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Travel Special: Sri Lankan hideaway

The unexpected epiphanies of an island hidden within an island

A Buddhist temple on an island in Koggala Lake. Photo: Alamy
A Buddhist temple on an island in Koggala Lake. Photo: Alamy

It is a classic coming-of-age story: Two schoolboys thirsting for adventure run away from home to escape their humdrum lives in a coastal village in southern Sri Lanka. After a series of adventures, they chance upon a deserted island in a lake. With the help of a compassionate farmer and a fugitive living on the island, they begin farming on it. Eventually, the castaways become the successful co-owners of a profitable plantation.

More than 70 years after Martin Wickramasinghe, one of Sri Lanka’s foremost literary icons, wrote this story, the island of Madol Duwa—which inspired the eponymous book—is still a tourist attraction. A motorboat cut across Koggala Lake, a freshwater lagoon close to Galle, the historic town on Sri Lanka’s southern coast, and deposited my husband and me on the island. Matted with the snaking roots of mangroves that grow prolifically in the squelchy soil, the landscape immediately demanded our attention.

It was a bright and breezy afternoon when we visited, but the light deepened as we made our way across the small island, dodging brush and bramble. The blue sky was swallowed by the dense canopy overhead—as was our sense of scale. Doubled over as I navigated low-hanging branches, I was dwarfed by the mighty reach of nature as it breathes and expands and claims every square inch of the soil as its own. Madol Duwa is a tiny island—one that you could circumnavigate twice in half an hour—but I felt faintly like the intrepid adventurers in Wickramasinghe’s book. Scores of visitors may have trampled through it before, but for a few moments, this sweltering, untamed landscape felt like my secret hideaway.

Despite being a short, 20-minute drive from the sandy beaches of the southern coast, Koggala Lake is usually overshadowed by the other attractions in the area. A nondescript roadside signboard advertised boat safaris as we drove past the coastal town of Koggala, and a narrow, winding path led to the jetty from which locals operate boats. It was only upon arriving at the jetty that we got a glimpse of the lake’s placid, matter-of-fact beauty. Cormorants and herons soared overhead as we set off on our journey, passing a low railway bridge before hitting open water. There was a lack of fanfare to the experience—an ordinariness, if you will—that gave us pause.

There is something to be said about unassuming pleasures—they hide surprises well. A boat ride on a lake, however picturesque, may sound like a “touristy" activity in the most pejorative sense of the word. But occasionally, it is worth succumbing to. The Koggala Lake safari follows a well-established route, making pit stops at predetermined points where locals run small businesses (and hope you will oblige them with a little money).

The first one was at an elevated deck in the middle of the water, which functions as a rudimentary fish spa. This is an admittedly bizarre experience in these surroundings. If you, like me, are not a fan of having your feet nibbled at by tiny, ravenous fish, you can request your boat operator to omit this entirely.

The journey to the next stop allowed us enough time to soak in the surroundings. Dense clusters of mangrove forest clung to the periphery, obscuring the plush new resorts along the shore from view. Several islets were sprinkled like confetti along the glimmering expanse of the lake. The quiet was broken only by the persistent birdsong of the more than 50 endemic bird species—like brown-headed barbets, blue-tailed bee-eaters and stork-billed kingfishers—that call this ecosystem home. At this point, we asked the boatman to kill the motor, so we could know what it is like to be afloat, unmoored, in the middle of a lake in the middle of nowhere.

Eventually, the boat safari led us to another small island covered in dense vegetation. This is “cinnamon island", home to a family that has lived here for generations. Like several other families in the region, considered the heartland of high-quality Ceylon cinnamon, Sarath is a small-time cultivator of the spice. It grows wild in his garden, merging seamlessly into the surrounding greenery.

With nimble flicks of a sharp knife, Sarath peeled the outer skin of a green cinnamon bark. With a few more flicks, he prised away the outer layer of the wood from the inner, which is used as firewood. Several layers of the outer shell are tightly stacked together and dried to form a quill of deeply aromatic cinnamon. Apart from whole cinnamon, Sarath also sells cinnamon powder and potent cinnamon oil, which is believed to be an excellent remedy for joint and tooth aches.

After buying a couple of packets of cinnamon quills, I asked Sarath about life on this island, so distant from civilization as to be virtually invisible. “We have to take boats to go anywhere, whether it is a hospital or a school," he said. As dusk descended on the lake, I pondered the fluidity of lives that are not tethered to solid ground but to the ever-shifting contours of a water body.

The final pit stop on our boat safari brought us to an ancient Buddhist temple, known locally as “temple island" or “island Buddha temple". Reputed to be over a century old, the temple bears the hallmarks of every Buddhist temple in the nation: the fragrance of incense and ghee lamps, a peepal or bo tree in the courtyard, and a soundtrack of chants drifting out on to the water as daylight fades. After a quick visit, we began our journey back, as darkness fell like a velvet curtain over the lake and all its inhabitants.

A Buddhist monk in Koggala. Photo: Alamy
A Buddhist monk in Koggala. Photo: Alamy

In the three years that I have lived in Sri Lanka, I have returned to Koggala Lake a few times. The novelty of the experience wore off after the first visit, but there are epiphanies each time. On a visit to Madol Duwa with friends, a few weekends ago, we were temporarily lost trying to find the spot at which we had disembarked from the boat. Sweaty and uncomfortable, we went around a bend and came upon a clearing that offered breezy respite. It opened out on to a high, rocky ledge: The water dappled on rocks a few feet below, while the lake stretched like an undisturbed sheet of azure to the horizon.

In that moment, I understood the draw of these islands within the island I call home. In exploring their humid, hidden secrets, I felt my hard-boiled urban cynicism slip away into something softer and more invigorating: the innocent thrill of discovery.


Madol Duwa. Photo: Vidya Balachander

Ponies and pigeons

Other islands in Sri Lanka you should visit

Delft: An island home mainly to fisherfolk, Delft (or Neduntheevu in Tamil) is located off the coast of Jaffna, at the country’s northern tip. Named by Dutch colonialists after a city in Holland, Delft is a sleepy yet untamed island—the largest in the Palk Strait—that is best known for its wild ponies, believed to have been introduced by the Portuguese occupiers who preceded the Dutch. Thanks to Delft’s relative remoteness, a small population of the wild ponies can still be found on the island. The island also has several relics, including a stone pigeon cote that once housed messenger pigeons, and a fort made of limestone and coral.

Pigeon Island: Located off the coast of Trincomalee, a popular beach town in eastern Sri Lanka, Pigeon Island is counted as one of the two marine national parks in Sri Lanka. The waters surrounding Pigeon Island are ringed with robust coral reefs. The area is particularly rich in biodiversity, supporting several varieties of coral reef fish and even a few turtle species. Although the island gets crowded, particularly during the high season that runs from April-September, snorkelling in these waters is worth travelling the distance.

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