The road from Colombo to Galle, the once famous harbour of Ceylon, is one of the most beautiful in the world. It is simply an avenue, over seventy miles long, of coconut-trees, through which peeps may be had of picturesque red headlands and of white waves breaking over coral reefs.
The coconut is one of the most beautiful, as well as the most useful, of the palm tribe. It grows best in sandy soil near the sea, and, indeed, is often found flourishing with its roots actually washed by the salt waves. The natives believe that it will not grow beyond the sound of the human voice : it is certainly never found growing wild in the forest. The stems are always crooked, but not ungracefully, a fact noted in the native proverb which says: " Whoever has seen a dead monkey, a white crow, and a straight coconut-tree will live for ever !"
The palms along the Galle road form dense groves, as they are planted closely together—more for the sake of the sap they yield, to be distilled into a potent spirit called arrack, than for the nuts they bear. A class of people called toddy-drawers, regarded as of very low caste, collect the sap. They climb the palms by means of loops, into which they slip their feet, and grip the stems with their toes, while they lever themselves up with their arms. On reaching the top, they empty the sap which has collected in the little pots attached to the spathes of the trees into vessels which hang at their sides, and then pass on to neighbouring trees by means of ropes which bind them together. Accidents often happen through the breaking of these ropes, resulting in a fall of thirty or forty feet. It is not an uncommon practice for malevolent men to secretly cut the tree-ropes of their enemies half through, so as to cause them to give way when used.
There are many fishing villages in the palm-shadowed bays along the coast, with numerous Singhalese sailing-canoes drawn up on the beach. Oruwas, as they are called, are among the most remarkable sailing-vessels in the world. Each is made of a single log, hollowed out, with a superstructure of planks, and is so narrow that it cannot float upright of itself, so has to be provided with a long outrigger, with a float at the end to balance it.
Its great cotton sail, supported by two bamboo masts, drives it at great speed over the waves. When the wind is strong, a man crawls out on the outrigger to keep it down with his weight. More than one man may be required to prevent the float from being lifted out of the water by the wind-pressure, and the fishermen speak of degrees of bad weather as a " one— two—or three-man gale".
Most of the fishermen are Roman Catholics, but they are nevertheless grossly superstitious. They leave their valuable nets unprotected on the beach, knowing that not even their most deadly enemies will cut them up, from fear that their own luck would depart from them for ever if they did so. The hangman's rope is in great demand among the fishermen, being unravelled and the strands twisted into the meshes of their nets for luck.
There are many Roman Catholic churches along the road, some very picturesque. The interiors are generally very gloomy, with roughly carved and coarsely painted figures of the Madonna and saints, and tawdry hangings and ornaments. Dust collected from the floor of a church and mixed with water is considered an excellent medicine for any complaint.
Galle is a beautiful old town, and was a place of much importance in bygone days, but its trade has departed since the Colombo harbour was constructed. An ancient Dutch fort, on a rocky promontory, guards the entrance to the lovely harbour. At the north end is a pretty palm-covered islet, on which is a Buddhist temple.
The palm groves stretch along the southern coast for some thirty miles, as far as the town of Tangala, where the bush-country, which covers a great part of the south-eastern part of the island, commences. The coast scenery up to this point, including Dondra Head, is the finest to be found in Ceylon. Inland, large tracts of land are covered with citronella grass, from which quantities of essential oil are extracted and exported.
Hambantota, a small town some twenty miles to the east, has the driest climate in Ceylon. Here broad lewayas, or salt-pans, stretch along the coast, where hundreds of tons of salt are collected every dry season by Government, the sale of it being a monopoly.