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This travelogue covers one trip a few years back, but splits it into two parts due to the length. In this first part we board several ferries to nearby and outlying islands in the far North of Sri Lanka. And encounter lots of history there, including voyages by Arab traders and Portuguese, Dutch and British colonial forces.
The first sight is suitable for daytrips, though for us it happened to be also our night accommodation. It’s off Karainagar island, which also hosts e.g. Casuarina beach. Hence if you’d be in this area, far northwest side of the peninsula, maybe a nice visit.
This island kept the name that the Dutch colonial forces gave it, Hammenhiel. But its interesting history also covers Sri Lanka’s period of independence; it was a prison for quite some time, and hosted famous prisoners up to the seventies. You can visit the restaurant on the main island (part of a navy base), and then for Rs 3,000 get the shuttle boat back and forth to the island plus a guided tour. The (four only) real hotel rooms are in two smaller former guard buildings at the top floor, and walking on the walls there and the views over the water was impressive.
But we found the tour on the ground level, and the old soldier’s quarters which also were cells, more impressing. One cell block has been converted to a basic dorm room for 6-8 guests, and is sometimes also rented out to visitors.
This took us 6 hours excluding the 45 minutes ride from Jaffna town to the jetty (and another 45 back), hence expect quite a few sights!
This islet about one hour sailing from Jaffna is basically halfway India and Jaffna. And though it’s called Neduntheevu in Tamil, locals and tourists alike also still call it with the name that the Dutch colonials gave it: Delft, after a then important European city. The elements making it up are coral and limestone, with just enough soil stuck to the ground for some vegetation; and even two irrigation lakes which just catch enough rain during the monsoon to sustain some more vegetation and wildlife. Only two ferries per day, in morning and early afternoon, taking about 1 hour. For the morning ride we had a very aging boat where almost all passengers had to stay on the lower deck; of course with a hardly working fan ☹ But hey this ride is free, due to some legal obligation by the authorities to the residents.
The first sight is possibly the best known: the huge Baobab tree. One of a very small set in the whole of Sri Lanka, planted in the arid Northeastern coastal zone by the Arab traders amongst whom legends like Sindbad the Sailor originated.
We found it impressive, far more than e.g. the Mannar Baobab. Like some other large huge trees the inside partly became hollow, hence it was an easy shelter for 3-4 humans too.
The next sight looked unimpressive, but the story was nice. See – looks like some temple altar from the distance. And that was even stranger once we got told that these limestone walls hosted a Post Office. But further inspection shows that the pillar supports a number of, literal, pigeon holes. And yes, the 17th and 18th century VOC colonial powers used mail pigeons for many important messages; in this case probably to and from other VOC forts like on the Indian east coast, Jaffna and … Hammenhiel!
After this we visited a few more old buildings, though often it was mostly ruins left. Like a ‘growing coral stone’ which was revered as altar, the walls of an old Dutch/British fortress and nearby that an almost meter-long footprint. Hence either the terrible Yeti from the Himalayas or some of the many mythical figures from the South Asian religions set his foot here, or it’s a nice unexplained natural mystery.
Also we passed by some fields with free-roaming horses. Quite unique for Sri Lanka; these are descendants from the army horses that Portuguese, Dutch and British colonial forces bred here. But currently they roam basically freely, and are not used for farming etc. Though many are owned by farmers and might in the end finish at some butcher.The final stop, and great before we moved back to the ferry jetty, was the beach on the northern end.
It had some seaweed but no pollution. And the water was shallow, clear and calm for at least 100 meter into the sea where there was a reef. So talking about ‘hidden gem’ beaches, maybe later. Near the jetty (500 m from the beach) there is now a small hotel, Delft Samudra; and Google Maps also shows a beach restaurant under construction.
The ferry back was a much larger and more modern ship, where one could choose between upper and lower deck. And brought us back to the jetty at Kayts around 3 PM, leaving enough time for our last island.
To which we had to pay for the ferry; this time run by private parties, similar to the infamous ‘private buses’ on the roads. And the skipper had a huge beard, reminding us of the depiction of Sindbad in movies and strip books. For the 15 minute ride paying was not a big deal, the fare was peanuts. The ferry brings you to the southern jetty of Nainativu island; which is famous for two large pilgrim’s temples. And this one is the Buddhist one and called Nagadeepa Purana Vihara. ‘Naga’ here is not related to the snake of the stories around Buddha’s enlightenment, but points to two warring kings-of-the-Naga-people who supposedly got pacified by a visit of Buddha. Sri Lanka has quite a few of these stories, partly myth and sometimes with a core of historic truth. Anyhow it’s quite a large temple, though we found it artistically not on par with e.g. Anuradhapura or Pollonaruwa monuments.
Of course the temple is the core to a small village full with shops catering for the devotees. And the island even has one tarmac road, used by the odd tuk and even a small SLTB bus. All used to shuttle visitors, pilgrims generally, to the other side of the island – Nagapooshani Amman Kovil. It was about 10-15 minutes walk with luckily a less blazing sun than middle of the day, and some palm trees giving shade.
We noticed that generally the same devotees, Buddhist-Sinhala or Hindu-Tamil, also entered this Kovil. A good sign of religious tolerance! Sandya and brother were a bit tired, so we skipped entering the kovil and went directly to the departure jetty next-door. Within 10 minutes a ferry arrived (plying empty between south jetty and north one), 15 minutes later we were at the Kayts jetty for the 45 minutes ride back to Jaffna.
Whether it’s the 5 minute ferry to Hammenhiel, the 1 hour ride to Delft or the 15 minute ride to Nainativu – these boat rides give you a different dimension of lovely Lanka than when you have a river/lagoon or lake boat. They bring you ‘adrift’ towards the Great Outdoors outside the shores of Lanka. Which was also the route through which foreigners arrived over the years – the colonial forces which built the fort on Hammenhiel island, the messengers of Hindu and Buddhist religions which later got the Nainativu temples built, and the Arab traders who brought the Baobab saplings to Delft. We enjoyed this special dimension a lot, hope it works out same for you!
About the authors
Sandya & Erik are travel nerds. A mixed European-Lankan couple, they split their time unsurprisingly between bases near Colombo and in Europe. And have travelled throughout the lovely island numerous times. Google if you have a strong urge to find a way to contact them directly.