What the hell went on in Sri Lanka?

31 03 2013

About two months back, a friend and I spent a couple of weeks exploring Sri Lanka onboard a pair of ageing dirtbikes.

We did a rough clockwise loop from the west coast (Negombo) to Sigiriya in the mid-north, then down through the Hill Country for a few waves on the south coast, covering around 1200km in ten days.

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The Honda Baja 250s were noisy, heavy brutes of things without a single working instrument, but they did the job, proving more or less reliable even when dodging flash-floods and landslides. And dogs. And buses. And tortoises.

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Sri Lanka itself was brilliant. Highly recommended. Friendly, helpful, honest, open people. Delicious, varied, healthy food. Cheap day-to-day costs and accommodation. And a huge variety of landscapes to explore, from steamy surf beaches to mist-shrouded hill-towns to jungles and alpine plains.

I could give you a chronological rundown of our trip but I won’t. So here’s a bunch of random thoughts….

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The Bikes.           My new favourite way to travel. At least in developing nations where I am not required to produce a valid motorcycle licence.

Rhys had an Australian licence, but this won’t save you when 15 tonnes of bus comes careening at you around a blind corner. A quick burst of heel and toe action would often squirt you out of trouble, but every time we did NOT meet a bus on a blind corner was the equivalent of gaining an extra life in a video game. Albeit one that felt all too real.

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Interesting to learn Google Maps does not always know when roads are covered by flooded rivers. We went another way…

The Bajas were four-stroke single-cylinder monsters that came in at around 120kg. A lot of bike. We managed to drop them several times, generally while trying to manoeuvre the cursed things at slow-speed. Each dropped bike meant an hour or two hanging out with a mechanic as the clutch levers inevitably took the brunt of the fall.

They also attracted a lot of attention. The Baja’s distinctive spluttering, farting exhaust noise meant pedestrians heard us coming a long way off. For a day or so, I felt like a bit of celeb, as every male within hearing distance would stop to watch us go past. I soon realised they were not looking at me, but rather the bike – an impossibly exotic, expensive machine to the average Sri Lankan. The bikes were hired from the very helpful Suranga Perera at Sha Lanka:  http://www.negombo-motorcycle-tours.com – highly recommended.

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Equipment for three weeks in the tropics

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Foodstuffs.         After overcoming what might have been caffeine withdrawal on days one and two, we settled into a routine of deliciousness. Single-origin espressos were replaced with several hundred cups of tea and every meal offered some sort of new curried treat. In most cases we skipped the meats and stuck to vege offerings.

Breakfasts normally took place at roadside ‘Hotels’ – small cafes for workers where we would score some sort of baked flatbread, some lentil dahl, a handful of samosas and tea for around $2 each.

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Lunch and dinner inevitably involved curry and rice, or rice and curry, depending on who served us. At buffets we would go heavy on the vege curry with a side of rice. If the staff were dishing it out, we would get a giant plate of rice, with some curry garnish. I can’t remember one bad meal. The food was that good and often, it was outstanding.

Highlights included Tikiri Villa at Mahinganaya where the incredible staff rustled up an outrageous array of fresh curries from their garden – complete with home-grown rice –  for just Rhys and I to enjoy in an enormous deserted dining room. After riding through the rain for six hours, it was well-received.

At Waterfalls Homestay in Ella, Aussie hosts Karen and Martin create nightly curry feasts for guests and patiently explained each dish, showing us all the weird and exotic ingredients they sourced locally.

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Our preferred beachside lunch spot. Wicked.

As someone who now picks travel destinations based on the cuisine he can expect, it’s hard for me to really get across how terrific, fresh and tasty Sri Lankan food was.

Buffalo curd (similar to yoghurt) featured in many memorable breakfasts around the Hill Country and south coast and we also grew fond of what were dubbed ‘beer snacks’ – crunchy chickpeas or fried peanuts mixed with chili and curry leaves and sold everywhere on the side of the road.

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People.               As with any venture, there were a few individuals who really made our trip. Overall, I found the Sri Lankans more open and trusting than say, people in Indo or Thailand, but I suspect that has to do with exposure to tourism.

Suranga, who we hired the bikes from in Negombo was damn helpful. On the first night, we pored over a map and outlined where we wanted to go, while he annotated the highways with places to avoid and advised which routes to take. When the inevitable breakdowns occurred, we got him on the phone to talk various mechanics through the eccentricities of the Hondas.

Beers with Rohan and 'The Night Rider'.

Beers with Rohan and ‘The Night Rider’.

In Mahinganaya, we arrived soaked and grumpy after slogging through six hours of rain and what may have been a flash-flood. Cue hot tea, a spare room to spread out our wet clothes and a fantastic curry dinner. The next day, Rohan – the manager – accompanied us to the mechanic where he translated while we sorted my troublesome bike electrics and then recommended his fave breakfast spot before disappearing off into the rainy mist again. Champ.

Ella, the Hill Country – In need of a sundown beer (again) we waved off the various backpacker cafes in favour of the ‘Local’s Bar’. A dim, seedy den of iniquity. Hopefully. Instead we find ourselves chatting to Rohan, a local who spent two years in Australia in the 1980s on a theatre scholarship. He invited us for lunch at his home the next day, introduced us to his family and explained how he walked a 7km round-trip to work each day so his daughters could learn English at a private school. Wow.

More soon….

Dan did a similar trip on an automatic scooter with limited suspension. Ill-advised? Yes. hardcore? Definitely.

Dan did a similar trip on an automatic scooter with limited suspension. Ill-advised? Yes. hardcore? Definitely.

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Sri Lankan photo gallery. Part Two.

28 03 2013

More shots from Sri Lanka.

Dressed in our protective motorcycling jeans, cotton shirts and canvas trainers. Ready to roll, in other words.

Dressed in our protective motorcycling jeans, cotton shirts and canvas trainers. Ready to roll, in other words.

World's End. Weird, tussocky vegetation that looked like it should belong in an alpine meadow.

World’s End. Weird, tussocky vegetation that looked like it should belong in an alpine meadow.

Checkin out some vistas after roaring through the open plains of World's End NP.

Checkin out some vistas after roaring through the open plains of World’s End NP.

Stuck an iPhone to the bikes we did. Made some videos and all...Stay tuned.

Stuck an iPhone to the bikes we did. Made some videos and all…Stay tuned.

I am not sure what is going on here. I suspect we were lost. Again.

I am not sure what is going on here. I suspect we were lost. Again.

Gettin muddy and misty.

Gettin muddy and misty.

Tuk-tuk hauling ass.

Tuk-tuk hauling ass.

Another epic breakfast for about $3.

Another epic breakfast for about $3.

Hillside tea plantation. Nuwara Eliya.

Hillside tea plantation. Nuwara Eliya.

Crossing the tracks to reach your accommodation is preferable to crossing the A2 highway.

Crossing the tracks to reach your accommodation is preferable to crossing the A2 highway.

The ever-smiling kid from our Midigama pad. We were quite fond of him.

The ever-smiling kid from our Midigama pad. We were quite fond of him.

Train trip to Galle.

Train trip to Galle.

Through the Wangu Ten - multiple hairpins. Lots of fun but you didn't want to go too fast.

Through the Wangu Ten – multiple hairpins. Lots of fun but you didn’t want to go too fast.

Old Town, Galle.

Old Town, Galle.





Sri Lankan photo gallery. Part one.

28 03 2013

Shots from a recent motorbike trip to Sri Lanka.

All taken by myself, mostly on the Canon S100.

Street art, Galle.

Street art, Galle.

Downtown at Galle. A fantastically interesting colonial city.

Downtown at Galle. A fantastically interesting colonial city.

The only time our bikes did not attract attention was when they were switched off.

The only time our bikes did not attract attention was when they were switched off.

Roti man in the sunlight at  Negombo.

Roti man in the sunlight at Negombo.

Reclining Buddha near Sigiriya. I really dug the brick effect.

Reclining Buddha near Sigiriya. I really dug the brick effect.

Waiting out yet another downpour. Man, we got wet that day.

Waiting out yet another downpour. Man, we got wet that day.

The Hill Country resembled WA or Tassie at times. Eucalypts everywhere (fast-growing hardwoods).

The Hill Country resembled WA or Tassie at times. Eucalypts everywhere (fast-growing hardwoods).

Tuk-tuks, falling-down Portuguese architecture, quiet streets. Loved Galle.

Tuk-tuks, falling-down Portuguese architecture, quiet streets. Loved Galle.

Buying sodas somewhere along the way.

Buying sodas somewhere along the way.

First day on the roads. Bike broke down for the first time shortly after.

First day on the roads. Bike broke down for the first time shortly after.

Misty shack, Nuwara Eliya.

Misty shack, Nuwara Eliya.

Heading up to Little Adam's Peak after Rhys fooled me into thinking it was time to get up.

Heading up to Little Adam’s Peak after Rhys fooled me into thinking it was time to get up.

Old bloke, Kithulgala.

Old bloke, Kithulgala.

Unprocessed calamari rings. Negombo.

Unprocessed calamari rings. Negombo.

Bike workshop. One of many we visited.

Bike workshop. One of many we visited.

Stacker tries his luck on two wheels in Negombo.

Stacker tries his luck on two wheels in Negombo.

Watching the tourists inch up Sigiriya from our empty rock across the way.

Watching the tourists inch up Sigiriya from our empty rock across the way.

Icky bug.

Icky bug.

Sweet spot for a rest under a tree, eh?

Sweet spot for a rest under a tree, eh?

Another breakfast feast at Midigama. That's just for TWO people...

Another breakfast feast at Midigama. That’s just for TWO people…