HOLIDAY EXPERIENCES IN TAPROBANE
Although our journey from the airport to the hotel was dismal and long because of heavy rain and rush-hour traffic, Irene and I were not dismayed. Our previous experience of the island suggested that sun would soon replace rain and the warmth of the welcome from the local people would shine through any weather.
By the next morning our confidence was rewarded and we started to enjoy, with care, the sun and relaxation in the hotel gardens adjacent to the beach. The pool was inviting and so was the sea; a little rough for swimming but it was great fun being knocked around by the breakers whilst young men and women enjoyed them on surf and body boards.
An included river cruise was our first trip out with plenty of exotic flora and fauna to keep my camera busy. Dragon-like water monitors seemed to be everywhere and Brahminy kites performed overhead. We received a warm welcome at two homes and at the second we were served tea, various savoury and sweet snacks with a glass of the local brandy, arrack, as a warming finish.
After a few more days sunbathing, relaxing, reading and chatting in the delightful hotel gardens, Irene and I were keen to experience more of the wildlife and booked a two day safari trip to the south of the island.
After a long journey, on very rough roads, we reached Uda Walawe National Park. Transferring to a Land Rover, we enjoyed several hours watching and photographing eagles, bee-eaters, hornbills, elephants (almost close enough to touch) deer, a civet cat, monkeys, buffalo, kingfishers, peacocks and hens, chameleons, monitors, ducks and numerous wading birds.
Following a comfortable night in a local hotel we spent the majority of the morning in Bundala National Park; famed for crocodiles and bird life. Bundala's reputation as a paradise for bird-watchers was fully justified. From dawn until our departure at mid-morning we enjoyed close encounters and photographic opportunities with herons, spoonbills, storks, munias, stilts, lapwings, swallows, jungle fowl, egrets, kingfishers, pelicans, redshank, darters, coot, parakeets, kites, plovers as well as two large crocodiles.
We returned along the coastal road, stopping at Galle (pronounced Gaul) for a late lunch. Our return to the hotel was just in time to get ready for the festive fun, and a grand banquet, on Christmas Eve. Christmas Day in the gardens gave us a chance to enjoy the sun and sea again, and the thoughtful hospitality of the staff and management of the hotel.
Boxing Day was sunny and hot and, together with two good friends we had made during our stay, Irene and I were relaxing on sunbeds in the gardens just yards from the sea. Fortunately, being just after 9am, few other people had finished breakfast. I had been to reception to collect my passport and a traveller's cheque for cashing a little later and I had passed our flight tickets to our Saga representative to see if he could arrange extra legroom for our return flight ten days later.
At about 9:30, we noticed a small flow of sea water coming into the gardens. This should have rung warning bells; the sea was normally about 2m below the garden level. Unaware of the significance, I stood and took a 1 second video clip with my digital camera before staff started screaming at us to run and water swirled around us. I tried to grab my belongings but was being pushed by the water, debris and a member of staff towards the hotel.
AVI Video Clip 1 - 160KB
By now you may have realised that Taprobane is not the modern name of the island we were visiting. It was renamed Ceylon, and more recently Sri Lanka. The tsunami struck our beach with much less force than other parts of the Indian Sub-continent and SE Asia but it was still a frightening and awesome experience.
Only the prompt warnings and assistance from the hotel staff, who selflessly ran towards the approaching water to rescue us, saved us from serious injury or worse. Irene and I were both struck by debris including heavy wooden sunbeds, one of which knocked my legs from under me. A member of staff helped me to get to my feet and climb a stairway to the second floor. The ground floor of the hotel was totally ruined by the first series of waves. It suffered further damage as at least two more major inundations occurred in the following few hours.
AVI Video Clip 2 - 1MB
Those who had rooms on the ground floor lost almost everything. About half of our fellow Saga guests suffered in this way. Being on the third floor, everything in our rooms was safe but my passport and traveller's cheque had been lost to the ocean, as had our airline tickets which had been 'safely' locked away in the Saga Lounge - in the basement!
AVI Video Clip 3 - 1.4MB
The hotel staff and guests then began to care for the injured and took steps to ensure our future safety. We were moved to the highest part of the landward side of the hotel and provided with bottled water. A couple of hours later a hot, three-course lunch was served despite the fact that the hotel had neither water nor electricity.
By late-afternoon Saga had arranged transport for us and we were moved, by a slow but safe inland route, to Colombo. Here we were fed and watered, and given the opportunity to contact home. It was only then, seeing the BBC World Service, that we realised the unbelievable scale of the disaster. Less than 14 hours after the first wave struck we were at the airport, waiting to board a flight home. When we reached Heathrow, and escaped the media who were hungry for news, Saga had arranged a chauffeur-driven car to bring us to our door in County Durham.
As we relived and reviewed our experiences, we realised the tremendous debt that we owe to the staff and management of the Tangerine Beach Hotel, Kalutara for helping us escape the tsunami and caring for us over the next few hours. We also now appreciate the huge effort made by Saga, in the hotel, Colombo and the UK in ensuring our continued safety and making contact to reassure our relatives.
Irene and I escaped with minor injuries, as did most of the residents of our hotel; a broken thigh bone and serious lacerations were the worst of which we are aware. So many others were not so lucky.....
The emergency appeal is now over but details of how money has been, and is being, spent is available from The UK Disasters Emergency Committee online at www.dec.org.uk.
We are determined to return to Sri Lanka as soon as their infrastructure and other repairs make it possible. Tourism is a vital part of their economy and we want to help them to re-establish their position as a beautiful, exciting and friendly place to visit. Sir Arthur C Clarke has described Sri Lanka as a paradise; with help and hard work, it will be so again.
(I will be happy to make an illustrated presentation of our visit to Sri Lanka to any local (County Durham UK) group or organisation in exchange for a collection towards the disaster fund.)