Sri Lanka: A Gem of an island
By Solange Hando
Ancient cities, hills, jungle, lakes teeming with birds, Sri Lanka has it all but after an 11-hour flight to Colombo, nothing beats the lure of the beach.
A newborn elephant swims in the shallows, watched over by the herd of 50 enjoying their twice daily bath. There’s much dousing and waving of trunks when a sudden downpour adds to the fun. Injured or orphaned, these lovable giants have found refuge in Pinawella, the world’s only elephant orphanage at the heart of Sri Lanka.
In Sri Lanka elephants are everywhere, working in the countryside, roaming wild in the National Parks, gathering by the temples at festival time. Some say they bring luck and perhaps this is true. After decades of civil unrest, the island has found peace, once again a tropical paradise hanging like a gem off the southern tip of India.
Ancient cities, hills, jungle, lakes teeming with birds, Sri Lanka has it all but after an 11-hour flight to Colombo, nothing beats the lure of the beach. We head for the south west coast where on a spit of land lapped by the ocean, our dream resort hides among frangipani and bougainvillaea, a boat ride away across the Bentota lagoon. On these golden shores fringed with palms and casuarinas, the summer monsoon brings a refreshing breeze but often high seas.
Lazing by the pool soon deals with jetlag and we set off for a day’s adventure along the coast. Rambling villages spill their goods at the roadside, chillies, mangosteens, peppers, plastic chairs, pots and pans, fish fresh from the tide. Sayna our driver bargains for a mega-bunch of bananas then we hurtle down to Meetiyagoda where in pits up to 30 feet deep, men dig for blue moonstone, sapphires, cat’s eyes and other gems. Endowed with magical powers and colours, Sri Lankan gems have been prized since ancient times, gracing the Queen of Sheba and the English Crown. It’s quite a thrill to be offered a moonstone straight from the pit but the day is young and Sayna has more wonders in store.
Soon we reach Kosgoda, for me a special place where I held a three-day old turtle, all shiny and black, and released her into the sea. ‘They come back every year,’ explains Sayna, ‘swimming thousands of miles to nest on these shores but there is much danger on the beach.’ We meet the Abbrew family who devote their life to turtles, digging out the eggs night after night to bury them in the hatchery, safe from poachers and dogs. Over the past 20 years, they have returned over a million baby turtles to the sea. In the nearby resort of Hikkaduwa, the adults come to feed in the lagoon, popping out to breathe now and then on the crest of a wave among shoals of tiger fish, oblivious to the fleet of glass-bottomed boats who’ve come to have a look.
Framed by distant hills, the road south skirts pastel-coloured shrines and luminous paddies, turning gold at harvest time. The old fort of Galle stands buffeted by the waves, haunted by tales of intrigue and battle. The Portuguese landed here in the sixteenth century, later ousted by the Dutch, followed in turn by the British. Now courting couples stroll on the ramparts and gaze out to sea, while vendors display their wares on the grassy slopes, rows of fearsome masks and carved elephants, lace and sarongs billowing in the breeze.
Lunch is a feast of spicy pancakes and mysterious vegetables. ‘Aphrodisiacs,’ grins Sayna. I have to agree, the shapes say it all. Vegetarians need not go hungry on this island. With 15 varieties of rice and bountiful fresh produce, the chefs’ imagination knows no bounds.
Later that afternoon we reach Weligama, the perfect picture postcard as on the edge of the surf fishermen on stilts pose like wading birds in the setting sun.
Sunsets are brief, spectacular and utterly romantic, dawn is all birdsong and shades of lilac and gold drifting across the river. The first catamarans glide through the mangrove, past monitor lizards dozing on low branches and cormorants flapping their wings on floating huts. Our boy captain scoops up a trail of waterlilies to weave a necklace. ‘For you, madame, a gift from the river.’ Ahead of us the Maduwa widens into a lake, speckled with cinnamon islands.
Spices abound along the coast, cinnamon and cloves, nutmeg, lemon grass and chillies drying in the sun. In the central uplands these fragrant gardens give way to vast tea estates gathered around old colonial dwellings. Here the air is cool, the land lush and green, rolling as far as you can see with stunning vistas and sparkling waterfalls. It’s a slow winding climb from the coast but a night in the hill station of Nuwara Eliya soon revives you, enhanced in our case by a dazzling electric storm.
When we reach Kandy the next day, the sun shines on the old Sinhalese capital tucked in a ring of wooded hills. Alleyways run around the market square while on the hilltop a giant Buddha bestows his blessings. Down by the lake, the Temple of the Tooth mirrors its pagoda roofs in silky waters, beckoning pilgrims from afar who lay their offerings at the shrine. Legend has it that behind the ornate grills and elephant tusks a relic of the Buddha’s tooth is kept in a holy casket.
We are lucky. Tonight is the summer full moon when a torchlight procession will carry a replica through the streets on a tusker’s back. From our balcony we look down on a dizzying kaleidoscope of sound and colour, dancers, drummers, fire wheels and a majestic parade of 40 elephants draped in red and gold.
The night is filled with magic and lights, glistening like so many gems in the Indian Ocean.