Sigiriya, Central Province

The Sri Lankan Air Force 'Huey' taking off from Sigiriya Air Force Base
click on image to enlarge

Matthew and I met the film crew at the Sigiriya Air Force Base, established by the RAF in 1942 and used by the Sri Lankan Air Force since 1985, having been abandoned for decades. It was from here that we were going to fly a triangular route from Sigiriya, to Polonnaruwa and on to Anuradhapura, before returning to Sigiriya.

Map showing location of Sigiriya Air Force Base, west of Sigiriya fortress

The aim was to film aerial GVs (general views) for the film but it was also an opportunity for me to obtain some stills and for Anslem to get a good look at some of his habitats from aloft. We walked out to the Huey standing on the runway with the Sri Lankan Air Forces top helicopter pilot and his crew. There was a ceasefire in the long-running civil war and the door-guns had been removed from the machine, but due to the unpredictability of the LTTE (Tamil Tigers) there were still armed troops on the runway, guarding the helicopter until it had taken off.

Preparing to film Mark, Anslem and helicopter crew walking to helicopter
(l-r) pilot, airman, Mark O'Shea, Anslem de Silva, Mark McMullen, Mark Stokes (camera), Terry Meadowcroft (sound), Raj Perera, airman
note: armed troops beyond the helicopter
Mark & Anslem walk to the Huey with the Sri Lankan Air Force crew
Taking our positions, no door gun
Strapped in, comms attached, ready to go
Lift off...
...and away we go!

It was also a chance for me to realise a lifelong ambition, to fly in a Bell 'Huey' helicopter, albeit a modern one, but a real military chopper none the less. This was an ambition which may hinge on my interest in military history and the fact that the Vietnam War, where the 'Huey' was the most famous workhorse helicopter in the first real helicopter war, was the war going on when I was in my late teens. I had flown in many helicopters during the making of O'Sheas Big Adventure but they had always been brightly coloured civilian helicopters, but this was not only a Huey but a camouflaged Huey, I could almost hear The Ride of the Valkyries in my head as we took off and flew over the rice-paddies.

Taking photographs through the open door
of the helicopter



Sigiriya in the background, the Air Force Base in the foreground
Forests and tanks southeast of Sigiriya

The air base is close to Sigiriya and we first flew towards that massive volcanic plug, passing over a familiar angular tank to the southwest of the rock fortress.

Polonnaruwa dogobas
Dagoba undergoing restoration

We flew on to Polonnaruwa with its dagobas, some of which we had visited some days earlier.

Then on to Anuradhapura...

Anuradhapura city
Anuradhapura Hospital

... and its hospital. Jon Pinkney (2nd camera) was at the hospital when we started circling low. He told us later that many of the staff had run outside to see what was going on as our military helicopter started circling the buildings, and then they returned to him saying, "It's something to do with you isn't it?"

The Anuradhapura rice-paddy
where the Russell's vipers and Common cobras live

Finally we picked up some GVs of the paddi-fields, the basic root of the problem, the place where people without footwear come into contact with medically important venomous snakes.

Then it was back to Sigiriya Air Base for a few souvenir photographs. We then left the military to their duties and continued with our own, out herping again. We searched by day and by night but our nocturnal snake hunt around a rice-threshing area was terminated abruptly, not by rain as was becoming usual, but by a large male elephant in 'musk', which was not deterred by the flares fired by our guides. Up to 100 people are killed by elephants in Sri Lanka each year.

Back at Sigiriya Air Force Base
The Crew: (l-r back)Terry Meadocroft, airman, Mark Stokes;
(front) airman, Anslem de Silva, co-pilot, Mark McMullen, Mark O'Shea, pilot, Matthew Catling.

In the vicinity of Sigiriya we found a number of reptile and amphibian species. In the pond at the hotel there were Sri Lankan black turtles (Melanochelys trijuga thermalis) and Common rice-paddy frogs (Fejervarya limnocharis) were in all watercourses, while in a nearby pond we say a Chequered keelback (Xenochrophis piscator) eating an unidentified frog, possibly one of the legion rice-paddy frogs. We encountered an Indian starred tortoise (Geochelone elegans) and an Ornate narrow-mouthed toad (Microhyla ornata), while on the rocks and trees we found several lizards around the surrounding grounds of Sirigiya fortress: Sri Lankan keeled skink (Eutropis carinata lankae), Common Sri Lankan litter skink (Lankascincus fallax), Sri Lankan termite-hill gecko (Hemidactylus triedrus lankae), and Leschenault's bark gecko (Hemidactylus leschenaultii). The best find, also in the grounds of Sigiriya, was a Humpnose pitviper (Hypnale hypnale).

Common rice-paddy frog, Fejervarya limnocharis
Ornate burrowing frog, Microhyla ornata
Sri Lankan black turtle, Melanochelys trijuga thermalis
Humpnosed pitviper, Hypnale hypnale

We then drove south towards the mountainous centre of Sri Lanka and the town of Kandy, stopping enroute to pick up a live "Russell's viper" from a Nalanda restaurant, the fruits of our radio interview.


Russell's kukri snake, Oligodon taeniolatus fasciatus

In the event the Russell's viper turned out to be Russell's kukri snake (Oligodon taeniolatus fasciatus), a harmless species, in a plastic jar - how do people get snakes they fear into such small places?