Becky Lucas tours Sri Lanka to reach the world’s new surfing hotspot
I’m sitting in the back of a rather bespoke mini-van: fur lines the floor, stickers speckle the ceiling, and Boney M rocks the stereo. The car has already been stopped by the police twice – though not for the crazy interior. Rather, I’m in Colombo, heading from the airport to the train station, and, 16 months after the end of the civil war, police stops are as much a part of getting around as horns and dodging stray dogs. My destination? Arugam Bay, the country’s surfing capital. I’ve tried the sport in Dubai, though not mastered it, mainly due to the flatness of the Gulf – as well as the early starts. Instead of hiring a limo – an affordable option, no less – I’ve chosen to brave the 10-hour train journey from Colombo right to Arugam on the east coast.
My first lesson to impart: book ahead. The observation carriage at the front of the train, complete with soft chairs and big windows, can only be booked 10 days in advance. The rest of the tickets go on sale 45 minutes before departure, and securing yourself a Dhs12 second-class ticket is a bonus. Even then, be prepared to compete with the hordes that jump onto the train while it’s still moving to push, squeeze and shove their way to a seat. I manage to share one.
Nonetheless, the 10-hour voyage is worth the perseverance: I gaze at the mountain scenery outside, join in as everyone squeals when we go through tunnels (I don’t know why) and chat with local women (‘you’re English? You built the tea plantations, but killed too many elephants’). They even supply me with fish curry (tip: buy snacks before boarding), which I eat from banana leaves with my hands.
Ella, the most tourist-friendly spot in Sri Lanka’s central mountainous region, is my halfway house for tonight. After a hair-raising ride up a mountain on a tuk-tuk in the dark, I reach Waterfall Guesthouse, to be greeted by friendly Aussie manager Martin (who once had seven monkeys as pets) and my Dhs82-a-night room, including dinner and drink. I hear the waterfall, but it’s not until morning – and fish curry cooked by renowned chef Kamel – that I can take in the fantastic view. Though not for long: two more public buses beckon (one is so full I sit by the open door and look out at the mountains), via Wellawaya and Monoragala, where I’m picked up in a surprisingly sturdy and nippy tuk-tuk. Two hours later I finally reach Arugam Bay, though not before breezing down Elephant Corridor and gasping as I spot a herd.
Arugam, I discover, is flatter and more arid than the rest of the country. Its coast is dotted with hotels, cafés and cabanas, one of which, the petite and perfectly formed (and priced) Blue Ocean Cabanas, is to be my home for the next two nights. The village boasts only a couple of bars, and nothing but deafening waves can be heard past 10pm: the timetable, along with everything else, is shaped to fit the surf here – 5am until sunset.
My surfing schedule kicks off at Peanut Farm, a bay located 15 minutes away by tuk-tuk, and a quieter spot for beginners. At the moment it contains just a handful of cabanas and a (very) sleepy café, but after the success of the Sri Lankan Airlines Pro Surf 2010 tournament in June, the spot is unlikely to remain peaceful for long.
I learn several things this afternoon. First, always wear a rash vest (‘rashy’) to avoid gaining a very painful patch on your chest from the wax on your board. Second, navigating oneself and a 2.29m surfboard (beginner size) against a current that is trying to force you on to hidden coral is…impossible. I shift to the rock-free first bay and spend the afternoon catching waves while lying on my board, learning where to position myself, and experiencing exactly how tiring paddling can be.
Local cuisine follows, which tastes like a spicier Pad Thai, yet involves mashing bread along with other typical curry ingredients (in an extremely noisy manner). Satiated, I eventually pass out, exhausted.
Day three and it’s my final stab at surfing. I head to Baby Point, a busier section of the main strip, and get used to tackling the vicious white water – and the experienced, competitive surfers – while attempting to ‘pop’ (stand). The waves are constant, and gruelling. One last hearty and healthy fish curry, this time at the Library (a restaurant run from a man’s kitchen and stocked with a rocking chair and shelves of books) I’m ready to face the seven-hour, Dhs394 cab journey back to Colombo.
Arugam’s surf season ends in November, when the addicts will shift to Hikkaduwa in the south. That gives you one month to experience sleepy, surfy, scenic Arugam, before all the real – and terrifying – surfers find it.
Getting there Fly Dubai flies to Colombo from Dhs700 return, including taxes.
Where is it? Sri Lanka is located about 31km off the southern coast of India.
Climate At lower altitudes, temperatures are constantly high with high humidity. On the coast, the heat is modified by sea breezes.
Ethnic mix Sinhalese, Sri Lankan Tamil, Sri Lankan Moors, Indian Tamil, Burgher, Sri Lankan Malay, Veddah.
Religious mix Buddhism 70 per cent; Hinduism 16 per cent; Christianity 7 per cent; Islam 7 per cent.
Major sights Sigiriya (rock temple), the Ancient Cities (Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa), Kandy for the Temple of the Sacred Tooth and the Perahera festival, tea plantations in the hill country, beautiful beaches on the south or east coasts, Galle Fort, watching Sri Lanka play cricket, Yala national park for leopard spotting.
Insider’s tips Adam’s Peak, Aberdeem Fall, Yala National park, Polonnaruwa, Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage, the ancient port of Trincomalee
Where’s the buzz? Sri Lanka is pretty quiet, although there’s fun to be had in Unawatuna and Arugam Bay in the right season. Kandy Perahera is a massive festival that’s worth a visit.
Year that Ceylon was renamed Sri Lanka 1960
Year in which the tea plantations were founded 1824. A tea plant was brought to Ceylon by the British from China and planted in the Royal Botanical Gardens in Peradeniya.
Amount Sri Lanka is expected to earn from tea exports in 2010 A record US$1.4 billion.
Price of average motorbike Dhs3,477
Price of average tuk-tuk Dhs14,487
Price of average CAR Dhs163,238 (2006 Toyota Premio).
Population of elephants Approximately 2,900 to 3,000.