Sri Lanka: Beyond the beaches
Aoife Carrigy freewheels her way around the Indian Ocean island's wild interior
We debrief before heading into the jungle. "Stay close," our guide Sagara instructs us gravely. "And if you see an elephant, drop your bike and jump in the van."
Myself and the two English women that make up our small cycling tour are grinning like fools at the prospect, but Sagara is dead serious. He knows the damage that can be done by 5,500kg of skin, bone and tusk: after all, 200 Sri Lankans are killed annually by elephants roaming age-old 'elephant corridors' in close-knit families of a dozen-plus.
It's the first time I've really considered meeting an elephant on a bicycle. My main concern on arrival in Colombo a few days earlier was to decode the enigmatic logic that keeps everybody alive on the anarchic roads. It's a cliche, I know - the kamikaze tuk-tuks, claptrap cars, demonic buses and cold-blooded trucks that you meet in every developing country. But this cast of caricatures take on a new menace when you picture yourself in the midst of them, on a mountain bike with nary a mud guard for protection.
Thankfully, the only clamour we encounter on the dirt roads that our week-long bike tour favours is the rush of several classes of uniformed children screaming 'hellooo!' from the windows of their rural primary school, or the shoals of motorbikes with boxes of fish strapped on the back when we wheel our bikes through the street-side fish market of a coastal village.
And the only elephants we see are from the safety of four-wheeled vehicles, including the transfer vehicle that navigates the busier stretches of our route. That evening at dusk, the eagle-eyed Sagara spots one family chewing up the habitat at the side of the road (elephants eat a whopping 200kg of vegetation in one average day) and another pair taking a romantic moment down by one of the hundreds of ancient man-made lakes or 'irrigation tanks' that give life to this dry interior.
We see them down at Minneriya National Park too, which, during the dry season of early autumn, is the setting for 'The Gathering', a pachyderm pool party of impressive proportions. Hundreds of elephants gather here to graze, rehydrate, sling mud on each other's backs and laugh at the four-wheel drive jeeps that cluster around to watch. (Okay, they only look like they're laughing, but it's a convincing look.)
What we do see from our saddles are many smaller miracles. I'm not prepared for quite how glorious peacocks appear in their natural habitat, nor for the chill of eyeing up a pack of golden jackals, even at a safe distance. I fall in love with the island's national bird, the ember-red and iridescent-blue junglefowl which we regularly send scuttling into the scrub - and with that paddle-field partnership of white buffaloes and long-legged egrets perched backside.
The sky is often lined with bleached remains of flying foxes strung between electricity lines, and the river beds with mugger crocodiles looking cool in the mud. The trees teem with red-faced macaques and lithe-tailed grey langurs, especially as we approach the busier tourist sites which these cheeky monkeys scope out for a free dinner. Sri Lanka is well set up for tourists. I could easily have opted to be driven around to the main sights - clock the Buddha's Tooth in the mountain-top city of Kandy, chase the promise of leopards in Yala National Park - and then hit the beach. But if you're feeling intrepid, it's worth seeking the less travelled path.
Our 'Sri Lanka Heritage by Bicycle' tour with SpiceRoads (spiceroads.com) takes me to five of the country's eight UNESCO World Heritage sites, but it's the quiet moments that will stay with me longest. The freedom of shooting ahead of the posse down a dirt track or along the raised bank of a colossal tank. The reward of sweet hot tea and coconut roti with a savoury, chilli-spiced lunu miris sambol from a rural 'short eat' shack.
Which is not to say that the sights are forgettable. Dating back to 300BC with a fifth-century heyday, the hydraulic engineering of those ancient reservoirs gave life to some extraordinary kingdoms and colourful histories. There's the sprawling network of royal palaces and Buddhist shrines of crumbling Anuradhapura, a one-time trading partner of ancient Greece and Rome and still one of Sri Lanka's most revered Buddhist pilgrimages thanks to the Bodhi tree that Buddha reputedly brought here.
There's the magnificent collection of Sinhalese art and architecture set amongst the 12th-century ruins of Polonnaruwa's parks, palaces and monasteries. And there's the fifth-century rock fortress palace of Sigiriya Rock where, for a happy decade or so, the patricidal Kassapa frolicked in elaborate water gardens with his 500 concubines - until his brother (by another mother, and rightful heir to the throne) arrived to avenge their father's death. All that remains of Kassapa's pool party days are the murals of topless concubines etched on to the 200m-high rock walls.
I do hit the beach eventually. But I take the long route, meandering by train up into tea country around the alpine 'Little England' town of Nuwara Eliya and climbing to the cloud forest of Horton's Plains to peek over the 2km drop at World's End. Then I jump a bus from the walkers' paradise of Ella to the empty strands of Tangalla for a little kick-back time.
I figure I've earned it.
What to pack
Bring a plug-in mosquito repellent but don't worry about a plug adaptor (most are square-pinned). Travelogue-lovers shouldn't miss John Gimlette's vivid account of the charms and tribulations of this intriguing country, The Elephant Complex. Meanwhile, Michael Ondaatje's fictionalised memoir, Running in the Family, is a romp through the eccentricities of colonial Ceylon.
Where to stay
Within easy airport reach, Amuura Beach House is a stylish home-stay run by a German matriarch and daughters in Beruwala. Bookable on Airbnb, as are many Sri Lankan home-stays. See amuura.net.
Cinnamon Red is a slick mid-range downtown hotel in Colombo, complete with rooftop pool, express check-in and e-concierge (pictured above). See cinnamonhotels.com.
The Deer Park Hotel is a lakeside base convenient for exploring the Cultural Triangle, with a great buffet and pool. See deerparksrilanka.com.
Sri Lanka’s beaches are too good to miss altogether. Choose between the flop-and-fry resorts of Negombo or the wilds of Tangalla, with in-between options including Bentota and Beruwala (good for water sports and ayurvedic retreats) or Unawatuna (for diving, cookery classes, yoga, great restaurants and proximity to Galle).
Run by Geoffrey Peter Dobbs, a distant relative of the Allen clan of Ballymaloe, Galle’s annual Literary Festival was the inspiration for the Ballymaloe Litfest. Speakers last year included John Gimlette and our own Colm Tóibín, and highlights include literary lunches, workshops and screenings within the wonderful fort town of Galle. January 24–28, 2018, galleliteraryfestival.com.
The 20th-century Bawa brothers were colourful characters. Landscape gardener Bevis Bawa’s memoirs detail escapades with Vivien Leigh and ‘Larry’ Olivier, while Geoffrey Bawa remains the country’s most acclaimed architect. Consider staying at one of several Bawa-designed hotels, including Geoffrey’s own home at Lunuganga, which features a tour, as does Bevis’s idyllic Brief Garden.
Sri Lanka Airlines (srilankan.com) fly direct from Heathrow from €550.
If you’re planning a train journey (and you should), check out travel blog seat61.com for savvy advice. See srilanka.travel for official tourism information, including advice on hiring a private driver (an affordable option for the time-poor traveller).