Wildlife Sightings and news by Jetwing Eco Holidays
Friday, October 21, 2016
Growing pains on Sri Lanka's secret coast
The thrill should have been undiluted, for when the dolphins came they came in numbers. The outboard had been running full-throttle for an hour before we found them, their arrival announced by a stippling of frothy waves and a grey-blue crescent flashing into my peripheral vision. Then came another, this one corkscrewing wildly, then five more. Within seconds the Indian Ocean was brimming with the creatures I had come out here to see; a super-pod of spinner dolphins, the ocean’s great acrobats, had replaced resignation with wonderment.
Yet through the elation, something gnawed. While my fellow passengers cooed, I couldn’t shake off memories of another part of Sri Lanka, where a week earlier I’d been on another boat searching for blue whales. That trip had set out from Mirissa, one of several Sri Lankan coastal villages in the south to have changed beyond recognition since 2009 when the end of the country’s civil war sent tourist numbers rocketing by 30 per cent a year.
Now, Mirissa’s whale-watching flotilla sallied forth from a coast thick with hotels and reggae bars. How different to the beach we’d left this morning, which was all but empty. An image of this patch of ocean’s future bubbled up unbidden: of a hundred fibreglass hulls harrying these dolphins. And part of me just wanted to head back to shore.
Until recently the spinners that congregated off the Kalpitiya Peninsula hadn’t seen many tourists. A spit of land sprouting from Sri Lanka’s west coast like the lever on a one-armed bandit, bracketing the Puttalam Lagoon on its eastern shore, this 30-mile-long isthmus is a land apart. In modern history books, it fell within the inverted U claimed by the Tamil Tigers as Tamil Eelam, their longed-for homeland.
For the latter half of the 20th century, modernity bypassed the fishing villages that lined its somnolent shores; regular roadblocks on the 80-mile journey north from Colombo were the norm. However, when the three-decade-long conflict reached a bloody conclusion in 2009, developers, scanning the coast for opportunity, turned to Kalpitiya with dollar signs in their eyes.
Over mojitos, Dallas Martenstyn, the man who claims to have “created the Kalpitiya destination” was telling me his story. “No one came here for 30 years because of the war,” he said. “People in Colombo didn’t know where Kalpitiya was.”
Traditional colorful fishing boats in Mirissa harbour
Behind us, flickering under the flames of paraffin candles, was the place he established in 2009: Bar Reef Resort, the first of what is now a sprinkling of small hotels on this stretch of seafront. As a holidaying experience, its stucco-walled cabanas are understated but embellished with boutique touches. The infinity pool is surrounded by loungers made from age-worn railway sleepers; the beachside shower is fed through a whale’s enormous skull. Walk along the beach past the hotel and you’d hardly know it was there.
Yet the question of how much longer this marooned atmosphere might endure is subject to whims far beyond Dallas’s control. The prospect of bigger, brasher newcomers has cast a shadow over this part of Sri Lanka.
First mooted as long ago as 2003, the Integrated Tourism Resort Project outlined the government’s ambition to coax tourists to Kalpitiya’s overlooked coast. The first piece of the jigsaw – the initial chalets belonging to the five-star Dutch Bay Resort – opened in 2013, but the plan includes concessions for much more.
Concentrated around 14 islands off the peninsula’s tip, the Sri Lankan government’s blueprint includes 17 hotels with 5,000 rooms and all manner of amusements: shopping centres, entertainment complexes – the whole package-tourism circus. Collectively, it represents the biggest tourism development plan in the country’s history.
But behind government talk of jobs and progress lurk controversies. Earlier this year, human rights groups reported that tourism construction projects were leading to environmental destruction, and were restricting local access to the sea. Amid court challenges from dispossessed families, investor interest waned. Several building projects have stalled indefinitely.
A low-key brand of tourism is thriving
And while Kalpitiya waits to see if the bulldozers will begin their work in earnest, the low-key brand of tourism championed by Dallas is thriving.
As my second day on the peninsula drew to a close, its tourism potential was already clear. First, there had been those dolphins, the ocean full of the spinners that I’d seen that morning. Then there was the beach, an endless strip of sand empty but for the lines of turbaned fishermen hauling in their nets, and an incongruous row of wind turbines chopping lazily in the haze.
Before my chat with Dallas, I had taken a bike ride out on to the new road that transects the peninsula from south to north. At the 20km post, the road swung east to skirt the lagoon, a jade-coloured expanse of water, the near shore clawed by mangroves.
My plan had been to ride six miles north to the Catholic shrine of St Anne’s – but it proved impossible to get that far, so often was I waved down by locals eager to say hello. Among some palm trees, a shirtless carpenter insisted on shimmying up a trunk to fetch me a coconut. Two hundred yards further, on a chalky bank of the lagoon, fishermen beckoned me over to show off the fistfuls of prawns they’d just trawled from the shallows.
At one village, I came across 20 or so children playing cricket in a clearing. Promptly, I was handed the ball and instructed to bowl.
The batsman, a slight teenager with arms like twigs, ruthlessly blasted my first three deliveries back over my head. But the fourth took a lucky bounce off a divot and landed improbably on middle-stump, provoking jubilation from my team-mates, who ran up for high-fives. We played until dusk.
There is something uplifting about a place that is yet to lose its curiosity about outsiders, and as I rode back for my drink with Dallas I couldn’t help but wonder whether the region would still be like this 10 years from now.
As Kalpitiya’s 80,000-strong population grows, there is a pressing need for the local economy to diversify. In the lagoon, home to dugongs and rare pink dolphins, fish stocks are already being depleted. But the government’s master plan for the peninsula also seemed emblematic of that depressing global story, where the temptation to capitalise on tourism potential comes to jeopardise the very riches that make it so alluring.
“Our ambition was always to create something here that is unlike anything else that Sri Lanka has to offer,” Dallas enthused. “What we have here is something different.”
The next morning, I took Kalpitiya’s most souped-up tuk-tuk – “newly serviced”, beamed the driver – and headed north past acres of old prawn fisheries, a lattice of embankments and palm wickerwork, the smell of fish and salt thick in the air.
Down a sandy lane from the village of Kandakuliya, on the main peninsula’s northern shore, we skidded to a halt at the gate of Kitesurfing Lanka (KSL), one of several kitesurf camps on the peninsula, here to exploit the same trade-winds that turn Alankuda’s wind turbines.
The set-up was simple and laid-back, with roomy tents under palm-frond awnings and paths delineated by quartered coconut husks, the seafront accessible over a thin finger of lagoon. In the large communal area, young travellers with tattooed arms were complaining of “feeling kitish”, and checking the form on Windguru. “Six knots for the next few days,” groaned one, flicking her smartphone on to the table in disgust. Optimal conditions for kitesurfing demand at least double that.
For the next couple of days I took things at the slow pace the peninsula demanded, with hours of beach loitering and mini-excursions to explore the headlands. During the Dutch ascendancy, Kalpitiya was a toehold for colonial expeditions before they headed for the Ceylonese interior. But what was once a staging post for change is now defined by stasis.
In Kalpitiya town, outside the echoing nave of the Dutch Reformed Church, families lolled listlessly in the shade of strangler figs. At a dockyard bobbing with time-worn trawlers, old fishermen sat in circles repairing shocks of orange netting. Barefoot women sorted through the catch.
'I took things at the slow pace the peninsula demanded'
Even the architecture spoke of a certain poignant tranquillity. At one roadside junction I found a sky-blue mosque mere yards from a cemetery of plain white crosses: coexistence between the faiths in a country where religious harmony has often been found wanting. Remarkably, while Sri Lanka’s civil conflict raged on the mainland, the disease of violence barely afflicted this melting-pot peninsula.
Back at KSL, the last day of my stay brought better winds to Kalpitiya’s west coast for the first time in days. But the waves were choppy and the gusts sporadic – too perilous for a novice like me to take to the water. So as some of KSL’s more proficient guests hit the water, I was left to sit on the sand and look on with envy. Because when they went – when they caught the wind and hit a line – you could tell, even from afar, that there was euphoria to be had out there.
One of those whose kites were criss-crossing the horizon was Dilsiri Welikala, KSL’s Colombo-born owner. Stocky and ever-smiling, Dil left a high-flying job in the capital to pursue his dream. It has been a challenging journey – when Leo, Dil’s French business partner, first surfed here, a still nervy navy, wary of Sea Tigers, took pot shots at him.
“I went to Boracay [in the Philippines] and saw what unregulated tourism could do to an area,” he told me later, expressing his fears that the government’s master plan threatened to turn this sleepy backwater into a foreigner’s playground. “The indigenous people were begging in the streets.”
Looking out over the beach, where local families mingled with KSL guests, it was hard to disagree. While decision-makers in Colombo envisage a flashy package-holiday centre, a better model for tourism is already here.
“There is still a great opportunity to set Kalpitiya on a better course,” Dil insisted. As I prepared to leave, I joined him in hoping that “something different” would prevail.
Spinner dolphins congregate off the coast
Sri Lankan Airlines (0330 808 0800; srilankan.com) flies direct to Colombo’s Bandaranaike International Airport from London, though cheaper fares are often available with one-stop flights via the Middle East. From Colombo, or direct from the airport, regular buses take around two hours to reach Palavi Junction. From there you can take a tuk-tuk on to the Kalpitiya Peninsula. Alternatively, expect to pay around £50 for a private transfer from the airport arranged through your hotel.
When to go
The best time for sun-seekers is November to April. The arrival of the prevailing winds that accompany the monsoon from May to October turns the peninsula into kitesurfing heaven. The sheltered waters of the lagoon are perfect for beginners.
Where to stay
Accommodation among the boutique resorts on Alankuda Beach include Bar Reef Resort (0094 777 219218; barreefresort.com), where cabanas start at £52 per night. In the north, Kitesurfing Lanka (0094 770 038467; kitesurfinglanka.com) is a popular surf-camp. Full board from £25 per person per night.
What to do
Spinner dolphins accumulate off Kalpitiya for most of the year. Sperm whales join the party from November to April. Most resorts run boat trips, costing from around £75 per six-person boat.
Kitesurfing on the peninsula is at its best between May and October. Beginner lessons with Kitesurfing Lanka cost from £20 per hour.
Scuba Diving is possible along the Bar Reef, Sri Lanka’s largest coral reef. Best from November to April. PADI courses are available.
Wilpattu National Park, just across the lagoon from the Kalpitiya Peninsula, is home to leopards, elephants and sloth bears. Entrance from £20 per person.