Sri Lanka is an island shaped like a tear to the South of India and has a long and interesting history. Visited by the Buddha, colonised by the Portuguese, the Dutch, the British and since independence in 1948 it had a vicious civil war between the Sinhalese and the Tamil tigers which only ended in 2009. The island also suffered from the tsunami in 2004 which killed 30,000 people and made 100,000 homeless. The population is about 20 million of whom the Buddhist Sinhalese make up 75% of the population and the Hindu Tamils have about 11% of the population. They originally came into the country as indentured labour in the same way as the Natal Indians and they continue to be discriminated against. There are also minorities of Muslim and European descent. The main sources of income are tea and tourism and garment manufacturing. Like Nepal and the Philippines the country exports large numbers of cheap workers to the Gulf, basically slave labour.
Isn’t it amazing that wherever one travels there is the same scenario, the majority of wealth is in the minority of hands and the majority of people suffer with poor healthcare, education and either slave labour or no work at all; another dysfunctional democracy.
On the flight over I sat with Peter, a 50 something diver emigrating to UK to join his family. It was only when we were going through security did I discover he was wearing his lead lined diving boots and weight belt. The flashing alarm sirens and lights were going off like mad.
The group of 8 riders are an experienced cycling bunch many of whom have done previous cycling tours in places like Myanmar , Ecuador, Vietnam, Montenegro and Bhutan and were a mix of retired guys like me and younger adventurers. Their nationalities were Croatian, American, Swiss, Aussie and of course South African. Spice Roads provides a guide who cycles, a cycling leader and two back up vehicles , one for bikes and the other for the riders so there is a team of 4 looking after 8 riders. The nice thing about this type of touring is that although some of the riding is hard you know that at the end of the day there will be a hot shower, a comfortable bed, Wi-Fi , a beer and good food. The guys looked after servicing , cleaning the bikes and mending punctures; all we had to do was ride. To top it up I got a brand new Trek bike and a brand new helmet.
This is adventuring the easy way, not like my friend Ron who cycled over 3000 kms across Australia on his own without back up.
First impressions of Sri Lanka were that it is similar to Nepal and the Philippines with lots of small businesses along the roadside but a lot less traffic. The hotel was on the sea with palm fringed beaches.
The first day of riding started from the hotel and followed the west coast with beaches and fishing villages all cloaked with thousands of coconut palms. At one instance we rode through a herd of buffalo being driven along the road. We stopped at one place where they were tapping coconut oil which they use in alcoholic drinks, e g palm wine. This involves tappers climbing the tree and then balancing high above the ground and strung from tree to tree to form a catwalk. The bark is also used for fibre for brushes.
The area was very Catholic , a legacy of Portuguese colonialism, with ornate churches and as it was a Sunday there were big crowds praying. Then we moved into an area containing mosques and then into an area with Buddhist temples. The island is lush and green with tropical fauna and flora. Our hotel , Thilanks Spa is beautifully set in rice paddies with its main feature being a long swimming pool. It seems to be rather cruel for paddy workers to be slaving in the fields next to lazing tourists. It was hot during the day but clouded over later and started to rain. The night was very tropical with cicadas and frogs croaking.
The second day we rode through the countryside, mainly on dirt roads to Sigriya Rock, a 5th century fortress. This is a truly amazing place; we climbed up on foot to the top 300m past frescoes of ladies and up steep circular staircases to the top. We climbed through a huge carved lion gateway .Below was a pleasure garden where the King Kasyapa entertained his ladies at a swimming pool
. This is another dynasty which had an amazing culture and then just disappeared after the death of the King.
On our way up the hillside it poured down and we had to wade through a waterfall cascading down the path.
From there we rode to Dambulla , a 2nd century cave temple with 150 Buddha statues.
The weather was showery with heavy downpours and we all got wet and muddy but had good fun riding through the mud. Riding on the roads is another story; beware of red buses, their drivers must be ex lunatic asylum inmates or prisoners to drive them. There were lots of egrets in the rice paddies, herons, kingfishers and a large monitor lizard. Children waved and shouted to us and after one motor cycle passed us there was a wonderful tang of incense in the air which lingered for quite a while. These are the spice islands after all.
We rode between 50 – 80 kilometres a day and would generally stop for snack breaks and a sit down lunch in a restaurant before continuing on in the afternoon. Day 3 was a long day dodging in and out of rain showers. At times in the elephant reserve we could have been in Phinda Game Reserve with dams and forested hills. After lunch we toured around Polonnurawa lake with good birds and on to the park with its 10th century ruins and temples. Again this is an amazing place from a bygone age which flourished with sophisticated buildings and systems and then just disappeared. All this is rather similar to Ankor Wat.
I picked up some saddle sores, probably from wet cycling pants. I expected hot cycling conditions but the temperature was bearable with cloudy days and heavy rain showers.
Sri Lanka is very self-sufficient and grows fruit, veggies, mielies and of course all spices to make their excellent mild tasting curries.
Day 4 was a steady ride along a main road until the last hour when it poured. I had to actively swerve around a fearsome looking monitor lizard eating something on the road. In the afternoon we had a game drive in the Wasgomuwa National Park. We saw plenty of elephants, herds of wild buffalo, deer and good birds including Brown’s fishing owl, peacocks, bee eaters, storks, ibises, eagles, and kingfishers. What I didn’t appreciate was that the driver of the game viewing vehicle , chewing red beetle juice and with a wild look to his eyes drove straight at the herd of elephants and forced them off the road , which included a pregnant female who was in some distress.
Day 5 dawned wet and rainy again. I wasn’t feeling 100 % and had swollen ankles, legs and my face was very puffy around the eyes. On top of it all this was the toughest day so far, we did 1500m of climbing between 10-15 degrees up hair pin bends and all in rain and mist . There were three long climbs , the last one being 11 kilometres. At one stage I completely ran out of steam and waited for the bus to come up to me. I asked them for anything to kick start me. Steroids, testosterone, ESP, you name it, I would have taken it.
It felt like the Tour de France. I had to settle for a banana and water but it was enough to kick start me up to the top.
We plunged down a narrow hairpin road in the pouring rain squeezing past red buses labouring up the hill leaving dense black plumes of smoke behind them and eventually arrived in Kandy.
Part 2 to follow