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First Post-Tsunami Expedition to Block II Yala National Park

The incessant rains had stopped a few days ago and morning dawned with grey overcast skies. It was the 3rd of February. We had covered most of Block I of Yala National Park, assessing the impact of the tsunami. However, no one had yet entered Block II to look at what happened there, and we were getting ready to undertake the first expedition to Block II since the tsunami. The past few days had been spent getting everything ready for the expedition. The CCR team comprised of Pruthu, Jenny, Devaka, Manori, Jayasinghe, Janaka, Nishantha and Rahula. We had discussions with the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWLC) and were undertaking a joint expedition with them. The plan was for the DWLC team to accompany us to the end of Block II - at Kumbukkan Oya (the eastern border of Block II) and to return the same day, and for the CCR team to stay on a week and do the survey work.

After obtaining some 'Kimbulas' (literally crocodile, a long bun with sugar on it) and 'Biththara Paan' (egg buns) from Tissa as on-the-road fare, we set off from the research station at Tissa around 8 am and got to Palatupana around 8.30. There we met the DWLC crew of about 20 with the Park Warden Yala Mr. Weragama and was also joined by Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya from the World Bank who represented the donors. The DWLC were quite ready for the expedition having got their massive 4WD repaired after many years of languishing in the garage and had another long wheel base Landcruiser BJ40 with a 6 cylinder engine and the classic registration No. of 32 Sri 0001, driven by Anura who had quite a reputation as an ace driver under 4WD conditions! We had the Toyota double cab and the BJ40 shortwheel base Landcruiser from CCR and Sumith had his newer Toyota double cab.

Mr. Jayaratne was to meet us at the river as he was coming from Kataragama. As the Menik Ganga water level was too high to cross it at Parana Totupola, we proceeded to Warahana bridge. When we got to Warahana we found that Mr. Jayaratne had gone on and we followed. The road from Warahana was still quite muddy but fast drying up. We had attempted to go into Block II a couple of weeks before, and had to turn back close to Kosgas Mankada because the water level in the Menik ganga was rising at the time due to rain upstream and water was flooding the road making it impassable. However, at a number of places, trees had fallen across the road and the road detoured around them, making it very difficult for the tractor to get through with the trailer. In one place a tree had fallen and had to be removed. First we tried a chain saw but found that it didn't cut well enough because the chain was blunt and so we had to resort to the old faithful axe!

We met up with Mr. Jayaratne and crew close to the Kosgasmankade. They had tried to cross the mud pool that defeated us last time and the landcruiser had got stuck. The 4wd housing had broken, producing the first casualty of the expedition! So we pushed the jeep off the track and took the Kataragama crew also into our vehicles. The mud pool was circumvented and a new track cut through a sandy area so that the vehicles could get through.

A little further on, we saw the first signs of the tsunami, a huge hole about three car lengths in the track, created by the water that had come through washing off the soil. Soon after, we emerged to the short grass open fields of Yala Wela. This area was in times past a vast paddy field cultivated by water from the river which was dammed upstream and the water diverted into a canal to irrigate the fields. A number of masses of tangled vegetation were observed which were broken trees carried over by the tsunami wave. Some of them had been deposited on the road and had to be circumvented. One stretch of road more resembled a paddy field and was a muddy morass. The vehicles made it through with difficulty, tires spinning ineffectively in the slippery mud and loosing traction, then purchasing a bit of traction momentarily on one side, which spun the vehicle around!

Most of the Yalawela area appeared to have been flooded by the tsunami and the grass looked brown and dry. The herb layer composed mostly of Thora, appeared to be all dead.

However, the characteristic water buffalo herds of Block II were very much in evidence and appeared to be doing fine. Some of the huge males stood up from their wallows on our approach and shook their impressive horns in a threat gesture.

The Menik Ganga falls into the sea close to Yala. However, a sand bank forms seasonally at the estuary and closes the opening at Yala. Then the river parallels the sea shore for a further 4 km or so, on the land side of a series of high dunes and discharges through the Pilinnawa estuary down open stream. There is a lot of mangrove vegetation along the river course between the dunes making it an important wetland. The tsunami had come in through the Yala estuary and the sand bank, flooded the river, come out at the other bank and continued through the scrub forest area close to the river, flattening everything on its way. Soon we approached the first real hurdle in the journey - Katupila Ara. It is a stream that joins the river course between the two estuaries and when the Yala estuary is closed by the sand bank, the water backs up in Katupila Ara making it more difficult to cross. Since the opening at Yala was now it was now unobstructed and the main flow of the river was through it, the water level in Katupila Ara was low. However, the banks were still slippery as the ground was still wet providing poor traction, making it difficult for the vehicles to climb the far bank. We made it through Katupila without mishap and continued.

Soon we approached the next set of short grass fields at Pilinnawa. These too had been flooded by the tsunami and were in a similar state to the Yala Wela. We proceeded to the Pilinnawa estuary where the tsunami had caused havoc among the mangrove stands. Some of the stands had been completely uprooted and taken away by the wave, others were snapped off like a bundle of matchsticks. However, on closer inspection amazingly everything remaining seemed to be putting out new shoots and regenerating. The resilience of plants to the destruction caused by the tsunami is indeed amazing. They seem practically indestructible, especially in view of the fragility of man made structures.

We had some refreshments including the 'Kimbulas' at Pillinnawa and proceeded onward.

The next hurdle was another water crossing at the Agara Ara. Once one 'waded' into the water here, one had to choose between holding a straight course and coming out directly opposite or changing course mid stream and coming out on a side. Straight ahead the tractor forged, and fell in a deep hole, to rise again, water cascading off like a breaching whale! Anura decided to try the side exit and managed to get up the incline with some difficulty. After a couple of vehicles the side exit was no longer an option as it became too slick and did not provide any traction. So into the hole and out it was! The road proceeded inland but a number of obstacles were encountered. One big mud hole called the 'Delmedge Wala' all but swallowed the tractor, which became quite stuck in the middle. After unhitching the trailer and unsuccessfully trying to winch it out with Anura's jeep, it was finally extricated by pushing - manpower succeeding where horse power failed!

We reached Uda Pottana, our next destination around 3 pm. Tree debris barred our way close to the beach so the vehicles had to be stopped some way away and the beach approached on foot. The tsunami had come ashore at Pottana with much force. Again, the greatest impact was at the and the scrub forest vegetation close to the beach was heavily impacted. Similar to most other areas of impact, the main force of the wave appeared to have been directed at the deepest point of the bay in a westerly direction. However, as the ground rises fairly uniformly from the shore to the West, the impacted area was comparatively small. Part of the wave had come in through the Pottana lagoon and inundated the short grass fields. On the shores of the lagoon were strewn scores of shells, some on large pieces of rock which seemed to have been sheared off with them glued on. There were also a few pieces of coral some about 1m across. An approximately 500 m radius semicircular area of scrub forest to the East of the lagoon was impacted by the wave, the vegetation seemingly all dead and torn up. The tank that was close to the shore was breached and completely emptied. Consequently no fresh water would be available for visitors who intend camping out and the Pottana camp site would have to be closed till new arrangements are made to provide water. Pottana is known to have been an ancient sea port. The tsunami had unearthed pieces of terracotta pottery and some almost entire pots probably dating back many centuries. In places, numbers of shark cartilage which possibly had been stored in the pots, were found. Historically, these are believed to have been used as currency. Some of the terracota rims of the ancient wells that existed here were found to be broken and strewn about.

We had a discussion on whether to proceed or not and though it was getting late we decided to push on, in the hope of reaching Kumbukkan Oya before night fall. The DWLC team decided they would stay the night and go back the next day. So we proceeded on our way. The road took us more inland, but we still had to cross a number of very muddy areas. The next tsunami affected area we came to was Gajabawa. Here the damage seemed to be mostly flooding with the water having come through the lagoon. A few trees that were uprooted were washed up at the end of the lagoon.

We passed through a number of very scenic short grass areas with their attendant herds of buffalo and large herds of spotted deer many hundred strong. When the herd took flight the deer seemed to float in mid air and flow along, poetry in motion indeed! As we were crossing an open area, the cab suddenly veered off and came to a halt. The steering assembly had come out of joint. So we called a stop and affected some on the road repairs, tying it together with some wire. Soon it became dark and the going became even more difficult, without being able to see clearly where we were going. The cab steering again broke down and Anura's jeep had a flat tyre.

However, we managed to put everything back with a bit of shoe string and wire and pressed on, finally reaching Kumbukkan Oya around 7 pm. We camped there for the night, and the Wildlife guys soon had a roaring fire going and cook up of rice and curry!

Story by Prithiviraj Fernando