See if you recognise this scenario.
You want to go arctic kayaking. Ever since you were small you dreamed of seeing killer whales and seals and polar bears, and glaciers the same vivid turquoise as the pacific ocean. It’s all so clean, so perfect, so free from humanity and pollution. But you know that by even going there, you’re contributing to it’s very demise. What do you do?
I don’t want to have any part in destroying paradise, so writing this part of my blog has me conflicted.
So much of this trip had me feeling conflicted: the elephant orphanage, for example. Don’t get me wrong – Sri Lankan people are very kind to animals. They don’t tend to keep pets, but tolerate the stray dogs and cats in such a warm way it almost implies ownership. The elephants were well-fed, and the trainers were kind to them, but still – is it natural? Seeing a baby elephant sucking hard on it’s trainer’s fingers, clearly longing for it’s mother made me feel that this wasn’t right.
Going to see the turtles embark on their pilgrimage to lay their eggs also had me questioning what I was doing there. I don’t want to be a part of the problem.
Luckily, I maybe have an audience of ten (on a good day), otherwise I might not have written this chapter.
The coastal train only runs as far as Matala, so if you want to go any further south, you’ll need to take a bus or hire a car and/or driver. We hired a driver with a comfortable, air conditioned people carrier to take us from Hikkaduwa to Tangalle. It was pretty expensive at 11,000 Rupees (about £50), but it was a three hour journey and putting it in perspective, a small price to pay to be that comfortable.
Tangalle consists of the town and several exquisite beaches, which are usually to be found spooning with a companion lagoon.
If you are looking for B&B accommodation in a very friendly, clean, stylish property with an excellent beach restaurant, I’d heartily recommend Harmony Beach Bungalows. If you’re looking for a bit of luxury and escape, with a breath taking location then head to Lagoon Paradise Beach Resort.
We’d decided to split up at this stage. L wanted to stay somewhere cheap and close to lots of people; M and I wanted a bit of luxury and to get away from it all for a few days. After travelling in extreme comfort, in a car driven by a man with an extra (fully opposable) thumb, we checked into our respective hotels, ate a delicious (as usual) supper, and went home to enjoy the deep sleep only afforded to those who’ve done without a decent bed in a week.
I awoke to a very excited M. He’d been for his morning run, and as usual, made a discovery. The room we were staying in was about the size of my whole house, so we did our morning exercise routine in the room. It felt good to move physically, after moving only in a geographical sense, cramped in a seated position, for the best part of a week.
Showered and invigorated, we stepped outside so M could show me what had him so excited.
Have you ever been to a beach so natural you could genuinely believe you’d been washed ashore some unknown desert island? All my desertion fantasies, borne of Robinson Crusoe and The Swiss Family Robinson were satisfied with one glance at this vision of utter perfection. And it went on for miles.
Unable to contain the joy that welled up in me, I immediately ran to the sea and performed several cartwheels. I believe this to be the only sane reaction to finding yourself in this kind of environment. M and I played with the sea, running towards the powerful, churning, cerulean Indian Ocean, and then attempting to escape it’s awesome suction.
A very important note here about the sea at Tangalle: The currents here are incredibly strong as the sea floor drops away sharply from the shore. There are undercurrents and rip tides. Therefore, unless you are a very competent and STRONG swimmer, treat swimming with extreme caution. There are no lifeguards to help you if you get into trouble, so don’t take unnecessary risks.
If you’re a nature lover, most lagoon-side hotels will have individual kayaks you can take out for the day, and you’ll have the chance to spot several rare bird species, wild monkeys, snakes, water monitors and mangroves. Make sure you apply lots of sunscreen!
After playing ‘you’re it’ with the sea for an hour and lumbering along the soft, golden sand, we ate breakfast and headed out on some kayaks. A couple from London we’d met at breakfast made four, and together we explored the mangroves, feeling as if we were brave adventurers discovering some hidden jungle paradise.
Monkey families peered at us through the boughs, their pure white hair-do’s and black faces in stark contrast. Massive monitor lizards slithered off the banks and floated past us casually, as we all held our breath in unison. Storks flew within metres of our heads and brightly coloured king fishers played in the air above us.
That night we were treated to a BBQ at Harmony Beach Bungalows: freshly caught fish, accompanied by rice and vegetables, and the strongest pina coladas (made with fresh, natural coconut and pineapple) we’d ever consumed.
I know for a fact that we weren’t the first people to throw away our plans after a few short days in Tangalle, and we won’t be the last. A unanimous decision was made; we’d found paradise and we weren’t prepared to leave.
Extra nights were booked at our respective hotels, and we finally unpacked.
It is perfectly acceptable to haggle over the price in a hotel in Sri Lanka – even a five star hotel. If you’re planning on staying extra nights, the hoteliers are always prepared to give you a significant discount on what you paid online.
The following days and nights saw us enjoying more kayaking, this time on a different part of the lagoon, and turtle watching.
An interesting fact: turtles always return to the beach that they were born on to lay their eggs. This can sometimes be five or even thirty years later. They have a gland in their brain which means that no matter where they have been and for how long, when it comes time to lay their eggs, they just know where to go.
The sad thing is, a lot can change in thirty years. The turtle may have been born on an unspoilt stretch of virgin beach, but when they return to lay their eggs after years at sea, that same beach could be overrun with tourist bars, pumping music and lights out into the darkness. Turtles are extremely sensitive to all sorts of vibrations, including light, and this is too much of a shock for them. They simply keep swimming.
You can book a turtle watching tour through the Turtle Conservation Project. Although in spirit this is a worthwhile project – they employ poachers to protect turtles, therefore providing them with an income and preventing poaching – more needs to be done to educate those who take part in the night time turtle spotting. Turtles are very sensitive to noise and light frequencies, so tours are conducted by red light. That didn’t stop several rowdy groups from using their phones as flashlights. If you are planning on embarking on this tour, please be sensitive to these creatures’ plight and listen to what the guides tell you.
Conflicted, once again, about my very presence contributing to the inevitable destruction of this natural cycle, I decided to call it a night and leave. The project offer a refund if you aren’t lucky enough to spot a turtle, however we had seen a huge beast returning to the ocean after an unsuccessful attempt to bury it’s eggs. Plus I wanted to contribute to their conservation, so I wouldn’t have asked any way. The same couldn’t be said for the thoughtless group of noisy Russians that had been sat next to us, who now obnoxiously shouted at the staff for their money back.
Our final day was tremendous. Truly perfect in every way. We had enlisted the services of a sweet tuktuk driver called Suranga (tel: 07770 43233) throughout our stay, and asked him to show us the sights around Tangalle.
Suranga’s driving was much more sedate than we’d experienced in Kandy, and this journey was a very relaxed affair. He slowed right down when going past the endless lakes, dotted with thousands of lotus flowers, and enjoyed by the local water buffalo. We drove past acres of rice paddies and jungles, and yet more water lily covered, glassy lakes that perfectly reflected the sky above.
Finally we arrived at a rock temple – a series of temples carved into the rock, reached by 1500 steps, all carved by hand into the granite rock side. Procuring flower offerings and a bag of bananas, we trekked up the thousands of stairs, whilst receiving a comprehensive guide to Buddhism and it’s many symbols. Once at the top, we were set about by a large family of Macaques, who ate pieces of banana from our hands.
A word to those afraid of heights: going up is fine. Coming down, however, may I politely suggest you refrain from taking the ‘New Stairs’. One person we met accurately described these stairs as ‘a feat of engineering so impossible, it should never have happened’. If the idea of climbing down what I can only describe as an Escher painting, with nothing to hold onto but a spindle of metal, and no view of the stairs beneath or of your own feet, just of the sheer 200 foot drop gets you excited – go ahead and take the new stairs.
When we’d completed our mission, we grabbed a couple of king coconut from a roadside vendor and then headed over to ‘The Bat Tree’.
The sun was setting, and we pulled up on a narrow lane, inhabited by a couple of languid water buffalo, with views onto a purple, lotus covered lake. Here were the bat trees, covered in hundreds of thousands of giant fruit bats! This really was the stuff of childhood comic books, and we watched with glee and they soared above our heads, making perfect Batman silhouettes in the dusky sky.
That night saw us eating the freshest seafood at Sha Sha Seafood Restaurant . I use the term restaurant loosely. Sha Sha is a simple driftwood construction consisting of a tiny deck on stilts, with a palm leaf roof. There’s no electricity and all the food is caught that day, and prepared simply over a portable gas cooker. With nothing to obscure our view of the stars but some home made coconut shell oil lamps, we tucked into something so delicious I still can’t talk about it without craving more.
Full of food and wonder, we laid on the sand staring straight ahead and feeling that we were the only two people on earth. Above us was the vastness of space, illuminated by the trillions of stars which make up the milky way. I’ve never felt so complete.