A Diagonal Journey across Sri Lanka with Sir Christopher Ondaatje: ‘My legacy is my family’ | Sunday Observer

A Diagonal Journey across Sri Lanka with Sir Christopher Ondaatje: ‘My legacy is my family’

17 February, 2019
Lady Valda Ondaatje and Sir Christopher Ondaatje...Breakfast Outside Wilpattu National Park
Lady Valda Ondaatje and Sir Christopher Ondaatje...Breakfast Outside Wilpattu National Park

Continued from last week

The only side trip Sir Christopher and I made was to Anuradhapura where we found that long after the end of our prolonged civil war the town still remains very much a major military base. Sir Christopher bought a black safari jacket designed for the Special Forces as he said his damp clothes were beginning to smell. He also needed some glue for his safari journal which he kept religiously, every day. We drove the short distance to Kaludiya Pokuna – where we were away from the crowds and where enlightened bhikkhus wentto bathe. This is somewhat near Mihintale – the cradle of Buddhism in Sri Lanka and still a peacefully beautiful spot – not ruined by crowds of invasive tourists. The old dagoba, several expressive monkeys, and a single bhikkhu made our visit to the pond a quietly expressive happening.

Back at the Walawwa the rain continued but it did not spoil the good time we had there. It is one of my favourite places on the Island. We were anxious to resume our safari with Xtreme Nature Tours and the Pereras who had driven up to Wilpattu. We expected the worst – and the worst happened. Before we even got to Wilpattu we were told that the causeway at Eluwankulama had been flooded and that camping was impossible. So instead, the Pereras rented a small bungalow ‘Anawila’ on the outskirts of the main entrance to Wilpattu at Hunuwilagama – perhaps 15 minutes from the Park gates. The weather did not prevent us having a full wildlife experience in Wilpattu, and the Pereras went out of their way to make this happen. On the way to Wilpattu we stopped at the Polonnaruwa Rest House (now called Lake View Hotel) and owned by Galle Face Hotel, Colombo. Sir Christopher was last here in the early 1990s on his final stop before making his final journey to Punanai - then still in Tamil Tiger territory - for his book about the notorious man-eater.

At Hunuwilagama we were met again by Christopher, and Marlon Perera, Shirley Perera (still determined to continue his safari career), and Indika Gunasekera – the third partner of Xtreme Nature Tours. They served us another delicious rice and curry meal. We had heard that the day before there had been an unfortunate event where a spotted deer had been caught in a snare. The caretaker of the bungalow turned out to be one of the suspects. It was a nasty situation that Shirley Perera and the owner of the bungalow tried to sort out. Rules against trapping and snaring of protected animals are very strict.

Wilpattu game drive

The afternoon was cool when we set out on our first Wilpattu game drive. There was the ever-present threat of rain but we were prepared for the worst. We had got a couple of photographs of a pair of blue tailed bee-eaters silhouetted against the dark sky when there was another heavy downpour and an uncomfortable drop in temperature. Most of us shielded our bodies from the rain where we were seated, above the driving cab section. The only confession from Sir Christopher was that below a certain degree in the temperature his body simply didn’t work! It was a relief to get back to our small rented bungalow. We got out of our wet clothes and showered. It was good to be warm again in the The Anawila bungalow – a welcome dry retreat for us. Coconut arrack followed by chicken curry and roti also helped us dry out.

Wilpattu, literally meaning the Land of Lakes is about 130,000 hectares or 500 sq miles, the largest National Park in Sri Lanka. The Mahavamsa records that in 543 BC Prince Wijaya landed at Kudiramalai Point (Horsehead Mountain or Horse Point) on the present northwest border of the Park. He then married Kuveni and founded the Sinhala race. It is thought that the plains of Pomparippu were the rice bowl of Sri Lankan civilisation. Wilpattu was a hunting reserve for the British in the early 1890s, and the 500 square miles were declared a sanctuary in 1905. With the intervention of the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society of Sri Lanka in the 1930s three important decisions were made: The first, the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance was enacted in 1937, and has been in effect since 1938 with an amendment in 2009. It led to the formation of the Wildlife Conservation Department and the conferring of National Park status to Wilpattu, in February 1938. Within the Park there are numerous sites of archaeological interest. Natural saucer-like lakes, and many breached irrigation tanks and channels indicated the opulence of the early Kingdoms. The Park is a unique landscape composed of attractive high forest with tenacious liana and thorny scrub interrupted fairly regularly by verdant plains and soothing sand-rimmed basins of water known as villus. There prevails an infectious calm and tranquil atmosphere for all who enter its boundaries. There are very few dull moments as you scan the edges of the unique villus. You have to be alert. Flocks of whistling teal, herds of deer, wild hare, open-billed storks, cormorants, snakebirds, tortoises, and crocodiles are in abundance. Sir David Attenborough once referred to Wilpattu as “the best place on earth to see the leopard.”.

Long three and a half hour game drives. We dressed at 4:30am and were ready to go. We tried hard to get to the Park gates when they opened at 6 am – so, first we had breakfast. The game drive itself was a slow, rough drive: we were able to view a brown fish owl, a chestnut headed bee-eater, and an expressive serpent eagle. We worked hard driving the inner tracts of Wilpattu and found our first Wilpattu leopard at noon – very near the Park gate - a beautiful healthy male, lounging in the red soil, attending to his toilet, and giving us some good photographic opportunities. This was one of our best mornings. No rain. We were exalted. Palu and Weera trees lined the Wilpattu jungle road – a red dirt track. But there was always the threat of rain. Eventually it poured – but we were not disheartened. The high humidity continued and it was strangely cool. There were occasional passing showers. We photographed stone plovers, sand plovers, and sambhur.

Irreplaceable experience

The long rough game drives were tiring – but this is what it is all about. An irreplaceable experience. We are all bonding together well. The afternoon game drive was followed by some strong arrack and Black Label scotch. We needed it – beforesprucing up for another camp dinner. Stringhoppers and pork curry followed by some delicious papaya from an adjoining chena – which was laden with fruit. Time for more stories and debate. This time the mysterious “Devil-bird” and superstitions attached to the piercing cries and convulsive screams of this night bird called “Ulama” in Sinhala, meaning “the screecher”. It is believed, the cry of this bird, very similar to the cry of a strangled child, is an omen of death. The debate continues today as to whether it is the forest eagle owl or the crested hawk eagle. Sir Christopher thinks it is the latter. The true identity of the bird is still one of the mysteries of the Ceylon jungles.

There is always something exciting about the Pereras’ ‘Xtreme Nature Tours’. Breakfast a little late at 8 am before our last, long, late Wilpattu game drive. Nothing much happened before noon – sambhur and fawn, and the opportunity to take some photos of an empty Wilpattu game track. The Park has a different character than any other game park in the country. It was a Monday and there was an oppressive atmosphere that warned us of another heavy downpour. It happened – and we huddled under a waterproof tarpaulin to protect ourselves. Moments later we saw a single female leopard across the jungle track between us and another jeep. She seemed to be in a hurry and looked for a tree or some cover. Then the rain hit her and she scurried away under the cover of a large Palu tree. There followed a short period when we were both miserable, looking at each other - she huddled below her Palu tree and we, cowering under our tarpaulin. But then, probably in disgust, she shook the water off her slender body and disappeared into the jungle. We did not see her again.

Pools of muddy water in the jungle track made driving difficult. Christopher Perera and Marlon Perera took turns driving – and they handled the difficult task well. An unconcerned shikra blocked our path in one of the brown muddy pools while we photographed her. It was an unusual place for her to be resting. This last game drive lasted an incredible seven hours. We knew it was our last day. We had a late lunch: country rice, ladies’ fingers, and fried fish.

Kasyapa’s rock kingdom

I developed a bad cold. This was not surprising as I had been sitting at the back of the jeep in wet clothes for the best part of four hours. However, I was determined to continue my interview with Sir Christopher. Getting wet is one of the hazards of camping in Sri Lanka in the mid-October season – but I wouldn’t miss it for the world. We swapped wild stories … Sir Christopher talking about East Africa and the Serengeti Plains, and Shirley Perera talking about more of his personal experiences working in the Wildlife Department.

After Wilpattu Sir Christopher and his wife Valda spent three days in Sigiriya before meeting up with us again in Colombo. He made some unusual observations of Kasyapa’s rock kingdom. He said that the north eastern side of the Rock – which is on the opposite side of the present Rest House – shows a much clearer picture of the crouching lion with its full head and flowing mane. The throat entrance with the lion paws remain in the same place – but the seldom seen ‘other side’ of the Lion Rock gives a much clearer reason why the Rock has its name. Hesays, it is a sight worth seeing. I remember seeing the old black and white British historical film on Sigiriya and vaguely recall seeing the Sigiriya Rock as Sir Christopher described it. He told me that he had some heated arguments with the late Nihal Fernando about the Rock – who was not persuaded. Another observation Sir Christopher made is that he believed (almost certainly true) that a Buddhist monastery existed on the Sigiriya Rock before Kasyapa took it over for his palace fortress. Kasyapa then encouraged the Buddhist priests to move to the mighty Pidurangala north west of the Lion Rock – which they did and continued for many years after the 5th Century. He has photographed the Pidurangala Rock from the west side, many times – and towards midday when the sun shines on the large expanse of the grey rock he said, it appears as if a giant drip-ledge has been carved around Pidurangala to collect water at the low southern point where the water would have accumulated. It seems impossible that such a mighty undertaking could have been achieved but if you are a dreamer like he is, anything might have been possible. Certainly King Kasyapa’s ambition seemed boundless for the twenty-two years he ruled the Island.

I met Sir Christopher only twice more in Colombo. We had dinner at my house with the professionals turned naturalists, Stefan D’Silva and Raminal Samarasinghe. They traded wild theories at night – which had to be cut short so that we could have our dinner cooked by Ayanthie: baked crab, chicken curry, baked fish, dhal, stuffed capsicum, maldive fish sambol, katte sambol, bean curry, and organic yellow rice. We finished with watalappan, and chocolate and caramel fudge. After a stirring evening we all decided to get together again to promote the protection of rock and cave art in Sri Lanka. Some of these extraordinary, inaccessible places have been photographed and published in Stefan D’Silva’s latest book “Isle of Mystique - Isle of Legend.”

Time spent with Sir Christopher was for me a ‘dream come true’. I will always think of him as perhaps the greatest Global Ceylonese. I learned from him. After being a highly successful entrepreneur he became a respected author. What Sir Christopher has taught us is the importance of being able to reinvent oneself. He has taught us not to expect anything … just to be honourable. If countries, or people, or institutions are good to you - then you have to be generous in return. It may not be expected. You just have to do it. This is a timely message that will put many of us in Sri Lanka to shame. Today, we seem more embroiled in a question of national identity.

Finally, Sir Christopher’s parting remarks to me will forever be etched in my mind:”My legacy is my family. If I am going to be remembered I want to be remembered for my family. Nothing else matters. If I have failed with them - then I have failed in life - and that is a dangerous option.”

I cannot think of finer words from a finer man.

About the author:

Lalith Seneviratne is a Chartered Engineer. For his contribution to conservation and sustainable development he was elected an Ashoka Fellow and a Lemelson Fellow. He was instrumental in redeeming Kumana National Park in 2002 and was made an Honorary Director in the Department of Wildlife Conservation.

Source: The Sri Lankan ANCHORMAN (Toronto – Canada)