Fruit bats were fruits of our labours

I DO not wish to belabour my readers on the theme of fruit bats, but when one sees them in sixes and sevens against the night sky, as big as egrets and flying with the same, slow wing-beats as herons, they warrant a few lines.

It was their sheer size and bird-like flight that made us pause, jaw-dropped, on the bridge of the Singhalese town of Tangalle, and look up at them, black against the cobalt sky, passing over the palm trees and the busy street of tiny, lit-up hucksters’ shops and tuk-tuks, trucks and buses. All leisurely and in orderly files, they passed.

We had arrived in Tangalle, on the southern coast, that afternoon after a short bus ride (3.5hrs; fare €1) from Ella, the highest village in Sri Lanka. The bus was packed, but the fare-collector kindly directed my wife to a platform raised a few inches off the floor, where she duly sat, and the driver invited me to sit on the engine cowling beside him. While this was not uncomfortable — it had a ‘quilted’ plastic covering and a rag-rug on top — after an hour I regretted not having taken the yoga classes on offer at home in west Cork.

There I sat, at windscreen level, on this podium enclosed by a low surround of shining, stainless steel curlicues, for all the world like a throne. Cross-legged or bent-legged, with the driver swinging the broad steering wheel nearby, I faced my unfortunate fellow passengers, a dense mass of Sri Lankan humanity, seated or standing the length of the bus. My wife pronounced her seat tolerable.

At times, I shifted sideways to enjoy the air-conditioning provided by the open door. Sometimes, disentangling my cramped limbs, I turned and faced the windscreen, but must confess that, often, I wanted to close my eyes as our pilot sped us through gaps in the oncoming traffic, unconcerned at such nuances as blind corners or white lines.

He was a good man. He tried to brake when we rounded a corner and found a large monitor lizard directly in our path. Happily, he had the sense not to slam on the anchors, this out of regard for the standing passengers and your correspondent, who would have shot through the windscreen and joined the squashed monitor on the road.

At Tangalle — the closest to the equator I have been — wildlife is profuse, diverse and ubiquitous. Today, looking out the bathroom window of our guest house room at 8am, I saw two mongooses snuffling about under the coconut palms only ten feet from where I stood. They looked like small otters. It had rained last night. Perhaps they are searching for half-drowned snakes.

As we awaited breakfast at an outdoor table, I strolled 20 paces to the tsunami-buckled bridge that spans a narrow waterway between us and the beach.

There, I was alarmed to see a crocodile lying half-in and half-out of the water — but no, it wasn’t a crocodile; it was a monitor lizard four-foot long and very fat. We had thought of swimming in that river.

Perhaps better not. Next, seen from the breakfast table, was a peacock, pecking in the undergrowth on the bank opposite, a wild bird in all its finery.

Above it, a sunbird flitted in a leafless tree. A gang of parakeets arrived, like oversized budgies, whistling and chattering as they went. Yesterday, on a rented motorbike, we drove 20 kilometres over rutted, dust-red tracks and field paths to find a lagoon famous for bird life.

Having reached it, we discovered it could have been accessed in ten minutes from the road, had we known the path.

Few rural Singhalese speak English, and conveying directions by sign language is not their forte. However, it was worth the bike-rental and the backside-ache to see the stilts on their tall, thin legs, the stately purple herons, the ibises, spoonbills, pelicans and diverse waders, with pretty little jacanas, like colourful waterhens, crossing our path and, occasionally, a languor monkey in the trees.

After the hot, dusty paths, it was joy to feel the rush of air as we whizzed homeward along the main road among honking trucks, death-defying buses and a chaos of tuk-tuks and wandering cows. March in Ireland would be cool and breezy, and, be the gods willing, we would be home for St Patrick’s Day.


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