By midday we were well on our way north and heading towards Ella, about a quarter of the length of the island in total. Leaving the south coast behind I had well and truly kissed goodbye to any thoughts of visiting Sinharaja rainforest, a birding hotspot, as well as missing out on the originally planned full day tour Udawalawe NP. Instead our driver had come up with a cunning plan ! Stop overnight at Ella and next day catch the train to Nuwara Eliya which was a scenic three hour journey through the mountains. We were up for that ! He'd drop us off at the station and meet us at the other end. Sound !
Now that's one advantage of having your own car and driver, he could manage the luggage so we didn't have to worry about that on the train, however, the disadvantage hadn't yet dawned on us but would do over the next 24 hours !!
We checked out three potential hotels and in the end settled for the second we'd viewed, the Grand Ella Hotel just off the centre of town. Now when you walk in to a room from bright sunlight and the curtains are drawn you don't always notice the finer detail. OK , only £60 a night including diner but it was a bit of a dump and badly in need of a total refurb. The shame was that we went out and found a fabulous eating place where we could have had dinner but at least we can warn others in the future.I guess I had made the mistake of being sold on the views at the not so Grand Ella Hotel which I have to admit, it's quite spectacular despite electric wires, satellite dishes and washing lines.
Oh well, just one night was all we had to endure before leaving town on the 11.15 train. We weren't going to make the same mistake again. I searched Trip Advisor for some well recommended hotels for our next night but my suggestions fell on deaf ears. Our driver strongly recommended a place he knew , walking distance in to town and he'd get us a deal. Ok, I agreed we'd give it a try.
First the train though. What a journey, absolutely fabulous. Like travelling a different age despite the fact the engines are diesel.I had given up on nature photography for the time being but as I took a picture of the train arriving a Black Eagle flew over the line at about 20 feet. Unbelievable, and I missed the shot. Still, only had a small lens on!
We had the best seats on the train, the very back of the observation car. Stunning views of the mountains, tea plantations and vegetable growing farms. It was fascinating watching the railway come alive with people who used it as a footpath immediately we had passed. The carriage has seen better days but in this case that's part of the charm.
We were met at the station and taken on to the Grosvenor Hotel in Nuwara Eliya. After the previous night's poor dining experience I opted for B&B at £35.The place was typical of a Victorian hotel/B&B in Betws-y-Coed and unfortunately, we had the weather to match. It hammered down all afternoon and didn't stop for long until we had left the following day. My only regret was that we had got off the train and not carried on to Kandy . N .E. on a wet day is totally forgettable, we ended up eating in a cafe with Claire the only female. Good food and the meal only cost £2 for the two of us but finding a suitable bar to take her in to was totally out of the question so we spent the evening in our dimly lit hotel feeling slightly depressed !
Next day was spent driving all the way north to Dambulla. Resigned to another poor choice of hotel, I realised the driver only took us to places that had free accommodation for him too, I asked him where he had in mind for us this time. "Nice place" he replied. " Yeah, you said that about the last one. What's it called ? " I asked. He repeated "Nice place". I gave up, too late to check out Trip Advisor anyway, we didn't have a wifi signal.
After a long drive we eventually arrived at the hotel of his choice, there was the sign to tell us. "Nice Place Hotel" ! And actually it was too. Very nice ! Modern clean and a balcony overlooking the densely wooded garden. It was still raining but by the following mooring it had stopped and I was out at 6.30 trying to get some shots. I added quite a few new species for my unwritten trip list but the photo's were not worth keeping but I hung on to these. The elusive Asian Paradise Flycatcher.Very flighty and shy, it was always partially obscured by branches, railings or something. In this shot I couldn't get an angle to fit the tail on the on the shot
And this one took me by surprise when it landed for the briefest of moments right in front of me. I was pushing my 1D and 500mm at ISO1600 f4 and 1/80th of a second. Far from ideal. I don't like man made perches and there's a lot of noise and motion blur in the shot but somehow I really like it. It has a ghost like appearance which is somehow typical of the bird silently flitting from perch to perch carrying that magnificent tail.
Breakfast over we headed to Sigiriya, the ancient ruined hill top fort, which was today's tourist attraction.
Now I'm not a huge fan of old buildings but I have to say this place is incredibly impressive. Built in around 500AD it was an amazing feat of engineering perched up on top of that 300 foot high rock.
However, there was much more than just a fort. it was a luxurious palace. There were swimming pools cut out of the rock and down at ground level incredible gardens and pools all surrounded by moats full of Crocodiles for extra protection from invasion.
I was particularly proud of Claire conquering her fear of heights to get to the top when other were turning back white with fear.
I wouldn't have said anything if she had "bottled it" but it was her who was keen on this attraction and it did cost £50 with the guide thrown in. She said that kept her mind on going onwards and upwards !!
As it happened I wouldn't have missed this for anything. Hugely enjoyable and worth every penny.
My choice was coming next and I was really quite excited about it .
For the penultimate stay in Sri Lanka and the last of the tour I had convinced Claire to try another unusual residence ! This little piggy had learnt from his house of mud and this time he was going for a more substantial build.
Not only that but it had an adjoining bathroom to the bedroom.
OK, the washbasin and toilet where only partially undercover on a verandah and the shower was outside, totally open to the elements although privacy ( until now) was totally guaranteed by an inner compound within your private straw fenced garden.
There's something extremely liberating about taking a shower stark naked and out in the open !
This was my dream location. The Robinson Crusoe in me living my fantasy. We had been here before, twice in fact, on our last holiday but only as part of a day trip to go Dolphin watching. Now I was staying for three nights.
A short walk and you were on a virtually deserted beach with only the local fishermen for company.
I gave them a hand once but that was enough. Extremely hard work often for little effort, they haul the nets in several times a day.
Anyway as the sun went down that first evening I licked my lips in anticipation of the following mornings Dolphin trip.
I had some unfinished business from March. On the first trip the Dolphins were all around us but I had been shown up by Claire's superior photographic efforts.
On our second trip the Dolphins were hardly in evidence.
Would we have luck third time out ? One thing was certain, this time I was going to be selfish. I was going to use the 1DMk1V and the 70-200 f2.8, Claire could have the 5D3 and the 28-105f4.She could try video while I tried to freeze the action with the benefit of my high frame per second rate.
Bring it on !
The accommodation at Kalpatiya isn't the cheapest, he charges $100 per night D,B&B and a 2 hour Dolphin trip adds another £60 to the bill . I had tried to negotiate a bulk deal package and the best I could do was the promise that if he could find someone to share our boat we would pay half price, what the other half paid was down to them! We were all set to go at 7.00am the following morning, originally I had been told that there was another couple interested in sharing our boat but then it turned out they were four and pretty huge. We wouldn't be sharing with them so instead I offered a boat share to one of the other guests , Stephan, a single Swiss bloke who had been mulling over the prospect. I did the deal directly with him cutting out the boat operator thus saving me £25 !
Our new travelling companion told of how he had been reluctant to go on his own because of the cost but had had experience of sharing before and had been annoyed when his fellow companions had had enough and cut their tour short when he had been enjoying it. My kind of travelling companion I thought, he'll do. I had also persuaded the boat owner that we could have 3 hours for the price of 2.
Off we went out on the search for Dolphin. Now it was a lot rougher than previous trips, the boat can really fly up in the air when it hits a wave and you don't half hit the seat with a bump when you come back down, particularly if you are in the front as matey and I were. Before long he had moved back a row. We eventually found the Dolphin and the fun began.
Photographing Dolphin is challenging at the best of times, it's probably the most difficult wild life subject I have tried to photograph by a huge margin but it's absolutely top of the table for fun too, provided you manage to get a result by the end of the trip.
I soon found the big swell conditions extremely hard and frustrating.
Just when you thought you had framed the subject you found yourself photographing sea or sky.
Then there is the problem of predicting when and where they are going to appear. Sometimes much too close.
Further afield was proving a bit easier. I stuck a 1.4 TC on the end of the lens for a bit of extra reach
I was getting somewhere now
but the waves were still a problem.
The other problem was the spray interfering with auto focus too
However, there were two things in my favour. The first is that the Dolphin travel in close proximity to each other so when one breaks the surface more will closely follow,keep on trying and sooner or later you'll get the shot.
This one had them where I wanted them but not quite in focus
I was getting there.
The other benefit of having rough sea was the Dolphin appear to be far more active, really enjoying themselves and now and again they jump clear of the water.
Flight photography at it's most challenging !
Well if you were quick enough to pick them out before they hit the water again it wasn't too bad
and it's easier than photographing high speed birds like Swifts and Swallows.
Claire was struggling with the video due to the ridiculous swell..it was probably harder by a long chalk than taking still photographs although some editing might allow me to cut some of the sky scenes,I was having the time of my life,absolutely fabulous and then came the plaintive cry of my Swiss friend who was now right at the back of the boat. " I can't take anymore " he said. With only an hour gone I had no choice than to signal to the boatman to head for home. One thing was certain, my next trip Claire and I were going alone. Still I had to feel some sympathy for Seasick Steve as he now became known.
We set off on our second boat trip at 7.30am on the following morning. This time there would be just Claire and I as paying passengers with the promise of a 3 hour trip guaranteed. Our host was good to his word but once again, the Spinner Dolphins didn't show however, to our delight instead we had a huge school of Short Finned Pilot Whales. Although not as impressive in appearance as the killer Whales, their sheer numbers and proximity to our small boat was just an awesome sight.
These creatures are up to 20 feet long, basically as big as our boat.
There were family groups ploughing through the waves
Sometimes extremely close, almost to touching distance
An absolutely fantastic spectacle to witness, and one that doesn't happen too often at Kalpitiya
The Pilot Whales aren't as dramatic to photograph as the Dolphin, their bulk makes them less agile, but they are certainly more interesting than the giant Blue Whales were, and they too can give a flick of the tail image as they dive.
Their other special act is their curiosity. Known as "Spy Hopping" a special view offered to both Whale and photographer !
Our 3 hours were soon up and we headed back to shore with some fabulous memories and camera bodies wet with salt water . My best attempts to wash them with a heavily dampened towel still left those nooks and crannies you can't reach. Within two days the rust on the flash housings was evident on both my camera bodies. How much the cost of these shots only time will tell but I have no regrets as yet !
I felt a bit of an anti climax after our final boat trip, wandering along the shore there were quite a few different Terns, all trying for an easy meal as the fishermen hauled in their nets
The Gull Billed Tern
and Little Tern where all quite high in numbers
This Lesser Crested Tern was the only one I spotted at this particular spot
Always with the sun behind them, they weren't the best of subjects so instead I followed the Indian Pond Heron.
This Heron is by no means confined to ponds and this one was enjoying easy pickings on the beach.
It watched as the crabs disappeared and reappeared out of their holes and was ready to pounce.
Must have had half a dozen during the time I watched.
Before we knew it though our tour was over. We headed back south towards Waikkal and back to the guesthouse we had started in for the final 6 days of our holiday.