I remember on 2 occasions, trying to book Sri Lanka, but the tour I wanted to do was full. I even tried changing dates and even using other tour company’s but to no avail.
Each time this happened, I ended up visiting somewhere else for that years “big trip”. I realised how popular it was as an adventure travel destination and this made me even more keen to see it.
In January, 2019 I finally got it booked for February 2020. Not long after there were terrorist bombings in Sri Lanka, which put it on a no travel list until about 6 weeks before I was due to go.
Either way, I was really looking forward to it.
The world was talking seriously about Corona virus, but I was convinced I’d have time to complete my trip (in any other circumstances I wouldn’t have gone. Although I like to model myself on Indian Jones, I rarely take unnecessary risks).
So, at Manchester Airport after 2 busy months at work and the worst of UK winter, looking forward to some adventure, culture and sunshine.
We had booked an organised tour with Explore (we’ve done a few trips with them, and find them to be excellent).
Colombo is the capital of Sri Lanka, but our tour would run from a fishing village called Negombo which is only 20 minutes drive from the airport.
We arrived at our hotel and checked in. It was 11am local time, and our tour would officially start at 6pm the following day in the hotel lobby.
I had a beer by the hotel pool, then we headed off to explore the beach (which was honestly stunning).
We wander around for a couple of hours in perfect weather, watching fishermen prepare nets and causing a turf war between 2 ladies selling scarves.
We found this traditional outrigger fishing boat on the beach. To be honest I think it was used more for catching tourists than catching fish.
Exploring is thirsty work, so we find a bar on the beach and relax as the sun sets.
In the evening we have dinner – “Curry and Rice”.
Although it sounds like something from Poundland, it’s a local dish that contains 4 curries and some really fluffy rice.
Off to bed, ready for adventure early the following morning.
And it was early. We had breakfast at 6am, and were picked up by Norman at 6:30 am on this 3 wheeler to begin our private boat tour.
With the whole day free until the tour started at 6pm, we’d decided to explore the Negombo lagoon, the port and some local areas of interest.
They did a shorter 2 hour tour, but we did the full 7 hour one.
We would visit some of the Islands and see the amazing bird life in the area. Whatever we did, I knew relaxing in a boat would be a great way to recover from Jet-Lag.
The reception area had lots of interesting books with pictures of local wildlife and some examples of traditional fishing equipment.
Our boat could comfortably sit 6, so we had plenty of room to stretch out.
We put on our life jackets, check we’ve got spare water and have cameras at the ready.
And were off, heading out of the various waterways, towards the lagoon.
I’d read how large it was, but was shocked when I saw it.
35 square miles.
The entire lake is only 1 meter deep.
We went to see this fisherman, who had put out his nets.
He would sell the fish to local restaurants when he was finished.
As we continued along exploring the estuary, we got to see some of the Islands up close.
The lagoon is basically a Mangrove swamp and there is a rich selection of fish and bird life (we met some Australians, in another boat, with massive telephoto lenses on bird photography charter).
But not just that. This island has monkeys on it.
We drove the boat right up to the bank, and put out some fruit.
The monkeys came on-board to eat it.
There were several of them, and it occurred to me, that since they had no boat (nor skills to pilot it) they must have lived on the Island through generations.
Leaving the Muthurajawela marsh went to and outdoor church called All Saints.
It had some nice statues, and importantly, a toilet. Property developers had wanted to turn it into a hotel and the religious folk of the area had almost rioted.
Our guide gave us some fruit to eat. So much, I had to give some if it back (I hate to wast food).
Exploring the Dutch Canal.
Whenever we found a coconut floating in the water, Norman would keep it for his wife.
By the end of the day, he’d collected 4!.
The Dutch canal was originally built in the 1600’s. It’s completely straight.
In the 1800’s it was expanded by the British and this section was called the Hamilton canal.
This is the iconic bridge, that appears in most guidebooks.
We briefly left the canal and the lagoon and went into the ocean (we couldn’t go far, our boat wasn’t designed for that).
We saw the port, where larger fishing boats were docked.
We continue around the harbour and see this boat, that was wrecked during the Tsunami, but nobody towed it away (I guess they had other things to contend with).
Finally we see how some of the local people live. Some of them live in their boats, others live in shacks by the water.
Norman was quite disdainful. They make money from the water, but they throw plastic and human waste into it !.
Well, after 7 hours, were back at reception. It really was an amazing experience.
His daughter served us some mango juice, then we hop back into the three wheeler and back to our hotel to start our 14 day tour of Sri Lanka.
Things had gotten off to a really good start.
If you’ve not done an organised tour, they normal start with a briefing, where the guide arrives, everyone introduces themselves and then the guide outlines the itinerary and plan for the duration of the tour.
They then ask to see insurance, collect the tip kitty and outline any optional excursions and gauge interest.
So, in anticipation of this, we got cleaned up, collected our paperwork and headed to the hotel lounge.
We sat relaxing with a drink while we waited for the briefing to commence.
The guide appears (a man who doesn’t give his name) and a woman from Kent who’d flown in that morning. There are 4 of us at the table.
The guide keeps talking around things, mentioning other people on the tour, other people who’ve dropped out, etc. He mentions the national parks may be closed…
This is all very nice, but it’s now 6:45pm.
I hate wasting time anyway, but in cases like this, I’ve waited months for something that will last 2 weeks, and every hour counts. I ask him for the room numbers of the other guests and say I’ll go and “knock on” and find out where they are (I’m suprised he hasn’t done this himself).
Then 2 incredible things happen. He’s vague, so I pin him down, “Is anyone else attending the meeting I ask ?”. No he replies.
Realising that he’s not going to be forthcoming, I ask “Has the tour been cancelled”. Yes he says. The woman from Kent asks “Am I going home tomorrow”. Yes he replies, were arranging for you to fly home in the morning (she had booked flight inclusive, we’d booked our own planes).
He said he’d organise our flight and asked if we had the phone number for Emirates in Sri Lanka (he’s a tour guide ?).
We opened our laptop, booked the next flight home the following evening (it cost an extra £300 and we lost our extra leg rooms seats).
He apologised. I’d lost all patience at this point, so I just told him to make sure our room was secure for the next 24 hours, that our transfer would arrive at 3pm the next day and waved him away.
We wandered around Negombo the next day until our trip to the Airport.
And then the irony.
Having a trip cancelled in a small group in a fishing village to avoid the Corona virus, were now sat on a plane with 500 other people and wandering around airports which 10’s of thousands of people had passed through.
I was pleased that Emirates had laid on 2 extra flights, although the mood on the flight home was the complete opposite of the flight out, there was no holiday atmosphere this time.
We arrive back in the UK. A hot bath, some sleep and then I got out for a few drinks at Artichoke.
Sitting relaxing in my local, I’m a bit more reflective. Sri Lanka has been closed to tourism for almost a year. The guide must have been looking forward to life getting back to normal and then seeing it all disappear overnight.
Perhaps I was being hard on him, but when I travel, although I come over as laid back, adventure travel is my life, and this is serious stuff.
The important question I’m asking myself, is did I make the most of whats effectively a long weekend in Sri Lanka ?. I think I did.
Focusing on important questions, Barman, can I have another beer please ?