Golden Valley Tree Park

When I walked the Bibbulmun Track last year, one of my highlights was the day I wandered through the Golden Valley Tree Park. This beautiful park is located in the country town of Balingup, which is about 240km south of Perth. To be honest, I’d never heard of the town before I did my hike, but it’s safe to say it’s certainly on my radar now.

I remember it was a sunny winter’s morning as I followed the meandering trail through the valley of the trees. Most of the trees had lost their leaves by this stage, but the surrounding hills were the most vibrant shade of green I’d ever seen. It was a colour that became characteristic of the Balingup area, but until that day, I didn’t think such bright green earth existed in the West Australian landscape. I was left in awe and made a promise to return to the park in autumn.

Last Tuesday, I fulfilled that promise. With my garden-loving mum in tow, we set off for our road trip around 10.30am. I love driving, so it was exciting to hit the road and, especially, to be headed for the country. Despite my love of travel, I tend to go overseas or interstate for my holidays, which means I don’t explore my own backyard nearly as often I should.

There was definitely a sense of nostalgia on the drive down to Balingup, as I passed through several other sites associated with my Bib Track hike. In fact, what should’ve been a three hour drive to get to the Tree Park turned into a four hour drive, as I ended up taking the scenic route through a couple of other Bib Track towns, such as Collie and Mumballup. It was hard to believe that I ever walked to these towns by foot.

Eventually, we made it into Balingup, which was decorated with colourful scarecrows for an upcoming event. The Tree Park is located 2km out of the main town area, and when we arrived, we enjoyed the picnic lunch that we’d packed at home. My mood was instantly bolstered, not only by the food, which went down a treat after our long sojourn in the car, but also by the immediate sense of peace I felt as soon as I stepped out of the car. There were no other people around, and the fresh country air was filled with birdsong, as well as the familiar sound of farm life in the form of mooing cows and bleating sheep.

After eating, it was time to decide which section of the park we wanted to explore. I wasn’t aware on my first visit, but there are actually two parts to the park- the Australian Collection and the World Collection. We opted to walk around the latter. It was so cool to come across trees which had been transported from far-off places such as the US, the UK, China, Iran and the Himalayas.

At first, I was slightly taken aback at how brown the land was. Gone were the luscious green hills that had made such an impression on me, and in their place was a dry carpet of rain-starved earth. But the trees showcased a range of autumn colours, which was beautiful to behold. We don’t get a huge display of fiery golden leaves where I live in Perth, and I miss having the opportunity to observe that distinct, colourful change between seasons.

We wandered through an old pear orchard, which was filled with suspicious sheep ready to run if we dared to come too close. The air crackled with the sound of our footsteps treading upon a crunchy carpet of fallen leaves. The path led down to an avenue of dazzling sequoias, and culminated in two stunning golden ash trees, whose overhanging branches formed a ceiling of sunshine over a little wooden bridge.

In the end, I did seven hours of driving for a two hour walk, but it was so worth it, because if there’s one thing that always manages to lift my spirits and put me in a great mood, it’s a nature retreat!

IMG_0073IMG_0186IMG_0075IMG_0080IMG_0082IMG_0093IMG_0103IMG_0104IMG_0105IMG_0108IMG_0107IMG_0112IMG_0087IMG_0117IMG_0133IMG_0170IMG_0138IMG_0165IMG_0121IMG_0139IMG_0142IMG_0148

Elephant Freedom Project (PM)

13th February 2017

***

The sun is beating down intensely as we follow Manika back to the Elephant Freedom Project. Once we arrive back in the enclosure, she is hosed down with cool, refreshing water. A layer of dust and grime, accumulated on the morning’s walk, steadily trickles off her body and onto the floor. We all take turns spraying Manika. The water sparkles on her grey skin, making it look as though diamonds are dancing on her back.

IMG_8499IMG_8511IMG_8519

After her shower, Manika retreats into her enclosure for an afternoon nap. The morning’s activities have left us feeling hungry, so while Manika is resting, we all eager to take part in a cooking demonstration. We are invited into the kitchen, and help to prepare the ingredients for fried rice and a potato curry. I take particular note of all the spices being used, so that I can recreate the dish at home. When lunch is served, about half an hour later, there are another five accompanying dishes. It’s a traditional Sri Lankan feast, and all the food is delicious.

IMG_8534IMG_8540IMG_8541

After lunch, we head down to the local river, where we spot Manika in the water. She is lying on her side and enjoying what looks to be a very relaxing bath. Her mahout is using a coconut husk to thoroughly scrub her body. We’re told this is usually done twice a day to prevent the accumulation of bacteria.

What follows next is the most amazing part of the day. We’re given our own coconut husk and are invited to help wash Manika in the river. It’s an incredibly humbling experience. Here is an animal of enormous power and size, and I’m standing right next to her, giving her a bath, as she lies in the water, placid and content. Manika is the very definition of a gentle giant.

IMG_8556.JPGIMG_8565IMG_8568

It’s strange to say this about such a massive creature, but she is lying so peacefully in the river that she almost seems vulnerable. I am in such close proximity that every detail of her features is observed as if in high definition. One is immediately drawn to her gentle, brown eyes, which shine like smooth, tiny gems amongst her crinkled exterior. Her skin is criss-crossed with deep-set wrinkles. Her rusty coloured trunk looks like a long concertina fold. Depigmentation has decorated her floppy, pink ears with polka dots. I stroke her leathery back, which is covered with coarse hairs that bristle at the touch, like a broom.

IMG_8580IMG_8593IMG_8602IMG_8605IMG_8604IMG_8610IMG_8612IMG_8627

Further down the river, we catch sight of another elephant. This one stands forlornly in the murky water, and there is a look of sadness about him. It’s such a stark contrast to the blissful water experience that Manika is having only a couple of hundred metres away. While Manika splashes around, this elephant is chained to a tree, and he stands silent and still, as if resolved to his fate. His mahout is crouched on the bank of the river, and our guide goes over to him to ask if we can approach his elephant. The mahout has no objections, so we make our way over to the lonely elephant and give him a scrub, too.

IMG_8584

When we return to Manika, her mahout is prodding at her to stand up so he can wash her other side. She is obviously feeling very relaxed, as she doesn’t want to budge. Eventually, she lifts the massive bulk of her body out of the water and heaves herself onto her feet, with a great effort. She turns around slowly, readjusting her position before plopping down, delighted to be back in the water. It’s fascinating to watch the relationship between Manika and her mahout. He’s a bit of a gruff man, and his tone of voice often sounds harsh, but he obviously cares deeply for Manika and is committed to looking after her. In return, Manika seems to trust him explicitly.

IMG_8582IMG_8589IMG_8591IMG_8595IMG_8611IMG_8621IMG_8630IMG_8631

When bath-time is finally finished, we walk back to the enclosure with Manika, and bid her farewell. It’s been an unforgettable day, and my heart is happy to know that after a tough life lived in the logging industry, Manika is now free, and will never have to live in chains again.

I leave the Elephant Freedom Project around 4pm, and since I am not pressed for time now, I decide to walk back to my hotel. This time, there’s no shortage of tuk-tuk drivers that stop to say hello and ask where I’m going. I keep insisting that I’m happy to walk, which seems to baffle them, as if no-one in their right mind would be happy to walk 4km. But I do, and I arrive back at my hotel in time for the golden hour of twilight. I sit out on the balcony and read my book until the horizon turns a russet colour. A noisy chorus of  birds erupts from the trees and I watch as the never-ending flock takes to the heavens and streams across the sky, reflecting on the day, and the beauty of creatures, great and small.

Elephant Freedom Project (AM)

13th February 2017

***

I wake up feeling excited. Today is the day I’ve been looking forward to more than any other during my stay in Sri Lanka. In fact, you could say the experience I’m about to have is what inspired my whole trip. As it goes, when I first became interested in visiting Sri Lanka, over a year ago, I didn’t really know much about the country, and what there was to see and do, except for one thing- elephant encounters.

Of course, there are many experiences available, but when it comes to animals, my main priority is to support companies who truly care about the welfare of the creatures they are looking after. I want to know they have an ethical approach to working with animals, as opposed to an exploitative one. When I came across the Elephant Freedom Project, I knew it would provide the perfect ‘up close and personal’ elephant encounter for me.

The Elephant Freedom Project has been operating since 2013, and was established in response to the many ‘sanctuaries’ and ‘orphanages’ which encourage elephant rides. There is a lot of mistreatment and suffering which elephants endure in order to perform these rides for tourists. The aim of the Project is to allow their elephants to ‘just be’. Human interaction revolves around participating in the daily routines of the elephants, such as walking, feeding and bathing.

It’s 8am when I set out from my hotel in Pinnawala bound for the Project’s headquarters in Kegalle. I walk up the road, thinking it will be easy to flag one of the many tuk-tuks passing by, but they all seem to be occupied by locals. Fifteen minutes tick by, and I’m aware that if I keep walking, I’ll end up being late, so I decide to head back to the hotel to see if they can arrange some transport for me. I’m almost back at the hotel when a local man asks if I’m lost. I tell him my situation, and he offers to drop me off at the Project on his motorbike. By now, it’s almost 8.30am, which is the designated meeting time, so I hop on. He gives me a helmet, but when I go to clip it under my chin, I realise there’s no buckle at the end of the straps, which makes wearing it seem somewhat redundant.

Thankfully, he weaves through the traffic without incident and drops me off about ten minutes later. I enter the house where you can stay if you are volunteering at the Project for longer than a day, and meet four other girls, all from Germany, who’ll be joining me for the day. Shortly afterwards, we all meet our guide, Kelum, who runs through the itinerary for the day.

First up: cleaning the elephant’s enclosure. It’s not every day that you start your morning by picking up huge balls of elephant poo with a group of strangers. Talk about an icebreaker! It’s all for a good cause, though, as the balls of dung are actually processed into paper at a nearby dung factory.

IMG_8380

After we’ve all emptied our buckets of elephant poo, we head out onto the street, where we come across the creature we’ve just been cleaning up after. Her name is Manika and she’s ambling down the road, past oncoming cars and tuk-tuks, who are completely unfazed by her presence in the traffic. I find it amazing that it’s completely natural to see an elephant as you drive to work in this neck of the woods.

IMG_8383IMG_8384

We continue climbing up a sandy pathway which slopes gently upwards through a valley of lush green fields. After a while, Manika stops and refuses to budge. We quickly discover the reason: Manika is hungry- and she requires a lot of food to satisfy her appetite.

IMG_8418IMG_8420IMG_8450

Once Manika finishes her meal, she breaks into a smile. She must’ve enjoyed her greens!

IMG_8427IMG_8424IMG_8439

Manika the Magician then decides to perform the ‘Disappearing Trunk’ trick for us.

IMG_8431

I think she needs a little bit more practice with ‘Hide and Seek’, though.

IMG_8458

Suspicious Dog and Curious Bird decide to pay a visit, highlighting the obvious difference in size between creatures great and small. Even in the face of Suspicious Dog’s barks, Manika stays calm. I think she’s the Miss Congeniality type, who is happy to be friends with anyone.

IMG_8435IMG_8460

Manika also proves to be a natural model, looking absolutely beautiful from any angle.

IMG_8464IMG_8465IMG_8466IMG_8469

Another reason Manika is a great model is because she’s not the slightest bit vain about her wrinkles or saggy skin- even when you take close-up shots.

IMG_8486IMG_8425

Neither does she care about eating again twenty minutes after her last meal. This model is not worried about diets! Instead of feasting on foliage, this time Manika feeds on some chopped pieces of cabbage and pumpkin. We are invited to feed her, and her trunk tickles my hand as she cheekily scoffs her vegies with a delighted snuffly sound.

IMG_8473

Now that we have got to know one another better, Manika obliges me with a photo.

IMG_8481a

By now, the morning is almost over. Manika has been on her feet for a long time, and she’s getting tired. Slowly, she turns around to overlook the valley. Rows of palm trees stretch along the distant hills, and the horizon looks like an emerald wave, shining in the bright light of the sun. It makes me happy to know Manika is able to enjoy this view every day. But for now, it’s time to head back to the Elephant Freedom Project.

IMG_8492IMG_8494IMG_8498

A Perfect Day in Ella

11th February 2017

***

The most perfect day starts with a cockroach. It’s a giant one, light brown in colour, lying half-dead in the corner of the bathroom with its legs up in the air and its long antennae twitching wildly. I have a huge phobia of cockroaches, and it takes me a good five minutes to be able to approach it. My friend offers me a shoe and I thwack the critter over and over again. The bloody thing seems to be tougher than steel and refuses to be squished. Thwack! Thwack! Thwack! Eventually, there’s a crunch. I work up the courage to pick up the remains in a wad of tissues and quickly fling it into the toilet, before flushing it to a watery grave. And one more flush, for good measure.

Undertaking a cockroach extermination mission may not be the most ideal way to begin one’s morning, but the drama is quickly forgotten when I step outside and see this glorious view from the balcony of the Ella Paddy Field View Guest Inn.

IMG_8142IMG_8143

The day is warm, bright and beautiful, as my friend and I set off into town to have breakfast. We enter a cafe, and the waiter asks if I’m Sri Lankan as he leads us to a table. Not quite, buddy! We start the day with coconut roti, though this roti is nothing like the roti we had the day before. It’s still tasty and filling, though, which is just what we need to see us through a day of hiking through the hills of Ella.

The beautiful views begin as soon as we head out for Little Adam’s Peak, which is about a 2km walk from the town centre. We pass by several home stays and cafes, which are nestled between a colourful maze of tropical flowers, ferns and palms, before the path starts winding gently upwards through glossy tea plantations. Along the way, local women pose for photos while picking tea leaves, a snake charmer plays a pungi to a cobra in a wicker basket, and a young boy runs up to every tourist he sees, asking for lollies.

IMG_8313IMG_8312IMG_8155IMG_8159IMG_8169IMG_8170IMG_8171

Reaching the top of Little Adam’s Peak involves climbing some stairs, but it’s nowhere near as taxing as the climb up Adam’s Peak. This is a good thing, as my legs are still sore from Tuesday’s hike, so I take it easy. Besides, the views are absolutely spectacular, and deserve to be savoured. I have never seen such lusciously green country before in my life.

IMG_8172IMG_8179IMG_8184IMG_8191IMG_8200IMG_8207IMG_8208IMG_8233IMG_8225IMG_8248

When we get to the top, it’s not crowded, which makes it far easier to appreciate the view. We take some time to sit and simply enjoy the stunning landscape that stretches out before us, as far as the eye can see. Ella Rock lies directly in front of us, a striking formation which is softened by the vibrant vegetation that blankets it, as well as the rolling hills that surround it, rising like waves before fading away into misty horizons. I could easily stare at this view forever, and find myself rating this hike far more than Adam’s Peak. With Adam’s Peak, it felt like an experience I did to say that I’ve done it, but with Little Adam’s Peak, it’s an experience I’d come back to do again and again.

IMG_8187IMG_8201IMG_8189IMG_8250

With the midday sun starting to beat down upon us, my friend suggests visiting Cafe 98, which is located at 98 Acres Resort & Spa, a five star accommodation complex tucked away in the hills. The thatched roof bungalows which make up the property are visible from our vantage point on the top of the peak, and we make our way down towards them. Once we reach the cafe, we order a refreshing iced tea (since they’ve run out of the passionfruit juice we’re both craving), and dream about staying at the resort. How lucky are the guests, to be staying amongst such panoramic views.

IMG_8249IMG_8260IMG_8263IMG_8269IMG_8275IMG_8279IMG_8271

We decide to visit the Newburgh Tea Plantation after finishing our drinks, as it is only about 500m away from the resort. We don’t stay long, as the factory is closed, although we are still able to sample and buy some green tea.

IMG_8282IMG_8293IMG_8284

After consulting her guidebook, my friend realises that we are not too far from the famous Nine Arches Bridge, which is situated between two railway stations, at Ella and Demodara. The bridge, which is 24m high and spans a length of 91m, was built in the British Colonial period, and is considered somewhat of an engineering marvel, due to the fact it was constructed without any steel. Instead, the entire bridge is made up of rocks, bricks and cement.

We reach a lookout point and settle into some plastic chairs, as the next train is not due to pass for another 45 minutes. Conveniently, there is a juice store on site. The sun is now shining directly onto us and has reached its peak intensity, so the mango juice I order goes down a treat. While we wait, a small group of people starts to gather, and I have a chat with a Canadian lady whose husband has walked down to the tracks for an up close and personal experience. There are several people walking along the bridge, though they look like ants from where I’m seated. I’m content to observe the train from the lookout point, and fall into a drowsy reverie as we wait in the heat of the afternoon.

At 3.30pm, the train horn sounds, and shortly after, a rusty-coloured train chugs into view, its gleaming roof shining silver in the glare of the sun. It comes and goes in a flash, and with the main spectacle now over, the group of people on the bridge rapidly begins to disperse. The onlookers from the higher viewpoint also begin to leave. My friend and I follow suit, and we begin our leisurely stroll back into town.

IMG_8294IMG_8295IMG_8303

After a long day of walking, my friend and I stop by a street vendor and treat ourselves to a final dessert-style roti. Again, it’s completely different to the previous rotis I’ve eaten- more like a crepe- and I wash it down with a wood apple juice. Then, we buy some snacks and souvenirs from the local supermarket, before heading back to the guest inn. The perfect day ends with a delicious home-cooked Sri Lankan dinner in the evening. The view of the hills on the balcony is now cloaked by a curtain of darkness, but far off, under the pale glow of the moon, the tiny lights of a train can be seen. They twinkle like stars on the horizon, before disappearing into the shadows of the night.

The Third Class Train Ride

10th February 2017

***

For the first time since my arrival in Sri Lanka, I am able to have a lazy morning. It’s 9am by the time I hobble out of my room to have breakfast. Walking is more painful than ever after my recent hikes, and Nawanga is very amused at how slowly I make my way to the dining table. I’m sure even a snail could beat me in a race right now.

As usual, there’s a huge spread of food before me, much more than any one person could hope to eat, and I am filled up with a hearty meal of milk rice, yam and coconut. At 10.30am, I farewell my humble and hospitable hosts, and depart my home stay.

The train bound for Ella doesn’t leave Ohiya until 11am, but when I ask for a ticket in second class, I am informed there are only third class tickets available. No problem, I think- until I try to board the train. There are people hanging out of every compartment door, and no-one shows any indication of moving to allow me on. It’s the first sign that today’s train ride will be a rather different experience to my previous journeys, which have been a dream.

There’s nothing to be done except to push my way onto the train. I manage to squeeze through a horde of people, and quickly scan to see where there’s some free space for me to stand. Sitting down in a seat is absolutely out of the question, and the only area which is not fully packed with people is the middle section between compartments. I move into an empty space and drop my bag in front of me, relieved to have claimed a spot where I still have some breathing space.

As the train begins what is meant to be a two hour journey to Ella, I realise why the section where I’m standing was relatively empty. I’ve chosen the most rickety part of the train, and every time the direction of the track turns even slightly left or right, the two compartments on either side of me feel like they’re straining to pull away from each other. I have a vision of my bag falling out of the sizeable gap that is created by this jarring motion, and me following suit.

Apart from picturing myself tumbling out of the train, I also try to imagine the landscape that is passing by. The train ride to Ella often ranks as the top rail journey to experience in Sri Lanka, due to the spectacular scenery. Unfortunately for me, my view is limited to a wall of chipped paint and a dusty floor. What riveting surrounds. There’s an occasional slice of sunlight, or a flash of wire overhead. Sometimes, the green blur of a tree is visible through the gap. For the most part, though, I just watch a layer of dirt and dust begin to accumulate on my arms.

IMG_8094

It’s hot and stuffy in my enclosure, and as luck would have it, there’s a delay at one of the stations. During the wait, a considerate gentleman shoves into me and treats me to the sight and smell of his sweaty armpit. From underneath his arm, I observe a group of laughing German tourists, who are filming their process of entering the crowded compartment. Their sense of humour is quickly soured when they realise how nigh on impossible it is to lug huge, shiny suitcases onto a train that’s packed tighter than a tin of sardines. Watching their struggles makes me grateful for my small carry-on bag, not to mention glad that my tiny spot of personal space is out of the way of the cramped conditions they have found themselves in.

Time passes by, and everyone’s expressions are a reflection of discomfort and exasperation. But it is what it is, and eventually, a local who I had a brief conversation with at the start of the journey taps me on the shoulder to say the next station is Ella. I’m glad for the heads-up, especially considering there are no announcements on the trains to inform you where you’re stopping, and I sure as hell can’t see any station names from where I’m standing.

Although there’s a lot of people disembarking at Ella, like me, it’s still a nightmare getting off the train, as there’s a mass of people waiting outside who are clambering to get on the train, and they have absolutely no patience for the people trying to get off. Add to this, there’s a bit of a gap between the set of steps leading out of the compartment and the actual platform, and my exit off the train turns into a tumbling fall into the crowd.

With nothing harmed except my dignity, I make my way through the jumble of people and am glad to inhale some fresh air when I finally make it outside. Of course, there’s hardly any time to breathe, as the expectant tuk-tuk drivers who have been lingering by the road now descend upon all the exiting tourists. The local who I spoke to told me the fare shouldn’t be anymore than 150 rupee, so when one of the drivers refuses to budge from 350 rupee, I decide not to waste my time with bargaining, and opt to walk to my accommodation instead.

I’m staying at the Ella Paddy Field View Guest Inn and although the main street is easy enough to find, a lot of properties are situated off side streets and I can’t see it, despite Google Maps showing me I am pretty much there. Luckily, the local guy who helped me out on the train passes by in a tuk-tuk and his driver gives me a free lift to the guest inn. He also asks me out for lunch, which I decline, as I’m staying in Ella with a friend from my G Adventures tour, and she is due to arrive soon.

My friend gets to the guest inn shortly after I do, and her journey from Kandy to Ella turns out to have been an even more flustered experience than my own. She tells me that she also bought a third class ticket for the train, but it was so full that many people simply couldn’t get on, and she ended up taking a bus instead. After hearing her story, I feel that my train ride wasn’t so bad after all.

After dumping our bags in the room, we decide to head back into town for lunch, as we’re both feeling pretty hungry after our full-on journeys to get to Ella. We are both keen to eat no-frills, street-style food, and end up ordering some kottu roti, as well as a coconut and honey roti. While we’re waiting for our meals, I bump into Mark and Wendy, who I met in Ohiya. They have spent the day at Little Adam’s Peak, which my friend and I plan to do tomorrow.

When the food comes out, the serves are absolutely massive, and we soon realise we won’t need dinner. Both dishes are simple but tasty, and we leave feeling absolutely stuffed. We decide to walk around the town for a while to try and burn some calories. There’s not a lot to see in the town itself, and the main street consists mainly of cafes and shops. The true beauty of Ella lies in the lush green hills that encircle the town, but we are far too tired to explore them today. We head back to our guest inn, which overlooks Little Adam’s Peak and Ella Rock, and spend the evening relaxing on the balcony, drinking tea, and enjoying the amazing view.

IMG_8108IMG_8099IMG_8105IMG_8114IMG_8138IMG_8140