During my two voyages as a second Radio Officer (R/O) on Thos and Jno Brocklebank’s SS Mahseer in 1963 and 1964 I got to know the Chaplain of the Colombo Mission to Seamen very well. The Reverent John Phillips and his wife Maria were extremely friendly and welcoming and the Mission was always a great place to visit when ashore. If I remember correctly the Mission held occasional dances and the ladies from the local Burgher community who formed the bulk of our dancing partners were great characters. One in particular whose name was Kitty owned and ran a ship’s agency business so was very well known to the visiting seafaring community.
One Monday afternoon in August 1964 when Mahseer had completed her unloading and was in dry-dock to have her hull cleaned and for repairs to be carried out to her propeller shaft, Reverent Phillips came on board to ask whether the Chief R/O Harry Jefferson and myself would be able to go on a Safari to the National Park at Wilpattu. This to be at no cost to ourselves.
This offer came completely out of the blue. The National Park was normally out of reach of any short-term visitor to the island due to its distance from Colombo and because overnight accommodation in the park was limited to three bungalows and these were usually booked up at least twelve months in advance.
Reverent Phillips and his wife had planned to go with a second family who sadly, due to illness had to cancel at the last minute. To make matters worse the Bishop of Colombo had requested that Reverent Phillips undertake some work for the Church that clashed with the planned departure date so they were faced with having to cancel, which would be a severe disappointment to their nine-year-old son.
The Reverent Phillips did not like the idea of Mrs Phillips and their young son going on their own because this involved driving the one hundred and twenty miles or so from Colombo to Wilpattu totally unescorted. We said yes immediately subject to obtaining the Captain’s permission, which he gave without hesitation.
In the evening of the following day (Tuesday), Harry and I both slept at the Reverent Phillip’s home so that we could get any early start. I remember sleeping fitfully because it was a strange bed, narrow and hard and the noise of the ceiling mounted fan was quite loud. Suddenly Harry who was in the same room gave out a loud yell, leapt out of bed and switched on the lights. This commotion also had the effect of waking all of the other people in the house. He had woken up suddenly when a small lizard had run across his face. There were no flies on Harry so it was a fruitless journey from the lizard’s point of view but Harry seemed to have a phobia about them and anything else that crawled and refused to go back to sleep again. It was a good job therefore that we were planning to make an early start and in fact commenced our journey about four thirty in the morning.
As Harry had never passed the driving test, Mrs Phillips and I shared the driving. It was pitch black and raining heavily when we left and it did not clear for a couple of hours. Mrs Phillips drove until we were well away from Colombo because she knew the way out of the city and because we did not wish to meet any of the local constabulary. The reason for this was that although I held a full UK driving license I did not have any local driving permit and I suspect the question of insurance for a non resident of the Island was also a bit iffy.
The road to Wilpattu was well surfaced but narrow and meandering. This gave little opportunity for fast driving and overtaking. However the slow pace gave us the chance to observe life in the little villages and hamlets that straddled the road. In places the food stalls and many of the homes were built right up to the edge of the road with little in the way of a pavement. Harry and Master Phillips who were sitting on the back seat, had great fun waving to the village children on their way to school. The wave from the car invariably produced beaming smiles, laughter and a return wave. Regularly we had to slow down to pass close to a long crocodile of Buddhist monks in their saffron coloured robes who in one hand carried an umbrella to shield them from the sun and in the other hand an alms bowl. Their pace was slow but measured as they progressed through the villages without haste, living their lives at a different pace to the rest of us.
The sights, smells and colours of the journey seemed more intense and pleasurable than any I had experienced before on that wonderful island.
We stopped for breakfast at the rest house at Puttalam and after a good meal completed the remainder of the journey in record time, arriving at Wilpattu about half past eleven in the morning. The Reverent Phillips had imported his Morris Minor estate when he took up his duties at the Mission and as it was almost new we never had any concerns or worries about breakdowns.
Our bungalow on the Park was a large wooden building set off the ground on brick piles. Inside were four large rooms that could be used as bedrooms set around a large central living room. There was also a kitchen, a bathroom and toilet and a cold water shower. Outside, on all four sides of the bungalow was a wide covered veranda. All visitors to the Park were provided with a cook and a guide but had to provide their own food. Mrs Phillips generously provided all of our food during the two nights stay.
There was no electrical power in any of the bungalows. All lighting and cooking was done with the aid of paraffin appliances. Seldom in my life since have I experienced such peace and tranquillity. After dinner we sat on the veranda cloaked in the velvet black of the night talking into the early hours of the morning. The only noises to disturb the tranquillity were the breeze and those made by the nocturnal jungle creatures. We slept soundly under large mosquito nets. As far as I know Harry did not experience any return visit from a killer Gecko.
On the morning of the second day, we joined up with the residents of one of the other bungalows and they invited us to share their open topped Land Rover. With their guide and driver we made up a party of eleven people.
The Wilpattu Nation Park was and presumably still is vast, covering an area of hundreds of square miles. In its centre are the Villus or large freshwater lakes where the animals congregate to drink. Surrounding the Villus on all sides but some distance away were hills covered with thick jungle. These hills are dissected only by the rough tracks that served as roads. The rest of the park was made up of open grassland broken by thick scrub. The soil where it was exposed by the tracker’s vehicles was a bright coppery red.
It was a rare privilege for me to see so many different animals in their natural habitat. We only heard the elephants in the distance but saw water buffalo, deer, crocodiles, snakes, eagles, monkeys, birds of all sizes and colours and a solitary leopard. This last sighting was for me the highlight of the safari.
On the Friday morning we went out at five thirty for one last time. By eleven o’clock we were in the car travelling back to Colombo. We arrived on board ship about six o’clock in the evening having stopped off for lunch on the way back. Mahseer seemed quite tame for a few days after our return but it wasn’t long afterwards that the dry-dock was refilled and we were loading and making preparations for the return voyage home.
I never knew why Harry and I were given that rare opportunity to visit Wilpattu, but I thank the Reverent Phillips and his wife to this day for their kindness and generosity.
Word searching on Google shows that Wilpattu was closed for seventeen years from 1988 due to the conflict in the North of Sri Lanka and that some time after it reopened in 2003 a number of visitors and their guide were killed when their Land Rover went over a land mine.
During our visit in 1964 we had no fear of any danger from any source and perhaps it is a sad reflection of our times that so many beautiful places in the World are now out of bounds or highly dangerous because of war, religious differences or ethnic tensions.
The nineteen sixties seems to me to have been a golden age in so many ways but perhaps that is only me being nostalgic for times and events that are long gone.
copyright © John Leary