With an area of approximately 72,000 square metres stretching across western Egypt and eastern Libya, the sand dunes of the Great Sand Sea offer visitors an opportunity to experience a sandy Sahara. Sand seas only cover a minor part of the world’s largest hot desert. The majority of the Sahara is in fact rocky and barren. The remote Siwa Oasis is a popular base to explore the Egyptian side of the Great Sand Sea. Getting out to the vast sea of sand requires a 4×4 vehicle. Most tourists would join a local tour for either an overnight stay in the desert or a half day visit that ends with watching the sunset from the dunes. I opted for an overnight tour. After all, it was such a romantic concept to sleep under the Milky Way in the open Sahara. I shared the 4×4 desert tour with a young American couple. Our 4×4 spent sped out the oasis and spent much of the afternoon doing “roller-coaster” runs up and down the sand dunes. To enjoy the full excitement, the driver told us to sit on top of the 4×4.
After some chill out time on the dunes, we were dropped off at a campsite right by a small artificial pool. After a simple meal, we got to choose to either stay inside a simple stone shelter for the night, or spread out our provided rug and sheets nearby to claim an open spot on the sand. I slept a bit and woke up at around 2am. As soon as I opened my eyes, the imposing Milky Way was right over my head. Until my other stargazing experiences in the Atacama during my 2013 South American journey, the starry sky that night over the Great Sand Sea was probably the most beautiful that I have ever seen.
In June and July 2008, a retrospective screening of David Lean’s films took place at BFI (British Film Institute) London Southbank. We picked an evening show of Lawrence of Arabia as an after work treat. Watching the 1962 classic on the big screen was a fantastic experience, especially for the majestic desert scenes that reminded me of my brief stay in Wadi Rum back in 2006. Wadi Rum, an UNESCO World Heritage site acclaimed for its desert landscape, is a popular filming venue for epic movies from Lawrence of Arabia of 1962 to Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker of 2019. Wadi Rum also put its mark in modern history when T. E. Lawrence passed through the desert numerous times during the Arab Revolt of 1917-18. Together with the iconic red dunes and rugged plateaus, the memories of T. E. Lawrence has made Wadi Rum, also known as Valley of the Moon, the most well known tourist attraction in Jordan after Petra.
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At around 09:00 we arrived at Wadi Rum Visitor Centre where our guide Attayak greeted us at the ticket office. After we got the admission tickets, Attayak drove us into Rum Village and stopped at the Resthouse Cafe, where we met Shaba, our desert guide for the day. The first thing we did with Shaba was to get bottled water and the red and white keffiyeh. We put on the keffiyeh with Shaba’s help before hopping onto his Toyota Land Rover. Our first stop was the Spring of Lawrence. Story has it that the spring was the spot where T. E. Lawrence bathed and relaxed himself during his stay in Wadi Rum. Reaching the spring was a 15-minute climb up a slope of boulders, about 200m high. We were a little disappointed to find the spring was no more than a tiny pool, perhaps an outlet of underground water. Though we were rewarded by the magnificent panoramic view of the desert.
Our second stop was a cliff of ancient petroglyphs, where figures of camels, goats, and humans were found. Petroglyphs and inscriptions could come from the ancient desert nomads 12,000 years ago, or any desert dwellers thereafter, including the Nabataean caravans 2000 years ago when Wadi Rum was situated in the crossroad of caravan routes between Saudi Arabia and Damascus. In the shade of a rock plateau, we got off the Land Rover once again for our first desert lunch. Shaba took out canned tuna, fresh tomato, mixed beans, cheese, and bottled orange juice. He then started a fire to make our cups of mint tea, a common practice for the nomadic desert Bedouins, who have roamed the Arabian desert for centuries. Despite circumstances after World War II that led to mass sedentarisation for the Bedouins, the carefree lifestyle of the desert nomads continues to inspire literature and cinema, consolidating the cultural heritage and promoting tourism of the Arabian Desert. Today, most Bedouins have moved to houses or apartments. The few Bedouin tents remaining in the desert are erected mainly for tourists. As globalization continues to reach the different regions of the Middle East, nomadic traditions of the Arabian Desert are becoming a collection of romanticized stereotypes reconstructed solely for the commercial value of tourism.
Day 9 (4 of 4).
Udawalawe National Park is often considered to be the best place for elephant sighting outside of Africa. Advertised for 100% guaranteed elephant sighting, Udawalawe should not disappoint anyone who come for the biggest mammals on land. For other animals, especially large mammals like leopards or sloth bears, super good luck and an experienced guide/driver are probably needed for any chance of success. The park is also a fine venue for bird sightings, with both permanent and migratory species.
We didn’t have a whole lot of wild safari experience other than the Brazilian Pantanal. Unlike Pantanal in Brazil where we could choose between boat, 4×4 vehicle, or even a morning safari hike, Udawalawe National Park could only be visited by 4×4 vehicles. All 4×4 vehicles enter the park from one entrance, and most tours would start either at 6am or 2pm, and last for 4 hours. Unlike the famous Yala National Park in Southern Sri Lanka where all visitors flock to chase after the elusive leopards and as soon as one leopard is spotted all vehicles would rush to the same spot, 4×4 drivers at Udawalawe tend to disperse into different areas of the park. The first safari tour we had at Udawalawe was a afternoon drive.
Sri Lankan elephant is usually one of the first large animals to be spotted in the park.
Sri Lankan elephant is the largest of the three subspecies of Asian elephants.
Native to the island, Sri Lankan elephant has a widespread distribution in the country.
With a population of 2500 to 4000c Sri Lankan elephants have been listed endangered on IUCN’s Red List since 1986.
Oriental garden lizards are commonly found throughout much of Asia.
The oriental garden lizard can change its colours. During mating season, a male lizard changes its head and shoulders to orange or crimson, and its throat to black.
Much larger than oriental garden lizard, the Bengal monitor lizards can grow up to 175cm long.
Known by their rich colours and predominant diet of flying insects like bees and wraps, the green bee-eaters are common in the park.
Reside in India, Sri Lanka, and much of Southeast Asia, the changeable hawk eagle is also known as crest hawk due to its feature on the head. They are medium size birds of prey, and are usually solitary except in breeding periods.
The number of Indian peafowls or peacocks (male) we have seen in Udawalawe was probably ten times more than the total number of times that we had ever seen these birds in the past. Peacocks dancing, eating, running, and even flying, males, females, or juveniles, you name it, we have seen it.
The steady supply of water of the reservoir is probably the main reason why wild animals gather in Udawalawe National Park.
Even with their distinctive curved horns, no one knows for sure whether these wild water buffalos are truly wild, or if they are descendants of domestic buffaloes. With about 3,400 across the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia, wild water buffalo has been listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List since 1986.
Painted storks can be found in wetlands throughout tropical Asia.
Native to the island, the endangered Sri Lankan leopard has a population of 750-900. Spotting one of the park’s 10-12 leopards was like winning the jackpot, given the reserve has 30,821 hectares of land (more than 5 times the area of Manhattan Island).
Usually live in herds, the Sri Lankan axis deer or Ceylon spotted deer once roam freely across the dry zone of the island. Now their conservation status is considered as vulnerable.
Towards the end of our tour, a curious Sri Lankan elephants followed us and get pretty close to our vehicle.
Before leaving the park, we had a unique encounter with two Sri Lankan elephants who greeted each other with their trunks and made a whole lot of sounds.
The greeting gesture of the two Sri Lankan elephants seemed friendly, as if a person was hugged by another person.
After the passionate change of the two elephants, one of the two elephants seemed to be interested in our vehicle and stayed much longer.
Near the main park exit, we spotted a curious mongoose climbing out from a drainage channel. It stayed just for a split second and dashed out of our sight.
Day 9 (3 of 4).
After the morning walk to the Little Adam’s Peak and Nine Arches Bridge, we returned to Zion View Ella Green Retreat for a quick breakfast. The car came to Zion View Ella Green Retreat to pick us up right at 10:30. We bid farewell to the two German shepherds and hopped on the car. We left Ella behind and slowly descended from the hills. Our next destination was Udawalawe, a small town between the hill country and the southern beaches. The two hour drive from Ella to Udawalawe brought us from tea plantations and green hills to grasslands, marshes and forests, the home of diverse wildlife. After world heritage historical sites and hills of tea plantations, our focus shifted once again to the natural treasure of Udawalawe National Park.
Established in 1972 as a sanctuary for wildlife displaced by the construction of Udawalawe Reservoir, the 30,821 hectares national park has become the third most visited park in the nation. With an annual rainfall of 1,500mm, the park lies at the boundary between Sri Lanka’s wet and dry zones. Within the park, there are marshes, grasslands and forests. Udawalawe is famous for its 250 or so Sri Lanka elephants. Other mammal species found in the park include Sri Lankan leopard, rusty-spotted cat, sloth bear, Sri Lanka sambar deer, Sri Lankan axis deer, wild boar, water buffalo, jackal, civet, monkey, mongoose, etc. The park is also a good venue for bird watching, and so as reptiles including lizards, crocodiles, and snakes.
Passing the Rawana Ella Falls on the Wellawaya Ella Kumbalwela Highway signified our departure from Ella.
The more we get closer to Udawalawe, the higher the chance we might see wildlife along the highway.
Domestic water buffalo are kept for their milk (curd and ghee) and rice cultivation.
Sri Lankan elephant is undoubtedly the superstar in Udawalawe, and can often be seen along the road.
Elephants are highly intelligent animals. According to our driver, some of the curious males have learnt to approach the highway fence regularly to greet tourists in exchange for easy treats like bananas.
Roadside stores near Udawalawe offer visitors a convenient stop for fruits, and perhaps have indirectly encouraged the unnatural habit of the highway approaching elephants.
Despite the popularity of the national park, the town of Udawalawe is relatively tourist-free. There is hardly any tourist souvenir shops along the main road.
Bakery tuk tuk is quite common across the country. As soon as we heard the music of Beethoven’s Fur Elise, we knew one of these mobile bread vendors must be nearby.
Our guesthouse Green View Safari Resort was at a side street across the road from R/Emb/Udawalawa Primary School.
Hidden from the dusty main road, our guesthouse for the night Green View Safari Resort was a simple little retreat.
Facility was clean and simple. The guesthouse owners arranged both the afternoon and morning safari for us.
Dinner and breakfast were included in our one-night stay at Green View Safari Resort.
To reach the national park from Udawalawe, our jeep would pass by Udawalawe Reservoir, a place of potential wildlife sighting before reaching the park entrance.
Locals came to the dam to catch the sunset.
The Udawalawe Dam separates the lush green forest on one side and the peaceful reservoir on the other.
The Udawalawe Dam provides a high ground to watch the distant scenery.
The lush green forest revealed what the area might have look like before the construction of the reservoir.
Local wildlife has adapted to the man-made environment of Udawalawe Reservoir. The water has even attracted wildlife including birds and elephants.
Beyond the reservoir, we finally arrived at the ticket office of Udawalawe National Park.
We chose Udawalawe National Park over Yala National Park was an attempt to avoid overcrowding. During our first safari visit, the entry route into the park was loaded with tourist 4×4 vehicles. Luckily, as we ventured deeper into the park, we would have the park pretty much by ourselves.
With an area about twice the size of France and including some of the most remote mountainous landscapes in the world, traveling in the Autonomous Region of Tibet takes time and patience, and requires a reliable SUV and an experienced driver. We didn’t have sufficient time to venture out to the furthest areas of Tibet, such as the sacred Mount Kailash in Ngari Prefecture. We did, however, managed to include a 6-day excursion out of Lhasa as the second part of our Tibetan journey with a classic tourist route taking in Shannan (山南), Gyantse (江孜), Shigatse (日喀則), Mount Everest Base Camp (珠穆朗瑪峰大本營) and Lake Namtso (納木錯). We hired the SUV and driver through Pazu, the owner of Spinn Cafe. As our agent, Pazu took care of our border travel permit (for visiting the Mount Everest area) in Lhasa. He also told us a little about the habits of Tibetan drivers, meals and accommodation options before departure.
Many Chinese travelers who come to Tibet would arrange a shared SUV through online tourist forum or notice boards in hostels and local travel agents. In a small group of three, we decided to hire a 4-seat SUV on our own. Writing to Pazu prior the trip, we requested for an experienced and safe Tibetan driver who would not smoke in the car, and a decent 4×4 SUV vehicle with a proper AL or BL license plate (official license plate of local tourist vehicle). It turned out that Sangzhu (桑珠), our Tibetan driver for the journey, was a highly experienced driver. Despite his sometimes unpredictable attitude and services, his driving was safe and efficient. The intercity roads in Tibet were better than we expected. The roads to and from Everest Base Camp were dusty and occasionally treacherous. Everyday we spent hours on the road between towns or destinations. Scenery along the way was often spectacular with golden barley fields, sleepy pastures, picturesque villages, rugged plateaus, and distant snow-capped mountains.
The white Toyota SUV offered us a comfortable means of travel and a movable resting place between different sights.
Our driver Sangzhu (桑珠) with Mount Everest in the background.
Most of the intercity highways were decently paved.
Along the way, we saw various new infrastructure under construction, including highways and railways linking Tibet to other parts of China.
For most of the time, we passed by a number of arid landscape such as the huge sanddunes in Shannan.
Fields of Tibetan Highland Barley, a local cereal for Tibetan milk tea, alcohol and tsampa, were common sights along the roads.
Our SUV was occasionally blocked by flocks of sheep and cattle in the rural areas.
On the road, we encountered quite a number of motorcyclists and cyclists who were willing to brave the chilly winds of the high altitude.
As one of the high profile tourist attraction in Tibet, our SUV drove along the Yamdrok Lake (羊卓雍錯) after our brief stop for photos.
The scenery on the road to and from the Everest Base Camp was breathtaking.
Most parts of the Friendship Highway between Tibet and Nepal was decently paved.
Due to point-to-point speed and driving time limit, our SUV occasionally would take breaks on the road. Our driver made use of the last break on the journey to wash the SUV.
On a few occasions, we stopped by a roadside Sichuan eatery for a quick lunch.
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More blog posts on Tibet 2017:
JOURNEY ABOVE THE CLOUDS, Tibet 2017 (西藏之旅2017)
DAY 1: TOUCHDOWN ON THE ROOF OF THE WORLD, Lhasa
DAY 1: TRICHANG LABRANG HOTEL (赤江拉讓藏式賓館), Lhasa
DAY 1: KORA AT BARKHOR STREET (八廓街), Lhasa
DAY 2: FIRST GLIMPSE OF POTALA (布達拉宮), Lhasa
DAY 2: KORA OF DREPUNG MONASTERY (哲蚌寺), Lhasa
DAY 2: DREPUNG MONASTERY (哲蚌寺), Lhasa
DAY 2: JOKHANG MONASTERY (大昭寺), Lhasa
DAY 2 : SPINN CAFE (風轉咖啡館), Lhasa
DAY 2: NIGHT VIEW OF POTALA (布達拉宮), Lhasa
DAY 3: POTALA PALACE (布達拉宮), Lhasa
DAY 3: SERA MONASTERY (色拉寺), Lhasa
Day 4: KORA OF GANDEN MONASTERY (甘丹寺), Lhasa
Day 4: GANDEN MONASTERY (甘丹寺), Lhasa
DAY 4: TEA HOUSE AND FAMILY RESTAURANT, Lhasa
DAY 5: ON THE ROAD IN TIBET
DAY 5: MORNING IN SHANNAN (山南)
DAY 5: SAMYE MONASTERY (桑耶寺), Shannan
DAY 5: SAMYE TOWN (桑耶鎮), Shannan
DAY 6: YAMDROK LAKE (羊卓雍錯)
DAY 6: PALCHO MONASTERY (白居寺), Gyantse
DAY 6: WORDO COURTYARD (吾爾朵大宅院), Shigatse
DAY 7: ROAD TO EVEREST BASE CAMP (珠峰大本營)
DAY 7: EVEREST BASE CAMP (珠峰大本營)
DAY 7: STARRY NIGHT, Everest Base Camp
DAY 8: PANG LA PASS (加烏拉山口), Mount Everest Road
DAY 8: SAKYA MONASTERY (薩迦寺)
DAY 9: TASHI LHUNPO MONASTERY, (扎什倫布寺) Shigatse
DAY 9: ROAD TO NAMTSO LAKE (納木錯)
DAY 9: EVENING AT NAMTSO LAKE (納木錯)
DAY 10: SUNRISE AT NAMTSO LAKE (納木錯)
DAY 10: LAST DAY IN LHASA, Tibet
EPILOGUE: FACES OF LHASA, Tibet