Skirting Sri Lanka Part 2

by David Armitage

Sunday was the day of our snorkelling trip. We rose at 02.30 in the morning to pick up Cedric as Rohan was due to help him survey a pristine reef toward Puttalum, north of Columbo on route 3, near Kalpitiya. The ride in the back of the truck was bone-jolting and we only halted just as dawn was breaking, for a quick thermos of coffee. After some negotiation with the marine fish hunters, we secured an old fibreglass boat, complete with outboard driver, and accessory fuel supplies. This proved to break down with depressing regularity, whereupon the cover had to be removed and the spark-plugs cleaned and at one point we transferred to another 'launch' while our driver-mechanic grappled with his recalcitrant engine.

Meanwhile, I entertained myself watching the sea-birds, including a sea-eagle which constantly swooped on a comorant, forcing it to dive so that it eventually became waterlogged, whereupon the eagle carried it away in triumph.

The reef wasn't quite what I expected. We stopped in the middle of a featureless expanse of water, a long distance from any land, with the reef just colouring the blue water pink, to show its position. Rohan and Cedric immediately started swimming along the reef, looking for their survey points while I, after some simple instruction, took my first tentative steps into the world of snorkelling. After a few lungfulls of water, I got the hang of the technique, forcing the seals between my lip and gums and keeping my tongue on the roof of my mouth, to stop any water going straight into my lungs and throat.

In the crystal clear water, the reef fell from 0.5 m to 15 m, so even with short-sight, I had a fine view of the coral gardens. To the background noise of my stentorian breathing and an orchestra of underwater clicks, I floated, face down propelling myself with flippers, fascinated with the wrasse, parrot-fish and butterfly fish, as they picked at the coral in pairs or small schools of young. Adult damsels rose out of their deep holes in the coral to see me off as I swam among clouds of tiny Chromis damsels. The deep blue of a crown of thorns starfish stood out deep in the coral. As schools of open sea fish rushed passed me, I suddenly thought of Sharks but was assured that those encountered here are small and harmless. Our boatman beckoned me and showed me a turtle lying quietly among the coral, trying hard not to be noticed. His attempts at lassooing it soon sent it scudding off into the distance.

My main difficulty was hauling myself over the steep sides of the boat and I often had to be dragged on board like a dead seal. However I finally did grasp the skill of rising with the swell and kicking like mad 'till I had my top half on board.

We returned home past the feral donkeys on the salt-marsh after a fly-blown snack topped off with bars of completely melted chocolate. We arrived back at about 9 in the evening to meet some guests that Rohan had invited. By now my limbs were stiff and my head and body were still at sea after a day in the boat and truck.

On Tuesday, Dhanapalla and I left at 5 a.m and picked up Dinesh, Rohan's second assistant en-route for a 4 day trip to the south. On Route 2, we passed a lot of western hotels as well as some nice countryside including mangroves. By 07.30 we were in Galle for breakfast and then we headed inland on minor roads to the remnant of the Kottawa forest. Here we found a stream as it trickled through marshland and eventually broadened out into a deeply shaded rivulet with some thigh-deep pools. In one of these, Dinesh caught our first labyrinth of the trip, a Combtail. Sure that it was the right habitat, he was determined the purse-seine to trawl under a deep overhang with roots. He thrust one end into my hands and, as we waded toward deeper water, I realised that I would have to discard my waders and carried on with my underpants tucked into my shirt, a stirring sight! Eventually we caught just one, 1 cmM.kretseri and despite repeated attempts, no more.

We fished 2 other streams (or the same stream in 2 other places) as it descended to the edge of fields and with the usual audience, caught P.cupanus both in shaded areas at the edge of paddy field and as the stream crossed the field in full sun along withChanna ?punctata hiding amongst tall grasses.

We continued on, taking the road between Nakiyadema and Udugama, turning off the 'main' road, taking a dirt track which led uphill to forestry land. However, access was not possible until the following morning so we contented ourselves fishing downstream in the pleasantly cool water, catchingB.signata, more snakeheads and an unusual Butis sp. Meanwhile, before the usual afternoon downpour, the lady of the small house by the bridge brought us superb cups of sweet tea and we watched herOsphronemus and a variety of barbs which had been pumped up from the river in a small concrete well. As the light failed, we found our resthouse at Udagema or Hinduma, somewhat less salubrious than that at Ratnapura but perfectly satisfactory for all that and at only half the price. The water had to be pumped from the stream to the header tank and meanwhile Dinesh disappeared to return later, announcing he had found another nice habitat. This was under the steep slope beneath the resthouse and we caught C.?punctata here. Dinesh and Dhanapahla preferred to bath here but I returned to the resthouse to use the shower.

The next morning at 8 a.m., we returned to our previous site, picking up our 5 'volunteers en-route. We parked near the forester's hut and he eventually joined us after a strenuous uphill bicycle ride. As we prepared our fishing equipment, I asked how far it was. 'Only 250 yards'- came the answer. That may have been true but we then trekked at least a mile up the stony stream towards the source and then cut across fields for a further 2 miles or so, arriving at a small house beside some food trees - including King Coconut. After trekking all this way in my wares, I was exhausted and nothing has tasted as good as that cool drink of King Coconut. Nevertheless, the stony stream proved a rich source of superbly coloured Belontia and some juvenile C?orientalis, hiding under stones, roots or branches. Dhanaphala was so taken with the Combtails' colour, that he retained a large male as a pet. Everyone leant a hand catching fish and while I was intent looking at some Utricularia, growing in rocks in the swift current, one of the boys found aCryptocoryne. By a convoluted route we somehow arrived back at the small house by the bridge.

I joined everyone in a swim back at the bridge and then was surprised to see Dinesh approaching with 2 bundles, wrapped in leaves. This was our lunch of curry and rice, prepared by the 'lady of the bridge' and was followed by a jackfruit which we divided between the 3 of us, the kids not forgetting the dog.

We then made a mammoth drive, in the failing light, all the way along the coat to Hambtota where we found the resthouse overlooking the beach. While Dinesh and Dhanapahla went out frog-hunting by torchlight, I drank the last bottle of Lion beer on the veranda, enjoying the look of shock on the face of the German archaeologists as they realised the supply had dried after a prolonged brewery strike in Colombo.

After a restless night, listening to the snakeheads jumping in their bags and wondering if silencing the rumbling roof fan would allow me to sleep or whether the lack of ventilation would keep me awake, we departed in the morning for a drive around the Bundula sanctuary. Once again, the 4WD proved its worth as we crawled around the bush watching the large families of Langurs, the painted storks and Little Green Bee-eaters and the lucky glimpse of Spotted Deer and Jackal. The Buffalo here were truly wild in comparison with the domesticated versions which were a common site in the paddy fields, either driving a plough or surrounded by cattle egrets. I was particularly pleased to find Macaques, mixing with the Langurs and scrutinising me from the safety of a thorn tree and was very interested to see the bizarre bill of the Greater Thick-knee, a relative of our threatened Stone-curlew

This area is renowned for its 'curd'- a sort of buffalo yoghurt which is eaten with sweet syrup and we stopped for a sample, which was admittedly very cooling, before we returned to the rest-house for lunch in preparation for our drive back down the coast, liberally decorated by big western hotels, to Kalutara.

At Kalutara, our enquiries about rooms at the rest-house were fruitless, so we eventually found another, slightly more run-down lodging on the beech. A local, enjoying a drink in the 'bar', gesturing toward the beech and sea, recommended the hotel as having the best swimming pool in the town My confidence was dented as the hotelier's need for a deposit co-incided with a power-cut in the electric storm. Nevertheless, power was restored before long and the staff managed to find me a bottle of '3 Coins' beer which refreshed me as I aired the increasing number of bags of live labyrinths and snakeheads.

Without breakfast, we headed off in the direction of Matugama, my last chance of aM.kretseri habitat before I returned to Colombo. We stopped by a roadside stall and Dinesh peered into the far distance. 'This is it', he announced, pointing at a forest remnant in the distance and strode off at high speed, fortunately, this time, as we were on the flat, I was able to keep up. We followed the line of a dark stream until Dinesh climbed in where the branches nearly closed in overhead. After fishing away under a particularly promising looking overhang, he moved away, out of sight downstream, and I pushed my net into a tangle of branches, near the bank in shallow water. There was something different in the net, I stooped over in the gloom and removed my steamed and besplashed glasses to try to focus which brought my eye about 3 inches from the 1 cm fish. 'Dinesh', I called, 'I think I've caught a kretseri'.

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