The Mystery of Ussangoda

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Driving down the southern coast on the A2 route, approximately 25 km past Tangalle, a right turn brings you to a rather unusual site. This culturally and geographically significant landmark is a most singularly peculiar place, as Mr. Sherlock Holmes would have said. The surreal red landscape is eerie and silent. But for the vegetation surrounding it, one can almost picture spaceships and preoccupied Martians walking about. What brings you back to Earth are the footprints of a canine along the pathway. Or are they. My imagination runs amok at this point.

Ussangoda National Park is the most recently established National Park owing to its biological, archaeological and geographical value. It is comparatively small for a park, spreading only 349 hectares (1.35 sq mi). Situated within the turtle breeding zone, the Kalametiya Wildlife Sanctuary, another famous landmark, lies on its western border.

Getting back to the speculation about Ussangoda, the scientific school of thought is that the site is that of a meteor strike that happened ages ago, probably during the prehistoric era. To the laymen, the red brick-like soil, which is unique to the area, does resemble intensely scorched earth. Another clue would be the red lumps scattered here and there that could very well be the remains of a  ”petrified” forest. Although scientific testing is yet to be done, the soil here is supposed to be extremely rich in minerals.  The red color comes from the ferric oxide which is abundant in the area. Breaking apart a rock shows distinct layers of colors within a cross section.

According to the inhabitants and as is very much apparent, nothing much grows here except the miniature ground creeper called “Vishnukanthi” (Evolvulus Alsinoides ) with its tiny violet flowers. It is also called Dwarf Morning Glory or Slender Dwarf Morning Glory. Ayurveda claims that it purifies blood and improves memory power.

And then we have the more romantic version. The popular Ravana legend claims that this was the landing site of the Dandu Monaraya (or the flying peacock) of Ravana, the mythical king of Lanka. Referred to as a demon by his adversaries, they say he had ten heads. He was more likely a polymath because the same legends claim that he mastered many domains. He is identified as a great scholar, a capable ruler and the inventor of the predecessor to the Veena, a popular string instrument in Eastern music. Ravana ruled not only men, they say, but the gods and demons as well. The son of a sage and a princess, the Ramayanaya of India depicts Ravana as a cruel tyrant who abducts the beautiful princess Sita and holds her prisoner, eliciting immoral favours. Rama, the hero in the Ramayanaya was  her husband who, along with the help of the Monkey God Hanuman, comes to her rescue. Meanwhile, the more recent local version is sympathetic towards Ravana, and proffers that he actually kidnaps the princess Sita to teach Rama and his brother Lakshmana a lesson, for cutting of his sister Surpanakha’s nose, and that he treated Sita in a courteous and fair manner.

Whatever the truth, Ussangoda is still fascinating for what it represents today – something quite out of the ordinary. We happened by Ussangoda recently on the way to Hambantota. Crossing the barren red plateau we came to an area with dry-zone scrub and cactus bushes. There, among the thorny vegetation, swarms of colourful butterflies teased and tested our photographic skills. On the southern boundary of Ussangoda is the Indian Ocean, and a picturesque tiny fishing harbour spreads below us on the beach, at the bottom of the steep red cliff. Apart from several huts and a few fisherfolk here and there, Ussangoda is quite deserted. A perfect place for some quiet enjoyment, provided you’ve got enough cover to fend off the sun, because it can get pretty fierce at midday. We strolled around for a while adding our own wilder perspectives to the already thick speculation. On the way back we stopped by the local Lemonade hut, run by a few village women. We found the drink cool and refreshing after our hike out in the sun. The smell of Woodapple they were selling was too sweet to ignore, and so we helped ourselves to a few bags. We drove off from Ussangoda leaving an aromatic trail of ripe Woodapple behind us. Inside the vehicle we were engulfed in the aroma too, and we couldn’t wait to taste some lovely wood apple drinks and desserts once we got home.

Some images we captured at Ussangoda, starting with a satellite image of the area from Google Earth to give a better perspective.

An satellite view of Ussangoda from Google Earth

Fishing harbour scene from top of the cliff

A fishing boat lies at the Ussangoda beach

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 The motherly lady selling Lemonade at the entrance to Ussangoda Park

Closely inspecting a piece of rock

Petrified tree trunks?

Vishnukanthi (Evolvulus Alsinoides) – conquering the barren fields

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Red rubble 

A surface scratch reveals a brick-like texture

Canine footprints – or are they?

Butterfly fiesta in the scrub jungle

Lonely red beaches of Ussangoda

Story | Nilu Rajapakse Photography | Nilu Rajapakse (Fishing harbour, Fishing boat, Lady selling Lemonade, Canine footprints), Danushka Senadheera (Inspecting a piece of rock, Butterfly, Lonely red beaches) and Ruwan Rajapakse (Petrified tree trunks, Vishnukanthi, Red rubble, Surface scratch)

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