Just Me Travel

Just Me Travel

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Author: Joanna Rath

15 PHOTOS TO INSPIRE YOU TO VISIT THE UNIQUE SASSI MATERA, ITALY (2024 Updated)

Sassi di Matera: The Stone City of Italy and a UNESCO World Heritage Site Steeped in History and Charm.   Welcome to the mesmerising world of Sassi di Matera, a…

Sassi di Matera: The Stone City of Italy and a UNESCO World Heritage Site Steeped in History and Charm.

 

Welcome to the mesmerising world of Sassi di Matera, a unique and ancient destination. Matera, a city in Italy’s southern region of Basilicata, is renowned for its extraordinary cave dwellings and rock-cut architecture, collectively known as the Sassi. These ancient settlements, carved into limestone cliffs, have earned the Sassi di Matera a place on UNESCO’s World Heritage List and have captivated visitors with their rich history, unique charm, and breathtaking landscapes.

In this travel blog post, I’ll take you on a visual journey through 15 stunning photos that capture the essence and allure of the Sassi di Matera. Each image tells a story, inviting you into a world where cave dwellings, narrow winding streets and alleyways, and rock-cut architecture create an otherworldly landscape.

Whether you’re a history buff, a culture enthusiast, or simply seeking a destination off the beaten path, Sassi di Matera offers an unforgettable experience. Let these photos inspire you to pack your bags and immerse yourself in the wonders of this timeless Italian gem.

 

Situated in the “instep” of Italy’s “boot”, Sassi di Matera (literal translation from Italian, “Stones of Matera”) were declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1993, while Matera was awarded the 2019 European Capital of Culture. However, Matera, particularly the Sassi, did not always deserve these honours. Not so many decades ago, Matera’s Sassi was a place of national humiliation dubbed the “Shame of Italy”.

The Sassi di Matera has two districts – Sasso Caveoso and Sasso Barisano. They are ancient! – prehistoric troglodyte settlements where people have lived in cave dwellings since 7000 BC.

The Sassi have a colourful history that has seen them go from the earliest inhabited city in Italy to a place of national humiliation to Italy’s pride. This history, which is still visible today, makes Sassi di Matera a matchless tourist destination.

 

A brief history – from shame to honour

In his book Christ Stopped at Eboli (published in 1945), Carlo Levi put Sassi di Matera on the world map when he highlighted the poor living conditions. He painted a picture of abject poverty. Malaria, cholera and typhoid were rampant in the Sassi. Families and their animals were living together under the same roof in dwellings with no natural light or ventilation, no electricity, water or sewers, and there was a high rate of infant mortality.

The Sassi became an embarrassment to the Italian Government. So much so that in 1950, the Prime Minister declared a state of emergency and put plans in place to move the Sassi’s inhabitants out. By 1952, the Sassi were empty – abandoned through forced removal.

After sitting dormant for a few decades, the Sassi began to transform, starting in the 1970s with artists and hippies rediscovering Matera’s Sassi. This urban renewal and a younger generation expressing their desire to bring the caves back to life led the Italian Government to pass a law in 1986 to repopulate the Sassi, connecting water and electricity and subsidising restoration work to encourage the Sassi’s revival.

And the people did come – restoring caves as homes, hotels, restaurants and bars. But many are still uninhabitable.

Cave houses, many of which are abandoned, in a troglodyte settlement in Italy.

Abandoned cave dwellings in Matera’s Sassi.

 

Cave houses in a troglodyte settlement. Some are obviously uninhabited.

Not all the cave dwellings in the Sassi are inhabited.

 

Sassi di Matera’s revival was further cemented in 1993 when UNESCO listed it as a World Heritage Site for being “the most outstanding, intact example of a troglodyte settlement in the Mediterranean region” and being named 2019 European Capital of Culture.

Matera has reclaimed its dignity and credibility in the eyes of Italy and the world.

 

Discover Sassi di Matera

I travelled to Matera on a 17-day small group tour with Albatross Tours on their Italy, the Deep South & Sicily tour, staying two nights in the Sassi.

The Sassi are carved into the limestone cliffs of a deep ravine gouged out by the Gravina River. First viewed from across the ravine, the Sassi di Matera were like nothing I had seen before. I have visited Troglodyte caves in France and spent time in Cappadocia in Turkey. But the Sassi di Matera, with caves stacked on each other while clinging to the steep slope, was a stand-alone matchless sight. Then, creating a unique juxtaposition, the modern city of Matera overlooks the Sassi from its height at the top of the hill.

A mass of cave houses on a hill are viewed from across a ravine. There is a stone church bell tower on top of the hill.

Sassi di Matera viewed from across the ravine.

 

An abandoned troglodyte settlement (cave dwellings) sits below a modern city on the side of a hill.

The modern city of Matera sits on top of the ancient Sassi.

 

My first ‘taste’ of Sassi di Matera and what it must be like to live in the Sassi was my accommodation for two nights in the luxury Le Grotte della Civita – a cave hotel on the edge of the ravine in the most ancient Sassi area.

A hotel room in a cave, with a double bed, bath, and table and chairs. the cave room is lit by candles.

My hotel room – a restored cave in Le Grotte della Civita.

 

Le Grotte della Civita consists of 18 large ‘rooms’ with ensuites. All the rooms are individual caves that have been beautifully restored whilst retaining their original features. The furnishings were simple but tasteful, with much of the lighting provided by candles. The breakfast was served in a reclaimed cave that was once a church and was typical of southern Italy – consisting of various breads, cakes, pastries, meats, jams and cheeses. My stay at Le Grotte della Civita was truly memorable.

After a very comfortable night’s sleep and a delicious breakfast, I joined the walking tour in the morning with a local guide. Walking tours are a great way to get acquainted with a city and learn its history. The walking tour of Sassi di Matera was a fascinating history lesson while being introduced to significant sites. The tour included visiting a cave dwelling to see how families lived in their stone houses and viewing one of the ancient Rupestrian Churches with its biblical frescoes on the cave walls dating back to the Middle Ages.

By the end of the tour, I felt prepared to spend the afternoon and evening on my own, exploring and discovering the labyrinth that is Sassi di Matera. I was in my element, walking around the narrow streets and alleyways, talking to the locals, checking out their cafes, and having all the time I wanted to take photos. A word of advice: you will need comfortable shoes to walk around the Sassi as there are many steep steps to negotiate, given the Sassi are built on the side of a ravine.

An elderly lady dressed in black walks up stone steps that are under a stone arch.

There are lots of steps in Sassi di Matera.

 

Matera has 180 churches, 40 of which are in the Sassi, including the Cathedral and the rock-cut Church of Santa Maria di Idris.

A rock-cut church on top of a green hill with cave dwellings below it.

The Church of Santa di Idris.

 

My favourite church was the Church of Purgatory, constructed as a place for people to pray for the souls trapped in limbo between heaven and hell. Completed in 1747, its recurring and only theme is that of death. The baroque façade of the church and its doors are covered with carvings of skulls, skeletons, crossbones, and other death-related decor. While a church focusing on death might seem a bit Grim Reaper-ish, it was fashionable at the time of construction, as death was not seen as the end but as the beginning of a new life.

A skull and two skeletons carved into stone. One skeleton is holding an hourglass, and the other skeleton is holding a scythe.

Skulls and skeletons on the facade of the Church of Purgatory.

 

A wooden door carved with square panels of skulls and cross bones.

The Church go Purgatory’s carved wooden door.

 

Exploring the Sassi di Matera

While the Sassi may look like masses of houses, the house-like facades are only that, as the ‘houses’ are dug well into the rock, forming the cave dwellings Matera is famous for.

A photo of stone houses that are actually caves.

In the Sassi di Matera, caves look like houses.

 

A settlement of cave houses surrounded by purple flowers and green shrubs.

Sassi di Matera – a mass of cave dwellings that look like houses.

 

Houses in the Sassi are built on top of other houses, where many of the streets are built on the roofs of houses, and floors are ceilings of houses below.

Cave homes sit on top of each other, where you have roads forming roofs and floors, and the ceiling of the house below.

Sassi di Matera – roofs are streets, and floors are ceilings.

 

You would be forgiven for thinking the Sassi are a place of shadow and crampedness. But not so. The squares in the Sassi are sun-drenched open spaces flanked by cafes, shops, churches, and restaurants – great for people-watching.

A troglodyte settlement of cave houses built into the side of a hill.

Wander the Sassi di Matera.

 

Cave houses are viewed through a doorway.

View of the Sassi through a doorway.

 

Cave houses are built on top of each other on the side of a hill.

World Heritage Listed Sassi di Matera.

Historical and Cultural Timeline:

2019: Matera is the European Capital of Culture.

2014: Tourism starts to take off. This was most likely due to Matera being named the 2019 European Capital of Culture, and Matera began preparations for a year of events highlighting culture and the arts.

1993: UNESCO lists Sassi di Matera as a World Heritage Site.

1986: Italian law changes and people are encouraged to return to the Sassi.

1952: Abandonment of the Sassi through the Italian Government’s forced removal of its inhabitants.

Prehistory: (approximately 9,000 years ago) People first inhabited the Sassi.

Fun facts

Several Directors have used Sassi di Matera as a film location for their movies:

  • Mel Gibson’s controversial movie, The Passion of the Christ, 2004;
  • Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St Matthew, 1964; and
  • King David was directed by Bruce Beresford and starred Richard Gere in 1985.

It would seem Matera’s Sassi makes for a great ancient Jerusalem.

The 2021 James Bond movie No Time to Die also used Sassi di Matera as a film location.

 

Sassi di Matera is not just a destination; it’s an immersive journey through time, offering a unique blend of history, culture, and natural beauty that promises to leave a lasting impression on anyone fortunate enough to explore its enchanting streets.

The Sassi beckons, inviting you to witness a living backdrop as you explore a world where tradition meets innovation. The 15 photos you’ve seen here in my blog post are mere snapshots of the unforgettable travel experience that awaits you in person. Dare to wander off the beaten path!

 

Editor’s Note: I originally published this blog post in March 2019 and have updated it for accuracy and comprehensiveness.

 

Disclaimer: This post contains no affiliate links. All views and opinions are my own and non-sponsored. All photos are my own and remain the copyright of Just Me Travel.

© Just Me Travel 2018-2024.

 

Have I aroused your curiosity about Sassi di Matera? Are you inspired to visit Italy’s unique Stone City, a valuable UNESCO World Heritage Site? I love hearing from you. Join the conversation and leave a comment below.

 

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The image has two photos. One photo is of an old lady walking up a flight of stone steps. The second photo shows a settlement of stone houses.

 

The image has two photos that show a troglodyte settlement. One photo is bathed in sunlight with purple flowers and green shrubs. The second photo shows abandoned cave homes below a modern city. The image invites you to visit Italy's Sassi di Matera.

 

Author’s Note: Please check the latest travel restrictions before planning any trip and follow government advice.

 

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MONGOLIAN CULTURAL NORMS AND TRADITIONS – HOW TO PREVENT CULTURAL ERRORS (2023 Updated)

Unlocking the Secrets: Successfully Navigating Mongolian Beliefs, Customs, and Values.   A journey to Mongolia is about more than crossing vast landscapes and nomadic lands. It is also a deep…

Unlocking the Secrets: Successfully Navigating Mongolian Beliefs, Customs, and Values.

 

A journey to Mongolia is about more than crossing vast landscapes and nomadic lands. It is also a deep dive into diverse cultural norms and traditions shaped by Buddhism, Shamanism, and Animism. 

Navigating foreign customs can be challenging, especially in a country like Mongolia. In this travel blog post, I’ll guide you through the challenges, providing invaluable tips and practical advice on navigating Mongolia’s cultural environment without stumbling into unintentional faux pas. 

Please read the post to make sure your journey to Mongolia is filled with breathtaking landscapes and enriched by a profound understanding of the cultural norms and traditions that make Mongolia uniquely remarkable.

 

Cultural insensitivity is a sign of profound disrespect. I learned this the hard way in Varanasi (India) when I took a photo of the cremation pyres on the banks of the Ganges River. It took my guide a lot of talking, much apologising, and payment of money to appease the men who supplied wood for the pyres. In my defence (but no excuse), I had not been informed not to take photos of the cremations.

My wrongdoing mortified me. Even though this occurred many years ago, I still beat myself up about it. I have travelled extensively and would describe myself as culturally sensitive. To this day, I cannot explain what made me think it was okay to take such a photo.

So, when our guide in Mongolia advised us about local customs before our two-night stay with a nomadic family, I felt a deep appreciation and relief that I would not commit any social or cultural faux pas through ignorance. I firmly believe that knowledge is power, and I was about to meet this family in a “powerful” (culturally knowledgeable) position.

So, what lessons did I learn from my Mongolian guide?

First, our guide requested we wait to take photos of the family but get to know them a little first. This was a more than reasonable request and one I knew I would have no trouble complying with because I often feel uncomfortable photographing people. However, given this was a photography tour I was on, the family expected photos to be taken of them as they knew this was a part of our learning.

We were advised to ask whatever questions we wanted, with the guide translating for us as the family doesn’t speak English. I suspect this also allowed the guide to ‘censor’ inappropriate questions – a sound filtering system.

Our guide continued her invaluable insights on Mongolian cultural norms and traditions:

  • When you enter a ger, you must always go to the left. Don’t circle the interior of the ger. If you need to go to the right once inside the ger, return to the door and then to the right.
  • Don’t step on the threshold of the ger. You must always step over it.
  • In a group setting, always say hello to the oldest or most important person first.
  • Do not touch a person’s head or shoulder; doing so is taking that person’s luck away.
  • Touching a person’s feet (with your feet) signifies you want to challenge that person to a fight. If you unintentionally touch a person’s feet, shake hands with that person or touch their arm. By doing this, you are saying, “I didn’t mean that” (to challenge to a fight); it removes the challenge.
  • Do not throw tissues in the fire. The fire is a holy thing, and throwing tissues into the fire is contaminating the fire. It was essential to know this custom as, one by one, we were coming down with colds.
  • When Mongolians offer you food and drinks, you must accept it with your right hand, and you must taste whatever is offered or, at least, pretend to taste it by putting the food or drink to your lips. There is another alternative if offered a glass of vodka. You can dip your ring finger in the vodka, remove your finger from the vodka and flick your ring finger into the air, thereby flicking drops of vodka in the air.
  • When offered something, touch it with your right hand before taking it while supporting the elbow with the left hand. This custom is also followed when giving something. The exception to this is when offered a meal or providing a meal.
  • When exiting religious buildings, e.g. temples, step out backwards so that you do not show your back to the interior. To show your back is to show disrespect to the gods.
A brass bowl in a person's hands is presented.

Accept and taste all food and drinks that are offered.

 

Children in Mongolia don’t get their hair cut until they are between 2 and 5 years of age. For girls, this is usually between 2 and 4 years old. Conversely, boys will have their first haircut at 3 to 5 years of age. The reason for leaving the first cutting of children’s hair until this age is because Mongolians believe children are born with their mother’s hair. The cutting (more like shaving) of the hair signifies the child becoming their own person and is celebrated with a hair-cutting ceremony.

The khadag is a long piece of silk cloth (like a scarf). It comes in 5 different colours – blue, white, yellow, green and red – with each colour having its unique significance:

  • Blue is the most sacred colour in Mongolian culture, representing Mongolia’s eternal blue sky. The blue khadag is the most common and can be given to anyone, regardless of age, to show respect.
  • White represents milk and is the symbol of purity. It is often given to mothers.
  • Yellow represents the sun and is the symbol of wisdom. The yellow khadag is given when you greet monks.
  • Green represents the earth, being in tune with nature. It is the colour of inner peace and is only used in religious rituals.
  • Red represents fire and blood (as in circulation). It is the colour of life, of prosperity. As with the green khadag, it is not used to greet people but only in religious ceremonies.

To give or offer a khadag to someone or something is to show respect, the ultimate offering. To present a blue khadag to a person or animal is the highest form of respect. Driving through Mongolia, I often saw sheep and horses with blue khadags tied around their neck. Our guide explained that this shows respect for the animal, which can’t be killed/eaten.

A pile of rocks and stones with a pole in the middle of the mound covered in blue scarfs. Animal skulls are placed in front of the mound.

Mongolia’s cairns (shrines) are mounds of rocks and stones for offerings.

 

Mongolia’s cairns (stone shrines known as ovoos) are adorned with khadags, primarily blue ones. Most Mongolians are Buddhist, but Shamanism is integral to Mongolian life. Locals and travellers erect the cairns to provide offerings to the local spirits, thus showing their respect and honouring the spirits of the surrounding land. When you come across a cairn, you should always stop and show your respect by making an offering. The ritual entails walking around the cairn three times in a clockwise direction. As you do so, you make an offering while making a prayer or wish. This might be for a safe journey, good health, good fortune, or much-needed rain. The offering can be a khadag, food, money, vodka, or a small stone. If you are in a hurry and don’t have time to stop at a cairn, the driver will honk the horn three times. At one cairn, our driver offered a blue khadag. We settled for a small stone each time we stopped at a cairn – and there were many.

 

Unlocking the secrets of Mongolia’s rich cultural environment requires more than just travelling through its breathtaking landscapes. Understanding and respecting this remarkable country’s cultural norms and traditions is the key to a truly immersive and rewarding travel experience. Avoiding cultural errors is not just about being polite; it’s about creating authentic connections with Mongolia’s warm and hospitable people.

Start your Mongolian adventure with cultural sensitivity, and let the vibrant traditions of this enchanting land enrich your travel story.

And my final piece of practical advice – know before you go!

 

Editor’s Note: I originally published this blog post in February 2019 and have updated it for accuracy and comprehensiveness.

 

Disclaimer: This post contains no affiliate links. All views and opinions are my own and non-sponsored. All photos are my own and remain the copyright of Just Me Travel.

© Just Me Travel 2018-2023.

 

Have you travelled to Mongolia? What other cultural insights would you offer readers for Mongolia? I love hearing from you. Join the conversation and leave a comment below.

 

Like this post? Save it for Later!

A Mongolian nomadic man in tradition garb walks in front of a ger. There is a second ger behind the first and a mountain in the background.

A large pile of rocks and stones with animal skulls in front of the mound. a pole is in the middle of the mound with blue scarfs hanging from the pole.

 

Author’s Note: Please check the latest travel restrictions before planning any trip and follow government advice.

 

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DINOSAUR FOSSIL HUNTING IN MONGOLIA’S GOBI DESERT AT THE FLAMING CLIFFS (2023 Updated)

  Fossick for Dinosaur Bones at Mongolia’s Flaming Cliffs – One of the World’s Greatest Dinosaur Fossil Sites.     Dear Pip, Deep in the heart of Mongolia’s Gobi Desert…

 

Fossick for Dinosaur Bones at Mongolia’s Flaming Cliffs – One of the World’s Greatest Dinosaur Fossil Sites.

 

A person stands on the top of a cliff that is part of red sandstone cliff formations known as the Flaming Cliffs. Flat plains surround the cliffs.

Mongolia’s Flaming Cliffs are in the heart of the Gobi Desert.

 

Dear Pip,

Deep in the heart of Mongolia’s Gobi Desert are the Flaming Cliffs. They are utterly remote at approximately 100 kms northwest of Dalanzadgad and nine hours from Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar, in the Gobi Gurvan Saikhan National Park.

I don’t know how our driver found his way through the desert because there were no signs or landmarks I could discern to guide the way. When I asked (as translated by our guide) how he knows the way, he shrugged his shoulders, saying (as translated) he just knows. Beats me! However, find the way he did.

The Flaming Cliffs, so named because of their ochre and red-coloured sandstone cliffs and canyons, are an ancient formation of 71 to 75 million years old. They are famous for the first discovery of dinosaur eggs by the American palaeontologist Roy Chapman Andrews in 1923. According to our guide, the eggs were discovered when one of Andrews’ crew fell down the cliff into a nest full of dinosaur eggs.

The Flaming Cliffs are known as one of the world’s greatest dinosaur fossil sites, with more and more bones exposed through erosion. The first dinosaur fossil, a Protoceratops, was discovered in 1922, and in the 1970s, a fossil was unearthed of two dinosaurs locked in a fight. Being a well-known site for dinosaur fossil hunters excited Meg, who scrambled over the cliffs (in thongs!), fossicking for dinosaur bones.

Nearing the end of our cliff walk and exploration, we came across an object sticking out of the cliff face that could be a large bone – possibly a dinosaur thigh bone. Our guide suggested licking the ‘bone’ to test if it is bone or stone. Because bones are more porous than stones, your tongue sticks to it when you lick bone, but it won’t stick to stone. Of course, Meg had to have a lick. Her tongue stuck to it – bone!

A bit of trivia for you:

Roy Chapman Andrews was a bit of a daredevil, a swashbuckler, and he was the inspiration behind the Indiana Jones film character.

Love,

Joanna

A woman licks a dinosaur bone sticking out of a cliff face.

Bone or stone? The lick test!

 

Editor’s Note: I originally published this blog post in February 2019 and have updated it for accuracy and comprehensiveness.

 

Disclaimer: This post contains no affiliate links. All views and opinions are my own and non-sponsored. All photos are my own and remain the copyright of Just Me Travel.

© Just Me Travel 2018-2023.

 

Would you seek out this type of experience when travelling? I love hearing from you. Leave a comment below.

 

Like this post? Save it for later!

A woman fossicks for dinosaur fossils on red sandstone cliffs. The cliffs are the Flaming Cliffs in Mongolia's Gobi Desert.

 

 

A woman stands on top of a cliff in Mongolia's Gobi Desert looking out to the flat plain in the distance.

 

Author’s Note: Please check the latest travel restrictions before planning any trip and follow government advice.

 

Sign up to receive the latest in travel destinations, topics, resources and guides.

 

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HOW TO LAND ON A GLACIER IN NEW ZEALAND’S STUNNING SOUTHERN ALPS

Experience Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier on a Helicopter Flight – The Most Accessible Rivers of Ice in the World.   New Zealand’s Southern Alps are breathtaking and home…

Experience Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier on a Helicopter Flight – The Most Accessible Rivers of Ice in the World.

 

New Zealand’s Southern Alps are breathtaking and home to several glaciers. Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier are the most accessible. And what better way to experience their natural beauty than with a helicopter flight over the glaciers and landing on the top of one for a walk around? 

When touring New Zealand’s South Island, I climbed aboard a helicopter for a scenic flight and snow landing. I have mixed feelings about this flight, which become evident in my review below.

 

I was so excited about taking a helicopter flight with Glacier Helicopters over New Zealand’s Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers – an optional extra with Grand Pacific Tours and my New Year present to myself. I will always jump at the option of a helicopter or small plane scenic flight and have taken several now around the world. They provide a unique perspective of an area or site you visit, and I feel a sense of adventure with helicopter flights.

Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers are in New Zealand’s Southern Alps on the South Island’s west coast, in Glacier Country. They are temperate maritime glaciers that extend well below the snow line. Franz Josef Glacier’s terminal face is 500 metres above sea level, while Fox Glacier terminates at 250 metres above sea level. Though still flowing, both glaciers, unfortunately, are retreating, with Franz Josef vanishing at a phenomenal rate.

Franz Josef Glacier is 12 kilometres long and lies 20 kilometres south of Fox Glacier. Franz Josef Glacier was named after the Austrian emperor but is better known by its Māori name, Kā Roimata o Hine Hukatere. The glacier is five kilometres from the town of the same name.

At 13 kilometres long, Fox Glacier (Te Moeka o Tuawe) is longer and faster moving than Franz Josef Glacier and is New Zealand’s longest glacier. Fox Glacier is just five kilometres from the village of the same name. I stayed in Fox Glacier village.

View of a glacier wedged between two mountains. An open plain with several trees is in the foreground of the photo.

View of Fox Glacier taken from State Highway 6 near Fox Glacier village.

 

Grand Pacific Tours had organised the 40-minute ‘Mountain Scenic Spectacular’ helicopter flight with Helicopter Line in Franz Josef village. However, when we arrived, Helicopter Line advised us to fly the next morning because of the current poor visibility. For some reason I never understood, we booked in the following day with Glacier Helicopters for our scenic flight over Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers, with a snow landing on Franz Josef Glacier and departing from Fox Glacier village. Unfortunately, because of a strong wind, we couldn’t fly around Mount Cook (Aoraki), New Zealand’s highest mountain (3,724 metres), as per the scheduled flight path. Consequently, Glacier Helicopters reduced our helicopter flight plus snow landing to 30 minutes, and we did receive a small discount.

A snow capped mountain rises above a mountain range devoid of snow.

Mount Cook dominates New Zealand’s Southern Alps.

 

I was disappointed with Glacier Helicopter’s scenic flight. The cabin was cramped inside, and the other passengers obstructed my view. There were three of us in the back, two in the front, and the pilot. Sitting in the middle of the back seat, I found the cramped conditions restricted my arm movements, making taking photos while flying difficult.

I could tolerate being sandwiched between two passengers, but having my views of the landscape we were passing over severely obstructed was upsetting. While flying, the passengers on either side of me continually blocked my sight as they leaned into their respective windows to see the landscape below and take photos. Looking out the front of the helicopter was no better as the heads of the two front passengers were prominent in many of my photos.

These circumstances negatively impacted my overall experience. As a travel blogger and photographer (I rarely disclose my tradecraft), getting good photographs is crucial for my posts. I understand weight distribution is imperative for helicopter flights, but is there no way to guarantee a window seat?

Had I not been seated in the back row’s middle seat, I believe my helicopter flight experience would have been very different – far more positive.

After flying up the ice river that is Franz Josef Glacier, we landed on the top of the glacier to spend 15 wondrous minutes walking on the snow and ice, examining the ice architecture, enjoying the views, and taking photos. The adventure of a lifetime! The landing on Franz Josef Glacier was magical. Who needs a flight around a snow-capped mountain when you can walk on a glacier?

The ice river of the Franz Josef Glacier is view from a helicopter.

Franz Josef Glacier – climbing the ice river

 

New Zealand's Southern Alps at the top of Franz Josef Glacier, viewed from inside a helicopter.

Landing on Franz Josef Glacier.

 

While on Franz Josef Glacier, the pilot took photos of the passengers. He had a printer in the helicopter’s tail, and we could purchase a photograph after landing back at Fox Glacier Heliport.

A red and white helicopter sits on the snow with mountains behind it. The name, Glacier Helicopters is printer on the helicopter's tail. The pilot is looking into the helicopter through an open door in the tail section.

There’s a printer in the helicopter’s tail!

 

I would have loved more time on Franz Josef Glacier to walk further afield than just the top of the glacier, exploring its features in detail. But that’s what the Heli Hikes entail. Next time!

Being in the middle seat behind the pilot and two other passengers on Glacier Helicopter’s small, five-passenger helicopter was not value for money. I had no choice as to which company I took the helicopter flight with, as Grand Pacific Tours organised it. I recommend exploring other glacier helicopter flight companies to avoid disappointment.

 

My helicopter flight over New Zealand’s Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers was a mixed experience. The obstruction of my views during the flight by other passengers was undeniably disappointing. However, the magic truly began when we landed on Franz Josef Glacier. The opportunity to step out on this pristine glacier and explore its breathtaking beauty up close gave me a real sense of adventure. While the flight had drawbacks, the glacier landing left an indelible mark on my memory.

 

Snow covered mountains are viewed from inside a helicopter.

Fox Glacier – on top of the mountains.

 

Disclaimer: This post contains no affiliate links. All views and opinions are my own and non-sponsored. All photos are my own and remain the copyright of Just Me Travel.

© Just Me Travel 2018-2023.

 

My favourite helicopter flights are in small three-passenger helicopters with removed doors. I experienced three such helicopter flights when in The Kimberley, Western Australia. What has been your experience of scenic helicopter flights? I love hearing from you. Please leave a comment below.

 

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The image features two photos. One shows a red and white helicopter sitting on snow with mountains behind it. The other photo is a section of a snow covered mountain range.

 

The image features two photos: a glacier wedged between two mountains with a grass plain in the foreground, and a view of an ice river (glacier) running down a mountain crevice.

 

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A collage of three photos of mountains surrounding bodies of water in New Zealand's Fiordland National Park.NEW ZEALAND’S FIORDLAND NATIONAL PARK – DISCOVER 3 SPECTACULAR SOUNDS. Journey through the awe-inspiring sounds of Fiordland National Park, where nature’s grandeur & serenity intertwine. Take a cruise to discover the spectacular sight of glacial-fed fiords.

 

The wing of a plane is seen flying over a landscape of red cliffs, white sand, blue ocean and green forestHOW TO SEE HORIZONTAL FALLS AND EPIC TIDES, AUSTRALIA. Take an unforgettable scenic flight over northern Western Australia’s Horizontal Falls. Include an incredible sea safari among giant whirlpools and standing tidal waves. See a horizontal waterfall and ride giant tides.

 

 

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A UNIQUE MONGOLIA HORSE FESTIVAL SHOWCASES IMPRESSIVE HORSE-RIDING TALENT (2023 Updated)

  No Trip to Mongolia is Complete Without Having Attended a Local Horse Festival and Witnessed Extraordinary Horseback Skills.   Dear Pip, Our trip to Mongolia is turning out to…

 

No Trip to Mongolia is Complete Without Having Attended a Local Horse Festival and Witnessed Extraordinary Horseback Skills.

Several me in colourful robes line up on their horses for the start of competition. They are carrying long poles with lassos on the end.

Mongolian nomads ready for competition with their uurgas (lasso poles) at a horse festival.

 

Dear Pip,

Our trip to Mongolia is turning out to be one unique cultural highlight after another. We spent the day sharing the excitement of a local horse festival in the Orkhon Valley, organised by Tsaidam Ger Camp, where we stayed for the night. The festival aims to preserve nomadic tradition and promote the talent and capabilities of Mongolia’s nomadic herders.

The Orkhon Valley is in Central Mongolia, about 360 kilometres southwest of Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar. The Orkhon Valley, a cultural landscape comprising 1,220 square kilometres, was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004.

Mongolia’s history, culture, and people are intimately linked with horses, with children learning to ride almost from the day they can walk. In a country with 13 times more horses than people, I can understand how Mongolia has become known as the land of horses. Throughout the day, I came to appreciate Mongolian nomads’ strong bond with their horses and to understand how Mongolians have long been considered some of the best horse riders in the world.

After Meg shared snuff with some local elders and our guide explained what the horse festival entailed, we found a spot amongst the locals to watch and photograph the men, dressed in traditional costume, compete in several events, including horse lassoing, grabbing a lasso pole from the ground, and riding a wild, bucking horse. These events are designed to show off the Mongolian nomads’ unique horsemanship skills and the strength of their horses.

I wasn’t sure how I felt about the lassoing of stampeding wild horses. However, I learned it is an essential skill as nomadic households have many horses ridden infrequently and need to be re-broken in because they have been left to roam at will, becoming semi-wild. I needed to remind myself that this is their way of life and culture.

Being able to ride a bucking horse is par for the course with breaking-in horses, and this competition elicited shouts of encouragement from the crowd and laughter when horse and rider parted ways. One man who managed to stay on his horse delighted the crowd as he and his horse disappeared into the distance.

I particularly enjoyed watching the men grabbing an uurga (long pole with a lasso on the end) off the ground from a galloping horse. I was left in awe as to how they stayed on their horse because they would be well down the side of the horse, around its fast-moving legs. Their core strength must be remarkable! With all the rider’s weight on one side, how did the horse not topple over?

Some of the younger men had a competition on the side, grabbing a cigarette lighter off the ground from their galloping horse – some more successful than others. The control these young men and all other competitors had over their horses was genuinely impressive.

It was a most enjoyable, exciting day; I will take home unforgettable memories.

Love,

Joanna

Riders on horses with lassos on long poles rope stampeding horses.

Lassoing wild, stampeding horses at the Mongolian Horse Festival.

 

People stand around in front of a tent while watching a man fall to the ground off a bucking horse.

I bet that hurt! A competitor falls off a bucking wild horse.

 

A man in a colourful robe hangs on the side of his galloping horse as he picks up a stick off the ground.

Picking up an uurga (lasso on a pole) off the ground from a galloping horse.

 

A young man hangs on the side of his galloping horse as he picks up a cigarette lighter off the ground.

A young man picks up a cigarette lighter off the ground from a galloping horse.

 

Editor’s Note: I originally published this blog post in February 2019 and have updated it for accuracy and comprehensiveness.

 

Disclaimer: This post contains no affiliate links. All views and opinions are my own and non-sponsored. All photos are my own and remain the copyright of Just Me Travel.

© Just Me Travel 2018-2023.

 

Would you seek out this type of experience when travelling? I love hearing from you. Leave a comment below.

 

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Men in colourful robes sit on a fence railing with their saddled horses behind them.

 

A man dressed in a colourful robe hangs on the side of his galloping horse as he picks up a pole off the ground.

 

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A person is fossicking for dinosaur fossils along an escarpment of the Flaming Cliffs in Mongolia's Gobi Desert.DINOSAUR FOSSIL HUNTING IN MONGOLIA’S GOBI DESERT AT THE FLAMING CLIFFS (2023 Updated)

The Flaming Cliffs are famous for the discovery of dinosaur eggs in 1923 and is one of the world’s greatest dinosaur fossil sites. Go fossicking!

 

A nomad and his ger

MONGOLIAN CULTURAL NORMS AND TRADITIONS – HOW TO PREVENT CULTURAL ERRORS

Cultural sensitivity when travelling is a sign of deep respect. Prevent social and cultural faux pas through ignorance. Know before you go!

 

 

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SEE 3 ASTOUNDING ENGINEERING MARVELS ON THE CANAL DU MIDI

Embark on an Unforgettable Journey on France’s Canal du Midi and Experience Extraordinary Engineering Feats That Are Works of Art.   What do you know about the Canal du Midi? …

Embark on an Unforgettable Journey on France’s Canal du Midi and Experience Extraordinary Engineering Feats That Are Works of Art.

 

What do you know about the Canal du Midi? 

Set against the picturesque landscape of southern France, the Canal du Midi is a serene waterway and a testament to human creativity and engineering brilliance. Prepare to be awe-struck by three engineering marvels that have stood the test of time and captivated all who encounter them.

In this travel blog post, I invite you to join me on a journey uncovering the stories behind the three remarkable wonders of human ingenuity I discovered when sailing from Marseillan to Salleles d’Aude on a hotel barge on the historic Canal du Midi: the masterfully constructed Orb Aqueduct that defies gravity, the intricately designed seven-step Fonserannes Locks that challenge navigation skills, and the mystical Malpas Tunnel that channels the canal through a hill.

I am not an engineering expert, but crossing the Orb Aqueduct, climbing the Fonserannes Locks, and traversing the Malpas Tunnel were extraordinary experiences and unforgettable highlights of my barge cruise on the Canal du Midi with European Waterways. They have left a lasting impression on me that I want to share with you, and I hope you get to experience them for yourself.

 

The Canal du Midi

A boat sails along a tree-lined canal.

Cruising the Canal du Midi

 

The Canal du Midi in southern France was constructed between 1666 and 1681 by the 17th-century canal engineer Pierre-Paul Riquet. It is considered one of the most significant construction works of the 17th century and is one of the oldest canals still in use in Europe. The Canal du Midi was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996.

The Canal du Midi runs for 240 kilometres from the Etang de Thau, a sheltered lagoon behind the Mediterranean port of Sete, to Toulouse, where it joins the Canal de Garonne – connecting the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. The Etang de Thau at Marseillan was the starting point for my barge cruise on the Canal du Midi with European Waterways.

I cruised the Canal du Midi on European Waterway’s first-class, eight-passenger hotel barge, the Adjodi. The section of the Canal du Midi we cruised included three impressive 17th-century engineering feats – the Orb Aqueduct, Fonserannes Locks, and Malpas Tunnel. But you don’t need to be an engineer to appreciate, enjoy, and be thrilled by these wonders of the Canal du Midi.

A sunset is reflected in the waters of a tree-lined canal.

The sun sets on another day on the Cana du Midi.

 

Orb Aqueduct

A boat sails through aqueduct - a water bridge.

Our barge navigates the Canal du Midi along the Orb Aqueduct at Beziers.

 

A photo of a barge navigating the Orb Aqueduct (Pont-Canal de l’Orbat) at Beziers in southern France has always been my ‘vision’ of the Canal du Midi and one of the reasons I wanted to do a barge cruise on the canal. No other image of the Canal du Midi was more iconic than the Orb Aqueduct.

The Orb Aqueduct is a one-lane bridge carrying the Canal du Midi over the Orb River. At 240 metres long, 28 metres wide, 12 metres high, and with seven arches, the Orb Aqueduct is one of the largest aqueducts in France and the largest on the Canal du Midi. Prior to the opening of the Orb Aqueduct in 1858, the Canal du Midi traversed a short, treacherous section of the Orb River that would sink boats or leave them stranded for weeks due to its unpredictable flow. Building the aqueduct allowed boats to bypass the dangerous Orb River safely.

The aqueduct carries the canal in a masonry trough sealed with a layer of concrete. The concrete seal was replaced in 1951; otherwise, the original structure still exists. You can walk the length of Orb Aqueduct as there is a towpath on both sides.

The Orb Aqueduct was classified as a National Historical Monument in 1962 and was listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1996.

A water bridge carrying the Canal du Midi over the river below.

Six of the Orb Aqueduct’s seven arches.

 

A bridge carrying water over a river below.

The Orb Aqueduct carries the Canal du Midi over the River Orb.

 

Fonserannes Locks

The image shows the mechanisms on top of seven lock gates that climb up a hill.

The seven-rise lock staircase or Fonserannes.

 

Locks are an integral part of any barge cruise, and on the Canal du Midi, I got my gratifying fill of them. However, none would raise my excitement or sense of adventure as much as the seven-rise lock staircase of Fonserannes (also known as the Fonserannes Locks or the Fonserannes Staircase) near the town of Beziers.

When the Canal du Midi was constructed in the 17th century, Pierre-Paul Riquet had to overcome the problem of crossing the Orb River, which was 48 metres higher than the natural course of the canal waterway. The answer was the Fonserannes Lock Staircase, a staggering feat of engineering and very impressive, even to my untrained eye. It is one of the features that led to the Canal du Midi being declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996.

Fonserannes Lock Staircase is a 312-metre-long water staircase, allowing boats and barges to negotiate a 25-metre gradient by passing through seven oval-shaped lock chambers and eight gates. There is an eighth chamber, but it is no longer in use. Boats are raised (or lowered) 21.5 metres over a distance of 300 metres, with the deepest rise (or drop) over six metres.

A boat is in a lock chamber on the Canal du Midi. This is a staircase lock system of which there are seven ovoid chambers and eight gates.

A boat climbs the Fonserannes Staircase Locks.

 

We approached the Fonserannes seven-rise lock staircase from the Orb Aqueduct and travelled up the lock staircase. Our barge captain took over 30 minutes to negotiate the boat’s climb through the seven chambers. The force and speed at which the water rushes into the chamber when a gate opens is astounding.

A boat moves into the rushing waters of a filling lock chamber.

Our barge navigates through Fonserannes Locks.

 

One lock chamber must have been particularly challenging because going under the bridge that spanned the gate dislodged the height indicator pole (a red flag on a pole on the boat’s bow). As I understand it, the lockkeeper allowed too much water to enter the lock, making the water in the chamber higher than it should have been. Our captain had to duck very low to ensure his head didn’t connect with the bridge.

A boat travels under a low bridge as it enters a lock chamber with water starting to rush through the opening gate into the next lock chamber.

A low bridge knocked over the red-flagged height indicator pole.

 

We stopped for the night at the top of Fonserannes Staircase Locks. So, I took the opportunity to walk the towpath back to the Orb Aqueduct, an easy, flat 20-minute walk.

Malpas Tunnel

A boat approaches a tunnel in a hill with the canal passing through the tunnel.

Our barge approaches the Malpas Tunnel on the Canal du Midi.

 

The Malpas Tunnel, between Bezier and Capstang on the Canal du Midi, was the first tunnel ever dug for a canal. The tunnel was excavated in 1679 in secret by the canal’s chief engineer, Pierre-Paul Riquet, as the Prime Minister had stopped the plan to dig a canal tunnel through Enserune Hill because initial excavations revealed the tunnel was liable to collapse due to the hill being brittle sandstone. Over 300 years later, the Malpas Tunnel is still navigable! And there is now even a railway tunnel ten metres below the canal tunnel, built nearly 200 years later!

Local folklore has it that after the completion of the Malpas Tunnel, one of the workers built a small nook inside the tunnel’s ceiling and lived there as a hermit. When barges passed through the tunnel, the crew threw bread into the opening for the hermit. Barge crews still sometimes throw a piece of bread into the opening of the nook as a “gift for the hermit”.

Our captain did not throw bread into the opening in the ceiling, but he did play the finale of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture (at least, I think that was what it was). I did not fathom the relevance of this, but the music sounded incredible and very dramatic as it echoed off the tunnel walls.

A boat exits a tunnel that carries the Canal du Midi through the hill. A man is steering the boat.

The hermit nook in the ceiling of Malpas Tunnel.

 

Canal de Jonction

I want to leave you with my favourite photo I took on the Canal du Midi barge cruise. It is not the Canal du Midi per se but taken when we stopped for the night at Salleles d’Aude on the Canal de Jonction. The Canal de Jonction is a shortcut from the Canal du Midi to the Canal de la Robine. It was early morning, the water was milk-pond still, and the reflections of our barge and the trees lining the canal created an unforgettable image.

A blue and white barge is tied up to the bank of a tree-lined canal. The barge and trees are reflected in the still waters of the canal. A lock can be seen in the distance.

The Adjodi reflected in the still waters at Salleles d’Aude on the Canal de Jonction.

 

Reflecting on my journey along the Canal du Midi, I am in awe of the ingenuity and determination that brought these three remarkable engineering marvels to life. The Orb Aqueduct is a testament to the courage of human vision, carrying the canal over the valley below. The Fonserannes Locks remind us of our ability to conquer and harness the raw forces of nature. And then there is the Malpas Tunnel, a hidden passage shrouded in history and mystery carved through solid rock.

As you traverse the tranquil waters of the Canal du Midi, it’s impossible not to be humbled by the visionaries who conceived these extraordinary structures. Their dedication to crafting a passage that conquered natural obstacles while blending with the landscape continues to inspire admiration centuries later.

Whether you’re a history buff, an engineering enthusiast, or a traveller searching for unique experiences, the Canal du Midi’s engineering marvels promise an unforgettable journey.

 

Disclaimer: This post contains no affiliate links. All views and opinions are my own and non-sponsored. All photos are my own and remain the copyright of Just Me Travel.

© Just Me Travel 2018-2023.

 

Leave a comment below. I look forward to reading and responding to your comments on the Canal du Midi and its engineering marvels.

 

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The image shows two photos. One photo is of a boat reflected in the waters of a tree-lined canal. The other photo is a boat sailing on an aqueduct (a water bridge). These are engineering marvels on the Canal du Midi.

The image is two photos - a boat entering the swirling waters of a lock chamber and the other is a boat, steered by a man, exiting a tunnel.

 

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An image of a castle within a medieval citadel.
CARCASSONNE CITADEL – The Best-Preserved Medieval Town in France
Carcassonne Citadel is a medieval treasure in Southern France. It is the most complete medieval town in existence today and is worth two to three days to explore.

 

 

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CARCASSONNE CITADEL – The Best-Preserved Medieval Town in France

Carcassonne Citadel is a Medieval Treasure in Southern France.   Dear Ryan, One of the highlights of my Canal du Midi cruise with European Waterways was a morning in the…

Carcassonne Citadel is a Medieval Treasure in Southern France.

A medieval fortified town

Carcassonne Citadel entrance gate

 

Dear Ryan,

One of the highlights of my Canal du Midi cruise with European Waterways was a morning in the Citadel of Carcassonne. The barge captain was surprised I had not heard of Carcassonne Citadel as it is one of France’s premier tourist attractions. But, as you know, I have only been to France once before, and that was to a different region.

So, here is what I learned about Carcassonne Citadel…

  • It is the most complete medieval fortified town in existence today and the largest in Europe.
  • It has about 2,500 years of history and was occupied by the Romans, Visigoths, and Crusaders at different periods.
  • Three kilometres of double walls interspersed with 52 watchtowers surround the citadel.
  • It is a lived-in citadel with houses, schools, shops, restaurants, hotels, basilica, and museums.
  • The citadel is open 24/7 and is free to enter. However, there is an admission fee to visit Carcassonne Castle and its ramparts.
  • Carcassonne Citadel was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997.

European Waterways took us on a two-hour guided walking tour around the walls, through the citadel, and into the Basilica Saint Nazaire. We were given admission tickets for the castle and ramparts, but I didn’t see them. After going to the toilet and watching the visual display at the entrance, I had to leave the castle as it was time to meet our guide to leave Carcassonne.

A gothic church facade with shrubs and flowers in front of it.

Basilica Saint Nazaire

 

Our visit to Carcassonne Citadel was too rushed and deserved so much more time. I could have spent 2-3 days there instead of the few hours allocated to the visit.

  • I would stay within the citadel. From my view of its exterior, the Hotel de la Cite next to the basilica appealed to me. That it is a 5-star hotel probably added to that appeal, even if it is beyond my budget.
  • Exploring the castle beyond the toilet block would be a bonus. And I am told the views from the ramparts are stunning. But I would want to walk them to see for myself.
  • I would like to eat at the many restaurants, buy lots of nougat, and shop until I drop. The clothes and leather goods shops were of particular interest.
  • Three days would give me time to visit some of the museums within the citadel and Carcassonne city, for example, the School Museum, the Museum of the Inquisition, and the Museum of Fine Arts. Perhaps I need four days!

Did you know there is a Carcassonne board game? Apparently, it is one of the most beloved and well-known board games in the world. I have never heard of it. Just something else to add to my ignorance about Carcassonne!

Next stop, Spain.

Love,

Joanna

 

Disclaimer: This post contains no affiliate links. All views and opinions are my own and non-sponsored. All photos are my own and remain the copyright of Just Me Travel.

© Just Me Travel 2018-2023.

 

Have you been to Carcassonne Citadel? What would you recommend I include on my next, more in-depth visit? Leave a comment below.

 

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A photo of an entrance gate to a medieval fortified citadel.

An image of a medieval castle in a fortified citadel.

 

Author’s Note: Please check the latest travel restrictions before planning any trip and follow government advice.

 

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The image shows three photos of engineering marvels on the Canal du Midi - a boat crossing the Orb Aqueduct, a boat approaching a canal tunnel, and a seven-rise lock staircase.

SEE 3 ASTOUNDING ENGINEERING MARVELS ON THE CANAL DU MIDI

Prepare to be awe-struck by three extraordinary engineering marvels on the Canal du Midi that are works of art – the Orb Aqueduct, Fonserannes Staircase Locks, and Malpas Tunnel.

 

 

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NEW ZEALAND’S FIORDLAND NATIONAL PARK – Discover 3 Spectacular Sounds

Join Me on a Visual Journey Through the Awe-Inspiring Sounds of Fiordland National Park, a Place Where Nature’s Grandeur and Serenity Intertwine.   On two recent trips to New Zealand…

Join Me on a Visual Journey Through the Awe-Inspiring Sounds of Fiordland National Park, a Place Where Nature’s Grandeur and Serenity Intertwine.

 

On two recent trips to New Zealand (Aotearoa), one by land and one by sea, I was fortunate to have cruised three spectacular sounds (fiords) in Fiordland National Park – Dusky Sound, Doubtful Sound, and Milford Sound. New Zealand is one of only a few places where you can see the spectacular sight of glacial-fed fiords.

My land trip involved a convoluted journey to the included overnight, scenic cruise on Doubtful Sound. But my sea trip was a cruise on a large ship, where we sailed in and out of Dusky Sound, Doubtful Sound, and Milford Sound from the Tasman Sea.

In this post, I focus on my photographs of the three sounds because, as the saying goes, a picture paints a thousand words. I feel no amount of words will do justice to the breathtaking natural beauty I experienced of Dusky Sound, Doubtful Sound, and Milford Sound.

 

Fiordland National Park

The Māori name for Fiordland is Te Rua-o-Te-Moko.

A partial map of New Zealand's South Island showing the fiords in Fiordland National Park

Map of the sounds in New Zealand’s Fiordland National Park (beautifulworld.com)

 

Fiordland National Park is located in the southwestern corner of New Zealand’s South Island. At over 1.2 million hectares and covering nearly 13,000 square kilometres, it is New Zealand’s largest national park.

Fiordland National Park is a place of extraordinary beauty, and it is home to glaciers, majestic alpine ranges, lakes, rainforests, unique flora and fauna, and 14 sounds (fiords). Dusky Sound, Doubtful Sound, and Milford Sound are three of the park’s most significant fiords.

You will have noticed I jump between ‘sound’ and ‘fiord’, and both terms are correct. However, Dusky Sound, Doubtful Sound, and Milford Sound are actually fiords as they are glacier-carved valleys filled by the sea rather than river valleys flooded by the sea. British explorers misnamed them as sounds, and the name has stuck!

Dusky Sound

The Māori name for Dusky Sound is Tamatea.

A photo of rays of light, clouds, mountains, and a body of water.

Rays of light stream through the clouds over Dusky Sound

 

Dusky Sound is remote and accessible by air and sea only. It is the largest of Fiordland’s 14 sounds at 40 kilometres long and eight kilometres wide at its widest. Several islands lie in the sound.

Dusky Sound is an area of stunning landscapes, with craggy mountains and hundreds of waterfalls cascading into the sound during winter (June-August) when there are higher rainfalls. It is a wildlife wonderland with seals and dolphins often sighted in the sound.

We sailed into Dusky Sound at 8.30 in the morning, with the clouds still rising above the mountains. Dusky Sound was my favourite of the three sounds as I found it to be the more dramatic. That it revealed itself only slowly added to the drama.

A visual journey through Dusky Sound

Tall peaks with low cloud cover reach a body of water

Low clouds drape the mountains of Dusky Sound.

 

A body of water surrounded by mountains and low cloud cover.

Dusky Sound, Fiordland National Park

 

Mountains line a body of water with small islands

Dusky Sound – mountains and islands

 

Doubtful Sound

The Māori name for Doubtful Sound is Patea, meaning “the place of silence”.

Mountains surround a body of water with small islands in the still morning

Untouched Doubtful Sound, Fiordland National Park

 

Doubtful Sound is the deepest (421 metres) and one of the longest (40 kilometres) of South Island’s fiords and has three arms. Doubtful Sound is a pretty waterway with its rugged landscape, verdant rainforest, and cascading waterfalls. Wildlife includes fur seals and penguins, and it is home to a permanent pod of about 70 bottlenose dolphins.

Doubtful Sound is remote, and there is no direct road access. Your only way of getting to Doubtful Sound is a bit of a journey but an adventure in itself. Starting at Pearl Harbour wharf in Manapouri, you take a cruise across Lake Manapouri to West Arm (about 50 minutes), then travel by coach over Wilmot Pass (671-metre-high) to Deep Cove in Doubtful Sound, where you board your scenic day or night boat cruise. On the drive over Wilmot Pass, the coach stops at a vantage point for a magnificent view of Doubtful Sound below. The total time travelled from Manapouri to Deep Cove is nearly two hours. There is no settlement at Deep Cove, but it is home to a small fishing fleet.

View from above of a fiord with mountains on both sides.

Looking down on Doubtful Sound from Wilmot Pass

 

I first experienced the remote wilderness of Doubtful Sound on an overnight cruise on the three-masted Fiordland Navigator, taking the journey described above to get to the ship. On our second day, the ship stopped the engines for 10 minutes of silence to honour Doubtful Sound’s Māori name and listen to nature.

A three-mast passenger ship docked at a wharf, with mountains in the background.

The Fiordland Navigator docked at Deep Cove Wharf in Doubtful Sound.

 

My second trip along Doubtful Sound was aboard a cruise ship, entering the fiord from the Tasman Sea.

A visual journey through Doubtful Sound

Mountain peaks tinged blue in the early morning light surround a body of water.

The blue tinge of early morning light on Doubtful Sound

 

Mountain peaks rise above a body of water

The shadows and light of Doubtful Sound

 

A body of water surrounded by mountains and wake in the water created by an unseen boat.

The ship’s wake creates a path through Doubtful Sound.

 

Milford Sound

The Māori name for Milford Sound is Piopiotahi.

Tall mountain peaks surround a body of water

Milford Sound, Fiordland National Park

 

Milford Sound is 16 kilometres long, with sheer cliffs and waterfalls to rival some of the world’s tallest. It is the only fiord accessible by road (around 5-6 hours from Queenstown and about three hours from Te Anau) and the most popular. You can stay in Milford Sound, with accommodation options ranging from Airbnb to a public lodge.

Milford Sound is known for the towering Mitre Peak, so called because it resembles a bishop’s mitre. The fiord is home to dolphins, fur seals, and penguins.

The naturalist onboard the Fiordland Navigator commented that Milford Sound is the most touristy of Fiordland National Park’s fiords but the most beautiful. You be the judge! Perhaps the lack of tourists in Dusky Sound and Doubtful Sound appealed to me the most. Somehow, they felt more untouched. But who am I to say? The British writer Rudyard Kipling visited Milford Sound in the 1890s and declared it ‘the eighth wonder of the world’.

A visual journey through Milford Sound

A small boat cruises through water surrounded by tall cliffs.

The cliffs of Milford Sound dwarf a boat.

 

Sheer mountains dwarf a waterfall and boat.

Milford Sound has many waterfalls.

 

A photo of a mountain shaped like a Bishop's mitre

Mitre Peak, Milford Sound

 

No trip to New Zealand is complete without exploring Fiordland National Park and the spectacular sight of glacial-carved fiords.

I hope these photographs have transported you to a land of untamed beauty, leaving an indelible imprint on your senses with a desire to discover for yourself. Fiordland’s sounds are a testament to the power and harmony of the natural world.

 

Disclaimer: This post contains no affiliate links. All views and opinions are my own and non-sponsored. All photos are my own and remain the copyright of Just Me Travel.

© Just Me Travel 2018-2022.

 

If you could only visit one of New Zealand’s sounds (fiords) in Fiordland National Park and getting there was no barrier, which sound would you choose and why? Leave a comment below.

 

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A collage of two photos of mountains reaching down to a body of water. One photo shows a mountain shaped like a Bishop's mitre. The other photo shows the wake of an unseen boat.

A collage of two photos. One photo shows a river-like body of water with mountains on both sides, looking from above. The other photo shows a mountain reflected in the water.

 

Author’s Note: Please check the latest travel restrictions before planning any trip and follow government advice.

 

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ULTIMATE SRI LANKA ITINERARY – The Best of Sri Lanka in 20 Days

Use This Comprehensive Trip Planner To Create Your Sri Lanka Itinerary.   Sri Lanka is a land where history and culture are inseparable, with breathtaking landscapes from the beaches to…

Use This Comprehensive Trip Planner To Create Your Sri Lanka Itinerary.

 

Sri Lanka is a land where history and culture are inseparable, with breathtaking landscapes from the beaches to the hills and wildlife said to rival Africa. Discover the best sights and things to do in Sri Lanka with my comprehensive 20-day travel itinerary. Encounter the wildlife found in its national parks and wetlands, discover the natural beauty of the Hill Country, explore six UNESCO World Heritage Sites, wander through untamed gardens, and so much more.

 

About Sri Lanka

The Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka – Sri Lanka for short, and formerly called Ceylon – is that teardrop-shaped nation lying at the bottom of India in the Indian Ocean and is often referred to as the Pearl of the Indian Ocean.

For a small country, Sri Lanka packs a mighty punch for the traveller with a fantastic combination of diverse landscapes, pristine beaches, ancient culture, historical and religious temples and buildings, and unique experiences.

“Within a mere area of 65,610 kilometers lie 8 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, 1,330 kilometers of coastline – much of it pristine beaches – 15 national parks showcasing an abundance of wildlife, nearly 500,000 acres of lush tea estates, 250 acres of botanical gardens, 350 waterfalls, 25,000 water bodies, to a culture that extends back to over 2,500 years.”

https://colombo.embassy.qa/en/sri-lanka/tourism

Sri Lanka offers something for every type of traveller, no matter what your desired adventure or experience. There is no shortage of things to do in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka has a long history of colonisation by the Portuguese, Dutch, and British. These external influences have left their mark on Sri Lanka, building a country with many ethnic groups, languages, and religions. Buddhism is the main religion of Sri Lanka (70.2% of the population), followed by Hinduism (12.6% of the population). Muslims (9.7%) and Christians (7.4%) comprise the last two major religious groups.

Overview

I toured Sri Lanka in 2017 with my sister and brother-in-law. Our 20 days in Sri Lanka were on a private tour, with a customised itinerary we developed in conjunction with Insider Journeys, an Australian-based specialist tour operator. Coordinating it all was our travel consultant at Helloworld Travel Professionals in Albury.

Insider Journeys organised our accommodation, vehicle and driver-guide, and additional guides, such as the Naturalist in Bundala National Park.

In Sri Lanka, you must pay for the driver-guide’s accommodation on a private tour.

Much of what we did and saw resulted from our pre-tour research when developing our itinerary. Once in Sri Lanka, we included additional activities based on further research and suggestions from our driver-guide.

Note: From here on in, for convenience and reading ease, I will refer to our driver-guide simply as our guide.

Our itinerary covered Sri Lanka’s Hill Country, Cultural Triangle, UNESCO World Heritage Sites, national parks, magnificent gardens (formal and wild), and beautiful coastlines.

Twenty days in Sri Lanka gave us a comprehensive tour at a relaxed pace.

A map showing a road route taken around Sri Lanka on a 20-day itinerary

Sri Lanka Itinerary route map (Google Maps)

List of places to see in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka itinerary overview

 

Detailed Sri Lanka trip itinerary

The itinerary starts with an international flight into Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital city, and ends with the flight home (Australia) from Colombo.

The itinerary focuses on our personalised trip and is written from my perspective as I experienced it. While based on having a private guide for the duration of the journey, the itinerary is adaptable and works just as well for travellers using trains, buses, and taxis, which are available throughout Sri Lanka.

As well as being there for us on pre-determined trips, excursions, and activities, our vehicle and guide were also available for 80 kilometres per day for anything else we wanted to include at the last minute.

The reviews of the hotels listed in this itinerary are my opinions as written in 2017. If I was to stay at the hotels today, my thoughts might be different.

Sri Lanka is one of those countries where foreigners pay a higher entrance fee to sites and museums than that paid by Sri Lankan residents.

Day 1: Arrive in Colombo

Day 1 was purely an arrival day for us. Our flight arrived in Colombo just before midnight.

Our guide met us at the airport and drove us to our accommodation, where we stayed for the next two nights – Galle Face Hotel (see review, Day 2).

Day 2: Colombo

  • Discover the city of Colombo

Colombo is a new capital city, having only been Sri Lanka’s capital since 1815. It is a dynamic city with a multicultural community encompassing the past, present, and future. Colombo is known for being one of the best places in Sri Lanka to splurge in fashionable boutiques, sample a wide range of cuisines, and enjoy its vibrant nightlife.

Our day began after a leisurely breakfast, with our guide taking us on a one-hour orientation drive around Colombo. Returning to the hotel, we left our guide for the day and immediately headed out again to explore Colombo in more detail on foot. Colombo is flat and easy to walk around, but the heat and humidity can be tiring. We covered two districts: the historic Fort district, where modern office blocks rub shoulders with Colonial-era buildings, and the Pettah, the bustling bazaar district and home to Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque.

We let our feet provide the direction, starting at our hotel, which fronted onto Galle Face Green, past Old Parliament Building and Old Colombo Lighthouse in Fort, and into the Pettah, where shops are organised in a bazaar-style layout, with each street dedicated to a particular trade. On Sea Street, you will find gold jewellery shops.

The bustling Pettah district is a chaotic, vibrant melting pot of different ethnicities and religions. Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque opened in 1909 and is known locally as the Red Mosque due to its distinctive red and white exterior. Located on Second Cross Street in Pettah, it is one of the oldest mosques in Colombo and a popular tourist attraction. Non-Muslims are allowed in the mosque, and women may also enter to look around, but you must cover your hair, arms, and legs.

A multi-storied red and whit brick building

Jami Ul-Afar Mosque

 

A cityscape of old and modern buildings in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Colombo is an intermingling of modern and colonial buildings

 

Old Colombo Lighthouse (featured in the photo above) is a clock tower and was a lighthouse. Initially built as a clock tower in 1860, the lighthouse was added in 1865. The lighthouse was deactivated in 1952. However, it is a functioning clock tower and is the only lighthouse in the world that doubles as a clock tower.

A colonial building with columns has a highrise modern building with rows of windows behind it.

Old Parliament Building with Hilton Hotel as a backdrop

 

The modern Hilton Hotel forms a backdrop for the neo-baroque-styled Old Parliament Building, which houses the offices of Sri Lanka’s President.

In the early evening, stroll along Galle Face Green to view the sunset over the Laccadive Sea and mingle with the locals. Galle Face Green is a large grassy area with the Indian Ocean on one side and the busy Galle Face Centre Road on the other, and a promenade stretching along the ocean side. Laid out in 1859 by the then governor of British Ceylon for horse racing, nowadays, it is a gathering place for locals to meet, eat, fly kites, stroll along the promenade, and just enjoy themselves when the heat of the day has faded.

Where we stayed

Galle Face Hotel > 2 Galle Road, Colombo 3

Galle Face Hotel is colonial grace and luxury. Situated right on the seafront and bordering Galle Face Green, the hotel is a lovely old colonial building, beautifully restored with an aura of elegance. It has well-appointed, comfortable rooms, and the service was excellent. Buffet-style breakfast and lunch on the long wide veranda were enjoyable and relaxing. I recommend a hopper for breakfast, and you can’t go past the chocolate croissants.

Hoppers are traditional Sri Lankan food and are generally served at breakfast. They are typically bowl-shaped pancakes made from fermented rice flour and coconut milk filled with egg, vegetables, curry, or whatever your tastebuds desire. They are delicious.

Day 3: Colombo to Galle

  • Visit traditional mask makers in Ambalangoda (83 kilometres south of Colombo).

The drive from Colombo to Galle, where we stayed the next three nights, took about four hours. We took the coast road rather than the expressway because we wanted to stop in Ambalangoda to visit the traditional mask makers, Ariyapala & Sons, whose museum, showroom, and workshop came recommended by Insight Guides Sri Lanka:

“The town of Ambalangoda … is most famous as the centre of the island’s mask carvers … Two mask museums stand opposite one another at the northern end of town. The larger and more interesting of the two is the Ariyapala and Sons Mask Museum.”

Travelling the coast road was a pretty drive as it hugged the coast, passing through village after village. According to our guide, a much more interesting route than the expressway.

The Ariyapala & Sons Mask Museum provides an insight into the history of masks in Sri Lanka and their role in storytelling and medicine. Traditionally, the masks, made from balsa wood, were used in Kolan dances performing folk stories and exorcism ceremonies to frighten off evil deities (bad spirits). The Sanni masks, of which there are 18, are distorted and disturbing. These masks are used in exorcism rituals, each representing a disease or ailment caused by yakkas (devils), such as vomiting, insanity, nightmares, and stomach diseases. Unfortunately, these traditions are being lost to modernisation.

Connected to the museum is the workshop where you can watch several artisans carving and painting masks. Above the museum is the showroom, where you can buy every mask imaginable at reasonable prices.

A wall of masks with googly eyes, open moths with large teeth, and big noses

Ariyapala Mask Museum

 

Ariyapala & Sons Mask Museum > 426 Main Street, Ambalangoda

Open 9.30 am to 5.00 pm daily.

Entrance to the museum is free.

Leaving the mask museum, we completed our journey to Galle – the most important town on Sri Lanka’s south coast. Galle comprises the old Dutch quarter – enclosed within the Fort – and the sprawling New Town outside the Fort’s walls. We stayed inside Galle Fort, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Where we stayed

Fort Bazaar > 26 Church Street, Galle Fort

You can read my review of Fort Bazaar in my blog post on 24 Hours in Galle Fort.

Day 4: Galle

  • Explore Galle Fort

The Portuguese built Galle Fort in 1589. In 1640, the Dutch seized the Fort and extended its fortifications, which survive to this day. The British modified the Fort after Galle was handed over to them in 1796. The fortifications run for three kilometres, and the walls are over one metre thick.

Galle Fort is small (0.52 kilometres square), relatively flat, and easy to walk around. We spent the morning and early afternoon on a self-guided walk around Galle Fort. Walking around the Fort is an excellent way to take in the many sites of interest Galle Fort has to offer.

The Fort’s bastions allow views of the lighthouse, clock tower, mosque, and main gate, and you pass many wonderful colonial buildings and cafes. Our walk took longer than the 90 minutes suggested by guidebooks because we walked at a leisurely pace so we wouldn’t miss anything, and we kept stopping to take photos on our way around.

Rather than spell out the route here and all that we saw and did, I recommend you read my blog post on 24 Hours in Galle Fort. In the post, you will find the following:

  • Why you should visit Galle Fort;
  • How to get from Colombo to Galle Fort and our experience of how scary driving in Sri Lanka can be;
  • A detailed tourist map of Galle Fort highlighting places of interest;
  • A detailed description, with photos, of the route we took on our self-guided walk around Galle Fort;
  • A review of Fort Bazaar, where we stayed for three nights in Galle Fort;
  • Reviews of where we ate in Galle Fort; and
  • Information on the weather we experienced and its impact on me and our camera equipment.

A white house with a white church beside it

Library and Dutch Reform Church in Galle Fort

 

Day 5: Galle

  • Visit the Martin Wickramasinghe Museum in Koggala (16 kilometres from Galle Fort).
  • Discover the Kataluwa Temple in Ahangama (2.7 kilometres from MW Museum).
  • Watch the fishermen haul in their boats at Weligama (Weligama is 13 kilometres from Kataluwa Temple).
  • See the Peace Pagoda (25 kilometres from Weligama on the way back to Galle Fort).

With Galle as your base, spend the day exploring outside the walls of Galle Fort along Sri Lanka’s south coast to discover places and sites off the beaten path. Our route was a round trip of 65 kilometres over five hours.

Our first stop was the Martin Wickramasinghe Museum in Koggala, 16 kilometres from Galle Fort – an excellent museum that sees few tourists.

Martin Wickramasinghe (1890 to 1976) was one of Sri Lanka’s greatest authors and intellectuals. The central theme of his writings was that of the culture and life of the people of Sri Lanka. His books are still required reading for Sri Lankan school children.

Set in seven acres of gardens in the small town of Koggala, the Martin Wickramasinghe complex comprises the Folk Museum and the home where Martin was born and grew up. Part of his home is over 200 years old and survived being destroyed by the army in the Second World War because a female Royal Airforce officer fell in love with it and decided to live in it. Martin’s home was not handed back to the Wickramasinghe family until after Martin’s death, and Martin’s ashes are buried next to the house.

The Folk Museum, which opened in 1981, is a repository of artefacts depicting the history of Sri Lankan folk culture from ancient to modern times. The museum is home to a fantastic collection of masks and puppets. In the gardens, you will find exhibitions of traditional modes of transport.

Traditional Sri Lankan wooden fishing boats in a museum

Traditional fishing boats, Matin Wickramasinghe Museum

 

I recommend you take a guided tour, finishing in the museum shop where you can buy books by Martin Wickramasinghe.

Martin Wickramasinghe House and Folk Museum > Matara Road, Koggala

Open 9.00 am to 5.00 pm daily.

The ticket price is 200 LKR (Sri Lankan rupee) (US$0.58).

A short distance from the Martin Wickramasinghe, at just 2.7 kilometres, you will find the 13th-century Buddhist temple, Kataluwa Purwarama Temple, in Ahangama. Fantastic murals cover the temple’s walls, many of which are thought to date from the 19th century. The murals include several unusual paintings of Kaffringha dancers with a troupe of Western musicians. Unfortunately, at the time of our visit in 2017, they were in the process of painting over the murals, which is probably why we couldn’t find the portrait of a lopsided Queen Victoria.

A painting of a man beating a drum while two bare-chested men leap in the air. A woman watches on.

Kataluwa Temple mural of dancers

 

A painting of Sri Lankan and Western musicians and two Western women

Mural of Western musicians in Kataluwa Temple

 

From Kataluwa Temple, drive 13 kilometres further along the coast to the village of Weligama, described as a sleepy fishing village. We had planned to walk around Weligama and find somewhere for lunch, but it looked so uninviting we passed straight through. Instead, take a walk along the beach, paddle or swim in the warm waters of the Indian Ocean, and watch the local fishermen haul their boats up onto the beach. This latter appeared to be no easy task. The progress was laborious, even with four to six men on either side of the boat.

Several men push their large fishing boat out of the water and onto the beach.

Fishermen hauling their boat up onto the beach at Wiligama

 

Before leaving the beach at Weligama, take some photos of Sri Lanka’s renowned stilt fisherman. The fishermen balance themselves on a crossbar on the stilt or pole as they fish and can usually be seen early morning or at dusk. But be warned! Those sitting on stilts later in the day are not fishermen but local people posing on the stilts for tourists and expecting payment for photos taken.

The best place to see the stilt fishermen is along the south coast from Midigama to Koggala.

Seven wooden poles with traingle-shaped sitting platforms stand in the surf

Fishing stilts (poles) at Weligama

 

Heading back to Galle Fort, stop at the Peace Pagoda, built by the Japanese as a monument to the victims of the 2004 tsunami. Perched on the side of a hill, the Peace Pagoda offers fantastic views of Galle Fort.

View of a town on a peninsula with colonial buildings and surrounded by ocean

View of Galle Fort from the Peace Pagoda

 

From the Peace Pagoda, it was 8.1 kilometres back to our hotel in Galle Fort.

Day 6: Galle to Yala National Park

  • Tour Geoffrey Bawa’s Lunuganga garden in Bentota with lunch on the veranda (56 kilometres north of Galle Fort).

Finding things to do in Sri Lanka away from the crowds is an excellent reason to visit Geoffrey Bawa’s garden, as it is largely undiscovered by tourists.

Geoffrey Bawa (1919-2003) was Sri Lanka’s most well-known architect and is deemed the most influential Asian architect of the 20th century. On Lunuganga Estate, Geoffrey’s country home, he spent 50 years creating a garden described as a controlled landscape of untamed wilderness.

The garden is spread over 23 acres and is cared for by 18 gardeners. Time your visit for a guided tour and lunch on the veranda of Geoffrey’s former home. Read my updated blog post for details, photos, and descriptions of Geoffrey Bawa’s garden.

A wall with a window and roof surrounded by green plants

Geoffrey Bawa’s garden

 

I recommend visiting Geoffrey Bawa’s Lunuganga garden on the way from Colombo to Galle rather than backtracking like we did, making the trip to Yala National Park much longer than had we travelled to the park directly from Galle. We could not do this more direct route as Lunuganga Estate was closed for the Sri Lankan New Year when we drove from Colombo to Galle.

The drive from Geoffrey Bawa’s garden to Yala National Park took five hours. We had a two-night stay in Yala National Park.

Where we stayed

Cinnamon Wild Yala > Palatupana, Kirinda

Located at the periphery of Yala National Park, Cinnamon Wild Yala is a large commercial hotel lacking character. We stayed in Jungle Chalets, which were spacious, clean, and well-appointed. The chalets are individually situated but spread out over a large area. While this allows privacy between chalets, you could be up for a long walk to the main lodge for meals, a swim, or to meet your driver.

There was a focus on guest safety, with an escort required for people moving around the compound between 7.00 pm and 6.00 am.

The buffet dining area could do with ceiling fans to move the humid air, and the staff could show greater efficiency.

Day 7: Yala National Park

  • Look for wildlife on safari in Yala National Park.

Yala National Park is situated at the southernmost tip of Sri Lanka and is Sri Lanka’s most famous national park. It was designated a wildlife sanctuary in 1900 and a national park in 1938. It is best known for its variety of wild animals, especially for its large population of leopards, said to be the highest leopard density in the world.

The best activity in Yala National Park is a 3-hour safari drive around the park to spot wildlife. The safari drives are available morning and afternoon. But be warned! Yala National Park does not limit the number of vehicles entering the park or the route taken through the park. As such, your safari drive will end up in convoy with at least a dozen other vehicles.

We took a morning and afternoon safari drive and saw very few animals. We did spot two leopards on the afternoon safari drive, but it was difficult to make them out as they were well concealed by bushes. Other animals you may spot on your safari drive include sloth bears, jungle cats, mongoose, wild boar, deer, buffalo, and elephants.

On the morning safari drive, we saw a baby elephant concealed in the bush, a couple of mongooses, a few lone elephants, spotted deer, water buffalo, many birds, and a crocodile. The animals just didn’t seem to be out there. Disappointing! Our afternoon safari drive was no more productive than the morning.

A mongoose sits in the scrub

Mongoose in Yala National Park

 

Yala National Park is open from 6.00 am to 6.00 pm, year-round. The average park fee per adult foreigner is between US$31-36, depending on the number of people in a jeep.

Sri Lanka is supposedly the best safari destination outside of Africa. The three of us (my sister, brother-in-law, and me) agreed that if you have been on safari in Africa (which we have), where wildlife is diverse and bountiful, you will be disappointed with Yala National Park.

In truth, we cannot recommend Yala National Park. Don’t waste your time and money, as there is a better park – Udawalawe National Park (see Days 9 and 10).

Day 8: Yala National Park to Bundala National Park

  • Take a morning safari drive through Yala National Park.
  • Check out the birdlife in Bundala National Park.

There was the opportunity for a final safari drive in Yala National Park before travelling to Bundala National Park, about a one-hour drive along the coast west of Yala, where we stayed for one night.

Bundala National Park is a 62-square-kilometre ecotourism haven and birdwatchers’ paradise. It was first named a wildlife sanctuary in 1969, became Sri Lanka’s first Ramsar site (significant international wetland) in 1990, was redesignated as a National Park in 1993, and named a UNESCO biosphere reserve in 2005.

  • Bundala National Park has over 200 endemic and migratory bird species, from the tiny bee-eaters to the painted stork.
  • The park is also home to 32 species of mammals, including elephants, spotted deer, water buffalo, wild boars, mongooses, monkeys, jackals, crocodiles, land monitors (they look like goannas), and fishing cats.
  • The park is the habitat of the endangered Star Tortoise.
  • The park’s coastal area is a breeding ground for five species of endangered sea turtles.

A tortoise with star markings on its shell drinks from a mud puddle

An endangered Star Tortoise in Bundala National Park

 

A crocodile approaches three birds on an island of reeds

A crocodile looking for dinner in Bundala National Park

 

Arranged by Insider Journeys, Bundala National Park’s resident Naturalist accompanied us on our afternoon safari drive. Having an expert point out the different birds (and the odd animal), provide detailed information about the birds being seen, and explain the link between the environment and birds and animals in the park made a huge (positive) difference to the safari experience – and one you should experience for yourself.

The sheer volume and variety of birds seen on our safari drive were staggering. My sister, an amateur bird watcher, was in raptures. The painted stork was my favourite.

Two birds with long pink legs, long orange beaks, and white, black, pink, and green feathers drink from a mud pool.

Painted Storks

 

Bundala National Park is open from 6.00 am to 6.00 pm, year-round. We stayed the night inside the park. The park entrance fee is US$10 per adult foreigner, plus a vehicle fee and VAT.

Where we stayed

Mahoora Luxury Camping > Bundala National Park

Mahoora Luxury Camping had set up our tents on the edge of where the sand meets the scrub vegetation, opposite salt pans where salt is mined. The setting was unspoilt, and the atmosphere was one of quiet solitude. To describe the tents as luxury camping required a massive stretch of the imagination. The tents were army tents. My tent came with a bed that was so narrow I feared falling off it should I turn over in my sleep. There was also a table and enough room to move around. At the back of the tent was an attached ‘bathroom’ with a shower (cold water only, but it came out hot because of the heat), toilet, and hand basin. My sister and brother-in-law’s tent was identically furnished, except they had two beds. Electricity only came on after dinner and went off when we went to bed. It was unbearably hot inside our tents.

What the tents lacked in luxury, the service, food, and safari drives with the Naturalist more than made up for it.

There is no permanent accommodation in Bundala National Park. But Mahoora Luxury Camping staff assured us they maintain an eco-friendly campsite, removing all evidence of our presence once we leave, leaving no footprint.

We were served lunch on the beach shortly after we arrived in Bundala National Park, consisting of a tasty noodle, vegetable, and egg soup was first up, followed by rice and various curries. The dessert was curd and treacle (a national dish) and was delicious.

Dinner that night was a bar-b-que on the beach. We could not fault the food and service provided by Mahoora Luxury Camping.

Before heading for bed, the staff told us there would be a wake-up call for our last safari drive at 5.30 in the morning. A 5.30 am wake-up call caused some concern for me because the tent was too hot to wear anything in bed. I overcame this concern by setting my alarm for 5.20 am to have some clothing on before a staff member appeared to wake me.

Day 9: Bundala National Park to Udawalawe National Park

  • Take a morning safari drive through Bundala National Park.
  • Look for wild elephants in Udawalawe National Park.

Our morning safari drive around Bundala National Park before heading to Udawalawe National Park proved just as fruitful as yesterday afternoon’s – seeing lots of birds, crocodiles, water buffalo, monkeys, and a lone elephant.

A brown and white eagle sits on a tree stump

Changeable Hawk-Eagle in Bundala National Park

 

After a leisurely breakfast, we left Bundala National Park, driving about 70 kilometres northwest to Udawalawe National Park, where we stayed one night.

Udawalawe National Park, covering almost 31,000 hectares, was established as a national park in 1972 to provide a sanctuary for wild animals displaced by the construction of the Udawalawe Reservoir on the Walawe River. The park’s most common type of vegetation is dry grassland, peppered with light scrub, making game viewing easy here.

Being best known for its large elephant population (about 600) – our reason for visiting the park – Udawalawe is the best place in Sri Lanka to observe wild elephants in their natural environment. However, do expect to see other wildlife, such as water buffalo and sambar deer, to the more rarely sighted leopard and sloth bear. The park also supports a thriving population of water birds and birds of prey.

The afternoon game drive saw me in elephant heaven!

A group of five elephants of varying sizes

Elephant family in Udawalawe National Park

 

If you only have time to visit one national park in Sri Lanka, I recommend Udawalawe National Park over the more popular Yala National Park. The game viewing is better, more interesting, and more diverse. It’s a smaller park; therefore, you are not driving long distances before seeing wildlife. There are also fewer visitors, so you are not travelling in a convoy of dozens of vehicles all on top of each other but have a more personal experience.

Udawalawe National Park is open from 6.00 am to 6.00 pm, year-round. The park entrance fee is US$25.00 per adult foreigner.

Where we stayed

Grand Udawalawe Safari Resort > Udawalawe National Park

The Grand Udawalawe Safari Resort is a large, impersonal hotel with incompetent reception staff who move at a snail’s pace (things may have improved in the ensuing years).

My room was spacious, with a huge bed. It was clean, had all the necessary amenities, and there was a lovely private balcony off the room. In comparison to room size, the bathroom was relatively small but sufficient.

The food was ordinary but edible.

My preference would be for a much smaller boutique hotel.

Day 10: Udawalawe National Park to Ella

  • Take a morning safari drive through Udawalawe National Park.

Two water buffalos head but each other on a grassy stretch of land beside the water.

Male water buffalos vying for dominance in Udawalawe National Park

 

Make time for a morning game drive in Udawalawe National Park before travelling to Ella, 90 kilometres (about two hours) north of Udawalawe. However, the trip took us three hours as we stopped about six kilometres before reaching Ella to take photos of the 90-metre-high Rawana Falls. It is one of the widest waterfalls in Sri Lanka, where the water glides down the mountain over many ledges before bending into a stream that flows through the valley. At one point, the waterfall formed a natural pool that appeared to be a favourite swimming spot.

A waterfall cascades down the rocks. People are sitting on the rocks and swimming in a pool created by the rocks.

Rawana Falls near Ella

 

Ella is a small village on the southern edge of Sri Lanka’s Hill Country. It is famed for its mountainous beauty, scenic landscapes, waterfalls, tea plantations, and lush vegetation. At an elevation of 1041 metres above sea level, Ella has a cooler climate than the surrounding lowlands. We stayed three nights in Ella.

Where we stayed

Mountain Heavens > Kitalella, Ella

Mountain Heavens is not centrally located and is inconveniently situated for getting to and from the village (Ella). While it is only 600 metres to the centre of Ella (where it is all happening), it is all hill and a very steep hill at that.

The rooms were spacious and well-appointed, with almost everything you needed. Glaringly missing was a means to communicate with Reception from your room, and the only option was to go up and down the stairs to speak to Reception face-to-face.

Breakfast was monotonous, and the evening meal (which had to be ordered by 4.30 pm) was ordinary. However, the view from the hotel was to die for, as its location meant you looked straight down Ella Gap (the valley between the mountains).

Mountains with houses on the slopes and covered in green vegetation

Ella Gap

 

Day 11: Ella

  • Walk the railway line from Ella to Demodara.
  • See the rock-cut figures at Buduruwagala (37 kilometres southeast of Ella).

In the morning, we decided to do something different and off the beaten track – to walk the railway line from Ella Station to Demodara Station. This is an easy 6.5-kilometre walk that takes you through the breathtaking scenery of mountains carpeted with tea plantations and over the famous, iconic Nine Arch Bridge. When you get to Demodara Station, catch the train back to Ella. For a complete description of this unique, fun walk, read my blog post on Walking the Railway Line From Ella to Demodara. Do as the locals do; walk the line!

Two people walk across a stone railway bridge with nine arches.

Crossing Nine Arch Bridge on our railway line walk

 

In the afternoon, we grabbed our guide for a drive to Buduruwagala Archeological Site to see the seven colossal 10th-century rock-cut figures carved in bas-relief in a rock that is said to look like a kneeling elephant with its trunk in its mouth. The shape of an elephant alluded me!

An image of Buddha and six other figures are carved into the rock face.

The seven rock-carved figures at Buduruwagala

 

The figures belong to the Mahayana school of Buddhism, which enjoyed royal patronage between the 3rd and 10th centuries AD, but no one knows why they were carved. The impressive 16-metre-high standing Buddha (the tallest in Sri Lanka) is flanked on either side by three smaller figures. The white central figure to Buddha’s right is thought to represent the Buddhist mythological figure, Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva. To the right of this white figure, in the thrice-bent posture, is believed to be Avalokitesvara’s consort, the goddess Tara. The third figure is said to represent Prince Sudhana.

The crowned figure in the centre of the group on Buddha’s left is thought to be Maitreya, the future Buddha. The figure to the left of Maitreya is Vajrapani, holding a thunderbolt symbol. The third figure is said to be Vishnu.

The site is open 24 hours. And tourist-free!

Day 12: Ella

  • Climb Little Adam’s Peak.
  • Have lunch at Bandarawela Hotel (15 kilometres southwest of Ella).
  • Discover Dowa Rock Temple (5.8 kilometres from Bandarawela).

We walked to the summit of Little Adam’s Peak in Ella this morning. The little sister of Adam’s Peak (in Dalhousie village), Little Adam’s Peak sits at 1,141 metres above sea level.

From my ascent of Little Adam’s Peak, I learnt not to believe anything I read in guidebooks. Described as a fairly gentle, mostly flat, easy walk, I found it anything but. To learn how my experience differed from that described in various guidebooks, read my blog post, What is the Missing Truth About Climbing Sri Lanka’s Little Adam’s Peak?

A path winds around and up mountains covered in green vegetation.

Climbing Little Adam’s Peak

 

After climbing Little Adam’s Peak, I deserved a special lunch, and this is what I got at Bandarawela Hotel, a short drive from Ella.

Nestled in the mountains at over 1,230 metres above sea level, Bandarawela Hotel, built in 1893, was a tea planter’s clubhouse. Having stopped updating the furniture some 80 years ago, the hotel is caught in a time warp.

My sister’s research had recommended lunch in Bandarawela Hotel’s Planter’s Bar, and we were not disappointed. We enjoyed a fusion of traditional classic and colonial Eastern and Western flavours while taking in the surrounding mountains’ panoramic view. A great atmosphere!

Before returning to Ella, at our guide’s suggestion, we drove to Dowa Rock Temple, about six kilometres from Bandarawela on the Bandarawela-Badulla Road. The site is open from 8.00 am to 5.00 pm, and entry is free.

Dowa Rock Temple is a heritage-listed temple famous for its partially finished 11-metre-high standing Buddha cut into the rock face of a granite boulder – the tallest rock-hewn Buddha statue in Sri Lanka’s hill country.

Be prepared to climb up a section of the boulder to get a good view of the Buddha.

An 11-metre image of Buddha is carved into the rock.

The 11-metre rock-carved standing Buddha at Dowa Rock Temple

 

Dowa Rock Temple was built by Great King Walagamba in the first century BC while taking refuge after an enemy invasion. The temple consists of several chambers carved into the rock. Inside, you will discover a couple of reclining Buddhas, many seated Buddhas, and walls covered with colourful Buddhist murals. At the rear of Dowa Rock Temple is a secret tunnel supposed to have been used by King Walagamba for his escape. The tunnel is said to extend from the temple to Kandy, but the entrance inside The Dowa Rock Temple has been cemented to stop intruders.

A cave with alow painted ceiling and a reclining Buddha behind glass.

Dowa Rock Temple

 

Day 13: Ella to Nuwara Eliya

  • Enjoy high tea at Heritance Tea Factory

The drive from Ella to Nuwara Eliya (where we stayed one night) took approximately two and a half hours, past tea plantations and breathtaking landscapes.

Nuwara Eliya is in a valley shadowed by Sri Lanka’s tallest mountain (Mount Pedro). The town and surrounding countryside have a definite European feel. Having been established by the British in the 19th century most likely accounts for this. In fact, Nuwara Eliya is often referred to as “Little England”.

Where we stayed

Heritance Tea Factory > Tea Factory Road, Kandapola, Nuwara Eliya

Nestled amongst tea estates, Heritance Tea Factory is a converted abandoned tea factory (hence its name) on the former Hethersett Estate. The hotel has kept the original exterior intact.

As our rooms weren’t ready when we arrived, we took a walk through the beautiful rose garden and visited the miniature tea factory where organic tea is produced.

High Tea at Heritance Tea Factory was an amazing, bountiful spread of savoury and sweet treats – an enjoyable, relaxing experience and a great way to fill the afternoon.

The reception staff were excellent, but some restaurant staff were slow to attend to us. After an exceptional High Tea, we found the buffet dinner disappointing.

My room was very comfortable but looked a little tired, and I showered with three cockroaches.

What has been achieved from an abandoned tea factory is impressive and a tribute to the hotel’s vision. It has been beautifully restored and converted. The hotel exudes an atmosphere of luxurious elegance and relaxation. I recommend staying here if money is no object or as a special treat.

Day 14: Nuwara Eliya to Kandy

  • Learn about tea production at the Ceylon Tea Museum in Kandy

Kandy, located in the Central Highlands, is the second-largest city in Sri Lanka. Our sole purpose for staying a night in Kandy (a 91-kilometre, three-hour drive from Nuwara Ellya) was to visit the famous Temple of the Tooth, which is said to house Sri Lanka’s most important sacred relic – Buddha’s tooth.

While my sister and brother-in-law visited the Temple of the Tooth with our guide, I took myself off to the Ceylon Tea Museum as I was keen to buy some quality teas.

The Ceylon Tea Museum occupies a former four-story tea factory. The ground floor exhibits include machinery from the 19th century used in tea production, which a guide explains in detail. The first floor was dedicated to two of Sri Lanka’s greatest tea pioneers – Thomas Lipton and James Taylor – and displayed other tea-related paraphernalia. On the third floor, eight shops sold fine Sri Lankan teas, each representing a different plantation (estate). And I got a free cup of tea on the fourth floor while taking in the views.

Allow a couple of hours for the Ceylon Tea Museum.

Ceylon Tea Museum > Hantana Road, Hantane, Kandy

Opening Times:

Tuesday to Saturday, 8.30 am to 3.45 pm

Sunday 8.30 am to 3.00 pm

(Closed Mondays and Poya Day falling on weekdays)

Ticket price: 1000 LKR (adult foreigner) (about US$3.00).

Unfortunately, visitors can’t see the sacred relic (Buddha’s tooth), only the gold casket which protects the tooth.

Where we stayed

Theva Residency > Theva Residency Road, Kandy

Overlooking Kandy from the slopes of the Hantana mountain range, Theva Residency is a lovely small boutique hotel with friendly, attentive staff.

My deluxe room was huge, clean, and modern, with a large terrace. While the terrace had a table and chairs, the room would have benefited from somewhere to sit other than the enormous bed.

The food in the hotel’s restaurant was excellent, with a menu that fused East and West. The staff were efficient and attentive, making our meal an enjoyable experience.

My only negative is that the hotel is a long way from anywhere.

Day 15: Kandy to Sigiriya

  • Explore the Dambulla Cave Temples (74 kilometres north of Kandy).
  • Learn Sri Lanka’s history through paintings.

Dambulla Cave Temples is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the best-preserved cave-temple complex in Sri Lanka. The site consists of five caves converted into temples dating back to the 1st century BC. Caves two and three are the largest and the most impressive, as they are full of Buddha statues of numerous sizes with different gestures or postures. The walls and ceilings in these two caves (temples) are entirely covered in paintings. The reclining Buddha in cave three is carved out of rock, as is the 14-metre-long reclining Buddha in cave one.

Opening hours are daily from 7.00 am to 7.00 pm, and admission is 1500 LKR (US$4.38).

A long white building is built into a rock, and people are walking around a paved area in front of the building.

Dambulla Cave Temples

 

A partial view of a reclining Buddha and sitting Buddha with frescos on the wall behind them.

Dambulla Cave Temples – Buddhas and frescos

 

Large stone feet that have been painted in multi-colours

The painted feet of a reclining Buddha in Dambulla Cave Temples

 

Please note: There are 364 steps to climb to reach the temple complex. Your knees and shoulders should be covered, and shoes must be removed before entering the temples. Beware, the rock can get very hot.

You can’t leave Dambulla without visiting the Painting Museum – formally called The Painting Conservation & Research Center. Located 100 metres from the Dambulla Cave Temples, the Painting Museum is a hidden gem. The paintings on display trace the history of Sri Lankan art from pre-historic cave paintings to the colonial era. The number of sites where frescoes and murals can be found all over Sri Lanka is staggering. The paintings are displayed in chronological order and excellently described. The last images depicting Buddhism hell came as a bit of a surprise.

The museum is open from 8.00 am to 4.00 pm daily. The entrance fee is US$2.00.

It was just 20 kilometres from Dambulla to Sigiriya, our base for the next four nights.

Where we stayed

Hotel Sigiriya > Sigiriya

Under no circumstances would I recommend staying at Hotel Sigiriya. My booking was for a superior room, but I was given a single room, which was tiny, dingy, dirty, smelt bad, and the air conditioner and house phone did not work. When I complained, I was ‘upgraded’ to a double room. This room was infested with ants, including in the bed, and the room safe was broken. When I rang for ant spray, it took 25 minutes for the spray to arrive and 30 minutes for staff to attend to the room safe. The first morning, I woke up with ants crawling through my hair!

I did go online to find alternative accommodation in Sigiriya. However, there were none with availability. Most unfortunate!

The staff were slow, inefficient, and incompetent, and their English was very poor.

The meals were buffet-style, and the food was ordinary at best.

Even our guide complained about the guides’ accommodation at Hotel Sigiriya.

Day 16: Sigiriya

  • Take a walk around the Royal Gardens at Sigiriya Rock.

We had every intention of climbing Sigiriya Rock, an ancient rock fortress and, today, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but the heat, high humidity, and 200-metre-climb (about 1,200 steps) put us off. Instead, we walked around the Royal Gardens surrounding Sigiriya Rock.

The beautifully landscaped Royal Gardens are divided into three sections – water, boulder, and terrace – and protected by inner and outer moats. The water gardens form an avenue leading to Sigiriya Rock, while the boulder and terrace gardens lie at the base of the rock.

In the boulder gardens, you can see the step-like depressions in the boulders where bricks once fitted to provide the foundations of buildings. Keep an eye out for Cobra Head Cave – so named because the overhang resembles a fully open cobra’s head.

A large rock with trees and lawns in the foreground

Sigiriya Rock and Gardens

 

Sigiriya is open from 6.30 am to 5.30 pm daily. The foreign tourist entrance ticket is US$30.00, which covers climbing the rock, the gardens, and the museum.

Day 17: Sigiriya

  • Tour the Sacred City of Anuradhapura (74 kilometres northwest of Sigiriya).

With Sigiriya as your base, take a day trip to Anuradhapura, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Sacred City of Anuradhapura was the ancient capital of Sri Lanka from the 4th century BC to the 11th century AD, and it is Sri Lanka’s best-known ancient city. It is famous for its well-preserved ruins of ancient palaces, gigantic stupas, monuments, complex irrigation systems, and the Sacred Bo tree (Sri Maha Bodhi), said to be the oldest documented tree on earth.

A tree partly hides a large stone stupa.

The Sacred City of Anuradhapura

 

All foreign travellers must buy a ticket to Anuradhapura Sacred City at US$25.00 per adult. Opening times are 7.00 am to 7.30 pm.

Day 18: Sigiriya

  • Discover the ruins of Polonnaruwa (57 kilometres east of Sigiriya).

Staying in Sigiriya, take a day trip to Polonnaruwa, declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982 under the name of the Ancient City of Polonnaruwa. It remains one of the best-planned archeological relic sites in Sri Lanka.

Polonnaruwa was the second capital of Sri Lanka between the 11th and 13th centuries after the destruction of the Anuradhapura Kingdom. Its ruins are clustered together in various groups:

  • The Royal Palace Group is south of the entrance.
  • The Quadrangle (Terrace of the Tooth Relic) is north of the entrance and home to Polonnaruwa’s most important religious shrines.
  • Gal Vihara (the northern temple) with its four stone statues of Buddha carved out of the stone cliff face.
  • The Island Garden is close to the Polonnaruwa Museum.

The ruins of an ancient round building made of stone and brick.

The Sacred City of Polonnaruwa

 

Open 7.00 am to 5.00 pm daily, the entrance fee for Polonnaruwa’s museum and cultural sites is US$25.00 per person for adult foreigners.

Day 19: Sigiriya to Seeduwa

  • Relax by the pool at Wallawwa Boutique Hotel.

Leaving Sigiriya, we returned to Colombo for our last night in Sri Lanka at Wallawwa, a boutique hotel. Here we relaxed by the pool set in beautiful tropical gardens and were pampered by bar staff who responded to a buzzer in the pool’s gazebo for drinks orders.

Where we stayed

Wallawwa > Minuwangoda-Gampaha-Miriswatta Road, Kotugoda

Wallawwa is a luxury boutique hotel in an oasis of tranquillity, just 15 minutes from Colombo International Airport. Read my updated review of Wallawwa. After my experience with Hotel Sigiriya, my stay at Wallawwa enabled me to leave Sri Lanka on a high note.

Day 20: Depart Colombo

  • Depart Sri Lanka from Colombo

And so, the curtain falls on Sri Lanka as it is time to depart for home – in our case, Australia.

My top five highlights from our Sri Lankan trip were:

  • Exploring Galle Fort on foot.
  • Walking the railway line from Ella to Demodara.
  • The safari drive through Udawalawe National Park.
  • Discovering Geoffrey Bawa’s garden on Lake Dedduwa, Bentota.
  • Viewing Dambulla Cave Temples

When to visit Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka experiences two monsoon periods affecting different parts of the island at different times of the year. The southwest monsoon season is typically from May to September, and the northeast monsoon is from December to February. The split monsoon seasons make deciding the best time to travel around Sri Lanka tricky. I suggest checking the World Weather Information Service for the average daily temperature (high and low) monthly, the average total rainfall, and the number of rain days.

We travelled around Sri Lanka from mid-April to early May, at the end of what is classified as an inter-monsoon season, continuing into the southwest monsoon season. The country was hot and humid, but we got some reprieve, with cooler temperatures and lower humidity in the hill country. We only encountered one burst of rain on the whole trip – in Udawalawe National Park.

 

The itinerary for our Sri Lanka trip is a compilation of places to visit and activities to do in 20 days. The itinerary is based on pre-travel research and my experiences during our trip. 

A 20-day itinerary for Sri Lanka offers a unique opportunity to discover the island’s diverse culture, rich history, stunning natural beauty, and warm hospitality. Whether you’re a nature lover, a history buff, or just looking for a relaxing vacation, Sri Lanka is sure to leave you with unforgettable memories.

The itinerary does not cover all tourist locations and every activity Sri Lanka offers. Still, it will be a good starting point for people who want to visit Sri Lanka and don’t know how to start or are looking for different ideas.

 

Disclaimer: This post contains no affiliate links. All views and opinions are my own and non-sponsored. Stated opening hours and prices are correct at the time of publication. All photos are my own and remain the copyright of Just Me Travel.

© Just Me Travel 2018-2022.

 

Do you have any questions about this itinerary? Is there anything else you want to know or can I help you with? Leave a comment, and I will respond. Alternatively, contact me at joanna@justme.travel.

 

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An image of a mother and baby elephant and an image of blue and yellow fishing boats on a beach.

 

One image is of a wall of masks with googly eyes, a long nose, and an open mouth with huge teeth. The other image shows two people walking on a nine-arch railway bridge.

 

Are you looking for more ideas on destination Sri Lanka? Then don’t miss these posts:

WHAT IS THE MISSING TRUTH ABOUT CLIMBING SRI LANKA’S LITTLE ADAM’S PEAK

FIRST 24 HOURS IN GALLE FORT, SRI LANKA

WALKING THE RAILWAY LINE FROM ELLA TO DEMODARA, SRI LANKA

A PHOTOGRAPHIC TOUR OF GEOFFREY BAWA’S GARDEN, SRI LANKA

WALLAWWA – a tranquil boutique hotel in Colombo City

 

Author’s Note: Please check the latest travel restrictions before planning any trip and follow government advice.

 

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LITCHFIELD NATIONAL PARK – See 3 Stunning Waterfalls on a Day Tour From Darwin

Breathtaking Waterfalls, Idyllic Plunge Pools, Iconic Magnetic Termite Mounds, and the Australian bush, Litchfield National Park Will Not Disappoint.   Litchfield National Park is one of the Northern Territory’s best-kept…

Breathtaking Waterfalls, Idyllic Plunge Pools, Iconic Magnetic Termite Mounds, and the Australian bush, Litchfield National Park Will Not Disappoint.

 

Litchfield National Park is one of the Northern Territory’s best-kept secrets and a must-see in Australia’s ‘Top End’. Home to spectacular waterfalls that plunge into crystal clear pools perfect for a swim and iconic magnetic termite mounds unique to northern Australia, visiting Litchfield National Park on a day tour at the end of 2022 was the highlight of my six days in Darwin. 

Read on to learn why Litchfield is my new favourite national park and why I recommend the day tour I did with AAT Kings. Hint: I love waterfalls, landscapes, the bush, and the unusual.

 

About Litchfield National Park

Litchfield National Park in the Northern Territory (Australia) is near the town of Batchelor, about 100 kilometres southwest of Darwin. The Park was named after Frederick Henry Litchfield, a Territory pioneer who explored areas of the Northern Territory in 1864. Litchfield National Park covers an area of approximately 1,500 square kilometres and was proclaimed a national park in 1986.

Litchfield National Park is an ancient landscape carved by water and is home to 15 waterfalls. The falls flow year-round but are particularly spectacular in the wet and early dry seasons.

As well as an abundance of waterfalls, Litchfield National Park is famous for its magnetic termite mounds and found only in Australia’s Northern Territory.

The Marranuggu, Koongurrukun, Werat, and Warray Aboriginal people consider Litchfield National Park an important cultural site.

A day tour from Darwin

I explored Litchfield National Park with AAT Kings on their Litchfield National Park Waterfalls day tour from Darwin.

I am drawn to waterfalls and the stunning landscapes in which they are located. Any tour that takes me to waterfalls will always grab my attention. So, with AAT Kings advertising a day tour visiting three waterfalls, I quickly grabbed my place.

The three waterfalls included in the tour were Florence Falls, Tolmer Falls, and Wangi Falls. As a bonus, we also saw the unusual magnetic termite mounds.

On a day tour, three waterfalls were an ideal number to visit as it allowed for a leisurely pace to see and swim at the falls. AAT Kings’ Litchfield National Park Waterfalls tour was well-planned, well-timed, and well-executed.

Florence Falls

A segmented waterfall (dividing into two branches) flows over rocks before plunging into the pool below.

Florence Falls photographed from the viewing platform.

 

Florence Falls was my favourite of the three waterfalls we visited. It is a cascade waterfall that becomes segmented before it plunges over the cliff into a crystal-clear plunge pool perfect for a swim and set in a pocket of monsoon forest (a tropical dry forest).

Take the 3-minute walk from the car park to the viewing platform to see Florence Falls in all its splendour.

From the viewing platform, take the 170 steps (135 steel steps, with the rest being stone steps) down to the picturesque plunge pool, where a swim is a must. Here Florence Falls plunges into the pool from a height of about 15 metres before the creek continues over rocks and through the ancient landscape.

Florence Falls in Litchfield National Park. The waterfall with two streams plunges into the pool below.

Florence Falls drops into the plunge pool.

 

A swimmer wearing a hat swims in a plunge pool up to the waterfall at Florence Falls.

Florence Falls Plunge Pool

 

I was pleasantly surprised by the pool’s water temperature. Coming from a town that sits on a river that originates in the Snowy Mountains, I expected the water to be freezing. However, the water was warm, but not so warm that you didn’t feel refreshed from a swim in the pool.

I recommend you walk down the steps to the plunge pool at the bottom of Florence Falls and take the Shady Creek Walk back up to the car park.

Shady Creek Walk

The image shows a pathway through a tropical dry forest in Australia's Northern Territory.

Shady Creek Walk meanders through Monsoon Forest

 

From the plunge pool at the bottom of Florence Falls, walk back to the car park via Shady Creek Walk – a Grade 3 (moderate) walk of one kilometre one way. The well-defined path meanders through the monsoon forest at a steady incline. There are some rock steps to negotiate, which are not particularly challenging and at various points along the way, the path crosses Shady Creek.

A creek flows over rocks through a tropical dry forest

Shady Creek Walk crosses Shady Creek at various points.

 

A small plunge pool on Shady Creek is 50 metres from the car park. Take a final welcome dip before getting back on the bus.

Tolmer Falls

A narrow waterfall drops over the escarpment into a pool below.

Tolmer Falls

 

Tolmer Falls is an impressive plunge waterfall with two drops at a total height of about 40 metres into the pool below. Swimming is prohibited at Tolmer Falls.

It is a 400-metre walk on a steep, sealed path from Tolmer Falls car park to the viewing platforms. The first platform provides magnificent views over the gorge, while the lower platform is the one you want for the best view of Tolmer Falls.

A creek splashes over rocks making mini waterfalls and then plunges over the cliff.

The top section of Tolmer Falls

 

The final drop of a waterfall as it crashes into the plunge pool.

Tolmer Falls crashes into the pool below.

Wangi Falls

Two waterfalls cascade down a cliff before dropping into a pool.

Wangi Falls

 

Wangi Falls is a segmented waterfall with a drop of about 50 metres. It is the most popular in Litchfield National Park as its large plunge pool is the most accessible.

Walking 125 metres along an easy, flat path will take you to the viewing platform, where the falls and plunge pool create a stunning panorama.

There was no swimming for us at Wangi Falls as it had been closed for the season for safety reasons after recent rains. The water had risen over the rocks that form a natural barrier against saltwater crocodiles entering the plunge pool. As such, the Park Rangers could not guarantee there were no crocs in the pool. Therefore, they closed the falls. Good Plan!

Two waterfalls cascade down a rock face before dropping into a large plunge pool.

The large plunge pool at Wangi Falls

 

Our included lunch at Wangi Falls Café consisted of cold meats and salads, with fresh fruit to follow.

Magnetic termite mounds

Termite mounds are found throughout Australia, but magnetic termite mounds are found only in the Northern Territory. And Litchfield National Park has a most impressive sight of hundreds of magnetic termite mounds standing up to two metres high on a vast flat plain. They look like tombstones spread over a large cemetery, all facing in the same direction.

A flat plain with hundred of magnetic termite mounds that look like tombstones.

Tombstone-like magnetic termite mounds

 

Around 100 years old, these peculiar mounds are mysteriously aligned to the earth’s magnetic field. Their thin edges point north-south, and their broad backs face east-west. Thereby, according to current theory, magnetic termites keep their homes comfortable.

“Northern Australia gets extremely hot during the day and cool at night, and researchers believe termites have somehow harnessed the power of the earth’s magnetism to strategically climate-control their homes.”

https://www.amusingplanet.com/2014/01/magnetic-termite-mounds.html

An accessible boardwalk skirts the plain of magnetic termite mounds, giving uninterrupted views.

When to visit

The northern part of the Territory, including Darwin and Litchfield National Park, has a tropical monsoonal climate with two seasons – a dry season and a wet season.

The dry season runs from May to October, with sunny days and cool evenings. The humidity is low, and the average daily temperature is around 32 degrees Celsius.

The wet season runs from November to April. It is a time of spectacular thunderstorms and cyclones. The humidity can rise as high as 98%, and the average daily temperature inland can hover around 39 degrees Celsius. However, balmy evenings provide some relief.

I visited Darwin in late October, at the very end of the Top End’s dry season. As the photos attest, the waterfalls were still flowing strongly.

 

Litchfield National Park is best known for its waterfalls, and a day tour must be on any traveller’s itinerary to the Top End. This is where I recommend AAT Kings’ Litchfield National Parks Waterfalls day tour from Darwin. Their tour was well-organised and conducted at a leisurely, relaxed pace. For once, on an escorted tour, I didn’t find myself rushed to take my photos. However, the tour has whet my appetite to see more of what Litchfield National Park has to offer. After all, I still have 12 waterfalls to explore!

 

Disclaimer: This post contains no affiliate links. All views and opinions are my own and non-sponsored. All photos are my own and remain the copyright of Just Me Travel.

© Just Me Travel 2018-2023.

 

While Wangi Falls is the most popular attraction in Litchfield National Park, Florence Falls was my favourite of the three waterfalls the tour included. If you could only visit one of the waterfalls I have described and shown in this post, which would it be? Leave a comment.

 

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An image with two photos: a segmented waterfall (two branches) dropping into a plunge pool and a swimmer in the plunge pool.

The image shows two photos: a waterfalls dropping into a plunge pool and a flat plain of termite mounds that look like tombstones.

 

Are you looking for more waterfall destinations in Australia? Then don’t miss these posts:

SEE 3 OF THE BEST WATERFALLS IN THE SOUTHERN HIGHLANDS, NEW SOUTH WALES

9 BEAUTIFUL BLUE MOUNTAINS WATERFALLS + PHOTOS

 

Author’s Note: Please check the latest travel restrictions before planning any trip and follow government advice.

 

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