Sri Lanka’s beautiful east coast is again open for business: discover the leopard-rich jungles and surf beaches waiting for the wave of travellers to return
The leopardess was but the twitching tip of a tail and the onyx gleam of an unsheathed claw.
She was hidden in the chiaroscuro canopy of an ironwood tree half a kilometre from the beach at the southern tip of Yala. The water buffalo, ambling past like fat tourists, didn’t have a clue, and the calf, an inquisitive, lolloping half-yearling, didn’t have a chance.
Perhaps it heard a rustle of leaves, because the moment before it died it glanced upwards. The killer’s timing was exquisite – as she snapped the calf’s neck the mother, just 10m distant, turned, a visible shudder running along her mud-encrusted flank.
Then she charged. The leopardess grabbed the calf by the throat – its limp body longer and heavier than her own – and with superfeline strength hauled it into the tree as the horns of the buffalo tore into its trunk. The kill had taken less than ten seconds, but now the leopardess had a problem. Her victim’s mother was below, bellowing in fury, and the leopardess had nowhere to go.
Suddenly she dropped the calf – perhaps by accident, or maybe because she knew the mother would thereby accept its death and move on. Either way, it worked. While the buffalo nuzzled her lifeless child, the killer slipped down the far side of the tree and fled into the long grass.
What happened next was even more remarkable. A second leopard emerged from the bamboo, like a Rousseau dream – a jowly male with a shimmering coat and whiskers that sparkled in the sunlight. As the buffalo cow walked away he grabbed the carcass and vanished like a Cheshire Cat, while human witnesses wept in astonishment.
Nowhere on earth has leopards like Sri Lanka’s newly reopened Yala National Park, home to the world’s highest density of the species. Closed for security reasons for much of the past two decades, this spectacular swathe of grassland, jungle, swamp and beach is home to perhaps 200 members of the endemic subspecies Panthera pardus kotiya – conceited beasts with the muscular confidence of tigers. In this jungle the leopard is the apex predator, displaying none of the shyness and hyper-vigilance of his African kin. Put simply, the Yala leopard doesn’t have to stash its kills in trees because there’s no species capable of stealing it.
You don’t need to be a feline fan to justify the buttock-numbing, occasionally terrifying seven-hour trip from Colombo to Yala. Birdwatchers will find chestnut-headed bee-eaters as common as sparrows, as well as brown-capped babblers, crested serpent eagles, grey hornbills, the endangered lesser adjutant and the extremely rare black-necked stork, among 230-odd avian species.
There are crocodiles, king cobras, elephants and jackals, but ignoring the leopards is impossible. They sashay down tracks. They lounge like glamour pusses on rocky outcrops, making love to the camera with their amber eyes, and they loaf in trees like C-list slebs on Caribbean sunbeds. Chitral Jayatilake – wildlife photographer, conservationist and resident guide at Yala – will warn you that spotting a leopard in the park is never guaranteed, but you can take his caution with a pinch of salt.
The whales, however, are another matter. Co-stars in Sri Lanka’s new wildlife tourism extravaganza, the cetaceans are found within 9km of Dondra Head, the southernmost point of the island and the spot where the continental shelf is closest to the shore. Twenty-seven species have been recorded here, but the headline acts are the huge blue whale and the sperm whale, drawn to feeding grounds enriched by the outfall of Sri Lanka’s 105 rivers. Exactly what they’re doing offshore apart from sucking krill and munching squid isn’t fully understood: some theories suggest that the island lies on the blue whale migration route from the Bay of Bengal to the western Indian Ocean, while others believe the population is resident year round – the sperm whale in particular may be an endemic subspecies. But how easy is it to see them?
“Dead easy,” said free divers Andrew Sutton and Chris Walker of whale-snapping specialists Eco2.com. I found them sitting in a hotel bar at Mirissa, wearing that look photographers get when they’ve nailed the money shot. Their procedure was to motor due south in a Zodiac until they found the pods. Then, wearing just fins and a mask, and carrying underwater cameras, they swam with them. Their shots justified their goofy grins but I wasn’t so lucky.
In three days of seeing nothing bigger than a dolphin, the only fluke was that I wasn’t seasick.
The east-coast port, with its impregnable Dutch fort, once enjoyed a growing reputation as one of the world’s best whalewatching spots – but that was 25 years ago, before the Tamil Tiger insurgency put the city off-limits. A year on from the end of the war, Trinco is off the FCO’s naughty step; looking at my tourist map of Sri Lanka it didn’t seem that far. Ramjon, my driver, didn’t share my optimism.
“It is quite far, sir,” he opined, revealing a talent for understatement matched only by his obliquely cheerful pessimism. “And there will be no whales, sir, I positively guarantee.”
The east coast isn’t appearing in many tourist brochures yet, and 15km past Yala – the current end of the tourist trail – it became clear why. We stopped at a roadside shop on the edge of a village embraced by barbed wire. A betel-chewing lady sold me a warm bottle of something ghastly and said the only foreigners she saw were aid agency workers bunking off to see the leopards.
Disturbingly contradictory signs surrounded the village. Some said ‘Danger: Mines’. Others warned of wild elephants. But the shopkeeper and a passing cyclist concurred that pachyderm amputees were rarely seen.
“The elephants are clever,” said the cyclist. “They can smell the explosives.”
The road north is marked by sentry posts dug every 200m or so, the soldiers loitering in the shade of the banyan trees. Platoon-sized encampments have been built every couple of kilometres – some proud with whitewashed rocks and bamboo flagpoles, others shabby military shanties. Police checkpoints guard crossroads and towns, and the SUVs of the Special Task Force prowl like wolves between the shimmering paddies. The Sri Lankan government may have driven a stake through the heart of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE) but they’re clearly not convinced that the insurgency is dead.
When we pulled into the former backpacker beach resort of Arugam Bay I was the only tourist in town. The Psychedelic Lounge was boarded up. The buzz in the bars was just the insects and the messy, onshore swell broke unridden on the scruffy shore. In 2004 this double curve of beach and its coconut palm-covered point was rapidly becoming one of the world’s top surfing destinations, catching the same huge Antarctic swells that come to die on Indonesian shores. Then, on Boxing Day, the tsunami struck.
Merete Scheller had been running the Stardust Beach Hotel for the past 32 years. The monster wave arrived as she was serving breakfast.
“It washed me through the dining room and into the kitchen, trapping me underwater against the ceiling,” she said, her gaze flicking between me and the shoreline. “I thought: ‘now I die’, but then another surge pushed me through the back door. The water was so dirty, so full of debris, and I couldn’t tell which way was up or down. Then I saw one of our shutters coming past so I grabbed it. When I came to the surface all I could see were the tops of palms.”
The wave carried her 1.5km inland and then, just as suddenly, it was gone.
“I walked back to the hotel and started picking up the pieces,” she shrugged. Her husband’s body was found three days later, 3km away, one of 300 killed here that morning. The hotel’s lush gardens, destroyed by the tsunami, were his passion, but Merete won’t let them grow back. “It’s not sentimentality,” she said. “It’s just that these days I like to be able to keep an eye on the sea.”
As the tsunami receded the aid money flooded in. Survivors who had formerly been living in bamboo shacks found themselves rehoused in brick-built properties with mains electricity and running water, and fishing from brand new, fibreglass-hulled oruvas. “People round here call the tsunami the ‘wave of gold,’ said a fisherman called Mohamed, but faith in the ocean has yet to return. I spent an hour watching Mohamed and his brother trying to launch their boat before they abandoned the attempt. “Once upon a time waves like this would have been nothing,” he sighed, slumping onto the sand. “Now we’re scared of it. The ocean is like a loving father who got drunk and beat us. We don’t trust it anymore.”
It was easy to linger at Arugam Bay.
The beach is the stuff of Bounty ads: sugar-soft sands, coconut palms and utter solitude but for the whoops of the surfers riding the point. The locals, delighted to see visitors, are charming. “Come, try this,” said a kid called Ali, grabbing my hand and leading me to the family home, where his mother served me lentil dahl and coconut sambol (chilli condiment). She nodded towards two lobsters in a plastic bucket beside the cooking pot. Neither survived.
“The war filtered out the travellers,” said Devon-born Lee Blackmore, owner of the unfortunately-named Tsunami Hotel (he opened the place in 2001, inspired by the Japanese artist Hokusai’s wave paintings). “Right now it’s only those with a truly adventurous spirit who come here, but it’s beginning to change. There’s a real holistic, spiritual vibe here – there are signs that Arugam Bay is becoming a new Goa, a pre-rave Ibiza or Ko Pha Ngan.”
They’re not the only signs: post-tsunami reconstruction projects have left forests of them along the east coast. A fieldside pump was ‘a gift from the people of Norway’. An Arjuna tree was ‘donated by World Vision’ and a sign sticking out of a mysterious pile of rubble proclaimed ‘EU Tsunami Partnership’.
We stopped at the ambitious-sounding Passekudah National Holiday Resort – in reality, a shady car park beneath another big sign proclaiming plans for the future. The near-perfect beach – powdery blonde sand, ocean like warm Bombay gin – was busy with locals, and just one bikini-clad Westerner. I thought it important to interview her.
“Coming here is like discovering Thailand in the 60s,” she said. Her name was Angelina Cicci – pronounced ‘cheeky’ – an Italian aid worker based in Trincomalee.
“Accommodation is so cheap – I’m paying around €5 a night with dinner and I have a tuk-tuk to take me to whatever beach I fancy.”
Passekudah and neighbouring Kalkudah are relatively well-known but virtually any right turn off the road north takes you to another heart-stoppingly beautiful stretch of sand. The irritating beach boy culture of the south-west, like the local tourist infrastructure, is non-existent, but the hospitality of the predominantly Muslim fisherfolk is humbling.
But north of Brynthuraichenai, a foetid town plastered with the faces of slippery-looking political candidates, it became impossible to ignore the war.
In the banyan shade of a seaside beer garden, I had an extraordinary encounter with the Sri Lanka state security apparatus. I was talking to Nadan Thilainathon, a wet-eyed Tamil I’d noticed drinking Lion Super Strength and staring into the past. He had lost his daughter in the tsunami and his world had stopped turning the same day.
The foreign aid was appreciated, he said, but all he really wanted was little Sahalni back. As he became tearful again an SUV pulled up. Four men – two Sinhalese, two Tamils, in aviator shades – ordered beer and took the table next to us. Their leader asked Ramjon what I was doing, and then said something to Nadan, who made his excuses and left.
“If you are looking for stories of human rights abuses you won’t find them here,” he said. His companions smiled like Disney villains. “The LTTE were terrorists like Al-Qaeda and they’re finished,” he added, à propos of not much. “Now if someone is suspected of LTTE sympathies, the people inform the authorities. The authorities visit them and they stop being LTTE.” He took a slug on his beer. “Or so I’ve heard.”
Unsurprisingly there is little overt sympathy for the LTTE in these parts. The LTTE strategy of forcing non-Tamils from their lands in order to gain an ethnic majority only succeeded in creating bullet-pocked ghost towns.
At Oddamawady I met Mohammed Jahabdeen and his cousins, building a fence around a half-acre of weeds.
“We left here 25 years ago,” he said, “forced out by the LTTE. We moved to Batticaloa, but last week we returned.” The mines were a problem, he admitted, but his dream was to open a restaurant and a shop at this eerie crossroads.
We pressed on, Ramjon’s mood deteriorating with the road, which was now a potholed track through weed-choked paddies and untended farmland. In the flyblown village of Arrua I found a brand new adventure playground – ‘a gift from the people of Milwaukee’ – its apparatus still covered in protective polythene because there were no children around to use it.
We rolled into Trincomalee, tired, dirty and out of conversation. As Ramjon had predicted there were no whales, so I went to the beach. I arrived in time to encounter a crowd of more than 100 Muslim schoolgirls, dressed in lilac burqas, seeing the sea for the first time. At first they gathered in a nervous huddle, dipping tentative toes into the lukewarm water. Then, as braver girls waded deeper, their more timid classmates followed, until the whole year was romping, fully clothed and waist deep in the Indian Ocean.
“We come from Kandy,” explained their teacher. “The girls have never seen the ocean before but now the war is over we have seized the opportunity.” The girls’ joy was innocent and infectious, and as I waded in too to take photographs, 15-year-old Haifa grabbed my hand.
“I love peace, sir,” she said.
But don’t we all?