not many places on Earth where travellers can surf world-class waves in the
morning, have a close encounter with an elephant at lunchtime and be back in
the water by mid afternoon. Arugam Bay, on Sri Lanka’s eastern coast, is one such
place, and since the country’s civil war ended three years ago, the small town
has been busier than ever – despite how hard it is to get to.
a highway from Colombo, the capital, to Galle, a city in the south, most of Sri
Lanka’s roads remain practically as they were in the 1950s – which means
narrow, dual carriageways shared by everyone, including cyclists, buses and
trucks. As such, the coast-to-coast haul from Colombo to Arugam Bay by public bus
is a 400-rupee, 320km journey that takes nearly 12 hours.
It is hot, uncomfortable, occasionally terrifying and utterly worthwhile.
On a recent
trip, a young man with an AK-47 boarded the noisy bus and prodded the barrel of
his assault rifle into the belly of a middle-aged woman. Rather than panic and
scream, she politely asked him to refrain, and the young man, a soldier in the
Sri Lankan army, looked a bit embarrassed and apologised. The weapon, hanging
from his shoulder, had accidentally prodded the woman as he leaned forward to
stow his luggage in the cramped overhead compartment.
busses leave frequently from the Bastian Mawatha Bus Terminal in Colombo.
Alternatively, visitors can make the journey by taxi, which will take less time
and has the added bonus of privacy and air-conditioning, but will cost about
get to Arugam Bay, there is not much to do. The town – nicknamed “A Bay” by
locals – is basically a thin strip of road with bars and restaurants frequented
by young surfers and partygoers, a smattering of places to stay, a few surf shops
and not much else, but travellers are lured by the excellent food on offer,
easy access to exotic wildlife and waves that are widely regarded as some of
the country’s best. It seems like a place on the cusp of something, which, in a
way, it is. Many of the local tourism operators, tuk-tuk drivers and restaurant
staff say that 2012 has been the busiest year yet.
surfers have grown up on Arugam Bay’s many breaks, and run the town’s surf
shops and schools. Safa surf shop (Main Street; 94-779-552-268) has a wide
range of boards for hire, from high-performance shortboards for the more
experienced, to large, stable longboards for beginners. The owner, Fawas Lafeer,
or another of Safa’s friendly, competent instructors can recommend the best
board to suit a visitor’s level of experience.
morning, as the sun was just hauling itself over the horizon, Lafeer and I
decided to test out Arugam Bay’s main surf break, Main Point. As the rising sun
cast an amber haze over the spray, a quick walk from Ranga’s Beach Hut brought us to the break – a fantastically
easy-to-surf right-hand wave, breaking over a fairly soft reef before wrapping
around the point, where it got smaller and easier for the less experienced
surfers in the line-up. On a good day, rides of 500m are not uncommon. As can
be expected with famous breaks such as this, the crowds were out – much of it
made up with Italian and Israeli surfers.
crowd-averse, or those wanting smaller waves, there are other options within,
at most, a 30-minute half-hour tuk-tuk ride of Arugam Bay. Pottuvil Point, an
8km drive north, is a lot smaller and easier on the learners. Whiskey Point,
about 14km north, offers more high-quality waves than Pottuvil Point, fewer
crowds and is the number one party beach on a Friday night. Peanut Farm,
located 6km south of Arugam Bay, offers small waves similar to Pottuvil Point,
and Crocodile Rock, 8km south of Arugam Bay, is another ideal spot for novices.
It is named after the reptiles which frequent the beach’s lagoon (thankfully far
from the surfer’s waves), and any tuk-tuk driver worth their salt will know the
best time to catch the crocs bathing.
To get up
close to the wildlife, visitors can opt for a conventional safari -- or ask a tuk-tuk driver to lead the way. Sadid, a middle-aged local tuk-tuk
driver, took me to a collection of flat rocks covered in white stains near Crocodile
Rock. A “crocodile toilet”, he said.
creatures remained hidden, Sadid commandeered a thin canoe and we paddled into
the lagoon to take a closer look. Across the water, a small herd of elephants,
two adults and a child, emerged from the brush, and closer to the canoe, a herd
of water buffalo lay all but submerged in the bleary green waters, escaping the
late morning sun.
a spot further inland that was virtually guaranteed to be teeming with
crocodiles. Turning off the main drag, Pottuvil-Panama Road, we dustily bounced
west through the countryside past dried-up rice paddies; the only other people
in the area were two soldiers at a military outpost. While one carried the
usual Kalashnikov rifle, the other, unnervingly, brandished a shiny six-inch
blade. Fortunately, as they sauntered up to the tuk-tuk, the soldier produced
an apple and stripped off a few slices before waving the tuk-tuk on with a big
smile “Aah, crocodiles! That way!”
bent around a large muddy basin framed with white-stained rocks. What seemed
like submerged logs clogging the water were, in fact, crocodiles. Some basked
on the shore, including a huge beast around 4m long. Having seen enough
wildlife for the day, we turned back, but just as Sadid was explaining the
danger of elephants in the wild, a full-size adult crashed out of the thin
scrub to the side of the dirt track, 3m tall and close enough for its loud
trumpeting to ring through the vehicle, making Sadid yell and focus intently on
squeezing every last horsepower out of the tuk-tuk’s tiny engine. It was a lot
closer – and a lot more dangerous – than a conventional jeep safari.
Back in the
safety of easygoing Arugam Bay, there was still time to calm the nerves over
lunch and squeeze in an afternoon surf before a few rounds of Lion beer and
arak at Mambos Café, where Main Point’s crashing waves
are drowned out by the club music booming through the sound system.
Fortunately, a day like this is not a rare occurrence in Arugam Bay.
Where to eat
Gecko Café offers completely natural homemade
fare, everything from western breakfasts to local curries.
The Green Room has cheap, fresh seafood every day,
relaxing decor and laid-back indie tunes.
Where to stay
one of the nicer places to stay in Arugam Bay. It is a bit pricey but the expansive
bar area is the place to go on a Saturday night. The hotel, which offers three
guesthouse rooms, three beach bungalows and four luxury beach bungalows,
overlooks Main Point.
Beach Hut, a small accommodation with less than a dozen rooms, is quite
affordable, and you can watch the surf from its sand-floored restaurant.