53 degrees 0.5’ N, 001 degree 4.4’ W
If anybody ever double checks the co-ordinates I post in this blog you might notice something a little different this time. For one thing, I’m at the 53rd parallel. For another, I’m about as far away from the sea as it is possible to get in this country.
It’s been a while and a rather dramatic and traumatic time since I last posted so there’s some catching up to do. Some of you I’ve spoken to about what happened in the Indian Ocean and why I’m back in the UK. Others read about it in the papers. Only a few, who were there with me, can understand how serious and dangerous the situation was. All the joking about peg legs, eye patches and parrots aside, pirates are real, they were killing sailors and we were a target. I’ve never been in a situation before where my life was threatened and I hated the idea of abandoning Tyrone and watching Gillaroo go onwards into the Gulf of Aden but in the end the decision was actually simple because I didn’t want to die.
It was when we were still in Port Blair in the Andaman Islands, waiting for our new rudder to be made, that the subject of pirates first reared its very ugly, drug-crazed head. Pablo and Libertad, the Spanish couple who’d joined the Roo in Thailand with the idea of sailing her all the way back to Spain, started asking questions about the risks. At that time, pirate attacks were mainly grouped in the Gulf of Aden and were targeted at big container ships and tankers carrying valuable cargo and many crew. Yes, Paul and Rachel Chandler had been taken from their yacht Lynn Rival but it was generally acknowledged to be a mistake and cruisers, although being very careful and travelling in convoy off the coast of Aden, didn’t consider the further western reaches of the Indian Ocean to be a dangerous area. We reassured Pablo and Libertad that the biggest threat would always be the weather.
We had a very straightforward crossing of about a week, arriving at Galle in the south of Sri Lanka in the late afternoon and were very speedily checked in through customs, even though we didn’t give in to their officer’s demand of a “gift”.
A lot of yachts were gathering at Galle ready for the crossing to Oman, either straight or via the Maldives or India. One guy, I’ll call him Hans, was organising a rally for 30 boats to cross the Indian Ocean together. He really put the fear of God and Somalians into Pablo and Libertad – the morning Tyrone, Vicky, Ben and I set off to see Sri Lanka’s interior, they announced they were leaving the boat because they were scared. Ben and Vicky were always due to leave in Sri Lanka so that left Tyrone and I with either the awkward prospect of trying to find replacement crew while we were up country or doing the 1,800-mile passage with just the two of us.
We tried to put it to the back of our minds as the four of us took the train to Colombo. Tyrone and I were going to stop there but Tyrone got talking to some other tourists who said it was an expensive dive so we changed our plans and decided to continue on to Kandy with Vicky and Ben. That was the most spectacular train ride of my life. The railway system was built by the British and the stations and trains all look like something out of Brief Encounter. At every station we stopped a sign would proclaim our height above sea level: 800m, 1,000m, 1,500m, 2,000m… The lush green land dropped steeply away from the tracks and we rattled past waterfalls, forests, little villages and tea plantations eked out of the smallest terraces. Every five minutes a Sri Lankan man would wander past selling his wares: some had peanuts stacked on their heads like some kind of crazy Ascot hat, most carried baskets laden with unidentifiable, deep-fried breadcrumbed goodies. “Wadi, wadi, wadi” they called out as they squeezed along the aisles hour after hour. If you ordered something they plopped it into a home-made paper bag, invariably fashioned out of a page ripped from a child’s homework book and fastened with staples. I bought some stringhoppers – rice noodles – wrapped in a banana leaf and had the cheapest (30p) and perhaps spiciest lunch of my life. After the Sri Lankans had finished their breaded prawns or sweetcorn fritters they would throw the wrappers out of the train window. It made me see why littering is such a problem in Asia – everyone is used to being able to chuck biodegradable banana leaf wrappers onto the floor and they’ll disappear. It doesn’t quite work with crisp packets and plastic water bottles though.
In Kandy we made friends with Isabel, a German vet who lives in Spain, and visited the elephant orphanage and saw them bathing in the river. The orphanage itself was a bit of a let down – just a muddy field with some leaves chucked down on the floor for the elephants to eat. There was an absolutely humungus 65-year-old blind male chained in a shed and we heard one of the babies had died so we couldn’t go into the feeding shed as they were holding on to the body for an autopsy. We also went to a spice garden where they tried to sell us some magical hair removal cream that if we applied it twice would see off the hair for two years. Ben and Vicky had been offered a similar cream in Galle but theirs they had to apply seven times and they’d be fuzz-free for ever. Hmm. Surely if either of these claims were true Veet and Gillette would be all over it? I wonder if Ben and Tyrone still have little bare test patches on their legs three months on?
In the village of Ella heavy rain meant we couldn’t do the walks we wanted to. I tried two – to Little Adam’s Peak and to Danbatenne tea plantation where Lipton’s tea comes from but the views from the top of both were shrouded in mist. (Little lesson I learned about Lipton – the founder Thomas Lipton made his fortune by changing the way we buy tea forever, firstly making Ceylon teas (like PG Tips) popular over the up-til-then traditional Chinese types, and marketing it in ready-made boxes housewives could buy from the grocer’s, saving them a trip to a specific tea shop. It’s just ironic his yellow label brand sold today is so insipid). A man at the top of the hill made me a cup of tea on a wood fire inside a hut he’d built out of old bags – the official Lipton tea room – and I took a tour of the factory, seeing the production process from the selecting of the leaves by the pickers to the drying, fermenting, sorting and packing.
Sri Lanka was a fabulous country that I would go back to in a flash. And not only because I received one offer of marriage from a painter and decorator and one of a job as a yoga teacher from a former government agent. The people were really friendly and yes, they were trying to sell us stuff all the time, but if we said no they’d leave us alone. It’s not long since the war ended so this may all change as tourism increases but they were genuinely lovely, smiling, happy people. Very keen on cricket – the World Cup was about to start while we were there – and keen to talk about the game, not even changing the subject when all I could contribute to the conversation was “Freddie Flintoff”. Many politely suggested that England might even stand a chance of winning. In Sri Lanka you can experience climatic extremes in the space of a day – bake on the beach of Unawatuna, take a train and then get soaked to the skin in Kandy. I wish I’d taken more photos. I’ll just have to return.
Back in Galle Tyrone heard from Moe, a Canadian photographer who was keen on joining the boat. We crossed our fingers and hoped she’d not be spooked by pirate chat. It must have worked because she turned up. Despite my best efforts at trying to persuade my friends, no one else would join us so the three of us set off for Oman.