Sunday, 23 October 2011
"From Paradise to Taprobane is forty leagues; there may be heard the sound of the Fountains of Paradise" (traditional saying quoted by Arthur C. Clarke in his novel The Fountains of Paradise).
The island has been called a tear-drop pearl in the Indian Ocean, a jewel, a miracle. It has had many names: Serendib, from which Hugh Walpole coined the word Serendipity; Seilan or Ceylon, which survived independence from the British and is still seen in many local company names and the famous tea; and Taprobane, known to Milton in his Paradise Regained: 'From India and the golden Chersoness/And utmost Indian Isle Taprobane' (Book IV). This paradise is now, officially, the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka.
Of course there has not been much of paradise during decades of vicious civil war between the Sinhala majority and Tamil minority and terrorist activity by the Tamil Tigers, which straddled the period before and after the natural disaster of the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004. Reminders of both were painfully obvious during my recent visit there. Tight security at the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy is the legacy of a suicide bombing in 1998; even while we were there a political assassination in Colombo followed local elections which saw sweeping gains for President Mahinda Rajapaska's United People's Freedom Alliance, which is seemingly reaping the benefits of bringing an end to the war. And from the memorial at the beachside in Yala National Park, where our guide told us he had seen the dead bodies of a group of Japanese tourists, to the destroyed buildings up the coastline around Galle, the physical evidence of the tsunami's devastation is all too apparent. It takes time for a country to heal. Reading Michael Ondaatje's novel Anil's Ghost as we travelled was a sombre reminder of what horrors the war had brought. And the aftermath of the tsunami is captured in a non-fictional account in Adele Barker's aptly named Not Quite Paradise.
But for the tourist in search of warmth and friendly hospitality, Sri Lanka is in fact a delight. From the regular curry meals provided on Sri Lankan airlines' flight via the Maldives to the high point of watching two leopards greet each other in Yala, this was a wonderful trip. We started off in the Cultural Triangle staying centrally at Habarana and visiting the key Buddhist and historical sites of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Sigirya, Dambulla and Kandy. Although these all have their points of interest, and are probably essential for a first time visitor to Sri Lanka, there was an element of duty about trudging around them in the heat of the day before having really acclimatised to the country. Only Mihintale had a sense of peacefulness and was free from controls, crowds and hawkers, just us and a family of grey langurs among the trees. Another time, or for visitors who can honestly say they have seen their share of historical artefacts on other travels, I would suggest taking a couple of days to relax first and starting the culture bit with perhaps just Dambulla and Kandy. Our guide suggested a morning visit to the Temple of the Tooth and, as it was a Saturday, this turned out to be an inspired choice. Crowds of locals were arriving for their morning puja carrying trays of brightly coloured lotus flowers and other offerings. It was a wonderful spectacle and, despite the tight security, a cheerful holiday atmosphere. We next had a two day stop in the hill country town of Nuwara Eliya, where most tourists stay for only one night en route for Horton Plains. This is a bastion of the former British Empire, in the heart of tea country, with green and white painted bungalows, the Hill Club and a golf course. At the Grand Hotel, tea is still served on the lawn and there is no air conditioning but a log fire in the bedrooms. It wasn't that cold when we were there and on Sunday we had a completely free day, joining the locals again to walk round Victoria Park and Gregory Lake, a short distance outside town. It was good to find that apart from friendly curiosity no-one was that interested in us and we could just enjoy strolling like everyone else who was picnicking and playing musical instruments. And so ended our first week in Paradise.
It was onto serious wildlife watching for our second week, with our specialist guide Sunil Alwis who ensured we didn't miss any new birds en route and engaged a really experienced jeep driver and birdwatcher for our two days in Yala and morning in Bundala National Parks. We were very lucky on both days in Yala. Our itinerary had been for a morning and evening jeep safari each day but Sunil suggested full days in the forest. This meant an early start at 5 am, driving before and after a packed breakfast, and then a siesta in the jeep before an afternoon drive. That first morning we saw a vast range of birds and animals before 9 o'clock: peacocks, pelicans, bee-eaters, hornbills, spotted deer, two wonderful golden jackals, sambhar, wild boar, lots of elephants, including a tusker (very rare in Sri Lanka), crocodiles and land monitors. It was a hot day and there was a gathering of activity around the waterholes. Breakfast was on the beach at the tsunami memorial - it felt strange to be picnicking there - and lunch was a welcome rest in the cool of the trees until the call came that there was news of a leopard and we were hurtling across the rutted tracks again. This proved to be a false alarm and in the end it was a relief to reach the end of the day with an ice-cold Coke and a bush toilet stop on the edge of the park.
The next day the park was very different. It was cooler and we saw very little at first. Then at one waterhole there was the briefest glimpse of a leopard. It was gone before I could see it and I had to accept that I'd missed my chance. Our lunch stop was back at the beach memorial and watching a group of Japanese tourists larking around where their compatriots had died was a reminder of the relentlessness of life; it doesn't stop for loss or oblivion but is constantly renewed and evolving. That's both its challenge and its excitement, I suppose, but it's certainly not comfortable at times.
The afternoon was dwindling away; a pleasant day in the park but for me a sense of something missed. Gradually, though, I was able to reach a sense of acceptance of the collective 'oneness' that had seen the leopard. It was getting on for 4pm and we were languidly watching some langurs when the Jeep driver started the engine and began driving very fast across the park. Nothing was said but we all knew it could only mean one thing. We were about the furthest point away that we could be, obviously, and on the 30 minute drive we linked up with other Jeeps until a small convoy had gathered back at the same waterhole we'd been at in the morning. And this time there was no missing it: a beautiful leopard strolling slowly along the shoreline on the opposite side of the water. At that moment I knew that I had not been reconciled to missing it earlier. Tears of joy welled up as I watched, the coat grey in silhouette, the delicate white bibs of its ears. A herd of spotted deer in the distance - was this the target? They seemed unconcerned. The leopard slinked its way in and out of the foliage - such superb camouflage. It gave one long cool turn of the head in our direction, across the water at the row of Jeeps and cameras. Ignoring the deer, it disappeared briefly among the trees. Then it seemed that it had turned and was walking the other way. Until we realised that this was a second animal and we had the delight of seeing the two leopards meet and greet each other before one settled down among the trees. Paradise regained, indeed.