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.