Sleepless in Sri Lanka gives me the itch

IT is not always heavenly in Paradise, the imaginative name of the makeshift ‘resort’ at which we are staying on Sri Lanka’s south coast.

We are less than four degrees from the Equator, and mosquitoes thrive.

Our bed posts almost reach the ceiling and a good quality net protects the inner sanctum from bloodsucking invaders.

Nevertheless, nightly, I spend the first 20 minutes under the net eradicating the half dozen that have, somehow, sneaked in. However, there is always one that eludes my tender mercies and in the morning we are again itching and applying the anti-histamine; in fact, I keep it under my pillow at night.

It is lovely here, nevertheless, the sea is so tepid that where possible one swims towards the reefs to reach cooler water.

But visitors must beware. These seductive, coconut-fringed sands shelve steeply and this, combined with a strong undertow, often makes swimming impossible. Also, where there are resorts, restaurants have taken over every inch of beach.

There is no ‘free’ sand to sit on; one must take a table and buy a drink, or rent a sun lounger.

Unfortunately, in popular resorts one cannot even walk along the shoreline without dodging tables and waiters waving menus and wet fish. However, yesterday, knee-deep in the sea at the rocky end of the remote (but, nevertheless, colonised) strand, I was, once again, reminded that there is hardly a square metre of this planet that is not replete with interest if one pauses to look.

Apart from the oyster and limpet-encrusted rocks (oysters and limpets different than our own), there were green-striped crabs, quick to flee into crevices, and a thumb-sized, purple crab, feeding underwater, that had the knack of never being washed away despite the crash of waves over it.

But most intriguing of all were the little fish that climbed the wet rocks and flipped from one to the next as if spring-loaded, leaping as much as a yard at a time. An Indian Ocean version of the shannies we see in Irish rock-pools, they had the same eager-beaver faces and eyes set on top of their wedge-shaped heads.

Between legging it up and down rocks (their front fins are like feet), they sometimes looked at me from behind a rock, only their pop-up eyes visible.

In addition to pretty beaches, Sri Lanka has highlands, the highest peak rising to 2,524m, with an extensive central plateau covered in jungle where it hasn’t been cleared for the cultivation of tea — not our famous Barry’s Tea of Cork , which comes from Assam and elsewhere, but many other emblematic brands. Tea growing was introduced by a Mr Lipton. Personally, I prefer Barry’s, and that’s not nationalism, it’s simply taste.

We spent days in the mountains at Ella, arriving after a seven-hour train journey from Kandy, a train seemingly always climbing on a track curving and bending, treetops and valleys below us, and precipitous drops. Hanging out the door in the cool mountain air, I tried to film the forward carriages winding around corners or entering tunnels. The line is a triumph of engineering, created by the British and run by Dutchmen from Batavia who’d ‘gone native’, married Sri Lanka wives and thrived on arak, the local coconut spirit of choice.

At Ella, we hoofed it up Little Adam’s Peak (the bigger Adam’s Peak is strictly for dedicated climbers) and stood 1,141m above sea level, looking down on green valleys and white rivers, and at slopes opposite on which waterfalls were like silver gashes, frozen by distance and seeming to have no movement at all.

One morning, as we breakfasted at a curd shop, a blonde woman looked at me and I at her. As the pennies dropped, and I rose from my seat, she greeted me saying she was a reader of this column and once attended a mushroom walk I’d led in West Cork. I was very pleased to meet a reader in such exotic circumstances, the first Irish connection we’d had since parting with two friends on a Thai island six weeks before.

We will shortly be back in West Cork and, come rain or come shine, we will enjoy the contrast.

Enough of the heat and the mosquitoes. The ravens are nesting, as always, on the Seven Heads. I look forward to watching them from a cliff over the Atlantic, as I do every year.

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