War has a way of holding back development, a boon for natural conservation wrapped in a curse for local lives and livelihoods. Starting in the early 1980s, Sri Lanka suffered through two decades of civil war, a period of stress and instability compounded by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which claimed tens of thousands of lives and homes along the island nation’s eastern and southern seaboards.
Although the Tamil-Sinhalese conflict ended in 2009, rehabilitation has been slow, and international visitors are only now reappearing to enjoy the empty beaches, friendly people, tantalising cuisine and wild jungles. On my last visit nearly a decade ago, my travels focused on Colombo, Kandy, the Hill Country and the Cultural Triangle of Sigiriya, Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa in north central Sri Lanka. This time I headed straight for the formerly troubled areas, starting in Trincomalee and working my way down the coast and around to Galle.
Its natural, deep-water harbour drawing seafaring international traders for centuries, Trinco, as the name is popularly abbreviated, remained virtually off limits to all but locals, relief workers and military until the truce of 2009.
Before starting my journey south, I stop off at Koneswaram Temple, the focus of religious life in Tamildominated, Hindu-majority Trinco. Perched on a rocky bluff overlooking the Bay of Bengal known as Swami Rock, the temple lies entirely within British-built Fort Frederick, now occupied by the Sri Lankan Army, and is considered one of Sri Lanka’s most potent pilgrimage sites. In the hour and a half I spend at Swami Rock, I don’t spot any other non-Tamil, non-Sinhalese visitors.
From Trinco it’s a long day’s drive to Gal Oya National Park, 62,937 hectares of protected forest and savannah that shelter such exotic mammals as common langur, toque macaque, leopard, sloth bear, elephant, wild boar, axis deer and wild buffalo, not to mention around 150 bird species and rare medicinal plants used in Ayurvedic medicine.
I’m the first guest to stay at just-opened Gal Oya Lodge, whose wood-walled, thatched-roof cottages blend naturally into the fringes of the national park while offering luxurious canopy beds and spacious open-air garden bathrooms. Gal Oya is the only national park in Sri Lanka that doesn’t restrict visitors to safari vehicles, and I’m delighted to follow one of the lodge guides on a vigorous hike along a jungle path high above rocky streams. We end at the top of a waterfall, watching a resident elephant herd stroll across the savannah below.
The following day we leave the coastal plains and drive towards the Hill Country till we reach Living Heritage Koslanda, a mountain idyll set amid the southern extent of Devianga Kale – Sinhalese for ‘God’s Forest’ – a vast area of jungle, rock and stream stretching from Adam’s Peak to Kataragama. Living Heritage Koslanda kicked off over 30 years ago when Sri Lankan film director Manik Sandrasagra sought to preserve Sri Lanka’s natural beauty and cultural heritage. Designed in collaboration with renowned Sri Lankan architect Channa Daswatte, the peaceful retreat was completed in 2012 by Manik’s wife Lucy, four years after his death.
As the sole guest, I have the run of the traditionally constructed lodge and lounging pavilions, a rock-framed swimming pool with stunning views of the valley below, and a network of trails leading to a hidden year-round waterfall. It suits me so well, I vow to return for a longer stay one day.
Next on the journey southward comes Yala National Park, checking in at a luxury tented camp operated by Leopard Safaris. Yala’s dry thorn scrub and dusty glades are reminiscent of African bushveldt, and similarly filled with elephants, wild boar, spotted deer, crocodiles, jackals and the world’s highest concentration of wild leopards.
Over the next two days, Leopard Safaris owner Noel Rodrigo and his experienced guides take me through the park aboard a Toyota Land Cruiser in search of wildlife. We are rewarded with a leisurely sighting of the namesake prize early on the second morning: a noble pair of svelte leopards lounging in boulder-studded grass near a watering hole frequented by deer and buffalo.
While negotiating the park’s dusty, unsealed roads, we see scattered groups of Hindu pilgrims, some walking from as far away as Jaffna at the island’s northern tip, as they slowly make their way on foot to the great temple at Kataragama. Home to the six-faced, 12-armed Hindu war god, Skanda (known locally as Murugam), the temple site is said to be the southernmost terminal of an Axis Mundi extending all the way from Tibet’s Mount Kailash. This yearly pilgrimage, known as Pada Yatra, was suspended during most of the 1983-2009 civil war. Nowadays it’s thriving once again, culminating in a huge temple festival every August.
After several consecutive days of glamping it, I make my way to Tangalla, a southern seacoast town, where wild, beautiful and mostly undeveloped sand coves undulate along an indigo sea swirling with coral, rock and foam.
My home for the night is Last House, the architecturalswan song of legendary Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa. Separated from secluded Mawella Beach by grassy grounds and a rickety wooden gate, the large and simply laid-out, two-storey seaside villa features high ceilings and extensive pillared verandas, encouraging the circulation of sea breezes year-round.
Our lengthy road trip ends at Galle, a garrison town on the Bay of Galle originally built by the Portuguese in 1588, then extensively fortified by the Dutch during the 17th century.
Atop a rocky promontory, 36-hectare Galle Fort encloses a maze of narrow streets lined with a hodgepodge of architectural styles which today form a living time capsule. Unesco has recognised the walled area as a World Heritage Site, calling it ‘the best example of a fortified city built by Europeans in South and Southeast Asia’.
I take a pleasant and informative walking tour of thefort with Juliet Coombe, a photographer and publisher who is married to a local resident and raising a family inside the fort. Coombe and I meander from majestic sea wall to blind alley as she reveals a compelling narrative in which the town plays hero.
I stay outside of town at peaceful Kahanda Kanda, one of the first and most well-known boutique villa resorts to flourish in picturesque villages between Galle and Tangalla. Known to local residents simply as KK, the ochre-hued collection of stylish villas is surrounded by a working tea estate and acres of jungle, with Koggala Lake visible in the distance.
My final night on the Trinco-to-Galle route is spent relaxing at Why House, an Italianate-cum-Sinhalese manor house surrounded by a three-acre tropical garden in Mihiripenna village. There’s a long swimming pool less than a stone’s throw from the veranda. I’m happy to stay put, kick back and reminisce on a successful trip through parts of Sri Lanka that are opening anew.
Gal Oya Lodge | galoyalodge.com
Living Heritage Koslanda | koslanda.com
Leopard Safaris | leopardsafaris.com
The Last House | thelasthouse.com
Kahanda Kanda | kahandakanda.com
Why House | whyhousesrilanka.com