Wednesday, January 07, 2009

India Holiday - Sunday 4 January – Colombo and trip summary

Due to complications in our original booking and our airline wanting to charge us 50% on top of our original ticket price to re-route our flights, we ended up leaving Kochi airport on the 09:35 to Colombo (long story), so an 04:30 departure to the airport, where we said goodbye to Praveen.

After (way way too) much queuing to get out of the country, we only just managed to catch our flight to Colombo, where we’d booked a hotel in advance via Walkers Tours (http://www.walkerstours.com/). We’re very grateful to Walkers Tours as they took our requirement, delivered exactly what we both asked for and needed, even though our requirement was small. They booked us into the Ranweli Resort (http://www.ranweli.com/), which is an eco-hotel (we didn’t get to test this assertion – but on an initial assessment they have different coloured bins and appreciate the local birdlife) located 21km from Colombo airport on a small island between the ocean and a large river, accessed from the mainland by a punt. We only occupied the room for about 12 hours, checking out again at 10:30pm to catch the 02:40 flight to Dubai and then on to Birmingham, but this gave us an opportunity to see a little bit of Sri Lanka and to see some more birds, which we achieved first via a walk in the grounds of the resort and then by taking a motorboat out along the river for a couple of hours at the end of the day.

This picture was taken from the beach on the edge of the resort:




















At the very edge we spotted a pair of White-rumped Munia feeding on the ground:













The boat trip was very memorable due to the variety of birds we saw along the way, including new species such as this (somewhat distant) Red-backed Woodpecker:














and Brown-headed Barbet:













Green Heron:















But also because we not only saw some very interesting new species but we got to photograph them too, including this Black Bittern, which having flown from cover then posed for us:













Similarly, this Yellow Bittern hung around sufficiently for me to get a decent exposure of the bird:




















I also managed to get some ‘best yet’ pictures of more familiar species, for example Common Kingfisher:















Blue-tailed Bee-eater:















A mature male Asian Paradise Flycatcher, here showing the long tail:




















and here closer-up and sharper:




















We also saw a pair of Pied Kingfishers on the way back, but in the gathering dusk, it was too dark for more than a blurry ‘record shot’ photograph, this is sunset from the boat:














The light was beautiful today. Sri Lanka itself is obviously going through some very complicated times at the moment but when everything has calmed down we plan to come and spend some quality time on the island, getting to know it better, see the wildlife and birdlife and travelling around. Time then to head home.

Overall for our holiday (with a few bird ID’s outstanding and some corrections pending) we identified 200 distinct species, with 190 species in India and 34 species in Sri Lanka of which 168 species neither Helen nor I had ever seen before. A healthy average of more than 10 brand new species per day :)

We decided mid-holiday to put together a scorecard based on our impressions and experiences of each place we stayed, scoring out of 10 the quality of the food, the service, the bed, value for money, location and then averaging these to get an overall score out of 10. Please email me at macox609@hotmail.com if you would like the individual scores or any more information should you be planning your own trip. The scores on the doors then:

Taj Malabar at Kochi 6.6 out of 10 – a plastic experience of India that charges through the nose, hence they can afford the ‘any alcohol’ licence, but in a relatively nice spot and with excellent service.

Hornbill Camp at Thattekkad 5.4 out of 10 – just too basic, the staff try hard but overall it cuts too many corners, which is a shame as it’s next to the best birding spot.

Olive Brook at Munnar 8 out of 10 – it’s a shame Munnar doesn't have more birding, as it was our favourite place to stay by some distance, although it does offer lots of other non-birding tourist attractions for the less birding-obsessed traveler. The food was excellent, the location lovely, the bed comfy, the service friendly and the prices very favourable.

Stanmore Bungalow 6.6 out of 10 – We found the staff a bit odd – mostly over-eager to please - the location good but hard to get to, overall it feels colonial but very peaceful and the chef lowered the salt content of the food on request. The local teak forest was superb.

Waterscapes at Kumarakom 6.8 out of 10 – a rustic Indian resort with wildlife harder than expected to access, plus the environment and in particular the sanctuary really needs a clean-up.

Dewalokam Resort at Thodupuzha 7 out of 10 – this resort in particular is suited to Europeans who want to visit India, stay off the beaten track and enjoy some wildlife, etc. We scored it lower than we might as whilst the food was excellent it wasn’t reliably vegetarian, plus we weren’t there for massages, river swimming, Ayurverdic therapies, etc. The other plus point to mention is that Dewalokam is very self-contained and built to be environmentally friendly, for example the methane from the cattle is used in cooking and most of the power is solar.

We scored the Ranweli Resort at 6.6 out of 10 although to be fair we didn’t really stay that long. The location is idyllic and the room was good, on the downside lunch was surprisingly expensive for what it was, mostly a non-veg buffet, and the service at lunch was at best disinterested, however staying a couple of days would have given us a better opportunity to come up with a fairer assessment.

India is an amazing country with stunning natural beauty. We want to come back, to visit Thattekkad, Chinnar and Munnar again and to visit Top Slip and Periyar. We want to visit Sri Lanka to see the many threatened endemics there and plan a separate visit to the foothills of the Himalayas as there’s plenty of birds there that never go any further south.

India is a vast country but the wild land is shrinking fast, just like everywhere else, and is threatened with being overwhelmed by humankind. The stark truth here as elsewhere is that there are just too many of us humans. The Lion-tailed Macaque is a signal of this, only 2,500 remain in the isolated pockets of natural forest in the Anaimali Hills, unable to migrate across plantations and pressed back by the ever-growing demand for resources we humans ‘need’. Our numbers approach 7 billion, and each year we dramatically exceed the ability of our planet to replace the resources we are consuming - holidays like this have a 'catch-it-while-you-can' feel to them.

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