It took three days to get there, coast to coast. This may not sound unusual, but I’m talking about Sri Lanka, and the distance as the crow flies is only around 200km. It was 1988, my first trip to the island, and I was determined to get to Arugam Bay
, on the east coast to go surfing. Sure, the civil war between the government and the Tamils was still in full swing, and the east coast was supposedly a no-go zone for the handful of tourists still traveling to Sri Lanka. My enthusiasm was buoyed when I checked into the hostel in Colombo and spied another surfboard in the locker room as I put mine in there – someone else either had the same idea, or perhaps had undertaken the journey and could give me a few tips. I left a note on the other board with my name and room number, and later that night I met up with a long-haired, bearded bloke from Melbourne named Matt. He had actually arrived in the country only a few hours before me, and had the same journey in mind, so after lengthy discussions over a few 3-coins, a cheap curry at the Lankan RSL, and a few more beers, we had a plan.
The next morning we took a cab to the central train station, and carefully and slowly threaded our way through to the ticket window and then the platform. If you’ve ever experienced sub-continental train stations, you’ll have an idea of the mass of humanity involved in these sorts of maneuvers, we were additionally hampered by having backpacks on, and a surfboard under the arm, much to the amusement of the locals. The train we were catching was going to Badulla, away from the coast into the high country in the centre of the island – we must have looked like right idiots. The train rattled through the countryside, and slowed to an amble as we climbed into the hill country. It may have been my imagination, but it never seemed to totally stop at stations, just slow down even more, to less than a walking pace, while those exiting threw first their luggage, then themselves off, with those boarding reversing the process. We reached Badulla in the mid afternoon, long after the last (well, only) bus heading towards the coast had left for the day. Nothing to do but find a hotel, kick back, drink some beers and swap travel stories.
The next morning we waited at the bus station for sign of a bus going to Pottuvil
. Eventually we asked around, and finally someone informed us that no bus would be going all the way to Pottuvil that day, but we could get as far as Lahugal, a small town about 20km shy of our destination. Being a little young and naive, we figured that this would do, and that we could simply hitch the rest of the way, so we help load our boards onto the roof of the bus and jumped on. About an hour later, when I thought I was close to passing out from the heat of being trapped in a non-moving bus in a tin shed in the middle of the day in 34C temperatures, we headed off. On arrival in Lahugal, we geared up and started walking, thumbs out, down the road. I think I mentioned earlier that there was a little bit of a civil war going on in these parts at the time. We hadn’t figured this into our equation very well – there really wasn’t much in the way of traffic! After walking for about 4 or 5 kms, we chanced upon an army outpost. They were mighty surprised to see to aussies walking along the road, but were wonderfully hospitable, offering us tea and water. We chatted to the lieutenant in charge of the base, named after one of Sri Lanka’s great exports – Kamal. He was the same age as me, but at 20 had experienced a rather radically different life. To help us out, he had his men set up a roadblock to stop all passing traffic to see if anyone could offer us a lift to Pottuvil – as I said, incredibly hospitable – but to no avail. The sun was starting to set, and with a nighttime curfew in place, we weren’t going anywhere. The army guys kindly put us up for the night, pulling out a couple of spare camp cots. Before we turned in Kamal came by to remind us where the rifles were stored, because well, “sometimes the Tigers, they attack in the night”. I don’t think either Matt or myself got much sleep.
The following day we were finally able to get onto a bus heading to Pottuvil, from Badulla of course. There was no transport for the last 3kms from Pottuvil to Arugam Bay, so we legged it. Arugam was something of a ghost town – a former bjackpacker mecca, now empty, save around 10 other people stupid enough to venture there. But the reason the place was formerly so popular was still there – a beach plucked straight out of a travel brochure, with a perfect 4-foot wave wrapping around the point, and a seemingly endless line-up following it. Oh, and no one out. If you’re used to surfing at Bondi and having to fight for every wave, this scenario is pretty much what you dream of, but never expect to find, a surfers nirvana.
I spent 3 weeks there, surfing every day with the locals, eating whatever fish the locals caught or peanut butter and banana toasties when they would come back empty handed, drinking dodgy cheap arrack with warm fanta, learning much about Lankan history and culture from talking at people at night, and generally having the time of my life. I’ve been back 3 times, and always had a great time. I’ve been fortunate enough to travel extensively, and people often ask me what my favourite place is. Picking a favourite is always a difficult thing – how do you compare somewhere like New York or Buenos Aires to Koh Pan Ghan or Aitutaki? But the place that I always end up nominating is Arugam. As the situation with the Tamil Tigers improved over the years, the tourists came back, hotels were rebuilt and new ones built, new restaurants sprung up on the beach, and even a surf shop run by an Aussie, Hawkey, who liked it so much he never left. Transport services and roads improved, with a car and driver able to do the trip from Colombo in 6 or 7 hours. After a decade or more of doing it tough, things seemed to be looking good.
Sadly this area was the hardest hit last Sunday. Of the more than 30,000 dead in Sri Lanka, more than 10,000 came from this area. The bridge is destroyed, preventing any supplies getting in by road. Lankan, Indian and French army helicopters have been ferrying food, water and basic medicines, and flying out some of the wounded not able to be treated in the field hospital. Flooding is also hitting the area badly. An unimaginable number are homeless. It’s sad beyond comprehension. I wish there was something more I could do than give money, but I guess that’s pretty much most of us can do. Just keep giving, people. You can give directly to people in the region here