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Anawilundawa – Wetlands paradise at a turtles pace

Anawilundawa – Wetlands paradise at a turtles pace

By Juliet Coombe

Mud spurted out in all directions as our vehicle wheels spun around and dug deeper into the mud while a curious monkey swung over to see what all the noise and commotion was about. Looking around this stunning 12th century hand-built tank with its ethereal landscapes that look just like monsters in the darkness, I was amazed, as the light started to flicker through the trees across the water, just how beautiful this protected wetland, jungle is; even stuck miles from anywhere in a lot of mud. Looking back on the adventure, I could not think of a better place to break down than in Anawilundawa International Ramsar Wetland, near Chilaw and a lifetime away from urban living.

A chorus of birds filled the air with their whimsical music, heralding the imminent tropical sun rise, and only the harsh mating calls of a couple of peacocks broke the orchestra of wonderful sounds. I learn how both indigenous and migratory birds have been using the ancient system of human-made cascading tanks for over a thousand years to catch fish, insects and even, in one case, a small frog. I am informed by my excellent Jetwing Ayurveda Pavilions guide, as I carry rocks to further bulk up the back of the wheels, that the tanks range between 12 and 50 hectares each, dating back to the 12th century, when the King of Sri Lanka wanted to make the island totally self sustaining.

As hawks circled, I was glad we finally, at full throttle, managed to release ourselves from the bank and head further into the reserve on a sturdier pathway.

Birds flew over us in formation patterns and as I took pictures, I was quietly thrilled we were on the move again, as I thought, looking back at how far we were dug in, that, at one point, the Star Turtle had more chance of reaching Negombo than we did. The clever builders of these manmade water holes saw the redirection of the river into linked tanks, as the perfect way for paddy cultivation to develop across the country in the12th century. The King’s aim, it seems, was to make manmade lakes everywhere in the country, as he wanted to develop the paddy cultivation to such a level that they could trade it and eventually become the breadbasket of Asia. The incredible thing is that they still work to this day irrigating the area.

Ramsar is part of six conservation protection schemes in Sri Lanka and Anawilundawa is made up of 1,397 hectares of incredible wetlands between the coastline and Negombo. One theory about the area and its name is that it is a Tamil word as there was also a Tamil King involved in the development of agriculture. ‘Ana’, interestingly, means elephant in Tamil, and ‘Wilma’ means marsh area, and legend has it that an elephant was trapped in the marsh. However, most of the villagers say this is nonsense and it is just because the trees and plants around the tanks look like marsh elephants, which, on closer inspection, I could see how some tree configurations did indeed look just like bachelor elephants stuck for all time.