sinharaja FR – Galle 120 km, cultural tour Galle, Galle

19.8.2016 Galle – Negombo 125 km, Negombo

20.8.2016 Negombo 0 km, Dutch Canal&Negombo lagoon, Negombo

21.8.2016 Negombo 0 km, departure CMB 20:25

22.8.2016 arrival LJU 08:15


Majority of the above itinerary was respected, but as I am also nicknamed mr.Plan B by my daughter, some changes took place. Which ones, and why, will be explained later in the report.


Most of our accommodations were chosen based on the Tripadvisor Hotel Reviews, and on a few first-hand recommendations. Out of 22 nights, 10 were booked directly, and 12 were booked via booking.com. All reservations and all prices were respected in full. I have used Booking.com first time for to a larger extent, mostly due to its excellent cancellation policy; starting to plan a trip so many months in advance means routes got changed and places to stay got changed along. I really liked the flexibility of this engine, and will used it more in the future.

Edited by xelas
8 people like this

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Now, a few words about the biggest issue: Self driving – to do or not to do. This is from my post on Tripadvisor immediately after I have returned my rental car:


»Short version: if self-driving is your travel style, and you have done it before, in countries where traffic rules are less strictly applied, and you have used to drive on the left hand side, the answer is a definitive Yes.

Longer version: When I have started to prepare our trip to Sri Lanka, and for me it was the first visit to this country, way back in September of 2015, one issue caught my attention, and not in a good way: a resolute adverse opinion to self-driving expressed by almost all the DE on this forum. Being one also myself, I have taken their words to heart; but as self-driving is the core of our travels, I started a long and laborious job to better understand all the problems that might be lurking out on the Sri Lankan roads. And, based on what was written in the general answers, those are not minor problems. Words like chaotic traffic, predatory police officers, and even the mob that is willing to lynch the unlucky driver, has driven some fear into my bones. But stubborn, I did also look for more positive sides. One was my co-worker, just coming from Sri Lanka, and renting a car for a week. He knows me as a driver, and his remark was: Drive defensively, and keep your temper at bay! Another one was a fellow birder/traveller who encouraged me to do it, as he did it in 2014 and having a great time.

Still not convinced, and since public transport is not our travel style, I have contacted a couple of drivers recommended by local DEs. They all have responded in time, but none of their replies completely satisfied me. Or the costs were too vague (just forget about 45 RS/km, it does not exists), or their written English was not up to my expectations, or we could not establish the total cost for a 20 days of driving across the country; my calculation says max 2000 km and at 50 Rs/km my offer was to pay them 100.000 Rs flat, but none of them had been willing to accept my offer. And, as told above, I have done many travels in last 25 years, and each one included renting a car and driving around the country by myself.

Finally, I decided to challenge the fate. Finding a rental car company was relatively easy. Casons Rent A Car is a big enough company with a good reputation. The car choice was a larger SUV, a Hyundai Tucson automatic, to be one step higher on the “traffic ladder”. The costs were acceptable at 130.000 Rs for 21 days and 2100 km max. The CDW excess was set at 300 Euros. The car was returned without any damages so was the deposit. Driving comfort was very good, a powerful engine for all those hilly roads, and very efficient A/C inside the cabin.

Final impressions: after 20 days and 1600 km covered, my driving experiences were good, if not even excellent, and made me confident enough to write the short answer, and to do it again on my next visit. BTW the team in my car were me, an almost 60 years old male behind the wheel, and my wife who did a great job as a navigator.

As said, we have covered 1600 km between Negombo – Wilpattu – Habarana – Kandy – Nuwara Eliya – Ella – Tissamaharama – Udawalawe – Sinharaja - Galle – Negombo. We have tried all kind of different roads, and most of major ones (Axx) were in excellent condition, flat and without any potholes, with enough of directional signs that finding the major tourist attraction was never a problem. Minor roads (Bxxx) were a mixed bag. Most were narrow, so with an oncoming traffic, one has to squeeze on the far edge of the pavement, and many times even off it, if gutter allowed. But that was also done by the oncoming vehicle. On all roads average driving speed was very slow, for me coming from Europe. In towns speed is limited to 50 km/h (and 40 km/h feels like too fast) while outside it is limited to 70 km/h but only a handful of roads are straight enough to allow such a speed. Much was written about the reckless bus drivers. They indeed are the fastest vehicles on the road, trying to somehow follow their schedule. So they will drive on the upper speed limits of their vehicles, overtake all and every vehicle in front of them irrespective of the traffic situation, and will impose their “top predator” position on the road hierarchy ladder. But saying all this, I have nothing but admiration for these professionals! Once you get used to the big red (or white or blue) monster coming behind you, or in front of you, you will know the drill: give him the space! And they will honk at you (thank you) for your kindness. In fact, the bus drivers are the most predictable drivers on Sri Lankan roads, and as such also the safest, IMO. The most unpredictable ones are personal car drivers, mostly driving pearl white Toyota Prius (yes, I have done my statistics). Some of them were acting absolutely stupid! As if they have just printed their driving license of the internet that morning, and sat in their brand new Prius with 300 km on odometer, trying to check out how driving is in real world! So, whenever I have seen such a car I have left a considerable amount of space between us (which was immediately taken by one, two, three, four tuk tuks). Speaking of tuk tuk drivers, as predictable as bus drivers. Forget about them using the blinkers (if the bulbs even exist in their tail lights), and similar to vespa drivers in south Italy, they are masters of using every available square centimetre of road. However, they do realise their position on the “traffic ladder” so they care about their means of living (tuk tuk) and their passengers. Bikes are commonly used, mostly by fathers driving their kindergarten age kids in front of them, and the rest of the family behind. On a positive note, everyone on the bike uses helmets! Bicycles are not many, more like the relicts of the old days (and most of them also looks like a museum worthy item). What remains are truck drivers. Here again, mixed feelings. Those using newer (and smaller) delivery trucks were careful about their vehicles, same as those using the colourful historical Austin with wooden cabin and no doors. The worst of the bunch were the drivers of rigid Tata’s. Although limited to 40 km/h they have always pushed their “muscles” on the traffic. The good part is that they are mostly seen in the urban areas where the traffic is always very congested and thus very slow.

And yes, the famous private drivers! The ones that every visitor not on a backpack itinerary should use, for their own personal safety. I will comment only on those driving the vans, and cars where the tour company sticker was visible. On average, I would not feel comfortable sitting in the front passenger seat in most of those cars. For some I would ask the driver to swap his place as otherwise we would never reach the destination of the day. And in others, I would feel like the member of the “White-knuckles Safari Team” and after exiting the vehicle, no force would get me in again!

The police officers: they were omnipresent, which is a good sign, and those we have made contact with, or being flagged down or just sitting in the same tea shop, were all very professional, courteous and willing to help. Not once was I asked for driving documents, so only good words for those that we have encounter.

The gas station: enough of them one should never run out of the fuel. Beside bottled water, public buses and trains tickets, gasoline is about the only item a tourist will pay the same price as the local. All pump stations are metered, and 92 octane petrol (don’t ask for the unleaded one) goes for 117 Rs per liter, countrywide. Stations have attendants, and if asked for, a bill is also issued. I have always paid in cash.

The best road was the E1 highway between Galle and Colombo. New and limited to 100 km/h, and compared to the highways in my country looked almost deserted. The toughest but also the most scenic roads were B181 between Rakwane and Sinharaja, and A17 between Rakwane and Galle (the first part that climbs over the mountains."

( … missing part you can read on below link …).


For those of you that are interested in reading the integral version and replies here is a link to TA:

9 people like this

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted (edited)

31/07 - 02/08 - Negombo to Wilpattu NP

 

 

After much needed sleep we woke up early. Ouside our first bird of the trip was already waiting for us! Remember its face, and wait till the end of this report.

 

 

"Welcome to Sri Lanka"

post-47185-0-76045800-1474991110_thumb.jpg

 

 

 

Our guide and friend-to-become Prasanna was on time but car rental was not. Well, they did arrive at 8 am as agreed but then they disappeared for one hour. Not that we noticed it as we had time for our first Lankan breakfast. The pick-up procedure was quick and thorough. Out through the (narrow) gates and the adventure begun. Side roads were almost empty, and there was not much of traffic on the main road either. Probably due to Sunday. Initial nervousness slowly faded away also helped by a stream of interesting information Prasanna shared with us.

 

One very relaxed driver

post-47185-0-30722100-1474989583_thumb.jpg

 

Sunday morning traffic

post-47185-0-32631600-1474989600_thumb.jpg

 

A sight we have seen too many times

post-47185-0-69990900-1474989618_thumb.jpg

 

 

First stop was at Anaiwilundawa Wetland Sanctuary. A not much known Ramsar site that we had some difficulties to find. When there, it was a lovely place consisting of different big man-made lakes (tanks) with banks on which one can or drive or walk. We had this place all to ourselves.

 

The sign in urgent need of some TLC

post-47185-0-16810800-1474990182_thumb.jpg

 

On the green background 1

post-47185-0-47032000-1474990250_thumb.jpg

On the green background 2

post-47185-0-00297900-1474990287_thumb.jpg

Not only birds are residents of this sanctuary.

 

post-47185-0-46297100-1474990367_thumb.jpg

 

post-47185-0-11534700-1474990385_thumb.jpg

 

post-47185-0-76204300-1474990400_thumb.jpg

 

post-47185-0-14219500-1474990434_thumb.jpg

But water birds were prevalent.

post-47185-0-72397300-1474990451_thumb.jpg

post-47185-0-86300400-1474990465_thumb.jpg

Edited by xelas
14 people like this

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

After a couple hours we continued our journey towards Wilpattu NP. The good side of having a car (with or without a driver) is that one can stop when a photo opportunity emerges. Like when we saw this congregation of birds.

 

post-47185-0-44511800-1474991406_thumb.jpg

 

 

Also the local fishermen has noticed that there must be some food in the water.

 

post-47185-0-79368700-1474991347_thumb.jpg

 

post-47185-0-92443000-1474991369_thumb.jpg

 

post-47185-0-97702000-1474991395_thumb.jpg

 

 

But not only fishermen were interesting in fish.

 

post-47185-0-89158300-1474991241_thumb.jpg

post-47185-0-43065100-1474991264_thumb.jpg

post-47185-0-79013500-1474991283_thumb.jpg

post-47185-0-98142800-1474991324_thumb.jpg

16 people like this

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Entering the park as soon as the gate opens is important also in Sri Lanka. Thus Prasanna suggested to stay as close as possible. Thimbiriwewa Ecoresort was our choice. First thing, that “resort” part of its name was just pure owner’s imagination. The “eco” part not so much, but more in the “basic” way of the word. The main (only) building has 2 (large) rooms, sparse furniture made from local wood, and a working A/C. The lady of the house cooked us wonderful dinners in her small kitchen. There were many large bushes and small trees all around the house so the “feeder” attracted many birds.

 

 

The "resort"

 

post-47185-0-98355800-1474991859_thumb.jpg

 

post-47185-0-55310500-1474991850_thumb.jpg

 

post-47185-0-82210600-1474991884_thumb.jpg

 

 

The "feeder"

post-47185-0-28843700-1474992008_thumb.jpg

post-47185-0-50910200-1474992020_thumb.jpg

post-47185-0-11149400-1474992036_thumb.jpg

The "lurker"

post-47185-0-30752400-1474992056_thumb.jpg

The "guardian"

post-47185-0-43651100-1474992098_thumb.jpg

 

 

The "omnipresent"

post-47185-0-06333100-1474992110_thumb.jpg

 

THE dinner

 

post-47185-0-40284000-1474991913_thumb.jpg

 

post-47185-0-75226200-1474991985_thumb.jpg

20 people like this

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Beautiful, Alex! Your preparation for this self-driving adventure is quite impressive - I´m very glad it worked out so well for you both. Glad that Zvezda enjoyed it despite her initial misgivings.

 

What kind of squirrel is that?

 

Looking forward to more photos! Little spoiler here: I have seen some of them, and therefore know some truly outstanding stuff is awaiting the readers of this report. :)

1 person likes this

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

What a great beginning! Love the resort photos (tongue in cheek)! Again stunning wildlife photos and can't wait for more. How did you convince your wife to join this journey? Must have taken some serious negotiations!

1 person likes this

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

@@michael-ibk

Thanks for kind words, and great promotion!

 

 

@@wildlifepainter

Very easily! I have just bought the flights; that is a Point Of No Return for us. And I have also promised her she can do all the photography stuff (not a tough decision, eh?!)! And that there will be fantastic weather! Who could resist??

(BTW, same strategy applies also to our next trip to Kruger ;) + plus plenty of braai time with steaks :P ).

Edited by xelas
1 person likes this

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Forgot to ID the animals: The Common Three-striped Palm Squirrel. The mongoose is probably the Ruddy Mongoose. The dog is a Beige Smilling dog. The bee-eater is Green Bee-eater.

Edited by xelas
4 people like this

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Nice report. Did you &/or wife eat the curd?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Pure Curd????

 

There must be a story there :)

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

@@xelas really enjoying your TR so far, beautiful photos and such an interesting introduction to Sri Lanka which is a destination that I have on my list.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

@@Gilgamesh

 

Yes, we ate it, it was served at many dinners. The curd is also sold along many roads, in smaller or bigger clay pots, but we have not ate that one.

There are different kind of trickles, I have to ask Zvezda about the best one.

1 person likes this

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

@@xyz99

 

There must be, for sure. Just not from me :( . The curd reminded me of sour milk from my youth when the milk was still not processed and it turned into delicious sour milk.

The milk used should be from buffalo. Ha, there would surely be a story if I would have to milk the buffalo :D !

2 people like this

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

@@Treepol

 

Sri Lanka for sure is a destination that merits the visit! The oil palm plantations still didn't overwhelmed the countryside, tea plantations, although extensive, at least looks nice, and people are friendly and welcoming. While car&driver transfers are prevalent type of transportation, I can assure you that driving a car is not such a taboo as some people tries to establish.

1 person likes this

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

@@Gilgamesh

 

Yes, we ate it, it was served at many dinners. The curd is also sold along many roads, in smaller or bigger clay pots, but we have not ate that one.

There are different kind of trickles, I have to ask Zvezda about the best one.

Wow! Impressive. My brother went back to Lanka after 35 years and ate it and paid for it for days after that. We were born there, lol!..... Obviously out stomach has gotten used to the sterile North American environment.

 

P.S: If I ever go back, Ill be using this trip report as the guide. Keep up the excellent job.

Edited by Gilgamesh
1 person likes this

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

very interesting @@xelas and useful for anyone else that might like to see Sri Lanka this way. Thanks

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

@Gilhamesh

 

We have not eaten any street food or at hotels (you know this type of eateries). However many dinners were home cooked, and more then a few kitchens were very basic, to say it politely. We have had zero health issues which speaks volumes about Sri Lanka general hygiene situation. Of course, drinking water only from bottles, for any use. Like most of the locals are doing also.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

@@wilddog

 

Thanks! I am at fence of how much details about our trip to include in this trip report. Thus I will try to answer any additional question a reader might have.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!


Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.


Sign In Now

  • Recently Browsing   0 members

    No registered users viewing this page.


© 2006 - 2017 www.safaritalk.net - Talking Safaris and African Wildlife Conservation since 2006. Passionate about Africa.