Divernet


The dive boat has a pair of outboard motors and an interesting system of dual control - two drivers. Each sports a T-shirt proclaiming 'Sri Lanka, where driving is dangerous, but the diving is safe', referring to maniac drivers of every kind of vehicle from little tut-tut scooter-taxis to farm trucks. Thankfully, their skills on the water are nowhere near as life-threatening.

The crew's experience of local conditions is soon demonstrated as they time their run through the surf, counting waves and picking their spot. The boat bounces a couple of waves and is soon in clear water. A few kilometres out at Madoun, the sea is oily-smooth. The long swell that was breaking on the beach is barely noticeable.

One boatman peers over the side and spots the reef. French diving instructor Fred jumps off the bow and loops a line through a mooring set a few metres below the surface.

The reef is an enormous granite hump rising from a sandy seabed at 30m. As I descend, fish are already making their way up the line to take shade beneath the boat.

A gentle current runs from the north. The leading edge of the reef is a huge shoal of fish, mostly different kinds of snapper, individually flitting all over the place but collectively holding position where the current accelerates over the reef. I can't work out whether they are swimming hard or perhaps riding a pressure wave, like a dolphin would on the bow of a boat.

Closer to the reef and in among a necklace of smaller granite boulders are all the usual reef fish - butterflyfish, damselfish, Moorish idols, triggerfish, angelfish, groupers and lionfish.

The granite looks smooth from a distance, but up close the texture resembles a pebble-dashed house, painted with bright splotches of encrusting sponge and sporting small branches of coral. On a crack near the top I find a pair of cuttlefish working their tentacles in and out. Are they feeding? Or could they be nursing eggs?

The Confifi Marina Dive Centre is located across the river and a few hundred metres up from the hotels on Bentota Beach. Rather than wait for the minibus shuttle back to my hotel, one of the skiffs drops me off at the end of the sand and I walk the rest of the way.

This end of the beach is virtually empty. There is just a mahout taking his elephant for a bath and a few beached speedboat water-taxis. Further along, the sand is bustling with activity. Holidaymakers are swimming, surfing, sun-bathing, strolling and having lunch in the shade of palm trees. Sri Lankans are selling everything from beads to bespoke tailoring. If you have ever wondered where sun-hats come from, they grow on trees.

Next day, after an evening's rain, I am interested to see how the diving is affected. The dive sites run in a line offshore and almost straight out from the river, which is now in a muddy brown flood. We get to Marina and Fred looks over the side.

Visibility does not look promising. We head north to Shark Point and conditions are far better. Fred explains that water from the river comes out from the shore and is pushed north or south depending on the long-shore current. He simply picks a dive site where the dirty water isn't.

A few days later the currents have changed again. Shark Point is out and Marina back in. Madoun is unaffected and Siri is a totally different dive. All are granite humps, each with their own character and inhabitants from hermit crabs to cuttlefish and shoals of trevally and snapper.

Unusually for me, I take a few days off diving to tour the hill country. It seems that most divers visiting Sri Lanka like to mix a bit of travelling in with the beach and diving. At altitude in Nuwara Elya, the climate is pleasantly cool. This is where the old colonials came to escape the tropical heat of the lowlands. Now wealthy Sri Lankans have their weekend homes here, houses that would not look out of place in the Home Counties.

A little further north, the temple at Kandy is the Buddhist equivalent of the Vatican. Gilded statues and carvings adorn the walls and pilgrims come from far and wide.

Valley farms are terraced for rice paddies and vegetable plots. Higher on the hillside, carefully groomed tea plantations shine a waxy green like a maze of privet hedges. Whole communities are sustained by Ceylon tea, from company schools to retirement.

At the roadside, my driver pulls down a leaf and rubs it in his palms. The odour is familiar, but out of context I can't place it. Curry, he explains. This leaf is the spice used in the delicious curries I have been enjoying at every opportunity.

But what he and most Sri Lankans want to talk about is cricket and the coming test series. I am not really a fan, but it's hard not to get caught up in their enthusiasm.

On the way back to Colombo we stop at the elephant orphanage, for victims of anything from road accidents to the legacy of the finally resolved Tamil problems. Most of the animals were born wild and have not been trained. Highlight of the day is a parade down the village street for bath-time at the river.

Missing from the local diving at Bentota were wrecks, so I travel a little further south to Hikkaduwa, which is a long-day trip or less-hectic one- or two-night excursion. Wrecks available include the Rangoon, a 19th century sailing ship, and the Conch, an early oil tanker.

I also make a two-day excursion to Negombo, a beach resort north of Colombo and the airport. Here the best diving is much further offshore and unfortunately restricted by strong wind. Nevertheless, I do get some pleasant macro-diving on ledges only a half-hour boat ride out.

With the settlement of the Tamil problems, other diving areas should be re-opening, though not yet. On the west coast are many wrecks in the vicinity of Colombo that had been out of bounds. On the east coast, resorts in Tamil country are now accessible and somewhere offshore are the remains of the aircraft-carrier Hermes.

The fun thing about diving at Bentota is that it is so different. Before travelling to Sri Lanka I had heard mixed reports. Divers either loved it or hated it. I think the problem is one of expectation. You can't compare huge hummocks of granite to a coral reef, and if you arrive expecting coral to rival the Red Sea you will be disappointed. If you arrive looking for diving a little bit different combined with a varied travel experience, you will be richly rewarded.

For me it was a combination of the diving, some excellent curries, and the contradiction of an at-once hectic and laidback atmosphere. I really enjoyed myself.





Cowries


Feeding the baby at the elephant orphanage


Moorish idol, with the boat visible above the reef

FACTFILE

GETTING THERE: Sri Lankan Airlines flies daily from Heathrow to Colombo. Bentota is on the west coast about two hours' minibus ride south from Colombo and just under three hours from the airport.
DIVING: Dive Worldwide (01794 389372, www.diveworldwide. com) or Hayes and Jarvis (0870 9037737, www.hayesand jarvis.co.uk). In Sri Lanka itself contact Lanka Sportreizen (0094 0182 4500, www.lsr-srilanka.com).
ACCOMMODATION: Packages work with three- or four-star tourist hotels. There are some nice simple guest-houses for those travelling independently.
WHEN TO GO: The monsoon limits the diving season on the west coast from November to April. The east coast has a complementary monsoon and diving season.
WATER TEMPERATURE: A 3mm shortie is fine for most dives, but a full steamer would have been nice on a couple of sites.
DIVING SUITABLE FOR: Beginners to intermediate if you are happy diving in a current. There is nothing particularly advanced.
FOR NON DIVERS: Beaches, curry, elephants, tea, cricket, cultural history, hill-walks, mountain bikes, climbing.
COST: Six nights at Bentota with hotel, breakfast, flights and transfers starts at £695, depending on season. Diving is £115 for five dives. Two-day tours inland cost from £130, depending on the itinerary.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Sri Lanka Tourist Board 020 7930 2627, www.lanka.net/ctb