Gal Oya: Wonders of an island park
By Lankika de Livera
Our destination was the Gal Oya National Park. As we drove along the Mahiyangana Road passing Hunasgiriya, artistically terraced green paddy fields met our eyes and the wind blew strongly across the road to the Knuckles range of mountains on the other side. Knuckles was visible in its grandeur shrouded in misty pockets, with gushing waterfalls that cascaded down the velvety slopes and rocky outcrops.

We negotiated the seven hairpin bends and traversed through the Victoria, Randenigala and Rantambe sanctuary through which the road runs. On the third hairpin bend you can get a panoramic vista of the Yoda ela, the Sorabora wewa and another three wewas, all spread out together amidst the jungle through the green canopy of trees.

Further along, we came to the nine hot wells at Maha Oya in the Ampara district, just two km from the main road. Of the nine very hot wells, about three seemed to be at boiling point, with bubbles coming up.

It was early evening when we reached Inginiyagala and went up to the Wildlife Department Office of the Gal Oya National Park. On the way, our World Travel Centre Group (with whom we were travelling) had bought a huge can of petrol and 2T engine oil needed by the boat in which we were to go on the Senanayake Samudra. The Gal Oya National Park has to be viewed via a boat ride. There is very little mainland and the terrain is tough. The Wildlife Department recommends that the best way to see the park is to go by boat on the samudra which has many islands.

However, to our great disappointment, the wind was strong and we were told it would be too dangerous for a boat ride on the Senanayake Samudra. We were asked to try our luck early next morning. We drove back across the bridge that connected the Wildlife Department office and the mainland on the bund and went back to our little hotel in Ampara for the night. The next morning we happily got into the boat at the Gal Oya National Park. Everyone was given life jackets and we joined in pushing the boat into the water from the rocky shore.

The Gal Oya was dammed at Inginiyagala in 1948. Streams such as Hurulu Oya, Sellakka Oya, Kebellabokka Oya, Menik Ara, Dambadeni Ara, Bubulu Oya and Dhahamal Oya are tributaries of the samudra. The park comprises the catchment of the Senanayake Samudra, a large water body with an impressive backdrop of rocky, forested hills.

The entire extent of the park is 25,900 hectares. The Senanayake Samudra has a depth of 33.5 metres (100 feet) at some points. The best way to see the numerous islands that are in the midst of the samudra is by motor boat. The mainland areas could be seen by a four-wheel drive vehicle.

The islands are covered in greenery, trees and rocky outcrops and elephants swim from island to island for feeding purposes. We saw a few elephants grazing on different islands and it was obvious that they had swum across to get there. Elephant, common langur, the endemic toque macaque monkeys, leopard, sloth bear, water buffalo, three species of deer, wild boar and more than 150 varieties of birds have been sighted at Gal Oya.

Worthy of mention are the rare Red faced Malkoha, Spur fowl, Painted Partridge and Brown capped babbler. Among the fishing birds are pelicans, cormorants, herons, Grey-headed fishing eagles, White-bellied sea eagles, Brahmini Kites and other varieties of parrots and barbets. We were especially aware of the incessant sounds of Coppersmith Barbets with their distinctive “popo-popo-popo” sounds. This is a colourful green bird with splotches of red, yellow blue and black on its face.

We cruised along in the motor boat with its silent engine belonging to the Wildlife Department on the waters of the Senanayake Samudra. One of the few stops that we were allowed was on the Kurulu Doopatha (Bird’s Island). We pulled the boat ashore and were greeted by the stench of bird droppings! As we trekked to the rocky outcrops of the island through the vegetation, the droppings were so frequent that whole rocks and trees seemed to be white washed with them. On the trees were nests of different birds, many with eggs and fledglings too young to be able to fly away at our appearance.
In the nearby little islands too, there were plenty of birds, their calls mingling with the gentle lapping sounds of the water. The sky became overcast as the boat glided along. The islands were silhouetted against the gloomy sky and loomed large and mysterious till we came near to witness the vegetation and the feeding .elephants and birds.

The spray of water coming into the boat made the journey cool and invigorating. But we could not proceed to the Makara Kata the point where the Gal Oya falls into the Senanayake Samudra, as once again the wind had started blowing hard and the waters were becoming rough. There are no bungalows to stay inside the park but there is a circuit bungalow at Ekgal Aru, about 23 km from the park office. There are rest houses outside the park at Inginiyagala and Ampara. The boat can be hired from the park to tour it, subject to weather conditions.

Another attraction in the area that can be visited is “Digavapi Dagoba” built in the 2nd Century BC to mark the spot where Lord Buddha is supposed to have meditated during his last visit to Sri Lanka. This place attracts thousands of pilgrims. The hilly country to the west of this was one of the last strongholds of the Veddahs. Henebedde cave near Vadinagala has a drip ledge and contains Brahmi inscriptions. Near the cave is a moonstone, guard stones and balustrades of stone. Ruins of an ancient structure are close by.

Distinctively visible when one passes along the Ampara-Siyambalduwa road, to the south of Inginiyagala is a massive rock, known as Westminster Abbey, locally named “Go- inda- hela”. About 1831 feet in height, it is as big or bigger than the Sigiriya rock and is dome shaped like Westminster Abbey in Britain.
In the days of the Sinhala kings it had sometimes been used as a fortress. The only way to climb to the summit is by way of the vines of trees that hang down. Where the forested end of the ridge meets the shaft of the rock is an enormous cave, 300 to 400 feet high and about 150 feet in length. On the summit are the remains of an old civilization. The ruins of a dagoba, two artificially cut rock pits, an old well cut in the rock and plastered round with ancient brick and mortar; a pond built in a natural depression and further off 152 stone pillars.

The districts of Ampara and Moneragala may seem like the back of beyond for many town dwellers, but once ventured into, you will find that it does not necessarily have the remote desolation that one imagines. For their lush greenery, vegetation and unique characteristics of nature endemic to those areas alone, they are well worth exploring.

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