Tea, Turtles, Tsunami and Time to say farewell to the Mumpack Travel Club.

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February 2nd 2018
Published: February 3rd 2018
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"Don't tell me how educated you are, tell me how much you have travelled." — The prophet Mohammed


The journey down to the alluring coconut fringed sandy beaches of the South Coast was a long and vomitus one. However, the day started with a fascinating tour around Halpe Tea Plantation and Factory in Ella. Built in 1940, during the British rule, the factory is perched 1,230 meters above sea level in the cool climes of the Uva region. It was set up in 1971 producing 20,000 Kilograms of tea a month, powered by 15 workers and 2 Lorries and has since grown to become one of the largest producers of tea in Sri Lanka turning out a phenomenal 150,000 Kilograms per month with over 35 lorries collecting tea per day and staff of 300 workers.

The road out of Ella snaked its way down the mountain with one hairpin bend and switchback after another causing most of the Group to start clutching at the thoughtfully provided Vom bags. Although there were fabulous views on all sides and a glimpse of the famous Ravanna Falls, cries of “I feel sick” ricocheted around the bus with different children taking turns to sit at the front to avoid spewing and adults maintaining stoic silences as we discretely chundered (me included). As we arrived in Wellawaya, the road straightened out and stomachs were restored. (ish).

What should have been a 4 1/2hr journey seemed to stretch on indefinitely and we didnt arrive in the coastal town of Unawatuna until late afternoon. The highlight of this painfully long journey (apart from the most awesome pizzas ever tasted in a restaurant called Refresh in the middle of nowhere) was the spotting of a huge water monitor lizard in the road. The driver pulled over for us to get a good look at this reptilian prehistoric looking colossus of a lizard. It takes a lot now for me to go “wowsers” but OMG. Wowsers. This was a BEAST of a lizard - Varanus salvator I salute you. You have blown me away! Quite possibly this specimen was up there with the size of a Komodo Dragon and it was just moseying along the road, its tongue flicking out to smell and hoover up squashed insects and roadkill. Cars and tuk tuks rounded the bend and had to veer out of its way as it just dominated the tarmac.

Onwards we continued as we hit the South coast Galle road, turning right and westwards….onwards until Unawatuna. We checked into The Rock Fort hotel - http://www.rockforthotels.com/ - knowing we now had 4 nights in one place to unwind, relax and chill!

19th January

The following day was a much needed Chill Day where everyone did their own thing….I was in no rush to get into the centre of Unawatuna as Im back here for another 4 nights in a week or so, so Ella and I hung out by ourselves in the hotel beachside pool and went for a wander with Kate & Skip along the crashing surf of Dalawella Beach.

Later on it was Tuk tuk’s into the centre of Unawatuna for an evening meal on the beach. There is nothing like the feel of sand between your toes as you chomp down on freshly grilled prawns and calamari, all washed down by cooling bottles of Lion Lager. I am in seafood heaven. Each restaurant on the beach has its fish caught that day, on display on ice – rows of snapper and mullet. Shiny calamari. The occasional barracuda and butter fish. Piles of crabs and langoustines and jumbo prawns – all beautifully arranged awaiting selection. As the sun sets, the lanterns of the restaurants are lit, the fairy lights come on and the dusky golden arc of the beach is lit with enticing colours and magic. This feels like holiday!

20th January

This morning we attended school. Cooking school. Sri Lankan cooking school. I have been so impressed with most of the food we have eaten on this trip – give or take a few gastronomic failures - and so it was great to be able to learn some traditional recipes from the inimitable Karuna and her infectious laugh which deserves its own Twitter feed. There were too many of us for the space but for those that managed to wrestle their way to the bench to assist, it was great fun. We started out by sharing tuk tuk’s into Galle to buy the fresh produce – succulent fresh hulks of tuna steak literally whipped out the sea that morning and a variety of seasonal vegetables. Back at the “classroom” - a space above the downstairs restaurant, Ella managed to have a go at counting out fresh pungent curry leaves for the pumpkin curry, grinding into a freshly skewered coconut to get the flesh out and best of all – have a really good squish at squeezing said coconut to make coconut cream and milk. Under the auspices of Karuna, we made 6 different curries which we sat down to gorge on afterwards – all were absolutely delicious using her own homemade garam masala and roasted curry powder.

I fear this trip – although it may have been good for mother / daughter relations and mother travelling psyche may have been extremely harsh on my diminishing waistline. That remarkable one stone I lost in the 3 months up to Christmas….. no comment! I dread weighing myself when I get back but there was no way I was not going to enjoy the epicurean delights of this country. Food for me is wholly part of the travel experience and discovering the incredible dishes that can be made with seasonal ingredients is something to savour. Slimming World is on hold whilst curry, poppadoms and brinjal moju battle for my palate.

My gosh it was hot when we left Cooking School, our bellies full. The main road of Unawatuna reminds me of streets in the Khao San rd area of Bangkok – except here tuk tuks race along it dodging pedestrians. Suncreamed up and into swimming gear, it was onto the beach to cool off in the water and spend the afternoon in the shade, sipping on Lion Storng – a potent (8.8%!v(MISSING)ol) version of the famous Lion lager and enjoying another evening of the sound of the waves crashing onto the sands as the blackness of the Indian Ocean stretched out before us as we dined yet again on fresh seafood on the sands.

21st January

Alarms were set this morning for 6am for a small group of us to get up to see the famous Sri Lankan stilt fisherman. As the sun rises, hardy fishermen perch themselves on poles trawling the waves with lines. This style of fishing originated just after World War II and was widely used all along the coast until the horrific tsunami in 2004 but since then has slowly regained popularity. Though they make the activity seem easy, it requires huge skill and balance. A vertical pole with an attached crossbar is embedded into the sea floor among the shallows. The crossbar allows the fishermen to be seated a couple of meters above the water causing minimal shadows on the water and hence little to no disturbance amongst the sea life. The fishermen then use a rod from this precarious position to bring in their catch which they collect in a bag tied to the pole or to their waist. It was quite magical to wander along the beach at dawn in the misty light watching these masters at work. I cant begin to imagine the impact of the 2004 tsunami on these coastal communities.

After breakfast back at the hotel, we all set off to Hikkaduwa – another beachside town in the Southern Province famous for its coral reef – sadly much destroyed by the tsunami 14 years ago. Evie negotiated a glass bottomed boat and snorkelling gear for us all and to much bemusement as we saw very little out on the reef, we ended up sploshing in the shallows. Here the fish variety was fantastic but the reef was a sorry state of affairs. Not just the damage from the tsunami but the impact of hundreds of thousands of snorkellers with little regard for any remaining coral. All was going well with some tag teaming of the little ones on the beach so all parents got a snorkel. I was out catching sight of banner fish, angel fish, even some two-band anemone fish seemingly without their anemones and suddenly I felt a tug on my foot. I spun round to see if someone had grabbed me but there was noone there. Now Im an experienced diver and you never dive alone so even though I could stand in this shallow water and there were other people around, I was still a little perturbed. I carried on, pulling bits of breakfast croissant out of the bra-part of my costume to attract the fish. Then it happened again, an almighty ouch as I looked down and realised I had upset a very aggressive trigger fish. It had bitten me and drawn blood. Just a nip but enough to hurt like hell and make me decided my time in the water was up. I got the message….

As we wandered along the beach towards our lunch stop, a remarkable moment happened. There in the shallows, just bobbing around munching on seagrass were a handful of huge seaturtles. I dont know what species they were but in knee high water we were able to observe them and their size was enormous. I heard they were between 50 and 85 years old. Gentle aged giants. Apparently, they spend a lot of time in the shallows there and it felt such an honour to see them. The only diminishing factor was the need that other people (not in the Group) had to touch them. I got quite angry! Why is it not enough to just look? The need humans have to touch and stroke and interfere with – and that’s coming from Mrs Tactile here. Ive had some pretty special wildlife encounters in my time but this was something else…..even in the Galapagos, I never came across turtles this big. Ella was quite scared as their dark forms stirred under the surface of the water like moving shadows, occasionally bringing their heads up for air where you got to see their huge heads. That was a top Sri Lankan moment.

After a lunch of freshly grilled calamari on the seafront where on the wall was a marker showing the date and time the tsunami hit, the minibus picked us up and took us further up the coast to the Monument to the Tsunami. A sobering artwork depicting the hell of the wave and its impact. A sculpture in the form of a wave, reaching high and crashing down onto a 3d mural showing the chaos and destruction - including the famous train accident that decimated over 1700 lives. It stands as the largest single rail disaster ever with only 150 survivors

I remember the Boxing Day tsunami so well. There we all were, recovering from our Christmas gluttony as one of the largest recorded Earthquakes - measuring 9.2 on the Richter Scale rocked the planet to its core. It caused the entire planet to vibrate as much as 1 centimetre. The oceans receded, animals went crazy and in Sri Lanka at 0936hrs on 26th December 2004, the lives of thousands of people were wiped out as the waters of this planet took over and engulfed huge swathes of the south west of the country. After Indonesia, Sri Lanka was the most affected country with over 35000 dead and over 516,000 displaced. Miles of coastline were wiped out and even now, you can still see the carcasses of buildings on land that remains unclaimed with ownership unknown – either due to entire families being killed or the deeds of land being destroyed forever so noone can prove possession.

Just up the coast from Hikkaduwu, in Telwatta was where the train was derailed and carried 100 metres inland by the force of the wave (More info here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2004_Sri_Lanka_tsunami_train_wreck) I have seen how crowded the trains get here with people hanging out of the doors – I cannot imagine the horror of being a helpless passenger on that train, being tossed like prey by the water. The sea filled the carriages and most people were drowned in the scrum. Those that managed to extricate themselves were crushed or killed when flung at such velocity from the carriage. It is a phenomenal tragedy here as the train was in exactly the wrong place at exactly the wrong time when the waters hit. It had left Colombo and was heading on its morning rush-hour journey to Galle. Apparently, noone could alert the driver so the loss of life was unprecedented as wave and train collided with catastrophic results. At the Tsunami Community Museum, we saw images of the devastation and the loss of life. Run by survivors, this was an essential place to visit to understand the impact on the locals.

Outside, there are the carcasses of fishing boats wiped out by the tsunami and the enormous rib of a Blue Whale which was washed ashore. The windows of the museum depict creative work by children describing the horror and inside after a room of scientific explanations about tsunami’s – how and why they happen, the rest of this small corrugated iron built shack is wall to ceiling photos of ruination, pain, suffering, death and then love, care, recovery and hope. It was a fascinating place – its flimsy structure almost symbolic of the fragility of humanity. Because, let’s face it – when the earth decides to show us mere humans what she is truly capable of, we are taught our insignificant place in its order. Of course there are warning systems in place now and many lessons learnt – eg, signs dot the coast indicating evacuation routes but to actually meet survivors – one man working there lost his entire family – was a sobering and humbling experience.

22nd January

And so the sun rose on our penultimate day of this incredible two week adventure with the Mumpack Travel Club. We departed Unawatuna, bound for Colombo – via a morning wandering the streets of the Dutch/Portuguese colonial town of Galle. It is considered the best example of a fortified city built by the Portuguese in Southeast Asia, showing the interaction between Portuguese architectural styles and native traditions. However, the city was extensively fortified by the Dutch during the 17th century and is now a world heritage site with the largest remaining fortress in Asia built by European occupiers. It was unlike anywhere else we have visited in Sri Lanka.

It was unspeakably hot and although we had tuk tuks to take us around the fortifications, stopping at famous Galle landmarks, it was too much for the kids who just needed air conditioning and icreream. It struck me as a very affluent place – high end art shops with a rich bohemian feel. We stumbled across the most fabulous historical mansion museum full of curiosities to delight even the most unengaged child…. One man’s eccentric collection of everything – housed in a gorgeous colonial style courtyard house.

Then it was the express freeway all the way to the southern suburbs of Colombo where we were thrown into the melange of traffic that clogs the roads of the city, creeping and jerking our way through the cauldron of tuk tuks, cars, mopeds and buses that honk and spew noxious fumes and make me want to run back to the open air of the South Coast.

Our destination for the night – Global Towers Hotel (http://www.globaltowershotel.com/), a 10 floor towerblock of a hotel right on the coast. Half the group had departed in Unawatuna as they were making their own adventure so a much smaller number had travelled on together back to Colombo and it made the “Group” cohesiveness much better. Numbers dropped from 24 to 17 (incl Evie, Emmie & Carlie) and this was a more manageable number. I guess with organising a trip like this, its a balance between intimacy of numbers and profitability.

So would I do this kind of thing again? Group travel with other Mums (& Dads) and kids…. Absolutely!!!! I have had reservations on aspects of it and obviously, it depends on the people in the Group but this gang of reprobates has been pretty good. There have been some challenging moments and blatant personality clashes amongst individuals at times but overall, a fabulous group of like minded souls keen to see the world and expose their children to the wonders of it.

I love the concept of this trip and I would never have been brave enough to independently attempt to do what we have done in these two weeks with just Ella. Part of the joy of it has been her having the company (although there have been moments!) of the other children. The older ones looking out for the younger ones. The siblings extending care to the solo kids. Such a great bunch of children.

One on one with a soon to be 4yo is relentlessly exhausting and the Group effect diffuses the intensity. Ella is a very sociable, gregarious, outgoing child and has coped well with the entire experience. More introspective children may have found it harder. Evie alone is running the next two Mumpack Trips in Sri Lanka, and they are restricting the age to 6 or above (unless the parent thinks their child could cope with the nature of the trip).

Most of the trip has gone smoothly although there have been times where communication wasn't too clear or things haven't happened as we were led to believe but overall the aim has been to give us all a fantastic adventure and make some pretty special memories. It certainly has achieved that.

There is talk of a similar trip to Borneo next January and I am very interested! Gulp. Eeeek. Australian Schooling seems far more relaxed than the UK with wonderful opportunities for distance learning offered. I wouldn't want to do what Evie is doing with Emmie – continual world travel, dropping in and out of international schools and homeschooling through a distance program but I like the idea of taking as much advantage as I can out of our system where I believe that until the term that Ella turns 5, there is still a degree of flexibility. It may be frowned upon as absence is absence and in this day and age, schools are measured on everything. Absence because we are exploring the jungle of Borneo learning about orangutans may be counted no differently on Ofsted graded paper as absence through illness or bunking off – all of which impacts on the school’s performance when box ticking.

I want to encourage my daughter to be a broad minded, open hearted, strong, independent young woman and I really believe that travel fosters that at any age. This trip has definitely encouraged that. But I also want her to be able to cope with the “normality” of a classroom environment so for me, its finding that balance. If only, school holiday travel wasnt so exorbitantly priced. It is criminal how much costs rise….

This trip has been such a wonderful opportunity for her…… she’s climbed mountains, explored cave temples, tried different tasting food, seen wild elephants, enormous water monitor lizards and giant turtles, splashed around with tropical fish in the Indian Ocean, learnt about tea growing, ridden through exotic countryside in the doorway of a train, spotted monkeys and exotic coloured birds and drunk coconut water straight from the fruit. Her vocabulary has really developed, her brain has been stimulated and she can spot a Buddha at 10 paces now. She’s also just had a lot of fun in swimming pools, watched Peppa Pig, done colouring, sticker books and singing and just playing on the beach.

What a lucky little lady she is.

What a lucky Mum I am too.


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