For the second time in five years, I am on the road to Mannar. And I love it!
The Kangaroo cab takes me to the pickup point at four thirty in the morning. The driver, an ex-soldier, talks incessantly about the war with the Tamil Tigers. Flamingo Tours mini-coach arrives just before five and over the next hour or so, we travel through Colombo picking up the rest of the group.
Thirty kilometres north of Colombo, the highway runs through Muthurajawela – the largest saline peat bog in Sri Lanka. It originated about 7000 years ago and became a rich rice field in the time of Sinhalese kings before seepage of seawater from the Negambo lagoon converted it to a saline marsh, but rich in plant and animal life. The northern section of the marsh covering an area of 1,777 ha was declared a sanctuary in 1996 and it is home to 192 species of flora and 209 species of fauna, including 102 species of birds. Some of them are indigenous to the marsh. Canals criss-cross the marsh and as we were speeding through it, fishermen in dugout canoes are already out fishing and Brahmini Kites circle overhead. Muthurajawela is a good place to see Bitterns, Herons and the elusive Black-capped Kingfisher.
Negombo came next. The wild cinnamon that grew in the region was said to be “the very best in the universe as well as the most abundant” and for centuries attracted a succession of foreign traders and colonial powers. The Portuguese who arrived in the early 1500s, constructed a fort in Negombo and took over the trade of cinnamon to the West. The Dutch captured Negombo from the Portuguese in 1646, built a fort in 1672 and constructed an extensive canal system that runs 120 km from Colombo in the South, through Negombo to Puttalam in the north. Finally, the British took over the cinnamon trade in 1796 and then the whole country in 1815. The shallow waters of the Negambo Lagoon provided safe shelter for seafaring vessels and became one of the key ports from which the Singhalese kingdoms conducted external trade. Today, Negombo beach is dotted with tourist resorts and the islands international airport is at Katunayake – a few kilometres south of the city.
We stop for breakfast at a smart little bakery called 4U at Mahawewa. Apart from an ancient tank, there is not much else in Mahawewa. We eat plantains, roti and ‘string hoppers’ with coconut gravy, sambol and fish curry and drink black tea and watch a group of local travellers sitting on a culvert across the road eating their own breakfast.
The B79 to Munneswaram Hindu temple (Kovil) branches off the A3 in the coastal town of Chilaw. The Kovil has been in existence at least since the 10th century AD and in recent years has stirred emotions in the country because of animal sacrifices during its annual festival.
Puttlam, dominated by its lagoon, is 130 km from Colombo. It is the second largest coconut and salt producing region of the country and is also famous for shrimp farming. It is the first place in Sri Lanka to establish a crab farm and hatchery.
We leave the A3 at Puttlam and travel inland on the A12 past Wilpattu National Park. At 131,693 hectares, it is the largest National Park in Sri Lanka. A unique feature of this park is the existence of nearly sixty “Willus” (Natural lakes) – sand-rimmed water basins that fill with rainwater in the rainy season creating its own habitat. The park is famous for its leopards and during a remote camera survey conducted from July to October 2015 by the Wilderness & Wildlife Conservation Trust, forty nine individual leopards were photo-captured in the surveyed area.
Just before Anuradhapura, we turn left towards the third century BC rock temple of Thanthirimale to join the A14 from Medawachchiya to Mannar. From the fourth century BC until the beginning of the 11th century AD, Anuradhapura was the capital of the Sinhalese and one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities of the world. During this period it remained one of the most stable and durable centres of political power and urban life in South Asia. The ancient city is one of the eight World Heritage Sites in Sri Lanka. Thanthirimale has lost some of its magic in recent years but still is well worth a stop.
Just at the turn off the Madhu Church, we stop for lunch. Hotel Palmyrah Gardens is rather basic no smoking, no alcohol establishment. It is only half built, but the plated rice & curry lunch followed by small tubs of ice cream, though simple, was tasty.
We drive along the A14 towards Mannar. Just before Giant’s Tank, a road on the left leads to Silvathurai and the Doric House – a beachside mansion, now in ruins, from where Frederick North, the first British Governor of then Ceylon, directed pearl fishing in the Gulf of Mannar. We stop to birdwatch in Vankalai (many rare migrants such as Crab Plovers could be seen here) and take the causeway past the ancient Poruguese fort to the bustling city of Mannar.
There is a new road from Puttlam to Mannar but it runs through Wilpattu National Park! All decent people should avoid it, tour operators should boycott it and pig-headed politicians responsible for it should be behind bars.
(All photographs except Google maps are by the author. The trip to Mannar was arranged by Flamingo Tours)
“Good, detailed write up and clear photos! Now people will really want to come to Sri Lanka and enjoy the food, etc...” – Padmini, Colombo, 22 February 2017