Escape to Sri Lanka

I was looking for a bit of adventure. When a snorkelling trip with killer whales fell through I searched for an alternative stimulating experience which led me to Sri Lanka. A diverse ecosystem in the Indian Ocean with a remote beach in the south noted for snorkelling accessible by boat or a trek through the jungle. Perfect!

Driving through Colombo was an experience not to be forgotten. Colourful, congested and vibrant with an eclectic mix of absurd and bizarre forms of transport as people went about their business. Motorbikes carrying four people, buses driven by drivers possessed with a passion for aggression, cyclists with passengers riding side-saddle crossbars, barefoot motorcyclists laden with bundles of cinnamon. The ubiquitous tut-tuks darting in and out of the traffic competing for tarmac with cows meandering down the road.

Religion is a huge part of daily life. Buddha was dominant across the country with drivers of almost every vehicle leaving Colombo stopping to make an offering and prayer for safe passage at one of the key temples on the main road. Interrupting the journey to pray made me wonder what perils awaited on the long road ahead.

My first glimpse of the Indian Ocean was truly magical. The colours of the setting sun and reflections from the Ocean combined with the silhouettes of palms were exquisite. Stopping to take a photograph I was quite taken aback to discover I was standing where someone’s home destroyed in the 2004 Tsunami once stood. It brought home to me just how extensive the carnage had been as we were still a long way from our destination, the epicentre of that dreadful day. It was a humbling experience and daunting to think 50,000 people lost there lives that fateful day.

Arriving in the dark at Thambapanni Retreat I was immediately made welcome. Porters took my case and carried it up what seemed like a 100 steps cut into the hill of the jungle up to my room at the top of a tower block. Exhausted on reaching the top of the stairs and invigorated by seeing the picture book room with its large balcony and hammock amongst the tree tops.

The sound of the jungle was incredible, it was humming a rhythmic welcome so powerful that I sat and listened for some time to the different noises making up the wall of sound. Awakening to the glorious views from the balcony across the tree tops to the ocean in the distance.

The trek through the jungle didn’t exactly go as planned but the beach at Unawatuna, the epicentre of the Tsunami, was idyllic and easy to see why it been voted on one the best beaches in the world. The sand was narrow but gorgeous and the water clear and warm.

A short journey by car to the Japanese Pagoda at Rumasala. An immense pagoda built and occupied by Japanese monks. Truly spectacular with its panoramic views of the Fort at Galle and Indian Ocean and built just a year or so after the Tsunami.

My next quest was the 200 acre Handunugoda tea plantation which was famed for the worlds most expensive and rarest of white teas. Kilburn Imperial untouched by human hands as it had been for centuries to please the emperors. As a self confessed coffee addict I was apprehensive about the quest and my driver made it clear that my request to visit was unusual. The journey took us along narrow country lanes and past paddy fields.

The tea plantation and factory was truly outstanding. Arriving unannounced I was instantly made to feel welcome and shown around with real pride from a senior planter. Shown a coffee plant, mango, rubber and of course tea bushes before being invited into the plantation owners bungalow for tea and cake. As a coffee drinker I was apprehensive about drinking tea but to my delight the award winning Oolong placed in front of me was a delicious and refreshing beverage.

Talking with the planter it was clear the estate took pride in the quality of its product and the organic production methods used to manage the crops. Walking to the factory a worker was laying organic compost around the bushes. It was clear that producing organic tea was hard physical work. With only 250gm per acre produced of the elusive Kilburn Imperial.

Stepping inside the factory was like stepping into a time capsule as many of the machines and production methods were over a hundred and fifty years old. I was fascinated by the process of leaves being withered for 12 hours before chopping, sieving, drying and grading leading to bagging for transport around the world.

After following the process I was taken to a tasting room to compare teas, including the exquisite white tea and an unusual coffee flavoured tea. It was hard to comprehend that the tasty beverages all came from the beautiful tea bushes with their delicate flowers.

Afterwards I continued towards Welligama to see the famous stilt fisherman, stopping briefly along the way at Koggala Lake and the Ananda Spice Garden where plants such as Aloe Vera could be seen and products purchased to treat everything from arthritis to hair loss. Herbal remedies are more popular than traditional western medicines and fascinating to see the plants.

Inspired by travellers tales of seeing leopards in the wild I determined to visit the Udawalawe National Park which is home to over 550 elephants. Advised a trip would require leaving at 4am I arranged my early morning call for 3.30am determined to make full use of the opportunity to see elephants in the wild.

The drive followed the coast road and provided the most beautiful vistas announced the new dawn. After almost 5 hours we arrived at the Elephant transit camp on the edge of the park. Orphaned elephants are fed several times a day and cared for until they are four years old before being released back into the jungle. It was a moving sight to see the calf’s walk two by two to be fed milk.

Entering the park in a Land Rover we collected a park ranger. An amazing man with eyes as sharp as a hawk. As we drove through the park he would stop the vehicle and point out the diverse wildlife including eagles, lizards, monkeys, hornets, bee eaters, mongoose, deer and of course elephants. His skills of observation and knowledge of the wildlife was almost as astonishing to me as the wildlife itself. Seeing elephants up close in their natural habitat made me feel very privileged and humbled.

As we headed back towards home I stopped for a quick visit to a geothermal spring where water reached 44 degrees Celsius. Hurrying back home to the ocean for my last snorkel of the trip. Entering the water as the sun was going down I watched fish feeding lit by the beam from my underwater torch. It was the perfect end to the perfect day and I finally emerged from the water in the dark.

As I walked back to my room to pack my case in readiness for a 4am departure to the airport I contemplated on how the misadventure in the jungle and change to itinerary had forced me to experience so many other aspects of this amazing jewel in the Indian Ocean.


Martin Westall

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