Sri Lanka is a land of contradictions and confusion. It is beautiful, spiritual and deeply relaxing but it is also a land of tragedy, conflict and loss. A decades-long civil war tore the country apart. Brutal terrorist actions affected all parties involved, and as is so often the case, there were no real winners. The government’s final solution to the conflict was absolute and utterly uncompromising to say the least. Then there was the tsunami… In 2004 over 30,000 people were killed as the waters rolled in devastating the coast-line utterly. Homes and businesses were destroyed, families suffered horrendous losses, rice fields were salinated, and the precious mangrove ecosystems were smashed. Every single person I met in Sri Lanka had lost someone in the tsunami. Even now, over a decade later, a scar exists across the nation visible in the empty plots, the damaged wildlife and the long, heartbreaking lists of deaths displayed in public buildings such as the local schools. Our Sri Lankan holiday lacked the luxury of a dramatic hotel, yet every single person I met in Sri Lanka was positive, loved life and adored their homeland.
The Sri Lankan Travel Industry
Since records were first being properly collected in 1977, the number of visitors to Sri Lanka has varied widely. The lowest number of monthly visitors was 5,536 in June of 1977 but this rose to a record monthly high of 244,536 in December 2017. These visitors are hugely important to the local economy as the country can barely produce enough produce to feed themselves and has to import many staples including basic foodstuffs, certain minerals, petroleum products and machinery/transport.
The tea, spice, precious stone, coconut and rubber exports are large but are not nearly enough to balance the books. Tourism is key for Sri Lanka and everyone is willing to take advantage of any opportunity, no matter how small, that presents itself. By looking out for special offers and being careful with our spending, we were able to make our small amount of disposable income go a long way.
My Adventure In Sri Lanka
I had been lucky enough to have 8 weeks in this amazing island paradise. I could have spent all of them in the amazing Arugam Bay but as it was, I spent 3 weeks there and the rest of the time touring around the major sites. We took in ancient temples, wildlife safaris, whale watching tours, white water rafting, surfing and much more besides. We saw the damage caused by war and weather and the people determined to just keep going. We had late night adventures bombing around in tuk tuks over train lines into shanty towns, where the only industry was the conservation of the local turtle populations. We were welcomed into the homes of those who had nothing and fed the most delicious food imaginable. After our tour was nearly done, friends I had made in Arugam Bay invited my family camping and it is this adventure I want to tell you about.
Camping in Pottuvil Point
I have made camp in gale force winds in a muddy English field, I have strung a hammock between palm trees in the Arabian Empty Quarter (the largest sand desert in the world), and I have pitched a wigwam in France but none of this compared to Sri Lanka.
We accessed Pottuvil Point by road, utilizing safari buggies and tuk tuks to get there. We arrived early en mass. My family and I were accompanying the local community group I had been working with and they came prepared. Earlier that day I had the sad experience of seeing just how fresh the chicken we were going to eat was. The poor thing had its throat cut and was placed in a clean plastic bin until it stopped flapping. The chicken had been plucked at once and was soaking in a marinade of Sri Lankan spices before the meat had even started to cool. Camping equipment is scarce in this part of the world so the locals made do with what they had. The chicken was wrapped in foil to keep the juices in. The fire was built from driftwood, the grill was repurposed from an abandoned engine cover and the mats we sat and slept on were modern versions of traditional reed mats that used recycled plastic waste instead of the far rarer marsh grass.
The camp was little more than a mat on a raised section of beach. In the wet season, the beach we used didn’t exist and the lagoon on the other side of it was an estuary. But now in high summer, this spit of land sat proud and served as a bridge between Whiskey Point and Pottuvil. The mats were thrown out, a car battery was attached to a kitchen fluorescent lamp (full size) and we all brought our own sleeping bags. It may not sound luxurious but it was the best camp out I have ever had.
The Wildlife and The Nightlife
We arrived in the afternoon and selected where we would sleep and where the fire would go. Our equipment was loaded up and left for later. We had the beach completely to ourselves, as high season had passed and we had entered the period where most of the visitors were richer Sri Lankans from the cities. My hosts had a number of surprises planned and the first was a trip across the lagoon to see more birds, deer, crocodiles and other assorted wildlife than I thought possible.
Following the lagoon trip, I thought we were done for the night but we disembarked near a rocky outcrop and climbed to the top. I played with the exposure time and white balance of my camera to catch every detail of the sunsets but it turns out this wasn’t what we were there for. As the light level fell I was so glad that I had brought my tripod. Out of the woodland came the elephants. They didn’t travel alone but in whole families and they passed within metres of our rock. Gigantic males, proud, loud and strong; protective females who stood alert and primed to charge; and inquisitive babies who just seemed to dare us to approach so that their mummies could trample us to death. This was a moment I couldn’t forget and one that I would never forgive myself for if I couldn’t capture it photographically. My poor Note 5 phone was just producing pure black images even with the flash. The DSLR, however, with a long exposure and no flash captured the elephants perfectly.
Starlight and Meteors
After the amazing trip and gorgeous food, we lay back to look at the stars. I played around a little more with my camera and managed to capture a few good images. After a while, I drifted off to be awoken by gasps. Above our heads, meteors streaked across the sky. I had to at least try so I set my camera up and waited. It took several false starts but eventually, I caught some of the shower in beautiful detail.
What I Took Away
The Sri Lankans showed me that you can always make the best of what you have. Life could have been viewed as cheap and worthless but instead they grasped every moment with both hands and lived it to the full. So many people live near wonderful attractions around the world but never bother to visit them. The Sri Lankans I met knew exactly how wonderful their country was and enjoyed it to the full.
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