Galle and the 2004 tsunami

Trip Start Aug 12, 2011
Trip End Aug 22, 2011

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Thursday, August 18, 2011

Today we were off to Galle booked by Tangerine Tours in the Royal Palms sister hotel - The Tangerine. On the way we stopped off at Bentota well known for its water sports. The name comes from a mythical story which dates back to when a demon called Bem ruled this river (tota means river bank). The boys had wanted to do some jet skiing and this was the place. Luckily it wasn't too busy so the boys were able to jet ski to their heart’s content without there being a lot of other water traffic. Of course they wanted to go on the most powerful jet skis so I was quite relieved when a couple of the guys went out with them first of all going through the safety procedures and how to control the jet skis. It cost 25 each for 15 minutes which didn’t seem a large amount of time so we doubled it to 30 minutes.

After they had gone on the jet skis we decided to do the hour boat ride up the Bentota River. We were taken to where the Indian Ocean met the river and past an island inhabited by Buddhist monks. We could see the Buddhist colours painted on a wooden post on a rock promontory. By the river’s edge Water Monitors of differing sizes sunbathed in the heat of the day. There was quite a lot of bird life particularly Cormorants, White Egrets and Kingfishers; we even spotted a Water Rail. There was also a large Estuarine Crocodile (bet the boys were glad to see that after jet skiing) resting his head on a branch in the water.

We were taken into a Mangrove Lagoon where we could see Fruit Bats hanging in the trees. You had to watch the branches as some of them came pretty close to you as you sat in the boat. It was an amazing place to float into the mangroves amidst the tangled roots and vines that hang down. The coolness offered by the trees was a welcome relief to the hot sun and because it was quite dark the waters looked almost inky black in colour.

We had seen quite a few kites being flown since we had been in Sri Lanka but it was quite a surprise to see a Union Jack one on the boat trip. There it was floating over the river but we couldn’t see who was flying it. It just seemed rather surreal.

Sri Lanka is an important place for turtles and our next stop was one of the many turtle hatcheries in the area. There are five species that visit Sri Lankan shores, Leatherback, Green, Hawksbill, Loggerhead and the Olive Ridley sea turtle.  The hatcheries pay people to bring the eggs to them and they are then hatched in the safety of the hatchery. There are mixed feelings about these hatcheries as many feel that the natural process of imprinting is lost as they are immediately transferred to tanks where they swim continuously so that the likes of me and other visitors can come and watch them.  We were shown some one day old turtles in a tank and I wondered whether this was good practice,  but surely when they are released they must still have a greater chance of survival than naturally.  I think the jury is out on that one.

We were shown albino turtles who could never be released; incredibly the shell is so thin he was able to tickle it. He also showed us some handicapped turtles that couldn’t be released in the wild either. One was blind and another only had two well formed legs.

From here as we got closer to Galle we saw more and more ruins of houses destroyed in the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. We stopped off at the Tsunami Memorial a huge statue of Buddha donated by the Japanese government. It struck me as deeply ironic that 7 years later they would have their own devastating tsunami.  It has been built on the site of a huge mass grave believed to contain 800 bodies. It also commemorates the Galle to Colombo train swept away in a huge 18ft wave when the tsunami struck, killing 1,700 people.   It was almost inconceivable.

The Dutch influence in Galle is unmistakable here with the Galle Fort one of the best preserved colonial sea fortresses in Asia. You can still see lots of colonial houses today. Our first stop was at an 18th century Dutch church the Groote Kerk, built in 1755. Inside there are tombstones and tablets on the walls and the original wooden pews and a huge wooden pulpit. There is even an old organ. The stained glass windows are simple in a mosaic design of different coloured glass. Outside there was a snake charmer and a guy with a monkey called Lulu dressed in brightly coloured clothes. They called us over for a closer look. The monkey was quite manic and was desperate to climb on Sam’s shoulders for some reason. We gave them a few rupees and made our way to the museum.  

The museum is housed in an old Dutch house that has been fully restored and contains an eclectic collection of items. Everything from old cameras, to pottery, guns and lamps, even a collection of record players complete with old LPS!. Most of it was either Dutch or British and I even spotted a pair of plates depicting a very young Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip. As we made our way through we watched a couple of craftsmen polishing and shaping gems by hand. At the end there was a gem shop and of course although the museum was free there was the catch as they hoped you would buy something from them. Actually I found a lovely pair of moonstone earrings and was persuaded to buy an equally lovely moonstone pendant.  The moonstone is lovely as you get that marvelous blue shimmer known as 'adularescence’ when you move the stone around.

We walked around the Fort ramparts and looked out at the beautiful sea views. The heritage value of the fort has been recognized by the UNESCO and the site has been inscribed as a cultural heritage UNESCO World Heritage Site. There were large rocks out to sea and the waves crashed against them. An old clock tower dating from the eighteenth century is an important landmark. From here we could see the Galle cricket ground reconstructed after the tsunami that destroyed it. We also had great views of the port. Many of the buildings were damaged in the tsunami but the walls of the fort did help to keep out some of the sea water and it seems incredible that it was able to withstand the force of the water.

Back at the hotel it was a beautiful evening with a fantastic sunset and as I looked out on the Indian Ocean I tried to imagine the horrors of seven years ago and found it very difficult to imagine just what it would have been like.
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