Swanning around Sri Lanka

Tuk-tuks, teak, tealeaves and toads

Words & Pictures: Tiffany Daneff

“You’re going to Sri Lanka?” everyone said.”You must stay at Lunuganga.” (That’s the idyllic former country estate of Sri Lanka’s famous architect Geoffrey Bawa – and now a hotel.) But it wasn’t on our route and there was nothing I could do to change that so I took it on the chin.

Now, though, having come back after a fortnight travelling around the north, north eastern and central areas of Sri Lanka I have to say that there is more than enough to keep a plant lover happy without Bawa. Indeed, I didn’t mind missing Lunuganga one bit because, not only is Bawa’s influence felt in all the hotels I stayed at (in the simple low impact designs that always make the most of the scenery and setting), but the island is a gardener’s paradise.

It's relatively small

272 miles long and 140 miles wide – but its geography is extremely varied, and thus supports a huge number of plant and animal species. In a day you can go from piping hot sun-bleached beaches – with rat snakes and crested tree lizards – via river plains sketched out in a grid of verdant paddy fields to the humid shadows of tropical jungle with porcupines and rubber trees.

It makes sense to hire a driver and vehicle not just because us squish westerners just don’t find it easy overtaking into a lorry/bus/car/tuk tuk overtaking on the other side and gunning it straight for you, but because you can distract yourself by spotting birds and plants from the window. And what plants.

Teak trees

I had never seen those before. Once you’ve spotted teak (Tectona grandis from the Tamil word Tekku) they’re easy to identify.

No other tree has the same regal straightness of the trunk, the distinctive large and glossy round leaves and the puffs of smokebush like flowers. Nor had I ever seen an ebony, Diospyros ebenum, which is a bit less exciting as it’s grey and not particularly impressive looking.

What was impressive about the one we saw was its size and the fact that it was the only one we saw of its stature. That was in the Minneriya National Park (the best place to see wild elephants.).

From the car window I spotted....

.... rows of pineapples and fields of papaya, not to mention rice, coconut and banana.

Most of the hotels had their own gardens too. At The Estate House, Rosyth, a short drive west of Kandy in the lower Hill Country the owners took us for a walk through their rubber and tea plantations spread out like a labyrinth across the slopes.

The valley was a network of paddy fields around which grow all kinds of familiar exotics including Mimosa pudica. Farzana, Rosyth’s owner, knows this as “the sensitive plant” because its delicate fronds close up when touched.

Almost as addictive as Candy Crush. (Almost.)

Then there are the amphibians.

One night by the swimming pool at Jungle Beach near Kuchchaveli on the east coast, we found four different species including this nice fat toad. And in the changing room at a local house before going for a snorkel what I thought was a nicely decorated mirror turned out to be a gleaming tree frog, alive yet so perfect and still it looked like a carving.

Geckos are ten a penny – but hard to spot. But most impressive of all are the calotes. There are seven different kinds on the island of which Calotes versicolor seems the most common. An impressive character, you’ll agree.

We stayed at The Estate House Rosyth, near Kandy, Jungle Beach and Ulagalla. All highly recommended.