After 10 years of adventure riding through Asia I thought I’d seen everything that could be thrown in my direction: buses overtaking around blind corners; unmarked speed-bumps; ten-year-olds riding scooters while yelling into phones. And once, in Papua New Guinea, I had a spear thrown at me. But none of these experiences prepared me for a wild and angry bull elephant staring me down during a recent ride through Sri Lanka.
Before I tell you how it worked out, first let me take you back to the start of the journey. I’d always dreamed of visiting Sri Lanka – a mythical land I’d learned about as a child in the books of science fiction master Arthur C Clarke. But for more than a quarter of a century the country had been bogged down in a bloody civil war with the Tamil Tigers. Whether the Tigers were freedom fighters or terrorists is not for me to say, though the debate became null and void in 2009 when the Sri Lankan military finally defeated them and peace returned to the teardrop-shaped island formerly known as Ceylon.
Subsequently Sri Lanka has moved ahead. In fact I’d heard positive stories from friends who’d visited and I decided it was time to check it out for myself. But of course, I had no intention of travelling around in a bus or car, so I jumped online to see if I could rent a bike. I found a small operator called Cockney Rebel East Riders who rented late model trail bikes in Negombo, a beach resort north of the capital Colombo. And so I find myself winding through the hills west of Negombo on an old Suzuki Djebel 250cc. It wouldn’t last an hour on the Dakar, but it’ll certainly do the job in Sri Lanka…
INTO THE HILLS
My first day on the road goes off without a snag. The 170km ride from Negombo to Nurawa Eliya – a small town in the central highlands where British colonialists used to escape the summer heat – weaves and bobs along bits of highway and beautiful back-country roads.
The next morning I wake at dawn, slam down a cooked breakfast and jump on my bike. I have a long ride ahead of me: 250km of back-country roads plotted on Google maps and saved on my smart phone. It’s significantly longer than the direct route on the highway but it bypasses the murderous traffic of the previous day, before heading out of Negombo. I spend the night at the Tea Factory, a 130-year-old tea warehouse that’s been converted into a rustic hotel.
The next morning I wake early, manage another cooked breakfast and strap my luggage onto the Djebel. Geared to the gills, I throw a leg over and hit the ignition. Then hit it again. And again. But the engine refuses to turn over and the battery goes dead. Luckily I’m parked on a slope so hill-start the Suzuki. But ten minutes later, when I come to a stop at an intersection, the bike stalls and won’t restart. I stick out a thumb and wait to see if a passing motorists might give me a hand. Wait. Wait. Nothing.
Four excruciatingly boring hours pass until a driver with jumper cables pulls over and gets me back on the road. Meanwhile I’ve discovered, by chance, the Djebel is running with close to no oil. Problem. I’d exchanged many emails with Cockney Rebel and went to great lengths to explain the importance of a reliable bike. Another hour or two riding and the Djebel would’ve been finished, along with my trip. With half the day lost, I have no choice but to adjust my route and forgo what would’ve been a beautiful back-country ride. So, after stopping off at a service station to fill up on oil, I detour onto the A9 Highway, one of the busiest roads in Sri Lanka.
What transpires over the next five hours can only be described as a race to the grave as all manner of scooters, cars, tuk-tuks, trucks, tractors, gamy old men in wheelchairs and one guy riding a pet elephant compete for space on two lanes of mayhem. Belching filthy black smoke, the tuk-tuks are the worst. Their drivers can and do turn their contraptions on a dime, channeling through traffic and shooting out of driveways without rhyme or reason. At one point, two cows tied together with rope that had latched onto a bit of razor-wire that in turn had latched onto a rusty old bicycle stroll across the road, bringing the traffic to a standstill. I also get pulled over by the coppers not once or twice but three times. They have no interest in my licence or registration, only in posing for photos with their smart phones to post on Facebook. By the time I pull into Vil Uyana, a swish hotel next to the UNESCO World Heritage listed Sigiraya Archeological Park, the sun has set.
SNAKES AND LADDERS
Like something from Luke Skywalker’s home planet of Tatooine, Sigiriya is a rock fortress set atop a 200m-high stone column. Built in the 5th century by a prince who killed his father by walling him in, complete with moat which singularly failed to save said prince from the wrath of his vengeful brother.
Despite its age many of Sigiriya’s features remain intact today. There are a pair of giant stone lion paws at the front gate and a series of 1500-year-old frescos in caves. If that isn’t weird enough the place is also infested by hornets that specialise in stinging people especially in the afternoon, so you can only climb the rock early in the morning. The view from the top is absolutely brilliant and when I climb there are but a dozen other tourists doing the same thing. Bliss.
I spend the next three days hopping from one archeological site to the next: the cave temple of Dambulla, the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic in Polonnaruwa and the ancient city of Anuradhapura. This whole area in Sri Lanka’s northern plains is known as the
Cultural Triangle for its rich history and there’s no better way to see it than on a motorbike... so long as you don’t mind risking life and limb every time you throw a leg over.
On my last day in the triangle I’m burning down a dirt road when I see a plastic ribbon blowing across in front of me. I’m less than 10 metres away from it when I realise it’s not a piece of plastic but a huge green snake weaving across the road. I’m going too fast to stop and there’s nothing I can do but run the poor thing over, and when I look back the snake is spasming in pain. I’m about to turn around and do what I have to do – finish it off, though I’m not sure exactly how – when a truck roars past and flattens it. I can’t help but feel like shit for hurting such a beautiful creature, and hope karma doesn’t snap back and bite me.
Later, I begin the long hot 200km run to Jaffna in Sri Lanka’s far north. As the heartland of the Tamil minority, Jaffna was ground zero during the civil war. The Sri Lankan military bombed the hell out of the city during their final assault against the Tamil Tigers, and my guide book warns me about the constant military checkpoints I’ll encounter along the way. But it says nothing of the alluring Sri Lankan army women who I meet at these checkpoints. Even though I know I shouldn’t, I can’t help but flirt and ask if they know of a good place in Jaffna for a drink. I’d like to say I shared a moment with one of them, but that would be a lie. They look at me oddly and exchange comments in Sinhalese before waving me through.
Jaffna is pretty much as I expect it to be: a dump. Many of the city’s buildings are bombed out, hot winds blast the streets day and night, the place is dry as a bone – it hasn’t rained in two years – and my hotel room looks like a set out of an Alfred Hitchcock movie. Despite all of this, and the hell the Tamil people have been through, the locals are absolute gems. Everywhere I go I’m greeted with big toothy smiles and welcoming handshakes. The food – spicy Indian curries and Samosas – is sensational and cheap while the Hindu temples are a total blast. Not only do I have to remove my shoes when I enter, but my shirt too. In reciprocation I get front seats and watch priests in orange robes blow horns, beat drums and smash together symbols while worshippers chant in unison. Photography isn’t allowed but I make a sound recording on my phone which I just have to use as my ringtone. It drives my girlfriend up the wall.
After two days in Jaffna I head back south, this time along the east coast on a long, empty road interspersed with colossal causeways that hover above marine lagoons and tidal flats. Riding along the causeways is a surreal experience, though nowhere near as much fun as the 50km-long fire trail I come across later in the day while riding through Wilpattu National Park. Covering 130,000 hectares of pristine jungle, Wilpattu is the largest national park in Sri Lanka and a chief habitat for Sri Lanka’s big four – leopards, elephants, sloth bears and crocodiles. My guide book tells me if I proceed slowly and quietly enough, I may see some of these animals on the side of the road. But after so many days on bitumen, I relish the opportunity to let the Djebel rip on the dirt and reach the park’s southern boundary within an hour.
There, at the village of Eluwankulama, I find a small guesthouse called Wilpattu House. The owner, a guy called Sereno, recently returned to Sri Lanka after living in New York for 22 years and he is a great conversationalist. With dusk approaching he suggests we go out for a quick spin on my bike to a spot on the river where, if we’re lucky, we may get to see elephants drinking on the other side. But when we get there, there are no elephants although we do enjoy a refreshing swim in the river.
We’re on the way back to the guesthouse when I see a massive elephant with great long tusks crashing through the roadside bush. Without thinking I stop 50 meters away from the colossus and reach for my camera. The elephant also stops dead in its tracks and stares us down.
‘What the hell are you doing? It’s going to charge,’ yells Sereno, yanking the camera out of my hands. ‘Go! Go! Go!’ My shaking hands hit the ignition button and we zoom on out of there just as the elephant starts stamping its rear feet. And while we have a good laugh about it later on that night, Sereno explains how easily it could’ve gone pear-shaped…
‘If you were riding through Africa and you saw a lion on the road, would you stop to take a photo?’ he asks. ‘Of course you wouldn’t. Every Sri Lankan knows how dangerous elephants can be. You now understand how lucky you are.’
‘Yes I do,’ I tell him, gazing out across the star-studded night sky as the sound of crickets rings through the air. ‘Yes I do.’