Aug 06 2021. views 2008
There’s something to be said about exploring the water bodies of Sri Lanka. You could see tens and hundreds of them and each of them will offer something new and unexpected; something so exciting and surprising about each one that you are willing to explore the rest. Koggala Lake is already famous. It’s home to the island of Madol Doova which inspired Martin Wickramasinghe’s eponymous book that has bought many curious locals and tourists to the lake and then to the island to recount the adventures of one Upali and Jinna. Over the years, a whole ecosystem has been built around the lake and today, it’s a must-stop destination and experience on any southern coastal trip.
We were having lunch at the South Lake Resort at its waterfront restaurant gazing longingly at the still waters of the Koggala lake when we were told that the resort has its own boat and guide and frequently arranges lake safaris for guests and whether we’d like to go on one? The answer was yes; we are excited at the prospect of glimpsing Madol Doova and our curiosity had peaked over the tourism the local community has managed to built for itself over the years.
A short 30-minute drive from Galle, the Koggala Lake is a little oasis embellished with ten small islands; some inhibited but most not. The 30 km lake takes almost 2 hours to explore with all its pit stops but it’s 2 hours well spent. The depth of the lake varies from as low as 3 feet to a maximum of 12 feet in the very middle of the lake. Our guide told us that the tsunami in 2004 had affected the depth of the water making some areas shallow – and in those areas, you will see fishermen standing knee-deep in the water casting their nets – and some areas are very deep. It’s important to have a boatman who knows the water well to avoid the frequently scattered rocks that may potentially scrape the barrel of the boat.
The lake has very rich biodiversity and an ecosystem with verdant mangrove swamps of kadol trees dotted occasionally with small flowers. It’s also alive in birdlife; cormorants and herons perched on a rock or a lone Bonelli’s eagle flying overhead as you cruise down the waters. The lake is rumoured to be home to a few crocodiles, but our guide told us they haven’t seen them in years as the busy activities on the lake have made them wary of visiting populated areas.
One of the main functions of the Koggala Lake is its role in the fishing community, as the lake is abundant in seafood. Being a traditional fishing ground for centuries, the lake has many popular varieties of fish like barramundi, bull-eyed mackerel and barracuda. Perhaps one of the most unique experiences you can witness on the Koggala lake is prawn fishing that happens at night – a sight that can be witnessed from the South Lake Resort whose waterfront is at the epicentre of all this action. Fishermen come in the night and stay perched on little elevated seats on the water made from sticks with torches and lights cast into the water waiting to cast their nets at the right time.
The locals tell us that the Koggala Lake tourism started back in 1991. Before, the community around the lake focused on sourcing income through fishing and coir (kohu) and while the fishing community still thrives off the lake, the business of coir has faded into nonexistence. In its place, tourism is now their main source of income, evidenced by the plethora of boats docked on the perimeters of the lake.
Heavily reliant on tourism, the pandemic has affected the community quite badly. Our guide tells us that there are about 200 people who make their living on just boat safaris and tours of Madol Doova and during the season, the lake is usually bustling with boats and Madol Doova will see around a good 1000 people on one weekend alone. On our visit, we were the only boat on the lake.
THE ISLANDS WITHIN AN ISLAND
The Koggala Lake has ten islands; some are inhabited and some aren’t. Hath Doova, an uninhibited island is used for cinnamon plantation. When the crops are ready, people would come to the island and carry crops off. Observed from afar, Thambika Doova appears to be a few trees floating on water. What was once an island has eroded over time and all that remains are a few trees and a weathering rock. The inhibited islands; around 5 or so are all pit stops on the lake safari.
The novelty of seeing a place you’ve only read and imagined about is the allure to Madol Doova. In all truth, the island itself is a jungle, matted with mangroves and a simple dirt path laid out to explore. It is Martin Wickremesinghe’s story that makes the island come alive as you walk through thick shrubs and tangled roots imagining the adventures of Upali and Jinna.
The Talatuduwa Buddhist Temple is reputed to be over a century old and is a peaceful, quiet temple with frescoes depicting Buddha’s life. Due to the pandemic, we avoided going into the temple but our guide tells us it is usually busy on poya days and weekends.
Weduwa Buddhist Monastery Island
This is an island that many come to meditate. Though it is connected to the mainland for worshippers to have access to the temple, the perimeters of the island facing the lake have spaced out chalets for priests to use as meditation centres. Almost as a testament to the reverence of this island, on a rock adjacent to the island, a small sapling of a Bo tree is growing roots on the rock.
While this island is a destination for avid bird watchers, we opted to observe it from afar. The Koggala Lake has a diverse range of birds within its area and the Bird Island would be flocked with birds during the morning and evening hours.
This island experience is a must on the safari. The cinnamon island is an 8-acre island that is home to 5 families who have been living on the island for decades – some even in their 5th generation. Sri Lanka produces 90% of the highest-quality cinnamon in the world and the families at the Cinnamon Island showcases the art of creating them. At the island, each batch of visitors gets to see how fresh cinnamon bark is cut right from their backyard and how it is meticulously peeled with practised hands and then laid out to dry for a week. They also offer packaged cinnamon sticks, cinnamon powder and oils for purchase (at a price a little above market – but it's right from the source and as organic as they can be!). The visit is wrapped up with a complimentary cinnamon tea, just hot water and cinnamon powder with no tea or sugar because ‘diabetes noh, miss?’
It’s easy to be charmed by the offerings of the Koggala Lake. A lucky visit on our end, we got to enjoy the peace and serenity of the lake, mull in the picturesque sight of lush greenery and sigh in contentment as we paused at the very heart of the lake, surrounded only by the sound of surface waves lapping at our boat. At Rs. 4000 for a group of 6, South Lake Resort offered us a full guided tour of the Koggala Lake and insight into all its history and interesting titbits.
SOUTH LAKE RESORT
South Lake Resorts by VC Villas & Resorts is a part of the Vision Care Group of Companies. The 24 roomed resort combines stylish comfort with affordability. The hotel, directly facing Koggala Lake, offers 180-degree views of its calming waters. The resort is a popular destination for weddings and functions.
The property is divided into two spaces. There are 4 deluxe rooms offering pool and lake views and 20 rooms with pool and garden views. Built as chalets with a two-storied concept, the accommodation with garden views offers a unique setting with a short wooden pier set on a man-made lake giving it a distinctive look and feel of water bungalows. All rooms are fully equipped with luxury amenities including free wifi, cable, DVD player, tea/coffee maker, toiletries and more.
The waterfront restaurant has a fully licensed bar and offers a buffet, a la carte or set menu depending on guest capacity. The menu ranges from Sri Lankan favourites to Western and Asian dishes.
The resort has a private pool along with a baby pool as well as a deck facing the Koggala Lake. There is also a game lounge equipped with darts, board games, a reading nook and a foosball table. The restaurant is often also used as a reception hall for outdoor weddings and functions and South Lake Resort also has a second reception hall that can also host weddings as well as business meetings and workshops. The resort also has a private beach across the road that is reserved and maintained only for their guests.
South Lake Resort organises excursions to explore the multitude of activities the southern coast has to offer. Tour the Koggala Lake, go whale watching in Mirissa or explore the Dutch fort of Galle; the staff at South Lake Resort is happy to organise it for you.
Pix By Pradeep Dilrukshana