Our next hike took us through Sri Lanka's famous tea growing country. Tea plantations were started by the British back in 1847 after their attempt to grow coffee failed due to a blight. Today tea is still grown in the central highlands in terraced fields.
Sri Lanka is the world's fourth largest producer of tea and after Kenya it is the second largest exporter of tea. The tea growing industry employs over a million people in Sri Lanka. New green tea leaves are plucked by women who work in the fields 8 hours a day. Our presence brought a welcome distraction to the monotony of picking tea and a smile to their faces when we stopped to photograph them.
We stopped at our local guide's house for lunch. He owns a small farm in the jungle and can grow just about anything. In the garden around his house were cocoa trees, a few coffee bushes, pineapple, papaya, banana and palm trees. He demonstrated how to climb a palm tree with just a rag tied around his feet. He harvested a few coconuts before climbing back down. He made it look easy but when Stewart tried it he only managed to get a few feet off the ground. It takes a lot of strength and skill to climb a tree in this fashion.
|Our Local Guide Climbing a Palm Tree|
To husk the coconut he smashed it on a blade inserted into a wooden board that was stuck into the ground. Once the outer husk is removed the brown circular coconut that we are all familiar with emerged.
|Husking a Coconut|
Our hike ended in the dry eastern lowlands where our van was waiting to take us to the beach. We were all looking forward to some rest and relaxation. When we arrived we found more of a fishing beach as opposed to a sun bathing and swimming beach. This area was hit hard by the 2004 Tsunami. Around 40,000 people in Sri Lanka were killed by this catastrophic event. It was good to see that the area was recovering.
|Beach at Argum Bay|
Near the start of our hike were the remnants of a building. Asanga told us it was a government irrigation control center and that it had been destroyed by the Tamil Tigers during the civil war. People in this area so feared the Tamil Tigers that they left their homes at night and hid in the forest.
|Government Building Destroyed during the Civil War|
The Tamil Tigers were a separatist militant organization based in northern Sri Lanka. Founded in May 1976 by madman Velupillai Prabhakaran, it waged a secessionist nationalist campaign to create an independent state in the north and east of Sri Lanka for the Tamil People. This campaign evolved into the Sri Lankan Civil War which ran from 1983 until 2009, when Prabhakaran was killed by the Sri Lankan Military. It was nice to see that peace and tranquility had returned to the area and that the locals no longer have to live in fear.
The next morning we started heading west back toward Colombo stopping near the town of Tissa (Tissamaharama) for the night. We got the opportunity to do one more game drive in Yala National Park. We divided into two jeeps and Marc, Asanga, John and I headed out in one. This time we entered through the main south gate which was more crowded than the western gate we used 2 weeks earlier. We were amazed at how much drier the park had become The elephants were kicking the dry grass into balls and shaking out the dust before eating it. I hope the animals can survive this drought. We wondered if the rain we had in Arugam Bay would reach Yala.
We drove along the dusty roads with multiple jeeps behind and ahead of us. At one point we broke away from the pack and came upon a single jeep watching a leopard sitting in a clearing about 200 feet from the road. Our leopard luck had finally changed! We were able to observe this beautiful female leopard for a few minutes before she got up and slinked back into the jungle.
Ironically, Arran, our guide from our first visit to Yala pulled up in another jeep just moments after the leopard had disappeared. He was happy that we finally had a good sighting. Timing is everything!
The next morning we visited the Katagarama Temple complex with Buddhist and Hindu temples and a mosque. The devotees were preparing for the morning ceremony by bringing baskets of fruit and flowers to offer the deities. All this uneaten fruit was attracting troops of gray langurs and even the odd cow or two. At over 2200 years old, the giant white Kiri Vehera stupa was being decorated with a yellow, blue and orange ribbon symbolizing Buddhism while the devotees strolled around clockwise reciting prayers and leaving their offerings.
|Kiri Vehera Stupa|
We continued our journey toward Colombo stopping at a tiny restaurant for a drink. A few days earlier Asanga had told us about watching for Blue Whales along Sri Lanka's southern coast. I just couldn't get the thought of seeing a Blue Whale out of my head. I asked Asanga where the best place to see Blue Whales was and he replied Mirissa Beach which we would arrive at around noon. We told him to leave us there and we would delay our Sri Lanka departure for a day. We were fortunate to get the last room at the hotel that offers whale watching tours and at lunch told the others in our group our plan. They didn't blame us for wanting to stick around to see the whales. We said our goodbyes and they headed off to Colombo to catch their flights home.
Early the next morning we headed out of Mirissa Harbor along with a dozen whale-watching boats.
|Whale-Watching Boats in Mirissa Bay|
We headed south away from the coast for around 9 km them headed east for another 6 km. After about an hour and a half we still hadn't seen a whale and I began to worry that our change in plans was for naught. Suddenly the whale-watching boats began to converge and we caught a glance of the spray from a whale before it submerged. It looked too small to be a Blue Whale and turned out to be a Bryde's Whale, still a new species of whale for us. We had one more sighting of a Bryde's Whale then headed out in search of the Blues. Suddenly, our captain spotted the characteristic vertical single-column spout from a Blue Whale!
|Blue Whale Spout|
All the boats rushed to get a closer look. You only have a few minutes to reach the whale before he dives again.
|Watching a Blue Whale|
|The Small Dorsal Fin of a Blue Whale|
Blue Whales dive up to 330 feet to feed on krill which they filter out of the water with their baleens. They stay submerged for about 20 minutes then come to the surface to breathe. When a Blue Whale raises his tail fluke you know he is diving and that the show is over.
|Tail Fluke of a Blue Whale|
We hope all is well back home.
Peggy and Marc