Sri Lanka: Saving Never Never Land
“An emerald, fringed by filigreed gold and set in aquamarine – truly a jewelled pendant” is how British colonial civil servant and writer Leonard Woolf described Sri Lanka. “Caressed by warm waters, 770 miles of golden sand ring the island. Within these sands is green, lush green, fertile land sculptured, towards the centre, into soaring mountains.”
Kandy, the last independent kingdom to fall to the Britain Empire after centuries of attempts to colonize it, sits mid-center amongst the hills and mountains of this “jewelled” island. Here in Kandy at Polwaththa Eco Lodges, I met Nihal and his Dutch wife Nel to hear where this story of saving their ‘Never Never Land’ began.
With a glint in his eye and a spring in his step, the Peter Pan-like Nihal tells how his grandfather left him five hectares of land and coconut plantations in the middle of the forest, and how after many years working abroad in the tourist industry, they decided to build an eco-lodge and live on this ancestral land in order to conserve it and share it with other nature lovers. At a time when responsible tourism was still in its early stages of development in Sri Lanka, this was not an easy task, but their dedication and commitment to the lodge’s vision, allowed them to open its doors in 2010.
The reception and restaurant area are a series of small, inter-connecting open-air buildings where you can laze about in a hammock, eat delicious meals freshly prepared three times a day, spend time reading from the little library, or play board games and meet other guests. Scattered around the grounds hidden amongst lush flora are the lodges, built of wood and red brick, which are made and baked on site using traditional techniques. Clay and mud are also used to cover the structures. The bricks must then be carried by the builders as the pathways do not allow vehicles access beyond the main buildings.
The gorgeous little bungalows come in a variety of sizes and designs and all feature large balconies where you can spend hours enjoying the jungle view, listening to the chatter of birds, watch giant playful squirrels and cheeky chattering monkeys. Palm fronds are used to cover the roofs as they act as insulation and sound proofing during the rainy season. Big windows allow the flow of natural light during the day and low-energy light bulbs provide a warm glow after dark. Fresh, clean water is pumped from the lodge’s own wells, but have no fear – a shower will not leave you shivering with cold, as solar panels are used to heat the water. In the wet season when there is not enough sun, huge barrels are heated over log fires to ensure an ample hot water supply.
At the heart of their operations beats a strong obligation to both the local community and the environment. The majority of staff come from Nihal’s family village or nearby villages. Unlike many other places in the hospitality industry, they have succeeded in integrating nearly 30 percent of women employees, which defies tradition. This is a very important aspect in helping the local community as many women must find ways to support themselves and their families. This sets a new precedent and encourages others to follow. After receiving training the staff are encouraged to deal with guests independently as this builds much-needed confidence and also gives guests the opportunity to closely interact with locals and experience the real warmth of Sri Lankan hospitality. Though training staff learn to understand and become a part of the sustainability efforts and practices – sharing this information with others in their communities.
Nel reminds me of Peter Pan’s Wendy with her love of trees and concerns for all animals and humans alike. It was she that alerted Nihal to the destruction happening around their home as trees were being cut down and entire areas of woodland were destroyed by local people – trying to find ways to make money or use the wood for their own needs. So in addition to their own plot, Nel and Nihal began purchasing neighbouring land to stop the felling of trees and the grinding of saws. Slowly but surely they have started the ‘Forest Healing Project’ – re-introducing endangered plants and trees, promoting re-forestation and afforestation of barren land.
Everyone is welcome to offset their carbon footprint by joining these tree planting activities. And if that is not enough, they focus on community interaction and support local school projects too. Other rewarding experiences on offer are treks among quaint villages and rice paddies; to tea-plantations and secret waterfalls; and along rivers and through the famous Knuckles Mountain Range. Besides smiley faced residents, you may meet some of the local fauna: wild-boar, deer, porcupine, squirrels, civets, monkeys, butterflies, bats, fire-flies and other amazing insects. With over 60 species of birds, 15 of them endemic, this enchanted forest and mountain land is a paradise for bird watchers.
This forest escape is more than just magical – it is inspiring – as are its guardians. Everything counts and is interconnected: the people, the animals, the trees, the land. Here are people who have built a responsible community; who have adopted a common vision to sustain the world’s resources, so that future generations can benefit and enjoy it too.