‘You can paralyse a lizard with indecision’, Channa, the manager of our tree house hotel tells us, smiling at our sceptical faces, ‘Stay down low and approach him from both ends’. We circle the small, bewildered lizard, ‘he won’t know which way to run so he’ll freeze and we can pounce’. We creep closer, but he’s wise to us and with a flick of his tail disappears through my legs.
photo by Dev Wijewardane
We are on a trip to remote northwestern Sri Lanka and we have seen a lot of wildlife. Wonderful wildlife, like the leopard in Wilpattu National Park who lies on her back beside our jeep stretching her lovely, spotted belly or the wild elephant vaguely trying to cross the road, head swivelling, looking out for traffic. At the Mudhouse hotel near Anadurahapura, a wild peacock rises suddenly from a bush desperately trying to escape the downward stab of an eagle as we stand paralysed only a few feet away and thousands of tiny crabs scuttle comically between the waves on Alan Kuda Beach.
There is also quite a lot of the rather more alarming form of wildlife; a saw scaled viper flips up from a rock near Mannar Island right under the bare feet of our guide, a scorpion flees down our shell tap in Kalpitiya and sloth bears howl in the night as we lie in our tree-house bed. Frogs rain down from the ceiling into our curry, or hang about under the rim of our outdoor toilets. Frogs are a major feature of this holiday, they are everywhere; one lives in a finger bowl, head peeping out between the floating flowers to greet us in the morning. Tiny tree frogs hide out under our pillows in some unlikely appearance of the Frog Prince and I am kept awake most nights by their endless, yearning, heartfelt singing.
It wasn’t only the wildlife we’ve come to see though. Our trip has been organised by Experience Sri Lanka to visit parts of northern Sri Lanka only newly accessible to visitors. The end of the bloody thirty-year conflict with the Tamil Tigers in 2009 has meant that it is now possible to travel far into the north through Tamil lands. We travel up the coast between Colombo and Mannar Island in the northwest, staying in small eco properties and camping in Wilpattu National Park. We then cross to the east coast and the long white beaches around Trincomalee. I’d looked into doing it by public transport, but decided against it. Buses are few and far between and the train line to Mannar was blown up at the beginning of the conflict and not yet been rebuilt. I’d been warned not to attempt driving myself in Sri Lanka, the roads are notoriously pot-holed and dangerous, and so in the end I ask Experience Sri Lanka to arrange drivers for me.
Northern Sri Lanka is little mentioned in any guidebook that I’ve managed to find. Even ones written since the end of the conflict tend to steer people clear of land north of the ancient city of Anadurahapura, mentioning merely that it is arid and difficult to get around. I’ve heard about some wonderful eco properties up here that I want to visit, but mainly it’s the ‘other’ Sri Lanka that I’m enticed by, far from the honeymoon boutique retreats and packaged resorts of the south west coast.
Travelling up from the airport we stay first at the serene Horathapola Coconut Estate. We wash our travels away in the deep green pool and wander around the 100-year-old plantation, alarming fruit bats with our claps. At this stage the usual route is to head inland towards Kandy or Anuradhapura, but we continue up the coast to the peninsular of Kalpitiya.
The discovery of blue whales and dugong off the coast here has led to a flurry of interest and the government, keen to encourage this, has earmarked several places for development. Kite-surfers are coming to try out the spectacular waves in the lagoon and year-round dolphin watching is also a draw. Unfortunately an enormous coal fuelled power station has recently been built right at the point where Kalpitiya touches the mainland. As we drive in over a rickety little bridge, huge pylons tower over us and march away out to sea. Built by the Chinese in return for their only deep-water harbour in the Indian Ocean, this controversial development could prove very costly for the Leviathans under the waves. Environmentalists say that waste hot water, flooding from the power station when it is eventually operational, could destroy the coral reef just off shore and drive the whales away. But for now, it’s a wonderful place to view them.
We drive through villages and coconut trees to a quirky little resort on Alan Kuda beach called Palagama. This place seems typical of the new tourist ventures emerging in northern Sri Lanka, being entrepreneurial and individualistic rather than corporate. The Alan Kuda enterprise was started by a group of Anglo/Sri Lankan friends, who bought beach land and built a series of places to stay, all interlinked, but a little different. In the right season, they must be charming with stunning infinity pools and stylish cabanas; boats take people out to view the plentiful dolphin population or to dive with the whales. We are out of season however and a powerful wind blows continuously, causing waves to form on the infinity pools and supper to be blown back in our faces. We try for a dolphin boat on the lagoon, but have our first encounter with the Sri Lankan navy. A tiny naval vessel, bobbing about in the lagoon studies the permits of the fishermen taking us out. They decide I must be from an NGO, staring suspiciously at my camera. I don’t think I can look very threatening, dressed as I am in an enormous pink cagoule with my 7 year old beside me and they eventually let us through. It is a strange moment though. The war is ended but the navy is very cautious. We don’t see any dolphins, but instead visit a deserted sand spit separating lagoon from ocean. I find an enormous conch shell, pink and creamy, sounding and smelling of the sea.
We head next inland towards Anamaduwa and The Mudhouse. This is one of the pioneering eco places in Sri Lanka. It began life as the home of Kumar, a young man from the nearby village who wanted to retreat to the jungle. He built himself a traditional mud house on the edge of a lake regularly drained for local paddy fields, and lived there for two years in splendid solitude. After the Tsunami, he found himself craving company and began to rent his house out. This developed over the years until the point now where he owns 60 acres of land, a yoga hut island, honeymoon and family hut and a group house all built of mud and palm.
We arrive wearily and are taken by tuk tuk down a tiny earth lane into the bush through the butterflies, to a clearing where our family hut stands. It’s lovely, there are hammocks hanging from the wooden frame, large purple lilies at the entrance and an outdoor shower, water spilling from a tree trunk. It is very open though, our mosquito netted bed has a roof over it but no walls. I mutter something about snakes, but am assured they never come here. Small tree frogs decorate the inside of our outdoor toilet, clinging on desperately when we flush. Dinner is huge and delicious and served to us by candlelight next to a lake brimming with water lilies and stalked by long legged birds. At night, in bed I lie awake listening to the sounds of the bush and vaguely plan various exit strategies if any one of the creatures I’m imagining, make it into our beds; happily they don’t and I awake to full throttle bird song and a couple of bikes to transport us to breakfast.
We spend the next few days here going on nature walks around the lake, being shown edible plants and watching the amazing bird life; a black eagle suddenly plunges into the bush next to us, startling a peacock who rises in ponderous, squawking alarm and kingfishers dart about us in evermore dazzling colours. We swim and kayak in local tanks. The tanks are ancient reservoirs, built by early kings to help irrigate the land throughout the dry season. Local villagers come to wash their clothes as we glide through mangroves in our kayak, trying not to startle the wading birds.
I wake up early on the last morning to sit by the lake and watch for wild peacocks. Water buffalo forage nearby and I sip coffee whilst trying to pretend that I am actually enjoying fish curry for breakfast. The curries are the only blot on my son’s holiday. He refuses to eat anything spicier than a boiled potato and although our hotels minimize the heat for us they can’t eradicate it entirely. I am enjoying the curried jackfruit and bitter gourd enormously; Arthur doesn’t however, and manages to exist almost entirely on rice and poppadoms.
Wilpattu National Park
An air-conditioned saloon car pulls up just as my son emerges and we drive along the red sand road the short distance to the largest national park in Sri Lanka, Wipattu. Wilpattu only reopened in March 2011 after being closed for most of the war. Early in the conflict LTD fighters entered the park killed the game wardens, laid down mines and set fire to a number of game huts; whose blackened remains are still visible as a poignant memorial.
Here we are given into the hands of Eco Team, an expert safari group who organise camping safaris in all the national parks. I have never been on safari before and have only a vague idea of what to expect. I imagine a park the size of the Serengeti, crowds of animals herding towards water holes. Wilpattu is nothing like this. It is an area of lowland forest and bush. I cannot imagine how any large animal could survive in this dense scrub, but they do so and in great numbers. The big draw here is the leopard, but also elephants, sloth bears and crocodiles. My son is most keen on the idea of a crocodile, but any deadly creature will do. We bump slowly through the dust, eyes peeled. We have been provided with a naturalist, a tracker, a team leader, a driver and back at camp, five other people to look after our every whim. I have never had quite so much service and don’t quite know what to do with it all.
The campsite when we eventually get there is stunning. Set on the banks of a river and surrounded with the type of twisty tree every seven year old wants to climb and the rest of us to hug, we are invited to jump in the water almost as soon as we put our rucksacks down. The tent has its own indoor shower and toilet and a large, proper bed. We plunge into the water. I am fully dressed as is the custom here for women. It feels slightly like the time I tried for my life-saving badge at school, but as the river is for messing about in rather than swimming, it doesn’t hamper me much. The rest of the team leap in too and although very few people learn to swim in Sri Lanka, they are all experts at larking about in the water. Holidays and weekends in Sri Lanka seem to be all about going to the beach in large numbers; getting the drinks and music out and splashing about in the waves.
We are served with an enormous amount of lunch. We have our own personal chef and he is eager to fill us. The food is delicious and we eat by the river where we see to my son’s delight, a small crocodile sunning himself on the bank just up river from where we had swum. We feed the rest of our snacks to the ravenous little fish who live in the river and retreat.
The evening safari is extraordinary; we are hardly out of the camp when we see elephant dung; Malabar pied hornbills gather noisily on a nearby tree and a Brahminy kite circles slowly overhead. The numerous tanks in this area are alive with birds, spotted deer and in one a pregnant elephant who ponderously chews weed silhouetted against a slowly purpling sky. We turn back towards camp, when the driver suddenly swerves to the side and we see a few feet away the large paws of a leopard. We freeze in excitement and the leopard slowly raises her head to give us a proper stare. We sit there for a long time gazing at this beautiful creature as she rolls on the ground and examines her paws. We are the only jeep here; in fact in the three days I am in Wilpattu, we only see a couple of other cars. Although it is growing in popularity, it is still off most tourists’ agenda. A fact bound to change. Eventually it begins to grow too dark to see and we slowly bounce off; astonishingly just down the road we nearly run into another leopard ambling slowly home, a quick flash and its gone.
Over the next two days we see more elephants, a slow, lumbering sloth bear that lopes down the road in front of us and an enormous number of birds and lizards. We spot wild boar and spotted stags, their enormous antlers constantly catching amongst the low trees. On our last day we are taken to a deserted stretch of beach with extraordinary copper sand. Myth tells of how when the first Singhalese king, King Vijaya arrived he bent down and touched the red sand, naming the first landing as copper beach. The navy are here in large numbers, a huge elephant skull marking the entrance to their camp. We are not allowed to swim here for unexplained reason, but they do let us pass through to the stunning beach, where I spend a happy time collecting shells. I find an enormous conch shell, creamy and pink and sounding (and smelling) of the sea. I have expressed an interest in ancient sites and I am taken, thrillingly to a place deep in the jungle where an ancient temple is left unexplored.
It’s pure Indianna Jones as we stumble through the scrub, the long skirt I am inexplicably wearing, constantly catching on thorns. The temple is amazing, it may not even actually be a temple, nobody has excavated, nobody knows. There are fallen pillars in strange configurations, similar to those at Anurdhurapura and moon stones and an enormous boulder seemingly propped up by a thin pillar, an almost impossible feat of strength. I rush around excitedly, imagining myself a Victorian explorer, I’ve certainly got the skirt for it. There has been no work whatsoever on this site I am told, except by treasure seekers, who have broken into stone chambers and chipped carvings off. The only recent visitors appear to be sloth bears, who have made their home amongst the ancient stones.
We are late leaving, our driver goes at breakneck speed, anxious to get back before it gets too dark and too dangerous. Night time at camp is also thrilling. We are greeted with herbal drinks and lumps of jaggery, the sweet sap of the palm tree. The campsite is ablaze with burning torches and candles, both to light our way and to keep animals at bay. As we sit over our five-course dinner, a small fireball is lit at a nearby tree and the fire swings across the river to light the ‘magic fire’ on a small island. Our meal is eaten illuminated by this glow. It’s stunning. I don’t sleep that night, the huge amount of food I’ve eaten all day is beginning to take its toll and the noise of the jungle outside is extraordinary. It’s exciting to lie back in your tent, staring out at the flames and listening to the howls and cries. I am glad to see that our frogs have not deserted us; one is perched on top of my backpack, long fingers splayed.
Up to Mannar
It has been an amazing experience, but not our last. Sid, our guide for the next section of our journey, picks us up at the entrance to Wilpattu. We are off to Mannar Island in the north west of the country. Until fairly recently, Mannar was off limits to visitors and it still feels very remote. People stare in astonishment as my son hangs out the car window and give us wonderful wide smiles. Our journey up there takes us past Manic Farm, a long line of shacks and boarded up houses surrounded by wire fences and guarded by the army. Sid tells me that it used to be for livestock but during the war it was used as an internment camp and thousands of people passed through here. It is still partially secret and there are still people kept there. It is a chilling reminder of the war and of unanswered questions about disappeared people and government culpability. Everyone I speak to in Sri Lanka about the war mentions the recent Channel 4 documentary on the Tamil Tigers and how angry they are about it. People seem to want to forget the war ever happened and to get on with their lives. It is easier for people in the South however; in Tamil areas there are many stark reminders of recent atrocities. There is still displacement, vast areas are mined and there are still refugees.
The road to Mannar is a bleak area of half-built houses and abandoned farms. It becomes bleaker still as we turn towards the coast north of Silavattru. This coast around Kondaichchi Bay used to be one of the richest sources of pearls in the world. The Ceylon pearl was prized by the Romans, traded by Arab sailors and mentioned in the Thousand and One Nights. By the early 20th Century under British control however, the oyster beds were over exploited and when cultured pearls became available, interest in the Ceylon pearl waned until fishing there ceased entirely. There is little sign now that this coastline was once the hub of a worldwide industry. A few desultory cows and palm branch shacks are the only indications of life, until we reach the end of the road where a tractor and trailer full of people are pulling up outside a large, ruined, red-brick mansion built out right over the cliff face.
My son begins to play football with the children off the trailer and we are approached by a young man, who it turns out is Dutch Tamil and a child of the Diaspora. This is his first time back to northern Sri Lanka and the people around him are his father’s family whom he has never met. The father stands rather uncomfortably to one side as his relatives gather around him. His aunt, a nun joins in the football match. Mannar and much of the Tamil area is Catholic and although people retain many of the customs of their Hindu ancestors, the bindis and saris and festivals, this area, colonised by the Portuguese is solidly Christian.
We wave at the family until they disappear from view and then turn our attention to the building before us. A large sign out front tells us that this was once the house of Governor General Cedric North who oversaw the oyster fishing from here. A quote on the board praises the architectural merit of the house. It is now the only visible structure, although in a state of ruin, its architectural merit not having been enough to prevent it slipping into the sea. We climb down on to the little beach beneath it. The cliffs appear to be made of old oyster shells, layer upon layer of them. The view is stunning although like every beach we’ve been to on the north west coast, the current and the fierce waves make the sea too dangerous to swim in. Arthur and Sid explore the broken towers until a small snake suddenly twists into the air under Arthur’s bare feet. We all freeze, but it disappears quietly and I hustle Arthur away. Sid tells me that it was a deadly saw-scaled viper and I panic retrospectively. Just up the road we discover another poignant remainder from British Colonial rule; the last headquarters of the Orient Bank Corporation, all that’s left are a few walls and a pitiful gravestone commemorating the death of a British soldier to sunstroke.
Subdued now we climb back into the car for the last hundred kilometres to Mannar itself. As the sun sets, lilac and yellow over the salt flats, we stop to let Arthur run out. There are no buildings out here, just wild ponies and birds and the flats are magnificent. Another lost industry; before the Troubles, Mannar used to produce some of the finest salt in Sri Lanka, but the factories are abandoned now. We cross an enormous new bridge, a tangible sign of investment in Mannar. Oil was discovered here before the war began and oil companies are showing interest once again. Driving over the bridge, you can see in the distance the shattered remains of a railway bridge, blown up years ago by the LTTE. Mannar Island is a fascinating little place. ‘Its like the rest of Sri Lanka fifty years ago’, Sid tells us. It’s an arid, sand spit stretching out towards the Indian sub-continent and ending in the famed island shoal of Adams Bridge. This is mentioned in the epic Ramayana as the bridge by which Rama and his army entered Sri Lanka to rescue his wife Sita. It is therefore seen as a holy place to Hindus, who are presently fighting attempts by the Indian government to cut a shipping channel through it. It is also venerated by Muslims who believe that Adam crossed over to stand on one foot in Sri Lanka, an act of repentance that lasted for 1000 years.
Night falls quickly in the tropics and by the time we reach Mannar Town, the largest settlement on the island, it is pitch black. There are not many streetlights and we drive slowly through wandering cows and wild donkeys. The donkeys are unique to Mannar the descendents of animals brought here from Somalia as draft animals. They appear healthy and well fed; baby donkeys, fuzzy ears swivelling watch us from the roadside.
We stop at Mannar Town for provisions. We buy pirated DVDs, much to Arthur’s delight, and bananas and crabs. Mannar town is unpretentious and noisy and an assault on the senses after so many days in the countryside. The main industry here is fishing and the smell of fish fills the air. Cars and brightly painted lorries honk noisily at each other in some secret road language as Sid negotiates the pot-riddled road up to the small town of Peselli where we are staying. There are no hotels or hostels on Mannar, and the only way to stay here is a home stay. The owner of the house we are staying in is a widow. She and her children have only recently returned from India, where they fled during the troubles. They have family all about and we find ourselves immersed quickly in village life.
We wash at the outside well, a difficult job if you are a woman. I wait until it is dark to strip off and pour cold water over my head; even then I am interrupted by the next-door-neighbours with head torches coming to clean crabs. The small children from next door rush in to assess us. Their uncle, Rohan comes too. He is going to show us around for the next few days. Rohan had a difficult time during the war. Many of his friends disappeared, caught up in the fighting or trying to flee it. Rohan himself made a couple of bids to escape. He tells me of his time in Australia and his adventure on the Coco’s islands. He talks as if it was a holiday, but it is only later that I realise he must have been deported to one of the Australian penal islands. His family is determined not to lose him again. He lives now with his parents and six nephews and nieces, lovely children who stalk us avidly.
We spend the next few days exploring Mannar. We visit the Giant’s Tank, an enormous ancient reservoir, which waters most of Mannar during the dry season. Birders used to come here in vast numbers and will be back soon, now it is safe to do so. The army and navy are everywhere. Mannar Island used to be a Tiger hotspot and there are numerous roadblocks, although we are usually waved through. The army are on a campaign for hearts and minds and Rohan tells us that they give out t-shirts in town and smile and wave at all comers. The army camps are made of palm branches and mud, there are occasional barbed wire fences but on the whole they don’t look very threatening. The soldiers are young and bored. Every beach we visit on Mannar has numerous sentry outposts, young boys staring out to sea. They smile broadly, like everyone else, but don’t really know what to make of us. I am careful to hide my camera, Ngo’s are the only foreigners people have seen for years and they have a reputation for having sympathised with the LTTE. People seem amazed to see us; small children stare at us with shock and excitement. Older men try out their English and cross the street to touch Arthur’s head in a blessing.
Mannar is a beautiful forgotten place. It certainly hasn’t been prettified for tourists. The beaches are strewn with plastic bags and bottles from fishing boats and farmers and the roads are terrible, donkeys and cows negotiate them with more success than cars. Rohan was a lorry driver before his ill-fated Australian adventure, taking fish to the mainland. He takes us to the loading depot to find fish for tea and to a deserted beach up from Pesali. The beach runs for miles along the Mannar Sea on the East coast. Its pale waters hide huge quantities of fish and turtles. Rohan assures me that nobody catches turtles anymore; the fine is too big he tells me and the navy occasionally get involved.
We watch local fishermen using traditional off-shore nets. They stride a few metres out to sea and then drag the nets in, an astonishing number of fish fill the nets, a great silvery mass on the beach. The fishermen stand around pleased with the quantity as the fish gasp and leap. Small jellyfish and octopus slither through the nets and to everyone’s amusement I replace them in the sea. It’s a beautiful picture; the coconut trees and endless seas. It all seems idyllic but Mannar has a dark history and the sharks are gathering to determine the future. Rohan tells me of property developers from Colombo anxious to buy up beach land and of oil speculators from India. People who are returning now after fleeing from the war find their houses taken and their land occupied. Land disputes are commonplace and will get worse.
On our last day Rohan takes us to Mannar cathedral on the mainland past an army checkpoint and into the jungle. There is an enormous swathe of jungle here like a great belt reaching up to below Jaffna; the jungle was extensively mined by both sides during the war and it is estimated that it will take more than 40 years to clear. It is not known what animals survive here; but few are seen. The cathedral is built in tropical Portuguese style with a series of lovely stained glass windows and coconut shell lamps. A million pilgrims come here on August 15th for the festival of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, camping in the grounds amongst the monkeys and banyan trees. Round the back of the church is a shattered roof, its blackened spars still visible. This is where the army fired mortar shells killing 160 people sheltering from the fighting in one of the most notorious actions of the civil war. Rohan remembers when it happened. There is a shell-shocked atmosphere to the quiet contemplation of the worshipers.
Mannar is set to change; but for now it is a privilege to be somewhere so remote, whose people have been cut off for nearly 30 years. People have survived from what they could process from the sea. They have been nearly self-sufficient all this time, but things are about to change dramatically for the inhabitants. Arthur has had a wonderful time here and his focus has switched from counting deadly animals to meeting new people. Mannar is his favourite place he tells me because of how nice everybody is and he’s right. Our trip to the north ends in a splendid, long drive across country to the east coast and the bright lights of Nilavelli hotel. We arrive at the same time as a government minister and have to wait in line behind various army dignitaries. The simple charm of Mannar suddenly seems all the more appealing.