Worth a look:

Apparently I share my birthday – May 25th – with Towel Day. Don’t ask, just check out the link.

This is me stalling for time, by the way.  I haven’t got round to writing up the adventures in the Balkans on the AC/DC Tour yet…but they are coming. Oh yeah, they are coming.

AC/DC 2010 – European Leg..

For those of you who ploughed through last year’s exploits, welcome back to the AC/DC Black Ice Tour. For new recruits: beware! Language may be a little colourful, and I don’t tend to pander to the politically correct.

For newer readers, you might as well know straight off the bat that there will be nothing here about the band. What they do backstage or in their private time is exactly that – private.

There may, however, be the occasional reference to those dashed cannons firing at the end of the show. When parked on the back of the stage the veritable deluge of reverberation evinces a weary sigh from me; it means that truck loading is imminent.

So let’s recap: Namibian and Little Dick are both on the tour, as is German Holger and a few other characters that you may recognise. Namibian’s health has held up over the winter in northern England, and he continues to wax poetical.

In fact my flamboyant acolyte has come out with a couple of absolute corkers recently. ‘It’s only about an hour to Sofia from the Serbian border,’ I said the other night, recalling the journey from last year. ‘Not even that,’ he replied with his usual aplomb. ‘Maybe an hour and a half.’ These conversations deserve to be shared, no?

Speaking of which, a corpulent Bulgarian policeman collared me the other night, furiously waving one of those giant reflective lollipop sticks. ‘Too fast,’ he chided, waggling his finger in mild disapproval as the dust settled and the smell of brakes pervaded the still air.

He had a fair point actually but this is, after all, a rock ‘n’ roll tour. I had tried observing the speed limit but, after a taxing day dealing with Serbian border clerks, the speed had crept up…until, once again, I’d arrived at my preferred velocity: flat out. Naturally Namibian had followed, as though glued to my trailer doors.

So there we were, two trucks at the side of a Bulgarian road, in trouble with the cops. Weighing this chap up, I thought it best to brazen it out. ‘I know, It’s an AC/DC tour,’ I replied. ‘Anyway, how are you?’ Coupled with an impish smile, this successfully disarmed him.

The infraction – nay, bending – of the rules was overlooked, and talk turned to touring merchandise. His eyes lit up at the mention of an AC/D CD. It’s wonderful, isn’t it, that there are still countries where one can bribe one’s way out of a misdemeanour?

But I didn’t simply stop at giving him an old Back in Black CD, bought for a couple of euros in a second hand store. No, no, no. I signed it to him… from me. Ha ha, as though I’m in the band. “Rock and roll ain’t noise pollution…”

Sri Lanka: In Search of the Perfect Cup of Tea

“What goodness Zesta?” asks my perfectly-postured waiter. He beams, almost imperceptibly shakes his head, and hovers unnecessarily at my breakfast table. Beneath a high-ceilinged veranda, the conversation has reached a stalemate.

A light breeze blows as I sip the finest cup of tea I’ve tasted so far in Sri Lanka, and I look at my attendant in his crisp white shirt. On the label of the teabag is written, “Zesta Plantation Fresh.”

My quest is to find the perfect cup of tea. Surely Sri Lanka, formerly Ceylon under the British, ought to be an excellent place for such a challenge. After all, the interior Hill Country – on an island regarded by Marco Polo as the finest of its size in the world – is replete with tea plantations.

But as I was soon to discover, the majority of the high-grade tea is exported; I was told I’d be better off drinking the stuff in London than in Kandy, Sri Lanka’s second city.

“Where from?” asks the tuk-tuk driver. “Ah, England. Very big, very strong, very money.” He drops me at the train station, for a journey east from Colombo, into the very heart of the tea-growing area.

Due to severe delays – a container has fallen onto the railway track – I have to take a bus. Several hours later, a tea lover’s dream unfolds, a vista awash with tea bushes growing on improbably vertiginous slopes. I can smell the acrid production as we pass the Waharajah Tea Processing Centre.

It isn’t the roads that are dangerous; it is the drivers. The bus driver lurches his vehicle round the hairpins, inches from a DAF truck’s bumper, filling the bus with black exhaust. On a particularly lethal bend we overtake, only to pull in seconds later to allow passengers to board. The truck plods past once more. Round the next bend is a bus on its side, ten feet over the precipice. Yet we continue to accelerate down hills, braking harshly.

Tea bushes grow on ‘improbably vertiginous slopes.’ in Sri Lanka.

Arriving in Dalhousie is a relief. I order some soothing tea at the Wathsala Inn, relaxing on a balcony affording a fine view of papaya trees and Adam’s Peak. Known locally as Sri Pada, the mountain’s summit is reputedly marked with the indentation of Buddha’s footprint.

“Start walking to the top at 2:30,” says Nimal, the hotel manager, adding far too much hot milk to my tea, and serving from a stainless steel pot rather than china.

With more than 5,000 steps to ascend before sunrise, I need some calories. But I can’t decide between a “plane” omelette and “sessional” vegetables from the menu.

“If it is raining, there will be leeches,” warns Nimal, eyeing my flip-flops as I deliberate. “I can lend you tiger balm if you want.” Under a perfect Orion constellation, precipitation looks unlikely.

At 3 a.m., pilgrims are already descending; they have rung the summit bell, and are uninterested in witnessing the sunrise. Having overtaken a tourist or two, I stop at the first tea stall en route, illuminated by dim streetlights.

Prayer flags flutter in the wind.

A foul drink called Nestomalt is served, advertised as tea. The quest for the perfect cuppa is rapidly falling into abeyance.

At 4 a.m., the summit doesn’t look too far away; I have time to warm the throat once more. “Come here,” calls a tea vendor, displaying a poor but effective sales technique. Bustling industriously with a broom, he is wearing a black flying hat with earflaps, and pink-and-white material round his neck – like an oversized tea towel. He watches while I sip his odd-tasting beverage, a curious mix of both tea and coffee.

At 5.30 the sky lightens. Prayer flags flutter in the wind; musicians appear in procession. Pilgrims pray as the sun rises ever higher. Behind the peak, a triangular shadow of its bulk is reflected onto the clouds beneath; the ethereal silhouette is a perfect isosceles.

Returning to my hotel, a labourer is in my shower, holding half a coconut filled with cement. “Damage in your bathroom,” he explains. He diligently dabs at a crack in the tiles, using a splinter of palm tree as an effective makeshift brush. With the shower evidently out of action, it seems a good time to visit Laxapana Tea Plantation, only about a hundred yards from the hotel.

Tea pickers with their baskets

Walking uninvited up the long drive, Tamil women smile shyly, barefoot and in rags. Beautiful, and vibrantly dressed, they somehow blend with their surroundings, as though they have sprouted from the tea bushes. “Bye bye,” they call, waving hello from beneath their bright headscarves.

I stop and watch, as they appear to float across the bushes. Picking with both hands, the elbow remains still; only the forearm is lifted as they grab the leaves upwards (think of milking a cow and simply reverse the action).

When their hands are full with leaves, they reach behind their heads, dropping the harvest into weaved cone baskets on their backs. These baskets, containing between 5-8 kilograms (10-15 pounds) of leaves, are secured with a strap around the forehead.

The women form two patient queues at the weighing station, tipping their leaves into one of two baskets hanging from scales. Plastic wallets like passports – with only a single sheet of paper inside – are handed over.

La-la the tuk-tuk driver

The weight of leaves is noted; the wallets are tossed casually into the empty baskets. The leaves are then stuffed into onion-like, red string sacks, and loaded into a Mitsubishi truck that roars off over the hill. The women disperse, each holding a six-foot long bamboo cane.

A Sinhalese supervisor lays aside his clipboard and borrows a cane, placing it on the nearest tea bush. He demonstrates that the leaves jutting above the cane can be picked.

“In six days, pick again,” he says. “There are 135 tea factories in Sri Lanka,” he adds.

Travelling east to Haputale, I can see why there are so many – tea fills my field of vision in every direction.

At 5:15 a.m., a torch shines into my eyes. A tuk-tuk driver called La-la is taking me to Lipton’s Seat for sunrise, a viewpoint ten miles from Haputale by road. Peering from behind thick flaps – stuck with Velcro to the sides of the tuk-tuk – I can see dark clouds coalescing over the Poonagala hills.

“Very clear day,” says La–la, with misplaced élan, no doubt angling for a tip. He has already hinted how expensive petrol is.

Lipton’s Seat, named for Sir Thomas Lipton

We bump up a tortuous, unlit road riddled with potholes, slowing at a police checkpoint to show my passport in the inky light. Even in first gear, the engine coughs as we climb higher, passing bungalows clinging to the precipitous slopes as though affixed by glue.

Dawn breaks over the country that Sir Thomas Lipton, the infamous tea magnate, described as a “lovely and delectable island of spicy breezes.”

The sun has already risen as we reach a locked barrier, and there is still a mile to walk. But the stupendous panoramic view from Lipton’s Seat is worth every step.

This is the highest point of the mountain range, and Sir Thomas was renowned for sitting here, surveying his bounteous plantations. Fifteen minutes later, a villainous fog rolls in, sucking any warmth from the sun.

With La-la long gone, I amble back along the road, through the beautiful rambling tea estates. The punishing sun soon punches through the mist, illuminating a magical landscape, like a religious portrayal of rays from Heaven. One woman is washing spring onions and turnips in a waterfall; another is hurrying barefoot, burdened by an enormous bundle of sticks on her head. Her gait is a cross between a walk and a run.

Carrying firewood in Sri Lanka

Tea workers begin to appear, taking steep, rocky shortcuts through the bushes en route to Dambatenne Tea Factory, a vast edifice built by Lipton in 1890. I follow them, encouraged by smiles, entering via the Staff Entrance. In the Fermenting Room a sign reads, “No Chewing Betel.”

For a modest fee, Anuba gives me an individual tour of the entire factory, beginning at the deep troughs upstairs. Here, the tea leaves are continuously heated for twelve hours, to remove 45% of the moisture.

A worker squats with a broom, sweeping the now withered leaves down a hole to the next stage of their processing journey. They are crushed, shaken, filtered through a mesh, fermented on the floor, and heated to 260 degrees F until only 3% moisture remains. At the end, there are eight different grades of tea.

“First two grades export to UK, China, Japan, Europe and Saudi Arabia,” Anuba says. He laughs. “In Sri Lanka, only drink bad tea.” Remarkably, the tour is winding up without any suggestion of actually sampling the product. Despite finishing in the Tasting Room, perhaps it is not worth his time on just one person. I’m disappointed.

A tea plantation in Sri Lanka

From Dambatenne there is a choice of a public bus back to Haputale, or a bus laid on for the factory workers. Both are attractive options, full of interesting people able to speak English, but today I’d rather walk the remaining five miles. First, though, I need a revivifying cup of tea.

In the café across the road – in a collection of houses built as workers’ quarters – I place my order. When brought over, the tea has body, but no discernible flavor; this is low-grade tea.

Real flavor comes from tea grown at high altitudes, tea that has been packaged and shipped to my local supermarket in England. It seems my perfect cup of tea may well be the one I drink when arriving home from the airport.

Barnaby Davies

By Barnaby Davies
Published in Gonomad

Barnaby Davies has written for Trucking Magazine (print), bootsnall (online) and theexpeditioner (online). As well as writing articles, 2010 will see him touring Europe as crew for Metallica, AC/DC and U2. He is happiest barefoot and as far from a television as possible.

Trainspotting: Sri Lankan-Style

“The train officially leaves at 10.30 a.m., but it will be late.” Nimal, the manager of Wathsala River View Inn in Dalhousie, beams knowledgeably. “It is always late,” he adds.

In the background, Adam’s Peak, an important pilgrimage site, looms imposingly at 7,360 feet. The air is clear and tranquil this morning, punctuated only by the roar of the river and the thwack of a cricket bat on the main road.

At 9.05 a.m., the 9:15 a.m. bus service to Hatton station sails past. Then a passing tuk-tuk slows, offering to catch up with the bus for an inflated fee. Round the next bend — a distance of no more than 300 yards — the bus is taking a ten-minute break.

But it is not a direct service to Hatton, this bus is actually only going to Maskeliya. In the dusty square that passes for this town’s center, time is ticking towards my train’s departure time, and there is little evidence of an onward bus.

I nonchalantly approach another tuk-tuk driver, as though haste is the furthest thing from my mind. This keeps the price down, but the quoted sum is 20 times more expensive than the bus. Still, it is very reasonable for a 12-mile journey through stunning tea plantation scenery, stopping briefly for photographs whenever I like.

One notable idiosyncrasy of tropical transportation, however, is that tuk-tuks tend to contain little fuel until a customer needs a ride. As we fill up in the garage, a Hatton bus — with many open seats, no less — drives past, enveloping us in a cloud of black exhaust.

Struggling up the hairpins lined with tea bushes, I look forward to making some progress on the imminent downhill stretch. We crest the brow. Yet, rather than overtake the bus, my driver switches off the engine.

It seems we are to freewheel down hills to save the fuel that I’ve just paid for. This economical technique, while admirable, proves laborious: the fierce twists, and sections of level road, slow us down considerably. In fact, one stretch of tarmac sees us almost at a standstill; the engine is briefly fired up, powering us to the next slope.

We serenely descend through verdant Hill Country, passing a man washing his silver minivan in the shade. Next to him is a sign marked, “Vehicle Washing Prohibited.” He smiles and waves from beneath a tree.

Finally, we pass the bus and pull into the station. “Train station, not bus,” I point out, eyes fixed on the driver’s strapless Casio watch stuck to the dashboard. But the tuk-tuk engine won’t start, and we begin to roll back towards Dalhousie for the next four minutes. The bus drives by again.

Dropped at the train station by the third tuk-tuk of the morning, I note the time: the station clock reads 10:32 a.m. “The 10.30 train to Ella?” I ask apprehensively. “Maybe 11.30,” replies the railway policeman, and gives directions to the nearest café.

The station facility, marked “Restaurent — Quality Toffees and Sweets,” looks as if it has been closed since the British left.

Also looking as though it has been abandoned is the footbridge that leads over the tracks. Though in perfectly good order, it is now simply decoration, used by none of the passengers.

Even the peak-capped railway staff, in starched white uniforms, hop happily onto the tracks when crossing between the platform offices. Just after midday, passengers begin to mill nonchalantly across the track. Something must be happening, I think.

At 12:05 a.m., the 10.30 a.m. service to Ella pulls in. For this spectacular journey — less than 50 miles, yet due to take four hours — I have bought a ticket for the Observation Lounge, a carriage at the rear of the train. But what is slightly annoying is that there are only four good seats: the ones looking through the rear window.

To add insult to injury, two of these seats are occupied by sleeping children. I opt for hanging out of an exterior door instead, between the compartments. With health and safety wonderfully absent in Sri Lanka, this is a trend shared by plenty of fellow passengers.

Munching on a prawn patty bought from a platform hawker, we enter a tunnel. Screams of childish delight echo throughout the carriages, as does a ripple of coughing from the veil of trapped diesel fumes. The temperature cools considerably as we climb higher through Eucalyptus Forest, passing a marker indicating 4,803 ft above sea level. My co-passenger, a Sinhalese Guard, lights a cigarette in the Luggage Van.

The temperature continues to drop as we rise. Neat gardens of carrots and cabbages grow alongside the tracks now, and there are fewer palms. We pass Pattipola at 6,204 feet — almost the highest point on the track– and enter a long tunnel. The passengers’ enthusiasm for resounding whoops is still keen: even after 28 other tunnels, they still shriek when plunged into darkness.

Eventually arriving in Haputale, I try to find out about whale-watching trips — I’d read that they operated out of Mirissa on the south coast. Loga, an internet café owner, comes to my aid. “Whale? It is animal?” he asks. “Ah, I know, it’s bigger than elephant.”

His attention then returns to his beloved internet dating site. At 35, it is socially frowned upon to be unmarried here, a predicament I had discussed at length with Nimal back in Dalhousie.

One of the first questions a Sri Lankan will ask is, “are you marry?” The idea of willingly remaining single in your thirties grates harshly with their way of thinking. The problem for men is that, on reaching the grand old age of thirty-something, there are few available women of the same age. I notice the rather overweight Loga has listed himself as muscular in his profile. (He’s also listed himself as having “blue eyes,” an outright lie.)

Just before 7:00 a.m. I hear a hoot, announcing the departure of the 5:09 a.m. mail train to Badulla, the end of the easterly line. But I’ve decided to ride five miles west first, to Idalgashinna, for a leisurely walk back along the tracks. In fact, this is an advertised walk, embarked upon by numerous travelers clutching Lonely Planet Guides. I take care to “buy a ticket before entering the plateform,” while locals choose to hop up onto it from the rails. Needless to say, the train is late.

In Idalgashinna, barefoot children soon join me for the first mile of the walk, brandishing sticks and laughing. Sometimes there is a path, and sometimes my strides are dictated by the gaps between the rail sleepers. Smiling Tamil women bob above the tea bushes, picking leaves speedily, framed by a spectacular view.

A blue and black butterfly dances over the weed-strewn sleepers in front of me as I catch up with some railwaymen. One worker is lackadaisically adjusting nuts with an enormous spanner; the other is carelessly applying oil to one of the rails as he walks. Sauntering lazily along the tracks at Glenanore, I notice a sign: “TRESPASSERS ON THE RAILWAY WILL BE PROSECUTED.”

The barriers are down at Glenanore, presumably in preparation for a train coming through. “Trolley, not train,” clarifies a member of the staff, as a clattering noise pervades the quiet.

The trolley turns out to be a real Wild West affair, operators leaning and pulling on a lever to get it moving, and turning a long T-shaped bar to apply the brakes. The contraption promptly grinds to a halt and ten Sri Lankans beckon me to hop up and join them for the rollercoaster ride down into Haputale.

Thanking my newfound friends for the lift, I double-check that the 11.25 a.m. train to Badulla is running late. Yes, as I had suspected, it is now scheduled for 1:00 p.m., which also turns out to be an optimistic estimate. But I’ve grown to love these almost meaningless timetables.

The trains usually reach their destination each day; it’s just a question of when. Chatting once more on the “plateform,” a friendly railway worker says, “Big delay. Maybe 1:20 p.m.” To be honest, that’s fine. The sun is shining, I’m making new friends, and I have food and a book. I expect it to come at 2:00 p.m.

By Barnaby Davies
Published in the Expeditioner.

How to Make Sure Your “Budget” Airline Ticket Really is a Deal

Airline tickets on low-cost carriers can be extremely cheap at first glance. But that’s before the addition of a cauldron of hidden expenses that can ensnare the unsuspecting traveler. Paying for your flight, for example, should not be an “optional extra”. The good news is that you can avoid these add-ons. With a little inside knowledge – and time – it is possible to travel for the advertised price of a cheap flight.

The key ingredient to cheap flying is flexibility. Can you move your travel dates a few days either way? Do you really have to go to Berlin on certain dates, or will Belfast/Bratislava make a satisfactory substitute? Or could you fly into another German airport and take a train up to the capital from there? If you can, there will be a rock bottom fare in there somewhere.

The following tips are specific to Ryanair, because this airline operates the really dirt-cheap flights in Europe. However, the format of adding extra charges is more or less the same for all the no-frills airlines. Adapt slightly, and these tips are applicable to any low cost carrier in the world.

The internet is your friend.

Always book your tickets online. Do this even if you are paying an hourly rate in an internet café. Budget carriers charge – sometimes extortionately – for telephone bookings. It is not the case that the earlier you book, the cheaper the flight. In fact, booking three months in advance is generally more expensive than waiting for the upcoming deals. So it is a question of balancing price with peace of mind.

Subscribe to the carrier’s email newsletter. You will receive frequent emails keeping you up to date with offers and promotional fares. However, if you haven’t had an email it doesn’t mean there are no bargains to be snapped up. Flight prices can change daily.

Study the routes. Maybe you can fly cheaply into one airport, and out of another one nearby? Spend some time on the carrier’s website and play around with your options. And do not forget to check in online and print out your boarding card. You will get a reminder email to do this, so there is no excuse. It is far, far cheaper to pay to print this document than turn up at the airport without it. (See “Ryanair fees” for Airport Boarding Card Re-issue.)

Don’t get caught exceeding the luggage limits.

On the homepage, click on Ryanair fees. This gives you a simple chart of add-on charges. See how a second checked-in bag rockets the price? If traveling with a lot of luggage, it can be cheaper to avoid budget airlines altogether. This particularly applies if you’re taking sports equipment, musical instruments, or lots of gear for your kids.

Do you really need a huge suitcase for a three-day city break? Hand luggage is free, and the permissible weight is 10kg. Do not risk exceeding it; this will very quickly amount to more than the cost of the flight. If you’re not sure how much luggage you will have, don’t book the flight just yet. It is far cheaper to add luggage to an online booking than to turn up with extra weight at the airport.

Weigh your luggage on a scale at home. If that isn’t possible, most airports now have a machine at the entrance that weighs luggage for a modest charge. If you’re feeling cheeky, use the built-in scale at an empty airline desk. According to http://flightchecker.moneysavingexpert.com, even if the desk is not staffed/open, it should still work. If your bag is too heavy, consider wearing some of your packed clothes.

Carefully note the hand luggage maximum dimensions. Go fractionally over these figures and the bag will have to be put in the hold. Negligence may have just cost you $23. Compare that to the cost of the flight, which may only have cost $10.

Eliminate the extras.

When you’ve found a cheap flight and begin to book, many of the boxes for extras will already be ticked. Start unticking them quickly! For a start, can you take off the charge for a checked-in bag, which appears automatically on the booking page?

Unless there is a good reason for priority booking, take this off too. What are you paying extra for? Is it better to be cooped up on a plane, or milling about in the departure lounge for an extra ten minutes? European flights are rarely more than a couple of hours; it’s not as though you’re flying long haul to Sydney.
There is a field for travel insurance cover. If you’ve already flown to Europe, you’ll no doubt have a policy. Choose “no travel insurance required” from the drop-down menu. You also don’t need the option of flight information to be sent by text message for $1.50.

Online or Web Check In is often waived on promotional flights, so check these offers first. If you are flexible with dates, it is possible to avoid this charge. If you remove all of the extras, and it is a promotional offer with no taxes, the amount now due will be exactly the same as the original cost of the flight.

Watch out for “hidden” fees

You will always be notified of taxes at the beginning of the booking process. Some flights will initially look more expensive but have little or no taxes; some will look cheaper but be subject to higher taxes. Either way, you will know within a click or two. These are not hidden extras that crop up at the end of the transaction.
What does crop up, though, is being charged to pay for the flight. This is where all the budget carriers make some pretty easy money. Apply for a Mastercard Prepaid Debit Card, however, and you’ve found the loophole on Ryanair. You can pay for free using this card; any other method is subject to an $8 booking fee per person per flight. Yep, this can soon add up when booking return flights or traveling in a group. You can apply for a card online, and load it with funds online. (For Easyjet, the loophole card is Visa Electron. N.B. Non UK Cardholders transacting on the Easyjet website may be subject to a cross border fee applied by their Card Issuer.)

When booking online, you will see, “excluding administration fee (if applicable)” next to the total price. I have never seen this fee actually applied to a flight. Don’t worry about it.

Book return flights as two separate singles. This is because Ryanair will sometimes change the departure time of a flight, and ask you to accept or decline the alteration. The decision will affect both flights, so you may lose a great one-way price back from a destination, and have to rebook the same journey at a higher price (after a promotional offer has expired). If you accept, they will refund the cost in full.

Budget flight websites are a minefield and a rock bottom fare can easily end up costing double or triple what you thought it would. But if you have enough time, scrolling through all the deals will pay dividends. Just avoid all the extras and watch out for hidden fees and you can score a dirt cheap flight for the advertised low price.

By: Barnaby Davies

Published in Boots’n’All

Photos by Roubicek, cranium, chris1h1