There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Through Hambantota to the Beaches of Mirissa: Part 13 of Sri Lanka, Isle of Serendip


In the morning we drove south through Tissa, round its large white dagoba and headed westwards across the coastal plain.

Eventually we reached the A2 coastal road, but I have no idea of the route we took to get there. Part of the journey, across the Hambantota Division, was on a six lane dual-carriageway, the first road with more than two lanes that we had seen in Sri Lanka. It was built to provide access to Mattala Rajapaska Interntaional airport.

Confusingly Hambantota is a large District (shown in pink), a Division (a central north-south slice through the District) and a coastal town within that Division  
The decision to place an international airport in the small town of Mattala was not without controversy. Maybe I am being unduly cynical in thinking that President Mahinda Rajapaska’s plan to turn Hambantota into the country’s second urban hub may have had something to do with it being his home area. And maybe I am not. The airport opened in 2013 and currently has a daily flight to Dubai, though nowhere else. Further south in Hambantota the 35,000 seat Rajapaksa International Cricket Stadium – the second biggest in Sri Lanka - opened in 2011. Another white elephant, it staged 2 matches in the 2012 World Cup and 3 in the 2012 World Twenty20, otherwise it has stood idle. Even further south, the Magampura Rajapaksa Port would appear to be a more successful venture. Elected President in 2005 and re-elected in 2010, Mahinda Rajapaksa was narrowly defeated by Maithripala Sirisena in 2015 though, unsurprisingly, he won in Hambantota. The election had been held on the 8th of January and as we had arrived in Sri Lanka only ten days later we had been following events with some apprehension, but there was a smooth transition of power.

Leaving the big road we passed through several small towns. We observed a fashion among the local tuk-tuk drivers to improve their vehicles with ‘silver’ decorations. A small spade, a set of steps up the back, a fire extinguisher or a two metre tall aerial were among the more popular adornments.

'Improved' tuk-tuks on the A2
We paused for a refreshing coconut….

Coconut stall by the sea on the A2

 at a stall beside the sea. It was hot and Lynne did not linger in direct sunshine once I had taken the photo below.

Lynne and a coconut by the sea
In Matara (or was it Tangalle?) we passed the green painted concrete wall surrounding Mr Rajapaksa's house. A queue of supplicants waited outside; he is clearly an important and powerful man, though he now has no official position [He became an MP in the November 2015 parliamentary election].

6km before Matara, Dondra is a small enough to pass through without noticing but it was once one of the island's main temple towns. The great temple of Vishnu was destroyed by the Portuguese in 1588 and almost nothing now remains. Turning off the main road we travelled along narrow lanes past fishermen's cottages. Ravi parked the car and we walked along the road above the beach, through an open iron gate and into a quiet garden of coconut trees. In the garden is Dondra Head lighthouse, built in 1889 by William Douglass for the Imperial Lighthouse Service who imported all the materials, including the granite blocks from which it is built, from Britain. At 49m it is the tallest lighthouse in Sri Lanka and still safeguards shipping as it has for the last 125 years.

Dondra Head lighthouse
It also marks the most southerly point of the island and hence the most southerly point Lynne and I have ever reached. South from here the next land is Antarctica. As we drove through the lanes Ravi had not been entirely sure of the way so asked a local. During the conversation it became clear that 'lighthouse' has been incorporated into Sinhalese.

Dondra Head
Mirissa, half way between Matara and Weligama at the bottom left corner of the map, is another small, dusty town straddling the A2. It could be easily missed as the hotels and guesthouses - most of the town’s buildings - face not onto the road, but onto the beach, an arc of golden sand fringed by palm trees and pounded by breakers rolling in from the vastness of the Indian Ocean.

We checked in to one such hotel and were shown to a large comfortable ground floor room with a patio. Beyond the patio was the hotel garden, beyond that the beach and the blueness of the Indian Ocean. 'A sea view room,' I said happily watching the sun sparkle on the sea. 'A tsunami view room,' Lynne said darkly. Lynne can be relied upon to spot the downside of the most beautiful location, particularly when water is involved.

The hotel garden and the sea from our patio, Mirissa
At lunchtime we made the mistake of heading out to the main road. It was noisy, dusty and extraordinary hot - and there was very little there. We found a sandwich shop frequented by young westerners where a chicken sandwich and a ginger beer were pretty much all they had to offer.

On the way back we passed what maybe the first of a coming invasion - or more likely an unofficial borrowing of a name.
Aldi, Mirissa
We spent the afternoon in the pleasures of beach and pool. Several thousand miles of uninterrupted ocean provided impressive breakers, regularly topping two metres high. I enjoyed playing with them, but water is not Lynne's natural element, and she enters rough water with extreme care, if at all. You would not know it from her face but the ocean was extraordinarily warm.

Lynne 'enjoys' the waves, Mirissa beach
We were on half board - there was no other option – so in the evening we submitted to the hotel buffet. Buffets, unless they are very good, often turn dining into feeding and that was what happened here. The chef seemed unable to decide what to do, producing some acceptable western dishes and some tolerable Sri Lankan fare but not enough of either to create a proper meal.
Indian Wasp Moth (Amata Passalis) on the hotel wall


There was no rush in the morning and when we were good and ready we strolled along the beach to a headland which becomes an island and then a headland again as the extremity of each successive wave laps in and then slides back. It is like that all day; to those who spent childhood holidays by the Bristol channel where the sea retreats daily to the far distance, the concept of an ocean with no apparent tide is disconcerting.

The headland/island, Mirissa Beach
We paused a while to watch the cormorants and a fisherman….

Fisherman and cormorant, Mirissa beach
… then climbed onto the headland/island. From our vantage point, the beach, a narrow arc of sand between the palms and the sea, seemed just a chocolate covered coconut bar short of paradise. Even our hotel, conspicuously not the best architecture on the beach, could not quite spoil it. But there was also the memory of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, which killed 35,000 on this coast. Perched on the headland nature looked eternally benign, but it can change in ways we cannot predict and turn on us with a power we can barely comprehend.
Mirissa beach from the headland/island

Descending from the headland we ambled back to our hotel, stopping on the way for a ginger beer at a beachside restaurant. We read their menu and decided to return for lunch, and if lunch spoiled our appetites for the evening buffet, well that would be no great loss.

Ginger beer on the beach, Mirissa
And return we did. Salad and chips with squid (me) and prawns (Lynne) may not have been Sri Lankan in style, but the squid and prawns were local and very fresh and they had been cooked sympathetically. 
Squid and prawns, Mirissa beach
The rest of the day passed as seaside days do.
On the beach, Mirissa with the island/headland in the background
 We did as much as we wanted, which was very little. It is an idyllic existence, for a day or two anyway, so we idylled, or perhaps idled along with the best of them.
Hotel pool, Mirissa
Pictured in the early in the morning (when it is empty!)
 We did indeed only pick at the evening buffet. Who cares? We enjoyed local drinks, lemon gin before the meal and arrack after, but the hotel ambience had managed to suck the atmosphere from the bar as well. I suspect that offering only half board rather than bed and breakfast is necessary to avoid having an empty bar and restaurant; a shame as otherwise the hotel had a lot going for it.

Sri Lanka, The Isle of Serendip

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