February 2016


Sober Island: Intoxicatingly Enchanting
February 2016




A capture of the breathtaking view at the summit of Sober Island; the iconic Prima building is ever imposing

Our island home holds a never-ending supply of adventure. For a curious traveller, new experiences are always tugging at the desire to explore. Some are well known and others are not, some remain elusive whilst others are readily available.


Words and Photography Shyam Ranasinghe


At the entrance of the world's second deepest natural harbour (Trincomalee), is a small islet. It is called ‘Sober Island', and there are two schools of thought as to the origins of the name. The first states that it reflects the name of the administrator of the island during the colonial period, whilst the second states that this was the "sobering" ground for sailors who had alcohol running through their veins. Following a 10-minute ride through the Trincomalee inner harbour, with the ever-imposing image of the Prima factory complex in full view, I set foot on this enchanting islet with a mind ready for new experiences and a heart open to be overwhelmed.


Spreading across just over 150 acres, Sober Island is actually made up of two islets - Great Sober and Little Sober. Its strategic location in the harbour mouth made it a pivotal point in the harbour's defence during World War II, when Trincomalee was a marine fortress. This legacy still remains even though the islets are now veiled in thick shrub jungles, which have begun to envelop them.

Sober Island's strategic location in the harbour mouth made it a pivotal point in harbour defence during the times where Trincomalee was a marine fortress in the days of World War II
The waters around the island were dead calm, which enabled a number of colourful fish to swim fearlessly close to the rocks lining the pier. I later learnt that in addition to these fish, there are a number of other species of exotic aquatic life, such as pterios (lion fish) and valakkadi (sea snake) that frequent these areas. Knowing them to be highly venomous, I wasn't keen on having a face-to-face encounter, but an occasional glimpse would have served to improve an experience that was already interesting.


The islet rises steeply, starting from its shoreline. Within a few minutes, I found myself many metres above sea level and increasingly sweating in the warm sunlight that was beating down from clear skies. It didn't take long to reach the summit of the islet, which offered a breathtaking panoramic view of the entire Trincomalee harbour. The bustling metropolis of Trincomalee was visible, with the faint silhouette of Koneswaram breaking through the distant haze. It was a perfect sight, with ocean, shrub jungle and bustling urban life all blended together. The climb was certainly worth the effort and the cool Eastern sea breeze soothed my tired nerves.


Due to its tactically vital location, the islet was turned into a harbour defence point by the British, who dominated the area during the Colonial era. Lots of evidence remains of the elaborate constructions that had taken place under British guidance. Numerous gun batteries are still in remarkable condition, revealing the degree of activity that had taken place. The gun mounting bolts, each measuring roughly the length of a human arm, lay in two concentric circles measuring approximately two metres. The surrounding entrenchment is made up of thick masonry, which can withstand a mighty strike even to this day.

The climb was certainly worth the effort and the cool Eastern sea breeze didn’t waste time in soothing my tired nerves
The ammunition storage had been laid below and the gun had apparently been fed through a conveyor belt. With no remnants of the feeding mechanism or the gun itself, only the carved out paths and trails are left to tell the story. The gun complex is complete, with many rooms restored to the last detail. Their use still remains a mystery, but the mazes of corridors suggest that staff quarters and resting places, and administration, may have taken place right below the gun itself. The complex is complete, including its own stables, walking and drive tracks.


It is estimated that approximately 700 - 1200 people were stationed on Sober Island during World War II. To cater for such a large number of people, an intricate water supply system was devised to make the islet self-sufficient. A giant well was dug, taking care not to allow sea water to seep in, and all rain water was channelled to the well. The well is now in a dilapidated state, but there was still some water in it, just out of my reach.


Away from all the wartime memories, Sober Island offers many perfect beaches. The water is calm and soothing, and the beach has a shallow gradient into the water. The narrow channel between Little Sober and Great Sober offer a spectacular view across the mesmerisingly blue waters.


Interestingly, this is one of the least frequented sites in Trincomalee. Perhaps It is dwarfed by the attractions that always make the headlines. But as my short visit proved, Sober Island is an experience that will intoxicate you.

 

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    The beginning of an experience that was interesting from the word 'GO'

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    Cool shades for a quiet walk along the beach

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    The serene beaches at Sober Island

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    The island gleams in the evening sun

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    Through the thick shrubs, a tiring but exciting climb up the hillock

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    Old sailor's quarters now turned into a site of recreation

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    A fortress of a lost time, remnants of a World War II harbour defence gun point

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    All round protection for an enclave used during the World War

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    "Resilient against time", the mounting bolts of the main gun

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    Through the maze of corridors unfolding history

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    The stables below the gun complex

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