Duke Riley’s Fly by Night is an art event happening over three midsummer evenings in Thamesmead. It is part of LIFT 2018, which seems to get better each year. The installation itself consists of releasing 1500, racing and homing, pigeons, which have been fitted with LED leg tags, over the Thames at sunset.
The venue for this event is a little way out of Central London. Crossness Pumping Station is a Victorian sewage treatment plant in East Thamesmead and the viewing area is in the grounds of its beautiful Grade I listed building. Thoughtfully, the organisers have kept the building open late and a trip around the accompanying exhibition “The Big Stink” is a diverting start to the evening as we wait for the sun to set.
The location itself is attractive, in an unconventional way, factories and wind turbines face us on the opposite shore. On a good summer evening, watching the sun slowly sink into the urban skyline over the river has beauty of its own, even if, it is not one of the first places you would think to come. The anticipation rises as the sun sinks and slowly the first pigeons rise from their hotel/loft into the sky. They circle the area in small flocks, rising and swooping in the dying light. Gradually, as the evening closes in, the pigeons begin to gather flickering lights as the LEDs start to win the battle over sunlight. Slowly, and almost imperceptibly, over the course of the thirty minute flight, the pigeons fade into the night and all we see are the soaring and diving leg tags making patterns in the night sky.
Seneka, our driver, said “I have a cousin who has a boat, for US$10 he will take you out on the river. For another US$10 his brother will show you everything and act as a guide. His English is very good. There is lots to see.” So, we agreed to go.
We had hardly left the shore when we saw a water monitor, at least two metres long, sunning herself in the garden of a riverside house. I was impressed. Our guide was less so “Water monitors, there are many, look in the trees” I looked up, indeed in the branches almost directly above our heads, there they were – just as big. I was less impressed and more nervous now. “Don’t worry” he said “They have no interest in people. Oh look! A chameleon.”
And there it was, showing off, changing colour as we watched, becoming less green and more stick coloured as it moved away from the leaves. Dotted along the banks of the river were jetties, some with boats some without. One had a man sitting on it, with a baby crocodile beside him. “Is that a crocodile?” Michael asked. “Oh yes, it’s his pet”. We pulled up. “Would you like to hold him? It’s quite safe” The baby crocodile was thrust into Michael’s hands before he could refuse. I was secretly very pleased my hands were full with the camera at that point.
“Will they keep him as a pet?” I asked. “Oh no, he will go away before he gets big, we will see very big ones soon” The river is wide but we stayed close to the edge because crocodiles like to be submerged in the shallow water and the shade, away from the afternoon sun. Michael had the camera again and was on the water side of the boat watching out for the crocodiles. I was on the side near the bank. I noticed the boat driver gesticulating at me. “Duck your head down low, now!” Michael said, in an ominously calm, yet urgent, tone of voice. I complied immediately. I looked back as I did so and I was confronted with a Green Vine Snake less than a foot away from my face.
I paled, but I did not scream or jump out of the boat. I’m proud of that. Michael leant in to take a photo. Our guide announced “It’s a Green Vine Snake; very pretty, but it is poisonous.” Michael leant away again. “It’s not interested in us, it mostly eats frogs and lizards.” I obviously appeared horrified. “Oh look, Bee Catcher Birds” he said pointing upward.
There were a pair in the tree above our head. They do actually eat bees, they pull out the sting and then eat the rest whole. These larger Blue Tailed Bee Catchers also eat wasps. The wasps in Sri Lanka can be very large and dangerous. His distraction worked. The snake was forgotten.
The next strange thing was the shop, on stilts, in the middle of the river. Nothing near it, and no customers, but it was definitely a shop. It appeared to sell coconuts, fruit, soft drinks and boxed groceries. It seemed rude to question why it was there, so I didn’t ask. Soon after this we began to see the crocodiles. We saw four or five, but they were hard to photograph, partly because we didn’t want to go too near and partly because they stayed mostly submerged in the cool water – out of the warm sun.
On the way back we saw Giant Fruit Bats. They really do look like the batman motif when they fly and they are surprisingly big.
We took a shortcut through the mangrove forest on the way back, which was pretty but eerie. It made us very happy that we had remembered to use our mosquito repellent before we set off.
We saw egrets, ducks and herons. We also saw a mongoose that was too quick for us to photograph. In total we spent about two hours on the water, we had a fantastic time. It was a great introduction to Sri Lanka, after all this was still our first day there.