In a couple of months, my wife and I will have been married for five years - and thanks to the generosity of my cousin Richard, we had the incredible luxury of honeymooning in Sri Lanka following the wedding, in August 2008.
I fell in love with the island and its spectacular wildlife - and decided to enter the BBC Wildlife Travel writing competition this year, using a moment from our trip to Sri Lanka, a moment which I still recall vividly, as the subject for my entry.
Well.... this month's BBC Wildlife mag is now out, with the results of the competition printed within. I didn't win, nor was I even commended or shortlisted. But the winning entry was truly excellent - I stood no chance!
Reading my entry back to myself, I am hardly surprised I failed to win any plaudits for my writing - the whole essay reeks of flowery purple prose to be fair - unecessarily so - and it's bereft of any humour. It's all a bit earnest (which is unlike me generally in my witterings about wildlife). I should point out here that I didn't actually apologise to any lizard in Sri Lanka - I just took its photo. Maybe I should stick to photography and leave writing for those people who can actually string a sentence or two together....
In case you would like to read my entry into this years competition - please keep reading.
But keep a bucket handy for any sudden urge to vomit eh?
Back to normal on this blog (where I've been, what I've seen) soon enough.
By Doug Mackenzie Dodds
We had spent the beginning of our jungle honeymoon in a colonial-style mansion in the humid southwest of the island.
There we woke to the calls of purple-faced bear monkeys, babblers and bulbuls; lazily spending our afternoons watching pink dragonflies dreamily skim the pool as we lounged under sultry skies.
Dusks meant the surrounding jungle reverberated to chants from the nearby Buddhist temple – a sound which seemed to beckon into the orange sky, streams of fruit bats flapping towards their nocturnal feeding grounds.
Only then did the tree-frogs begin their dusk cacophony, backed by geckos on rhythm-section, whilst clouds of glowing fireflies jumped en masse to the jungle beat.
We sipped iced Arrack and smiled.
Sri Lanka is a wildlife-lover’s paradise – the island’s tropical animals slap you in the face as soon as you leave Colombo – and keep on slapping.
Wonderful of course, but my wife and I wanted to search for a more elusive animal – hidden in the mysterious cloud forests.
Our planned weekend in upland “Tea Country” was to provide that opportunity.
Saturday arrived and with every mile we travelled into the highlands, the air thinned and cooled. We drove through vast, misty, tea estates and gawped at the huge, old tea factories.
Nurawa Eliya, the capital of “Ceylon tea” is a bustling, vibrant city, but money made here from the powerful tea estates sits uncomfortably alongside desperate poverty.
We were ushered past beggars and lepers before arriving at the safe enclave of the very British 19th Century hotel.
That afternoon my wife and I sipped “high tea” from snow-white bone china cups on the manicured hotel lawns, perched above the championship golf course and excitedly planned the next day’s quest.
After an evening malt or two by the crackling log fire, we retired to our luxurious double bed – which had been warmed with a hot water bottle.
How very British! How delightful!
The peacocks woke us and our forest guide Nadeema met us in the oak-panelled billiard room.
“Cloud forests nearly disappeared – tea instead” Nadeema explained.
“Last two hundred years, ninety-five percent forest gone” he said.
I knew these forests are or were home to many species of endemic amphibian and reptile – most of which were only discovered and named in the twenty-first century – it suddenly seemed to me that we British were in an awful rush to make money from tea. Our excitement at the prospect of finding our enigmatic animal was joined by pangs of fresh guilt.
Leaving the hotel grounds we made our way along the path towards the steaming forest.
Imperial pigeons boomed in the canopy above and tailorbirds shouted their indignation at us. Ceylon white-eyes flitted in and out of bushes and canary-flycatchers danced excitedly nearby.
As we entered the forest proper, damp, darkness and an eerie silence smothered us. The path disappeared under roots and foliage & the canopy closed over our heads. The sun was climbing with us, but we couldn’t rely on the beams of sunlight finding the few gaps in the leaves, so we turned our torches on.
For hours we climbed over huge mossy roots, through tangled waxy-leafed branches and scrambled over slippery waterfalls. It seemed like we were climbing back in time – back into the Mesozoic Era.
Eventually Nadeema stopped stock still and turned to us with wide eyes….
“No torch now” he whispered, putting an index finger to his lips.
He slowly pointed ahead and our eyes eagerly followed the line of his finger – we craned our necks and peered….
From the murky gloom she watched us with her prehistoric eyes.
Our straining eyes soon met her hypnotic gaze – and we froze.
The world stopped.
We had finally found our quarry.
The female Rhino-horned lizard remained motionless and flattened herself to a branch.
She was magnificent.
Hidden in the cloud forest.
On the edge of existence…. and extinction.
We were transfixed and felt utterly privileged to see her.
Stood in rare, pristine lizard habitat in the highlands of Sri Lanka, frozen by a “Rhino-horn’s gaze”, I remembered what Nadeema had said in the hotel.
Sorrow washed over me and I whispered an apology to her, on behalf of our forest-felling forefathers.
Seconds later she turned tail and in the blink of an eye she scuttled away – back into the dark shadows of her dwindling forest home.
On our walk back to the hotel my wife and I realised we had changed.
We’ll criticise the Far East’s illegal trade in rhino horn for their “medicinal tea” and rightly so.
Nowadays though, each time we adopt this lofty stance, we remember our beautiful Sri Lankan lizard.
We Westerners have ourselves destroyed many “rhino-horns” in the race to make our own tea of choice.
Much smaller rhino-horns, admittedly.
But rhino-horns nonetheless….