Jewels of Nature in Sri Lanka

27 Jan, 2019

 .. by Fateh-ul-Mulk Ali Nasir 

Fateh-ul-Mulk Ali Nasir is enchanted as he explores the island described as the Pearl of the Indian Ocean

Jewels of Nature in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka, the pearl of the Indian Ocean, is an enchanting land. Marco Polo described it as the finest island of its size anywhere in the world. The natural beauty of this country is phenomenal and for those of us who pursue nature’s bounties, in my case through sport fishing and wildlife photography, it is an ideal destination.

The flight from Lahore to Colombo usually takes off around midnight but due to the smog that has become an unpleasant aspect of winters in our part of the world, in December and January it is rescheduled to around noon. After four hours covering the entire length of India, I usually have a brief nap between Agra and Hyderabad. The plane descends down along the Sri Lankan coast before turning over the Negombo Lagoon and touching down at Bandaranaike International Airport. The first thing that strikes you is the clarity of the air, especially if you’re flying from Lahore – and the swaying coconut palms and red tiled roofs present a lovely scene.

Fighting a strong pelagic fish in the heart of the sea on a small 20-foot boat while being rocked around by the current is not as easy as pulling in a catfish from a calm lake!

After catching up with some old friends for a few days in Colombo, I headed to Weligama on the South Coast. The southern region of Sri Lanka, the ancient name of which is Ruhunnu, is known for its beaches and it attracts droves of tourists every year, especially during the winter months. This year, though, fewer tourists have ventured to Sri Lanka due to the political crisis which the country went through during the end of 2018. But now that it appears thankfully resolved, many overly cautious Europeans have had to change their travel plans. My friend Yakoob, who owns a hostel and a cafe in Weligama, welcomed me and told me about how the entire tourism industry had taken a hit this season – and more importantly, arranged my deep-sea trolling session for the next morning.

At seven AM my fishing guide came to pick me up in a rickshaw. It was quite interesting navigating around with the rod sticking up into the air out the window! Soon enough we were at the harbour and after I filled in my details to provide to the coastguard, it was off into the deep blue sea. It took about an hour for us to get eleven nautical miles offshore. This is where the continental shelf drops off into the oceanic abyss. The skipper checked his GPS coordinates and said that we were at a productive spot. So I rigged up my Penn uptide rod with a heavy-duty spinning reel and clicked on a Rapala X-RAP lure to the wire leader. Within a few minutes my reel started to scream!

After a prolonged fight which lasted more than ten minutes, I decided to get on the bow of the boat so that I could get more leverage while pumping the fish. Fighting a strong pelagic fish in the heart of the sea on a small 20-foot boat while being rocked around by the current is not as easy as pulling in a catfish from a calm lake! Upon reaching the boat the skipper got excited claiming it was a seer – a narrow barred mackerel or surmai in Urdu. It made a few dives after that but was soon expertly gaffed. What we ended up with was a wahoo of 10 kg, a decent enough specimen. That was my only fish for the morning and as I was feeling a bit seasick we headed back to the harbour at ten and were dockside by eleven. That afternoon’s lunch consisted of wahoo fillet burgers and crumb-fried wahoo.

A couple of days later, Yakoob and I decided to fish the Maadu Ganga. The Maadu Ganga is a wetland complex in Southern Sri Lanka, between Colombo and Galle and it is easily accessed from both via the Southern Expressway, making it an ideal place for a casual day’s light tackle fishing. Upon reaching the boatyard we were welcomed by our boatman, the colourful Dharambharam.

The Maadu Ganga is essentially an estuary, where the river turns into a large brackish water lagoon before meeting the ocean. It is an extremely picturesque location with many backwaters branching off into mangrove jungles dotted with little houses surrounded by coconut groves. The emerald green of the dense foliage contrasting with the blue sky and dark waters is extremely pleasing to the eye. Even more pleasing for us anglers are the abundant fish, with barracudas, groupers and mangrove jacks being the primary quarry. As the sky turned pink, in a way that I have only seen in Sri Lanka, the golden light made the scene even more stunning and, soon enough, Yakoob caught a nice grouper. Once darkness fell it was back to the boatyard.

As the sea was rough on the Eastern coast, that part of the island is affected by the winter Northeast Monsoon, which largely precipitates over East Asia, we could not go sea fishing off Kirinda, close to Yala National Park. I had visited the Park before, but had been unable to get a glimpse of its most treasured inhabitant, the Sri Lankan Leopard, which is the largest subspecies of the Asiatic Leopard. I had seen Udawalawe and Yala but had never been to Wilpattu National Park in the North. Yakoob initially decided to join me on my trip to Wilpattu but sudden work related issues kept him from coming. Thus early the next day I got on a Hi Ace with my driver Jagat and headed to Wilpattu.

A serving of pan-seared Wahoo

The drive took us along the Western coast of Sri Lanka – first on the Southern Expressway, then the Airport Expressway and finally along the Colombo-Chilaw coastal road. At Puttalam we turned inland on the road to Anuradhapura. This was the site of an ancient Sinhala Buddhist Kingdom which ruled over the island for a thousand years and is where the daughter of the Emperor Asoka planted a sapling of the original Bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya. The tree is still standing and is a pilgrimage site for Buddhists from across the world. We stopped a few kilometers before Anuradhapura and turned into the jungle. I located a decent enough guesthouse a few kilometers from the National Park entrance and settled in for the night.

At dawn my safari guide showed up in a Hilux with a closed top carriage in the back. I got in the back of the Hilux and headed to the park headquarters to complete the formalities before venturing in to the park. It was quite cold in the morning – something very strange for the lowlands of Sri Lanka. Thus I did not see much in the first few hours. The chill meant that the animals would not come out until the sun was higher, so that they could warm themselves. Initially it was quite disappointing as only birds and a few groups of chital deer showed up. A massive wild buffalo, though, did provide for a nice picture. The wild buffalos of Sri Lanka are in essence not truly wild, as they had been imported as domestic stock by settlers from India thousands of years ago – but have now become completely adapted to the jungles and are formidable beasts. Around nine, the driver stopped at a wildlife department facility for a break and I sat in the Hilux contemplating my boring safari.

WIld Buffalo

The wild buffalos of Sri Lanka are in essence not truly wild, as they had been imported as domestic stock by settlers from India thousands of years ago – but have now become completely adapted to the jungles and are formidable beasts

When he returned, we ventured further into the jungle and another vehicle stopped and the driver asked in Sinhala if we had seen a Singhye – ‘lion’, meaning leopard – yet? After venturing around some waterholes my driver took a route that seemed to have denser vegetation. Presently we heard a deep sawing noise, accompanied by the distress calls of deer and monkeys. There was a leopard nearby! The sound of a leopard is more like a mixture of a chainsaw and a motorcycle than a lion’s roar. My driver said that he would probably not come out for a clear picture, but just then the leopard decided to come out and have a stroll on the road. I was possessed by the majestic feline and initially stumbled around with my manual Nikkon camera, but was eventually able to get some focused pictures. There is something about a predator that invokes both a sense of awe and a primal fear in one! The leopard stayed around for a few minutes and then headed back into the jungle.

Once back at the guesthouse, I contently had a cup of coffee while discussing the morning’s adventure with the manager: a wonderful chap who shared my passion for both wildlife and fishing. Then it was a long drive down to Colombo, with a short break at Chilaw for some fiery hot rice and curry, where I stayed a few days at the historic Mt. Lavinia Hotel. This had once been the residence of the Governor of Ceylon during the days of the British Empire.

A Sri Lankan Leopard came out of the jungle at just the right moment for the author

After touching down at Lahore Airport, where my driver was waiting to pick me up, we hit the Motorway up to Islamabad. The Western Disturbances had finally showed up and it was a cold wet day, a shock to the system following the pleasant, if somewhat humid mildness of the Tropics.

Overall, I had caught a wahoo, seen a leopard and eaten some great food – a nice time by any measure! The Isle of Ceylon, as it was once called, has me in its grip and hopefully I will make many more trips to that Jewel of Asia!

The writer is the ceremonial Mehtar of Chitral and the author of ‘Asiatic Angling Adventures’, a recently published book about fishing and travels in seven countries across Asia. For copies, kindly contact info@topicalprinters.com. He can be contacted on Twitter at @FatehMulk

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