Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

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The following story is extracted from 'Living in Sri Lanka' by Turtle Bunbury and James Fennell (Thames & Hudson, 2006)

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Near Buttala, Sri Lanka

A turn off the main Kataragama – Buttala road rumbles slowly down a dirt track bordered by rushes and paddy fields before terminating at what appears to be a cottage of thatch and clay. The cottage is in fact a single wall and the scruffy blue door at its heart forms the principal entrance to Galapita, one of the most exciting new additions to Sri Lanka’s burgeoning eco-tourism industry.

The blue door leads into a promising fifty-two acre wonderland of newly planted trees (palmyrah, frangipani, kohomba, mango, banana and kumbuk), vegetables, herbs and medicinal plants. The horizon swirls deep over rice paddies into the distant mountains of Yala. Three kilometres to the north rises Galapita Gala (literally “a rock atop a rock”), a monumental boulder spread-eagled upon another boulder. To the south, the vast Pelawatte sugarcane plantations form an interminable patchwork bound by forest copses and jungle scrub. One is swiftly overcome by a peace of mind inevitable to anyone who has just left the frantic highways of Sri Lanka and come to rest in a jungle.

A short walk down a forest track leads to the rocky banks of the Menik Ganga, the fabled River of Gems. On this visit, the river’s velocity was somewhat tempered by the unexpected delay of the south west monsoon, but during the latter days of the rainy season it becomes a raging torrent. A footbridge suspended some fifteen meters above connects the two river banks. Thepiyo, koori and fresh water prawns wallow in the river below.

The principal base of Galapita lies just across the footbridge on the southern banks of the river. It was here that Rukman de Fonseka first came when walking through the jungles on a pilgrimage to the sacred site of Kataragama. De Fonseka, scion of a prominent Sri Lanka gem merchant family, had spent the previous night sleeping in a nearby Buddhist temple. He knew little of the Menik Ganga save for whispers of its propensity at concealing large gems. Following the riverbank he came across a beautifully warped granite channel, the river waters forming a hierarchy of waterfalls and natural plunge pools. De Fonseka, an urban dweller by nature, was overcome by a sense of belonging. He slept beneath the stars that night, with nothing but a mat and a hat. In 1996 he returned to Galapita and built the first hut. The following year he extended the hut and invited friends to stay. Since 2000, Galapita has been open to paying guests enabling de Fonseka to provide full time employment to seven local villagers, and a further fifteen on the farm.

The eco-lodge presently consists of five detached bedrooms, a central living room, a dining pavilion, two bathrooms and a kitchen. Each building is carefully secured upon the smooth granite river banks. All bedrooms are open to the elements, encouraging guests to commune with the surrounding nature. The project, drawn out over eight years, involved a collaboration between a local carpenter, Ruperatne, an interior designer Ajith Jayasundera, and de Fonseka as supervisor. In keeping with the latters’ stated priority of ecological sustainability, the structural design is deliberately primitive. Walls of clay and bamboo are surmounted by low eave roofs of illuk thatch, in turn supported by a simple yet effective sequence of treated weera and palm beams.

There is something intensely calming about living in splendid isolation on the side of a river such as the Menik Ganga, Sri Lanka’s most venerable waterway. 20 miles downstream, pilgrims of practically every denomination immerse themselves in these same sacred waters before entering Kataragama, the greatest shrine in southern Sri Lanka. De Fonseka himself returns to Galapita whenever the opportunity arises. “ Finding it was quite possibly the best thing that ever happened to me”, he says.

Click here to view James Fennell's Sri Lanka photographs.