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The Rocky Southern Coast of Sri Lanka

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An unbroken string of tiny towns and hotels stretches out to the east of Galle. The busy road which hugs the coastline passes through Unawatuna, Dalawela, Thalpe, Habaraduwa, Midigama, one right after the other; each offering tourists an insane number of places to stay and things to do.

Sri Lanka Island

We were on this road constantly, en route to places like Alanthgama, where we hoped to see stilt fishermen, or Weligama. This village is set up around a gorgeous circular bay, with a lushly forested mini-island as its centerpiece named Trapobane (also the name Arthur C. Clarke lent Sri Lanka in The Fountains of Paradise). You can rent the villa on Trapobane by the day for an obscene amount of money; it even comes with a full set of personal servants to help you indulge your tackiest private-island fantasies.

Taprobane-Island

We spotted a couple other islands up and down the coast. One just past Midigama, where there’s supposed to be great surfing, and another in the bustling town of Matara, where we switched buses once. Matara’s island is just across from the bus station, and occupied by the picturesque Parey Duwa Buddhist temple.

Matar Temple Island

Most of the coast is rocky, but every so often you’ll spy a bit of golden sand that’s good for a dip. The waters here are rougher and rockier than on the beaches of Trinco, for example, but that makes for more dramatic scenery. Although the coastline itself is heavily developed, it stretches out for so long that finding a small bit of private sand isn’t impossible.

Daytime Turtle Watching

Our best day along the coast was spent at the Wijaya Beach Club, in Dalawela. Pizzas which could almost compete with those of Palermo (almost), and a tiny but excellent beach. While we ate, we watched the waves where six sea turtles were struggling to swim back out into the ocean. Every once in awhile, their heads would poke above the water. They kept getting swept toward the rocky shore, but eventually made their escape. Nobody else in the restaurant had seen them, and they all must have thought we were crazy, staring out into the ocean and randomly cheering.

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April 28, 2012 at 5:52 am Comments (3)

The Habaraduwa Turtle Hatchery

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Our Sea Turtle Excursion at Rekawa Beach

Sri Lanka is one of the world’s most important breeding spots for the endangered sea turtle, but heavy development of the coast has contributed greatly to their ever-declining number. To combat that trend, a number of hatcheries have opened along the southern coast. We visited one in Habaraduwa.

Super-Cute-Turtle

The small hatchery, which cost 400 rupees per person, was split into a few sections. A curiously tiny patch of sand in the corner contained batches of eggs (or “clutches”). Each was labeled with the date they were laid, the number of eggs in the clutch, and the exact species. We were told that about one set of eggs hatches every day. I was surprised how tightly the clutches were placed next to each other.

The rest of the hatchery was occupied by a bunch of water tanks. In one, dozens of baby turtles swam clumsily about. They were cute, and would stay in captivity until their fourth day of life before being released into the ocean. Our guide explained that when they’re a bit older, their chances of survival increase dramatically.

Other tanks held injured turtles, including one I nicknamed “Stumpy”. A propeller had carved Stumpy’s right flipper clean off, and the poor guy could no longer submerge. Instead he floated around on top of the water, continually rotating his stump. Five other turtles which had been found clinging to life on the beach, including a couple impressively large specimens, swam about their tanks, recovering in the hatchery until they could be re-released.

The Habaraduwa Hatchery is a private enterprise, unaffiliated with any offical conservation organization. And it was impossible to ignore the disquieting possibility, or likelihood even, that it’s more interested in tourist dollars than protecting sea turtles. The cold reality is that private individuals are going out at night, digging up sea turtle eggs from the beach, bringing them to their property, and then charging tourists to see them.

Seaturtle.org has a comprehensive article on the pros and cons of Sri Lanka’s private hatcheries. The truth is, something has to be done to protect these beautiful, endangered creatures. And if the government won’t step in with an official and adequately enforced conservation effort, private hatcheries might be the next best thing. Yes, they might just want our cash, but this might be one of those rare instances when the interests of capitalism and conservation align. Ultimately, we enjoyed our trip here and felt that it was an enterprise worth tentative support.

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April 27, 2012 at 8:47 am Comment (1)

A Sea Turtle Excursion at Rekawa Beach

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Sri Lanka has the extraordinary privilege of welcoming five of the world’s seven species of sea turtle to its shores. The turtles, who travel around the world and across entire oceans, somehow know to return to their natal beaches when the time comes to reproduce. At night, they emerge from the ocean and lay their eggs in the sand. At Rekawa Beach, the Turtle Conservation Project keeps a watchful eye over the eggs and provides tourists a rare opportunity to see the giant creatures clamber onto land.

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We showed up at 8pm, on April 11th — the same day as the massive 8.6 earthquake in Sumatra which sparked a tsunami warning across Sri Lanka. So we had accepted the possibility that the rough weather and seismic instability might discourage the turtles from braving the shore. But after only a few minutes of waiting in the dark (which afforded us the chance to admire the stars; something we’d missed in bright, densely-packed Sri Lanka), a flashlight down the beach alerted us to the presence of a turtle.

The turtles require a sense of solitude while they make their way out of the water. If they detect a human, they’ll abandon their attempt and return another day. Leaving behind an interesting track that looks like a Monster Truck’s tire, they head towards the shrubbery at end of the beach, and choose a spot for their eggs which is safe from the water and (hopefully) predators. People are allowed to approach only once the turtles have started the process of laying the eggs, which can take over a half-hour and during which they’ll remain absolutely immobile.

We waited patiently while the turtle, barely visible in the dark from about twenty meters away, chose a suitable place for her future babies. Unfortunately, something spooked her, because our guide suddenly urged us to run towards her on the beach, as she was escaping back into the water. A huge and beautiful creature, she could move a lot faster than I would have believed and I felt awful chasing after her, trying to snap pictures.

That was it. The guide brought us back and asked for our 2000 Rupee donation. We were disappointed — the night had just begun, and we didn’t understand why we couldn’t wait for the next turtle. But, he didn’t seem to care; we had seen our turtle, and now he could return to hanging out in the hut with his buddies.

Oh well. We had just seen a wild sea turtle on a deserted beach during a beautifully starry night. In the end, it was hard to complain.

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April 24, 2012 at 3:33 am Comments (5)

The Bizarre Landscape of Ussangoda

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East of Tangalla, a barren landscape sits in the middle of an otherwise heavily forested area. Dark red soil and an utter lack of trees are the hallmarks of Ussangoda, a region thought to have been hit by an ancient meteor. It’s hard to imagine another explanation for this strange anomaly of nature.

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The walk from the main road, where the bus from Galle dropped us off, to the small park took longer than expected, but only because we were detained by a group of Sri Lankans playing cricket. I decided to try out the sport, and picked up a bat. Whiff! The ball sailed right past me and struck one of the wickets… which, judging by the overjoyed reaction of my 8-year-old opponent, I took to be a rather embarrassing failure. Hmph. My next swing made up for it, as I sent the ball far off into the brush. Cricket: mastered. 8-year-old: conquered.

The empty plain of Ussangoda borders the ocean, with lovely cliffs that drop off onto the beach. We clambered down, disturbing the privacy of a few enamored couples, and found an empty patch of sand. I tried swimming for a bit, but the sea was too rough and, after being upended by a monster wave, I retreated for the safety of my towel.

This was a fun and easy excursion from Tangalla into a surreal patch of nature, and definitely worth the pocket change it required to reach. On a calmer day, with a bit of swimming on a largely isolated beach, it would have been perfect.

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April 23, 2012 at 11:15 am Comment (1)

Dickwella and the Hoo-maniya Blowhole

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No, Dickwella and the Hoo-maniya Blowhole is not the perverted name of a new punk band, but the twin objects of our first day trip outside of Tangalla. The blowhole is a natural wonder formed by cliffs along the coast, and Dickwella is a frantic coastal town where activity can reach a level of absurdity.

Dickwella-Market

First up was Dickwella, where later we’d be visiting the Wewurukanalla Temple. We hadn’t actually expected to linger in the town, but were instantly caught in its current, flailing our arms uselessly while being swept through jam-packed streets. This was New Year’s Day, which probably explains the ridiculous number of people on the street, but seriously. Not only was every sidewalk and shop jam-packed, but everyone was in a abnormally good mood.

We soon found ourselves in Dickwella’s Market, spread out along the beach. Half of Sri Lanka’s population was there, selling fruits, veggies, knives, spices, t-shirts and underwear, and the other half was there buying it.

A few kilometers back towards Tangalla is the Hoo-maniya Blowhole, a rock formation that mysteriously shoots spouts of water straight into the air. There was an entrance fee for foreigners and a large, modern visitor’s center which we were asked to tour… all of which seems a little overwrought for a blowhole. But fine, we’ll take a peek; yes, that’s a marvelous scale model of the blowhole you have there!

Sri Lanak Blow Hole

The seas were unfortunately calm, but an explosion of water did eventually happen. When a large enough wave moves into the narrow crevice of rock, a low sound (the “Hoo” which gives Hoo-maniya half its name) heralds the coming of a water spout. It’s a cool natural phenomenon and must be amazing during monsoon season, when the water can shoot up to fifteen meters into the sky.

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April 21, 2012 at 12:16 pm Comments (0)

Little Adam’s Peak at Ella

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A hike up the conical Adam’s Peak is one of the top things to do in Sri Lanka. Legions of people complete the hike daily, both pilgrims and travelers. Jürgen and I are always primed for an adventure… as long as it’s convenient. After learning that you must embark for the the summit at 2am, we immediately, instantly scratched Adam’s Peak from our list. Call us lame if you want, I won’t protest. But no way. Besides, we had just read about another hike called Little Adam’s Peak, near Ella. “Close enough!”

Ella Gap

For our ascent up Little Adam’s Peak, we left at 8am. It was a blissfully easy hike — simple directions led outside of Ella, and up through the Newbourg Tea Plantation to a dirt track with signs clearly pointing the way. The path was only slightly uphill, almost as if designed to be as effortless as possible. The other hikers we passed, on their way back down, all had big smiles on their faces. Light exercise in gorgeous nature: it’d be hard to imagine a better way to begin the day.

Little Adam’s Peak lays on the eastern edge of the Ella Gap, straight across from the (much higher) summit at Ella Rock, which we had climbed two mornings prior. The views are similar, but from Little Adam’s Peak you can see the Ruwana Falls, which border the highway headed south.

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April 19, 2012 at 8:43 am Comments (6)

Ella and Its Rock

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With an unbeatable setting high in the hills, tiny Ella has earned a reputation as one of Sri Lanka’s most beautiful villages. With its views over the Ella Gap and some incredible nature walks, the town has become one of the most popular destinations in the southern hill country. We spent a few days here, and had a wonderful time.

Ella Gap

The town itself is far more tourist-oriented than most of our other destinations have been. A variety of restaurants offer both Sri Lankan and western cuisine, free and speedy wi-fi (manna!) and cool, comfortable patios you could spend hours at. For a place which caters to foreigners, the accommodation was surprisingly cheap. We stayed at Ambiente, and I don’t think we’ve ever had a room with a more incredible view. Found near the town’s highest point, the hotel looks straight out over the amazing Ella Gap, a steep valley stretching out for miles between Ella Rock and Little Adam’s Peak.

Ella Rock was the destination of our first hike. We set out early, at 7am, in order to reach the summit before clouds settled in. As is the case across the hill country, afternoons are almost invariably cloudy. Indeed, we had rain every afternoon we were in Ella, and always tried to get our sight-seeing done in the morning.

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The hike was rough (see below for details of our route). After walking along railroad tracks, we found a path which leads up to a tea plantation and then onto the rock. Along the way, we encountered five locals who wanted to guide us up. It’s part of the system here: almost every tourist that goes up Ella Rock will have a local guide attached, who expects a tip at the summit.

They all employ the same trick. During your walk, if a Sri Lankan runs up to you and claims you’re on “the wrong path”, you are almost certainly on the right one. He’ll lead you backwards and then up a different path, and you’ll think, “Oh wow, this guy saved me! I owe him big time!” The truth is, there are about fifteen paths which all lead the same way. As long as you’re headed toward the mountain, you’re fine. We knew this in advance (plus, had one of Ambiente’s house dogs leading us), and were able to avoid the locals. Three separate times, we were told that we were “on the wrong path!” Guess what: we weren’t!

There’s nothing wrong with hiring a guide, of course, or contributing to the local economy. But we felt like being alone. After the tea plantation, the remaining path was well-defined and steep. The final 500 meters is extremely taxing and, even allowing for frequent breaks, we were drenched in sweat by the time we reached the top. The view, though, was worth the effort.

Our Route: Follow the train tracks away from the city for about 1.5 kilometers, until you’ve almost reached a small waterfall. Just before an old bridge, there’s a steep path which leads down to the left. Follow that under the bridge, and walk along a canal until you come to a small footbridge which leads past the waterfall. Now, it becomes confusing — a variety of paths lead upwards. Immediately after the bridge ends, the path forks: continue to the right. As you climb, the path enters the brush, and splits over and over again. You’ll want to tend left, but continue upwards when possible. Hopefully, you’ll emerge on the left-hand side of the tea plantation, where you’ll be able to spot the main path which cuts up through the woods. From here, you’re golden: just go up.

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April 17, 2012 at 1:00 pm Comments (3)

Lahugala Forest and the Magul Maha Vihara

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The Lahugala Reserve, occupying a mere six square miles in the jungle east of Arugam Bay, is one of Sri Lanka’s smallest national parks. We combined a short tuk-tuk excursion to the reserve with a visit to the remains of a legendary queen’s palace.

Magul-Maha-Vihara

It may be small in size, but a tremendous variety of animals prowl the grounds of the Lahugala Reserve, including leopards, sloths, barking deer and the rare Rusty-spotted Cat. But we were most likely to see elephants — a herd of up 150 lives in the park.

Our visit was timed to coincide with the elephants’ meal time, but unfortunately also coincided with darkening skies and a late afternoon storm. A solitary elephant had ventured out to the feeding grounds, where there are usually up to fifty (elephants are apparently as lazy as humans when it comes to rain). Oh well. We had recently gotten lucky with the big guys in Habarana, and hadn’t paid anything to visit Lahugala — the highway cuts through the reserve and passes the elephants’ favorite stomping ground, making a ticket to the park’s interior unnecessary.

So Lahugala wasn’t a resounding success but it was only part of the excursion. Our next stop was the ruins of the Magul Maha Vihara, which date to the 5th century AD and are said to have been the palace for one of Sri Lanka’s most famous queens.

According to legend, good King Kelanie-Tissa had been tricked by his wicked brother into murdering an innocent holy man, whose body was then tossed into the ocean. Furious at the injustice, wrathful sea gods unleashed a storm whose waves surged over the land and killed many people. In order to appease the gods, the king was advised to make a terrible sacrifice: that of his only daughter, Devi.

The king was grief-stricken, but the lovely and pious Princess Devi bravely accepted her fate. Content that her death might save countless lives, she allowed herself to be strapped down in a golden ship, then pushed out into the storm. The sea gods were impressed by her courage, and decided to spare the princess, re-routing her ship to the nearby realm of King Kavan-Tissa.

The soldiers of Kavan-Tissa who had been patrolling the shore were astounded by the arrival of the golden ship, but even more so by the beautiful maiden they found unconscious within. They carried her to the royal palace, where Devi finally opened her eyes. Dazzled by the opulence of the King’s court, she assumed that her sacrifice had been accepted, and that she was in heaven. When Kavan-Tissa (who had fallen in love with her at first sight) explained the situation and asked Devi to be his bride, she immediately accepted.

The ruins at Magul Maha Vihara were the palace of this fortunate Queen, who was much beloved by her subjects, and who eventually gave birth to King Duttugemunu: one of the island’s greatest heroes. It was just recently that had I heard the story of the princess, and I had assumed it to be nothing more than a legend. But Princess Devi existed… and here was her palace as proof! So how much of the story was true? Her father’s crime? The floods? The terrible sacrifice? The golden boat? The love-struck king? It’s impossible to say where fiction ends and fact begins.

Although we didn’t have much luck with the elephants, this was a great day trip, easy to arrange with any tuk-tuk driver in Arugam Bay. Definitely worth your time, if you find yourself with a free afternoon.

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April 17, 2012 at 11:10 am Comment (1)

A Boat Tour of Pottuvil Lagoon

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There’s more to do in Arugam Bay than just surfing and chilling out in beachside bars. The village is surrounded by some amazing and largely undeveloped nature. One sunny morning, we took a tour of the Pottuvil Lagoon, just to the north, hoping to see the elephants and crocodiles which make their home there.

Bird Paradise

Bright and early at 6am, we piled into a tuk-tuk and set off for Pottuvil, where a boat and its conductor were waiting for us. The vessel looked rather homemade, a wooden pallet tied to two skinny canoes, and if we had been venturing into deeper water, I’d have been nervous. But this water was merely crocodile-infested, so I happily clambered on.

We glided silently out into the water, with the rising sun slowly bringing color to the sleepy scene in front of us. Thick forests of mangroves line the lagoon, their roots providing shelter for fish and their branches for birds. Our guide navigated us around the lagoon, alternating between pushing and rowing, depending on the depth of the water.

Along with diving birds, eagles and water buffaloes, the only other living creatures we saw were fishermen, returning home after a long night of work. They were moving as silently as us, cutting quickly across the surface of the still water, and waved hello instead of shouting. We didn’t see any crocodiles or elephants, but that was fine by us. It was as if everybody — animal, nature and man — had conspired to make this as serene an experience as possible.

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April 16, 2012 at 12:07 pm Comments (0)

Elephants in Habarana’s Eco-Park

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The two well-known national parks near Habarana are Kaudulla and Minneriya. So we were more than a little skeptical while listening to this guy pitch the Hurulu Eco-Park: a little-known reserve that didn’t even appear in our guidebook. “Don’t worry!” he cried, “All the elephants are in Eco-Park!” Sure they are, buddy. But what were we going to do, claim that we knew better?

“I just know that this is a rip-off, Jürgen. We’re not going to see any elephants.”

Panik Elephants

Wrong! That guy knew what he was talking about. We saw so many elephants, I wasn’t even able to count them all. At around fifty, I gave up… and then another herd sauntered into view. It was amazing. These were gorgeous, wild and occasionally angry elephants; nothing like the friendly, damaged characters we’d met at Pinnawela.

For the first 45 minutes of our tour through the Eco-Park, I had felt my worst fears coming true. We had only seen an eagle, and a green beater bird (rare, according to our driver, who I wasn’t yet inclined to trust). But just as I was getting depressed, Jürgen spotted something big and gray in the woods. Our driver backed up, and there: a young male elephant eating a lonely meal of leaves.

Soon after that, tipped off by another jeep, we drove into the brush and interrupted the dinner of an entire family. Four large elephants, a couple adolescents and two very young babies. Although visibly annoyed by our presence, they continued their meal. Our driver felt we were too close, and turned the jeep around “in case they attack”. This happens a lot, as we would later witness.

The best part of the day came towards the end, when we arrived at a field where an incredible number of elephants were grazing. A few other jeeps were there, too, but the park wasn’t anywhere near as over-crowded as we’ve heard Yala can get. We parked and watched the elephants eat and play for almost an hour, keeping a respectful distance. Another jeep got too close, provoking an ill-tempered youngster to charge. Exciting, and to be honest, I was kind of rooting for the elephant. It wasn’t our jeep (or lives). But they sped away unscathed.

We had a great time at the Eco-Park and paid a lot less than what we would have coughed up at Yala or other National Reserves. Make sure to consider it as an option if you’re looking for something to do around Habarana.

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April 12, 2012 at 3:55 am Comments (2)

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The Rocky Southern Coast of Sri Lanka An unbroken string of tiny towns and hotels stretches out to the east of Galle. The busy road which hugs the coastline passes through Unawatuna, Dalawela, Thalpe, Habaraduwa, Midigama, one right after the other; each offering tourists an insane number of places to stay and things to do.
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