Cycle Touring Sri Lanka 5: Ten days on me tod – part 1

Photo: Sunrise from Adam's Peak
Sunrise from Adam's Peak

So my wife Linds has leapt on a flight home to go and do a job interview, leaving Wiggins the elephant, Sir Bob and me to our own highly disorganised devices in Sri Lanka for 10 days. I have a bit of history here, with an unfortunate propensity to get myself in trouble when the wife disappears for an extended period. Last time she went home I got lost on a night out in Thailand before finally finding my friend and host Adam at 8am, only for us to jointly pour boiling oil on both our feet when we got home. The time before that she went to the Isle of Man for 16 weeks, and came home to find that I was re-building a car engine in the living room, having grown a big red cyst on my face that subsequently needed removing in hospital. She was a little concerned about leaving me, to say the least. As I said at the end of my last blog post, my plan for the week was to get myself into a meditation retreat in Kandy for a few days, and take it from there.

Linds left before 6am to get to her flight, so seeing as my plan was to get all the way to Kandy in one day – a journey which we had previously taken 2 days over – I got my stuff together, said my goodbyes to Thositha (very nice hotel chap and there’s a picture of him coming up) and we (Wiggins, Sir Bob and I) set off.

Photo: Thosita
Thosita. Sound bloke.

It’s amazing the difference a few weeks’ regular riding makes to the fitness! I got to our previous overnight stop by 9am, and pressed on towards the hellish 400m Kadaganawa climb. Turns out it’s not actually that bad – still a bit of an ordeal, but climbing it without experiencing second-hand the exhaustion and pain that my dear wife was going through the first time made it a lot easier. About 2/3 of the way up I came across an Aussie on a modified Cannondale mountain-bike-turned-tourer, who was busy haggling for a couple of avocados. He looked as sweaty as me, which was very pleasing until he mentioned that he’s just been hosed down by a car-washing guy at the side of the road. We agreed to meet at the top and have a chat, on the basis that we both wanted to finish the climb before stopping, and there was no point me waiting for him to complete his avocado negotiations as he would surely catch up before the top anyway. Which he did. Turned out his name was Adrian, and he had been touring Sri Lanka for nearly 3 months – the first leg of a potentially 18 month long journey including Indonesia, Taiwan, China, Thailand, Malaysia and other assorted highly visitable countries.

He was going to Kandy too, so we rode the last 15 miles together, and ended up staying at the same guesthouse (‘Room together? No thanks, we’ve only just met!’. Slightly awkward.) That evening we went out into Kandy to find food, and discovered the town centre in utter chaos – enquiries with one of the thousands of police present revealed that qualifying was about to start for a series of motorbike and car road-races! I have a bit of a soft spot for fast cars (though I don’t own a car any more) and it turns out that Adrian is an ex-motorbike nut with several large Ducatis, BMWs and some lovely classic bikes in his past, so we decide to stick around for a couple of nights to spectate, seeing as it was free. Promisingly, an hour after the announced start time, the first group – a dozen 125cc standard motorbike racers – are released for practice, and half of them immediately fall off at low speed on the first corner. Crikey. Valentino Rossi they are not. It’s getting late, and we’re both tired from the ride, so we agree to reconvene the next night and watch the racing itself. You will notice that this does not exactly constitute the meditation which was my alleged reason for being in Kandy. Hmm.

Kandy the next day is a death trap. A lot of the racers and would-be racers appear to be practicing on the race course, despite the fact that it is public road, and still in use as such. The police are out in huge force again, and seem to be divided on the matter; some are enjoying the spectacle greatly, and the rest are totally disinterested.

I did make some effort at achieving enlightenment in Kandy, but they were probably a bit lacking. I had been in touch with Upul from the Nilambe Meditation Centre (recommended by Lonely Planet and others), and been advised that the centre was fully booked up due to an event commemorating the death of the centre’s founder. He recommended that I try the Llewellyn Centre, an affiliate located in a suburb of Kandy. So before race night on Saturday I cycled over there, only to find that an event for the same commemorative purpose was underway, and the Priest was not available to speak to me. The extraordinary quiet of the place despite the many people present immediately put the willies up me and even as they were telling me to call back later I already knew I wasn’t going to. I had done a bit of reading about the schedule at this place after the qualifying session the night before, and was already a bit perturbed a by a couple of things; no speaking apart from during a 30 minute break in the afternoon, and the fact that as far as I could discern there was to be but one – ONE – meal a day! Can you imagine? I also had some doubts about whether I wanted to spend the week without Linds doing this, or whether I would rather take the opportunity to get some serious miles in. So I hate to admit it, but I turned and fled. Maybe we’ll try again in India when I have a bit of moral support from the Missus. Then again, anyone who’s met her will now that she is not particularly one for staying quiet. Ever.

That decided, I headed back to the guesthouse and met up with Adrian. We went for a dosa masala (my first; blummin lovely. Good job because apparently they are a staple in South India) and then decided to have a couple of beers before the racing started. Being good travellers-not-tourists, economy-minded folk, we shunned the tourist bars and headed down to the local version. These pubs offer instant social-life if you are Western, but the guys (invariably no women) you meet are not always those you particularly want to socialise with – drunk, and apparently often pretty unhappy with it. I don’t think most happy, well-adjusted Sri Lankans spend much time in pubs. Conversation that night included, not for the first time, a man who was despairing that although Sri Lankan people were very lovely, they often made terrible mistakes. If there is such thing as a national psyche, the Sri Lankan one seems to hold a few pretty deep insecurities. On the plus side, the beer was cheap and strong, and the Arrack cheaper and stronger. Suitably impressed by 2 beers each, we headed out to watch the racing.

The racing ran from 9.00pm and was a series of short races, most of which were 3 laps long, with each lap lasting no more than a couple of minutes depending on exactly how terrifying the race in question was. There were allegedly meant to be 14 races of various categories of both standard and modified cars and bikes, so if everything had gone smoothly you would expect things to be finished in roughly 2 1/2 hours, right? We left at 2.30am, with at least 3 races yet to start. We saw all manner of vehicle harried round the course by incredibly enthusiastic but often truly worryingly incompetent drivers and riders – the only thing missing (and it was a damn shame) was the ubiquitous tuk-tuk. The car present in greatest numbers was the awesome old Austin Mini – most of the other cars couldn’t hold a candle to them. The most popular vehicles with the crowd were the Super Moto bikes, anything else that did a wheely, the ambulance – which got called out with sickening frequency, including to tend to a man who had apparently decided to cross the road in the middle of the field during a 250cc motorbike warm-up lap – but by far the biggest cheer of the night went to a very confused ginger mongrel who was lapping the wrong way, much to the amusement of the course marshals – who didn’t seem to see a problem having a dog running around in the middle of a motorbike race. Egads.

Photo: Kandy Night Racing
Super Moto rider pulls wheely; Monks love it.

By Monday morning I had formulated a plan for the rest of the week, and so I exchanged email addresses with Adrian, paid for my room, and set off towards Adam’s Peak, the 4th highest mountain in Sri Lanka, and a Buddhist pilgrimage site. Reputedly the place where Adam first set foot on Earth from Heaven, though no-one produced any good evidence to back this up while I was there. It was 89km from Kandy, and sadly not many of those km were down. Most of the roads were minor and therefore quite rough, but at least most of the climbing was steady rather than Kadaganawa-esque steep, so by sticking it in the (very!) low gears I could just dig in for the long haul and grind out the 1255m of ascent. I arrived at about 3pm, and after a wander around the small town of Dalhousie (pronounced ‘Dal-house’, bizarrely) I stretched my tight quads, had some dinner and got an early night, ready for the 3am start up the mountain. The important bit to pick out there is that I was planning on climbing the 5300 steps to the Summit of Sri Lanka’s 4th highest mountain, and my legs were already tight. I should have paid more heed to that myself, but decided that walking was, after all, a sport for fat old men with grey beards, so should be very easy indeed for me – my beard is only very slightly grey.

The way up wasn’t too bad. The whole way was lit with lanterns, which isn’t quite as magical as I thought it was going to be because they are electric neon tube ‘lanterns’, and as I had hit snooze a couple of times too many I hardly saw anyone for the first half of the trip. I did overtake a young Russian couple (“are you French”? “No, we are from Rrrrussia” quizzical expressions) about a ¼ of the way up though, who were very friendly, and he was hilariously out of breath wearing fabulous faux snakeskin pointy shoes, which made me feel a little under-dressed in my Merrells. Never saw them at the top, thinking about it. I did have one significant problem to overcome on the climb up – I was absolutely unable to pass by a single toilet without dashing in with considerable relief. Presumably either the unfiltered water I had uncharacteristically drunk the day before, or something I head eaten.

I was pretty sure that I was going to be too late to be at the summit for sunrise which was kind of the point of the whole getting up early thing, so I pressed on as hard as I could, and gradually started passing more and more people – mainly Sri Lankan pilgrims, but also a smattering of fellow tourists – in an effort to get to the Sri Pada Temple by 6.30am. This became seriously difficult, and by about 1900m I was having to stop every 15-20 steps to rest. I met a French couple (actually French this time, not masquerading Russians), and he casually dropped into conversation that he had ‘done it from ze uzzer side last time – you know, Ratnapura, Eet ees a seven hour climb from there’. I told him he was mad. His wife quite agreed, and fell about laughing, presumably already weakened by the climb. At this point the light was beginning to show over the horizon, rather beautifully it must be said, and Mssr. Sproingylegs assured me that we were very near the top. Thankfully he was right, and I stood with a large crowd of other sore legged folk to watch the sun rise over the mountains. Many had climbed early in the night and stayed on top in the cold – really, it was cold at this altitude – for some reason that I couldn’t quite fathom. All of us though, had done the climb, and no-one spoke as we watched the sky turn from purple to orange and listened to the pipe and drums being played in the temple, the first trills of bird song and the incessant shutter click of digital SLRs. There was something approaching a cheer when the sun finally peeped over the horizon at us, and then the few amongst us who had read The Lonely Planet walked round to the other side of Sri Pada so that we could watch the triangular shadow of the mountain we were on creep back across the landscape towards us. At this point I also saw the guys doing the pipe playing and drumming, and was mightily impressed to see the drummer leaping around in a fancy traditional outfit at the same time as holding down a good rhythm which was surprisingly funky for the time of day and the circumstances. But then we have found many Buddhist temples across Asia house excellent rhythm sections with seriously bassy equipment. Good effort, Buddhists.

Photo: Just before sunrise
Just before sunrise near the top of Adam's Peak

Having taken several thousand photographs in all directions to record the event, I put my cold feet back into my shoes, and head for the stairs down. First step. Doesn’t feel good. Second step.No, that’s not a good feeling at all. Third step. Oh crap. This is going to be really tough.

It was. I got back to the guesthouse, but it was a close-run thing. Fortunately my stomach had calmed so I didn’t need to stop at the first two of the four toilets on the path. By the time I got to the third toilets I did need to stop but knew that if I squatted (no western toilets here!) there was an extremely high chance that I wouldn’t be able to stand up again, without the assistance of some heavy lifting equipment, so took the painful decision not to. I met a lovely couple from London, who were quite sympathetic, and also a couple of teenage lads from Dambulla who were keen to practice their English, similarly keen to be friends on Facebook, also keen that I should go to Dambulla with them. Sadly they were less keen to carry me down the mountain in exchange for any of the above. Seriously, I have never felt so physically spent – at every step I had to grit my teeth and concentrate on preventing my knees from buckling. I felt like the legs trying to support my admittedly hefty body were not my own but those of a nine-year old girl – one who had just totally over-done it in the gym. I got back to the hotel at 9am, and the friendly young Manager ‘Crackhead’ (presumably spelled differently, but that’s how it was pronounced) laughed delightedly at me and then promised to bring some breakfast down to my room if I couldn’t get back up the stairs after showering.

I spent the rest of the day stretching, trying to contact Linds to wish her good luck in her job interview, sleeping, stretching, eating, stretching, trying to contact Linds to find out what had happened in the job interview, stretching, and sleeping. I didn’t want to stay in Dalhousie due to the problems I was having communicating with the outside world, and because I wanted to get to the coast and have a surfing lesson before heading back up to Negombo to meet Linds. So I resolved to try and at least make it 30km down the road to Hatton the next morning. I went to bed still struggling to walk.

So at the beginning of my 5th day without Linds I had climbed from sea level to 2,166m entirely under my own steam (Yesssss! Result!) and temporarily pretty much lost the use of my legs in the process. (Booo.) I’ll post up the following 5 days’ achievements pretty soon!

Route Maps – MapMyRide

Negombo to Kandy
Kandy to Dalhousie
Adam’s Peak – Hike