It is proving difficult to concentrate. A cocktail of adrenalin, astonishment and apprehension is leaving me intoxicated by my surroundings. Watching the road, however, should be the priority; I’m riding a motorbike in unpredictable traffic yet the sights flanking the tarmac are demanding my attention – and often receive it.
Waves are rolling in off the Indian Ocean, sending foam sliding across golden sand to the feet of tilted palm trees, where fishermen are resting. Exotic birds circle and swoop to the sea’s surface, snatch prey and glide off towards the dense jungle. In the sky, deep pinks bleed into scorching oranges as amber rays bounce across the water.
Here, in Sri Lanka’s Southern Province, the prime tourist attraction is the provincial capital of Galle and its charming Fort precinct, which is embellished by a cluster of impressively preserved colonial buildings. Tourists to Sri Lanka tend to come only on short trips, following the well-worn path between Galle, the low-key national capital Colombo and the cool, mountainous setting of Kandy. A decade ago they would have admired the enchanting coastline between Colombo and Galle through a bus window. Now, an expressway has cut journey times in half but it courses through a far less picturesque interior route.
To get a feel for the area, I’m venturing beyond downtown Galle, along the coast – and there is no more exhilarating way to do that than on a motorbike.
Sri Lanka is not a crowded country. There are almost as many people in the megacity of Mumbai as there are in the whole of this island nation off the south-eastern tip of India. Consequently, Sri Lanka’s roads are less packed than those of its neighbour. Traffic rules, however, are a loose concept, as I discover while riding east along Galle’s seafront promenade. Trucks overtake with little care, auto-rickshaws swerve erratically and fellow bikers pierce the thinnest of gaps between four-wheeled vehicles.
I hug the shoulder of the road, maintain a modest speed and refuse to participate in the game of progression-at-all-costs being played alongside me.
Perhaps the greatest perk of riding a motorbike is the ability to investigate something that catches your eye.
Hauling in a gigantic net from the calm waters of Coco Bay, on the eastern outskirts of Galle, a group of fishermen cause me to stop and dismount. Bare-chested and with sarongs wrapped around their lower halves, they wait for the call of an elderly man standing in the shallows. Each time he bellows they pull in unison, grunting and puffing as their efforts bring a fish-filled net closer and closer to a soft sand beach lined with weathered wooden fishing boats, national flags fluttering from their masts.
Earlier, the net had been dropped from a boat onto the Bonavista Reef, about 500 metres offshore.
The sheltered bay looks across to the ramparts of Galle Fort and is flanked to the east by the jungle-draped hills of beach resort Unawatuna. It is home to a number of vendors doing a brisk trade in fish brought straight from the sea.
Fishing is a key industry in Southern Province and traditional methods remain prevalent. Stilt fishermen are a common sight between Kathaluwa and Weligama villages, about 20km and 35km east of Galle, respectively.
The monsoon season has cloaked Kathaluwa in heavy cloud as I negotiate a bend and spot the first of these men, dangling his rod. Perched about 1.5 metres above the ocean, on a beam that juts off a stilt buried deep in the sea floor, the young man’s generous grin and relaxed posture contrast with the turbulent waters below him.
As he leans down, to be heard over the din of crashing waves, Sanath says his father taught him this method of fishing. He appreciates the solitude it affords him, he says, but to make a living he must also haul in nets, like the crew at Coco Bay, and man one of the trawlers that depart from the province’s biggest fishing town, Mirissa.
Just east of the blight on this stunning landscape that is the Koggala Air Force Base, Kathaluwa is southern Sri Lanka compressed into one tiny town. Modest wooden homes are wedged amid clusters of lofty palm trees and look out, past a tidy row of general stores and restaurants, to a small bay. The rhythm of life is wonderfully gentle; men gather at a seaside coffee shop as the womenfolk amble in groups along the beach, chatting.
Weligama feels like Kathaluwa’s older sibling; it has the same laidback character but is larger and livelier, with a longer commercial strip, a surfing school and even a couple of mid-range beach resorts. Nevertheless, the words “bustle” and “rush” are unlikely to roll off your tongue here. Good-natured haggling over fruit and vegetables at the town’s ramshackle market is about as close as it comes to a commotion in Weligama.
As seen from the road along the edge of its large bay, industrial Mirissa sprawls into the distance; highlighting just how simple, elegant and appealing life is in the seaside towns I have just visited. This town is not without its charm, though.
It is difficult not to be impressed by the cheerful, energetic manner in which its residents set about making a living. Street vendors push heavy carts laden with snacks, clothes or cleaning supplies. Mechanics weld together car parts on the footpath outside their shops. Barbers cut hair wherever they can place a chair and hang a mirror. There is no shortage of endeavour, especially at the makeshift fish market by the side of the road.
Beneath torn tarpaulins, the saleswomen each have a dozen or so fish placed on newspaper laid out on the sand. They share a few sets of timeworn scales, carefully calculating the weight of each purchase before yelling the price to a customer.
Peering out from beneath head scarves, the women beckon me over to inspect their produce, vying for my attention as fiercely as the province’s wondrous scenery has done all day. I politely decline their offers, restart my motorbike and head back towards Galle, to soak it all in once more.
I’ll pay more attention to the road this time, I promise myself.
Getting there: Cathay Pacific flies from Hong Kong to Colombo. Galle can be reached from the Sri Lankan capital by buses and trains, and private car hire, with a driver, can be arranged from the airport.