Searching for a good place to camp I cycled over a bridge and saw an open thatched roof hut and fire inside. I stopped to speak to a guy standing nearby. It was his ‘gaff’. I said he had a good spot and that I was looking for one too. He invited me to take shelter there. There were two slatted beds built into the sides of the hut. I declined the offer of taking one and demonstrated that I had the kit (bivouac and thermarest) to be very comfortable on the ground. Another guy turned up also in a boiler suit. They both had ‘sugar cane refinery’ emblazoned on their backs. They were employed as quality control workers in a local sugar factory. I insisted on cooking my own noodles despite being offered some of their own curry and rice. I certainly did not want to deprive them of any of their dinner. More men turned up. Several on a tractor and finally another on a motorbike who apparently owned the tractor. With a good fire, Indian pop videos and a bit of Bob Marley it turned into a great evening although my lack of Sinhali was a bit of a barrier.
Very early in the morning both sugar workers went off to work. As I was getting myself organised I watched as various people sneaked under the electric wire behind into Yala Park to plunder its resources.
I set off once again with my sights set on the East Coast and Arugam Bay.
I joined the A4 at Buttala and the road snaked towards Monaragala. I cycled past an officers training centre with a tank proudly displayed close to the entrance.
Quite a bit of hill work up to Monaragala but was rewarded by an amazing ride down as I finally found the road heading East. Once again I was surrounded by dense tropical vegetation and with the light fading I dropped off the road to pitch my tent amongst the bananas.
It was a quiet spot close to a river but within a few metres of the road. The night before I had been badly bitten by flies but now I discovered the terror of Sri Lanka’s large red ants. They sting like hell. I was keen to get in my tent and zip up!
I reached the checkpoint or entrance to Yala national park a bit late in the day. There were a number of worrying factors. Finding somewhere to camp and sleep was a pressing matter. I did not know if I would be allowed to cycle through the nature reserve known for its leopards and elephants. Lastly I had read of overseas visitors being fleeced by extortionate entrance fees.
As I cycled up I was waved to one side by park rangers. I was told that I could not go in: ‘Too dangerous! Elephant!!’
I politely asked them if I could be allowed through… and that really I would be fine. ‘No, no. Elephant!’ was the reply. They suggested I stay the night in Kataragama. But again I insisted that I wished to get to Buttala to the North of the reserve and that it was a cool time of day for cycling. I looked at my map at an alternative way around the Park and asked them the best route. At this point a ranger asked me if I had lights for my bike. I put my two cateye front lights on and the rangers checked them. I was then told I could go through but that I had to hurry and was allowed an hour and a half to cycle through. I thanked them and said I would be quick.
The light faded fast although the full moon provided a good light to view the surrounding parkland. I did go quickly although there were a few hills. A pickup truck came alongside and man shouted; ‘Dangerous! Elephant!’
A little further there was an elephant cow on the road and we both passed her and the truck drove between me and the elephant. I thanked the driver. A little later a chap on a motorcycle said the same thing and suggested I go back. But I refused and told him that I quite like elephants…
Next thing.. I passed a bull elephant on the opposite verge of the road. It was close and very BIG with huge long tusks. We looked directly at each other and the bull moved towards me and stamped one his front legs. Ok I thought; it is your park. And I cycled as quickly as my legs could take me. It was a tense moment!
Another cow elephant moving across the road and then I came across a roadside shop. Now on the Northern fringe of the Park I had the problem of finding a place or spot to sleep. But what a great ride in the moonlight!