Travelling in much of western Europe, with a couple of languages at your command, there are few places where you can’t grasp a word or two here and there. You don’t necessarily understand what’s being said, but there’s comfort to be taken in the fact that you’re on more or less familiar ground.
At first it’s a bit like this with the vegetation in Sri Lanka. It’s full of plants in familiar families – Myrtaceae, Rutaceae, Moraceae, Fabaceae (not that I’m very proficient at telling these apart, mind you…) – but take a closer look and you’re lost: it’s familiar but alien, comforting but deeply frustrating. Overhearing otherwise incomprehensible conversations, the odd word generally doesn’t make me want to know much more: one look at the people chatting and often enough you’re pretty sure they don’t have much of interest to say to you. These plants, on the other hand, make me want to know everything. As I say, frustrating.
The problem dogged me through our ten days in Sri Lanka – in Colombo’s lovely Viharamahavedi park (“much simpler when it was Victoria park,” muttered an elderly friend whose husband was once Italy’s ambassador there), in the spectacular Peradeniya botanical gardens, way up in the southern hill country where we hiked through tea plantations both operational and abandoned and – perhaps most of all – in the Yala and Lunugamvehera national parks way down in the south-east where we spent three days bouncing through red dust on badly sprung jeeps, an excellent guide on hand who identified animals and birds deftly but looked blank and not a little embarrassed when I pointed hopefully to trees. I would so love to have had a botanist on board as well!
As it was, much of my time was spent in a googling frenzy, desperately trying to match leaves and flowers snatched from the side of the road with indecisive photos and patchy descriptions.
So to make myself feel a little more in control of my encounters with unfamiliar flora I’ve been combing the internet for good on-line courses in plant biology or plant identification or plant taxonomy and come up with… nothing. Maybe I just need a good old old-fashioned book. Something to work on for 2018.
This trip reminded me how much I adore flowering trees. Of course we have our wonderful fruit trees at home but they’re delicate, fleeting things: superb at their height but very transient. Late January, I learnt, is not a great time for massive showers of dazzling, ebullient tree colour in SL either – we were there in April last time, when the magnificent flame tree (Delonix regia) and cannonball tree (Couroupita guianensis) were in bloom – but there was enough to keep me happy… not that I can say with any certainty what it was that I was peering at, high up in the tree canopy.
I love, too, the clean green neatness of tea plantations, with their occasional glimpses of those tiny, fragile camelia flowers which remind you of what you’re looking at/drinking. Not that I drink it: I’ve never really liked the stuff, and after our estate ramble at the wonderful organic Amba Estate where we were staying, when presented with a glass jar of black tea to sniff in the estate office, my left eye promptly started watering to the point where I had tears dripping off my chin and I could see nothing. Is my dislike for tea actually an allergy? I’d never thought of that before. I mean it may just have been coincidence (I can find no trace of anyone else on the whole internet who reacts to tea that way: tea bags are widely recommended for use as poultices to stop sore, swollen eyes) but it was a strange one if so.
Walking through the countryside around there, along paths beaten through fields and woods by generations of tea pickers, the sound of human voices was never very far away – a little like olive-picking time around us, except this was exclusively female, like the pickers themselves. Brightly dresses ladies dotted the tea gardens, their hands always steadily in motion.
Our stay up in the hills set in motion our ruminations on tourism in its various manifestations. From our very simple, restfully isolated perch on the Amba Estate (in fact we were here rather than in the estate-owned property but it adds up to the same thing) we were fed fantastically and left to our own devices. Our various walks took us up to rocky look-outs and to the marvellous Ravana Falls which we reached along the chattering channel that still takes water to a small hydro-electric plant in a disused (but soon to be revamped) tea factory, across a rickety bridge and through tall trees guided by an elderly gentleman whose great-grandfather owned the whole estate until the 1970s, but who is now the cook at a British-owned hotel on the far side of the river, the land of which we hiked through to the waterfall.
We had the high pool of the Ravana falls almosts to ourselves, the only other people there being an Anglo-French couple staying in Clove Tree House with us. It was magical.
The next day we trekked through plantations and eucalyptus forests (planted, clearly: not native), seeing maybe five people – locals, all of them – to Ella Rock where twenty-somethings in board shorts and flip flops/thongs lounged on rocks and seemed underwhelmed by the splendour in front of them. They had walked up the other side, from Ella town itself, a charming little outpost according to articles and guides but in fact (as we found when we climbed down to it on the other side, through streams of similar hikers coming up the other way) utterly overrun and far from charming – clearly still featuring high on this year’s south-east-Asia backpacking check-list.
You could see the progression. Ella must have started out as a tiny town amid failing tea estates, perhaps with small homestays and little but glorious, unkempt nature to offer. When the backpackers arrived, quick-off-the-mark locals created amenities in the visitors’ image: burger bars and large loud eateries serving pan-Asian generics, and cafés selling Lavazza coffee at 20 times the price of a cup of the Sri Lankan brew. At one of these cafés we listened as two Aussies and two Germans compared burgers in various points across that geographical region. It was clear that all the countries visited were essentially one big back-packing blur.
But things were stirring again on the tourism front, pushed along by the town’s new-found ‘success’. At one extreme, some smart little eco-lodges were aiming at a different category of independent traveller: less frivolous, arguably, and probably more monied. And at the other, some biggish hotels with Chinese script on the notice boards out front were straggling up the hill from the main street: nothing fancy, mind you – probably destined for Chinese tour groups. Which will win out? For the beauties of the surrounding countryside, I kind of hope it’s the eco-tourists rather than the vast coachloads of bewildered Chinese one-nighters.
Meanwhile just outside town, where the Ravana waterfall eventually comes crashing to its lowest point – way lower than the magical spot we had hiked to the previous day and far too close to Ella town itself – the large flat rocks just off the road were heaving with sun-bleached bikinied girls squealing and naked-torsoed young men trying to match looking coolly detached with being on the prowl. I doubt anyone was pondering the magnificence of the setting. From the road, local tuk-tuk drivers looked resigned, clearly interested only in their next fare.
I say that eco-tourism – a label that covers a multitude of sins and vaguenesses – is preferable to mass invasions but it is certainly no guarantee of anything at all sensitive. Down south, where we stayed at the brand-new Wild Coast Tented Lodge, we saw just how bad so-called eco-tourism can be at the Yala national park.
The hotel, located in the Yala park buffer zone, was striking and special – teething problems to sort, but impressive. The Yala safari experience was a curate’s egg: wonderful because we had a fantastic guide, employed by the hotel, who seemed to enjoy having clients who weren’t just there for what he referred to as ‘charismatic fauna’ – ie leopards – but to experience the lot… including some extraordinary birds which, he said, he didn’t even bother to point out to many visitors.
We did see a leopard, fleetingly (L’s picture of blurry vegetation has been studied and re-studied but we can’t work out where the leopard is lurking), and lots of elephants and crocodiles and lizards and peacocks galore (I still think they look plain silly in the wild). But we also witnessed the scariest animals of all: in a tremendous traffic jam, yodeling tourists threw their weight about in jeeps – jostling with each other, encouraging drivers to push other vehicles off the road and generally behaving like hooligans, to see a pin-point on a distant rock which someone had decided was a leopard. It was as humiliating as it was distressing. The taste it left was bitter. Our guide, who had managed up to that point to steer us away from these scenes, was mortified.
Six hundred jeeps plough into Yala each day, packed in a majority of cases with gawpers whose interest in the fauna and its habitat – to the extent that it even exists – has clear funfair overtones. And this is called eco-tourism. It really isn’t doing the planet much good. But maybe small patches of natural beauty have to be sacrificed to that kind of traveller in order to leave the rest to those more timid animals which shun the human presence, and to people who can do without ‘charisma’.
Our idea of safari-perfection was infinitely more low-key: killing the jeep engine to sit quietly and watch an elephant wading through a lotus-filled pool with an egret balanced on his back; or lingering by a muddy hole where a painted stork went about his business calmly, unaware of the banal, everyday family-drama dynamics of the water buffaloes pushing and shoving and stirring up the mire.