Ella to Arugam Bay

The bus journey from Ella to Arugam Bay involves a change at Moneragala and takes 5-and-a-half hours, all for a mere 500 rupees or 2.75 pounds for the two of us.

Good value even if we do have to stand for the first 50 minutes of this two hour journey, but grindingly slow. The bus is heaving, not only with people but luggage as well and we only just manage to squeeze on with Andy half hanging out of the door! Luggage, stowed alongside the driver, is re-arranged to accommodate our rucksacks, but I feel sorry for the people who are sitting adjacent to the driver who spend most of the journey trying to prevent the mound of luggage toppling on top of them. The bus to Monaragala leaves Ella at 9am and arrives in plenty of time to spare before the 11.20am leaves for Arugum Bay, giving us time to use the non-too salubrious facilities (10 rupees) round the back of the station and purchase a much welcome ice cream and some snacks. Moneragala is a transport hub for the region and the focal point seems to be its large and bustling bus depot surrounded by shops. There is a 20-minute lunch stop between Monaragala and Arugum Bay, very civilised. But Andy makes the mistake of getting off for some rotis and looses his seat to a man who knows very well the seat is taken, but neverthess isn’t going to budge. A little diversion ensues when two policeman stop the bus as we are approaching Pottuvil and search the locals’ bags. We’ve no idea what is going on, but there has obviously been some sort of tip off, although they appear not to find anything and we are soon on our way again until a few kilometres further on the bus stops at a local police compound and the police take a man is taken off the bus, leaving us none the wiser. Arugum Bay is a small fishing village with allegedly the best surfing in Sri Lanka. It is the main beach resort on the east coast although it is far from a tourist mecca. Like elsewhere in Sri Lanka everything closes early and people are tucked up in bed by 10pm. There are numerous guest houses offering cabanas on the beach stretching a kilometre or so along the coast road. All seemingly bereft of guests. The season doesn’t start until mid May and there is hardly a soul here. It is difficult to imagine that this place gets so busy in the high season that people have been known to sleep on the beach. The sandy curve of Arugam Bay stretching from Pottuvil in the North to the Surf Point in the south is pounded by waves that sweep obliquely round the beach like a Mexican wave. Towards the southern end a flotilla of outrigger canoes lay beached after the day’s fishing and the restaurants and guesthouses are hard to spot amongst the palms. Beyond the fishing boats the breaks are good for surfing and there are a few out there today. We are staying at the Tsunami Hotel, right on the beach with a view to die for. Not the most auspicious of names, admittedly, and one that is in the throes of being changed to the less exotic but possibly more sensitive, Sun Hotel. A start has been made by painting out the unwanted letters on the current signage. To our surprise also staying here are two young New Zealand women who we first met on the train to Ella and have kept bumping into ever since.

Sri Lanka day 24 – Arugam Bay

A stroll along this golden beach flecked with black sand, lunch at Lucky’s on their raised,palm thatched dining terrace overlooking the sea. This is definitely the best food we have found in Arugam Bay, by a long way. The prawn curry is to die for.

Late afternoon we take a tuk tuk through the back streets Pottuvil to the Pottuvil lagoon for an ‘eco’ tour. We are punted around this wonderful wetland on a raft made from planks laid across two narrow canoe hulls. The lagoon is a mix of mangroves and reeds and is bursting with wildlife including crocodiles, water monitors and birds galore – are real twitcher’s paradise. Apparently the crocodiles don’t attack men only steal the fish from their nets, which I guess must be true given the number of fishermen that stand in the water casting their nets. I wouldn’t want to put it the test though. Only the sound of the water gently lapping the hulls interupts the calls of the birds in this unspoilt sanctuary.

More curious children at the landing stage to greet our return, some overcoming evident shyness to come and take a closer look at these strange foreigners and all eager to have their photos taken and to peer at the result.

Sri Lanka day 25 – Arugam Bay

Arugam Bay is definitely work-in-progress. Hit hard by the tsunami in 2004, much has been rebuilt, with tight restrictions which prevent development within 10 metres of the beach. There is still evidence of the devastation wrought by the tsunami; the odd derelict building, redundant foundations and several buildings awaiting restoration. In fact despite the time that has elapsed, renovations are still going on in most of the guest houses, including the Tsumani, and it’s not unsual to be serenaded by a buzz saw or some other piece of building equipment as we sit on our porch looking down to the sea. What has been rebuilt is mostly cabana-style low rise huts in keeping, one suspects, with what was here before and most of which don’t break the tree-line. Fortunately Arugam Bay it has been spared the worse excesses of tourist commercialism and at this time of year we have the place almost to ourselves.

Not much to do but chill today, although we take a stroll north along the beach towards Pottuvil and the sandbar that separates the see from a small inland lagoon. Lunch at Lucky’s and a rather underwhelming beach bbq at Rocco’s in the evening.

Sri Lanka day 26 – Arugam Bay

We take a tuk tuk and spend half a day exploring the coast as far as Okanda, taking a detour at Panama into Lahugala National Park. Okanda is about as far south as you can go before coming to Yala East National Park and from here there appears to be no public coastal road. The only way to get to the south coast is to do a huge loop circumnavigating Yala East and the adjacent Yala Strict Natural Reserve by going back to Arugam Bay and then east and south via Monaragala. A ridiculously long-winded journey that we are going to have to undertake in a couple of days time.

Once we get to Panama directly south of Arugam Bay and turn west away from the coast we are soon onto ununsurfaced road, through rice paddies and lily ponds until after about an hour we reach Crocodile Rock, the largest granite outcrop amongst a group of similar rocks in this otherwise completely flat coastal plain. Crocodile Rock not surprisingly, takes it’s name from it’s remarkable resemblance to the crocodiles that populate the waters around these parts. From a certain angle and with the help of a bit more imagination, like a reclining buddha. For those with a less spiritual inclination, a pair of breasts spring to mind.

The climb to the top of Crocodile Rock defeats me which is unusual, I think I must have a touch of heat exhaustion. Or perhaps it is a combination of the sun beating down from a cloudless sky, the steep scramble over the rock and all our previous activities catching up with me, but today I am completely depleted of energy. I manage to get half way up, and even from here the views of the paddies and lagoons are enthralling.

Also among these gigantic rocks is a simple Buddhist cave temple and a stupa or is it a dagoba, I can never tell the two apart. There is also a large rock pool here which is reputed to be home to a croc, but all that is visible today are hundreds of fish. The Stupa is attracting many buddhist monks clad in saffron robes who are making their way up from buses in the car park as we head back to our tuk tuk.

Okanda slightly further south is a home to Murugan Devale, an Hindu complex with a colourful gateway tower which survived to 2004 tsunami and was in recent times th scene of fighting between the LTTE and the army. Now it is once more a stopping point for thousands of pilgrims who undertake the Pada Yatra pilgrimage walking from Jaffna in the north to Kataragama in the south. Today it is almost deserted save for a handful of worshippers and the man who runs the little palm-thatched store. A stroll away is a completely empty crescent beach with thunderous surf.

Lunch at the guest house and complete R&R in an attempt to overcome complete exhaustion. Dinner at Lucky’s.

Sri Lanka day 27 – Arugam Bay

We had intended to leave Arugam Bay today and head for Tissa in the south, but after my complete wipe out yesterday we are staying another day to chill and recuperate. Today I brave the waves for my first swim, which is fine once passed the first breaker, but is a struggle against the strong undertow to get out again. Lunch at the southern end of the bay by the fishing boats and, creatures of habit that we are, it’s dinner at Lucky’s, again!

Sri Lanka day 28 – Arugam Bay to Tissamaharama

What a mare of a journey! The most direct route from Arugam Bay to Tissa would be down the coast south but for the fact that the road stops at Yala East Natonal Park. The whole Yala National Park complex which includes the Yala Strict Nature Reserve and Yala National Park incorporates a chunk of the south east coastline and preventing travel by public transport. The only way to reach Tissa and the south coast from Arugum Bay is to go west to Monaragala and pick up a connecting buses going south to Tissa. If your timing is right it’s possible to get a direct bus otherwise the journey involves a further change at Butala and/or Kataragama. All is running smoothly until we reach Monaragala where we get conflicting information on how to get Tissa and instead of changing at Badula as intended, end up in Welawaye much further west. Something definitely got lost in translation because we thought the conductor had told us the bus was going direct to Kataragama. People at Wellawaya are very sympathetic and helpful and one old boy in particular ensures that we get on a bus that will take us almost all the way to Tissa and ensures that the conductor knows where we want to get off. He even rings ahead to our guest house to let them know when and where the bus will be dropping us. Apparently he used to work there as a jeep driver. All he would like in return is two English pound coins. We finally arrive just outside Tissa after a hair-raising drive hurtling along narrow roads at breakneck speed. A journey which should have been around four hours has taken seven-and-a-half despite the efforts of the maniac bus driver. As we clamber into a tuk tuk for the last 8 kilometres a jeep from the guest house arrives to pick us up. At least one bit of the journey was perfectly coordinated thanks to our friend in Wellawaya.

Sri Lanka day 29 – Tissamaharama

We have come to Tissa specifically to visit Yala National Park. The town itself is quite pleasant, surrounded by paddy fields and dominated by a huge white dagoba, but for tourists it is primarily a base for picking up tours to Yala 21km east. We have arranged a 6-hour jeep safari through our guest house, Travellers Home, at a cost of 55 pounds. We set out at 5am along with a young French couple who have been travelling for 17 months, including 12 months spent working their way around Australia, and a Swiss guy who has been travelling in India.

Yala National Park and strict nature reserve together cover an area of 126,786 hectares accessed along bone jangling unsurfaced roads.  A glorious landscape of scrub, light forest, grassland and brackish lagoons with blue seas sparkling in the distance.   Most people seem to come here with a driver, tracker and guide which seems quite excessive since we manage more than adequately with a driver who does the job of all three.

With only 25 or so in the whole park, Leopards are particularly difficult to track down and not everyone who visits Yala is lucky enough to see one.   So spotting one is  our driver’s number one priority.  Quite incredibly he eventually manages to find one  sleeping high up in a tree, the only one anyone has seen this morning, and there are quite a few jeeps circling the park looking for one. We come alongside a group of elephants and a jackal wandering nochalantly down the road quite unperturbed by us as he saunters round our stationary jeep and continues on his way. Mongoose, buffalo, wild boar, sambar, spotted deer, crocodiles and many, many birds including, ibis, egrets, eagles, darters, kingfishers, bee eaters, painted storks and many more which we can’t identify are all within a few yards of the jeep. The only animal we didn’t see was the shaggy coated sloth bear. A stop at the river for some respite from the discomforts of the jeep is a welcome relief. Frogs skittering across the surface of the water and some entertaining monkeys provide an added diversion.

We round off our trip with a quick stop at the beach and then back to town for some lunch and to nurse our battered bodies. It’s an experience well worth the effort involved in getting here.


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