The DEEP SOUTH

With palm fringed, golden sand beaches meeting an emerald sea under the azure sky the DEEP SOUTH is sure to delight all holiday makers. That, however, is not all! Add an encounter with the Lord of the Jungle – the leopard, a sighting of the shy fisher cat, mugger crocodile, a sloth bear sleeping in the shadows of the thick trees, elephants and the myriad of migratory birds and there’s something to enrapture everyone.

KOGGALA is popular for its long wide beach where a range of hotels enjoy a beach front location, making your nightly lullaby the soothing, rhythmic splash of waves rolling in from the effervescent Indian Ocean. As this is one of the less touristy beaches there are no restaurants so you would need to book on at least a Half Board basis. [Breakfast and Dinner] The best time for swimming and snorkelling is from December to March with another good period from the end of July to September.

November through to April is the best time to visit MIRISSA which is just another ten kilometres from the end of the expressway at Matara. It’s a popular destination for those whose dream holiday is to laze in a hammock stretched between two coconut trees. Check first that there are no ripe fruits above you to fall on your head – that would be a disastrous end to your holiday! Seriously so.

Once you have rested you’ll find plenty of fun things to do in and on the sparkling water of this attractive sandy bay protected from the strong currents and rip tides of the Indian Ocean. The centre of the beach is regarded as best for swimming with it’s gentle slope making it one of the safest, especially for children. Ninety percent of the beach is pure sand with the rocky outcrops at either end being great spots for snorkelling. Surfers head toward the rocks near the right end to catch the biggest breaks however take care when around Parrot Rock as the currents there can be very strong.

Thanks to the gentle Blue, Orca, Sperm and humpback whales cruising just outside the bay, Mirissa’s claim to fame is that of Whale Watching Capital of Sri Lanka! Look for the most ethically minded and safe operator to take you out to see these awesome mammals.

If you are awake before 6am, a visit to the port to see the fishing boats returning with their catch is something special. Many of them are returning after two weeks at sea laden with fish you’ve never seen before. There are some great sea food restaurants in Mirissa so put in your order in the morning to savour the best of the catch!

Today MATARA is a busy commercial town, with its origins in ancient times when it was a busy port exporting elephants and spices such as sweet smelling citronella and lemon grass. Then, too, it was the ancient kingdom of Ruhunu and gave refuge to Sinhalese princes seeking to gather armies to get back their own kingdoms. The revered King Vijayabahu 1 spent his boyhood here, later taking the Kingdom of Anuradhapura but finally calling Polonnaruwa home.

When the Portuguese invaded they razed all the temples and, as usual, built one of their trade-mark forts. They were followed by the Dutch, who deemed it insufficient and added another fort – the smaller Star Fort, a unique six pointed star shaped edifice which was surrounded by a moat and had room for twelve canons. The arch at the main entrance is embossed with the year 1765. It’s an interesting place to explore, especially before 5pm in the evening before a sunset walk on the wide ramparts of the main fort.

For something different how about a visit to the enigmatic WEHERAHENA TEMPLE about 6km from Matara town. This is a temple like no other in the country! While the Buddha statue is tall at 39m, the temple itself is in six layers behind it and that and the 600ft tunnel, its walls adorned with 23,000 murals of the Buddhist teachings, including those depicting hell, make it unique for Sri Lanka. Even with these scary depictions of hell, it is a calm and spiritual place. You can climb through the tunnel as high as the statue’s shoulder to get fabulous views of the area.

Another interesting place is the PAREVI DUPATHA TEMPLE  on the Parey Dewa Rock – a small island linked by a bridge from Matara city. This bridge is a new one, replacing the one that was lost in the 2004 tsunami. The temple has many Buddhist statues as well as a replica of the Adam’s Peak gold footprint and is set in some lovely gardens.

The imposing and gleaming white building on the banks of the Niwala River in Matara is not a Portuguese construction but the MUHIYIDDENIL JEELANI MOSQUE ! Another religious building of note that you might like to explore is St Mary’s church in the old town, built in 1769.

What use is a coastline without surf spots, many might think. Well, the many surf spots along this part of the coast include the previously mentioned Mirissa, Midigama, Weligama, Ahangama, Polhena, Meddawatta, Dikwella, and Tangalle. Goyambokka, Marakoliya and Rekawa are particularly beautiful. The season along this part of the coast is from January to April and November – December.

There are several yoga and ayruvedic spas along this part of the coast.  As these have been set up for tourists – Sri Lankans don’t generally practise yoga and any massage treatments are given in the home by family members so you won’t be surprised at the tourist type costs.

The beautiful LIGHTOUSE standing tall on DONDRA HEAD marks the most southern point of the country. It was built by the Dutch and is the oldest lightouse in Sri Lanka.

While DIKWELA has the largest sitting Buddha statue about 50m tall it is the HUMMANAYA BLOWHOLE that tourists come to see. When the waves smack through the fracture down the centre of a massive rock it creates a “Whoo Whoo-shsh”, however if the sea is rough waves rush through the crack and shoot a spout of water up to 90 metres above the rock. Choose a rough sea day to visit!

If you are still looking for a quiet palm fringed beach then head to TANGALLE where the paddy fields almost meet the sea. While there are now a few hotels and guesthouses on this remote coast the beaches are largely deserted. The true turtle conservation project at REKAWA nearby protects the nesting turtles from predators and humans alike. Well worth a visit.

A visit to the MULKIRIGALA TEMPLES, 16km from TANGALLE makes a great excursion. These cave temples, which are nestled in the craggy rocks and secluded by a forest of coconut trees, conceal a number of reclining Buddha statues. The cave walls are adorned with paintings showing the sins of temptation and consequent damnation to hell. Wear comfortable shoes and take water for the climb up to this peaceful temple.

With its breathtaking sights of majestic trees forming a thick canopy the SINHARAJA rainforest is on the must see list of an increasing number of visitors. This tropical evergreen rainforest is home to about fifteen elusive leopards, fishing cats, barking and mouse deer, wild boar, langurs, porcupines as well as large flocks of birds such as the famous Sri Lankan Blue Magpie, White Faced Starling Junglefowl and many more. Sinharaja can be wet all year round, especially in the afternoons so an early morning start is needed. Be prepared to walk several kilometres too however it is not an arduous walk. Guides are compulsory – they’ll keep you from getting lost – and essential for spotting the many other mammals, reptiles, birds butterflies and native plants as well as taking you to some of the five waterfalls in the Reserve.  Make sure you wear your swimmers so you can enjoy a cooling dip in one of the waterfalls. Other essential items are leech socks or some of the repellents, water and snacks.

There are three entrances to Sinharaja: from Galle enter via Neluwa, from Matara enter via Deniyaya to Mederipitiya with a three kilometre walk from there. From Ratnapura the entrance is from Kalawana.

The name Sinharaja means lion [ Sinha] king [ Raja and legend has it that Sinhalese people are the descendents of a lion king and a princess who, in the mists of time, lived in this magical forest.

UDA WALAWE NATIONAL PARK is becoming famous for its picturesque scenery and abundant and varied wildlife. With large herds of elephants, mouse and sambar deer, wild buffalo and also langurs, macques, mongooses and lazy sloth bears it is attracting visitors in ever increasing numbers. Leopards also call this Park home however they are rarely seen, but keep your eyes working the trees and you could be lucky. If you are a bird lover you will be thrilled by the Sri Lankan Hornbill, Babbler, Pied Cuckoo, Junglefowl, White Wagtail, Black Capped Kingfisher. The open plains have birds of prey such as the White Sea Eagle, Crested Serpent Eagle and Hawk Eagle circling overhead. Around the reservoir there’s an array of water birds such as the Cormorant, Open Bill Stork, Painted Stork and the Spot Billed Pelican.

UDA WALAWE, with its backdrop of stunning granite escarpments is mostly grassland and thorny scrub jungle which makes it easy to see its animals, especially the elephants. You may spot some wearing collars which were put on them prior to release from the Elephant Transit Centre. Entrance to the Park is limited to officially approved jeeps together with recognised guides.  As the animals lie low in the shade during the heat of the day, the best times to visit are early morning around dawn – 6am,  or late afternoon around 3pm. Don’t forget your hat,  spare camera cards and zoom lens.

It’s a great idea to visit the only true elephant orphanage in Sri Lanka , The Elephant Transit Centre, known as the ETH, which is located just five kilometres west of the Park entrance. As the absolute purpose of the Centre is to return orphaned elephants to the wild – you may spot some of the returnees roaming in Park – it is not possible to get close to them. At the baby feeding times of 9am, 12 noon and 3pm you may watch and take photos from a raised platform. I strongly recommend the ETH instead of the now zoo-like Pinnewala.

BUNDALA !

Take a jeep from Tissamaharama and enjoy this awesome National Park before everyone gets to know about it!

BUNDALA is mainly low lying dry zone land with brackish lagoons and salt pans which offer food and shelter to hundreds of sea birds, many of which migrate there between November through to March. The famous but endangered pink flamingo which migrates in huge flocks is one species welcomed here by all nature and bird lovers.  Some of the other over 15,000 birds which breed here include the rare Black Necked Stork, plovers and sandpipers.

In the evening protected turtles haul themselves up the beach to lay their eggs while estuarine and mugger crocodiles emerge towards late afternoon to hunt.

Elephants have been sighted actually on the beach however they are usually found in the forest areas. Other animals you can see are the langur, macaque, different kinds of deer, porcupine and the Black Naped Hare.

For a lasting thrill, take a careful look on the rocky outcrops and you may see a leopard!

YALA and the quest for a leopard sighting is high on the itinerary of very many tourists. Located in the southern-most part of the country, there are six National Parks and three wildlife sanctuaries in the area. YALA consists of five blocks of which only two are open to visitors, RUHUNU which is accessed from Tissamaharama and KUMANA which can be accessed from the East Coast at Okanda. Kumana, being less visited because of more time needed to reach it is quieter than Ruhunu.

Unlike safaris in Africa where one camps out in the wilderness and spends whole days with professional trackers seeking free roaming wild animals to capture in amazing photos, a safari here in Yala is for just a few hours. Jeeps are lined up at the gates before either 6am or 3pm for about a three hour safari – in between these times the animals are hiding in the shady vegetation. YALA does have the highest density of leopards in the world, however the number of jeeps racing around and their innate shyness means that chances of spotting them are not great. For the best chance, hire a professional tracker and avoid weekends when local people add to the melee. The dry months of June and July provide the best chances of spotting water seeking leopards and other animals around the remaining water holes.

Apart from leopards, other animals to be seen are elephants, water buffalo, deer, macaques, the red slender loris, the golden civet, the fishing cat and for a lucky few, the shy sloth bear. As the terrain varies from grasslands to mangroves to both moist and dry rainforest, there are very many kinds of birds  – 215 species have been identified – making YALA a birdwatcher’s delight. Crocodiles, snakes and lizards are also in abundance so keep to the rules and stay in your jeep!

The Park is closed for about six weeks from August to September to allow the animals to survive the driest times.

KATARAGAMA, like Adam’s Peak, is a holy place for Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims and there can’t be many Sri Lankans who have not made a pilgrimage or two here to seek various blessings. Poya days and weekends are particularly busy, so if you’d like a pilgrimage experience, those days could be for you. Two of the holiest shrines here are the Ruhunu Maha Kataragama Devalaya which is dedicated to the war god Skanda and the Buddhist stupa, Kiri Vehera.

Kataragama’s famous perahera, in honour of the god Skanda, attracts pilgrims from all over the country with some even making a pilgrim’s walk the length of the country from Jaffna. This colourful and exciting festival procession of elephants, fire walkers, fire eaters, singers and musicians along with jugglers and acrobats, electrifies the streets around the town during the Esala perehera time July – August. The final times and dates depend on the decisions of auspicious times. KATARAGAMA is a “must see”, festival or not.