Having decided, when my son was seven, that it was time to venture a bit further than France for a fortnight, I plumped for Sri Lanka. Not the tourist trail of the south but the north – the area where, until recently, war with the Tamil Tigers precluded visitors. I wanted to visit some of the new eco-properties there and take Arthur to see some spectacular wildlife in Wilpattu National Park, the largest in Sri Lanka, which only reopened in 2011.
I wasn’t going to overdo the adventure though – I’m more of a glam-packer than a backpacker these days. And though it’s still difficult to get round the north, with little public transport available, I didn’t want Arthur’s holiday to be all about struggling with timetables and overcrowded buses. Getting a firm called Experience Sri Lanka to organise things allowed us to transition from treehouse to beach-house to safari in comfort and with ease.
We started north of the airport in Colombo, where we visited Horathapola Coconut Estate, to swim in the deep green pool, walk around the estate, startling fruit bats with our claps, and visit the village, where they produce an enormous number of coconut by-products.
From there we went up to the Kalpitiya peninsula, where blue whales and dugong have recently been discovered off the coast. Palagama Beach Resort is a charming, quirky little place that must be lovely in season but in July was rather windy – waves formed on the infinity pool and we had to hold onto our suppers. It wasn’t the right season for whales either, but it’s a wonderful place to see them from October to May. We also went up to the Kalpitiya lagoon, a huge draw for kite-surfers. The dolphins we hoped to spot were hiding too, but we did run into the Navy, who continue to patrol the waters in the north and are still a little nervous of foreigners.
"At night, fires and flaming torches were lit about the camp to keep
animals away and we ate our huge, delicious suppers by the water, illuminated by lamps
and by a ‘magic fire’ lit for us on the opposite shore."
From here we drove inland to Anamaduwa and pioneering eco-property The Mudhouse, a stunning collection of mud and palm huts deep in the bush, built around a lake full of birds. There’s a group hut or a family hut, the latter large enough for four, with purple lilies and butterflies at the entrance and a roof, but only two walls and an outdoor shower and toilet – much to Arthur’s delight. A lot of the wildlife did come inside, but it was only sweet little treefrogs and lizards, which Arthur spent hours watching. The food was great but consisted mainly of curry, which was fast becoming a problem with Arthur, who refused to eat anything spicier than a boiled potato and was existing on fruit and rice.
We spent our time at The Mudhouse swimming and kayaking in local tanks (ancient reservoirs) and going on nature walks to look for wild peacocks and eagles. You could also sit out at the food hut watching herds of buffalo mingling with herons and ibis. But best of all, it’s fairly close to the entrance of Wilpattu National Park, a beautiful drive away. Here Eco Team took us on a fabulous camping safari during which we slept on the banks of a beautiful little river with bread-eating fish and a resident small crocodile. At night, fires and flaming torches were lit about the camp to keep animals away and we ate our huge, delicious suppers by the water, illuminated by lamps and by a ‘magic fire’ lit for us on the opposite shore. Arthur slept very well, but I would lie awake listening to the sounds of night in the jungle, although our tent was extremely comfortable; they'd upgraded us to a luxury one with a proper bed, a toilet and a shower.
Accompanied by nearly all the staff, Arthur climbed trees and leapt into the water. We were lucky enough to spot a beautiful leopard right by the Jeep, an elephant chewing weed, silhouetted against a purple sunset, a sloth bear charging down the road in front of us, and innumerable birds and deer and monitor lizards – all very thrilling for Arthur, who’s grown up fixated on BBC’s Deadly 60.
On our last day we were taken to a deserted beach past an unexpected Navy camp and looked for shells, of which there was a vast number. In July the sea all along this north-western coast is too rough for swimming but fun to paddle in. We also visited an unexcavated temple and played Indiana Jones among the rocks and tombs.
Our adventure continued further north, on a homestay tour of Mannar Island – a place extremely difficult to visit without help as there are no hotels or hostels yet. En route, we visited an old colonial ruin on the deserted wild shore leading up to Mannar, which once belonged to General Cedric North, who oversaw one of the world’s greatest pearl-fishing beds from here. It was desolate but fascinating, and Arthur played football among the ruins with a Tamil family and their relatives from Holland returning after the war.
Mannar was in the middle of the war and retains a large Army and Navy presence; we were smiled and waved through all the checkpoints, but the experience did underscore how recent the war was. We arrived at sunset, across an expanse of stunning salt flats inhabited by wild ponies, where we stopped to let Arthur run about excitedly. The island has been completely cut off for 30 years and life there has been tough, but the locals were extremely welcoming. We stayed in the house of a villager recently returned from India, to which she had fled during the war. It was hot and basic, but after a night of struggling with the outdoor toilet and well, we relaxed and began to feel very much at home.
Our guide Sid showed us around Mannar, taking us past Army checkpoints to deserted beaches to watch fishermen pull in nets full of glittering fish and out to the Giants Tank on Mannar mainland to look for birds and visit temples. Arthur was in his element as we negotiated potholes, wandering cows and wild donkeys and played football with local kids. People stared at us in astonishment and old men crossed the road to bless Arthur. But although we were in a very remote spot, it wasn’t difficult for us at all; we were very well looked after by Sid, and Arthur will remember the nights up playing Monopoly and cards for a very long time.
Read more about family holidays in Sri Lanka, including the best places to stay with kids.