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  • Writer's pictureAlly Landes

SRI LANKA | South Ceylon Travel Diaries

I first discovered Sri Lankan island life back in March 2006 with a group of 10 other divers on a short 4 day FAM trip that included a lot of moving around, with long bus journeys. It was organised by the Sri Lankan Tourism Board targeting EDA and a group of EDA members to promote diving in Bentota after the devastating tsunami of December 2004. I published the articles in the summer 2006 issue of Divers for the Environment which had only just served its second year. How far the magazine has come since those days – 18 years ago.

 

I loved that whirlwind trip so much, I promised myself I would one day go back and take a slower approach to discover the south of the island properly. It turns out, it took me 17.5 years to do it, but I would like to think we did it justice in the 10 days we booked our visit.


Mount Lavinia with Colombo city skyline in the background.

As a tropical Indian Ocean island, we did a lot of research into the hiking options, wildlife exploration, and diving in the south for our winter season in December. The South is definitely the place to be this time of year. Despite it not being the wet season, we did get 5 days of tropical rain after 5 superb weather days at the end of our trip. However, it did not dampen the holiday.

 

We planned quite the adventure, where my so-called slower approach was not so slow after all. We had originally looked into the possibility of hiring a car and driving ourselves around, but the logistics are complicated so we opted for a personal driver instead and we couldn’t have been happier. You can even hire a self drive tuktuk if you’re feeling REALLY adventurous.

 

Amal was recommended to us by fellow EDA Member, Joan Conde, and he was fantastic. It meant we could take in all the views, meet our schedules on time (we timed everything around our accommodation check-ins and check-outs) and have the occasional nap as the drives can be quite long. It also meant we could get answers to all our questions while en route, and enjoy last minute recommendations we would have otherwise not known about.

 

MOUNT LAVINIA

Our first stop in Colombo straight from the airport was to Mount Lavinia where I had booked our dives through Island Scuba for the following morning, also recommended by Joan. Colombo is known for its wreck dives and we had two dives booked to Shipwreck Cargo (Pecheur Breton), and Shipwreck Medhufaru which we were really looking forward to.


Island Scuba Diving Centre

We checked in to the Beverly Suites Mount Lavinia which is opposite the Mount Lavinia beach – you just need to walk 6 minutes and cross the train tracks. It’s only a 7 minute drive from the Island Scuba diving centre which was ideal. It was perfect for us, the room was spacious and clean for a great price, in a picturesque location, and had a convenient late afternoon check-out. We unpacked the essentials and prepped our gear for the next day’s dives, before heading off for a walk on the beach to grab some lunch while enjoying the sea views with Colombo’s city skyline in the backdrop.

 

We can recommend going to the Mount Lavinia Hotel rooftop pool terrace in the afternoon to watch the spectacular sunset with a sundowner or two, and then head down to the beach on the Northern side of the hotel to have dinner and listen to some excellent live music at the Catamaran Beach Restaurant.

 

Mount Lavinia Hotel rooftop pool terrace for the sunset view.

There, we got to chat with Thanuja Danwatte, the restaurant’s Director, who is strongly active in sustainable initiatives and takes part in local beach clean-ups with her team. Like most coastal island beaches, we had noticed the visible rubbish on our walk, most of which was plastics. Thanuja explained that aluminium items collected are recycled and sent to the Melting Point Aluminium Recycling Programme enforced by the Central Environmental Authority for the new government’s programme to protect the environment. Aluminium cans are considered the most recyclable and valuable of all materials in Sri Lanka. It’s good to learn that there is a concerned community involved in regular clean-ups, but as Thanuja said, they are continuous as the limited beach strip available around Colombo is only 5km. There is an adjoining canal that unfortunately pollutes the area despite the clean-up programmes initiated, but future upcoming programmes should help alleviate the problem.

 

The next morning, Amal picked us up and dropped us off at Island Scuba. It’s a really nice setup right on the beach where they share the space with Pink Salt, a great restaurant to stop at for lunch after the dives while you let your rinsed gear dry out. This was great for us as we always travel with our own equipment and are constantly on the move.

 

WRECK DIVING

Like most dive centres in Sri Lanka, Island Scuba has 2 locations which are seasonal due to the monsoon. Their Colombo dive centre runs from November-April where they offer wreck (15 accessible wrecks within recreational diving depths), and sandstone and rock reef dives. In May-October, they operate in Trincomalee on the east coast offering coral reef and critter dives.


Island Scuba dive boat in Mount Lavinia.

Our first dive on Shipwreck Cargo (Pecheur Breton) was fantastic. It’s only a 15 minute boat journey to the wreck and lies between 18-32m depths on its side. The 88m x 12.5m cargo ship sank back in 1994 from what was believed to be a leak in one of the hatches. This is a great wreck with fully collapsed cargo floors that have created two large swim-through tunnels and there are so many nooks and crannies to look into. It’s hard to capture it all in one dive. Wooden lifeboats lie on the seabed next to the wreck, and there are plenty of schools of fish all over, in and under the wreck. The ship’s hull is stark with barnacle growth, but then there are plenty of areas with spurts of colourful Tubastrea hard corals which I’m told by Henrik Stahl, the Associate Professor in Marine Sciences from the University of Khorfakkan, “is a ahermatypic cup-coral that doesn’t have any symbiotic algae. Hence, it can grow deeper and in more shaded areas (such as shipwrecks) compared to hermatypic reef building corals. These are quite invasive in their nature and can compete (and sometimes outcompete) with other corals and sponges for hard substrates to grow on. Tubastrea are sometimes called, “sun coral” due to their often bright yellow appearance.”


Our dive on Shipwreck Cargo (Pecheur Breton).

Our dive on Shipwreck Cargo (Pecheur Breton).

Our dive on Shipwreck Cargo (Pecheur Breton) where colourful Tubastrea hard corals can be seen.

The Shipwreck Cargo (Pecheur Breton) has some great swim-through tunnels.

The Shipwreck Cargo (Pecheur Breton) has some great swim-through tunnels.

Our dive on Shipwreck Cargo (Pecheur Breton).

The obvious choice for photographers who have to decide which lens to use, is wide-angle – and good lighting is a must at these depths. I have both wide-angle and a macro option setup on 2 separate GoPros lined up side by side with 2 Black Molly V 2600 lumens video lights from Big Blue, and one extra [qudos] action light by knog with 70-400 lumens as a filler. I can easily position my lights for either GoPro I need to use. Anyone with a newer GoPro has the options to switch between the fields of view using just the one camera. I have yet to update my 5 and 8 with the latest GoPro on the market. Sadly, I lost my 7 on this trip after the housing flooded, so I can tell you, I don’t regret having spares!

 

I came across a nudibranch without looking for it, so I’m sure there is a lot more macro subjects to find if giving it priority, but there’s so much going on as a whole, you would only want to prioritise macro if there is bad visibility, or you’ve got more dives coming up on the same wreck.

 

The second dive at Shipwreck Medhufaru is only a couple of minutes away and another fantastic wreck. It sank in 2009 due to structural damage. This upright 77m x 12m cargo ship is found at a maximum depth of 28m loaded with building materials, some vehicles, and I later found out there were old-school computers, a printer and air conditioners up by the galley and the bridge. Penetration on this wreck is for the more advanced wreck divers, but there is a staircase and wheelhouse for some fun exploration for those less experienced. We came across a gorgeous marbled electric ray (Torpedo marmorata) which was the first and only elasmobranch species we got to see. The dive guide said that they had a whale shark on their dive the day before, so it really is a matter of luck. Our safety stop was done with some inquisitive batfish (Platax teira).


Our dive on Shirwreck Medhufaru.

Our dive on Shirwreck Medhufaru.

Our dive on Shirwreck Medhufaru.

Our dive on Shirwreck Medhufaru.

Our dive on Shirwreck Medhufaru with the marbled electric ray (Torpedo marmorata).

Our dive on Shirwreck Medhufaru.

Our dive on Shirwreck Medhufaru.

Our dive on Shirwreck Medhufaru.

Compared to the Pecheur Breton, this wreck only had a few Tubastrea hard corals which I had expected more of being in such close proximity. Both wrecks are reputed for strong currents but we were lucky on both counts to have had some very relaxed conditions and some better than average visibility.

 

GALLE FORT

After our lunch at Pink Salt, we packed our almost dry dive gear away, said our farewells and hit the road to Galle Fort, a UNESCO World Heritage Site where we checked in to the very lovely Mango House Boutique Hotel & Restaurant for our next 2 nights. We highly recommend walking all around the fort’s outer walls, as it is very picturesque and a great way to see much of the historic town. You also  get to see the many monitor lizards roaming around the grassy outskirts which was a highlight if you like reptiles as much as I do. The Maritime Museum is also worth a visit, and we recommend eating at the very tiny Coconut Sambol restaurant on 68 Church Street for their home cooked all-you-can-eat curry clay pot buffet. Boasting quaint streets packed with small boutiques, cafes and bars, a full day’s exploring is enough time to see it all.


Galle Fort

The free roaming monitor lizards of Galle Fort.

The free roaming peacocks of Galle Fort.

From Galle Fort, we drove 3 hours to the Sinharaja Forest Reserve where we booked our following 2 nights at the Rainforest Mount Lodge where wild peacocks run amuck.

 

SINHARAJA RAINFOREST RESERVE

The Rainforest Mount Lodge is a family run business owned by Chamara and his parents. The lodge sits on a tea plantation with some spectacular views and a beautiful garden which is run by his father, while his mother cooks all the meals and looks after her garden flowers and spices for her kitchen. Mama, as she is affectionately referred to, makes the best Sri Lankan curry which we made sure to pre-order both nights we were there.

 

Views of the lush green Sinharaja surrounding areas with stunning tea plantations.

Chamara runs the hikes and overall business and has a formidable knowledge of all the flora and fauna of the Sinharaja Rainforest which is a world heritage and biodiversity hotspot. We made friends with most of the dogs here and were accompanied for the duration of the hike which is said to not be great for the slim chance of spotting deer or the Sri Lankan leopard. We did see lots of different species of lizards, and our very first Sri Lankan kangaroo lizards at that, a stunning Sri Lankan pit viper, an evil looking scorpion that Chamara coaxed out of hiding, grey langur monkeys, and we heard the commotion of purple-faced leaf monkeys. We also saw how palm syrup is made by an indigenous couple that move around the forest to harvest the fruit and boil it down over a fire pit. The highlight at the end is a swim in the fresh waterfall pool. Swimsuits and towel are a must, and possibly some water shoes for walking over the rocks.

 

Sinharaja World Heritage Site Pitadeniya entrance.

Sinharaja kangaroo lizard, endemic to Sri Lanka.

Sinharaja kangaroo lizard, endemic to Sri Lanka.

Sri Lankan pit viper.

Hump-nosed lizard.

Hump-nosed lizard.

Sinharaja scorpion.

The hikes are available for all levels of fitness which are run as half day or full day treks. We booked the full day and it really was a first class experience. During the wet season you will want to be equipped with boot covers for leeches (we had brought them with us just in case), but this part of our trip was fortunately dry, though we had salt rubbed into our hiking boots as a precaution.

 

Views of the lush green Sinharaja Rainforest Reserve and river.

Admiring the beauty with our four legged companion.

How palm syrup is made by an indigenous couple that move around the forest to harvest the fruit and boil it down over a fire pit.

Chamara leading the Sinharaja hike.

After the hike we asked Chamara if it was possible to visit the nearby hilltop temple we’d heard music coming from during a walk on the evening we arrived. He proceeded to treat us to a full on tuktuk tour of the surrounding areas, stopping at 2 stunning view points, introducing us to the monk at the temple and translated the visit to see all the temple’s paintings (there are only 3 famous artists in Sri Lanka that paint these murals) and statues (we made a LKR5,000 donation), and he then took us to see another stunning waterfall where we drank fresh King coconuts. An unxpected, but highly memorable experience!


Sinharaja tuktuk tour with Chamara.

The Sinharaja Buddhist Temple.

Chamara showing us another stunning Sinharaja waterfall.

Chamara taking us on a Sinharaja tuktuk tour.

TANGALLE

Next up was a 2.5-hour drive to Tangalle where we booked a stay at the beachfront Omia Resort. This is a lovely resort owned and built by a friendly expat couple on Rekawa Beach. It has a very tranquil setting as the centre of Tangalle is 8km away, and our room had a balcony with a stunning beach view. This choice was purely to unwind and relax as the next morning we were up at the crack of dawn to drive to Udawalawe National Park for a full day safari. We had not booked in advance for this part of our itinerary, but it just so happened that Chamara’s cousin Dusan ran a safari business at this very park. Chamara put us in touch, and we connected on WhatsApp to book it. It worked out perfectly for us and we were very well looked after as a private tour.


Omia Resort room with balcony and beach view.

UDAWALAWE NATIONAL PARK

This is the part of our trip where it rained cats and dogs for the next 24 hours! Amal came to pick us up, and we headed out at 4:30am to meet our jeep driver for the 6am park opening. Our jeep thankfully had covers we could roll down or we would have been soaked through (camera and all) and we would most probably have cancelled the rest of the day’s 6-7 hour (full-day) tour as it got quite chilly. Another thing to remember here, is to ask your hotel the night before to prepare a packed lunch as the tour only provides fruit and water. Our hosts very kindly packed us a thermos with coffee to go with our sandwiches, fruit and carrot cake which was great to have when the rain got really heavy.

 

There is plenty to see on this trip, but elephants (up close and personal) and peacocks are guaranteed. We had a lovely encounter with a young male elephant who gave us quite a show as he lay down to roll around in the mud. You do need to ask your driver to stay clear of all the other jeeps as it can get very busy and they seem to like to stick together, but we were very fortunate and ended up having the place mostly to ourselves for a lot of the safari. We saw Sri Lankan jackals, deer, water buffalo, toque monkeys, crocodiles, a huge water monitor lizard, and so many bird species that our driver was very knowledgeable about. He would open his bird book to show us the species in more detail which was great to fully understand what we were seeing from a distance.


Udawalawe National Park elephants.

Udawalawe National Park elephant.

Udawalawe National Park toque monkey.

Udawalawe National Park deer.

Udawalawe National Park with Sri Lankan jackals.

Udawalawe National Park Sri Lankan jackal.

On the way to the exit, our driver misjudged a very deep muddy ridge in the track and managed to get stuck. In all his efforts to try and get out, it was a no win situation with his very worn out tyre treads. Another vehicle soon showed up and miraculously pulled us out with tyres in worse shape than the ones on our jeep, much to our driver’s relief, as he was by now caked head to toe in mud. It was yet another great day for the memories!

 

BENTOTA

Our last leg of the journey takes me back to where I started when I first came to Sri Lanka all those years ago - Bentota!

 

After our 3.5 hour drive, we checked into the idyllic Bella Vita Boutique Hotel which we found on Airbnb. We were met by our lovely Italian and Sri Lankan hosts, Susanna, and her husband Sanjeewa, and their son Luca. This is a relaxing, quiet and remote location, and you are going to eat well as they prepare freshly cooked Italian food – the pizza dough and pasta is all home made too.

 

For our dives the next morning, it was just a 10 minute drive over the Bentota Ganga river. I booked our dives with Lanka Sportreizen (LSR) at the Marina Hotel. I had been in touch by WhatsApp with Sujith, our dive guide, when we were still in Dubai to make sure we stayed in touch up to the day to make sure we were still good to go. We had sandstone and rock reefs planned for these dives, and the weather was great.

 

I didn’t recognise the dive centre at all as it’s a new location to the old one, just a few metres along the stretch, but it just so happens to be exactly the same dive operator I dived with 18 years ago. Fred was our dive guide at the time, but Sujith was also there, and there is an EDA sticker in the shop front window which led to the trigger! Sujith made sure to point out the old location when we set off in the boat. What a small world!


Our group in 2006 with Sujith in the blue T-shirt.
Today in the new dive centre location with Sujith in the light blue T-shirt and his team.
A selection of faded stickers adorn the shop door window, the old EDA logo amongst them.

SANDSTONE AND ROCK REEF DIVES

It’s very pretty taking the boat out from the Bentota Ganga river side. You need to brace for the slight impact when the boat hits the surf of the river/sea crossing, and then look out to the right to see the Barberyn Lighthouse – one of the landmarks I do remember.

 

I struggled to find any details online about dive sites in Bentota, so I left it to Sujith to suggest the best options for us to experience that day. It was New Year’s Eve, and it was surprisingly quiet everywhere. We happened to only be three divers onboard with 2 dive guides. Sujith took us only as the other diver was newly certified Open Water.

 

Our first dive was to Modoun which is 8-28m deep. Macro photography will be more enjoyable for photographers around Bentota as the visibility can be limited and the marine life is more dispersed. I found 3 nudibranchs that I have not seen before, and I found a spiral of nudibranch eggs, so getting in for a closer look will reveal a lot more.

 

I also found a very warty looking cushion star with a colouring I’ve not seen before (Culcita novaeguineae), lots of cleaner shrimps, and a teeny tiny octopus (species unknown), but I couldn’t get close enough due to its position in a deep crack between two rocks. You will come across lots of longfin bannerfish (Heniochus acuminatus), island trevally (Carangoides orthogrammus), and it’s common to find titan triggerfish here (Balistoides viridescens). Fred had told our group visiting in 2006 the story of one that had bitten off the tip of a divers ear which I have always remembered, so I’m a little anxious when I see these big fellas as they get very territorial. There are various species of butterfly and angelfish, and quite a few soft corals. We also found a large ghost net at this site which will hopefully be removed by a group of caring divers.

 

Cushion star (Culcita novaeguineae)

Spiral of nudibranch eggs.

Cleaner shrimps.

Our second dive was split between two dive sites, Mada 4-22m and Atra Caves 13-24m. We saw the very beautiful Indian Ocean oriental sweetlips (Plectorhinchus vittatus) here, we saw a few stonefish, more bannerfish, a lot of lobsters at this site, island trevally (Carangoides orthogrammus), as well as lots of fusiliers and other smaller tropical fish.

 

Diving Mada dive site in Bentota with Lanka Sportreizen (LSR).

Indian Ocean oriental sweetlips (Plectorhinchus vittatus).

Bluespotted grouper (Cephalopholis argus).

Soft corals.

Diving Mada dive site, Bentota.

All in all, it was a really fun day of diving and nostalgic for me. I enjoyed our conversations with Sujith, it was good to be back.

 

We rinsed all our dive gear and left it to dry while we got a boat ride over to Pier 88 which is a good spot for lunch. Back at the dive centre afterwards, we packed our dive gear, said our farewells and headed back to our Airbnb for the festivities of New Year’s Eve.

 

Susanna and Sanjeewa had invited us to join their family New Year’s Eve plans together with their son Luca, Sanjeewa’s mother, and two of their close friends. Sanjeewa had organised a boat over to Bentota Beach which is next door to the Dharmadeepa Aranya Senasanaya temple to get a five-star view of all the hotel resort firework displays – and much to my happiness – with a backdrop of fireflies. We couldn’t have imagined a better way to ring in the new year.

 

COLOMBO

We checked out at 11am on the 1st of January 2024, and Amal drove us to Colombo for the day to see the Colombo National Museum which we enjoyed, and when we asked which Buddhist temple to visit, he recommended the Kelaniya Raja Maha Viharaya Temple, which was superb! It was busy, it was raining, it was hard work walking around barefoot in the course wet sand, but it was well worth seeing the reclining Gautama Buddha and the stunning paintings by native artist Solias Mendis, which depict important events in the life of the Buddha. We got just about everything we wanted for this trip with hiking, wildlife, diving and culture.

 

Amal dropped us off at the Mövenpick Hotel as we had read some really good reviews for the rooftop bar. It had zero atmosphere, a very limited menu, and it’s not covered for rain, so we ran over to the Granbell Hotel rooftop bar for a drink and dinner with a great atmosphere, and a much better city view, before heading to the airport at 11pm. We timed it all perfectly. A holiday well spent!


Kelaniya Raja Maha Viharaya Temple's reclining Gautama Buddha.


TRAVEL SUGGESTIONS

VISA

Purchasing your visa online helps speed up arrivals. We used Global Visa Services (GVC) a week before the trip, but it can be done in as short a time as 5 hours from here:

 

CASH

Exchange Cash at the airport to acquire Sri Lankan Rupees (LKR). Most places accept card payments, but smaller premises and drivers will not. Due to the troubled economy, switching Sri Lankan Rupees back to local currency is difficult, if at all possible – depends on the size of the notes, not the overall amount.

 

DRIVER RECOMMENDATION

WhatsApp Amal for enquiries:

+94 77 777 8271

Amal can be available anywhere in Sri Lanka for a minimum of 6 days. Advised to book as early as possible.

 

DIVE CENTRES

COLOMBO – MOUNT LAVINIA

Island Scuba

 

BENTOTA

Lanka Sportreizen (LSR)

Located at the Marina Hotel

Sujith Sanjeewa: MSDT Instructor

 

ACCOMMODATION

COLOMBO – MOUNT LAVINIA

Beverly Suites Mount Lavinia

(7 min drive to Island Scuba)

 

FOR SUNSET ROOFTOP VIEWS:

Mount Lavinia Hotel

 

DINNER & LIVE MUSIC:

Catamaran Beach Restuarant

 

GALLE FORT

Mango House

(Boutique Hotel & Restaurant)

 

SINHARAJA FOREST RESERVE

Rainforest Mount Lodge

 

TANGALLE

Omia Resort

 

BENTOTA

Bella Vita Boutique Hotel

(10 min drive to Lanka Sportreizen)



Original Story Published in the Divers for the Environment March magazine issue:

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