Around 38 kilometers or 20 nautical miles from the town of Kalpitiya off the Dutch Bay lies the island of Baththalangunduwa. A thin strip of an island about a mere five square kilometers in size, it is one of the few inhabited ones off the coast of Kalpitiya. However, despite being a thriving fishing village, the island in its recent times has also become a popular destination for travellers looking for adventure off the beaten track.
The journey to Baththalangunduwa begins in Kalpitiya, where travellers will find the ferry that takes passengers to the island everyday except on Sundays. While fishermen and boat operators in the area say the island is more easily accessible from Puttalam, however, boats operating from Kalpitiya are the only ones allowed to make the trip to this island.
Entering the jetty area in Kalpitiya costs around Rs. 10 per person, while a further Rs.50 is charged for parking the vehicle inside it. Weaving through the hustle and bustle of the jetty, travellers can then reach the ferry boat bound for Baththalangunduwa. As names and identification numbers of passengers are hurriedly written down, orders to wear the safety jackets barked out by the coast guard and obediently complied with by the passengers, the three hour long ferry journey to the island begins at 8.30am.
The ferry brimming with goods and people bound for the island, sputters to life and begins its somewhat slow journey from Kalpitiya, passing numerous uninhabited islands dotting the area. Once away from the jetty, the safety jackets of the regular passengers come off with many settling down to have a nap as the ferry and the breeze rocks them to sleep. Others settle down to hum a tune and play a game of cards with fellow travellers.
But, to those who struggle to find their sea legs the journey can be somewhat uncomfortable. While the sea can get rough throwing passengers about, and getting wet due to sea spray, travellers should be mindful of one’s belongings, especially, electronic equipment. Sea spray however is not an issue for the old timers who come prepared with plastic sheets. The trick is to move to the middle of the ferry and shield yourself from the sea’s onslaught.
Despite how the sea behaves, the ferry journey to the island is a different experience altogether. On the right, the ferry passes long stretches of the Wilpattu reserve till it heads off to the island. Spotting birds looking for prey and fishermen heading off to sea is a common sight, but seeing a dolphin or two on a rare occasion is also possible.
At the end of the three hour journey Baththalangunduwa island appears, dotted with thatched fishing huts, and a helper in the boat starts issuing tickets priced Rs. 250 to each passenger. As the boat moors and passengers scramble off the ferry, they are greeted with friendly smiles, many eager to direct the newbies to wherever their destination in the island may be. As visitors wander about trying to find their bearings, many of the residents who just arrived by ferry head off to Church along with their families to pray and thank God for their safe return. As one walks about, two things appear clear as day. The lives of the people on the island revolve around fishing and religion. Not only is the island dotted with thatched fishing huts it is also dotted with a large number of Christian shrines dedicated to various saints. For a small island, Baththalangunduwa boasts of three churches and according to the fishermen the feasts of these churches are held on a grand scale, every year.
Camping on the island is possible as long as travellers bring the needful. Water is scarce on the island which can be a challenge at times.
But, life on Baththalangunduwa appears laid back despite its ruggedness, and the people despite their hardships, seem content. As some fishermen work in the ‘ice wadiya’ packing sword fish in ice to be exported under the watchful gaze of their ‘mudalali’, others either lay down on their boats for a short slumber or patch their fishing nets. Home to a large number of fishermen and workers hailing from various areas across the country such as, Negombo, Kalpitiya, Puttalam and even Kandy, to them the island is their workplace as they travel to and from their villages when the catch is good. As the fishermen say, there are no permanent residents on Baththalangunduwa. But for children who are brought to the island by their parents during the season, the Sri Lanka Navy operates a school so that they do not miss out on their education. However, despite its facade of calm and peace Baththalangunduwa too faces its own problems. With time, those arriving in the island for fishing and its residents have dwindled. Seeking better schools for children and opportunities many have left the island in the past years according to the skipper of the ferry.
Meanwhile, there are worries among the residents that eventually Baththalangunduwa island will disappear due to rising seas. A fate that has befallen several islands in the area that once used to be inhabited making this danger very real to the fishermen. According to officers of the police post on the island, while the fishermen are prone to squabble, many appear to forget these incidents to get along with their colleagues, and once again head out in the search for bounty.
Despite these worries, life in Baththalangunduwa slumbers on. Every day the ferry reaches the island again at 2pm to take travellers back to the mainland leaving the island of Baththalangunduwa behind.
ALSO SEE Dharshana Jayawardana: “Lanka’s Shipwrecks ….,” 15 June 2016, https://thuppahis.com/2016/06/15/lankas-shipwrecks-deciphered-by-dharshana-jayawardena/