Sunday, March 03, 2019

Gap Year – Safari – Day 2

After a night at Eileen’s Trees Inn in Karutu – where I am bored into an early night by a pedantic German – we set off for the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. My Swahili lesson is going great guns so while Ally picks up our “permitys”, I chat to other tour guides. They are all very earnest and I decide I easily have the best guide.

We climb up through the thick, luscious woodland of the Ngorongoro Highlands and skirt the rim of the stunning caldera.  I haven’t been here since I was 10 but can still remember the breathtaking moment when you see Ngorongoro for the first time. 19.5km across, 8,000 km2 – an idyllic Shangri-La for wildlife. Through our binoculars. we watch some rhinos having sex. It goes on for ages; the couple’s baby rhino stands beside them and waits for them to finish.

We skirt the caldera and set off north-west towards the Serengeti. The Masai are the only people allowed to live in the Conservation Area and we pass drifts of goats and cattle, always with a Masai nearby, leaning on a long stick, checked red “shuka” slung over one shoulder. In one giant herd, I see cows and sheep grazing peacefully alongside wildebeest and zebra – an exquisite sight.

Scenery much like the Scottish Highlands – but with more giraffes – gives way to some Andalucia-style scrub. There are hundreds of zebra and wildebeest, slowly heading south on their 1,000 mile trek, munching as they go – the Great Migration.

We turn off the main track and suddenly we’re on a vast empty plain. Ally tells me this is exactly what the word “Serengeti” means – an endless plain. Gazelles scatter ahead of the jeep, ostriches eye us suspiciously. We see a hyena – Ally’s favourite animal – skulking along beside the road. The hills we’ve descended from slowly diminish and, in the far distance, a line of low bush gets slowly nearer. We reach the scrub and suddenly there are giraffes everywhere, zebras, some adorable dikdiks wobbling their noses at us, guineafowl scuttling out of our way.

We are spending the next two nights at Ndutu Tented Camp perched high above a beautiful lake where we watch hundreds of wildebeest stand at the shore grunting and deciding whether it’s time to cross. Actually, they could easily go round the lake but they are only programmed to cross water, not skirt it. I

I determine that the best sunset view is going to be right by the lake so at 6pm we head down. I neck the last of my Kenya Cane as we watch the sun sink below the low hill on the far side of the lake. Luckily Ally’s a Muslim so I don’t have to share. It’s probably the best sunset of my life.

Gap Year – Safari time – Day 1

After a cancelled flight and five hour delay (thanks KenyaAirways), I finally arrive at Kilimanjaro Airport in Tanzania at 2am. Ally is waiting, my guide for the next eight days. He’s also my Swahili teacher but I decide not to break this to him until the next day. This is officially a “rest day” as I desperately need a rest after being on holiday for the previous six weeks but Ally recommends a shopping expedition at a local market in Arusha.

The next day, Ally acclimatises me gently to Tanzania by taking me to Bee Eater’s office seven miles away where two girls struggle with a credit card reader that doesn’t work. I’m very hot and have a temper tantrum. Ally deals with it politely and calmly, the girls say sorry a lot. Later Ally confides that dealing with difficult clients like me is the first thing you have to learn on the “how to be a guide” course. He was also thinking to himself: “This Mamma’s going to kill me.”

After fun times at the office, we head to Kilombero market, where I resist the opportunity to buy fabrics designed by someone on an acid trip along with a cabbage, second-hand shoes and some goats. I buy some dates.

The safari gets underway at 7am the next day. We’re off to Lake Manyara where elephants, monkeys and leopards abound. As soon as I determine it’s now just a bit too far to turn back, I inform Ally that – in addition to his strenuous one-on-one, 24/7 guiding duties – he’s also going to be teaching me Swahili. Luckily, he’s right up for it and we kick off with verbs for “like”, “see” and “go.”

"Tembo" (elephant) and "simba" (lion) are already part of my vocabulary so by the time we actually see elephants – and a lion up a tree – I’m able to say I can see them, like them and let’s go.

We stop for a picnic lunch overlooking the lake, and a family of elephants munching thoughtfully beneath us. I start a long series of complaints about my packed lunch which has cold chips in it. Cold chips turns out to be a staple of the safari “lunch boxy” but Ally likes them so happy to pick up the slack. We see lots of “twigas” and “pundamilia”, “ndege” galore and some cute “nyani”. Wielding my Nikon, I find I'm a master at catching animals’ bottoms as they wander off away from us into the bush.

We drive as far along the lake as it’s possible to go and reach a boardwalk stretching out into the alkaline waters. Swimming not advised. Dozens of swallows perch along the boardwalk, taking flight as we make our way to the end.

We head out of the park and up the wall of the Great Rift Valley. The views are spectacular, inexpertly captured on my Nikon.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Gap Year – Lamu

After a ten-minute stopover in Malindi, our miniature plane flies on to the miniature airport that serves Lamu. From there, we are ferried across the water to the sleepy village of Shela where various hawkers, porters and incongruous Masai jewellery sellers line the dock.

Apart from boats, the only transport on Lamu – famously – is donkeys but I never see them actually carrying anything. They stand around ruminating on street corners, heads down, or are seen ambling off on secret missions but a definite nope to anything approaching “beast of burden” and resolutely oblivious to their human neighbours.

I’m staying at Fatuma’s Tower, a guesthouse I chose after extensive research on the internet only to discover that it’s owned by Frankie’s uncle. The streets through town are sandy, winding and labrynthine. I’m confused after the first three turns and never fully master the route. As we weave our way up through the tiny alleyway, I try to log landmarks – a hopeless strategy – one donkey or straggly chicken looks much like any other.

Shela is gorgeous and one of the things I like most is that every time I get lost, which is all the time, someone is immediately right beside me, offering to help. Six-year-olds speaking immaculate English grab my elbow and gently push me in the right direction, or weave through the streets ahead of me, looking back from time to time to check I’m keeping up. They clearly think I’m an idiot but do their best not to let it show.

Fatuma’s Tower itself is a lovely jumble of one, two and three-storey buildings set in a delightful garden. The place looks like it’s been there for centuries but nearly all of it has all been created from scratch, in traditional style, by Gilles and his wife Fiametta over the last 20 years. The garden is full of beautiful trees, shrubs, a plunge pool, tons of birdlife and a monkey that nicks my bananas.


My days on Lamu pass in a sublime blur. One night I join my fellow Fatuma guests for a dhow sunset cruise, a much-lauded highlight of any visit to Lamu. Anne and Florian from France have just climbed Mount Kenya on their own, with no guide or porters. Nick and Megan are from the UK and have just got engaged. We steer out into the still waters between Lamu and Manda islands, drinking and chatting and watching the sun sink slowly behind the sand dunes. It’s idyllic. 




Daytimes I juggle between living it up at the luxurious Majlis Resort with its romantic swimming pools and sumptuous sun-loungers, or hanging out at Diamond Village, a chilled-out beach bar with full-on pizza oven.


It’s very hot and I’ve gone right off culture but nevertheless I force myself to take a morning off doing fuck-all to head into Lamu Town. The whole place is a Unesco World Heritage site and, like Zanzibar, is famed for its very beautiful ornately-carved wooden doors. I make cultural headway at Lamu Museum which is mainly about doors but also has a small section on indigenous tribes and a potted history of Lamu’s golden era when it was a hub for trading spices, slaves and Oriental knick-knacks. Ali and Hafswa, a Muslim couple from Mombasa, join me for the guided tour. Hafswa is draped head to ankle in floaty black chiffon but I can still see her soulful eyes, delicate hands and glamorous sequinned sandals. She barely speaks but we have a significant bonding moment playing ethnic drums together on the second floor.


One of the highlights of my Lamu sojourn is copping off with a former Marine who now works as a pilot at the US military base on Manda Island. I’ve never met a Marine, or a mercenary, or anyone at all who has served in Iraq or Afghanistan and I’m keen to know more about these lovely tourist destinations. X tells me he can’t tell me anything about his work and then tells me all about it. He flies night-time surveillance/recon missions over Somalia looking for terrorists. He also spends a lot of time flying around Nigeria looking for Boko Haram. Obviously I can't reveal any intel here but I can post up the hilarious Afghanistan drone video he gave me (watch right to the end).

After extracting a ton of classified intel, I drag X off to the “cinema”, a Friday night film club at Diamond Beach. We share the boat over with Phoebe and Ali, star-crossed lovers who met at a conference for gifted students. They come from wildly different backgrounds. Ali is a local boy, which means he grew up surrounded by sand, donkeys and chickens while Phoebe grew up in Nairobi but they’re making a go of a long-distance relationship. As we neck mojitos and fight off mercenary-grade mosquitos, Phoebe tells us a great story about Putin’s mum and the siege of Leningrad. Then it’s time for the film: The Wife with Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce. What a perfect evening. Next stop: Watamu

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Gap Year – en route to Lamu – Meryl Streep interlude

For my overnight stay in Nairobi, I’m lucky enough to get an invite from my new mate Sally to come stay with her. I have only met Sally once before – for about an hour on Gatwick drone attack day when we were both trying to get to Venice for a friend’s 50th. In January, Sally whatsapps me and invites me to stay. As I have a hotel booked, I’m hesitant but Andrea says: “Cancel your hotel immediately; Sally is great and her house is amazing.” It’s all true. Sally is fab, fun and a talented artist (check out her site here) and her house is the Ngong Dairy – which stood in for Karen Blixen’s home in “Out of Africa”. This would already qualify it as a pretty extraordinary place to stay but what really does it for me is Sally’s fabulous art collection – a cornucopia of African art, English watercolours, photographs, a dazzling, wall-sized painting of an ostrich and a staggering collection of kimono-style battle dresses in illuminated glass cases.

When I arrive, Sally has set up lunch on a linen-covered table in the middle of a huge lawn. It’s glorious and almost more Streepy than I can cope with. Sally then heads to the gym and I spend the afternoon wafting around and thinking about Robert Redford. On Sally’s return, we settle down to an evening of gossiping, story-swapping and getting to know each other. It’s a brief but blissful interlude which I thoroughly enjoy.

The next day we drop in to Sally’s gallery before I catch an Uber (yay, Uber!!!!) to Wilson Airport. My driver Martin is chatty and we have a fun ride. Martin wants to be in my blog so here he is:

 At Wilson Airport, I meet Edwins, the owner of Kenya Buses. This might be a useful contact if I was the slightest bit interested in ever using public transport in Nairobi. I introduce him to my other new friend, Priscilla, the engineering head of the Malindi water board. We start talking about bendy buses - not a subject I thought would come up during my visit to Africa. Edwins is planning to introduce them in Nairobi but Priscilla and I are sceptical. I reference Boris and Priscilla says they won't work in Kenya unless you reduce capacity. I am not sure whether we convince Edwins or not.

I ask Priscilla if there are ever any problems with the water supply in Malindi. No, she says, the service is excellent. But after we board the plane, I find myself sitting next to Katoi Wa Tabaka, a jazz musician, hip hop artist and rising star on the Kenya music scene.  He looks like a rock star and is exactly the kind of person I was hoping to meet on my travels.

Katoi Wa Tabaka - are you a rock star?
As he's from Malindi, I ask him if he ever has water problems. Yes, he says, we were cut off the whole of last week actually. Ooh, Priscilla was telling porky pies! She buries her head in her laptop. Oops.

At Malindi, Katoi disembarks but promises to keep in touch; he is as good as his word and although we don't manage to meet up again, he does put me in touch with a great friend of his in Watamu where I'm heading after Lamu. Thanks Katoi!! (ps Katoi's music is great and you can find him on YouTube, Ethnocloud and SoundCloud. This is my favourite track: Kunani - it's great.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Gap Year – en route to Lamu – Gujerati interlude

It’s January 28, midnight, and I am finally setting off for Africa and the island of Lamu off the coast of northern Kenya. Mysteriously my flight from Colombo to Nairobi only costs £220 which makes it super-tempting to make this journey every year. Thanks, AirArabia!

The Colombo-Sharjah leg is dull and cramped and I’m stacked next to a Brugelesque couple who are shaped and dressed exactly like Russian dolls. The next leg – Sharjah to Nairobi – is much more promising. It’s peak wedding season in Gujerat right now and my flight is full of people coming back from exhausting festivities in the mother country. Lovely Chandni Patel is kind enough to tell me all about her own wedding and shows me lots of pics.

Chandni’s marriage was arranged but it morphed into a love match after an intense six months wooing via the usual channels -  ie facebook and WhatsApp. Now I love parties but I'm not sure I could handle a Gujerati wedding. They're are in a class of their own: hard-core endurance tests that involve a full six days of eating, drinking, dancing and performing elaborate marriage rituals. No wonder everyone on my flight looks absolutely knackered.

Here’s the schedule:
Day 1 – Meet and Greet
Day 2 – Disco
Day 3 – Gujerati dances
Day 4 – eight hours of putting on henna
Day 5 – resting (phew)

On Day 6 everyone pulls an all-nighter and the bridal couple engage in a series of elaborate and complicated rituals. These include a photo shoot, dancing round a fire and making vows, the bride’s parents washing the groom’s legs, looking for wedding rings in a bowl of milk and (my personal favourite) a game in which the groom’s parents tie the couple’s hands together with thread and then the couple have to unravel it one-handed.

There is also the all-important covering-yourself-in-turmeric ritual without which no Gujerati wedding is complete. Literally so, because if you miss out on turmeric daubing, you’re not even technically married. There is no alcohol, no kissing until Day 7 and the bride wears a different outfit every day; the whole thing costs hundreds of thousands of pounds.

Chandni says it’s a shame she can’t wear her dress again. I suggest she adapts it as it’s pretty nice – no, she says, she has to be buried in it. Cheerful thought.


Monday, January 28, 2019

Back in the Hood – Part 2

Gay Ola reunion
Lewis comes down from the mountains and, after a two-day journey on buses, trains, automobiles, tuk tuk and septic foot makes it to the coast and eventually our village.

You can ruin Lewis’s day in an instant by describing him as Gal Oya’s “Assistant Manager”. It’s a sure bet which can be doubled down by adding that his co-host Brent has gravitas, is much taller and has a business card saying “Lodge Manager”. Brent’s business card is a knife to the guts for Lewis – “WE ARE CO-HOSTS” he says to anyone that will listen.

Brent's business card - OUCH!

On Day 2, Lewis and I set off on our eagerly-awaited “Pharmacy tour of Weligama”. First plan was to load up with actual medication for Lewis’s war wounds. Fuelled by Andrea’s paranoia that he is about to die at any moment from septicaemia, Lewis is now in a state of panic about the infected bites on his foot and is becoming almost as convinced as Andrea that he faces imminent death. The “antiseptic” part of the Pharmacy Tour goes quite well and we bag up various liquids that can kill rats. We then embark on the fun part – asking for Diazepam – or anything else that ends in “pam”. I plan to take these recreationally, but they might also have useful “contraindications” ie make me feel sleepy, unable to take wheel of a tuktuk or operate any heavy machinery. (Benjo once told me he couldn’t take diazepam as his colleagues count as “heavy machinery” – ha ha to that.)

Asking for things that end in “pam” in a pharmacy in Sri Lanka can go one of two ways:
a) they react like you have just asked for smack and are horrified; b) they ask how many you want. 

Pharmacy #1 says “how many?” so I get out a quid in rupees and buy 30. Pharmacy Tour becomes One-Stop-Shop. We then head to Food City, which is like going to Waitrose after spending three months in a town that only has a Best Buy corner shop. Lewis is in seventh heaven the minute we walk in as they have air-con. He would have been happy just standing at the entrance enjoying the breeze but I drag him in and we tour the aisles, marvelling at the luxuries on display.

We engineer a Gay Ola reunion with Robbie and Ally who are also now down on the coast and staying in Mirissa. Robbie works for a bank and is a part-time music producer. He comes from Lewis, the same remote Scottish island that Andrea’s husband Simon lives on; Ally is an event manager at the Roundhouse but doesn’t know Charlie Scrimgeour. We meet for Moscow Mules at Tiki Cocktail Bar overlooking Weligama Bay. Great view and spectacular cocktails. Ally tells me fab stories about spoilt A-listers and what they want in their dressing rooms. We discuss our mutual love for Patti Smith, Bowie, Nick Cave, Jane Birkin. Ally checks her diary and thinks she could make Primavera.

We head back to Dorians where we find it’s no longer possible to get a drink; the bar has been raided and the police have taken all the booze. Dorians have applied for a drinks licence but clearly this isn’t going to happen any time soon. Our favourite bar at Villa Naomi’s – with its lashings of arak, beer and unrivalled sunset view – has also been torn down so getting a drink in the village is becoming something of a challenge.

We eat our weight in spicy spaghetti. The fact that I’m currently the fattest I’ve ever been doesn’t stop me – I’m still going for the “Asia’s largest mammal” title. Andrea is also “piling on the pounds” and currently weighs 100g more than she did before her arrival. It’s gone straight to her hips where it proves totally invisible.

Francesca’s son arrives from New York and we head into Weligama to hit up the ATM and find some size 10 fins. I NEVER go to Weligama without visiting the pharmacy and this time I’m on mission to get Viagra. “It’s for a FRIEND, not ME,” I announce loudly as we squeeze into the tiny air-conned store. Turns out real Viagra is expensive - £5 a shag. I know my friend will consider this a total waste of money, but they have a generic Viagra substitute which works out at 25p a shag. We all study the box carefully. Is this the same “active ingredient?” I ask (titter, titter). Yes, Madam, guaranteed hard for one month. 30 tablets: £12. Still a bit pricey in my opinion but it’s not for ME, it’s for a FRIEND.

While Nick is sorting out a sim card, I sit next door in an air-conned gem shop owned by Siraj. Siraj assures me he won’t try to sell me anything and then tries to sell me a parcel of land just outside Weligama. He also tries to sell me a gigantic Sapphirine gemstone which he says is the most valuable stone in the world. He’d like me to help him “donate” it to a museum in the UK – in return for some money. He says he can’t “donate” it in Sri Lanka as they’ll just nick it. He sends me pics of the stone later on. It’s certainly big. I can’t work out how valuable it is. He seems genuine though and is a volunteer for the local branch of the International Committe on Seafarers’ Welfare. He also works for a Christian mission, even though he’s Muslim. I get out of the shop without buying anything and consider it a win.

I visit the village shop from time to time, a tiny shack on the verge of collapse where, like most shops here, you get served through a tiny window. This makes it hard to know what they sell but you can safely assume almost everything. Their opening hours are random but Freddie’s mum just yells until they open.

Our friends who were jailed after letting off guns one night from the roof of the guesthouse are finally released. They were locked up for nearly six months – a hell of a long time given that most crimes in the village, such as wandering around pissed and threatening people with sticks – seem to go unpunished. Inexplicably, the jailbirds are all fatter than when they went in so you can forget prison as a detox.

I have rented Freddie’s scooter so spend a lot of time going down random tracks to check out potential snorkelling sites. Sticks Ahangama becomes our new favourite beach caff and close to another newly-discovered snorkelling spot near Ahangama. The beach will have to remain secret but it’s definitely the most beautiful in Sri Lanka – white sand, lush vegetation tumbling down a terracotta-coloured cliff, a reef-protected pool – just gorgeous. Andrea and I decide it's perfect for our annual photo shoot - this year modelling her HookDesignLtd one-size-fits-all (just) beach dresses.

Turtle Bay, on the edge of Mirissa, is another great discovery. It has a fab restaurant and Andrea sees a three-legged turtle. Underwater visibility is crap but above-water visibility reveals hammocks, super-attentive waiters and the best salad I’ve ever had in Sri Lanka. On a subsequent (post-Andrea) visit, visibility is excellent (sorry Andrea) and I see a ton of fish including a huge moray eel, a pair of Oriental Sweetlips and a lot of baby Moorish Idols.

The trip is winding down. We have just a few days left in paradise and Andrea is getting feisty. Neither of us want to leave. Andrea spends her last few hours worrying about dogs – Dots has been banned from EVERYWHERE, and another dog has gone missing after being “rescued” by a tourist. “I only care about children and dogs”, says Andrea as she gets in to the car to head to the airport. “Make sure you find that dog.” We all know we had better find that dog or we’re DEAD.

Hiru - Born to Surf
Meanwhile, life in the village will continue ... with its constant little dramas, its lovely people, its spectacular sunrises and sunsets, and the surf .. always the surf, crashing endlessly on.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Back in the hood – Part 1

We leave Gay Ola reluctantly. We love all the staff and our fellow guests and they, possibly, love us. We stop off en route to stay at Jetwing Kaduruketha, a lux eco-hotel near Ella. Jetwing's Instagram feed is my main source for hotel porn and Francesca and I have been die-hard fans for a year so looking forward to taking Andrea.

Jetwing Kaduruketha
Jetwing backfires. Andrea is utterly scathing, calls it faux-eco and has to be forced to dip a toe into the idyllic river which she says is a cess-pit full of waste from the village upstream. I try to fight off the negative vibes with a visit to the hotel's “Gravity Meditation Area”, a pile of rubble near the swimming pool.


Despite my hour of quiet contemplation, Andrea’s hostility wins out and Francesca and I obediently fall in line. I still think Jetwing Kaduruketha is pretty nice but have to admit that last year's "Nature Tour" was pants and the “Gravity Meditation Area” doesn't cut it. The fact is that, after Gay Ola, nothing faux-eco is ever going to cut it. Gay Ola is the nuts. (Gosh, I hope Jetwing aren't reading this: I’m trying to get comped for my next visit as an “Instagram influencer”.) 

En route home we stop off at the Buduruwagala temple we visited last year with the Scrims. We admire the 1,000-year-old rock carvings of Buddha and his shapely assistants, then get back in the car. Andrea describes it a perfect visit as it took no longer than half an hour.

Back in the hood, we resume our normal life of lounging on the terrace at Andrea’s, lazing around on jungle beach and snorkelling in zero visibility under crashing surf. I wake up at 4am every day to the usual cacaphony.

dog barking, monkey howl; pig throwing up, peacock squall, bloke opposite clearing phlegm; ethnic chanting, birds, shouty version of The Today Programme; accordion music.

I don’t really mind early wake-ups as I get to see spectacular dawns. Also Benjo, Neil and Jen are having an “adventure” at Atlantic Casino in the Bahamas and are eight hours behind me. They are very funny in our Whatsapp group – a stream of messages updating me as soon as I wake up.

Andrea, Francesca and I spend an inordinate amount of time discussing Dots, a hyper-aggressive, nervy stray who is loved deeply by us and loathed by the rest of the village. Dots leads a double life; at Andrea's he is sweet and only growls/goes for people if approached while sleeping or if they're a man. At his other (real) home – Dorian's Guesthouse – he's known as "Gangsta" and goes for anyone who touches him while he's under a table (he's always under a table). I have been bitten twice by Dots – once two years ago when I approached him while he was sleeping (rookie error) and this year when I accidently brushed him with my toe while he was under a table. He grabbed my foot and held on for over a minute. Then he came to say sorry. We blame it all on his unhappy childhood. 

Our beloved Dots (aka Gangsta)
I continue to meet and engage with random tourists. A German couple in the room next door are vehemently offgrid and consider pretty much all online activity as dangerous and negligent. I think they’re Christians but, at any rate, they're very nice and gave my a pack of Gingelly Balls for my birthday. I don’t even mind their lectures about how awful facebook, Instagram and whatsapp are. As they can’t be tagged in photos, I don’t take any so you’ll just have to believe me when I say Miriam is breathtakingly beautiful.

Gingelly Balls

I spend a lot of time with Katya, a visual artist and film-maker from Moscow, who has ZERO privacy settings. In fact, she is SO unfazed by it all that I am able to read a post she has written about me before she even accepts my friend request. She turned 28 two days before I turned 57 and she seems to think that behaving the way I do at my age is a great lifetime goal. She says privacy settings are a waste of time in Russia as they can read it all anyway. I assume “they” are Novichok dispensers so, personally, I'd set up a few basics but she is unconcerned.


I meet a nice Swedish couple who live north of the Arctic Circle. They currently don’t have daylight, just a slight uplifting gloom from 2-3pm. Horrific.

A bunch of hot Israelis have taken to putting up a tightrope on the village lawn every night. Christina, who studied at the only British school in Israel and has five A levels, eggs me on to have a go. As it’s my birthday, I decide that age IS only a number and step gingerly onto the strap, supported by hot Israelis; I wobble theatrically so they have to get a tighter grip. A village-load of locals stand around laughing.

I also like a nice Briish couple and their toddler who are taking a six-month sabbatical from being nice in Devon and being nice in Sri Lanka instead. They are sound, down-to-earth London escapees who now live in Totnes. Mrs Totnes does yoga but I am pretty sure that’s as far as she veers towards ley lines and crystals.

I do NOT like the pint-sized Austrian who likes to start his day by lecturing me. First on smoking (he gave up EASILY) and then on using the internet. He tells me he lived for two years off-grid in Costa Rica. Like I give a shit: I am immersed in a frenetic against-the-clock game of Wordsplay with Jen and Rod and the Austrian is stressing me out. Thanks to him, our global team ranking slips to #27.

The wildlife at Gay Ola was delightful but I can see a wealth of birdlife without even leaving my balcony at Dorians Guesthouse. Possibly because there aren’t any predators here but it’s like being inside the aviary at Basel zoo. Flashes of yellow, crimson and indigo dart past. Chirrup, Chirp.

Exclusive link to weird bird call:

One bird sounds like a Nokia ringtone, another is auditioning for Star Wars #9,: “pew, pew, pew”. He’s the loudest bird out there but there are numerous other contenders for highest decibel count.

Chino Rheem extra
As Benjo and Jen are in the past and I’m in the future, I threaten to tell them who has won the PCA. This is totally against media guidelines. Most of their WhatsApp updates can’t be published but the thread is rich in wit and wordplay. Early on, Benjo discovers that the word “ejaculate” used to mean “suddenly shout something” in the 19th century. He loves it and ejaculates constantly in a virtually silent media room. I challenge them both to use the word “ejaculate” in their nightly updates. Jen gives examples to Benjo as he’s French and doesn’t understand things like GADZOOKS.

"I am the duke's illegitimate child!" McTavish announced. "Good Lord!" ejaculated the bishop.

Benjo gets the hang of it, uses the word “Austen-esque” and says he will ejaculate if he doesn’t make it to the pasta place for dinner and will also ejaculate if he does.

Chino Rheem wins the Main Event for $1.5m and, rather than read PokerStars’ press release which DOESN”T mention he’s a total crook, I am usefully redirected to the 78-page thread on 2+2.

This fits right in with my current bedtime reading - The Last Chronicle of Barset. Anthony Trollope would have LOVED Chino Rheem but he would also have then ensured that Rheem gets his come-uppance and is banished from Barsetshire for ever. In real life, long queues form at the cage every time Rheem ever wins any money and his victims live in abject squalor. GADZOOKS!

Chino Rheem in Barsetshire

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Where were you when the coup in Gabon happened ? – three days off-grid at Gal Oya Lodge

After a fun six-hour journey with driver Gayan – which includes an up-close-and-person encounter with roadside elephants at Udawalawe National Park (and two bakery/coffee/smoking stops) we get to the turnoff for Gay Ola Lodge. It’s actually called Gal Oya, but we have renamed it Gay Ola in honour of a local peacock that spends most of its time trying to get off with itself in the reflective glass window of Room 9.

Gay Ola Lodge is off-grid. There is no internet and the nearest phone signal is a 17km cycle ride up the road. (From time to time, one of the hosts sets off carrying all his colleagues’ phones and downloads everyone's emails and whatsapp messages for them.)

There is no Google. I repeat, THERE IS NO GOOGLE!!!!! There is also no IMDB which makes it nigh on impossible to work out what year Picnic at Hanging Rock came out.

Gay Ola is a stunning place, located on the edge of Gal Oya National Park, one of the most remote and least visited wilderness areas in Sri Lanka. It’s an eco-lodge and for once, the eco bit lives up to its name. The accommodation is lush – beautifully-styled cabanas constructed in wood, stone and bamboo. Big room, comfy beds, semi-open-air bathrooms – and a panic button in Francesca’s room (Andrea and I don’t need a panic button.)

The views are incredible, especially from the pool which has a ridiculously gorgeous vista of nearby Monkey Mountain, (You can climb Monkey Mountain if you want to  - we don't).

Getting Active at Gal Oya
Gal Oya has numerous other activities on offer though; I am tempted by the “Sri Lankan Jungle Cooking Course” but only if we can start with the basics - like toast. There is also “Bicycle Tour” which Andrea does do and actually enjoys, even though it involves scaling a nearby mountain on a bicycle presumably last seen in the Wandsworth Bridge Road. It’s a hard-core adventure but she comes back peaced-out and very happy, especially as she managed to keep up with our new Scottish friends Robbie and Ally who are in their early 30s. 

I opt for “Bird Tour” and spend a lovely hour chatting  to our fellow guests Nina and James while responding sporadically to Boba's numerous sightings of the White Whiskered Tern. I also take part (loosely) in the “Gal Oya Lodge Animal Monitoring Program” by spotting a parakeet and calling it a White Whiskered Tern.

As we are adamant about our desire to NOT climb Monkey Mountain, we are instead offered the newly-invented “Monkey Mountain-lite” option which takes to the elephant grasslands a quarter of the way up. "Assistant Manager" Lewis has billed this as  a “gentle stroll” so I am geared up for a very short climb and a croquet lawn at the top.

We start threading our way up through half a mile of steamed-up jungle to reach the grasslands. I start wishing I hadn't brought the croquet mallets. Lewis has lied and this is only a gentle stroll if you are Asia’s biggest mammal I’m well on my way to the title but not there quite yet. There's no lawn at the top and the so-called “grass” is neck-high and needle-sharp, strictly for ellies which, at certain times of the year, amble through the area as they make their way up to the top of the mountains.

Elephant territory
I immediately lose my croquet ball and can’t look for it as the grass is full of lethal snakes. Boba – a gently-spoken, home-grown quasi-Rastafarian who learned about Gal Oya National Park in school and has wanted to live here ever since, spots some rocky slabs above us and, after checking for snakes and looking for my croquet ball, leads us all safely up. We spend a heavenly hour chatting, admiring the spectacular view and taking selfies with Arrack, the Lodge’s gorgeous rescue dog.
Arrack at rest
Arrack posing

Down at the lodge, there is nothing specific to do apart from lie on your back in the swimming pool and gaze at Monkey Mountain, lie on the sunloungers, read, eat, listen to podcasts, play Chinese poker or make up random facts which can’t be verified. We have three hosts. Nero (aka Gap Year), Lewis from Leeds and Brent from Zimbabwe. The chill-out areas are spacious and perfect Chinese poker territory. I snap out my cards and have both Gap Year and Brent heavily addicted within ten minutes. During practice games, Brent gets a nut low and quads on at the bottom – a feat that definitely won’t be repeated when we start playing for money.

We have nightly lock-ins, even though are no doors, locks, or even people – and sit around spouting unconfirmable facts and discussing Brexit. Gap Year says I remind him of Jeremy Clarkson. I tell him he reminds me of Justin Bieberlake but this is clearly such a weak parry that I’m almost embarrassed. “Clarkson” takes flight as my new nickname.

Gap Year is a semi-genius who is reading a hefty tome on blockchain for fun. We discuss the blockchain future (which Gap Year will be running) and I tell him that Malta is known as Blockchain Island and my fragment of an Ethereum which I bought six months ago for £50 on Coinbase is now worth £6 – or was. I can’t check how much further it’s fallen as I don’t have internet. Gay Ola is not the place to be a trader.

We discuss the suicidal peacock bashing its head on the window at Room 9. It did it five times while I was trying to rest in our chill out area – flirting with his own reflection and then, as he finally rushes in to make his move, knocking himself out.

Brent, who is a wildlife expert, says that apparently one time the peacock hit his head so hard there was blood all over the door and they had to clean it up before the next guest arrived. Brent doesn’t think the peacock’s gay; it’s actually attacking. Gap Year doesn't think gay peacocks exist. Brent mentions gay ducks, I mention gay penguins – and although nothing could be much more gay than a peacock it seems clear that the one at Room 9 is probably straight as he’s in really bad shape. Scraggy tail, unkempt feathers. Not gay.

The conversation turns to the dangers of the shamanistic drug iowaksa. Brent recites the chemical ingredients of iowaska. We can’t challenge him. We don’t have google. #NoGoogle is a thing. You have to try to remember stuff and anyone can come up with utterly random facts and statistics and get away with it.  #NoGoogle was frustrating at times but makes for much longer conversations as everyone scours their brain cells for residual trivia. With hashtag no google, you can’t just shut a conversation down by looking it up on Wikipedia. You have to keep going until there is a consensus or someone sounds more confident – or just louder– than everyone else. Us oldies can’t remember anything anyway, but it turns out we’re just as good as the young at making shit up.

Boat tour
Another exercise-free activity on offer is the boat trip round Senanayake Samudraya Lake, located right in the middle of Gal Oya Park. We see a herd of elephants moving gently along the edge of the forest, lots of birds, crocodiles sliding silently into the water. We picnic on a sun-baked slab of rock – safari style – everything exquisitely laid out in beautiful copper bowls. James – who went to Oakham and thus has impeccable manners – serves us tea, hands us our plates, ferries things back and forth. We are all very jealous of Nina.

Enjoying a spot of lunch at Gal Oya lake
Woman on rock - an ongoing series
Nina did International Relations at Cambridge. We find out she was working for the think tank which advised Cameron NOT to go ahead with the referendum. We are impressed. I get very over-excited when I find out she is mates with Tim Marshall – my hero, author of the must-read Prisoners of Geography). In a rash moment, she promises me we can all meet Tim Marshall when I get back from my Gap Year. James hints that Nina is quite well-known. None of us can check this however back in the land of the internet, we fire up Google and our crush on Nina goes through the roof. She is Sky News, CNN and Bloomberg’s go-to expert for all things Brexit. Andrea and I spend an entire afternoon going through her Instagram feed and listen to her explain on dozens of broadcasts why Brexit is a disaster. Andrea decides she is going to get ALL her news from watching Nina Instagram videos from now on.

Day 2
We are now completely at one with #NoGoogle. We don’t know what’s happening outside the lodge and we don’t care. Even Andrea has given up worrying about all the fabric that is not being ordered and won’t arrive in time for a project she is working on somewhere else in Sri Lanka. We don’t care about anything. It’s very peaceful – just the jungle, arak and us.

Suddenly Andrea comes in in a fury. One of the hosts has just told there’s been a coup in Gabon.

“There’s been a coup in Gabon. How do they fucking know that? They have satellite TV!!! They’re frauds. And who cares about Gabon? I don’t care about fucking Gabon. The only reason to care about Gabon is if you’re from there or you’re planning to visit there.”

“That’s very selfish,” I said. “I don’t fucking care,” says Andrea. “I’m supposed to be relaxing. I’m supposed to be off grid. I don’t want to hear about fucking Gabon.”

“Where were you when you heard about the coup in Gabon” becomes my new favourite expression. What’s clear is that we don’t really know exactly where Gabon is and Andrea doesn’t care they’re having a coup. Back on grid a few days later, I start googling. I find out where it is, what happened with the coup (failed) and the fact that it’s rich in all the bit and pieces you need to make nuclear warheads. It also has the best-preserved rainforest in Africa and looks beautiful; we decide we want to go there. I like the former President’s name a lot but apparently the country destabilised when Bongo had a heart attack last year. He was on holiday in Riyadh at the time. What the fuck? Who goes on holiday to Riyadh????? Thank god for Google.