Monday, December 2, 2013

Bill Oddie's most excellent adventure in Sri Lanka - With Jetwing Eco Holidays

On assignment for BBC Wildlife Magazine, Bill Oddie gives blood to the rainforest, meets some familiar feathered friends, experiences the ‘Rainforest Rainbow’ and has four game drives in which to find a leopard…

Bill Oddie on tour in Sri Lanka with Jetwing Eco Holidays

I am alone, it is dawn and I’m in the lodge’s dining area.
We arrived last night in the dark, and all I know is that I’m in the middle of a forest called Sinharaja. It is slowly getting lighter and I can now see some trees. Nothing but trees, in fact. To the left, to the right, below, above and beyond.
 It’s as if the land is enveloped in a gigantic leafy duvet, and it’s steaming like an England scrum on a chilly day at Twickenham. I can see no sign of active life. Typical rainforest!
 Rain or cloud?
 Or maybe it’s not rainforest. Maybe that’s not steam, maybe it’s cloud. Just as I realise that I don’t know the difference between rainforest and cloud forest, a male voice says, “We call this Forest View.” Can’t argue with that.
 “Is it rainforest or cloud forest?” I ask. For a moment the man is perplexed, and then he explains, very slowly, as if to a child, “First, the cloud, then the rain.”
 “Aaah!” I exclaim as if enlightened. My mentor then utters the words he knows every tourist wants to hear. “Later, maybe sun.”
 My host shuffles off, and  I listen to the calls that are typical of jungly habitats the world over. There is always a bird that sounds like a Clanger, and another that sounds as if it is laughing. I can hear both but see neither.
 The truth is that first light in this forest – rain or cloud – can’t hold a candle to a British dawn chorus. My mind wanders to the New Forest in May, as somewhere a bird chortles mockingly.
 Name that tune
 I find it frustrating to hear calls and songs and not have the faintest idea which birds are responsible. I scan the vista of trees and mist, and, suddenly, the first winged creature of the day flaps slowly across the valley. 
 A butterfly. Not one of those huge, luminous blue butterflies that you are supposed to see in tropical places, but something small and yellowish, rather like a brimstone, only – well – duller. It disappears into a treetop. So far, I’m not overly impressed.
However, my mood is lifted by the appearance of the other tourists who are staying at Martin’s Simple Lodge. Over breakfast, our spirits rise and so do our voices. We gossip like naughty school kids, as we compete over whose room has the most risibly inadequate facilities.
 “I haven’t got an electric socket,“ winces the journalist whose mobile needs charging. Not that he’d get a signal up here.
 “I haven’t got a chain on my loo,” counters a lady. “You flush it by pulling a piece of string.”
 I introduce a more positive note. “I’ve got wildlife in my room,” I boast. “Five cockroaches, two geckos and a bat.” Everyone laughs, but I think they’re jealous.
 We all know that Sinharaja Rainforest (that’s cleared that one up, then) should be unforgettable, because it’s a World Heritage Site and home to no fewer than 25 endemic bird species, but is it going to be the highlight of the trip? After all, it has been pretty flipping enjoyable already.
 A gentle start
 Less than a week ago we landed at Colombo and drove through a very slow-moving Sri Lankan rush hour to somewhere called Villa Talangama, which we were told would “break us in gently”. Wildlife-wise, that is.
 Pulling back the curtains of my bedroom window the next day, I realised that our swish little hotel overlooked a suburban wetland with lots of birds.
 For a moment, I considered starting a ‘bedroom list’, or even a ‘bed list’, but settled on an ‘hour’s stroll before breakfast list’. And, by the time I got back for my orange juice and muesli, I had seen 37 species, about the same number I would expect to notch up in an hour on my local patch, Hampstead Heath.
 I recognised some of them from my trips to India: pheasant-tailed jacanas, purple gallinules, three kingfishers and eight different herons and egrets. There were also a few mongooses and some chirpy critters that looked like American chipmunks, but were, in fact, palm squirrels. These ones were tight-rope walking along a power cable.
 Elephant heaven 
 Then there were the birds whose names evoke their voices and personalities: bulbuls and babblers. Bulbuls have a lovely fruity, bubbly song, while babblers scurry around babbling.
 And there was the call of another bird that was so familiar I almost ignored it: the screeching and squawking of the ring-necked parakeet, which I also see on Hampstead Heath, though this, of course, is where it really belongs.
 After breakfast, we were off to watch elephants from a grandstand. The Elephant Transit Home at Udawalawe National Park is a splendid project caring for young elephants that have been injured or orphaned. They spend most of their time in a large enclosed area within the adjacent national park, but they come home every day for lunch.
Let’s face it, there aren’t many more endearing sights than a baby elephant slurping milk from a baby elephant-sized bottle. The only thing that seemed a little heavy-handed was the way the bloke holding the bottle persuaded the youngster that it had had enough by belting it over the head with a metal meat hook.
 I have been assured by mahouts in India that a whack on the neck with an iron spike is no more alarming to an elephant than a pat on the cheek would be to us, but I have never got used to it.
 Leopard spotting
 Eventually, the young elephants will leave the transit home and be returned to the main part of Udawalawe, which is where we decided to go next. We were soon rewarded with the lovely – and not common – sight of a big tusker.
 Not all male Indian elephants acquire tusks (whereas both male and female Africans do), but this one was seriously well-endowed. And cool. Literally, as he paddled daintily across a lily-spangled lake, and metaphorically, as he exuded that quintessential elephant combination of power and peacefulness. Our trip’s first highlight. On to the next...
 Four is the magic number
 There are no tigers in Sri Lanka, but there are lots of leopards. The best place to look for them – not only in Sri Lanka but arguably the world – is Yala National Park, and we had been promised that if we went on four game drives, we would see one.
 Our first drive was a good introduction to the park. Unlike Africa, it was not miles of flat grasslands studded with the occasional tree and teeming with nervous ungulates feeding warily. There is a palpable tension in Africa that I didn’t sense in Yala.
 The landscape was more benign, with horizons broken by huge rocky outcrops shaped like loaves of bread. There were lots of trees, large areas of scrub and plenty of water. Of course the weather does vary seasonally, but when I was there in early August, recent rains had left lots of marshes and lakes.
 Wildlife parade
 Here we found buffalos, wild pigs, crocodiles and spotted deer. A half-submerged tree provided a perch for bee-eaters and kingfishers, while parading along the shoreline was a cavalcade of painted storks, jungle fowl (like farmyard chickens but prettier) and wild peacocks.
 Standing on a sandbank, looking like an Elephant-Man version of a stone curlew, was the unflatteringly named greater thick-knee. In the distance shimmered sand dunes and, beyond them, were the white-capped emerald waves of the Indian Ocean. What a view! What more could one ask for? Hmmm, how about a leopard?
We tried again the next day, which was an official national holiday and brought hordes of people into the park. Even when we had retreated to a remote hinterland, we turned a corner to find the road blocked by more badly parked 4x4s than the morning school run in Hampstead.
 After a conversation with the people in another jeep, we decided that we wouldn’t wait an hour or two – as they had – staring at some bushes behind which a leopard may or may not have left the remains of a kill that it may or may not have made a couple of days ago, and to which it may or may not come back.
 Even if it did return, it would be hidden behind the bushes, so we wouldn’t see it. With this in mind, we decided to try elsewhere. But by now it was sunset and we had to leave.
Reflections on the day
The day hadn’t been a total blank. We had seen a porcupine under a rock that had left sufficient quills poking out to constitute a decent sighting.
And there had been the changeable hawk-eagle that gave us a demonstration of unsuccessful snake-catching and the excuse to discuss what was ‘changeable’ about it. Does it change colour or turn into something else?
I was just explaining that what it really means is that not all individuals have the same plumage, and was about to point out that many raptors have different colour ‘morphs’, when our guide told me to shut up with just a jerk of his hand.
He pointed, we looked and there it was, only a few metres from the road, sauntering down a path. Talk about mixed feelings. Yes, it was a leopard, lithe, muscular and spotty, but I wouldn’t mind seeing its head.
We willed it to stay and be admired and, though it was too dark for photography, with perfect timing it stopped, turned, glared and vanished. Beat that, Sinharaja.
Fresh blood
Back in the rainforest, we were ready to face the challenge of how many Sri Lankan endemics we could spot in a day – at least I was, once I’d got my ‘leech-gators’ on. But leeches are devious.
We had barely been in the forest for half an hour when the shoulder of my shirt began to change from khaki to pink. I reached under my collar and flicked off what felt like a sliver of wet chewing gum. An hour later, another scarlet patch appeared, this one rather more unnervingly about 10cm below my belt.
During a Kit Kat break, I rolled down one leg of my leech-gators to investigate. The crimson tide in my trousers was the work of two leeches.
One had clearly been there a while, the other a few minutes, and the pair neatly demonstrated how what starts off looking like a snippet of shoelace turns into a big, fat blob of plum jelly. A little gruesome, yes, but fascinating.
The way one was pulsing and stretching was hypnotic, and it was transforming from thin to fat before my eyes. Now that’s ‘changeable’.
Catch the bird wave
As I walked the forest trails, blooded but not bowed, we ran into some of the most gorgeous insects I have ever seen – huge luminous butterflies called blue mormons, and others with stained-glass-window wings and names such as ‘painted sawtooth’.
Then it happened. The guide cupped his ears and murmured, “Bird wave.” With no louder fanfare than a few ‘tsips’, ‘chips’ and ‘tchucks’, we were in a cascade of birds.
Different shapes, different colours and too many species to count. I just kept looking, checking out every flit and flutter, and committing it all to memory. After 10 minutes, the forest fell silent, except for my breathing, now audible with excitement, and the guide’s softly satisfied voice. “That was a Sinharaja bird wave – we call it the Rainforest Rainbow.”
Serendib serendipity
I saw 20 endemics that day, the most memorable being the Serendib scops owl. Our guide led us into the understory, where we had to crawl, doubled-up, to avoid being whacked in the face by branches, and then through and over streams, one of which I duly fell in.
Finally, he stopped and pointed, and there, barely a couple of metres away, was the owl: a tiny bird blinking at us with huge round eyes. Even in the murk of the forest, they glowed. I glowed back.
“Did you enjoy the wildlife?” our host asked that evening. “Very much,“ I replied. “Including the leeches?“ I smiled and shrugged. “Bill, look at it this way – today you gave your blood to the forest.” All I could do was look up at the trees and mutter, “You’re welcome.”

Sri Lanka is smaller than Ireland, but home to about 4,000 elephants and 500 leopards - a wildlife lover’s dream destination.
Where to go
Wilpattu NP
The largest park in Sri Lanka, Wilpattu is located in the more remote north of the island. Though wildlife is scarcer here than elsewhere, the park is renowned for its leopards and muntjac deer, and is well worth a visit if you have time.
Minneriya NP
At the end of the dry season, Minneriya is said to host one of the largest elephant gatherings anywhere in the world. They assemble by the ‘tanks’ (reservoirs) in herds up to 300 strong by the middle of September.
An important cultural centre, with impressive 10th-century ruins, Polonnaruwa is also the best place in Sri Lanka to see monkeys, including two endemics – toque macaques and purple-faced leaf monkeys.
Wasgamuwa NP
Primarily known as an elephant destination, Wasgamuwa also has the usual mix of Sri Lankan fauna, such as sambar, spotted deer and wild boar, in addition to predators such as leopards.
Horton Plains NP
Unless you are ticking endemic birds, the main reason for visiting Horton Plains is a spectacular cliff called World’s End. It made the news in 2010 after a rare slender loris was photographed here.
Yala NP
Said to have the world’s densest population of leopards, Yala is Sri Lanka’s top safari destination. Species you will definitely see include Asian elephants, spotted deer and mugger crocodiles. Sloth bears and jackals are also possible.
Udawalawe NP
As well as being a great wildlife area, Udawalawe has the added attraction of hosting the Elephant Transit Home, worth visiting if you have a particular penchant for baby elephants.
Sinharaja Reserve
Sri Lanka’s best rainforest destination, Sinharaja is one of the country’s prime birding spots, with 21 endemic species, including the dazzling blue magpie and myriad beautiful butterflies, dragonflies and other insects.
Sri Lanka is gaining a reputation as one of the best places in the world to see blue whales. April and December are the peak months, with sperm whale sightings also common, along with other species.
Getting there
SriLankan Airlines is the only carrier with direct flights between the UK and Sri Lanka. Call 0208 538 2015/2034.
Flying with Emirates requires a change in Dubai. Call 0844 800 2777. 
For details visit the website of the Sri Lankan High Commission.
The NHS advises that you are up-to-date with all immunisations and take malaria prophylactics, too.
Contact your GP or practice nurse for more advice. Also click here for more advice.
Tour operators
Sri Lanka’s main operator is Jetwing Eco Holidays, which offers many different trips and great guides. Call 00 94 11 238 1201. 

Bill Oddie on tour in Sri Lanka with Jetwing Eco Holidays

Text By Bill Oddie- Updated on 17th February 2011
Courtesy of

Images courtesy of Jetwing Eco Holidays