Monthly Archives: January 2013

The road to Kataragama



After Uda Walawe park I headed East towards Lunughamvehera park and reservoir. I stopped for a while at a rest area along with several coachloads of Sri Lankan visitors. Many people took  drinking water from a tap at the base of a large concrete boiler. In the heat of the midday sun I reached the reservoir and enjoyed the cool Southern breeze.IMG_0502 IMG_0517


The reservoir itself is huge. Rather than taking the road South I found a potholed track providing a short cut towards the Sacred City of Kataragama. This track was in the process of being upgraded and rebuilt as a road. The heat was getting to me and I took every opportunity to stop and quench my thirst. The track was lined with solid low buildings giving it the look of a newly built street. I was welcomed into the shade of a front porch and once again offered food while increasingly surrounded by relatives, friends and neighbours.
I pushed on and had to cross a big water filled dip in the red stony track.
Further along I was treated to my first Sri Lankan cup of tea. A man was waving down traffic with a flag.  He was offering tea at a Buddhist temple to passing travellers. A woman poured the tea from a large steel teapot. The tea or ‘plain tea’ without milk was delicious and gratefully accepted a second cup.

Refreshed I breezed into Kataragama. A trip through town to the Hindu tole revealed stall upon stall of offerings (mostly fruit) beautifully presented for devotees to buy.
Kataragama is a wealthy city with a colonial air. It plays host to many religious visitors of different faiths. To the North of the city and on the way to the entrance to Yala park is a large statue of Buddha. I stopped to take a photograph and set off with the light fading fast to find the entrance to Yala park.


It’s a jungle sometimes..



The roads to Ratnapura were quite busy but the flatlands gave way to quite dramatic scenery with high hills lush with palms. The tropical vegetation is amazing. Particularly beautiful is the jasmine and from which people collect delicate scented white flowers for Buddhist shrines. The traffic thinned nicely and finally I felt like I was seeing Sri Lanka in all its natural glory for the first time. My chosen route was to take the roads which meandered through hill formations just South of the central mountain range. But quickly I found that I had to cope with some quite hard hill work. I even resorted to using the little ‘granny’ gear on my bike to help me up the hills. Despite my preparation my legs will not yet take me (and my load) up hills without making me feel bad. Heart racing and lungs gasping for air; I took regular stops when the work became too much. The heat, humidity and the pollution does not help matters. I certainly had misjudged the weather which is bloody hot verging on the unbearable. It is HOT.

I passed through some buzzing commercial centres and then the light started fading fast. A quick look at Lonely Planet revealed a ‘rest’ house in Ratnapura. It is a large white colonial style hotel on a hill with a commanding view of the town below. Two well groomed men in white jackets greeted me on the hotel steps. I told them I wanted a cheap room and was immediately told there was only one left. They phoned the boss. One chap said it was available and would show me the room. It looked adequate and it was okay to take my bike into the room. Finally the price was discussed and I thought it too high. So I turned it down and stared to put lights on my bike with a view to leaving. But the conversation with them continued at the same time and I told them I had a maximum budget of 2000 SL rupees (@£10). Another call was made and they said it would be fine. I could have the room at that price. Result!

The room itself turned out to be very poor. Wooden boards under a thin mattress. Missing light bulb and no hot water. The general fabric of the room was very poor with holes in the walls and windows that wouldn’t close properly. The only redeeming factor was that it had windows with good views on two sides. So. If you find yourself in Ratnapura avoid this place like the plague. It is dire. But at least got me off the street.
I hit the streets of Ratanapura after a cold shower and change of clothes. It was just after 9pm and nearly everything was closed. I snagged a lip burning chicken curry and rice which I took to the empty bus station and shared it with several dogs which then began to follow me through the darkly lit streets. Grabbing some mango fruit juice I retired for the night and actually slept ok.

One of the men in white jackets took my 2000 SLR note in the morning and said he would sort everything out. I would guess that the room had been let to me on a personal basis and the cash pocketed. They didn’t even ask for the room key back and which I later found in my own pocket.

The continuing journey along the A4 and the A8 went very well with constant waves and friendly words from lots of people everywhere. You are made to feel quite special with all the constant attention and every stop however brief attracts lots of people to chat or stare.

Unfortunately the sun and heat started to take its toll. Sweat pouring off me and gradually burning I had to regularly take shelter in the shade. The hills were taxing. One stop by a home became a family occasion. Even the baby was brought out to show me and I shared pictures of my own family.

I had motorcyclists and a young cyclist on his fixie running alongside chatting. I was offered water and food on many occasions but declined except for a nutty toffee given to me from a motorcyclist as he passed me.At every turn there are roadside sellers and shops sling just about everything. No shortage of local corner shops here! The towns are hectic and bustle with business of every kind and many of the shops are ramshackle affairs and rub shoulders with roadside food stalls.


To cool off I took a diversion from my planned route to find a large lake that forms part of the Uda Walawe national park. Along the road on the edge of the lake was an elephant enjoying the attention of lots of Sri Lankan people who themselves were enjoying a long weekend holiday that celebrated the full moon. I bought 5 cobs of cooked sweet corn for 100SLr (50p) ate two and gave the rest to a visiting family.

The road took me through the national park and as the light began to fade topped up water supply from a small river and spied a place to camp. I write this to the sound of chanting from a Buddhist shrine close by on the other side of the river and which blends in with the night sounds of birds and insects.


Beyond Colombo



I took a short walk to the beach over the railway tracks. The sunshine felt good and I took a stroll along the beach.  I had to shrug off a ‘beach boy’ tout. We had an interesting chat but it went unsaid that I knew his ‘game’.  I refused to share a drink at a nearby cafe and made it clear that I was not there to engage in any business.  Mount Lavinia hotel, the former residence of the British  governor, has a prominent position next to the sea. The surrounding district is quite pleasant and has a colonial atmosphere with matching architecture.

It is extraordinary that I had such good accommodation in Mount Lavinia at a reasonable price. I had to recover from the long flight and get used to the time difference but my focus was on preparing my bike and panniers for the journey ahead. The hostel owner; Priyani allowed me to store some things at the house and lighten the load on my bike. The  nearby Galle Road was always heavy with traffic and the air was horrible. I took a walk late that evening along the  busy main road and in the darkness managed to fall into a deep hole. Ouch. There is little in the way of pavements and where there are paving stones they are uneven and often missing. I was lucky not to really hurt myself.



The next day I headed South along the coast and then turned off the Galle Road  inland on the A8 towards Ratnapura. It was bloody hot and the fumes from the traffic were suffocating.





An excellent start. Sri Lankan airways took good care of my bike. I had removed the handlebar, rear mech and pedals. The frame was padded with pipe liners and the whole thing was popped into a CTC plastic bag. I was a little overweight on my luggage and paid an extra £20. Interestingly and on the advice on my brother I had taken my NewYork bike lock in my carry on bag. But the officials would not have it and called it a blunt heavy object. So I had to go back through to the check in and submit it as luggage. The Sri Lankan check in staff would not take it alone even in a stuff pack. But suggested I put it in my hand luggage and they would take that as baggage with no extra charge. That worked out fine although I did miss having a few items with me on the plane.

The flight was great. A little cramped in economy which was not helped by my largish neighbour who spilled over into my seat space. This made eating the in flight meals a little difficult as my arms were somewhat pinned to my sides. I guess this is one of the joys of flying cheaply.
Colombo airport was relatively small and a few hundred metre walk took me to the immigration desk. Everyone needs to fill in a small form to present with their passport. It asks for the address to stay. Since all my extra documents went with my checked luggage I had to rely on my accommodation confirmation email. At this point O2 decided I was out of data allowance. Oh dear… I simply wrote down the address as I could remember it although I got the house number wrong. But it was fine to get through passport control.
At baggage reclaim my bike had been placed by the conveyer belt before I got there so I think it had been specially carried there. Everything looked fine. Once I had got out of that area with my bags and changed some Sterling to Sri Lankan Rupees I set about reconstructing my bike. I drew a small audience and felt like I was doing some kind of product demonstration. I noted the rear cantilever brakes had taken a little pressure but were still intact. Everything was fine and my fear that the wheels and spokes might have taken a beating quickly evaporated. I bought and swopped in a new nano sim from Etisalat on my phone from a stand in the arrival lounge.
Traffic along the main road leading into Colombo was busy. I quickly got used to the slightly anarchic way everyone drives. Everyone is surprisingly careful but you do need to have your wits about you. Tuk tuks, lorries, buses and scooters all mingle well. Nothing moves too quickly which allows for careful judgement. This in turn allows people to engage in all kinds of manoeuvres which would be frowned upon back in the UK. In some respects I felt safer than in London traffic where everyone hurtles with abandon providing they are driving to the rules and often over the speed limit.
I went through to the centre of Colombo and the Main St. stopping only for a bottle of  7up and to speak to some motorcycle cops. The police were quite friendly and had stopped me out of curiosity. It was humid and rained a little. It felt like monsoon weather.
Once past the Galle Face Walk and where I got my first view of the Indian Ocean, I found the Galle Road heading South. It is a nasty busy commercial road with little to recommend it. As the light faded I walked my bike the last mile or two into the  coastal suburb of Mount Lavinia.



The home stay accommodation I had booked is basic but very good and quite private. I have a ground floor double room with en suite shower room. It is next to a large kitchen. All is for guests but aside from the delightful proprietor I did not see anyone else. Quiet and comfortable. A great way to end an exciting first day.

Finding my way



Trawling through a travellers bookshop in Long Acre, Covent Garden revealed very little in the way of detailed maps for my journey. The most interesting find was a series of plain and well created trekking maps for the Himalayas; quite expensive but exquisitely detailed. I opted for three general road maps of Sri Lanka, North India and Nepal which provided enough information to at least confirm where the hell I was in relation to the bigger picture. But finding more detailed maps suitable for cycle touring in India and Sri Lanka is nigh on impossible. Much of the truly detailed mapping was undertaken by officially sanctioned government surveys in the immediate post war (WW) period. These are available at specialised bookshops in the respective capitals.

My search of the web revealed a fair amount of useful maps. In particular the forums at run by Sri Lanka ecologists provides some excellent links. From there I found a current and well detailed road map of the Island. The administrators also provided me with detailed survey maps but I actually found them too large and unindexed for practical use.

In terms of kit I will be using my iPhone as a mapping/GPS unit. I checked out a number of GPS apps specifically aimed at travellers and sports people. Initially I trialled GPS Motion X app and which I found pretty good with an excellent interface and enough features to keep a herd of nerds happy. These apps synchronise with websites set up for people to map and share their activities. They are great for planning trips and provide all the possible information that you could want including timing, altitude and directional waypoints.

My specific requirements for cycle touring are maps, routes and directional aids including compass. The main problem I encountered was availability and storage of maps for off line use. The main digital map providers; i.e. Bing (Microsoft), Google do not allow their maps to be stored. It would appear that OpenStreetMaps and OpenCycleMaps are the source for off line maps.These maps are as the name suggests open source and are created and updated by public users everywhere. They are actually pretty good and show a lot of detail including altitude markers. But.. and this is a big but.. they are incomplete and somewhat poor in comparison to those provided by the big guns in the business. There are few place names or detailed roads. However used together with route planning and markers the OpenCycleMaps are adequate.

ViewRanger mzl.sgkchawh.175x175-75

Having downloaded huge quantities of maps for that first app I discovered the ViewRanger app for the iPhone and which by coincidence has been created and promoted within a few miles of my home in Cambridge.

Now this GPS app is what I needed. It is intuitive and provides most of the features of its competitors with a lot less fuss. I have been able to import route files (gpx) into the app on my iPhone. These appear as routes on the off line maps which I have downloaded as an extensive series of OpenCycleMap tiles covering all the areas I may visit. Moreover by using the ViewRanger website I can create detailed routes and upload those via ‘synchronisation’ with my Phone app.  If using the live tracking GPS on the move it is then easy to transfer and convert those tracks afterwards into routes which can be used by others via the sharing system provided on the ViewRanger website.

Awesome.  I now have maps and routes detailed on my iPhone covering all the areas I plan to visit and am able to navigate via the GPS provided by the ViewRanger app. Of course I will still be carrying printed maps as a backup and for everyday use. Power for my iPhone is another issue and it is cool to see that the ViewRanger app provides for a power saving mode which means that the device does not constantly seek a GPS location.

Three steps to heaven


And so having bought the bike, airline tickets and made a huge raft of arrangements, I am now in the final week of preparations for my trip.

My trip consists of three stages.

Firstly Sri Lanka. Secondly Northern India. Lastly Nepal.

I have wanted to visit Sri Lanka for many years. I had heard that it was very beautiful and worked extensively with Doctors from there. It is only in recent years that Sri Lanka has become fully open for visitors to explore. The cessation of hostilities and the end of the civil war now allows for travel to the Northern reaches of Sri Lanka.

Sadly the war resulted in a huge displacement of people and high death toll particularly in the final months of the war. Added to that the enormous devastation and large number of deaths caused by the tsunami in 2004; the Sri Lankan people have endured incredible suffering.

My planned itinerary is to cycle from Colombo in the West, cross country and then South to the coast and then head to the religious sites at Katargama. Returning back towards the central hill country I will then aim for Aragum Bay on the East coast. This is a popular spot for surfers and a good place to take a break in the journey. From there I will work my way North along the East coast until finally cutting in past Polonnaruwa in a bid to hit the Northern tip of Sri Lanka at Jaffa. It would be remiss to pass the ancient capital of Anuradhapua, Dambulla or the hill capital of Kandy and so will aim to catch those places on my return to Colombo. However my itinerary is not fixed, as with all my cycling tours, and much will depend on decisions made on route. I will have little money for the usual tourist type activities or accommodation and quite expect to endure a fair amount of hardship. However I am taking enough gear to be fairly self supporting in most respects. Providing I am not robbed blind I should be good to go and under my own steam will survive to experience some excellent views.

The second part of my trip will take me to Delhi. From there I hope to explore the hills and mountain areas of the Northern states. In particular there are well travelled routes from Manila to Leh and from there across to Srinagar. These routes are fairly remote and will test my endurance. As a reward for completing this journey I am hoping to rest and spend some time in the area around Rishikkesh which is renowned for its contemplative lifestyle.

The last stage of my journey will take me across Nepal and the Terrai or foothills that run across the Southern border with India. Included in this are visits to Pokhara, Kathmandu and Buddhas birthplace at Lumbini.

I had thought to visit Varanasi and Lucknow on my return to Delhi and which would take me across one of poorest states in India across the Ganges plains.

Much of this is planned but not definite. That is part of the joy of cycle touring and where such decisions are often best left to the road and the lay of the land.

To a certain degree I am ticking a few mental boxes which have been dwelling deep amongst the cobwebs of my mind. I visited India in the late 80’s and did the ‘triangle’ of Delhi, Jaipur and Agra. I also visited as far South into Rajasthan as Mount Abu and Pushka. Also as far North as Rishikesh (where the Beatles visited) and Missourie. [apologies for spelling].  But at that time planned to go to Kashmir and was unable on account of  ‘insurgent’ bombings in the North. So it is unfinished business in some respects. I feel fortunate to have the time to explore some of my ambitions. In many respects the previous cycle rides in Europe were preparation for this big ride out East.