First read: 1: Temples and lizards, potholes and dust
We’d been on the road a week by the time we reached Dehiattakandiya, 50 kms south of Dimbulagala. My Director had arranged a guide for us for a day, a local man who spoke little English. Our Sinhala allowed basic conversation, but for the most part we gestured at each other and were completely in the dark about where he was taking us.
We travelled deep into the Maduru Oya National Park along tiny roads unmarked on maps. At one stage, after a gentle ascent, we emerged from forest onto the western bank of the Ulhitiya Reservoir. To our right were the central plains leading to the foothills of the Knuckles Range, and to our left the reservoir stretched to the gently undulating hills of the park. Elephants wallowed in the shallows and painted storks, destinguished by a flash of pink on their tales and huge orange bills, fished among the water lilies and lotus plants.
Our guide eventually gestured for us to stop. Miles from anywhere and in the baking heat we were confronted by half a dozen hunters,wearing only loincloths and carrying sharpened stone-headed axes. They were indigenous Veddas or Wanniya-laeto (forest dwellers), with direct lineage to the first inhabitants of Sri Lanka during neolithic times, some 18,000 years ago. They performed ritual dances and re-enacted hunts. Bearded and weathered, the hunters seemed a natural part of the landscape, a vision of ancient life that easily preceded the sacred cities of the ancient kings.
We left the dry zone plains behind us as we headed south into the hill country. The tiny A5 took us from Bibile to Badulla, winding up and up through dense forest, around stunning gaps with views of the eastern province, and into the tea plantations. Small villages of corrugated iron huts and few amenities provided hubs for workers and their families. Goats lazily munched their way through neat rows of tea leaves and monkeys screeched in the forests below.
Badulla is nestled on a plateau between some of the hill country’s highest peaks. It is an important trading hub and gateway to the east. Scattered amidst the bustle of the modern town are colonial gems such as a redbrick post office, churches, and a converted rest house. Badulla is the end of the line for the hill country railway that crosses ridges and mountain passes en route from Kandy and Colombo. The centre of town has a grid of thin streets, lined with medium height shops that come to life with garish neon after dark.
From Badulla we left the hills through the sublime Ella gap, a steep descent of over 1000 metres. The A2 was wide, clear and recently resurfaced, and The Beast quickly gobbled up the hundred kilometres to Hambantota on the south coast. Hambantota is the birth place of the President and subject to ambitious development plans, including an international airport and harbour. The town had recently failed in its bid to host the 2018 Commonwealth Games, missing out to Australia’s Gold Coast. Unfinished dual carriageways led nowhere through the dry scrubland, obviously part of a planned road network to service an industrial boom that had not yet arrived.
Following 10 days on the road we reached Tangalla, described by the Lonely Planet as a gently bending beach of coconut coloured sand washed by lazy azure waters. It was a working beach with a small harbour on the western stretch, where rusty fishing boats departed with splutters of flame and blasts from their engines. Every morning a dozen fishermen would drag a huge net to the shore, hauling in the night’s catch. The spectacle was like a dance or ritual; a great tug-of-war with the sea.
Under starlit skies we got chatting to the owners of our guest house. They were both local men, residents of Tangalla for many years. Our conversation meandered through all sorts of subjects, typically including the cost of things, and whether I would accept an advance payment for The Beast to guarantee our sale to them when we left Sri Lanka. Then the conversation moved to the Tsunami, giving a sour edge to the taste of paradise.
The two waves that ripped through Tangalla in 2004 were as high as the palm trees lining the beach, one owner recalled. At the time he was sitting on the very spot where we were then, watching the sea recede and the curiosity of locals and foreigners rise. He told us that 33 foreigners and 128 locals died on the beach, including members of his own family. Along with his personal tragedy he was left a poor man. The waves washed away the guest huts along the beach and most of the harbour, including the restaurant he had owned for 20 years. The other owner was at the market. The first he knew of the Tsunami were the people running from the beach. “The sea has risen to kill us!” he remembered them cry.
The next day we packed up and drove the 200kms along the coast to Colombo. Our memories were colourful, exotic, ethereal, painful, but without question they were positive. Such is the nature of this delightful island.