SRI LANKA – Sap Tappers

I refused to leave Sri Lanka without seeing the sap tapping that was mentioned in the guide book. Palm toddy wine is a favourite of Sri Lankans. Often tell-tale signs leave puffy eyed locals struggling to hide their indulgences. I vow my sap tapping tour is not complete until I sample the fiery spirit with it’s distinct taste.

Kumara, our driver, beeps his Tuk Tuk through Negombo’s peak-hour town traffic, finally 4 kilometres later the vehicle bumps towards Dagonna’s lush fields canopied by towering palm trees. At 7am the grove’s density shortens the breath; it’s dampness leaves a glistening garnish on the ground. Our enterprising driver/guide befriends a worker who agrees to show us the ropes of his trade. Without a word being spoken I watch the durava (toddy tapper) take to the tight rope; not a safety net in sight. Silently, the scantly red-clothed figure makes short work of a 30-40 foot climb as he shrinks to a small spec among the flowing palm flabellums. Unlike the circus’s attention seeking trapeze artist, this labour intensive job of the tapper is tricky. His spindly legs resemble robotic pistons as he rhythmically shins himself higher towards the skylight.

I wait with bated breath, watching the match-stick man squirrel up the tree’s length with sizable steps on bare feet leaving them free to find the knotted coarse fibre rope footholds, while his arms clutch the trunk’s torso. His lankiness does not undermine his physical strength, powerful enough to lug his Ukunilla (a wooden holder for cutting tools, mallet and sap collecting vessel) attached to his waist; weighing roughly 55 kilograms. The climber knifes off the young leaves from their petioles preventing the splitting of the expanding spadix. The virgin bloom’s tip is severed and tapped with a stick enabling bursting of the cells, letting the sap flow.

The field’s sereneness is soon polluted with the hollow thud of the spathe’s outer skin being struck with the mallet. The spirited tight-rope walker snakes precariously from tree to tree on a rope constructed suspension bridge. Using only stiffly strung palm strands positioned chest high as a balustrade for keeping his balance, his feet slide automatically along the rope-line to the connecting trunk.

This painstaking rupturing and bruising of tender tissues allows enough sap to seep for weeks to come. Efficient sap flow is only achieved after 6 days of tapping when the collection pot can be left to gather the white milky nectar. Shielding the flower buds from becoming pulp and rendering them useless is a tactile skill that requires temperate tapping and appears to be an art passed on from father to son. Sap tappers must collect 100 litres of sap per day to earn 750 rupees (roughly R7.50). Sap tapping for a living carries a social stigma added to which is its low wage and hazardous working conditions especially during the Monsoon season.

It is inevitable that younger generations avoid this gruelling occupation leaving the less educated to be skivvies to the ailing sap tapping industry.

But travellers like me, who find the taste too exotic and toxic for that matter, may spare a thought for the life-threatening labour involved in tapping the sap to keep this rural livelihood sustainable.