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14th June 1998

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Cruising along the canal

By Tharuka Dissanaike

Muthurajawela's marsh expanse (inset) Bird life aboundsThe Visitor Centre at Muthurajawela has established itself as a successful venture- combining tourism and nature protection.

But two years after its initial launch, the Visitor Centre is rethinking its marketing strategies and aims to cater more exclusively to a public that is aware and appreciates nature, rather than fling its doors open to merry making crowds who have no respect for the environment. Special emphasis is given to groups of school children, who are offered attractive low rate packages at the centre.

The Muthurajawela Visitor centre is an off shoot of the large scale project to develop the countryís largest marsh expanse and upgrade the living standards of thousands who live in its hostile bogs.

It is located at the periphery of the newly gazetted Muthurajawela Sanctuary, by the side of the Dutch canal. The sanctuary is particularly well known for its abundance of bird life.

The Centre offers a wide range of activity. Most popular is the two -hour boat ride along the narrow canals cutting across the marsh and flowing waters of the Dandugam Oya which lead to the Negombo lagoonís mangrove shaded banks. The first boat ride for the day starts at 7 a.m. and the last at 4.30 pm. Visitors can book boat rides in advance. Every boat has twelve seats and is accompanied by an experienced guide who can name all the birds and plants that you are likely to come across in the marsh .

The cruise starts off at the Dutch canal in an outboard motor powered boat which is manually oared out of the canal and into the Dandugam Oya, where the motor is switched on. Watch out for swimming cormorants, and kingfishers catching prey in the peat-coloured water dotted with water lillies. As you meander through canals so narrow you have to keep brushing away branches that fall into the boat, you could be surprised by a brooding purple heron, suddenly taking flight spreading itís impressive wingspan. Purple coot feed among the lush lotus growth. Groups of whistling teal fly overhead.Another interesting feature about the boat ride is that visitors could watch traditional fishermen seeking their daily catch of lagoon crab, prawns and fish using methods that you never knew existed. Rare sightings of otters are recorded here. Groups of monkeys inhabit the mangrove forests.

This is also the home of the fierce but endangered estuarine crocodile, whose eggs are consumed by fishermen. In addition to the boat ride the Visitor Centre offers a nature trail that winds its way through the marsh for over a kilometre. The trail is the delight of any avid bird watcher, especially in the early mornings and late evenings. A small hut has been constructed in the marsh for nature lovers who wish to lie in patient wait for elusive bird and mammal sightings in the marsh. A restaurant serves breakfast, lunch snacks and tea.

Muthurajawela Visitor Centre is just one hourís drive from Colombo. It is accessed via the Colombo- Negombo road. Turn towards Bopitiya at Tudella junction ( past Ja-ela town ) and proceed one kilometre. You cannot miss the blue sign board on your right. The centre is run and maintained on itís own funds. It is managed by the Central Environment Authority.

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