Of Sri Lankan Seaplanes, Sperm Whales, and Kathiawari Horses. Plus Tom Stoppard & Richard Dawkins

by Chris Devonshire-Ellis

March 25th, 2012


In January I attended the Galle Literary Festival in Sri Lanka, which quite apart from being in one of the most beautiful locations in South-East Asia also gives me an opportunity to visit good friends of mine there, currently in the process of building an estate at Naula, near to Dambulla. Also well read, Simon and his wife Pauline arranged the accommodation, a charming colonial bungalow on the beach, where we would retire to each evening and eat wonderful seafood. The Festival itself was fun – Galle being an ancient Portugese city fort, and a host of illuminaries turned up to either lecture about life in general (Stoppard) flog their latest time (Simon Sebag Montefiore) or persuade us all not to believe in God (Richard Dawkins and wife).


Stoppard was amusing, in a jovial mad uncle-ish sort of way, he wanders off track every now and then, somewhat like an absent minded professor. He remains a hero for his work on updating Chekov, and related a couple of ribald stories about actresses, vol-au-vents and the Ivy Restaurant. But charming enough is a rather crumpled manner and he was good enough to spend five minutes with me. Montefiore is a historical writer, whose current biography of Jerusalem is well worth picking up, and he both read exerpts, explained his motives and took questions. I asked him what the city smelled like, which released a boy-ish grin and anecdotes about shit and wild flowers; an honest appraisal from one of today’s best historical researchers. I admire his work greatly, not least his research into Potemkin and Catherine the Great. A best selling author, thoroughly decent chap and an intrepid traveler to boot. The man has his calling and life sussed.


Richard Dawkins was the rock star, with his session packed. Basing his belief that there is no God principally on the works of Charles Darwin, and expanding that to now lecture society on how naive we are to believe in religion, his session crammed nearly 2,000 into the Galle Community Hall. Although he evokes the grandest of deities with frustrated “Oh God” every now and then – a curious expression for an atheist to use – I found it too dry, and almost too evangelical in nature to truly convince. Dawkins believes he is right in an almost sanctimonious manner, coming over as the devout atheist. I found that just as annoying as the religiously devout to be frank, and I feel him a rather embittered man. We’ll all find out one way or another in he’s right of course, but there seemed a joyless nature to his philosophy – if that’s what it is – that personally I find disturbing.


The Festival over, and Dawkins seeming like a great wet cloud of oppressive greyness hanging over me, I rebelled, and took a cruise to see one of God’s most magnificent creatures, the Sperm Whale. January is migrating season, and it has recently been discovered that a huge subterranean trench exists, stretching from the Arabian Sea and the North-East coast of Sri Lanka, the whales use this to calve in Sri Lankan waters. Often accompanied by Blue Whales, we found just Sperm Whales, but what a sight! Their plumes can be seen for miles as they expel air, and closer, they seem an almost impossible machine, a gigantic pair of automatic bellows made flesh and blood. We must have tracked at least 20, with them coming fairly close to the Catamaran, before raising flukes and diving. A truly magnificent spectacle, and one that I wish to see more often.



I followed that up with a Seaplane trip – Lankan Air have just purchased two from Bombardier in Canada, and they fly from Colombo, the capital down to Galle, which is jolly handy. Another two are expected to be in service in August, and these will connect with Jaffna and Dambulla. Which is a very good thing indeed. Such craft are of course the most glamorous of aeroplanes, and demand to be flown in while wearing a crumpled lined suit and panama, preferably accompanied by some battered leather trucks for luggage. This was a sight seeing jaunt, a journey to nowhere, but afforded spectacular views over Galle and the Southern Coast. Both take off and landing occurred on a nearby tank, and this really is the way to fly. In fact I would take all my flights at an altitude of less than 2,000 feet if I could, modern jets just don’t have the romance or any view. I want one – it will turn out to be the second transportation acquisition I will wish to make on this trip. Later, when I have some time, I may invest in flying lessons, and perhaps with a couple of mates acquire a seaplane. That would be extremely cool indeed.

Continuing the romantic style of travel, we headed to Dambulla, via train, still a great way to travel interior Sri Lanka. It is such a beautiful island. I spent an afternoon out riding through the Central plains and forests, hiring a Kathiawari Horse for the day from the local stables. These are not for the beginner, a powerful, slightly nervous animal that just wants to run. I had an amazing day out of this horse, so intelligent, but also amazingly quick and reactive. It turns out this breed originates from Jodphur in India, and are descended from horses left over from Alexander the Greats armies as he set out to conquer India. He failed of course, and the captured stallions were breed with a local breed to produce the Kathiawari. They are distinctive, with inward turned ears, but what a horse. Apparently, it cost USD20,000 to buy and import into Sri Lanka, mine was a five year old gelding with plenty of spirit. I want one, and I’d rather have a Kathiawari Horse than a Porsche. It’ll have to wait for days of retirement, but that may include time in Sri Lanka, and if so, I’ll need stables, Kathiawaris, and a large supply of sugar lumps.