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Negombo’s Rice Pearls

Negombo’s Rice Pearls

By Juliet Coombe

Juliet Coombe explores Muthurajawela Nature Wetlands, Negombo lagoon and Hamilton Canal

The boat moves slowly across the lagoon with birds sweeping over head, diving for a fish before disappearing into the surrounding undergrowth. The Catholic Church that belongs to Pamunugama guards the entrance to Hamilton Canal, which was built by the British to stop salt water coming to Muthurajawela land due to the Dutch Canal, destroying much of the earlier paddy cultivation. The meaning of the area is the Kings paddy field, which produced pearl like rice. On any two to three hour nature boat tour from Jetwing Lagoon or one of the Jetwing beach properties you can expect to see at least 20 different species of birds out of the 102 recorded in this area each year. A fascinating historic nature reserve with British style colonial style houses along the banks of the canal, where ancient methods of fishing including beating the water to send the fish into a circular frenzy can be observed daily. Travel in land to some of the villages and you will discover stunning batik work capturing the natural beauty of the area.

After the paddy field project failed the British used barges to take goods to the capital Colombo. Along the edge of the coconut palm fringed canal you will find kirila for making juice and the roots which were once used for corks for both local Ayurveda treatments and toddy. Animals you see include Toque Macaque a medium size monkey with brown body and distinctive white belly the perfect camouflage to swim across the canal, as when you look up all you see is sky. Seeing this is both amusing and fascinating as they look like Olympic swimmers with the gusto they take to swim from one bank to the other. Indian Brown Mongoose are not so common growing up to 65cms, and the lizard like water monitors that some mistake as crocodiles are always a thrill to watch as they scavenger hunt for food. This monitor is a terrestrial lizard growing to 180cms that glides along the side of the banks and living off bird’s eggs old bits of meat, and rotten food. We saw one at around 80cms including its tail and it was probably about 6 months old, swimming past a recently opened coconut. On one in every ten trips you will also see the estuarine crocodiles, which grow up to, 23 feet and they are exciting to spot, as they are extremely territorial and will fight off invaders. Whatever you see every trip Muthurajawela Nature Wetlands is a magical one with local fisherman like Chaminda whose trick for the fish to think there is a mangrove swamp would throw branches of kadol in a circular pattern and leave them for one month creating a fake habitat and it is this ancient method of fishing, that allows the Lagoon villagers to catch the sweet local prawns, lagoon fish and crabs they serve at all the Jetwing outlets.

In the swinging sixties when Sri Lanka’s best architect Geoffrey Bawa built Sri Lanka’s Blue Lagoon (now Jetwing Lagoon) this was seen as the Negombo Riviera and an important water path way through the country, feeding into the Dutch and Hamilton canals that take you directly to the capital Colombo and up to Puttalam in the north. Until the 1950s the waters were always busy with trade that went across the lagoon from one canal to the other, but this all changed when the roads were developed and other ways of transporting dry fish and cinnamon became faster and more convenient in trucks or on the trains. Today the waterways are reopening for nature tourism, a more environmentally alterative way to travel than by the clogged up roads and are a wonderful way to be at one with the wonders of the ancient lagoons and canal eco systems.