After a day of taking it easy by the pool and enjoying a wonderful massage, the day had come to leave the Shangri Lanka and head South for a few days on our own before we started our grand tour of the country. The night before we had encountered our first rain since we had arrived and were hoping, (although the country badly needs rain to fill the reservoirs which generate the hydro power), that it would be the last we saw of it!
We said our goodbyes to our newly made friends; Rohan and Karen, Raymond, Mahel and Rohan the Chef. We had also made friends with a Belgian family; Joost, Mieke and their twin girls, Tille and Rhode, who had arrived a few days earlier. Poor Mieke had not been feeling too good since she had arrived and had gone out to eat, passed out and ended up at the local public hospital, which according to Joost was not an experience they would want to repeat! Thankfully it was nothing serious and she was now feeling much better and was looking forward to a mini tour of the island. who knows maybe we would meet them again somewhere along the journey.
Hema, our friendly gentleman driver who had picked us up from the airport was here to take us to our next destination. He was also to be our driver for our trip around the island, so this would be a good chance to get to know him a bit better. Bags in boot and off we drove, heading South to a little fishing village called Merissa, stopping en route at The Dutch Port of Galle with it Unesco World Heritage Site, Galle Fort and old town.
As we were driving along, Hema pointed out that the coastal areas had been very badly hit in 2004 by the December the 26th Tsunami. The evidence of the devastation was clearly visible in many places along the way; houses which had been smashed, and torn apart by the huge waves which had battered the island. Hema told us that he had acted as a volunteer to help the local people living in the areas south of Bentota, which had been particularly badly hit. He described the horrific scenes and terrible loss of life that he had witnessed and hoped that in his lifetime he would never have to see such horror again.
He was keen to show us a monument, which the Japanese Government had donated to Sri Lanka to commemorate the Tsunami. A group of around 40 Japanese tourists were staying in a beach cabanas in the Yala region when the Tsunami hit the island. All lives were lost. The monument was a huge, carved stone, standing Buddha situated on the coast road looking out to sea.
The road south follows the west coast and all along the crashing waves could be seen. This time of year is the monsoon season in the west and the sea is turbulent and in fact very reminiscent of the Cornish sea. Monsoon actually means wind and at times the tops of the palm trees dotted along the beach were being blown towards the land by the strong winds coming off the sea and then as we headed further south we hit rain, torrential, tropical, steaming rain, it was coming down hard in places and then would suddenly stop and there would be a couple of miles of dry and then it would start again. Oh dear we were heading to the beach for a couple of days, and we hoped that the further south we headed we would leave the rain behind!
By the time we reached the coastal city of Galle the rain had stopped and we were treated to another sunny day and a chance to wander around Galle fort and old town in the dry. Mind you we took a couple of umbrellas just in case. Galle was built by the Dutch as a port ….. Climbing the fort gave us a good view of the bustling town below, the sea and the port. This was a good vantage point for building a fortress. The old town’s beautifully restored Dutch colonial Buildings were a contrast to many of the building we had seen, here they had that air of colonial history and faded grandeur, the narrow streets of once brightly coloured houses were now faded and quiet in the midday sun. We were only passing through so couldn’t spend much time exploring further but what we saw we liked and would have liked to have spent a bit more time. But we had to reach our destination Merissa, which was a few more more kilometres south and as we know travelling here takes time.
Merissa is a small fishing village with a beautiful beach and only a few guesthouses. It’s a less touristy option than the beach resorts slightly further north and that’s where we were to relax for a couple of days soaking up the sun and enjoying the surf. Like all of the other coastal areas
this too was hit hard by the tsunami and remnants of this terrible natural disaster were in evidence; there was however a strong positive energy and people were clearly working hard to move forward and rebuild their local community and when wandering the lanes and harbour all we ever received were warm welcomes and smiles. Despite their troubles this was a happy and positive group of people.
The picture postcard fine white sand beach was edged with little beach guesthouses, and palm trees.Tiny yellow crabs scurried in and out of holes in the sand which was intermixed with fragments of the coral reef. The sea wasn’t too deep and it would have been easy to walk out quite a way if it weren’t for the monsoon surf with its huge waves crashing and spilling over the rocky outcrops near the outer edge of the beach creating a strong undercurrent. Out of the monsoon season the sea is still and a Sri Lankan sapphire blue, but now the currents were bringing up the sand from the seabed, however it was still beautiful and exhilarating. We had to have a dip and experience those crashing waves. Some of the more confident locals were diving in and out of the surf and a few people body boarding and surfing…it was fun but you had to keep your wits about you as it was easy to get dragged in and down by the undertow.
Merissa being a fishing village has quite a large fishing harbour and in the late afternoon the smaller out-rigger dugout style boats come in after a days fishing and the larger fishing boats go out to sea for the night fishing. After a day of ‘sun and surf’ we decided to stroll around to the harbour to take a look. We were not disappointed. As with all of the islands vehicles we had seen, these fishing boats were all painted and embellished with an array of bright colours and once again we were greeted with those happy smiling faces. Under a makeshift canopy shading them from the late afternoon sun, sat a group of fishermen of all ages mending, knotting and tying the nets on which they were sat. It looked a bit like a men’s knitting group as they chatted and worked away with their bobbins and twines. As we strolled by they called us over and asked us to take a photograph, there was no talk of money, they were just proud of their work and wanted to share it with us…we exchanged a few words, with the usual ‘where are you from?’ question and took a few photos and continued our stroll. This part of the harbour was where the larger fishing boats were docked and the men were getting themselves ready for their night excursions. There were silvery fishing lines curling and twisting along the ground as they were being wound in in preparation for the nights fishing. In another covered area, a larger group of men sat mending their nets and further along nets were being rolled and folded.
We walked around to the end of the harbour wall accompanied by a little dog, there are lots of dogs all around the streets just wandering around seemingly unowned. This one was enjoying tagging along for a walk. Moored up along the beach on the other side of the harbour entrance we’re the dugout boats with their out rigs of bamboo to help stabilise them. They too were painted in all colours and motifs and needed to be seen up close. We turned back and headed to the other side of the harbour dog still in tow. To get to the other side of the harbour, we had to walk further along the lane, with it’s tuk-tuk drivers waiting to pounce…with their “you want tuk-tuk?” Tonce agin they knew the answer but just thought they’d try anyway!
The smaller dugout style boats were stunning, painted in stripes of every colour. We chatted to a distinguished looking older man, with silvery grey hair which contrasted brilliantly with his dark brown skin. He was on a bicycle and wanted to know where we were from and asked us to enjoy his part of the harbour. Men were all hard at work, getting their boats cleaned, dragging in the nets and putting the boats to rest for the night. It was a vibrant and enthusiastic scene on the waters edge, where everyone was working in a methodical, yet laid back way. Young and old all pulling their weight. The time was now getting on and the sun was beginning to set so we thought it best to make our way back to the beach to cool down with one last swim, before sitting on the beach for supper.