Sri Lanka: Caught between machine guns and a paradise jungle

A bumpy start to the adventure

"Those guards were overrun by the Tamils and then they occupied the airport!" were the first words of our tour guide after arriving at Colombo airport, the capital of Sri Lanka. Somehow I had imagined the dream island in the Indian Ocean to be a bit more peaceful. Every few kilometres more armed road posts followed - but you get used to everything. The civil war is officially over, but remnants of it can still be felt almost everywhere. Sometimes a travel warning is issued by the Foreign Office, sometimes not, so it’s best to check with the Foreign Office for any warnings before you go. If a travel warning is issued after you have booked your flight, there is a good chance you’ll get a refund. Sri Lanka is worth a trip, despite the not always stable political situation.

Sri Lanka's breathtaking nature

The compensation is incredible nature: jungle areas with more species per square kilometre than Brazil, the highest leopard density in Asia, great and diverse freshwaters and also marine fauna that is well worth seeing. Sri Lanka has all this to offer alongside its cultural highlights. In order to get a rough geographical orientation, we can divide the elongated oval island state as follows. The north is Tamil territory with only limited accessibility. In the south and northeast near Trincomalee, there are kilometres of sandy beaches and some diving schools. But be careful: If the sea suddenly recedes, a devastating wave will come shortly afterwards. This is called a tsunami and happened in December 2004! In the middle of the island there is a large town called Kandy with many beautiful old colonial buildings from times gone by. On the way from the capital to Kandy, we almost pass one of the most famous spots in Sri Lanka: the elephant orphanage of Pinnawela. Animal rights activists criticise this animal orphanage and yet it is an opportunity for us tourists to see the elephants up close and bathing in the river. The animals have developed a special behaviour: they shake out the grass to free it from soil before they eat it! About 100 elephants are released into the wild every year.

A look under water

By and large the rest of Sri Lanka consists of jungle and lots of - for us - interesting, small and large rivers in some breathtaking landscapes. The police aren’t that bothered by crazy tourists looking for small fish in the ditch, armed with diving goggles and a landing net. They have more serious business to worry about.

Since Sri Lanka is as good as connected to the Indian mainland (strait and shallow water in the northwest near Talaimannar), it’s no surprise that many of its fish species can also be found in India. And yet Sri Lanka also has its own species to offer. Take a car with a driver, close your eyes so you don't see the driving and traffic near misses, and let yourself be driven to remote rivers or creeks. If it hasn't just been raining there's a good chance of encountering clear water where you can snorkel to your heart's content. Barbels and loaches are the main inhabitants of Sri Lanka's waters. Crocodiles are not usually to be feared. The locals know exactly which waters to avoid. If in doubt, just ask in the next village. This works wonderfully without language skills and adds to everyone's amusement. The villagers will then accompany you, making a loud spectacle, and by then at the latest all the animals will have fled.

Take your time when snorkelling. Lots of fish species hide as soon as you enter the water, but will reappear when you “play dead". You’ll also see how the sucker-mouthed barbs (Garra species) prefer to eat the growth from the rocks rather than the outer skin of paying tourists.

Once you have observed flowing waters of various sizes, look for some stagnant waters! Sri Lanka has 12,000 man-made lakes, but they were created before the birth of Christ and therefore no longer have an artificial character. These lakes are really unusual and offer something very rare on this planet - a win-win situation for animals & humans. Humans can harvest twice a year and animals get wetland areas that lead to a greater diversity of animals. You’re also guaranteed to find other fish and plant species there and you can easily locate these ponds and lakes on Google Maps. The only thing Google Maps doesn't tell us is the clarity of the water. These waters rarely have a visibility that makes it worth snorkelling there, but even dropping a few landing nets in opaque waters can be worthwhile! I was lucky enough to observe Indian cichlids in one pond - a real stroke of luck!

Communication of a different kind

If you are communicating with Sri Lankans and your counterpart keeps shaking his head, this does not mean a permanent NO, but an affirmative YES! The nodding "yes" head movement is then a NO in return. It is strange for us Europeans and hard for us to get right.

A "MUST" for every aquarist

Sri Lanka is a worthwhile destination for aquarists, as we are free to move around and sure to find a very high animal density, not to mention unmissable cultural sites. Lots of the waters are beautifully clear and - tell me - what could be better for us aquarists than snorkelling among our aquarium fish?

Travel tips:

The cheapest flight prices from Frankfurt to Colombo with a stopover start at around €600. Direct flights are not currently available.

The best time to travel around the island state is between the monsoon seasons. If you want to travel to a certain region, you should avoid the monsoons. May-September is rainy on the west and southwest coasts, while the sun shines in the northeast and north. Between December and March it is the other way round. From March to around mid-May, there are the fewest rain showers everywhere. For the highlands, January to March is ideal.

Respect the photo bans, e.g. of military areas or the "Cloud Girl frescoes" at the Sigiriya Rock. The fines will exceed your travel budget!

You can apply for the required entry visa in advance (US$35) or purchase it directly at the point of entry (US$40).

Exporting animals from Sri Lanka is prohibited or extremely heavily regulated. The best way is to talk to a local fish exporter or even ask a fish importer in Germany.

If you are travelling from Germany and not from a tropical country, there are no vaccination requirements. Sri Lanka is considered malaria-free. Nevertheless, standard vaccinations such as tetanus, diphtheria, polio, measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) are recommended. The hepatitis A vaccination is advisable, and for long-term stays or particular hazards hepatitis B, rabies, typhoid and Japanese encephalitis as well.

© 31.05.2022
Heiko Blessin
Heiko Blessin
Dipl.-Biologe

Tauchen, Fotografie, Aquaristik, Haie, Motorrad

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