The road to Arugam Bay’. A surfer’s paradise. This story ran in Gulf air’s inflight magazine, Gulf Life. The images have also been used by CNN Traveller and by the Metro newspaper. It’s an arduous journey to Arugam Bay. Even after making it to Sri Lanka’s capital Columbo, it’s a further twelve hours along dusty this is a small price to pay for the amazing scenery and wildlife you’ll see.
Famous for its glorious west coast resorts and elephant safaris, Sri Lanka is a firm tourist favourite. But the east coast of Sri Lanka represents uncharted waters for most. Home to pristine beaches and a laidback lifestyle, Arugam Bay is carving out a niche for itself as a surfing paradise. Natacha Butler visits the country’s latest safari hotspot to catch a few waves
It’s a little after sunrise on Sri Lanka’s east coast and at Arugam Bay the first surfers are out. Tousled-haired local boys and wave-chasing tourists breeze across the golden sand with well-worn surfboards tucked underarm. They head to the end of the long beach, to Main Point, where six-foot waves rise and roll to shore. “I’ve been surfing for 12 years, twice a day, everyday,” says Fawas Lafeer, the 26-year-old head of the Arugam Bay Surf Club. “I love it,
I can’t imagine life not surfing, which is why I’ll always live here; the waves are really good.” The waves are not just good, they are some of the best in the world, which is why surf-lovers have been making the journey to this far-flung sleepy community on Sri Lanka’s east coast for decades. In the 1960s and 1970s they would set-off from the capital Colombo on an arduous nine-hour cross-country car journey on a barely-there road. Most were Australians and Europeans chasing the thrill of an Indian Ocean ride.
Entranced by the breaks and a sweeping curved beach lined with palm trees, several ended up staying, helping to transform a poor fishing village into the nation’s top surf spot. “Back then people came from everywhere,” says Anglo-Dutch civil engineer Fred Netzband-Miller, who arrived at Arugam Bay to surf in 1977, fell in love with the place and decided to call it home. He now runs the local hoteliers’ association. “It was the combination of quality waves and a beautiful beach. Although there’s not much rain it’s a very lush place because of the rivers. I’ve travelled the world, but Arugam Bay is unique. ”The bay became such a hot destination in surf-circles that travellers never abandoned it despite the shock of the devastating 2004 tsunami, which battered the Sri Lankan coast on 26 December claiming more than 30,000 lives, including one in ten people in Arugam Bay. They also defied nearly three decades of deadly civil conflict between Tamil Tiger rebels and the Sri Lankan military. “During the war surfers still came, they did not stop,they were not afraid,” explains Lafeer. “You know surfers only think about surfing,” he laughs.
These days they’re not the only ones falling under Arugam Bay’s spell. Since the end of the conflict two years ago, Sri Lanka has opened up and travellers are increasingly leaving the tried-and-tested southwest coast and heading east, where wild empty beaches run for kilometres, elephants roam wild and ancient temples dot the jungle. It helps that the road from Colombo to Arugam Bay has improved and the drive is now down to around seven hours. It’s a picturesque ride across the centre of the island, Sri Lanka’s hill country, where emerald-green tea plantations carpet escarpments and the cooler climate offers welcome respite from the heat. Approaching the coast the scenery opens out into shimmering rice paddy fields and lagoons where water buffalo graze.
Arugam Bay is a farming and fishing community of three small villages and home to a melting pot of Tamils, Sinhalese and Muslims. Although more tourists are making the journey, the place still feels enticingly isolated. “It’s still very off the map, it’s raw and undiscovered. There’s nothing but pristine beaches and beautiful nature here, but we’re far away so you really have to want to come,” says Sri Lankan Sharon Tissera, whose family’s colonial-style home has been converted into the elegant but funky Hideaway boutique hotel near the beach. Guests can chose to stay in the main house or in one of the romantic whitewashed cabins in the grounds, all decorated with an eclectic mix of traditional and laid-back beach furniture.
Tissera spent years abroad in Australia and the United States before coming back to the place she calls paradise. A chef by profession she sources her produce from local organic farmers to serve up delicious fresh Pacific Rim-style cuisine such as chargrilled fish with coriander vegetables and mango relish. She says there’s much more to Arugam Bay than surf, and it’s the varied wildlife and nature that are drawing a fresh generation of visitors. “You can ride a bike and within a few kilometres see wandering elephants,” she adds.
Wandering elephants are not the only prize for animal-lovers. There are several wildlife parks near Arugam Bay, which are all easy day trips. The closest is Lahugala Sanctuary, where elephants rub shoulders with bears and spotted deer. A little further afield is the Yala East National Park and Kumana Bird Reserve, where the adventurous can zig-zag in an off-road jeep past leopards and more than 200 bird species.
The road south to the Yala East National Park winds through a serene landscape of dusty plains with so few people it almost feels unexplored, which is little surprise considering it was closed until very recently because of the war. Only the little settlement of Panama punctuates the quiet. Between Panama and the nearby village of Okanda, where the road runs out and the National Park begins, is the magical monastic sprawl of Kudimbigala, a forest hermitage, which was a Buddhist retreat for thousands of years. Today, it’s a jumble of hundreds of cave-shrines and rocky outcrops offering sweeping views over the trees.
Back at Arugam Bay the day draws to a close. Fishermen pile their nets into colourful boats scattered across the beach and surfers are out in the sea again catching the last waves before dusk. More visitors may be making their way to Arugam Bay but change is not coming too fast. “It’s still the fishing village it has always been,” says Briton Tim Tanton who runs a charity to support local surfers. “It may develop but it will remain what it’s always been; a beautiful community and a beautiful place.”