August 2016


Mt Lavinia Beach: Colombo's Long Sand Street
August 2016




For those who prefer a quieter beach, the mornings are far more peaceful

Mt Lavinia is more than just a suburban beach. If Victoria Park is Colombo's green lung, then the beaches are its sea-breathing nostrils.


Words and Photography David Blacker

I was born in Colombo, and have lived here almost all of my life, and in all that time, have rarely lived more than a long walk's distance from the sea. Colombo is flavoured by salt. It is very much a seaside city. While beaches stretch all along Colombo's long western flank, three of them dominate Sri Lanka's commercial capital. At its heart, right next to the financial district of the Fort, is Galle Face, and north of the port, the now almost-forgotten Mutwal Beach. Neither of them, however, quite have the allure of Mt Lavinia.


Mt Lavinia is a low hill, jutting out into the water, famous for the romance between a British colonial governor and his Ceylonese mistress. Sir Thomas Maitland named the hill for his love, built a mansion atop it, and the beach, stretching north towards Colombo City, shares the name.


It was late afternoon as I crossed the main coastal railway line and walked out onto the beach. The sand was still warm from the day's sun, but the air was losing its heat, swept away by the damp heavy air whipping in off the Indian Ocean. As I always do, I squinted out at the surf. It was hammering in, grey and blue and sandy green, the waves churning in at quick intervals to race hissing up the sloping beach. Sri Lanka is just north of the equator, and this was summer, but the tail end of the monsoon's winds were whipping the wave tops to spume. No surfing or swimming today. Red flags dotted the beach, and lifeguards perched in their towers like sunburned eagles, watching for anyone in trouble.


The beach was filling up with people unbothered by the roughness of the water; residents rolling out of their siestas and wandering onto the beach for a walk, a drink, or just a chat with their friends. Families from the city and farther inland had come for the day, or just a few hours. Children splashed in the shallows and built sand castles, defending their fortifications against the rampaging waves with the ferociousness of seasoned infantry troops. I strolled north, munching peanuts I had bought from a cart near the tracks.


The beach stretched almost endlessly, green coconut trees smudged like water colours by the sea spray until, in the hazy distance, I could see the towering steel and concrete monuments of modern Colombo. They looked astonishingly close. I am old enough to remember a coastline uncluttered by those buildings. Each time I return to Mt Lavinia, the buildings seem closer.


A sudden surge of restaurants, cafés, and bars line the beach, offering the best of Colombo. The ubiquitous Chinese fried rice competed with more authentic pork dumplings, excellent Australian steaks, spaghetti carbonara and, of course, fresh seafood of all varieties, from crab, crayfish, mussels, and other shellfish, to whole baked garupa; Colombo's legendary hot butter cuttlefish, and prawns of all sorts, from jumbo to tiger. And everywhere, tall glasses frosted in the afternoon light; lime juice, ginger beer, and lager.


Further up the beach, a gunshot crack is greeted with a roar of approval, and I turn to watch a young boy crash desperately into the waves, his arms reaching vainly to stop the rubber ball that has been smashed for six by the laughing batsman. Beach cricket is a Sri Lankan institution, played from Casuarina Beach in the Jaffna Peninsula to Mirissa in the deep south. I watch the bowler run in again past the derelict chair that is the non-striker's wicket. Bowling on sand requires a technique all its own, bounce being almost impossible, and every ball is by necessity a Yorker, aimed at the batsman's toes. This one beats the teenager with the bat and destroys his wicket, a plank precariously leaning against a bucket.


Twilight is descending, and the restaurants and pubs are filling up slowly. DJ music and live bands compete with the pounding waves. The locals head home, replaced by young people from the city, driving out for a Saturday night on what is now Party Street. My throat feels like salted sandpaper and I wander up to a barstool in search of refreshment.


Mount Beach wakes up late, sleepy and hungover, like Hank Moody after a book launch. There's no breakfast to be had anywhere until after 9am. Waiters sweep up the night's debris and hose sand and salt off the tables and chairs The only people out and about at this hour are locals, jogging, walking their dogs. Middle-aged company executives discuss politics and the economy as they pant briskly across the sand. Young parents take photographs of their toddler. A couple walk hand in hand, looking for some shade for a few hours privacy before crowds return. A bunch of young men pause an energetic game of rugby to watch two girls jog past in tank tops and shorts.


I walk on until I reach a more deserted stretch of beach. It's Sunday morning, and a group of people in white stand facing the water, each alone, eyes closed, meditating, the sun on their backs, the breeze fresh against their faces. People walk or jog past, but no one disturbs them. Not even the dogs. I sit down quietly and take some pictures of them. Then, as if at an unspoken command, the figures turn and leave the beach as one, and I am alone.


The sea is calmer now, and I'm hungry. I stroll back, wondering how far I'll need to walk to find breakfast on Mt Lavinia Beach.

 

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    With evening approaching, Mount Beach offers more sedentary attractions

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    Jogging on Mt Lavinia Beach

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    Stroll at the beach in the evening

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    The restaurants along Mount Beach are famous enough to draw regular crowds on the weekends

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    Beach cricket, a sport with its own specialists, has spawned at least one famous fast bowler already

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    A man sits by his stall, waiting to sell kola kendha (a thin rice porridge) to early morning joggers

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    One of Mount Beach’s native inhabitants

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    Mount Beach is a favourite for group outings

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    And the beach doesn’t get any less busy after dark

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