South Asia

Sri Lanka welcomes surfers as shadow of war recedes

Just over a year after the end of the long war between the Sri Lankan military and the Tamil Tiger rebels, the country has played host to its first surfing championship. And as the BBC's Charles Haviland discovered, both surfers and local residents hope it will not be the last.

Image caption Australian Julian Wilson won the first surfing championship in Sri Lanka

As dawn breaks over Arugam Bay, a fisherman casts his net into the lagoon near the long, low bridge that links the remote village to the rest of the country.

By 0700, Arugam's other main industry is storming into life at the southern end of the beach.

On the massive waves breaking in a blue-green sea, contestants in the Sri Lankan Airlines Pro Surf 2010 "surf their brains out", to quote one of the live commentators.

They ride the waves in virtuoso performances, astonishingly staying upright - mostly.

"Oh, and he's disappeared!" roars the Aussie commentator as a losing semi-finalist disappears into a wave that looks 20 feet tall.

"Oh my gosh - just 40 seconds remaining - it was do or die - he had to roll the dice, had to have a go!"

'Cool experience'

By now there are just two surfers left, of the 128 that started a week earlier. The final winner is a 21-year-old Australian, Julian Wilson.

Top-notch surfing - this is known as a six-star contest - has come to Sri Lanka and Wilson says he feels "unreal" to have won.

"It's been such a cool experience over here," he tells the BBC.

"The local people have taken such good care of us; the waves have been good every day," he says. He hopes to return next year.

The locals of Arugam and Pottuvil, including groups of well-behaved schoolchildren and their teachers, have flocked to see the surfing.

Early in the morning some clamber up the dunes for the best view.

I foolishly follow them when the sun is higher and am forced to retreat from the burning heat of the sand.

It is better under the big canopy where drinks are on hand and where the reggae and hip-hop music is being pumped out.

"We really appreciate the surfers coming here," Abu Saleem Muzzamil, a tuk-tuk driver, says.

"It gives us a lot of business - tuk-tuks, restaurants, hotel rooms, vegetable shops.

"They're really friendly: they talk to the local people and the kids. For us, it is like meeting long-lost friends."

Local surfers

The moment Julian Wilson is out of the water and receiving his trophy, Sri Lankans are in the sea as members of the Arugambay Surfing Club "reclaim" their surf point.

Twenty-four locals were given spots in the tournament and two received prize money.

The Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP) donates some surfboards to their local colleagues and the club's 26-year-old chairman, Fawas Lafeer, is grateful.

"We have really good skilled surfers but we don't have any lessons, no surf coaches or anything," he says.

But the club, whose members sport a uniform of black, red-trimmed T-shirts, are doing their own teaching for young local people, including swimming training.

They hope to increase their strength from 35 to 60 quite soon, says Fawas.

Image caption Two Sri Lankans won prizes in the surfing championship

He says the membership completely cross-cuts the ethnic and religious divisions in this very mixed part of the country.

Never far away

The long dead-end coast road leading south from Arugam enters some of Sri Lanka's remotest - and driest - country.

There are paddy fields and lagoons but also massive rock outcrops and arid-land vegetation, the hinterland to sweeps of golden beach and more roaring waves.

It would be reminiscent of Africa but for the temples.

We get welcomed by visitors to the remote forest hermitage of Kudimbigala, a Sinhalese Buddhist retreat for thousands of years, and then at the Tamil Hindu temple at Okanda further south.

Much of this is a nature reserve, and mongooses scamper across the road. Brilliantly coloured birds dart around.

Members of an elite security force wing are never far away. It seems surprising that the state's war with the Tamil Tigers came this far south.

"The whole area suffered," I learn from the chairman of the Arugam Bay Tourist Association, MHA Raheem.

"There were no jobs, it was difficult to farm, we couldn't go and work in the jungle, even collect firewood, independently.

Image caption Schoolchildren from Arugam and Pottuvil were taken to watch the surfing

"And the ASP couldn't get travel insurance."

Now people travel around freely, he says, and room occupancy is up in the low-rise, hippy-like accommodation that dominates Arugam.

Mixing well

Some local people say they would like to see bigger, more high-end hotels built here.

Mr Raheem feels differently, saying that the tourists who come here may not be rich but they mix well with local society.

He fears that would not happen if it became a package destination.

As the current type of tourism grows, he says, more fish, rice and vegetables are brought from local producers, strongly benefiting the community.

Late at night, there is a party on the beach.

"I guess [Arugam Bay] is not as developed as some other surfing areas," says the ASP's Jake White.

"But I think surf tourism here is really going to boom after this event put it on the map."

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