Cycling around Sri Lanka is not for the faint of heart. If necessity is the mother of invention, then uncertainty is surely the mother of adventure! Roads full of pot-holes, never-ending hair-pin bends and vertigo-inducing drop-offs. Mosquitoes, relentless heat and humidity, leg-sapping gradients and monsoonal downpours. Kamikaze tuk-tuk drivers dodging equally crazy bus drivers, diesel fumes and the odd landslide or two. These are just some of the challenges you may face when cycling around Sri Lanka.
Hopefully I have not scared you off already. Despite the physical challenges (and there are many … did I mention trying to go to the toilet in the middle of nowhere?), cycling around Sri Lanka is THE best way to experience the smorgasbord of cultural and ecological offerings this small but glorious country has to offer. No other form of transport (other than perhaps walking) will connect you and your senses to the wonder that is Sri Lanka and her people.
Let me introduce myself – I am the first-born child of Sri Lankan parents who left their home for Australia in the mid-1960s. Throughout my childhood I was fascinated, obsessed even, with Sri Lanka and visited for the first time in 1991, when I backpacked solo for several months. That was the first of many trips ‘home’. In 2013 my husband and I embarked on the first of our 4 (so far) cycling holidays around Sri Lanka. With limited knowledge of Sinhala, equipped only with an old Apple iPhone and unreliable 3G coverage to access equally unreliable Google maps for navigation, we pedalled our way through paddy fields, tea plantations, national parks and chaotic dusty towns.
Where possible, we deliberately avoided the heavily trafficked A-roads; the narrow and poorly maintained secondary roads were harder and took longer to reach our destinations, but it was worth every pedal stroke. On those quiet back roads, you can experience the real Sri Lanka: beautiful, peaceful, contemplative; colourful road-side ‘kades’ selling ‘thambili’, just when you need it; random opportunities to meet and converse with locals who are not part of the mass tourism industry; thatched huts and people still living the same way as generations before them.
True, things are changing, even in the villages, and sadly not always for the better. These days, more often than not, young people opt for western attire over traditional sarongs and saris. Smart phones and social media have connected them to the rest of the world. But compared to ‘Cosmopolitan Colombo’, life in the rest of the country seems to tick along at a much more relaxed pace. When things go wrong – and they do – total strangers will go out of their way to help you, even if that help unintendedly sends you in the wrong direction. Things may not go according to plan, but you will be pleasantly surprised regardless. And you will enjoy generosity and kindness that comes with no strings attached.
Many people worry they will not be fit enough to cycle around Sri Lanka. While it does require a base level of fitness, you will be amazed at how quickly you will gain that fitness as you go. The key is planning how far you can travel each day. In 2016, my husband and I cycled over 1,000km around the island in three weeks, to raise funds for St Anthony’s Children’s Home near Rambukkana. Depending on the terrain and accommodation options available, we typically covered distances between 40km up to 120km in a day, but most days were between 60km and 80km. While that may sound like a lot, you can cover quite a distance on a bicycle, particularly when you are having fun! And don’t forget, when things go wrong there is always a Plan B – did you know that you can fit an adult man, his mountain bike AND all of his luggage into the back of a tuk-tuk?
Our fundraising adventure started in Negombo and headed north to Kalpitya, popular for whale watching and kite-surfing. From there we turned inland to the ancient UNESCO World Heritage listed city of Anuradhapura, with its archaeological wonders, before heading north-east to the pristine beaches of Nilaveli and Kalkudah Bay. We then headed inland to Mahiyangana in the foothills of the ‘hill country’, famous for its beautiful ‘wewas’. At this point the terrain became quite challenging as we slowly climbed our way uphill to Ella, with its magical vistas and the famous Ravana Ella. From there we descended to Kaltota, via Haputale and Belihul Oya, where we stayed with my relatives on their small farm.
Google maps suggested a ‘short cut’ to avoid the busy town of Balangoda, which took us through a remote and uninhabited jungle to the east of the Samanala Wewa Reservoir. Uninhabited by humans that is – we later learned that the area is full of wild elephants! In hindsight it would have been wiser to consult locals rather than rely solely on Google maps. After a few days’ rest, we continued on to the beautiful beaches of Mirissa before making our way along the coastline, stopping in the beach resort town of Unawatuna, to visit friends, before continuing on to Galle, and then Bentota. The final leg of the journey took us back to the children’s home near Rambukkana where we were given a warm welcome.
During my many visits to Sri Lanka over the years I have seen and experienced so many amazing places and things, too many to list here. Yet each time I visit I still manage to find new, and often unexpected, things to do and see. While the last two years of the Covid pandemic has prevented me from continuing cycling love affair with Sri Lanka, I will definitely be back for more one day.