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Steve and Emma's Travel Tales

Sri Lanka - Who Let the Cat out of the Bag?!

SRI LANKA | Thursday, 15 April 2010 | Views [2847]

When Air Asia announced they were going to be starting flights from KL to Colombo we were delighted.  We must have been almost the first customers to discover; when this would start, how frequently the flights would be going and at what times.  While we were doing this little bit of research Steve realised that they had some introductory special offers up for grabs.  At RM700 return, total for 2 people including all the taxes, check-in bags and food how could we not go?!

We decided to travel in style for the first part of the holiday so booked ourselves a van and driver through our friend G.G.  We wanted to maximise our time - public transport goes everywhere and is cheap but it can be quite time consuming.  Plus, having the luxury of our own transport meant we could go where we wanted, when we wanted.  We mapped out a route before setting off but hadn’t booked any accommodation in case we wanted to change our plans along the way.  An inspired move as it transpired, as we ended up changing our plans quite substantially.  The onset of peace meant that there were many more roads open making previously inaccessible areas visit-able.  Our basic plan was revisit those places we’d only been to once before and to try to fit in as many new locations and experiences as possible.

Sam the Man with a Van was in the airport to greet us and we were soon on our way to rediscover and explore our favourite country.  The first thing we noticed was that we turned left directly out of the airport – apparently the road had only reopened a week ago having been barricaded for 20 years.  A new experience within meters of leaving the airport seemed like a very good omen.

Wilpattu National Park

We’ve been trying to visit this National Park for about 12 years now.  When we lived in Sri Lanka this area was firmly under LTTE control and during the ceasefire a few years ago it still wasn’t open due to the risk of landmines.  In its day Wilpattu was renowned for being THE place to see the leopard, sloth bears and elephants.  Unfortunately the war has had a serious impact on the wildlife in the area and at the moment no one really knows what is there and in what numbers.  Not only did the wildlife flee the area but they were also victims of various weapons and killed for meat.  On that gloomy thought we entered the park not really expecting to see many animals but were looking forward to seeing the park itself.  Our next surprise was reading the entrance fee board – goodness me prices have gone up for foreigners and of course we don’t have a Sri Lankan residence visa any more!!

Wilpattu is understandably much quieter that Yala National Park (in the south of Sri Lanka) so simply turning up and being able to organise a jeep wasn’t a problem.  The main problem was the big black clouds that were heading in our direction and yes we did end up doing a safari in a storm.  Obviously that meant that the animals were hiding and by this point we didn’t expect to see a thing.  However, the rain ceased for a while and a few things popped out to dry off.  In the end we felt like we saw animals at more regular intervals than the last couple of times we’d been to Yala.  Plus the park itself is much more beautiful and the jeep drivers don’t hare round looking for that one elusive leopard.  By the end of the safari we’d seen: land monitors, fresh water turtles, spotted deer, barking deer, grey mongoose, wild buffalo, many different types of birds and an elephant.  Overall we enjoyed our trip and would like to return another day, in better weather, and once the animals have become a bit more used to vehicles not posing a threat.

On the drive from Wilpattu to Anuradhapura the sun was sinking fast and we continued to see animals.  There were a couple of suicidal star tortoise crossing the road but luckily for them Sam stopped to let them dash across.  It was good to see these land turtles, as Sam called them, as they are becoming much rarer due to them being taken from the wild for the pet trade.  As night fell something else made a bid to cross the road and this time it was a snake.  We had to get out and take a look and encourage it to get to the other side before another vehicle happened along.  To our delight it was a viper – good to see but we made sure we stayed beyond striking distance.  We’re still not sure if it was a Russell’s viper or a saw scale viper, but either way they need to be treated with respect.  The Russell’s viper kills more people a year in Sri Lanka than any other snake; they live in the paddy fields and people are working there bare-footed.  Its friend holds the record for the most number of snake bites per year but luckily its venom isn’t so strong, so many people survive.  Whichever species it was, it was another new creature for me to add to my ever lengthening list, along with our friend the star tortoise.

We’d only been in the country a matter of hours and the adventure had commenced full steam ahead.  We slept that night in Anuradhapura as there are no facilities near Wilpattu as yet.  We trundled from one guesthouse to the next becoming increasingly dismayed at how expensive everywhere was.  In the end we checked into Shalini Guesthouse which was okay, but at Rs 4500/= half board somewhat overpriced.  Still, they served up a good rice and curry and had cold Lion lager in the fridge.


The drive over to Sigiriya was wonderful and we felt like we were on safari the whole way.   The lotus flowers were in full bloom making every where look even more beautiful.  The paddy fields were full of a wide variety of birds including storks, kingfishers, herons and peacocks.  We also saw mongoose a plenty and land monitors, but surprisingly no water monitors or monkeys.  We’d not been going long when Sam spotted another tortoise making a suicidal plod across the road.  You won’t be surprised to learn that we simply had to stop so that I could rescue it from certain squashdom!  Another animal highlight was again courtesy of Sam, when he spotted a snake slithering across the road just in front of us.  It turned out to be a rat snake (non-venomous) that was so intent on finding food, it allowed us to follow and observe it for a while. 

We reached Sigiriya much more quickly than anticipated as many of the road surfaces have been improved over the last few years.  To be honest we were disappointed that the journey was over as we’d been enjoying it so much.  We went through the rigmarole of finding somewhere to stay that wasn’t going to break the bank.  In the end we settled on Lion Rock View that was still in the $45 B&B bracket, but we were quickly learning we would have to accept that as the norm.  At least the room was spacious and very clean with the units set in a lovely garden and yes we could see the rock. 

We’d been pretty much on the go since getting up in KL at 2.15am the previous morning and decided to have a lazy day.  By the time we’d been trapped in the bar (it was raining again) for the duration of a couple of Lions we’d already started to change our plans.  Basically, we had to work out how we could fit in everything we wanted to do, but it soon became apparent we would have to prioritise!  Following an early night and a cracking night’s sleep, we both woke up with even more ideas of how best to plan the trip from here.  We’d both come to the conclusion that more than anything we were enjoying the journey and wanted to work out how we could see more.  It was fantastic to be reminded just how stunning this part of Sri Lanka is and how much there is to look at and admire along the way.  Not to mention the fact that there is wildlife every 20 paces too!

In conclusion, we decided to skip Kandy (visited umpteen times) and Nuwara Eliya (done everything there) and head off to the far east coast and Batticaloa.  When we lived here this coastline and Batty were always out of bounds, so this was our chance to explore as much ‘new’ Sri Lanka as possible.  By the time we’d finished breakfast we’d finalised the new improved route which included chucking our lazy morning out of the window.  First stop Sigiriya Rock Fortress – amazingly I’d only been up here a couple of times previously and Steve just once.

With it being a holiday weekend there were still crowds of people around but we managed to lose them other than when climbing the steps up the side of the rock.  For once we spent more time exploring the surrounding grounds and gardens; they are well worth pottering around but they do tend to get over-looked.  Once we hit the metal staircase at the bottom of the lion’s feet we’d found the crowds again.  I shouldn’t think for one second the staircase would pass any safety inspection in the west but it has improved since I first went up there.  Squeezing past people and constantly stopping wasn’t much fun but it was all worth it once on the top of the rock.  It’s incredible to think that centuries ago there was a fully functional, thriving city up there.  How on earth they hauled all the materials up there I’ll never know and rumour has it they even had elephants up there.

Although it was quite cloudy and hazy we still got excellent views from the top.  Sigiriya has to be high on anyone’s ‘Must Do’ list in Sri Lanka however, if at all possible, avoid weekends and holidays.  We loved clambering around trying to imagine what it must have felt like to live up there.  We were lucky enough to find a slight lull in the traffic going back down the steps so we kept moving and were soon back at the lion’s feet.  The experience wasn’t as perturbing as it could have been but I think both of us were happy to reach firm ground again.  I don’t remember the experience being at all worrying 12 years ago so I can only assume I was much more suicidal / carefree in those days!!!

We’d worked up quite an appetite by this point but wanted to get back on the road so we decided to stop in Habarana.  To be more precise we decided to treat ourselves to lunch at Habarana Lodge (now renamed Cinnamon Lodge) a wonderful hotel we were lucky enough to stay in years ago.  Way out of our price range for this holiday but food is always reasonably priced and we knew it would be worth spending a bit extra.  Despite the change of name the chalets looked as excellent as ever and the pool and restaurant area is lovely.  The lodge is set in huge grounds with its own organic farm.  Best of all, it is all to be found on the edge of a stunning tank (lake) where the birdlife is prolific.  Within 30mins we’d seen 3 types of kingfisher and a wander around the grounds saw us spotting heaps of other water and tree loving birds.  Plus we saw numerous land monitors, a water snake and another rat snake that allowed us to get close and photograph it.  So our lunch break turned into a walking safari – like I said the beauty of Sri Lanka is its wildlife and stunning scenery at every turn.

On the way to Polonnaruwa we stopped off at Medirigiriya – a small ancient city site that doesn’t see too many tourists.  The $8 entrance fee is included in the cultural triangle ticket that most tourists invest in – this is worth buying if you’re going to do at least 2 of the main sites.  However since we only did Sigiriya it wasn’t worth our while forking out for it plus we knew there’d be no one around to check the tickets.  Sure enough we got in for free once again – just as well to be honest as it started lashing it down within about 10mins of us arriving.  Medirigiriya is worth a visit if you have the time as once again you go through lovely scenery to reach the site.

By the time we reached Polonnaruwa it was dark and the weather was still grim.  We decided to stay in Polonnaruwa Rest House perched on the edge of the tank but were shocked to discover it now costs $60 a night B&B.  To be fair the rooms have been upgraded, but not that much, and I’m not sure how much longer they can get away with harping on about it being where the queen stayed – that was 1953!  We popped into town with Sam for a slap up meal in a local’s cafe – one of the best kottu rotis we’ve ever had and we were all stuffed for a grand total of $7.

We’d visited the main ancient sites of Polonnaruwa several times before so decided to go for a potter along the tank and take in some of the lesser, but free, sites.  The weather was much improved and everywhere was very quiet making it a most enjoyable wander.  We found a huge troop of macaques so watched their antics for a while and a hare bounded by too.  We swung round into town past glorious paddy fields and stocked up on some short eats (Sri Lankan snacks) for picnic lunch.  Time to move on.

As soon as we were out of Polonnaruwa we were in new territory.  Once again the journey was amazing and the scenery had changed yet again – it was very exciting to be travelling through an area that we’d only ever known as a war zone.

We reached the coast far sooner than expected – the recent troubles means that these roads have been mended very recently so are in good nick.  The initial plan was to stay at Kalkudah beach even though we knew there was very little on offer there.  While we were there we had a look at Passekudah beach too but again these are very much local fishing village beaches.  Both offer huge sweeping bays of fantastic sand (the sea is typically rough with strong currents) but as yet they are not geared up for tourism.  There are a couple of guesthouses in Kalkudah but they have been relocated quite a way from the beach following the tsunami.  In the end we decided to press on as we had plenty of time and knew that travel would be fast due to good, empty roads.

We knew the road would take us through Batticaloa and there was no way we were going to pass up the chance for a wander around.  We were surprised at how many reasonably sized towns we passed through along the way.  The area is much more populous than we expected with Batty being the ‘capital’ of this district.  Again this is not a place geared up for tourism and there isn’t a great deal of points of interest other than an old Dutch Fort.  However, we enjoyed wandering around getting a feel for the place – we discovered a huge diversity of places of worship with more churches than anything else bizarrely.  Mosques, Hindu Kovils and Buddhist Stupas all rub shoulders with each other and the whole place had a very vibrant, positive air to it.  To be honest we expected town to look much more war torn than it does – in fact there are any number of non-war zone, non-tsunami affected towns that look distinctly shabbier!


This largish, functional town was the last stop for the day with the main aim to look for wild elephants.  The only decent guesthouse in town is the oddly named, Chinese and Western Food Court and they gave us the pick of the rooms.  We’d just dumped our bags and were about to sign in when we found out that they didn’t have any vacant rooms in their obviously empty guesthouse.  It turned out they were waiting for a group and assumed we were part of that group – not sure where they thought we were hiding everyone else.  Anyway ended up in Ambersinghe’s Guesthouse / truckers stop that was fairly grotty but at Rs850/= at least it was cheap.

It would all be worth it if we could find the long nosed ones!  On the outskirts of town, on the edge of a tank, is the Japanese Pagoda and we’d read that wild elephants passed there almost every night.  Sure enough the locals said that 3 elephants were in the area and had been seen the previous evening.  We waited and waited but the wait was far from boring; we had the temple to look at and there was loads of bird life fluttering around.  Finally our patience was rewarded when a big elephant emerged from the trees and wandered through the shallows in the direction of the pagoda.  Sam was very alarmed at how close it was getting and was frantically beckoning us to move away – he hadn’t seen the electric fence that was going to protect both us and this wonderful animal.  She slowly ambled by and at one point we were within 20m of her – wow!  Another fantastic experience.

Back in town we returned to the Food Court where they served up some very tasty scran which we washed down with a celebratory tall cold one.  Plus we had to have a couple of beers to delay the time we had to go back to the room – luckily for us there was 20 / 20 cricket and banter with the locals to keep us entertained. 

Arugam Bay

The journey down to Arugam Bay took us along the side of Gal Oya National Park and then though the edge of Lahugala-Kitulana National Park.  You’re not going to be surprised to hear that yet again we thoroughly enjoyed the journey and it was beautiful all the way.  It was definitely one of our favourite sections of travel but it’s impossible to say which stretch we would choose as the out and out winner.  For once there weren’t animals leaping out at every turn but we did stop to watch another wild elephant munching on lotus in the shallows of a lake.  You can’t argue with that!

We only ever got over to Arugam Bay once and back then there were only a few guesthouses to choose from.  There are many more now as an increasing number of surfers discover the big waves and cheap digs.  We settled on Tsunami Guesthouse (named before the event) and have a sneaking suspicion that we stayed there all those years ago.  Obviously it’s changed considerably – like swept away and completely rebuilt, but there was something about the set up that felt familiar.  As further up the coast; this lovely, long, wide sweeping bay is very much the domain of the fisherman.  Steve braved the pounding waves but it’s not a lying on the beach kind of place so we chilled on our balcony.  We walked along the beach to find somewhere for lunch and popped into Gecko Guesthouse where the food was fresh, homemade and very tasty.  We returned via the road and soon discovered just how many more places there are to stay and eat these days – including some rather up market looking gaffs. 

The afternoon was spent reading on our balcony watching the scampering squirrels and leaping langurs.  That evening we headed off to Pottuvil for a boat trip on the lagoon.  Most places were closed due to it being out of surf season so we decided just to rock up and hire a boat man.  Most of the trips are booked through Hilton Hotel and they charge a huge amount for a short tuc-tuc ride from Arugam Bay to the lagoon.  Sam asked our guesthouse boss for directions to Pottuvil Point and off we set – once through town we soon got lost in the rabbit warren back streets.  We stopped and asked loads of locals for directions but you’d think we were asking for directions to Jaffna!  To be fair it’s a Tamil speaking area so many of them will not have understood what Sam was asking.  We eventually found the right place and negotiated Rs2500/= for a 2 hour boat trip.  In true Sri Lankan fashion there was a small army of people involved in the negotiations and we weren’t really sure who we would have to pay at the end.  We jumped aboard anyway!

The lagoons on this side of the island are very different from those on the other as they are dominated by mangrove and grasses.  It was very beautiful and with the boat being paddle power, incredibly peaceful.  It was lovely gliding along listening to all the birds – we didn’t see any animals but it was a veritable twitchers paradise.  After only an hour it became apparent that we were heading back and Steve tried to point out that half time would lead to half price.  This fell on deaf ears and once we were back on terra firma we simply handed over Rs1500/=.  Not surprisingly this led to all manner of over excited discussions and before long half the village, including a gaggle of children, had turned up to enjoy the show!  Poor Sam got roped in but he looked totally nonplussed by the whole affair.  We eventually settled on Rs2000/= and the excited chattering subsided, the crowd disappeared back into the trees and we got back into the van.  Sam didn’t seem too upset that we’d unwittingly involved him and we were all soon chuckling about it all.  Sam dismissed it all as; “The Tamil way with their blah, blah, blah!” and agreed that we’d paid a fair price for the service we’d received.

Arugam Bay doesn’t have much to offer night owls so it was an early meal and early bath.  Steve retired muttering something about getting up for a sunrise swim – we were on the wrong side of the country for sunsets.

We were indeed up for sunrise and Steve was foolish enough to brave those waves once again.  Early morning excitement for me started with having to persuade a frog to exit our bog!  Following an early breakfast we were back on the road for a long travel day up to Haputale.  We had plenty of stops pencilled in and were raring to go.

The drive was as spectacularly beautiful as expected; yet again a reminder as to why we love this country so much.  Getting from A to B has to be classed as part of the holiday which is in total contrast to the tedious highway journeys in Malaysia.  Once again we covered the distance between key towns quickly leaving us plenty of time to add on extra side trips.  Maligawila cultural site (entrance free) is to be found down a narrow, battered side lane but well worth the effort.  Once again the remains of this ancient city are being well looked after and are set in wonderful woodlands.  We’d timed this visit perfectly – we had the entire site to ourselves as it was a mid-week morning.  As we were walking through the trees to the main attractions we were once again serenaded by hundreds of birds.  Including some hornbills that were crashing through the tree tops sending down branches.

The two statues that have been found and pieced back together are immense – the bodhavista is impressively and ornately carved but we preferred the huge Buddha.  It is believed to be one of the tallest free standing Buddhas in the world and it rivals anything that Polonnaruwa has to offer.  True to form there was a resident troop of macaques but they were a bit more wary of people.  The animal highlight of the day was spotting a new species of snake that, to my best knowledge, was a buff-striped keelback.  We continued on our journey past people busy getting the paddy fields ready for the new planting.  Life is very simple here and not many of the farmers have motor powered ploughs.  I don’t think I fancy standing ankle deep in mud all day but I’m grateful these folk provide rice for me to eat.

Speaking of food it was time to decide where to stop for lunch, answer - Ella.  Unfortunately, as we began the long climb up to Ella the van overheated and a pipe burst.  Fortunately, Sam knew exactly what had happened and quickly found / scavenged the bits needed to fix the problem.  We love the way Sri Lankans keep things simple and get on with patching things together.  None of this; into the garage, get the mechanic, order the spare part, come back next week and so on!  We had a short break at Rawana Ella Falls to allow the van to cool down.  Last time we were in the area it was during a huge draught that gripped the whole of Sri Lanka.  At that time these impressive falls were little more than a trickle so it was good to see them in full flow.

Ella was still bathed in sunshine by the time we got there and this was the first time we’d been able to admire the view from Ella Gap - in the afternoon.  On all previous visits the place had been shrouded in cloud and mist by that time.  We had a quick wander around town and were amazed at how many more guesthouses and cafes there are now.  The whole point of stopping for lunch in Ella was to take in the view so we went to the Rest House whose garden overlooks the gap.  The food wasn’t anything to write home about and the service was as shocking as ever, but it was worth it for the view.

Following lunch we pressed on up to Haputale and luckily there were no more mishaps.  Sam managed to buy what he needed to fix the van and we reached our destination in time to take in the views.  Ella is more popular with tourists and it’s a pretty little town with the view down the gap being dramatic.  Haputale is a much more functional town but it is perched on a ridge so you get great views from both sides of town.  We stayed in Sri Lak View Holiday Inn where our very clean, town facing room was Rs1800/= and Sam said the drivers rooms were the best he’d been in yet.  We retired early as we had ordered bed tea for 5.15am.


We’d set the alarm for 5am but in fact the mosque negated the need!  Our bed tea (and coffee for me) arrived promptly at 5.15am and were very welcome.  The stars were still out so we were hopeful of good weather.  The sun started to rise as we were meandering our way through a tea plantation and the views were beautiful all around.

As we climbed up to Horton Plains we fully expected to hit cloud – but no!  For once, it was clear.  This was only our third trip to Horton Plains National Park and we’d only ever seen it in cloud and mist.  The entrance fee is as high as all the other national parks and ancient cities at $25 a head; and once again we wished we still had our resident’s visas.  At least the money is going into preserving Sri Lanka’s amazing sites.  Horton Plains is very well organised and managed these days with designated paths and information boards.  Last time we were up there people were free to wander around at will and of course that only adds to the erosion and destruction of plants.

As we were driving through the grassy plains, from the entrance to the visitors centre, we spotted a heard of sambar deer.  Most people use Nuwara Eliya as their base for visiting this park so the road we were on was empty.  Once we got to the visitors centre we found the car park was quite full but there weren’t any huge groups around.  There are quite a few trails up there and ideally we wanted to do the World’s End circuit and walk to the top of Kiripottulgala.  Doing these 2 walks and walking back down to Ohiya train station would be seriously pushing our luck; you can never predict when the clouds will arrive.  We chose to do the circuit walk as World’s End is the main attraction for this park and we’d never seen the view in good weather.

We got to mini World’s End without seeing another soul and enjoyed the view and our roti breakfast in total peace.  We feel that mini World’s End get’s a bad press – granted the drop off isn’t as sheer as the main one but the view is probably superior.  It was fantastic to see the plains in all their glory; we’d not seen them before (too cloudy) and had no idea how extensive they were.  Plus we had no idea you could see so many mountain peaks up there too.  We could see the clouds beginning to roll up but the weather on the top remained excellent.  The last focal point on the walk is Baker’s Falls where there is a proper viewing platform these days.  The falls aren’t particularly long but it’s quite a wide drop and there is always plenty of water rushing over the rocks.

Once back at the information centre we had a quick mooch about and reminisced about the days when it used to be Farr Inn.  The bedroom we had stayed in is now the sales office!  We were chatting about the resident ‘tame’ sambar deer that used to hang around when lo and behold another one pottered along.  It’s funny how some animals chose to live in close proximity with people and ignore their herd.  There’s also a little canteen up there selling some basic provisions and they’ll brew up a pot of tea. 

The 11km walk back down to Ohiya station is flat for the first 3kms or so as it goes through the grassy plains – very beautiful.  Once we reached the ticket office again we were back in montane forest and the steep descent down to Ohiya.  This is prime shaggy bear monkey territory but they are very shy, elusive creatures and we’d only ever caught a fleeting glimpse of them in the past.  We were almost out of the montane forest when something leapt across the road – you guessed it, said monkey.  She leapt into a tree close to the edge of the road and uncharacteristically hung around.  Amazingly she then came back over the road; to our astonishment, we realised she had to do this to collect her baby that she’d left behind.  As soon as they were reunited she did scuttle deeper into the woods, but we were lucky enough to see half a dozen leaping through the trees.  It was a truly rewarding experience as it is very rare you get to watch these lovely animals.  A guide that we met said in all the years he’d been visiting that area he’d only ever glimpsed the monkeys 3 or 4 times.

The rest of the walk revealed no more surprises and soon enough we were at Ohiya.  In fact we’d timed it perfectly as we only had 30mins to wait for the train.  The station master happened along and informed us the train was running late – no surprise there then!  To find out how far behind schedule the train was he got on his antique phone.  If you want to see a working museum go to any train station or tea plantation in Sri Lanka – they’re fantastic.  Now you would think that sitting on a train platform for an hour in a village of 5 houses would be tedious.  Far from it – no idea where people appear from but the invariably do!  There is always something to observe, admire or wonder at in Sri Lanka.  Besides which it gave us time to have our picnic.

We tried to buy tickets but the reply was somewhat rambled and we only made out you could only buy them on line.  Where the hell were we going to find a computer?!!  It turned out that we had to wait for the train to pass a certain point on the line; where it activated a magic bell to prove that it really was coming.  By the time the train did wheeze into the station the platform was quite full.  Granted some had walked / driven down from the national park but where on earth had the others materialised from?!  The train was very short considering it was the main one of the day from Colombo i.e. the one with the observation car on the front.  It was understandably packed but the first carriage didn’t look quite so crowded so we made a bee-line for it.  On reaching the door we discovered that it had been booked out privately – that would explain things.  As we were about to board the carriage behind we were invited to enter the first carriage.  A group of Railway Police had the carriage and they were happy to bump up and share with a couple of foreigners.  We very quickly had a seat and new friends to chat to.

They were a very friendly bunch (helped by a steady flow of beer and arrack) and were delighted to hear that we loved Sri Lanka.  They were almost beside themselves once they learned that we used to live there and could still remember a few words in Sinhala!  As is the norm in these situations there is always at least one person with excellent English so communication wasn’t a problem.  They had to ask all their questions quickly as we were only going 40mins down the track.  At Haputale station there were big, cheery waves all round.  The weather was still excellent and we toasted another grand day out with balcony beer.

We set the alarm for 6am even though we knew the mosque would chirp up before 5 bells.  We foolishly thought we might be able to drop off again for an hour but the early morning train scuppered that plan!  We drove up to Dambatenne Tea Factory as the sun was rising over the mountain peaks.  Apparently the tea factory does tours these days but we’ve done it all before.  In fact, when we did the same walk years ago we took the tea bus up to the factory and ended up paying everyone’s fares!  White people were quite a novelty and the factory manager invited us in and gave us a personal, private tour.

 It looked promising for another good day’s weather and Haputale looked great bathed in an early morning orange glow.  Today’s mission was to walk to Lipton’s Seat, but Sam missed the point and carried on driving past the tea factory.  We persuaded him to stop by telling him that the track soon disintegrated and became very narrow.  We later learned that it’s only the last 1.5kms that is in poor condition so for anyone that doesn’t like 7km hikes through tea plantations this is still a very doable activity.  We set off walking and since we were early, even the pickers hadn’t started work; it felt like we had the entire plantation to ourselves.  Far from it in reality, as there are small villages dotted among the tea bushes.  The walk up was very peaceful but we were a little concerned about the cloud rolling up the hillside.  Luckily it cleared again by the time we got to Lipton’s Seat.  The poor fella will be turning in his grave as they’ve built a small car park / turning area up there and a lookout tower.  The actual original seat is still there but it is hidden – we knew it had to be there and soon ferreted it out.  The views from the top are fantastic.

Since these places are now actually advertised – there are numerous information boards – you’d have thought it would be more of a tourist pull.  As we were going back down we did see a few tourists going up but they were cheating; they were in tuc tucs!  We were very surprised that some enterprising soul from the nearest village hasn’t set up a little tea stall.  Tea as far as the eye can see but not a brew in sight!  As we walked back down the pickers were walking up to begin their day’s shift.  They all greeted us with cheery good mornings but unusually, for Sri Lankans, were camera shy.  We’d told Sam it would probably take us 4 hours so he got a shock when we tapped on the van’s window after only 2 ½ hours.

Our fast paced walk left us with more time for that day’s journey so Sam decided to go back to Welliwaya via Diyaluma Falls.  These falls have a very long drop and it was good to see plenty of water flowing down.  Even though we were on the A4 it’s nothing more than a single track lane.  Once again we were going through stunning scenery and it was amazing to note just how rapidly we descended.  I spotted a giant squirrel so we had to get out and have a look!  It’s wonderful to think that this was Day 7 of the trip and I had new animal and bird sightings to add to the lists every day.  The roads were again very quiet so even though we weren’t pushing it we made excellent progress.  This gave us time to pop into Buduruvagala; another of our favourite ancient sites.  Basically it’s a rock with Buddha and other images carved onto it.  I know that doesn’t sound very impressive but the carvings are excellent and it’s all set in beautiful grounds.  The lane leading down to the site is lovely too so it’s well worth a detour – plus it’s only Rs200/= entrance fee.

The road down to Tissamaharama is in excellent condition, pretty much empty and straight.  I kept my eyes peeled for hefalumps when passing through the elephant corridors but I didn’t see any.  We did see plenty of other wildlife including a couple of suicidal land monitors but I’m pleased to say they crossed over fully intact. 

Tissamaharama (Tissa)

We decided to treat ourselves to a night in Priyankara Hotel; a lovely colonial style place that may be a little worn round the edges but it’s excellent.  The rooms are well appointed with kettle and fridge and much to Steve’s delight satellite TV.  It was Saturday and City would be on later so that called for a trip to the Lion Beer shop!  Said ale comes in tins these days so there was no messing around with deposits and having to return the empties.  With the chores done i.e. a fridge full of beer(!) it was time to take advantage of the pool and garden.

The pool isn’t huge but the water was lovely and warm.  There is a pond in the garden for ducks so they’ve built the pool infinity style and beyond that you look onto farm land and palm trees.  There were loads of birds around including kingfishers and parakeets and I declared the garden the perfect for a resident snake or monitor.  Within seconds a most impressive rat snake slithered by and we promptly assured our fellow guests that it wasn’t dangerous.  The foolish creature headed straight towards the hotel causing great panic among the staff.  They understandably didn’t want it in the hotel but instead of quietly guiding it away started batting it with a broom.  Steve and I pleaded with them to leave it alone as it wasn’t poisonous but they carried on pestering it to the point when it displayed aggression.  You can’t blame the snake and once again we begged them to let it make its own way out.  Luckily it managed to hide itself in a plant pot and everyone went back to their chores.

Another guest who’d been watching all the excitement and came over to ask us how we knew it wasn’t a dangerous snake.  We explained our interest and passion in wildlife and the outdoors and that we read about things to find out more.  He must be the only person to go all the way down to Tissa and have no intention of visiting Yala National Park.  In fact he’d never even heard of it and declared it was better to go and look at animals back at home in Dubai in the zoo.  Just doesn’t get it does he?!  However he’d enjoyed our snake entertainment and chat so much that he insisted on buying us a beer.  We invited him to join us but he said he had to go to the mosque first and he would have a drink later.  Classic!

Yala National Park

This was the last day of our tour and we were up at 5am yet again – the fourth mega early get up on the bounce!  Our safari jeep, as arranged the day before through someone Sam knows, was waiting for us but the guard was nowhere to be seen so we were locked in.  We eventually tracked down the guard only to find they were changing the wheel on our jeep using another jeep’s tools.  All-in-all it wasn’t a very auspicious start to the day.  We were soon on our way and on reaching the main entrance learnt just how popular Yala is these days.

The previous day a leopard family and around 50 elephants had been spotted – would we be lucky too?  In a word – no!  The safaris these days seem to concentrate on going hell for leather looking for the leopard.  If that isn’t spotted before the break then the emphasis changes to looking for elephants.  What about all the other animals and birds?  We felt like we saw animals in much higher numbers and at more regular intervals than 2 years ago but we didn’t get chance to watch them.  There were loads of buffalo, pigs, chital and sambar deer not to mention an incredible array of birdlife but we zipped past the lot.  We didn’t particularly enjoy our safari and to compound the issue our jeep broke down making us late for check-out and we missed our breakfast.

On saying that we did see lots of animals and if you’ve never done anything like that before it would have been a good experience.  As well as the creatures mentioned above we saw langurs, crocodiles, mongoose and a jackal.  Our ranger that the park allocated us was useless and we’d spotted all the animals long before he noticed they were around.  The highlight for me was seeing a sloth bear bound across the road but no one else saw it.  Apparently I was particularly lucky as it is not the season for them to be foraging in that part of the park and one hadn’t been seen for 3 weeks.  In conclusion – we give up trying to find the leopard in Yala and in future will visit Wilpattu and other national parks.

On returning to the hotel we quickly showered and finished packing the bags ready for the last leg of the van journey.  We decided to stop off in Tangalle for lunch at one of the beach side restaurants.  We were amazed to see how much the tsunami has changed the coastline along there.  The restaurant I had in mind was still there; it used to only have a roadside level and it was built on stilts over a steep cliff.  In those days you could get down to the beach but it was a very tricky scramble.  The restaurant now has a downstairs section too with tables out on the sand.  The tsunami has taken out a huge chunk of land and left a lovely small bay – I wonder how long it will take for someone to develop it?

This break gave us the perfect opportunity to give Sam his tip as we’d settled the bill earlier.  He looked genuinely surprised and touched that we gave him a tip but I’m sure most drivers expect something.  I suppose we’d been ‘tipping’ Sam as we went along by buying him short eats, food, arrack and generally making sure he wasn’t out of pocket.  We got the distinct impression that not all of his customers are as thoughtful.

We continued along the beautiful coast road and were making great progress until we hit Matara.  Election fever was gripping Sri Lanka and there was a huge rally going on right in the centre of town i.e. blocking the only road through town.  There are no such things as by-passes in Sri Lanka so we crawled our way through the bus loads of people, and I mean literally bus loads.  They had all been bussed in from the outlying villages and no one was going to give up the chance of a free ride to town to do some marketing!  Once we’d freed ourselves of the Matara madness we were soon in Mirissa and embarked on yet another hunt for somewhere to stay that wasn’t over $50, a rip-off or just downright grim.  To cut a long story short we ended up in Paradise Palm Cabanas at $40, fan only, a night full board.  It felt quite sad saying goodbye to Sam but it’s a fairly safe bet that we’ll meet up again sometime in the future.


We spent the first evening wandering along the beach to see what had survived, changed and what was new.  It soon became apparent that Mirissa was not the same as the last time we saw it –there were loads of people all along the beach.  Not on the level of lines and lines of brollies like Spain, but who let the cat out of the bag?  There used to be many a weekend when we’d not only have the guesthouse to ourselves but the entire bay too.  We decided to retire to the far end of the bay for a drink in Bay Moon.  Well it used to be the end of the beach but once again the tsunami has changed the lie of the land.  You used to have to clamber over rocks to get passed Bay Moon to a little cove where the surfers used to brave the waves, while trying to avoid hitting rocks.  Most of the rocks have gone now and the beach continues right the way down to the end pretty much uninterrupted.  The development is low key and the bay remains fantastically beautiful; even if there are more people than usual pottering about.  It’s not until night time when the restaurants light up like Blackpool illuminations that you can tell any difference.

With the room only having one small window and being tucked away under some trees, away from the beach, nowhere near a mosque or train station we managed to sleep in until 7.20am!  We had a lazy day since we’d been rushing around for days on end; Steve fancied a day reading, dipping in the Indian Ocean and pottering.  We did book ourselves onto a whale and dolphin watching tour through Club Mirissa.

Another early start but that’s the nature of the game with animal spotting.  Following our failure to see leopards and elephants in Yala we mentally prepared ourselves for a good boat ride!  These whales and dolphin watching tours are a very new phenomenon in Sri Lanka but surely the fishermen have always know that they were around.  It is believed that there are up to 25 species of marine mammals frequenting Sri Lankan waters on a regular basis.  Even better than that, the experts think it’s probably the best place in the world to see spinner dolphins and blue whales.  Now that people are aware that they are out there, and willing to pay good money for the chance to see them, hopefully much more research will be done in the area. 

Club Mirissa take a maximum of 6 adults per trip, at Rs5000/= a head, and use a traditional ocean going fishing boat – I’d always fancied a ride on one.  Other operators use different boats and some had many more people on board and we felt we’d made the right choice.  We’d only been going about 30mins out of the harbour when dolphins were spotted on the horizon.  We soon caught up with them and were lucky enough to be the only boat in the vicinity – don’t forget, off that part of the Sri Lankan coast there is nothing until you reach the South Pole.

There were dolphins as far as the eye could see and the boatman reckons there were about 200 altogether.  They put on a spectacular show for us and were leaping out of the ocean and we could only hope they were spinner dolphins; the boatman didn’t know.  Before long they started launching themselves straight out of the water, pirouetting and crashing back down into the sea.  Spinners – definitely!  Another dream comes true.  Amazing doesn’t go anywhere describing how wonderful it was to watch these dolphins in such vast numbers and so close; they were even swimming alongside the boat and under the prow.  We watched them for about half an hour and then moved off towards the whale area.

How on earth they manage to navigate the seas and know where to look is a mystery.  We had no technical equipment on board and once out of the bay there are no land marks.  Finding anything in that vast ocean, even a creature as big as a whale, seemed nigh on impossible.  As we were motoring along a couple of flying fish kept us entertained.  By the time we’d travelled so far you could barely see the mainland, the boat slowed down prompting an air of high expectation.  It didn’t take long for the crew to spot a jet of water shooting to the sky.  It could only be a whale and on closer inspection we found out it was a sperm whale.  They are truly enormous and I can’t even begin to imagine how big a blue whale is.  We spent a long time in the area watching 4 sperm whales.  We all had to keep our eyes peeled as once they dive down they can stay under water for more than 15mins to then resurface miles away.  It was a magical experience and one I’d recommend everyone to partake in at least once.  We’d love to go back at a different time of year to see if we can find a different species of whale.

Once back at the hotel it was time to pack and jump in a tuc tuc to take us further up the coast.


We’d booked a room in our friend Ajith’s place, Upul, as we decided, for once, to have a room with a sea view – usually we stay up the jungle track.  We got a sea view alright as the tide was very high and once again the beach has been all but washed away at the end of the bay.  It was lovely to catch up with friends and reminisce about our wedding from 2 years earlier.  It was going to be tricky fitting in all our old haunts in the time we had!  Dinner at The Villa was a must since we couldn’t walk past the place where we’d signed that all important piece of paper.

By the next morning the cloud and rain had dispersed so our room was bathed in sunlight by 7am – obviously this wasn’t ever going to be a holiday of lie-ins!  We were glad to see said orange orb, as we had another lazy day pencilled in, so set off to the part of the bay where there is still a significant width of beach.  Most of the beach side places are happy for you to grab a lounger so long as you order your drinks from them and preferably have a meal there too.  The Full Moon is one such place and it was a good deal for us as we’d intended to have lunch there anyway.  The sea looked so inviting that even I went in – twice!

Obviously there’s only so much sitting around that Mrs Fidgety-boots here can tolerate so later in the afternoon we went for a stroll up the jungle track.  I was on the hunt for purple faced leaf monkeys as I’d not seen enough variety of wildlife for one holiday!  Just as I thought my luck was out; I glanced up at a tree to find said primate staring me out.  We carried on up the track to Sunset Point Hotel for sunset beer – of course!.  There used to be a place called Land’s End up there and supping a beverage while watching the sun dip below the horizon was popular.  That place seems to have gone and this other place was deserted – although we did find someone who managed to track down a cold Lion.

A storm blew across the bay through the night so the booms of thunder, intense flashes of lightening and rattling window resulted in minimum kip.  It wasn’t good beach weather so we decided to go up the jungle track once again and branch off to the Japanese Peace Pagoda.  We’ve walked over this headland many, many times but I’ll swear we end up on a different track each time.  There is another little bay over there called Jungle Beach which is good for swimming and views of Galle Fort.  In fact, we were on our way to have a wander around the fort, as surprisingly this is not something we’ve done in many a long year.  After the peace pagoda the track carries on around and eventually meets up with the main Galle – Matara road.  It’s easy to hop onto any bus at the junction and it will drop you in either town depending on where you wish to end up.

It was Election Day, so as luck would have it everyone was in the new town and the old fort area was virtually empty.  We had a lovely time ambling up and down the lanes admiring the great restoration work that has taken place recently.  We made sure we took in all the main and important buildings like the lighthouse, churches, museums and courthouses.  There are quite a few colonial, boutique style hotels in there and yes, they look great, but they were all way beyond our budget.  Peddler’s Inn Cafe is one fine example of the tasteful refurbishment some places have undergone and it turned out to be good value.  Steve ordered a pot of tea and we were astounded when it appeared as it was only Rs200/=.  He couldn’t drink it all and I’ve never know a Humphreys be defeated by a pot of tea!  Before heading back to the beach we had a look at the fresh market as these places always throw up good photo opportunities.

By this time the weather had improved enough to head back down to the beach.  The sea was still quite rough following the storm but that wasn’t going to deter Steve. I decided to give it a go but couldn’t pluck up the courage to venture beyond the shallows.  Mind you, even there one wave crashed in over my head and dumped a load of sand in my cossie.  I wasn’t a happy bunny but put up with it long enough to partake in sunset beer.  I was glad I did as I was rewarded with my first (for this trip) sighting of fruit bats.  I think there were only 2 days when I didn’t add new creatures to my list.  You can call me sad if you like; but I feel it’s great that there are still places like Sri Lanka where you can get to see so many birds and animals without having to rely on reserves and sanctuaries.

Once again the bright sunny weather saw us up and about early.  Following breakfast – you just can’t beat local beach bread – we headed off for our final tan top up.  With mission accomplished and bags packed it was time to jump into our Colombo bound taxi.  We never did like leaving the coast; even when we lived there and knew we’d be back again the following weekend!

Other than the election chaos in Matara this was the first time on the trip that we felt like we were in traffic.  There may not be as many potholes these days but the road remains as narrow as ever with many more vehicles.  We’d timed our departure from Unawatuna with military precision or to be more accurate we’d pencilled in lunch in Hikkaduwa.  We stopped at one of our favourite beach side restaurants, Buddes, where once again we were remembered and warmly greeted.  The rooms here were rather neglected before that big wave crashed into them but they’ve now been spruced up and look welcoming.  You’ll not be surprised to read that this lunch stop was planned so that I could attempt to get one more animal ticked off my wish list.  In the past we’ve watched green turtles while at Buddes but not that day.  Fortunately, Steve knows me well and is very tolerant of all my wildlife whims.  So much so; that after a very tasty lunch, we walked along the beach in the direction of an area where we always saw turtles.  In fact 2 years ago we were snorkelling with a couple of huge green turtles in the shallows near the headland by Coral Gardens Hotel.  Within minutes I’d spotted one feeding in the shallows and by the time we’d gone round the bay and back to the road we’d seen about 7.  It’s not every day you get to watch turtles feeding in the wild and it’s good to know that Sri Lanka’s wildlife is as prolific as ever.

Getting back into our van we sadly realised we were on the final, final leg of the journey.  However, we enjoyed the ride along the coast and it was good to see that normal life had resumed for everyone.  Yes, there are still very poor people living in shacks trying to eke out a living; but at least they are no worse off than they were pre-2004.  I don’t wish that to sound heartless; I’m just glad that people have picked up their lives again and now, with any luck, they’ll be able to move on and improve their lives further.



On entering Colombo we were surprised to see the traffic only moderately hectic.  We could only assume with the elections and the Sinhala and Tamil New Year holiday landing back to back, most people had taken an extended holiday.  We kind of thought we had a reservation at Colombo City Hotel but since we’d not confirmed the booking, paid any deposit or given our credit card details we didn’t want make presumptions.  So erring on the side of caution we checked out a couple of other midrange places along the Galle Road.  Hotel Renuka was rejected on the grounds of annoying staff who wouldn’t answer the direct question; “How much are your rooms?”  Hotel Juliana was rejected on the grounds that they didn’t have any non-smoking rooms and the annual puffing competitors had obviously just checked out!

We pootled on down the Galle Road and eventually worked out how to get to Colombo City Hotel’s entrance – peace may prevail but there are still lots of security road blocks.  Oh boy do we wish we’d just gone straight there – the staff were very welcoming and they did have our reservation as promised.  Since we’d not paid a deposit, the only way they wouldn’t have given us a room would have been if they were full.  At $58 a night B&B it wasn’t cheap but not too bad for the centre of the city and the room was nice enough with all the usual fixtures and fittings.

Anyway, we had things to do and places to visit.  No trip to Colombo is complete without a trip to Barefoot to stock up on photo albums and any other goodies that happen to catch our eye.  Pub tea at our old haunt The Cricket Club was next but this was when the plans started to unravel – it was mysteriously quiet for a Friday.  It turned out the bar was shut due to the elections – even though they’d taken place the day before and all had passed off without incident.  If ever you find yourself in Sri Lanka and there’s a public holiday it’s best to be away from the main towns and cities.  They obey the rules and stay dry but everywhere else tends to carry on as normal, although you may need to order a special pot of tea!

The next morning yielded the other obligatory Colombo shopping experience – a trip to Odel.  Don’t bother getting there too early as even on a weekend it doesn’t open until 10am.  Odel is not the bargain clothes place it used to be but you can still get some decent stuff at good prices.  It’s very much a department store now and seems to attract rich Sri Lankans much more than tourists or expats.  That said, we picked up some lovely tops at a great price and there are loads of other souvenirs, jewellery and Sri Lanka goods to pick up.  Once we’d dropped off our shopping, and I’d worked out how it would all fit in the rucksack, it was time to decide what to do with the rest of our time in Colombo.

The city does not have a great deal in the way of tourist attractions but, if you’re willing to put up with the noise, smells and general hustle and bustle, you can while away an hour or so.  When we lived there it was virtually impossible to explore the Fort area but many more roads are now open.  I hope peace prevails and the area gets redeveloped to its full glory – there are loads of fantastic old colonial buildings and many of them are still in use.  We’re back to the subject of working museums – go and check out the original Cargill’s’ Supermarket.  Many places are within High Risk Security Zones so be very careful if you get your camera out – obey those signs.  The security forces will most likely act instantly as opposed to politely asking you to put your camera away.  There are even a few landmarks, such as the old clock tower, that you can go and have a peek at but be prepared to be frisked first.

Please Sri Lanka, when you do totally open up this part of town, don’t tear it down in place of modern monstrosities – preserve what you’ve got and sell it as a tourist attraction.

Here ends another brilliant holiday in a wonderful country.  During our travels we got chatting to a Sri Lankan fella who worked for the Ministry of Tourism so obviously he knows the country very well.  He asked us what / where we’d enjoyed the most and you know; it’s virtually impossible to answer that question.  We travelled along so many stunning roads, had wonderful wildlife adventures, saw fabulous ancient cities, chilled on picture postcard beaches, chatted with locals – how can you choose one?  That’s the beauty of Sri Lanka; it offers so much variety and diversity of places and experiences and invariably you’re given the warmest of welcomes.  We know we’ll be back – will you?

Travel Information

Getting Around

If you have plenty of time it is easy to get to most places by bus or train and they are dirt cheap but can be crowded. You should do at least 1 train journey through the hill country or along the coast as this is a fantastic experience. If you want to see the best of the island in a short time hire a car and driver. We have always used GG Happy Tours in Unawatuna, charges about 6500 rupees a day, all in for a van. You could get cheaper but he provides great service, especially if you get Sam. Who we and my family have used a lot and he is excellent. GG can also arrange all manner of tours and hotels etc.


Wilpatu National Park

No accommodation at the park so best to base yourself in Anuradhapura. This time we stayed at Hotel Shalini, which was ok for a night but a bit over priced.


If you have the cash, we once stayed at Palm Garden, which was really nice.



You should try to visit here and base yourself near Sigiriya for a few days as there are lots of sights to see around the cultural triangle and national parks to visit. We stayed at Hotel Lion Rock, which was very nice and ok price for the area.


If you have more cash, the best hotel in the area that we stayed at is Kandalama,


We have also really enjoyed in the days of having a resident visa and local prices:

Deer Park


Habarana Lodge



We stayed at the Rest House, it has a great location but definitely overpriced, still probably the best place in town. Most people visit the ruins at Polonnaruwa as a day trip from a hotel around Sigiriya.



If you want to get off the beaten track, get to Ampara, no tourists whatsoever! Good base to visit Gal Oya National Park and of course you can look for elephants at the Japanese pagoda like we did. Also, a good stopover, while exploring the less visited East coast. THE place to stay and Eat is the Western and Chinese Food Court, they also arrange safaris ( allegedly, we could find the right chief !).


Arugam Bay

Don’t think we stayed in the best place, Hideaway and Stardust looked better but of course more expensive. Lots of cheap places along the beach and road. You should eat at least once in the Gecko Cafe, right in amongst the fishing boats on the beach. This website linked to Stardust has general info about Arugam Bay.



If you are staying in Ella, which you should do if you have time, try Hill Top Guest House which we always stayed at, a great friendly guesthouse with amazing Sri Lankan curries and stellar views of Ella Gap.



Sri Lak Holiday View Inn is a nice place to stay in Haputale, great views, quiet but only 2 mins walk to town. The food was ok, but you should go to the local places near the bus stand  to try the excellent roti, samosa and kotu roti.


Horton Plains National Park

Great trekking and views if you get the weather. Check out this excellent website for great info re trekking in Sri Lanka.



Priyankara is an excellent but quite expensive place, however,it is worth every dollar if you get to catch City beating Burnley 6-1 and United losing to Chelsea live!



Now this beach used to be our secret, how the hell did you all find it? Idiots like us bangin on about places on the internet no doubt! It is still a superb beach and it is good to have a choice of beach restaurants and the beer was the cheapest on our tour. I hope it doesn’t get too spoilt though. The down side is that all the cheap guesthouses are still shabby but charging a lot of money, so the best deal on the beach is Paradise Beach Club, a place we always shunned as it was the posh place! $40 half board is not bad.

Try Club Mirissa, just behind Paradise to book a whale and dolphin tour, most guesthouses do them but we were happy with the price and service there.



Now, you must visit here if you are touring the south of Sri Lanka. We have been 100s of times over the years and stayed in most places. Our faves are:

The Villa – well we did get married there!


Rock House – good clean guesthouse up the jungle track with resident monkeys. This was our regular when we used to go to Unawatuna every other week!


Taprobane – now quite upmarket, very nice but was cheap back in the day!


Upul – nice sea views and great food in the restaurant.


Bruno’s Flower garden – A bit of a walk to the beach but nice garden and pool.


Village Inn – Very basic but really friendly owner and nice garden with monitors.



We can highly recommend Colombo City Inn for price, location, service and facilities.


Although, you should try and stay at the fantastic old colonial hotel, Galle Face, if you can.

http://www.gallefacehotel.com/ Even if you don’t stay there you must go for a sunset drink.

You also must pop into the cricket club cafe for a bite and a beer ( unless it is Poya or an election!).


Whatever you do, or wherever you stay or eat in Sri Lanka, I guarantee you will have a ball!





























































































































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