Sunday, 30 March 2014

The Heights of Tea Production at Labookellie

Close-up of a tea bush.
Pickers harvest only the top growth of two leaves and a bud around once a week.
Mackwoods employs over 1,000 people on its 27,000 acres of plantation.
Seven hundred women work as pickers while the balance (men) work in production.
Almost every square inch of the surrounding hillsides is taken up by tea cultivation.
Panorama of the high estate tea plantations around Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka
Close up of the new growth on tea bushes
Generally the higher the tea bushes are grown, the better its taste.
These are part of Mackwoods high estate teas
Inside the Mackwoods tea factory tea is meticulously processed to bring out its unique qualities
Of course you can get a free tour of the tea factories, then you get shown into the gift shop.
Interesting thing is that once you try the tea, I think almost everyone buys it.
Quality is far superior to the stuff you normally pick up off the shelves in the local Aussie supermarkets..
Withering is the first process of tea making.
Giant fans partially dry the tea leaves before it's left to ferment for a few hours.
Processed and bagged-up tea waiting to be exported.

Labookellie tea plantation produces some of the island's finest teas.
At the factory you can get free pots of orange pekoe teas.
It's some of the best OP tea I have ever tried - we bought a kilo of the stuff.
Labookellie is owned by Mackwoods, a company founded in1841 by Captain William Mackwood.
The whole region was subsequently developed by the British who brought in cheap labour from Tamil Nadu in Southern India to work the fields (the Singhalese didn't want to work for the paltry conditions offered by the English).
Interesting use of typography in this hand made advert for Hellbodde teas, a smaller estate adjacent to Mackwoods

Public Market in Nuwara Eliya

Here are a few shots taken in the public market in Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka's highest town (6000ft). It's the centre of the tea growing industry as well as being an important provider of market gardening produce from cabbages and strawberries to potatoes and even leeks...

One of the boys manning a vegetable stall in Nuwara Eliya market.
They take great pride in the arrangements of produce, far more than you'd normally see in Coles or Woolies!
Chillies, dried and fresh are a mainstay of Sri Lankan cooking and are grown nearly everywhere...
One of my all-time culinary favourites in Sri Lankan foods - buffalo yoghurt or 'curd'.
It is packaged in a terracotta pot and sealed with a paper lid.
Curd is typically served with curries or as a breakfast food and is sweetened with a type of liquid palm sugar called treacle.
This has a slightly burned flavour like molasses and tastes absolutely delicious.
Wide aperture shot of spices in the market.
In this example I shot at f1.4 to throw almost everything else out of focus and thus further emphasise the subject.
Colourful fresh tomatillos
Close up of chilli and turmeric powders in Nuwara Eliya's markets
Bitter Melons
Said  to be very healthy (let's face it, most sour or bitter foods always are touted as healthy, why else would we eat them?), I have deep fried bitter melon slices and curried melon in Sri Lanka.
A massive 10-20kg fruit that is almost indescribably tasty to eat.
Sweet, slightly like banana, yet a bit crunchy into the bargain.
Eat it straight off the tree or in Sri Lankan curries, either way, it's delicious!
Petite aubergines perfectly stacked up for sale in the market

Friday, 28 March 2014

On Safari in Yala National Park

We stayed in Mahoora tented safari camp, situated on the edge of the park itself but a short drive from the park entrance gate. There is an electrified fence to guard against unscheduled elephant visits. Facilities were very good, with camp beds (could have wished for softer pillows), a fan, shower, flush toilet, hand basin and outdoor hammock. The 5 course dinner at a private table for two under the stars was highly romantic.
We opted for maximising our safari driving time, so as soon as we had deposited our bags in the tent and splashed the dust from our faces we were back in the jeep heading for the park, cameras, long lenses and monopods at the ready. We were accompanied on each safari drive by a trained naturalist and at the park entrance we were joined by a tracker from the Park service. This meant a trained pair of eyes on each side of the vehicle, on the look out for the slightest indication that a critter lurked in the jungle through which we soon found ourselves hurtling at breakneck speed. Our minders were in mobile phone contact with their counterparts in other jeeps throughout the park, meaning that information about sightings of prized animals like leopards and sloth bears was shared around. Of course, this led to traffic jams at times, but the animals didn't seem to mind the crowds too much. We ended up having one afternoon, one whole day and one morning safari in our two-night sojourn at Mahoora. This involved waking at 5 am both mornings, and resulted in aching muscles from bouncing around in the jeep for hours on end. We were fortunate enough to photograph some magical animals and birds in their own beautiful habitat, making all the pain worthwhile. 
Here's a quick sample of what we saw...

Typical Leopard 'glimpse'
This is often what you see when searching for leopard: a flash of colour as the cat stalks off into the bush.
We spent more than an hour driving back and forth trying to guesstimate whether and where she might appear on the track. We could hear her calling her three cubs, but saw nothing until we drive out of the park 11 hours later (see below).
Yala LeopardWe'd already had distant glimpses of two leopards earlier in the day but that's all they were. By 5:30pm we were heading for the park gates at speed when the tracker spotted something in a clearing by the road. We screeched to a halt, reversed and there, 30 feet away was a youngish male leopard, just watching us. He sat still for about 20 seconds then turned and melted back into the dense bush. After a frustrating day trying to get good shots of leopards shooting through impenetrable thickets, this was one of those magic photo moments...
Yala Leopard
Crested Serpent Eagle
Canon EF300mm f2.8 + 2X Extender)
Brahminy Kites
(Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 L)
Grey-headed Fish Eagle
Serpent Eagle
Black-faced Langur
Black-faced Langur close-up

Tocque Macque
Mother and very young baby

Two very young Tocque Macaques
These monkeys 'coo' at you - we were having lunch and they watched our every move as if to say, "Ooooh, I'd like some of that banana", "Ooooh you couldn't possibly eat all that sandwich...".
Indian Brown Mongoose
Sloth Bear
Also called the Stickney or Labiated bear, it has a specially adapted lower lip and palette for sucking-in insects.
Despite the name it's actually a bear and has nothing to do with sloths.
Adult males weigh up to 190kg and have been known to attack humans.
They are very rare to see as they hunt predominantly at night.
This one was found snuffling around some bushes looking for food and marking his territory.
His front right-side paw had been hurt in some way. It dragged on the ground when he walked
so he was a bit slow to disappear back into the bush
Sloth bear
Green Bee Eater
Green Bee Eater
Chestnut-headed Bee Eater
Orange- Breasted Green Pidgeon
Rose-ringed Parakeets
Sri Lankan or Indian Pond Heron
Magpie Robin
This is a rare bird in Sri Lanka and its fast movement and twitchy behaviour made it hard to get a sharp shot.
We must have stopped five or six times to get a snap of this species only to have it fly then hide in dense undergrowth
These birds are native to Sri Lanka and India and are very common throughout Yala National Park
Although Peacocks can fly, they don't like it much but will roost in trees to avoid predation from lepoards.
Large egret
Indian Pipit
A tiny bird that feeds off seeds and small grubs in the leaf litter of the bush.
It is perfectly camouflaged and hard to see unless it moves!
Trio of Painted Storks
These graceful birds sift the bottom of waterways like this, 'spooning' side to side for food.
Lesser Adjutant Stork
This is Sri Lanka's second largest bird. It's very shy and moves away as soon as you pull up in a vehicle.
I was lucky to get this shot, taken through a narrow gap in some bushes

White Breasted Kingfisher
These small iridescently-coloured birds are hard to miss when they fly but even harder to shoot unless they are resting on a conveniently placed branch like this one.
Spotted Dove
Paradise Flycatcher
Sri Lanka has an amazing range of exotic birds. This is one of the rarest and most splendid examples.
It was also one of the hardest as it rested in dense bushes and only stayed in one place for a few seconds at a time.
I saw several flying but they are so fast and rare, getting this partially hidden shot felt like an achievement!
Indian Pitta
Another exotic visitor to Sri Lanka, the Pitta is stunningly coloured - it has seven different coloured plumage.
Like the Paradise Flycatcher, it is also very hard to see let alone photograph.
Seen flying across the lagoon with Elephant Rock in the background
Indian Hoopoe
A beautiful woodpecker-like bird with fine bill and crest. I saw my first Hoopoe in England years ago where they very occasionally turn up from North Africa. It was such a rare sighting (not mine but the report from the RSPB) that I remember it being mentioned on the 9 O'Clock news!
Cattle Egret riding a water buffalo as it plods its way through a lotus infested tank (Sri Lankan reservoir)
Spotted Deer
These deer are quite common in Yala. We saw hundreds, typically in the early morning and later afternoon. The deer form herds of between 5 or 6 and 20 and appear not to be that fearful of the dozens of safari jeeps that pass through the park every day. This young male is growing a new set of antlers.

Male Spotted Deer in late afternoon sunlight
Sri Lankan freshwater crocodile or Mugger warming up in the early morning sun.
These can grow up to four metres in length

Land Monitor
Sri Lanka has two types of monitor lizard: the water monitor and the land monitor.
This one was busy digging up a small crab and seemed oblivious of the safari jeep packed one metre away.
He got the crab eventually then scurried off into the bushes...
Close-up of a large, one metre Land Monitor
Leopards mating
Day one and we heard on the park guide's grapevine that there was a leopard sighting. Off we went to find 10 other vehicles all jockeying for position to get the best view of these two leopards getting amorous. The action was probably 200 feet away but we still managed some momentous shots, including this one as the female decided enough was enough and turned round and biffed the male across the chops.
Don't see that every day let alone get the chance to photograph it.
Conjugal  Bliss #1This male should really be smoking a cigarette by now...
Conjugal  Bliss #2
Thought he female clouted the male over the muzzle immediately after mating, she went off a few metres then rolled on the ground in what might have been a victory roll, or maybe to get his smell off of her.

Conjugal Bliss #3
Nat's shot of the male after he had mated several times - licking this chops in satisfaction maybe?

All the rangers called these pigs, wild boar, but the ones living around the park gates came up to the vehicle, I guess looking for food and appeared to be quite friendly.
We drove through herd of more than 20 boar one evening and they appeared less friendly.
In a pack they might well do some damage so we wisely stayed in the Mazda 4WD.
Asian Elephant
Yala is not famous for elephants. The rangers thought there might be 50 in the park, mostly in the sections closed off to the tourists (Minneriya is a better place to see wild elephant).
This single male appeared ion the road for a few minutes then crashed off into the bush and was totally invisible in seconds.
Although smaller than African elephants, these are still large and quite intimidating. Most farmers have tree houses set up in  their fields so they can ward off marauding elephants and still have a safe place to retreat to if they get cranky.
Yala Traffic Jam
Word gets out that a leopard has been spotted and soon a dozen trucks have appeared, all jostling for best position. To their credit, all the vehicles stayed on the roads (In Africa some of the drivers ignore regulations and drive off road which not only angers animals as they get too close but it also starts up soil erosion which is hard to stop).

Team Yala
With our Mahoora guide on the left, Park tracker in the middle, and trusty driver on the right, these guys provided a professional and incredibly fruitful two days in Yala National Park.
I'd highly recommend a two-day trip into Yala and a stay  at the Mahoora tented camp.
Great fun.
Last shot of this post: Sunset over Yala.
Though not Africa, we found the safari experience at the Mahoora Tented Camp professional and great fun.
Dining under the stars, up at 5am to go on safari, picnic lunch in the bush and loads of quality animals and birds to photograph.
Simply brilliant.