It took us a while to spot her!
It took us a while to spot her!
A seat AND a bed!
A seat AND a bed!
A light breakfast as we cross Botswana
A light breakfast as we cross Botswana

If you want to go on safari in Africa you have two choices: book it in advance or turn up and hope for the best.  The latter approach generally yields much better deals but demands some flexibility.  I researched some of the options ahead of time and the costs were downright scary.  We are talking well north of US$1000 for an 8-day tour!  To put that in perspective, that is roughly equivalent to our monthly budget!

Fortunately, our turn-up-and-see-what-happens approach worked out just fine.  On our first full day in Windhoek we visited a couple of tour agencies including the Cardboard Box Travel Shop where we learned about a tour that was departing in about four days.  Chad, the owner, would personally be leading the 8-day “participation safari” to some of Namibia’s headlining attractions.  Unlike the expensive tours, we’d be responsible for feeding ourselves, erecting/stowing the tents and loading the vehicle.  The itinerary included two nights in Etosha Park, a night in Damaraland, two nights in Swakopmund on the coast and finally two nights near the dunes at Sossousvlei.  Don’t worry if those names don’t mean anything, I’ll be writing about all of them in the coming posts!  I’ll also put together a budget summary for the safari in the final post on Namibia.

Namibia has some great roads
Namibia has some great roads

On the first day of the trip we made the 400km drive north from Windhoek to the southern entrance to Etosha.  The roads in Namibia were much better than we were expecting (Mongolia certainly altered my concept of what constitutes a bad road!) so we reached the park by mid afternoon.   As soon as we were through the gates we started to see the animals and lots of them there were.

Sometimes the birds dwarf the mammals!
Sometimes the birds dwarf the mammals!

Like many of the parks in Africa, Etosha is basically a huge fenced-in area.  The park is a little more than 22,000 km² which is roughly the size of the state of New Jersey but the wildlife is a bit more exciting!  The animals that live in the park roam freely, eat each other and do what wild animals do.  Water is the only thing that is provided to them by humans and this is because they are not able to migrate long distances in search of water as they would do in the wild.  The park staff drill boreholes to make small ponds for the animals.

Oryx (Gemsbok)
Oryx (Gemsbok)

Etosha is also the only game park in Africa where you can turn up in your personal vehicle (we saw people driving tiny VW’s!) and go on a self-guided safari.  The roads inside of the park are sealed and comparable to what you find in many national parks back home.  The rules are simple: stay on the roads and never get out of your car except at designated points.  I guess this makes sense considering you could very well end up as a tasty meal for one of the park’s residents.

A black rhino!
A black rhino!

There are a number of camps within the confines of Etosha.  We stayed at Okaukuejo lodge, a German-built camp dating back to 1901.  The facilities there include a luxury hotel, a campground, a swimming pool, a small airport and probably lots of other things I am forgetting.  We stayed in the campground but were treated to hot showers each evening and even running water at our campsite.

The best part of Okaukuejo was the adjacent watering hole.  Just a short walk from our campsite we could go sit and watch the activity at the watering hole behind the safety of a formidable fence and stone wall!  Sitting at the watering hole you have basically a nonstop parade of animals coming through.  At first there might be some giraffes awkwardly drinking from the pond (did you know they pass out if they keep their head down in the water too long?).  A short while later a pride of lions might come in for a drink and a nap while the lesser animals watch on cautiously with envy.  After they leave it could be rhinos, wildebeest, springbok, etc.  The parade goes on and on around the clock.  Amy and I both agreed that we could have spent days hanging around watching the action.

It took us a while to spot her!
It took us a while to spot her!

The main activity inside of the park is to go on game drives.  We completed a number of drives in the early morning and late afternoon when the animals are most active.  Chad had large modified Land Rover was perfectly suited for photography with huge windows.  Combine the vehicle with Chad’s uncanny ability to spot animals out in the bush and we had more than our share of animal sightings!  Be sure to check out the gallery below for many more photos from our time at Etosha.

Namibia – Etosha National Park
Beware of the warthogs!
Beware of the warthogs!
Namibia has some great roads
Namibia has some great roads
The group just outside of the camp ground at Okaukuejo
The group just outside of the camp ground at Okaukuejo
Kudu
Kudu
Kori Bustard (Ardeotis kori)
Kori Bustard (Ardeotis kori)
These springbok have figured out how to share the limited shade.
These springbok have figured out how to share the limited shade.
Springbok
Springbok
Red-Crested Korhaan
Red-Crested Korhaan
Jackel
Jackel
Sociable weavers - massive bird colonies
Sociable weavers – massive bird colonies
A black rhino!
A black rhino!
Etosha Pan
Etosha Pan
Cats and birds.  Both bigger in Africa.
Cats and birds. Both bigger in Africa.
Zebra crossing?
Zebra crossing?
The viewing area at the lodge's watering hole.
The viewing area at the lodge’s watering hole.
Black Rhino
Black Rhino
Helmeted guineafowl running for the water
Helmeted guineafowl running for the water
Oryx (Gemsbok)
Oryx (Gemsbok)
Southern Masked-Weaver?
Southern Masked-Weaver?
Kudu
Kudu
Helmeted Guineafowl
Helmeted Guineafowl
Looks like we aren't going to be continuing on this road.
Looks like we aren’t going to be continuing on this road.
Secretarybird (Sagittarius serpentarius)
Secretarybird (Sagittarius serpentarius)
Gemsbok (Oryx)
Gemsbok (Oryx)
A lone wildebeest listening to his radio
A lone wildebeest listening to his radio
Sometimes the birds dwarf the mammals!
Sometimes the birds dwarf the mammals!
Gemsbok (Oryx)
Gemsbok (Oryx)
The more vulnerable animals come out to drink in the light of day.
The more vulnerable animals come out to drink in the light of day.
Tuna sandwich.  I ate a few of those in Namibia.
Tuna sandwich. I ate a few of those in Namibia.
Acacia (also known as camelthorn)
Acacia (also known as camelthorn)
Jackel
Jackel
Blacksmith Lapwing (Vanellus armatus)
Blacksmith Lapwing (Vanellus armatus)
Jackels
Jackels
Spotted Eagle-Owl (Bubo africanus)
Spotted Eagle-Owl (Bubo africanus)
Cape Fox (Vulpes chama)
Cape Fox (Vulpes chama)
Mongoose
Mongoose
It took us a while to spot her!
It took us a while to spot her!

Day 11 – Tsenkher Hot Springs

Today’s drive wasn’t all that bad. We left the White Lake and took the same road out that we arrived on. Two of the boys from the family we were staying with joined us as they had school starting the next morning. They go to high school five days a week in the village of Tariat then they come home on the weekends to help the family with farm tasks.

Another fine looking Mongolian bridge
Another fine looking Mongolian bridge

After our lunch stop in the village Ikh Tamir we took a dirt road to the southeast into the mountains. The road was some of the roughest we have seen, especially on the uphills where all traffic competes for the path with the lowest grade. Making matters worse is the annual rainwater that erodes each of the tire tracks into little canyons.

The hot springs, the main attraction of the day, were great! Our last shower (or running water for that matter) was three days prior so we were in need of a good scrubbing. Our ger camp had a couple of nicely outfitted shower rooms with steaming hot water that had been piped in from the springs on the other side of the valley. Outside there was a large soaking pool also fed by the springs. Outside air temperatures must have been around freezing but soaking in the warm pool was pure bliss!

Sleep was once again hit-or-miss. We had a pretty much unlimited supply of wood for the stove but having to get up every couple of hours to load it was quite annoying. At one point, maybe around 4AM, I put too much wood in the stove and made it super hot in our ger – hot enough to wake me up dripping with sweat. A few hours later I woke up again freezing cold and able to see my breath in the air. Mongolians are a lot tougher than I am!

Our driver lighting our stove the fast way - with a blowtorch
Our driver lighting our stove the fast way – with a blowtorch

Minivan odometer at end of day 11: 2042km (207km today)

Day 12 – Mongol Els

Flags at Övgön Khiid
Flags at Övgön Khiid

Originally our 14-day tour itinerary had us set to visit the Orkhon Waterfall. I am sure the waterfall is nice but the original 14-day itinerary would have left us with just one day in UB for the usual souvenir shopping, postcard writing, etc. We also faced the rather high tour cost of $82 per person per day now that it was just the two of us so we scratched the falls from the itinerary.

With the new itinerary, we were supposed to drive from the hot springs to Lun village which is only about 150km from UB. Lun Village is a popular place for tourists to stay with a local family, have a BBQ, ride horses, etc. Since we are both eating vegetarian on the tour our guide suggested that maybe we make another change. She suggested a stop at Mongol Sands instead of Lun Village and I think she made the right call. Mongol Sands is like a mini Gobi where you can see sand dunes, ride camels and visit the ruins of a monastery.

By now we are getting quite used to bouncing across the steppe in the Russian van. The drive from the hot springs to Mongol Sands was a piece of cake at 205km in about five hours. We made a brief stop in Kharkhorin for lunch where Amy and I finally learned the notation for toilet in Mongolia: ’00′. Such information is very useful in Mongolia towns. At today’s lunch stop, finding the outhouse was quite the challenge as it was hidden behind a rusting hulk of old steel on the grounds of an abandoned Soviet factory. Day-to-day life as a tourist in Mongolia is filled with mini-adventures like this one.

Mongol Sands wasn’t much further down the road. A few camels dotting the side of the road were a good hint that we were getting close. We turned off the main road and drove parallel to some short dunes which were covered in snow to some extent – an interesting juxtaposition. An even greater contrast was between the dunes to our left and the marshlands to our right! Many birds, including some migratory species were congregated around the water.

The Övgön Khiid monastery was a pretty nice stop. The monastery itself had been sacked by ‘Red Russia’ (as they like to say here) back in the 1930′s and the modern temple structures were built in the 1990′s. The temples were nice but to me the site’s real charm was the location nestled in a narrow valley that had been lightly dusted with snow.

The ruins of Övgön Khiid
The ruins of Övgön Khiid

The family that ran the ger camp didn’t have blankets for us tonight but they did come up with something equally useful and infinitely more entertaining: dels! Here is what I wore to bed:

Boxers, long johns (two pairs), pants, wool socks, cotton socks, undershirt, collared shirt, black long-sleeve shirt, hoodie, down jacket, Mongolian del and a belt to pull it together.
Boxers, long johns (two pairs), pants, wool socks, cotton socks, undershirt, collared shirt, black long-sleeve shirt, hoodie, down jacket, Mongolian del and a belt to pull it together.

Minivan odometer at end of day 12: 2247km (205km today)

Mongolia Tour Days 11-12
Another fine looking Mongolian bridge
Another fine looking Mongolian bridge
Frost around the hot tubs
Frost around the hot tubs
Our driver lighting our stove the fast way - with a blowtorch
Our driver lighting our stove the fast way – with a blowtorch
Some of the springs at Tsenkher
Some of the springs at Tsenkher
Does this mean that you can park here?
Does this mean that you can park here?
Bird wake
Bird wake
The first plane I had seen in many days
The first plane I had seen in many days
Virgin Atlantic, likely from Beijing or Shanghai headed to Heathrow
Virgin Atlantic, likely from Beijing or Shanghai headed to Heathrow
A little frog (toad?) that I nearly stepped on
A little frog (toad?) that I nearly stepped on
The ruins of Övgön Khiid
The ruins of Övgön Khiid
Flags at Övgön Khiid
Flags at Övgön Khiid
Mongolian toaster
Mongolian toaster
Boxers, long johns (two pairs), pants, wool socks, cotton socks, undershirt, collared shirt, black long-sleeve shirt, hoodie, down jacket, Mongolian del and a belt to pull it together.
Boxers, long johns (two pairs), pants, wool socks, cotton socks, undershirt, collared shirt, black long-sleeve shirt, hoodie, down jacket, Mongolian del and a belt to pull it together.

Saxaul tree
Saxaul tree

Mercifully, the fourth day of our tour involved less driving. I think we only covered about 150km today traveling from Yolyn Am to an area known to tourists as the Flaming Cliffs.

Lunch in progress at the ger cafe. Single pot cooking is the name of the game.
Lunch in progress at the ger cafe. Single pot cooking is the name of the game.

Along the way we stopped in a small village called Bulgan for lunch at a ger cafe. I am starting to gather that lunch at a ger cafe is always a lengthy process. First, placing your order (that is, Ultzi placing our order for us) takes some time. It always seems to involve a great deal of back-and-forth conversation/debate/bartering between Ultzi and the cook in completely incomprehensible Mongolian. Second, one has to wait for someone to go out and obtain the requisite ingredients. Third, the stove has to be lit. Forth, the veggies have to be chopped.  And so on.  Don’t get me wrong, freshly cooked food is the best plan in an area without refrigeration but it is amazing how long it takes. Budget at least 2 hours for lunch at a ger cafe.

During the lengthy dining process you do get to learn a little about the people who own the cafe. In Bulgan the family had a number of kids that were playing around the ger. By the end of our lunch stop one of our tour companions decided to buy the whole group of them lollipops from the store. We evacuated shortly thereafter and didn’t get to witness the sugar-fueled chaos that ensued.

The Flaming Cliffs were just a short ways beyond Bulgan and we had plenty of time to wander around before sunset. The area adjacent to our ger camp had loads of saxaul trees which grow at an amazingly slow rate into all sorts of twisted and strange shapes.

The Flaming Cliffs
The Flaming Cliffs

The next morning we visited the Flaming Cliffs. The rock formations are impressive and apparently a large number of dinosaur fossils have been found in the area. We didn’t see any dinosaurs but there were all sorts of strange plants, bugs and lizards to be found.

Minivan odometer: 902km (150km today)

Mongolia Tour Day 4 – Flaming Cliffs
Our ger camp near Yolyn Am
Our ger camp near Yolyn Am
Instead of a stone, this ger had a piece of an old radiator to hold it in place.  Discarded crankshafts are also popular.
Instead of a stone, this ger had a piece of an old radiator to hold it in place. Discarded crankshafts are also popular.
The village of Bulgan's modest temple
The village of Bulgan’s modest temple
A comorant in the middle of the Gobi.  He looks lost!
A comorant in the middle of the Gobi. He looks lost!
Lunch at a "ger cafe."  Amy, Bonnie and Miina plus some random American guy who was lost.
Lunch at a "ger cafe." Amy, Bonnie and Miina plus some random American guy who was lost.
Lunch in progress at the ger cafe. Single pot cooking is the name of the game.
Lunch in progress at the ger cafe. Single pot cooking is the name of the game.
A full belly after lunch.  I wonder if they deliver?
A full belly after lunch. I wonder if they deliver?
Miina and Bonnie bought some candy for the kids at the ger cafe.
Miina and Bonnie bought some candy for the kids at the ger cafe.
Mongolian road
Mongolian road
The Flaming Cliffs
The Flaming Cliffs
Even-toed undulate (camel) footprints
Even-toed undulate (camel) footprints
Lizard crossing
Lizard crossing
Miina, Amy and Ultzi
Miina, Amy and Ultzi
Saxaul tree
Saxaul tree
The Flaming Cliffs
The Flaming Cliffs
Sand circles
Sand circles
Busy beetle
Busy beetle
Porcupine quills
Porcupine quills
Every ger has a sky light
Every ger has a sky light

The facilities
The facilities

My unfortunately timed bout with food poisoning (it started on day 1) continued into the third day but I was feeling much better overall. Making bathroom runs to the outhouse some 100 yards out into the steppe at 3AM when it is below freezing is quite the experience. Especially on breezy nights like the one we had last night.  That said, there is an upside. Combine a door/roofless outhouse with a stiff breeze and you have got yourself a smell-free bathroom trip with one heck of a view!

Main street Dalanzadgad
Main street Dalanzadgad

Around 1:30 today we stopped in the town of ДАЛАНЗАДГАД (Dalanzadgad) for shopping, lunch and, most importantly, showers! This time the shopping facilities were much more western we even got to partake in a form of transportation that I didn’t think we would see for many days: an escalator! Dalanzadgad is the capital of the Gobi aimag (province) and has a whopping 14,000 residents!

Dust. This has been one of the biggest hardships thus far on the tour. Shortly after we loaded up in the minivan on day one I noticed that most of the interior seams as well as the rear windows were sealed with either duct tape or packing tape. As it turns out, the tape had been put there to curb the amount of dust constantly trying to invade the back of the vehicle. I’d hate to see how bad it is without the tape because it is pretty horrendous as is. Here is an example of what our bags looks like at the end of a day’s driving.

This photo shows how dusty it was inside the van after a day on the steppe. That is my blue backpack in the center.
This photo shows how dusty it was inside the van after a day on the steppe. That is my blue backpack in the center.

The dust was actually making it pretty hard to breathe and most of spent some time hacking and coughing each day so far. Thanks to the Chinese population it is actually quite easy to find face masks in the towns so we picked some of those up during the lunch stop. I’m sure we look like right idiots but it was certainly an upgrade from my underwear bandit look from earlier in the day (undershirt wrapped around the face!).

One solution to the dust problem
One solution to the dust problem

Anyhow, the shower stalls at the public bathhouse were squeaky clean and the hot water was plentiful. Washing off what felt like a pound of dust/dung, shaving, and quickly doing some laundry in the running water was unbelievably indulgent. This is what happens when you haven’t seen running water in 3 days!

A short 90 minute drive from the town took us to the entrance gate to Yolyn Am, a park that has a valley with ice year-round. Well, it is supposed to be year-round but it recent years most of it has melted away by mid-summer. There were still small patches of ice to be found but it wasn’t the meter-thick slab that we were expecting. It was about a 6km roundtrip hike into the valley and we were a bit disappointed that we arrived so late in the day. The sun was setting (and the temperature plummeting) when we were on the walk in. Wildlife spotted inside the canyon included some vultures, thousands of small rodent looking creatures, a lone bat and a few smaller birds.

Minivan odometer: 752km (251km today)

Mongolia Tour Days 1-3
Walking around a ovoo (cairn) for good luck.  Three times around with it on your right.
Walking around a ovoo (cairn) for good luck. Three times around with it on your right.
All sorts of interesting offerings on the ovoo: skulls, cash and vodka bottles to name a few.
All sorts of interesting offerings on the ovoo: skulls, cash and vodka bottles to name a few.
We found camels!
We found camels!
The first camels of our RTW trip
The first camels of our RTW trip
High five!
High five!
Ultzi fishing some water out of the magic rock
Ultzi fishing some water out of the magic rock
This is supposed to make your eyesight better
This is supposed to make your eyesight better
Home sweet home
Home sweet home
This ger came with a guard dog
This ger came with a guard dog
Hospital, orphanage, or shopping mall?
Hospital, orphanage, or shopping mall?
Lunch on day 2: our first ger cafe
Lunch on day 2: our first ger cafe
Mongolian truck stop
Mongolian truck stop
This photo shows how dusty it was inside the van after a day on the steppe. That is my blue backpack in the center.
This photo shows how dusty it was inside the van after a day on the steppe. That is my blue backpack in the center.
Camels like to shake their lips
Camels like to shake their lips
and wag their tails (nonstop)
and wag their tails (nonstop)
and roll in the dust
and roll in the dust
The facilities
The facilities
Watching for the herd to come home.
Watching for the herd to come home.
I'm not quite sure why this young camel was so shaggy.
I’m not quite sure why this young camel was so shaggy.
A very playful kid at the ger camp
A very playful kid at the ger camp
Herding home the goats and sheep by motorcycle
Herding home the goats and sheep by motorcycle
Our driver in his never-ending battle against the dust
Our driver in his never-ending battle against the dust
Quality Mongolian bed
Quality Mongolian bed
One solution to the dust problem
One solution to the dust problem
Main street Dalanzadgad
Main street Dalanzadgad
Why look, it is a stein of lipton tea!
Why look, it is a stein of lipton tea!
Public baths in Dalanzadgad
Public baths in Dalanzadgad
A welcome change of scene - mountains!
A welcome change of scene – mountains!
Just a little ice
Just a little ice

Anuradhapura was our last stop in Sri Lanka’s cultural triangle and by that time we were both approaching a state of temple overload. Like Polonnaruwa, the city is spread out across many kilometers of lightly forested land which is best explored by tuktuk or bicycle.

Sri Maha Bodhi (the sacred bodhi tree)
Sri Maha Bodhi (the sacred bodhi tree)

One of the most popular sights in Anuradhapura is the Sri Maha Bodhi or Sacred Bodhi Tree. This is the oldest historically verified tree on the planet and is one of the most sacred Buddhist places in Sri Lanka.

Mirisavatiya Dagoba
Mirisavatiya Dagoba

Anuradhapura also has lots of dagoba waiting to be discovered. The ones we visited had all been restored in modern times so they were much different than the ruinous ones we saw down in Polonnaruwa.

An evening bike ride along the shores of Nuwara Wewa
An evening bike ride along the shores of Nuwara Wewa

Like any good ancient city in Sri Lanka, Anuradhapura has some nice tanks that are worth exploring. One evening we took our bikes for spin around one of them and saw some water birds and a few aggressive stray dogs.

These guys are clearly bored by the temples
These guys are clearly bored by the temples

In the end, Anuradhapura wasn’t our favorite of the ancient cities but perhaps that is because it was the last one we visited. Visiting temples and ruins is great and all but eventually you’ve seen enough. I think we reached that point in Anuradhapura!

Anuradhapura
Mirisavatiya Dagoba
Mirisavatiya Dagoba
A door handle at Isurumuniya Vihara
A door handle at Isurumuniya Vihara
Isurumuniya Vihara
Isurumuniya Vihara
Sri Maha Bodhi (the sacred bodhi tree)
Sri Maha Bodhi (the sacred bodhi tree)
These guys are clearly bored by the temples
These guys are clearly bored by the temples
Ruwanwelisaya Dagoba
Ruwanwelisaya Dagoba
An evening bike ride along the shores of Nuwara Wewa
An evening bike ride along the shores of Nuwara Wewa

 

Tusker.  That’s what the locals call Sri Lanka’s indigenous pachyderm.  Actually, the term refers only to the male tusk-bearing variety which make up a mere 6% of the population.  We learned that fact and many others on our evening visit to Minneriya National Park.

The park is located about an hour’s drive west of Polonnaruwa and you need 4WD to visit.  By Sri Lankan standards, visiting the park is by no means cheap.  We weren’t able to find any other tourists to accompany us in the jeep so we ended up paying the whole 4,500 rupee (US$41) ourselves.  Upon arrival in the park you are escorted into the visitor center to pay the 2,600 rupee (US$24) entrance fee per person.  Nearly $90 for a three hour tour is pretty expensive for our budget but we are glad we did it.

Sri Lanka’s elephants actually migrate around the island but our visit coincided with the time they spend in Minneriya.  They spend most of their day in the shade of the forest but come evening they move into the nearby grasslands and lakes and this is of course the best time to visit!

A slow and bumpy drive through the bush followed our brief stop at park HQ.  Eventually we broke out of the forest onto a huge open grassland with a small lake.  Off in the distance we could see elephants and lots of them!  Our driver took us pretty close to them but I noticed he always made sure he was ready to make a quick get-away (engine running, vehicle pointed away from the animals).  I suppose you don’t want an elephant to go after your jeep/livelihood!

When we arrived there were perhaps 50 but that number grew to close to 200 as the evening wore on.  Given that they all must eat about 10% of the body weight each day, you really start to get the picture as to how much space and resources these giants need.  The total population of elephants in Sri Lanka is estimated to be around 5,000 individuals and they are listed as an endangered species.  Habitat encroachment by humans in mostly to blame.

Watching them graze was particularly interesting.  They use their trunks, of course, but they don’t simply tear off grass and stuff it in their face.  They seemed to tear it off bit-by-bit and form a small pile of grass on their ground.  They also use their front feet to help break grass free from the ground.  All the while they are rolling around their slowly-growing pile of grass with their trunk.  Maybe they do this to get the dirt and sand out of it?  Our guide/driver’s English was insufficient to find out.

Another highlight was getting to watch the baby elephants.  There were two small ones that might have been twins who were constantly wrestling with each other.

Another even younger baby was keeping himself entertained by pulling the tails, ears and trunks of the adults around him.  He was surprisingly energetic considering his size but eventually he just collapsed and fell asleep.

Getting to see them in a wild setting was an excellent experience.  They are fascinating creatures and it’s a shame that they are such a threatened species.  Hopefully the funds they get from tourists like ourselves helps to keep parks like Minneriya up and running.

Minneriya Park
Rugged late 70's Misubishi jeep
Rugged late 70′s Misubishi jeep
Some bats hanging out in the information center
Some bats hanging out in the information center
Pea fowl
Pea fowl

Sigiriya Rock
Sigiriya Rock

The journey north from Kandy to Sigiriya was another arduous Sri Lankan bus ride. About four hours in length but long enough that we both felt exhausted when we arrived.

A nice lizard we saw along the road to the rock
A nice lizard we saw along the road to the rock

Sigiriya lies at one corner of Sri Lanka’s “Cultural Triangle” and is listed as a UNESCO world heritage site. The village itself is unremarkable and probably wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the nearby ruins. The mostly dirt road through the village is dotted with a handful of shops and guesthouses and that’s about it.

Sigiriya rock is a magma plug from a long-gone volcano and the ancient people took to using it for everything from meditation site to fortress to palace. Actually, from what I gathered all of those are theories about its purpose and there is very little evidence to support any of them. Regardless, most of it dates back to the year 500AD, give or take.

The remains of ancient fountains
The remains of ancient fountains

Just pass the entrance gate are gardens that are filled with the ruins of ancient fountains and ponds. The signs posted about also claim that there is a sophisticated subterranean plumbing system which I certainly believe, the Sri Lankans are masters of hydro engineering. They were constructing canals, dams and artificial reservoirs (called tanks) well over a thousand years ago! Many of these are still in use today.

The outer moat around Sigiriya Rock
The outer moat around Sigiriya Rock

After the gardens we started to climb. There are a series of stone steps, stair cases and ramps that took us to the top. At the base was this rather hilarious sign.

High quality signs at this attraction!
High quality signs at this attraction!

A short while later, we passed another sign and then another. They seem serious about this!

The final ascent starts between a pair of huge stone lion paws that once formed a gigantic stone lion. Half way up while jammed shoulder-to-shoulder with other tourists we saw what all the fuss was about. Meter-high hornet nests not too far from the stairs that were teeming with activity. I figured it was going to be just my luck that caused them to swarm when I am trapped on a staircase with a bunch of other people. Fortunately for us, they were calm that day. Later on, somebody pointed to a screened in room at the base of the rock and informed us that it was the hornet refuge.

Originally these paws were part of a huge lion
Originally these paws were part of a huge lion

The views from the top were worth the sweaty slog. To the north we could still see a good part of Sri Lanka’s mountains and in all directions there were lakes and grasslands.

The next day we got an early start and bussed it over to the nearby town of Dambulla which has some cave temples that are also listed as a UNESCO site. These caves are also near the top of a large rock but the climb wasn’t nearly as strenuous as Sigiriya.

Dambulla Caves
Dambulla Caves

The inside of the caves are meticulously painted and contain many many many Buddha statues. There are also a couple of Hindu gods mixed in as well.

Inside one of the Dambulla caves
Inside one of the Dambulla caves

Visiting Dambulla only took part of a morning and we were back in Sigiriya for lunch. We were staying at a very nice but budget guesthouse in Sigiriya – the Flower Inn. We read that it was possible to use the swimming pools (for a small fee) at some of the nearby 4 and 5 star resorts so that’s just what we did in the sweltering heat of the afternoon. We ate our lunch at the Sigiriya Village Resort (which came to a costly 1600 rupees, US$15) but they let us use the pool free of charge and even provided us with nice mattresses for the lounge chairs as well as towels. It was a great way to end two days of slogging through temples and ruins.

Sigiriya and Dambulla
Sigiriya Rock
Sigiriya Rock
A nice lizard we saw along the road to the rock
A nice lizard we saw along the road to the rock
I can also confirm that this was not an idle warning.
I can also confirm that this was not an idle warning.
The outer moat around Sigiriya Rock
The outer moat around Sigiriya Rock
The remains of ancient fountains
The remains of ancient fountains
High quality signs at this attraction!
High quality signs at this attraction!
Frescos inside the caves.
Frescos inside the caves.
Narrow stairway to the top - flanked by hornet nests
Narrow stairway to the top – flanked by hornet nests
Originally these paws were part of a huge lion
Originally these paws were part of a huge lion
Meter-tall nests seething with hornets!
Meter-tall nests seething with hornets!
The hornet refuge (in case of likely hornet attack, you know)
The hornet refuge (in case of likely hornet attack, you know)
I think this is a mountain hawk-eagle
I think this is a mountain hawk-eagle
Oriental Magpie Robin
Oriental Magpie Robin
A refreshing reward after climbing the rock.
A refreshing reward after climbing the rock.
Dambulla Caves
Dambulla Caves
Inside one of the Dambulla caves
Inside one of the Dambulla caves
Rose-ringed Parakeet
Rose-ringed Parakeet
Red butt bird
Red butt bird

Most advice for travelers visiting Sri Lanka starts as follows: “Get out of Colombo.” To be fair, we do plan to visit the city briefly later in our trip but apparently it has little to detain tourists. We stayed in the town of Negombo near Colombo’s airport while we got our bearings in the new country.

We made a break for Kandy early on our second day. The proprietor of our guesthouse wanted to send us to a nearby town on the Kandy rail line but he wanted a somewhat outrageous sum of 1500 rupees (US$14) for the transfer. We followed our budget instincts and hired a tuktuk to drive us down to Negombo’s bus station. Now “bus station” is a bit misleading. What I actually am referring to is a nondescript vacant bare-dirt lot where buses are in a continuous state near-collision with each other. We were soon to get our first lesson on public transport, Sri Lankan style.

Negombo's bus station
Negombo’s bus station

One of the joys of traveling in Sri Lanka is that most locals have at least some command of English. A quick check with a few of the locals taught us that a vague area in the center of the dirt lot was where the Kandy-bound bus would magically materialize at 7:30AM. We had quite a few false alarms but eventually one of the local guys yelled “Kandy bus! Kandy bus!” and pointed to the adjacent road.

There she was. The typical Sri Lankan bus engaged in its boarding sequence: a well-used Indian-made TATA bus, dust-and-white in color and absolutely mobbed by people at both the front and back doors. We soon learned that locals are hyper-aggressive about securing seats on their transport. Throwing random belongings through the window on to open seats seemed to be a popular technique. Pushing and shoving is also a much-loved tactic. At the same time, however, they are often quite kind about relinquishing seats for foreigners.

We made it on to the bus and managed to get ourselves some seats. Strangely, buses here lack luggage compartments and one of the great mysteries in life seems to be how Sri Lankans travel with little to no luggage! Eventually we learned that you can stack your stuff next to the driver on top of the engine cover – just make sure it doesn’t fall over on to him or the gear shift!

The Tooth Relic Temple
The Tooth Relic Temple

The ride up to Kandy took something like 4 hours and covered some miserably short distance (around 60 miles). Land transport in Sri Lanka is slow and often uncomfortable but is also quite fun not to mention very cheap. This will no doubt be a reoccurring theme here on the blog over the next few posts.

The city of Kandy sits at about 500m and the noticeably cooler temperatures were immediately appreciated. A man-made lake sits at the center of the city and a stroll around it proved to be a nice afternoon diversion. There was a surprising amount of wildlife considering we were in the middle of one of the country’s biggest cities!

Tooth Relic Temple
Tooth Relic Temple

On our second day in Kandy we visited the Tooth Relic Temple which contains one of the most sacred artifacts in the Buddhist religion – a tooth of the Buddha. It is not possible to see the actual tooth but at certain times of day you can briefly glimpse the gold casket in which it is contained. In one of the other buildings in the complex we saw Raja, the most famous of Sri Lankan tuskers (elephants). He was the lead elephant in Kandy’s annual Esala Perahera festival for something like 50 years. He died in 1988 and was stuffed in order to be admired for years to come. The Sri Lankan’s definitely love their tuskers!

Raja the most famous tusker in Sri Lanka.
Raja the most famous tusker in Sri Lanka.

After Kandy most tourists head south for the Hill Country but we had other plans. We first wanted to go north and visit the “cultural triangle” before finishing our tour in the cool hills to the south.

A very determined turtle crawls over a huge water monitor to get to the sun.
A very determined turtle crawls over a huge water monitor to get to the sun.
Kandy
Negombo's bus station
Negombo’s bus station
Empty buses and moving buses are mutually exclusive in Sri Lanka.
Empty buses and moving buses are mutually exclusive in Sri Lanka.
Last row, middle of the bench: first class on a Sri Lankan bus for tall people like me.
Last row, middle of the bench: first class on a Sri Lankan bus for tall people like me.
A bus with a United 747 painted on the side!  I wonder if my 1K card would get me special seats?
A bus with a United 747 painted on the side! I wonder if my 1K card would get me special seats?
Fruit bats hanging out.
Fruit bats hanging out.
Bad monkeys!
Bad monkeys!
A rather stately looking kingfisher
A rather stately looking kingfisher
Sun bathing water monitor and lizard.  Not a care in the world!
Sun bathing water monitor and lizard. Not a care in the world!
A very determined turtle crawls over a huge water monitor to get to the sun.
A very determined turtle crawls over a huge water monitor to get to the sun.
The Tooth Relic Temple
The Tooth Relic Temple
Tooth Relic Temple
Tooth Relic Temple
Raja the most famous tusker in Sri Lanka.
Raja the most famous tusker in Sri Lanka.
Tusker costumes!
Tusker costumes!
I definitely need to watch my head in this part of the world.
I definitely need to watch my head in this part of the world.
Coconut palms and mountains, a very very Sri Lankan scene
Coconut palms and mountains, a very very Sri Lankan scene
One of the first of countless rice and curries to come.
One of the first of countless rice and curries to come.

Our mode of transport for the three days of the excursion
Our mode of transport for the three days of the excursion

Kinabantangan.  That’s a mouthful but it rolls off the tounge once you get used to it.  It’s the name of a river in northern Sabah that has recently been protected as a wildlife refuge.  It is indeed chock full of animals but the underlying reason is a bit sad.

Soon after we left the highlands around Kinabalu the land flattened out and we rode through endless fields of palm trees.  Malaysia is the world’s largest exporter of palm oil and much of it comes from Sabah.  As the demand for palm oil rose over the last century the rainforests of Sabah were cleared to make room for massive palm oil plantations.  One of the few areas untouched by this development was the sliver of land carved out by the Kinabatangan River.

We arranged a three-day, two-night trip with the Greenview B&B in Sukau, a little village along the river.  The tour included all meals, transport from Sandakan, accommodation and a smattering of boat tours and hikes.

Day 1 of the trip included a boat cruise in the late afternoon.  We motored along the river for a while and spotted a few hornbills flying about.  Eventually we turned down a narrow canal that emptied into the river.  It wasn’t long before we started to see monkeys – lots of monkeys.  The most common were macaques (both the long-tail and pig-tail variety) but the most popular among us tourists were the proboscis monkeys.  Proboscis monkeys, specifically the dominant males, have a nose of cartoon proportions that photographs well.

A male proboscis monkey.  The most famous nose in Borneo.
A male proboscis monkey. The most famous nose in Borneo.

After a long while staring at the monkeys, our boat driver received a call on his cell phone.  Yeah, we weren’t exactly way out in the wilderness.  Regardless, the phone call was to inform him that some of the area’s pygmy elephants had been spotted nearby.  I can’t say that I have received a phone call about elephants but it seemed like an everyday thing for the guides.  We sped off down the canal at a rate which  made me feel sorry for the other tourists who were just arriving.

A family of proboscis monkeys
A family of proboscis monkeys

Closer to the village we pulled up along the bank and saw some of the trees and bushes moving around.  Inside the guide promised were “some” elephants.  A short while later we heard the distinctive trumpeting of an elephant.  There was a rather large group of them in the forest but we could only see a few that were nearest the river bank.  Apparently, we were lucky to see them at all and they are definitely one of the rarest mammals we’ve seen in the wild – only a few thousand individuals are estimated to remain.  As adults they only stand about 2 meters tall, much smaller than normal elephants.

Borneo pygmy elephants
Borneo pygmy elephants

After a buffet dinner back at the B&B we went on a night boat ride.  We spotted quite a few owls, a reticulated python and a few kingfishers.  Photography was pretty tough but the guide’s spotlight helped us get a few good shots.

Reticulated python
Reticulated python

The next morning we rose early and took another boat ride.  Some eagles were out fishing in the river and we passed a “school boat” filled with kids on their way to school.  A short while later we got another glimpse of the pygmy elephants, this time it was an immature female.

Pygmy elephant, an immature female
Pygmy elephant, an immature female
Rollie-pollie bug...the size of a ping pong ball!
Rollie-pollie bug…the size of a ping pong ball!

We stopped at one point and went on a short hike through the jungle and found a number of huge insects.  When I think of a rollie-pollie I think of a small insect the size of a pencil eraser.  In Borneo, their rollie-pollies are the size of ping pong balls!  We also spotted some nicely camouflaged insects like this leaf bug.

A leaf bug
A leaf bug

All of the tourist material about the Borneo jungle gives some information about the leeches.  Fortunately for us, our visit was well-timed during the dry season and they are much less active.  We only saw one during our stay and it was happily attached to the back of one of the other tourists staying at our B&B.  Despite their vile reputation, apparently the leeches in this area really aren’t all that dangerous as they don’t host diseases like mosquitoes.  Nevertheless, I was happy not to have been bitten!

Night walk through the jungle
Night walk through the jungle

On our second night of the tour we completed a nighttime hike through the jungle behind the B&B.  We wore waterproof boots to deal with the muck and very slowly made our way through the jungle.   Thorny vines were the main bother and the mosquitoes really weren’t all that bad.

We saw some really crazy looking bugs during the night walk
We saw some really crazy looking bugs during the night walk

Overall we were only moderately impressed with the tour.  Then again, we have both been on some really good boat tours on this trip so the competition is a bit steep.  Being able to see the pygmy elephants in the wild was certainly the highlight for both of us.  Both the guidebooks and the local tourist literature flaunt the Kinabatangan as a haven for bird spotting but our tour, and I suspect many of the competing outfits, are just not setup for this kind of tourism.  There are simply too many people visiting a very small area of land.  This aspect of the tour left me disappointed.

Lots and lots of tourists visit the Kinabatangan
Lots and lots of tourists visit the Kinabatangan

The biggest take-away for me from these three days was the environmental impact of the palm oil industry.  What this industry has done to the landscape of Borneo is very sad and I will certainly be more conscious in the future when I see products at the store containing palm oil.

Kinabatangan River
Our mode of transport for the three days of the excursion
Our mode of transport for the three days of the excursion
After about an hour I concluded that this lifevest was far more valuable as a cushion than as a floatation device.
After about an hour I concluded that this lifevest was far more valuable as a cushion than as a floatation device.
Hornbills
Hornbills
A male proboscis monkey.  The most famous nose in Borneo.
A male proboscis monkey. The most famous nose in Borneo.
Oriental Darter
Oriental Darter
A family of proboscis monkeys
A family of proboscis monkeys
A female proboscis and her child
A female proboscis and her child
Bornean pygmy elephants
Bornean pygmy elephants
Borneo pygmy elephants
Borneo pygmy elephants
“The Lion King Photo” according to a Dutch guy on our tour.
“The Lion King Photo” according to a Dutch guy on our tour.
Plenty of geckos around our guest house
Plenty of geckos around our guest house
Reticulated python
Reticulated python
Kingfisher, the smallest species in Borneo I was told.
Kingfisher, the smallest species in Borneo I was told.
Early morning sighting of a red-haired monkey
Early morning sighting of a red-haired monkey
Boat cruise at dawn
Boat cruise at dawn
It's the school boat!
It’s the school boat!
Pygmy elephants again, this is an immature female.
Pygmy elephants again, this is an immature female.
Pygmy elephant, an immature female
Pygmy elephant, an immature female
Oriental darters
Oriental darters
Water monitor lizard - about 5ft long
Water monitor lizard – about 5ft long
Rollie-pollie bug...the size of a ping pong ball!
Rollie-pollie bug…the size of a ping pong ball!
A large hive of bees
A large hive of bees
A leaf bug
A leaf bug
It looks like smoke but it is actually fungi spores coming out of a log.
It looks like smoke but it is actually fungi spores coming out of a log.
Elephant ear - a type of fungus.  Literally the size of an elephant's ear.
Elephant ear – a type of fungus. Literally the size of an elephant’s ear.
A walking stick
A walking stick
Proboscis monkey
Proboscis monkey
Lots and lots of tourists visit the Kinabatangan
Lots and lots of tourists visit the Kinabatangan
A quick glimpse of a very shy otter
A quick glimpse of a very shy otter
Night walk through the jungle
Night walk through the jungle
We saw some really crazy looking bugs during the night walk
We saw some really crazy looking bugs during the night walk

Central Sandakan's weekly market
Central Sandakan’s weekly market

Making our way from Kinabalu National Park over to Sandakan on Sabah’s northern coast was pretty easy.  We rose early and took a taxi from the lodge down to the highway and then waited for one of the KK-to-Sandakan buses to come down the highway.  The 4-hour ride came to 40 ringgit (about US$14) for a nice air-con bus with horrible movies blaring away.  Just as we were approaching Sandakan I caught sight of another fine example of Malaysia traffic circle ornamentation.  Behold:

Another fine example of Malaysian traffic circle decor.
Another fine example of Malaysian traffic circle decor.

The May Fair Inn in Sandakan was recommended by the Lonely Planet and we soon found out why.  It was located smack bang in the center of town and for RM50 (about US$17) we got a nice room complete with private bath, a very capable air con unit, a flat-screen TV, a DVD player as well as free reign over the proprietor’s absolutely massive collection of DVDs.  The owner even had the DVDs sorted into enticing categories such as “Stallone Movies”, “Van Damme Movies”, and “Giant Animals.”  We didn’t end up watching any while we were there but the room was spotless and had good lighting, loads of power outlets and a nice clothesline pre-strung in the bathroom for our laundry.

One of our best-value rooms to date.  May Fair Inn, Sandakan
One of our best-value rooms to date. May Fair Inn, Sandakan

Sandakan is a nice enough town but most people stay there in order to visit the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre which is a dozen or so kilometers outside of town.  After a hearty breakfast at a vegetarian Chinese place in the center we hopped on one of the local buses bound for Sepilok in order to make the morning feeding.

The center takes in orangutans and trains them so that they can survive in the wild.  The incoming apes are a mix of ones that were being kept illegally as pets and of ones that were orphaned.  We learned that on average it takes the center about 10 years to rehabilitate one of the apes.  A very expensive endeavor!

When a new orangutan arrives at the center, the staff performs rigorous medical checks and nurses the animal back to health.  Many of the animals that have been in captivity since they were very young lack even the most basic skills needed to survive in the wild – being able to climb, for example.  Over time, they slowly learn these skills from other apes at the center and from the human trainers.

Eventually, the orangutans are allowed to explore the nearby jungle, however, their dependency on humans tends to keep them nearby.  The center has set up a number of feeding platforms that reach further and further into the jungle and they use these to draw the apes into the wilderness.  Many of the individuals go completely wild and others remain semi-dependent for the rest of their lives.

Long beans, sweet potatos and, most expectedly, bananas were on the menu.
Long beans, sweet potatos and, most expectedly, bananas were on the menu.

It was ridiculously hot when we went out for the morning feeding.  High temperatures, high humidity, still air and direct sunlight made it a rather sweaty experience but we got to see some giant apes!  Aside from their striking human similarities, I really enjoyed watching them multi-task.  Eating, carrying two handfuls (or is that footfuls?) of extra food all while hanging from a rope?  No problem if you are an orangutan!

Another highlight was that one of the apes showed up with its baby.  Apparently it is common for rehabilitated apes to return to the center for food once they have reared a child.

Items of note: bananas in left hand, sweet potato in mouth and right foot, more bananas in left foot, baby attached at waist.
Items of note: bananas in left hand, sweet potato in mouth and right foot, more bananas in left foot, baby attached at waist.

Orangutans aren’t the only primates that you get to see at the center.  During the feeding some of the local macaques like to come in and steal some food for themselves.  Surprisingly the orangutans don’t seem to care all that much.  I saw one of the younger males take a swat at a macaque but other than that they seemed to coexist.  The macaques certainly know to keep their distance though!

The bandits (macaques) raiding the food.
The bandits (macaques) raiding the food.

After the feeding we walked over to the Rainforest Discovery Center which is an independently run park.  I thought it would be a bit swamped with people who were waiting for the afternoon orangutan feeding but it was surprisingly quiet.  After a stroll through the botanical garden we headed out on one of the many trails that lead off into the preserve.

The highlight of the park are the observation towers that you can climb to get a better look at the forest canopy.  They also have a number of canopy walkways strung up between the trees to get from tower to tower.  We saw a few birds there, including our first hornbill, but midday really isn’t the best of times for bird watching so the pickings were a little slim.  Overall, I really enjoyed the Rainforest Discovery Center and I would like to go back sometime either early or late in the day to better enjoy the trails and bird life.  As always, there are plenty more pictures in the thumbnails below.

Orangutans
Another fine example of Malaysian traffic circle decor.
Another fine example of Malaysian traffic circle decor.
Central Sandakan's weekly market
Central Sandakan’s weekly market
One of our best-value rooms to date.  May Fair Inn, Sandakan
One of our best-value rooms to date. May Fair Inn, Sandakan
Enjoying the views over Sandakan
Enjoying the views over Sandakan
Starting the day with noodles and satay.
Starting the day with noodles and satay.
A pig-tailed macaque coming in to steal some food.
A pig-tailed macaque coming in to steal some food.
Long beans, sweet potatos and, most expectedly, bananas were on the menu.
Long beans, sweet potatos and, most expectedly, bananas were on the menu.
Items of note: bananas in left hand, sweet potato in mouth and right foot, more bananas in left foot, baby attached at waist.
Items of note: bananas in left hand, sweet potato in mouth and right foot, more bananas in left foot, baby attached at waist.
The bandits (macaques) raiding the food.
The bandits (macaques) raiding the food.
Eating on the run
Eating on the run
An adult male
An adult male
Pitcher plants
Pitcher plants
Hornbill, very far away
Hornbill, very far away
A well-camoflauged lizard
A well-camoflauged lizard
The view from one of the observation towers
The view from one of the observation towers
This is the girly drink I ended up with that evening.  Tasted like bubblegum with a bit of milk and tapioca pearls at the bottom.
This is the girly drink I ended up with that evening. Tasted like bubblegum with a bit of milk and tapioca pearls at the bottom.


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