Pigeon Island

 

 

Pigeon Island might be more appropriately named ‘Smidgeon Island’ since it’s a tiny smidgeon of land about a kilometer into the Indian Ocean from the Nilaveli part of Sri Lanka’s east coast.

 

It’s famed for the coral reefs in the waters around it, although according my dog-eared copy of The Rough Guide to Sri Lanka, the coral on its western side (i.e. facing the mainland) is dead now.  To see a living reef, you need to swim on the island’s far side.

 

Unrestricted fishing and tourism in the area did much damage to the coral in the past, but happily Pigeon Island is now a National Park and the authorities have tried to regulate the flow of human traffic to it, mainly by charging a sizeable admission price that has to be paid in addition to the hire-fee for a boat.

 

 

One morning my partner and I travelled out to Pigeon Island in a narrow, pointed fishing-boat powered by an antiquated-looking Suzuki outboard motor.  We were dropped at the island’s midpoint, which was so slight it resembled a wasp’s waist.  There, just a few yards of ground separated the western shore from the eastern one.

 

Nearly all the day’s visitors were congregated there, either in the adjacent water snorkeling and viewing the coral and fish – apparently the fish are abundant among the dead coral to the east as well as among the living stuff to the west – or on dry land preparing to go snorkeling.

 

I made a point of not snorkeling, however.  This was due to a traumatic snorkeling experience I had off the Malaysian coast in the early 1990s when I failed to apply enough sunscreen to my back, had huge stripes of skin burnt off it as a result, and ended up looking like a human raspberry ripple.  (On the same day, I also suffered excruciating food poisoning and I managed to lose all my travelers’ cheques.  Indeed, that day proved to be a configuration of separate but simultaneous disasters on par with Theresa May’s speech at this month’s Conservative Party Conference.)

 

So instead I tried exploring the island.  I didn’t get far towards its southern end.  After clambering over some rocks and past some low-hanging branches, I gave up when the terrain and undergrowth became impassible.  Besides, a flustered and very territorial crow kept pace with me, hopping from branch to branch just overhead, sending the unmistakable message that I should bugger off.

 

In contrast, it was easy enough to walk up to the island’s northern tip.  Despite the island’s tiny size and despite the considerable number of visitors on it, I got an unexpected feeling of solitude as soon as I’d left the snorkeling area behind me.

 

 

The ground was carpeted with small white pieces of dead coral.  This had penetrated right to the island’s centre and even in its most wooded parts, the stuff was clogged around the tree roots.  Most of the coral was tubular in shape but as I gazed down at it, I noticed increasingly strange forms – coral in the shape of fingers, bones, stirrups, hammers, chess-pieces, seahorses, stars and flowers.  One surreal fragment looked like the title character’s mask in the Andrew Lloyd Webber version of The Phantom of the Opera.

 

Immediately off the northern tip of Pidgeon Island were a few yards of seawater and then a clutter of big vertical rocks – sandy-brown, grey and amber in their colours, with their edges and corners smoothed away so that they resembled giant stuffed sacks.  Bird-guano splattered their tops and a few crabs went scuttling about their sides.  I waded out to them, traversing water that was pristinely clear but, although just a foot or two deep, had a current whose strength was subtly menacing.  Then I sat on a lower rock and meditated for a while, watching tiny tadpole-like fish darting about the surrounding channels and listening both to the gentle lapping and rippling of the shallow water close by and to the crash and clatter of the waves further out.

 

 

On my way back, I noticed a vague path on the island’s eastern side that wound upwards.  This took me past a banyan tree that was so heavily tendrilled it resembled the face of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu; and then it emerged onto a high platform of broken stone and concrete overlooking the island’s northeastern corner that, according to a sign, was called PIGEON’S EYE OUTLOOK.  Some concrete pillars stood along its landward and seaward edges, topped with old, broken, metal screws, which suggested the platform had once sported a roof.  Now it looked almost like a brutalist, modernist re-imagining of an ancient Greek ruin.

 

 

From the north of the platform, I could look out over the clutter of rocks where I’d been sitting a few minutes earlier.  From its south side, I could see a cliff-face and a steep inlet that was choked up with boulders.  A couple of pigeons were flapping about the scene.  And I realized that unlike the other visitors present today, busy viewing the coral, I’d actually seen some pigeons on Pigeon Island.

 

 

Nilaveli Beach

 

 

Nothing very blog-worthy has happened to me recently so here are a few photographs taken when my partner and I holidayed in Nilaveli a little while ago.  Nilaveli is about 15 kilometres north of the town of Trincomalee on Sri Lanka’s north-eastern coast and our hotel – a collection of semi-detached wooden cabins acting as hotel rooms, plus a reception building, restaurant building and lounge building – stood on the edge of the beach there.

 

 

The hotel encroached on the beach with rows of sun-recliners and sunshades – the surfaces of the sun-recliners sometimes streaked with white shit thanks to the local, naughty population of crows.  And at night, the beach seemed ablaze when coils of fluorescent tubing wrapped around the trunks of the hotel’s palm trees lit up and made them look like giant sticks of stripy confectionary.  However, the beach was simultaneously a working one.  Every day, just beyond the last of the sun-recliners, gangs of fishermen ranging in age from wrinkly fellows in straw hats to lanky youths in Rastafarian bonnets would assemble and pull nets out of the sea.  Each team was about seven strong.  They’d form a line, grip a rope and slowly retreat up the beach with it, taking short, synchronised steps.  The person at the back would reach a certain point and relinquish the rope, move down to the surf at the front of the line and take up the rope again.  And so it continued while more of the rope came in.

 

 

Then a string of white floats – round white chunks of Styrofoam – approached on the silvery blue surface of the sea, signalling that the nets were getting near.  How surreal it would be, I thought, if eventually they towed the far end of the rope out of the water and there emerged another team of seven guys clinging onto it, trying to pull it in the opposite direction.

 

Later, the nets would be strewn across the sand while the fishermen hunkered down and transferred the landed fish into hemispherical baskets.  Flocks of crows would alight and watch the baskets hopefully.

 

 

On the beach north of our hotel were two groups of fishermen’s huts, about a hundred metres of sand between them.  When I walked past them one evening, most of those huts were in darkness, with only a couple of larger ones lit by electrical lights.  One of the unlit huts had a fire burning on the floor just inside its entrance, glowing in the dark like a permanent orange flare.  Some guys were in the process of setting out to sea, heading for their nocturnal fishing grounds.  Later, their boat-lamps would form a necklace of white specks across the distant, black water.

 

There are a few hotels at Nilaveli, but ours seemed to be the most northerly one and it was separated from its nearest neighbour by a twenty-minute walk along the beach.  When I explored the intervening section of beach, I discovered that not everything there was picture-perfect.  Parts of it – away from the hotels and the fishing huts – were depressingly dirty, littered with washed-up plastic water bottles, glass arrack bottles, tin cans, flip-flops, rubber shoe-soles (the leather bits having presumably rotted away) and dried-up and fly-ridden husks of fish that’d been gutted and thrown back in the sea.

 

 

Also, a sizable area of beach was polka-dotted with shrivelled, sandy cowpats.  Eventually, the culprits came into view – a herd of cattle that were mooching about on or lying on the sand, almost within reach of the breakers.  They seemed totally nonchalant about their surroundings, unfazed by the rumbling and frothing seawater, the occasional wandering beach-dogs, the crows that hopped around them and even perched on top of them, and the tourists from the nearby hotel who were snapping photos of them.

 

 

One other thing I noticed as I ventured south from our hotel was a huddle of gutted concrete ruins standing in the scrub and woodland just off the back of the beach.  Weirdly, their outer walls were decorated with psychedelic murals of, for example, a red Cyclopean octopus-thing and a yellow-skinned, blue-eyed face.  I suspect that back in the 1970s or 1980s some aspiring local entrepreneur built this place, believing he or she could fashion a seaside retreat for the sort of Western hippies who used to flock to Goa in India.  But fate intervened in some form or other – the Sri Lankan Civil War, perhaps? – and those buildings were abandoned to disuse and decay.