When Helen phoned me at work to excitedly tell me that she had been the lucky winner of a trip to Sri Lanka for two, my rather dreary office day became a time of uncharacteristic skipping around colleagues’ desks coupled with elated yelps of “I’m going to Sri Lanka…woohoo!” In reality I had never really thought of the island of Sri Lanka as a likely future travel destination, my mind is often filled with dreams of far off places and yet I was now faced with a trip of a lifetime to a land relatively unknown to me. I knew embarrassing little about the country, I was aware of it’s colonial past and internationally significant tea industry, but that was the extent of my knowledge. However, I was to leave the island after this two week trip with memories, stories, experiences and tales that would remain in my imagination and thoughts for a lifetime. Alain de Botton in The Art of Travel exclaims, “Journeys are the midwives of thought”, this was certainly the case with my journey to Sri Lanka. I look back on those few days with fondness, remembering the sights and sounds of a truly enchanting land.
It wasn’t until we neared the day departure that I found out what our basic itinerary was, I loved this element of the unknown and was happy to experience whatever our tour guide had planned (or not planned) for us as the trip unfolded. It was in the previous month or so I learnt that we would be accompanied by three top British surfers, a photographer and a freelance journalist writing for The Times. I knew that with this selection of people this would be a very different kind of holiday. This small group encompassed so many of the personal past times and ambitions of Helen and myself. It was almost surreal how tailor made to our interests this trip was to become.
Although the main intention of the rest of the group was to promote Sri Lanka as a top surfing destination, it proved to be a far more diverse and multi layered experience for myself and the entire group. It is perhaps often the way when focus too much on achieving one sole task that outside factors cause us to fall short and we are forced to discover unexpected pleasures and experiences.
There are many aspects of Sri Lanka that stick in my mind, but it is perhaps our experiences on its roads that continue to make me wryly smile and chuckle. I partly remember how surprised I was that a relatively relaxed and laid back population suddenly transformed itself into aspiring formula one racing drivers regardless of whether they were behind the wheel of an overcrowded bus, a brightly decorated ‘tuk tuk’ or a fifty year old land-mower engine powered cart. Our tour organiser, Suranjan perhaps best summed it up with his frequent frantic yelps from the front passenger seat of “Oh dear! Oh dear!” This was perhaps the biggest understatement as we were careering at speed towards an unsuspecting old man or hurtling towards the backs of buses. We would stop inches from pedestrians who nonchalantly continued to walk without flinching or accepting the reality that they had almost ended up forcibly entering our bus through the windscreen. I do not wish to criticise our drivers, in fact they were often superbly skilled and committed, it was merely the accepted Sri Lankan method and style of driving they were naturally following which concerned me. The often adrenaline pumping obsession with overtaking everything provided some of my most hair raising journeys to date.
It was perhaps while we were driving up through the Hill country around Horton Plains by bus that some of us genuinely felt we would really only make it down safely on foot. Looking back this was perhaps a little extreme but the decision to walk down led to one of the most beautiful and breathtaking treks of the trip. For some reason walking 15km on rough terrain mainly in the dark proved more preferable to sitting on the bus convinced we could glide off the cliff edge at any given moment. The landscape on that walk was stunning; the sun set over the lush green tea plantations and the mist fell upon the distant hills across the valley. Although convinced at times a snake might have leapt out of the darkness in front of me, we all made it to the bottom, exhausted, but relieved to see that our bus had also made a successful descent of the 2000m high hills.
I found observing life on Sri Lanka roads from the window of the bus fascinating. Few road rules seem to exist and remarkable split second timing or incredible luck seemed to prevent numerous collisions. From my window I watched bullock carts, rickety bikes, trucks piled high with coconut husks and working elephants wrestle for space on the pot holed dusty roads with over-crowded public buses, noisy tuk tuks and groups of people. To me, this continuous pseudo rally driving, frantic horn blowing experience provided some of the most amusing memories of Sri Lanka.
The warmth and openness of the people of Sri Lanka was present from the beginning. At every stop the local people went out of their way to make our experience as comfortable and enjoyable as possible. Our various drivers were heroic figures to us, forever determined to get us to our desired location despite mudslides and seemingly impassable craters in the road. As we passed through villages, people seem to gather without obvious purpose outside houses, as if waiting for something important to happen on their doorstep. This was especially true in our attempts to take a bus to Pottuvil Point from Aragum Bay, it seemed the whole village rushed to our aid with suggestions and conflicting practical solutions for getting the bus over a deep gorge in the road. Eventually it was the remarkably versatile three wheel drive abilities of the tuk tuks that transported us to the idyllic beach location at sunset.
I was humbled by the way people survived amidst great poverty and adversity in many of the areas we passed through. Families previously destroyed by the past violence of civil war, houses washed down the hills by the extensive recent flooding and livelihoods forever under threat from the on going elephant – human conflict. Yet through this I found the local people to be friendly, helpful and excited that foreigners had chosen to visit their region. I especially found myself a ‘soft touch’ with the hoards of local children selling small packets of dried peanuts and pulses wrapped in tiny newspaper cones. Whether it was appropriate or not to give them money, it mattered little to me when a few rupees brought such wide grins.
Every day we were in contact with different aspects of the incredible variety of animal and bird life which populate the island. From the chorus of birds at dawn and dusk to the screaming hyena deep in the jungle to Sea Turtle Conservation Project south of the Bentota resort we enjoyed all that it had to offer. Above all it was perhaps the interaction and observation of the elephants which gave us our most cherished memories of Sri Lanka’s wildlife. The visit to the Elephant Transit home for orphaned elephants opened our eyes to the plight of these awesome creatures. The dedication of those volunteers ensuring the elephant population on the island continues to thrive was admirable.
The 4WD safari through Uda Walawe National Park was an awesome experience, moving into the heart of elephant country in two rather ancient land rovers provided us with some of the most exhilarating hours of the trip. With the backdrop of mountains and the fabled Adam’s Peak (2224m) shrouded in mist, it is hard to explain what a privilege it was to come within metres of these remarkable creatures. As we all tightly hung on to the back of the trucks we were given perfect opportunities to take some dream photos, a baby elephant crosses within 10 metres of the jeep and we remain quiet in order to avoid aggravating it or the on looking protective family. All around us bird life filled the skies; pelicans, green bee-eaters, kites, kingfishers and numerous endemic species. At dusk purple-faced monkeys performed acrobatics above us in the trees, turtles basked in the sunshine by the lagoons and clusters of butterflies decorated the roadside.
With all this around us it was therefore a real treat to have our own campsite and dining area set up for us in the heart of the national park. Although at night we lay in our tents fully aware that we only had a thin layer of canvas between us and the resident animals, we slept to the symphony of sounds generated by the numerous creatures in this remarkably untouched wilderness. We had perhaps only covered a fifth of this park, but between us we had accumulated an impressive wealth of pictures, scribbled notes and memories. On our way out of the park we were even treated to the unusual close encounter with two young elephant males, trunk to trunk, posing as if models for our cameras. We just stood in the silenced jeep, watching in awe their show of affection and strength.
When it came to Sri Lankan cuisine we were presented with some very ‘special’ dishes. It is perhaps the garlic curry at Tree Tops Jungle Farm which I remember the most. During the day we had watched our young hosts peeling clove after clove of garlic, adding them to a formidable pile at the edge of the mud and dung built kitchen area. In the evening to our slight concern this formed the main part of our dinner, whole garlic cloves in a curry sauce. If there was any doubt in our minds of wandering vampires I am sure our breath that night would have killed the whole island’s population. I won’t even begin to describe the odours it generated in our cosy airless tent for two!
It was fish curry above all other dishes that greeted us at most meal stops. Our staple diet became this spicy dish presented with coconut ‘pol sambol’, dahl, curried jak fruit and ‘crispy bits’. However this trip gave us the opportunity to eat in some very diverse places, from the vast buffets of grand hotels such as Mount Lavinia in Colombo to the roadside cuisine of a local spice garden. I found one of the best aspects of this trip was that we were part of a new type of experience, we were involved in a fact-finding, research based, information building trip. It was spontaneous and often random; it was a continually surprising experience rather than a strictly timetabled and rigid itinerary that so many tour companies chose to promote. It was unplanned occasions such as stopping for a sandwich at a rather basic roadside café and being subjected to an amusingly appalling radio rendition of ‘I’ve got a hole in my bucket’ which really tickled us. From the exquisite Danish ice creams at the Stardust Hotel to the fresh barbecue prawns at Weligama to the un-pasturised buffalo curd with kitul treacle for desserts, this trip allowed us to enjoy a varied, unique and often unpredictable selection of local foods.
The accommodation we were treated to could not have been more diverse. When we arrived in Colombo we were immediately driven south of the city and as dawn was breaking, we found ourselves hopping on a boat towards the tranquil island resort of Bentota. Helen and I had to pinch ourselves that we were actually there; it was unbelievable that we had actually won this trip. The view over the vast lagoon and across to the Indian Ocean was so beautiful. Each night our accommodation was idyllic and carefully chosen for its amenities, location, character or ability to provide an unforgettable experience. From the private bungalows and pool at Crystal Villas, Weligama to the phenomenal views over the city of Kandy from Hotel Topaz, we were treated to some of the most memorable locations. It is perhaps not every day you get to wash by a fresh water well in the heart of the jungle, or sleep in a tent guarded by armed night watchmen while fearing an elephant may decide to walk through your tent at a whim. Then a week later we enjoyed the luxuries offered to us at the grand marbled Mount Lavinia hotel and briefly sampled the decadent life enjoyed by those staying at the unique boutique style ‘Elephant Corridor’ concept in Sigriya.
Some of the beaches of Sri Lanka were those imagined only in dreams, the sea was like a warm bath and the coloured sunsets over the ocean were truly awesome. Watching fishermen mount their wooden stilts in the anticipation of catching a few fish that day or watching the boys surf the waves made this trip unforgettable. The continually changing landscape of this teardrop shaped island really surprised me, it’s diverse beauty made it incredibly photogenic. One of the most fantastic views was enjoyed after our late afternoon ascent of the spectacular rock fortress at Sigiriya. Although the climb was a little nerve wracking for a vertigo sufferer like myself, the panoramic views from the top were truly awesome. From the beaches to the bustling towns to the hill country to the ancient cities, Sri Lanka contained more for the senses than I had anticipated.
I honestly believe that this was a trip that money could not buy. The unpredictable nature of each day, the spontaneity of each event was always coupled with well-organised transportation and a careful selection of places to rest and eat. Suranjan provided us with a wealth of facts, figures and amusing anecdotes along the way and consequently, my knowledge of Sri Lanka increased daily. Although I definitely won’t miss the early wake up knocks on my door, I will miss his enthusiasm to embrace the day and share aspects of a land he obviously loves. Helen and I were always aware that this was partly intended to be a promotional trip and despite unforeseen circumstances that prevented us reaching certain planned destinations such as the Sinharaja Forest Reserve, I look back with very fond memories. I believe that there is an obvious future for this kind of unique, off the beaten track, ecologically minded tourism in Sri Lanka. I hope that I may enjoy it once again in the not too distant future.
A Journey to Sri Lanka by: Sally Emerry & Helen Hambley from Oxford