Sri Lanka 1975: An illegal walk through Wilpattu



Sri Lanka 1974-75
Sri Lanka 1974-75
Fishermen on the island of Karativu. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



My Sinhalese friend Sarath Bulathsinghala relates about a walk he once made through Wilpattu National Park, on the west coast of Sri Lanka. At 1,088 square kilometres, it is the largest national park in the country, established in 1937 in an area of rather dry scrub forest, which is home to a surprising variety of wild animals, e.g. elephant (Elephas maximus), feral water buffalos (Bubalus bubalis), leopard (Panthera pardus), wildboar (Sus scrofa), deer, monitor lizards, marsh crocodile (Crocodylus palustris), and a large number of different water birds. The park also harbours ruins from ancient Sinhalese cultures.

We are now going to repeat Sarath’s walk, and we board a bus from Colombo, accompanied by Sarath’s friend Siva, who is Tamil. In the small town of Puttalam we board another bus, which takes us around a large lagoon, through vast plantations of coconut palms (Cocos nucifera). These trees are very hardy, growing in pure sand, as long as there is enough water underground. In large pans, salt is extracted from sea water, which evaporates in the strong sunshine, leaving the salt behind. We also pass small saltwater ponds, where different waders are fouraging, such as Kentish plover (Charadrius alexandrinus) and black-winged stilt (Himantopus himantopus).



Sri Lanka 1974-75
From Colombo, we went by bus to the small town of Puttalam. This street vendor in Colombo is selling soft drinks from a push-cart. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Wet trip on a fishing boat
In a small coastal town, Kalpitiya, we visit a Dutch fort from 1750. The building is now occupied by Srilankan marine soldiers. We are allowed to visit the fort, accompanied by one of the soldiers. Under the fort is a system of underground tunnels, more or less crumbled. From several of the tunnels we detect a distinct smell of ammonium, emitted by the dung from thousands of bats, which spend the daytime down here. When we flash our torches, they squeak and start flying around. The soldier informs us that he and his colleagues not so long ago made a hunting trip into Wilpattu, where they shot a deer and a wildboar. Sarath is of the opinion that the marine soldiers can do whatever they want, as the park rangers are probably afraid of them.

The following day is a Sunday, and no ferry is leaving for the small island of Karativu. Instead, we arrange with some fishermen who are going to the island that same evening, to take us there – for the huge amount of 70 US Cents for the three of us. The fishermen load their boat with different items, such as wooden beams, palm leaves for thatching, and diesel for the boat engine. Huge flocks of ring-necked parakeets (Psittacula krameri) pass over Kalpitiya, coming from the coast, while numerous house crows (Corvus splendens) fly the opposite way.

My companions take their seat on top of the engine hull, while I am a bit more comfortable on a pile of palm leaves. Heading north, the boat passes several islets, covered in mangrove, which serves as night roost for numerous great white egrets (Chasmerodius albus) and little egrets (Egretta garzetta). The sun is setting over the ocean, and the sky is an orgy of red. A clear planet can be seen, but there is no moon at all. After a while, stars begin to appear.

We pass a number of small boats, with lamps tied to the stern. The light will attract fish. Small waves wash over the rail, and in the wake from the stern phosphorescent glimpses are seen. The wind increases in force, causing spray from the stern to run down our face and hindneck. Soon we are more or less drenched.



Sri Lanka 1974-75
Siva (left) and Sarath (centre) with a marine outside an old Dutch fort, Kalpitiya. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Life on Karativu Island
A couple of hours later, lights in the distance indicate that we have soon reached our goal. Spotting a fishing-net in the water, a man in the stern shouts a warning to the helmsman. Soon the water is too shallow for the boat, and people ashore punt out a smaller boat to bring us and our gear ashore. We are received by a large crowd of men and boys, who escort us to a simple hut, consisting of a frame of branches, covered by two layers of mats, woven of palm leaves. Other mats are placed on the ground, and after changing clothes and hanging up the wet ones over a fire, we take our seats.

From our packs, we bring out two loaves of bread, while one of the men brings a bowl of delicious fish curry. The men also serve arak (alcohol, made from palm toddy), which is quite potent. The rest of the evening we chat with the fishermen, until it is time to go to sleep.

Karativu is only inhabited during the fishing season, and most of the fishermen’s wives and children remain on the mainland. The village here comprises about a hundred huts, constructed of branches and covered with palm-leaf mats. Some are completely open, while others are equipped with walls, made from palm leaves. Coconut palms, low and windblown, grow among the huts. On several mats, fish are spread out to dry in the sun, protected against crows and dogs by fine-meshed nets.

The fishermen are Catholics, and a small church has been constructed on the island. As today is Sunday, the men are not going fishing. Instead, they sit in small groups, talking and repairing torn fishing nets. The cost of a large net is around 30,000 Rupees (c. 3,000 US$) – but just three lucky fishing trips are able to pay for it.

The beach near the village acts like a garbage dump. Among the rubbish, we see yellow sea snakes, small dolphins, and porcupinefish with a ball-shaped body, densely covered in spines. Without a cooling wind, the stench would probably be overwhelming. On the flats, a man and his daughter are searching for edible creatures, and on mudflats near the shore redshank (Tringa totanus) and whimbrels (Numenius phaeopus) are feeding. Among the arched air roots of a mangrove tree, a yellow bittern (Ixobrychus sinensis) moves adeptly about. In the mud, numerous small holes are inhabited by fiddler crabs (Uca). The males wave their one huge, brightly coloured claw, partly to attract females, partly to mark their territory.



Sri Lanka 1974-75
In this simple hut on Karativu Island, we chatted with the fishermen, until it was time to go to sleep. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Sri Lanka 1974-75
Sri Lanka 1974-75
Fishermen’s huts on Karativu Island. A few of the fishermen had brought their wife along during their temporary stay here. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Sri Lanka 1974-75
The cost of a large fishing net is around 30,000 Rupees (c. 3,000 US$) – but just three lucky fishing trips are able to pay for it. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Sri Lanka 1974-75
Fish were spread out on mats to dry in the sun, protected against thieving crows and dogs by fine-meshed nets. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



An unusual lunch
Near a hut lies an olive ridley sea turtle (Lepidochelys olivacea), belly up. It was caught by the fishermen the previous day, when it came ashore to lay eggs. Now the fishermen are going to butcher it, and they show absolutely no mercy during the process. A large knife is stuck in between the upper and the lower carapace, after which the fisherman proceeds to cut all the way around, until the lower carapace can be taken off. The poor creature lies there with exposed guts, paddling frantically with the legs. Then, finally, the man cuts off its head – a lengthy process, as the neck skin is very tough. When he has taken out the meat, the carapace and guts are tossed down on the beach, where crows and dogs fight over the remains. As everywhere else, sea turtles are protected in Sri Lanka, but on this remote island the fishermen do as they please.

At lunch time, we are served rice and a meat curry.

“How do they get beef out here?” I ask foolishly.

Giggling, Sarath says: “It’s meat from the butchered turtle!”

It is delicious, so maybe it is not so strange that the fishermen ignore the law and catch the turtles.

We have arranged with a fisherman to bring us to the coast of Wilpattu National Park, not so far away. He sets sail and places an outboard engine on the rail, after which he lies down to sleep, leaving the rest of the work to an adolescent boy. During the trip, small waves wash over the rail, but in the intense heat our wet clothes soon dry again.



Sri Lanka 1974-75
During our stay on Karativu, the fishermen caught an olive ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea), which was slaughtered and eaten. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Sri Lanka 1974-75
Sarath in the boat, on our way from Karativu to Wilpattu National Park. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Almost arrested
We approach the jungle-clad coast, leaving the boat at a small village. A beautiful rufous-and-white brahminy kite (Haliastur indus) is soaring above the huts. An elderly man hands us a refreshing sip of water. We arrange with him to guide us to a jeep track, which will lead us to one of the larger, north-south heading dirt roads in the park. He guides us to a small trail, leading into the dense scrub forest. A white-bellied sea-eagle (Haliaeetus leucogaster) passes over, and a woolly-necked stork (Ciconia episcopus) takes off from a tree. Along the trail, blue-tailed bee-eaters (Merops philippinus) and smaller green bee-eaters (M. orientalis) zoom about, hunting for insects, and ring-necked parakeets utter their shrill scream. We see a beautifully patterned star tortoise (Geochelone elegans). In several spots, the soil has been overturned by wildboar, searching for tubers. When our guide is convinced that we can find our way, he leaves us.

Late in the afternoon, we arrive at a large clearing, in which some fifty spotted deer (Axis axis) are grazing, accompanied by several gorgeous peacocks (Pavo cristatus). At the other end of the clearing lies a large bungalow – staff quarters of the national park. Two rangers walk briskly towards us. One of them says: “What are you doing here? Don’t you know that it is illegal to enter this park on foot? You will have to pay a fine!”

The quiet and dignified behaviour of my companions quickly calms down the rangers, and when they learn that I am a Dane, one of them says: “Of course, he is not aware that it is illegal.”

The rangers are not nearly as angry, as they might want to be, and later they invite us to spend the night on the verandah in front of the bungalow – provided that we promise not to leave the dirt road the following day. Naturally, we agree to this. We place our loads on the verandah, sitting down to enjoy the view. At dusk, ten or fifteen wildboar emerge from the forest to graze in the clearing. By now, the rangers have become very friendly. They lend us a small lamp, so that we don’t have to cook in the dark, and we borrow a coconut scraper which allows us to make sambol (bits of copra, onion, salt, chili powder, and lemon juice). Nobody is talking about fines anymore.

Down the road, a travelling tradesman has made camp, with his ox and cart. Most of these traders are Muslims, called moors, who travel around in remote parts of Sri Lanka, selling kitchenware, ammunition, and other commodities. Instead of cash, they often receive local goods, e.g. animal hides, crops, and honey from wild bees.



Sri Lanka 1974-75
This elderly man was our guide on the first leg of our hike through the national park. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Sri Lanka 1974-75
Sarath and Siva, hiking through the national park. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Blue-tailed Bee-eater, Merops philippinus, Yala National Park, Sri Lanka. Blåhalet Biæder, Merops philippinus, Yala National Park, Sri Lanka
Along the trail, we saw several blue-tailed bee-eaters (Merops philippinus). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Sri Lanka 1974-75
The star tortoise (Geochelone elegans) has a beautiful carapace. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Sri Lanka 1974-75
About fifty spotted deer (Axis axis) were grazing in a large clearing. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



30 kilometres on foot
In the cool morning, Sarath and Siva are shivering, as they were only covered by thin sheets during the night, while I was snug in my sleeping bag. From the bushes, three-striped palm-squirrels (Funambulus palmarum) are chattering, and Loten’s sunbirds (Cinnyris lotenius) fly about. In the tree tops, several brown-headed barbets (Megalaima zeylanica) call monotonously: “Kuk-ra! Kuk-ra!” We eat a hurried breakfast, before we set out, as we have promised the rangers to be out of the park the same day. We are facing a walk of about 30 kilometres.

During our walk, we often hear the barking call of Indian muntjacs (Muntiacus muntjak) – small reddish deer with very short antlers. Large sambar deer (Cervus unicolor) flee into the dense scrub forest. Twice we see golden jackals (Canis aureus) on the road. They stare at us for some time before running away.

Finally, the dense forest opens up to wide expanses of swampy meadows, with numerous waterholes. A herd of water buffaloes are sniffing the air, and when they catch our scent they snort, whereupon they turn around and gallop into the forest, making a tremendous noise. Great white egrets and pond herons (Ardeola grayii) are feeding at the edge of the waterholes, among huge piles of elephant dung. We take a break to cook lunch – potatoes, boiled in dirty lake water, and served with marmalade.

Continuing our walk, we see several troops of monkeys, tufted langurs (Semnopithecus priam ssp. thersites) as well as toque monkeys (Macaca sinica). Grizzled giant squirrels (Ratufa macroura), with enormous bushy tails, climb about in the trees. We find a large star tortoise with three big humps on its carapace. In a small cabin, inhabited by rangers, we get water to make tea. The rangers inform us that we have yet to walk five kilometres more before reaching the Kala Oya River, which marks the southern border of the national park.

“Is it difficult to cross the river on foot?”

“No, you won’t have any problems. The water level is very low, because the December rains were very scarce.”

We reach Kala Oya at dusk. This place looks so inviting that we decide to sleep on a sand bar in the river. Before cooking our dinner, we have a refreshing bath in one of the few pools, still remaining in the riverbed. We light a fire, adding numerous sticks to it to keep the mosquitoes at bay. An owl hoots from a tree along the river bank, and in another camp downstream somebody is playing a flute. Satisfied and at peace with ourselves and the World, we fall asleep.



Sri Lanka 1974-75
During our 30-kilometre-hike, Siva (left), Sarath and I enjoy a well-deserved rest. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Sri Lanka 1974-75
Siva, kneeling near the skull of a feral water buffalo (Bubalus bubalis). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Sri Lanka 1974-75
After our long hike, Sarath (left) and Siva are resting on a sand bar in the Kala Oya River, where we spent the night. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



(Uploaded February 2016)


(Revised April 2017)