We have been living in the South of Sri Lanka for two months now.
On our very first trip to Sri Lanka we explored the South and South Eastern part of this pearl shaped island. Our main focus of that trip was on seeing elephants in the wild.
On our second trip we extended our explorations to include the Eastern Coast and did this on an epic trip which mostly entailed driving miles descending the coast from Trincomalee in the North East to Arguam Bay in the South East. We took a few buses, but mostly we travelled slowly for hours by tuk tuk!
Our third trip was mostly business and a search for the place where we would want to live. We focused this “research” in the vicinity of the historic town of Fort Galle and the Southern beaches.
Even though Sri Lanka is a relatively small island (it is about half the size of Nicaragua!) it still entails a fair amount of logistics and travel to explore the rich diverse offerings… from mountains, to UNESCO heritage sites, nature parks, beaches, Buddhist and Hindu temples.
JAFFNA, at the Northern most tip of Sri Lanka, a stone throw away from the Tamil Nadu region of India, has remained an elusive place for us.
Jaffna until recently was off limits to foreign travelers, as the city was one of the epicenters of the brutal 29 year civil war that ended a mere 7 years ago. We have been eager and interested to visit Jaffna, but it has been the one place we just did not get to on prior trips, due to time complexity and logistics.
So now, we decide to make Jaffna the main goal of our year end adventure.
How to get there?
We can take an early morning very long train ride from Colombo, or a series of long bus rides.. We make the decision to drive to Jaffna and rent a car, for the first time in Sri Lanka. This will give us the flexibility to leave when we like and to stop along the way whenever we want to. Not something one can do when traveling by bus or by train.
Characteristically these plans come together at the last minute, with the only thing planned in advance, our 2 day stay at a small boutique hotel in Jaffna where I (Peta) have a writing job, in exchange for accommodation.
We have a rough outline and idea of a few key places we might like to stop at on the way there and on the way back. But of course, plans inevitably change, as we stay flexible to the last minute depending on what comes our way.
And indeed, a lot comes our way!
Wheels!! We have not owned a car for 10 years. Renting one is inexpensive here and certainly to us feels quite luxurious even though it is a small compact car for people with relatively long legs! Car packed, and off we go…..
Um… small problem… steering wheel is on the “wrong” side. But, ok, Ben’s driven in Japan, also on the left side. but wait, this is a stick shift, so the box is also on the other side. Gotta quickly adapt to left handed gear shift. Oy.
Negombo beach is very near to the international airport and it takes us quite a while to navigate heavy traffic and crazy buses around Colombo in order to get there. We stop for lunch and come across this work of art on the beach! A huge tie dye painted sail. Magnificent!
You get a good idea of how large this sail is in comparison to Ben. I like how the sail and his sarong go together…
Stopping along the roadside for a snack. HOPPERS of course! A classic Sri Lankan snack stacked up like bowls on a shelf. Hoppers are rice based, thin as a crepe, with crispy edges and are sometimes plain or have an egg in the center. You can see the pans used for cooking the hoppers on the bottom right. Above the hoppers is the reflection of the palm trees on the side of the road.
Kalpitiya is a peninsula augmented by 14 small islands known for its marine sanctuary and diversity of habitats that range from coral reefs, salt pans, mangrove swamps and vast sand dune beaches. We however are here to see the spinner dolphins!
The unique geographic conditions that result from a high amount of rain, unusual weather patterns and distribution of sediments collected from numerous rivers, provide a rich buffet of food ~ for marine life in the waters which surround Sri Lanka.
To date, a remarkable 27 species of whale and dolphin have been recorded in Sri Lankan waters including the largest creatures on the planet, the blue whale. As for dolphins, there are spinner dolphins, spotted, humpback and bottle nose dolphins. The spinner dolphins are the most spectacular, due to their aerial acrobatics.
We walk along the beach in the early morning, towards the end of the bay where the boats which take people out to watch the dolphins, await.
Wide stretches of soft sand and warm waters in this bay. Due to the civil water restriction in travel to this area, it is only recently starting to develop slowly. Most people come here for deep sea diving, snorkeling, dolphin and whale watching or kite surfing.
Colorful fishing boats.
Spinner dolphins are endemic to this region. They travel in large pods of at least a dozen or more.. We were very lucky to see hundreds swimming very close to our boat ~ a breathtaking and epic experience. Hard to capture the beauty and grace of these mammals in photographs.
After the exhilaration of seeing spinner dolphins up close, we take a walk along the long stretch of beach which we have to ourselves, except for a few fishermen working on their boats.
Fisherman and his wife repairing their fishing net.
The fishing nets are a bright orange color.
One of the unique and surprising features of this area are the feral donkeys roaming about…. everywhere!
The region takes advantage of good wind to provide electricity from wind turbines. (Just last month the press triumphantly reported an important milestone in the development of the country that the last house on the entire island of Sri Lanka was connected to the grid.) Here an unlikely landscape of a wild donkey in front of a wind turbine
A rare sight.. wild donkeys grazing on the side of the roads.
Wilpattu National Park
As we leave Kalpitiya and its beaches and lagoons, to continue our Northern journey we need to make a choice… One option is to veer right toward the archaeological ancient sacred city of Anuradhapura, OR to take a chance that the road we see on the map going through a national park, actually does go through the park.
Will we be able to drive through?
Most parks as far as we know, only allow one to go in with a hired jeep and nature guide.
You can see the orange line on the map on the left which runs through the park ~ indicating a road going through the park.
We decide to go for it and try our luck at driving through Sri Lanka’s oldest and largest natural park.
The highway turns into a single lane and then a dirt road and with no fuss nor entry fee, we pass a sign that announces our arrival at the park and we drive right in! What follows is what Ben describes as his single best experience in Sri Lanka so far…
The freedom of movement afforded by having our own car, the ability to stop as we please in the park and even get out of the car, makes for a unique experience.
(I (Peta) grew up in South Africa and we would take family car trips to the Kruger National Park. I have very fond memories of driving through Kruger Park scanning the horizon with my siblings, for sightings of giraffe, elephant and zebra.)
There is no entrance gate on this road, just a sign announcing our arrival and a few more small signs with various rules of the park on them. But that’s it… We just drive in!
And.. for the next 2 hours we drive at a leisurely pace stopping at will to watch monkeys, birds, lizards….
We jot down the animal sightings as we go through Wilpatu National Park. (Wonky writing due to a moving vehicle.)
Nowhere on the signs do the rules prohibit leaving the vehicle. We step out a few times to watch birds on a lagoon or elephants in the distance.
Six proud and brightly colored wild peacocks cross the road in front of us. We do see peacocks in our neighborhood, but they are usually up in the trees and not seen in groups.
When we spot this family of elephants, we pull over and get out the car to watch them. Watching the baby elephant strolling happily with 2 adults is a pleasure to behold.
By the time we reach Mannar, it becomes visually obvious that we are no longer in the Buddhist-dominated South. The architectural landscape here, and population, reveal a multi-religious community that is Hindu, Muslim and Christian, and ethnically Tamil.
Men in the street don ‘Fez’ caps, either pure white or adorned with gold thread. In terms of physical look, the Muslim men tend to have full beards, a feature we haven’t seen amongst Sinhalese men in the South.
Young men are less likely to wear sarongs, yet still the ‘Fez” cap is a constant. In a small vegetable shop a young man chops up cabbage for the classic Sri Lankan ‘mixed salad’. We stock up on carrots to hand out to donkeys.
The small shops are getting ready to open for the day…
Brightly colored Hindu dresses are displayed in many of the small stores on the streets. The bright colors are no doubt influenced by the equally bright Hindu temples.
Palm woven goods are a specialty of this region. The hodgepodge of goods sold in little stores one after the other, create an ‘Ali Baba cave’ effect, where one can find all sorts of little treasures.
Plentiful heaps of vegetables being grown and sold. Here piles of leeks stacked up on either side of the store.
The feral donkeys we saw in Kalpitiya were but a preview to the larger population of donkeys which reside in this urban environment. These donkeys have a much harder life as they clearly struggle to find food to eat and we saw many of them scrounging through piles of garbage. We decided to spread some animal love and good karma by handing out carrots.
Obviously not a solution to the large scale problem, just a small treat. Much like feeding stray dogs (and cows in India) along our path.
This cute, fluffy baby seems to have never seen a carrot before! Not quite sure what to make of it, at first. His normal diet: paper, and whatever scraps of food he can find in plastic bags thrown in the trash.
At the old Portuguese fort area ~ this crop seem to be faring a little better as they have some greenery to sustain them.
Fort Mannar, built by the Portuguese, lies at a critical observation point over the bays. Mannar is definitely not a tourist destination to be sure, but the fort could be a potential draw for visitors.
Ben’s sarong brightens up the grey colors of the Fort stones.
After a short stop over for a night’s sleep, we head out over the causeway, which bridges the island city of Mannar, to the mainland. Today we should finally get to Jaffna after about another final 3 hours on the road.
Brand new causeway with ocean on both sides. Quite a dramatic drive across turquoise blue waters.
Traditional crab fishing in the bay.
Just as we see a multitude of Hindu temples and mosques, there are also many churches both big and small. Remnants from days of Portuguese colonization.
We leave the buzz and activity of the little shopping center in Mannar and are back in the serene green countryside where the main way of getting around smalls roads is definitely the bicycle.
Short stop at a little market area to buy some fruit and veg for a roadside picnic.
We travel with a knife (for picnics) and a map. Find some shade, a view .. add some fresh tomatoes, daikon radish and we are happy campers.
One of the fun aspects of the countryside we drive through is the many birds we see. Here, a flock of large painted stork takes flight. These are the largest birds we have seen this close, between 3 and 4 feet tall, since we saw another large stork, at a magnificent bird park in India’s Rajasthan region – Keoladeo National Park.
No Ben. Sorry, but we cannot bring them home with us!
The green line on the left is our route ~ which started from way down in the SOUTH (Galle) and goes all the way up the coast to way up in the NORTH to Jaffna….. About 14 hours driving in total with 4 main stops along the way.
As we start to enter the region of Jaffna, we see this sign. A remnant of war days gone by? or just referring to the road ahead?