By Sir N Dipity
We’ve just had a little tour with our friend Charlie, visiting from England. Travels with Charlie – Steinbeck got there first of course but his was spelled differently and was a dog. (I could go on – Charlie and the Tea Factory, for example – but I’ll spare you). As ever in Serendip various fortuitous things happened, some of which I shall now relate.
In the ersatz-English hill town of Nuwara Eliya, while Sally and I slept off our lunchtime Lion Lagers (or G&T in her case), Charlie took himself off for a stroll around town, ending up at the splendidly decrepit racecourse at the end of town just as a thunderstorm broke. Soaked to and possibly beyond the skin a local guy took pity on him and invited him into the creaking grandstand where he was treated to an unofficial backroom tour of the whole place, reeking of past colonial splendours. Warming to his task the guy then offered inside information on upcoming races in return for placing a bet, and a ride on a racehorse. Charlie sensibly declined both offers.
A few days later we reached the furthest extremity of the Kalpitiya peninsula where our primary aim was dolphin-watching. Sally and I had tried this once before only to be turned back by a maritime picket-line stood a couple of hundred metres out to sea. This was to do with a fishermen’s strike over police brutality; ironically the pickets threatened something similar to our boatman and his brother should they attempt to cross. Being good trade unionists as well as feeling some responsibility towards our hosts we agreed to return to shore.
This time there were no pickets, but a fleet of tourist boats. Sri Lanka has changed quite a bit since our previous foray five or six years ago. The boats are simple open launches with powerful outboard motors. They need pushing to get out to sea over the sandbanks but once properly afloat they go like rockets. Our boatman turned to face the shore and crossed himself before turning the motor to full power, which was only slightly disconcerting. All seafarers in Sri Lanka are Christians for some reason I’ve yet to fathom, so to speak. A brisk northerly was blowing as usual down the Palk Strait fuelling the numerous kite-surfers hurtling along the coastline and breaking the ocean up into large, choppy waves over which we bounced in a vertebra-crushing, bum-hammering fashion for over an hour before finding some dolphins. Some? Actually in quantities only previously known on Blue Planet. Surfing, leaping and spinning all around us.
In the afternoon our driver took us into Kalpitiya town, which the Rough Guide accurately describes as having “a watery, end-of-the-world feel”. The town has one of Sri Lanka’s many Dutch forts but this one is still in military use as a naval base and permission has to be obtained to have a look around, accompanied by a cheerful but armed guard. Some buildings have been given tin roofs and brought back into use as store sheds or even accommodation. Sailors’ laundry hangs out to dry among the ruins and the skeletons of two blue whales have been erected on the battlements for some unaccountable reason.
On the way back to our hotel we asked the driver if he knew where the road led beyond the hotel. “To the beach, I think. Do you want to go?” We did, and since the road was named Beach Road this seemed plausible enough. But after meandering through a village the road petered out on a stretch of grassland by a lagoon. We were about to turn back when a portly woman emerged from a house painted in an unlikely combination of lilac and lime green and said: “Oyster farm?” We soon realised that these were her only two words of English but with our driver’s help we discovered that this was indeed an oyster farm, a family-run business aided – or so a sign in Sinhala seemed to suggest – by funding from a Danish NGO. Did we want to buy some oysters? Only thirty rupees each (less than 15p). We decided to go for it and see if the friendly hotel staff would deal with them for us. But there was no shed with a refrigerator and oysters on ice; this was a matter of catching them first. They don’t move very fast, granted, but they are good at disguising themselves as stones in the muddy lagoon bottom. So out came the family, some to gawp at us but the two older girls and two women to seek out our starters using their bare feet in the mud. Stone, stone, oyster, stone, oyster… Eventually we had amassed the dozen we’d ordered which were cleaned and paid for,and we headed back to the hotel where the chef was more than happy to prepare and present them to us in advance of our dinner. So let’s give the hotel a namecheck – the Blue Whale – highly recommended if you ever find yourselves at the further end of Kalpitiya.
That was the highlight, but in what remained of the trip we took two safaris in Wilpattu national park and saw a leopard on each occasion – I’ve visited Wilpattu seven times previously without seeing any. And on our way home detoured to Ritigala Forest Monastery by means of satnav which took us via dirt tracks rather than the regular tarmac road. And gave me my first encounter with a Tikpolonga a.k.a. Russell’s Viper, one of the most venomous snakes in the world. Fortunately this one was roadkill. As for Ritigala, well its stupendous beauty defies my powers of description. Go see it for yourself.