Apr 21 2012

Cycle Touring in Sri Lanka 6: Ten days on me tod – Part 2

Photo - New career option

New career paths opening up

I left you in Part 1 having just ridden 89km from Kandy to Dalhousie and then climbed the 5300 steps up and back down Adam’s Peak. My legs were in a right state. I hit the sack hoping to at least get 30km down the road to Hatton the following day.

I woke up not much better, and after a hearty breakfast slung a leg over the bike to find things really were pretty bad. An hour down the road though, and I was absolutely astonished that my legs were loosening up quite nicely, so I passed the turning for Hatton and headed towards the hills – only a bit up and then a long way down I thought – and Balangoda. This ended up being a seriously enjoyable ride – the roads weren’t great but the scenery was, and the people I came across were really lovely; the tea-picking ladies shouted hello and laughed at me heartily, the schoolchildren looked joyful instead of murderous when they chased me down the road, and things were generally great. I could look back for the first two hours of the ride and see Adam’s Peak towering over the rest of the scenery too, which was good for the pride!

Photo: Adam's Peak

Adams Peak from 2 hours away

As I crossed the top of the mountains, the scenery spread out below me and the weather changed dramatically; gone was the cool(ish), clear mountain air, and here was hot, humid, misty jungle. So I did the decent thing – I ate a banana and gave it hammer and tongs down the twisty mountain road through the tea plantations, forests and villages for the next hour. Absolutely brilliant. The road was still really poor in places, but following the principle that the faster you go the more you skim across the top (tenuous, and not a recommended strategy on a loaded touring bike) Wiggins and I decided it that things were going well, and cracked on. Any doubts I had about the suitability of my wheels, the strength of my pannier racks and the effectiveness of my brakes (will the discs overheat?! No!) are now gone. I stopped when a bird of prey parked up in a tree next to the road for a look around (see pic!) before its pal turned up and they went for a flap about together, which was rather lovely. I then carried on giving it the full Steve Peat (You do know the 3 x Downhill World Cup Champ from Sheffield? This was more Steve Peat on a touring bike, mind) into the scenery below.

Photo - Balangoda Raptor

Balangoda Bird of Prey

By the time I got to my intended stop for the night, I was on a bit of a high despite a bus load of sneery teenage schoolkids, and after a couple of bananas (King bananas – twice the price, but REALLY nice!) and a coconut I decided that I may as well push on another 45km to Ratnapura. It was a bit of a dull grind along a reasonably flat A-road, thankfully. I slept really well that night, having done 135km and eaten a tasty dinner in the Guest House, served by a man who wanted me to sponsor him to come to the UK so he could share in our plentiful work opportunities and fabulous easy wealth.

That push to Ratnapura had put me in a position to get to the surf town of Hikkaduwa the next day. I got there, but only after a surprise mountain range (a bit bigger than the Pennines, so not sure how I missed it), a detour on a road so minor that it turned into a dirt track that you couldn’t have driven down, another detour due to a bridge shown on google maps but not yet completed, and a minor altercation with a tuk tuk driver. He cut me up really badly, I yelled obscenities that he presumably didn’t understand, he came past again later and actually apologised! How often do drivers – let alone taxi drivers – do that at home? Especially once you’ve already yelled the obscenities? This should have been a 120km day, but ended up being 140km due to all the navigational errors. I was bushed.

Photo - The bridge that was not

Not a bridge

This was also the day when I heard that Linds hadn’t got the job that she’d flown home for. Bad times! She got to final interview and the school had nothing negative to say about her. They told her that they couldn’t choose between her and another candidate so went for the other on the grounds that they had been teaching for longer. She was really gutted to have missed out for such a weak reason having gone to such lengths to get to the interview, but hey ho. She’s seen her parents, her sister, niece and nephew and all our friends, and she’s still a brilliant teacher so no doubt she will end up with a cracking job even if there’s a bit of supply work to get through first. And if she hadn’t gone for it, we’d always have said what if.

The two days R&R I earned myself in Hikkaduwa by getting there a day earlier than I expected got off to a slow start, mainly because I very quickly remembered that I have very little interest in sitting on beaches when I’m with my wife, and absolutely none without her. Fortunately I had the distraction of Kingfisher Airlines cancelling our flight to India due to their declining fortunes, so got busy very quickly booking another. At the moment they’re saying that we’ll get the money back, but I’ll believe that when I see it! After that I wandered to a local rotti shop for lunch, found a beachside bar that could give me a surf lesson the next day when my wobbly jelly legs were better, and spent the afternoon on the laptop sipping Lion Beer and watching the surfers. After a spot of dinner at another excellent local rotti shop run by a nice young chap called Eranda, I went back to the Guesthouse and sat down to read, feeling a bit lonely to be honest, and rather wishing I had my wife back. It was the first day I’d stopped for long enough to think about it.

I went back to Eranda’s rotti shop for brunch the next day, and it turned out that Eranda had a good mate called Pasanda who could teach me to surf for a slightly lower rate than the bar down the road. Bingo. Especially as this meant that my first attempt at surfing wouldn’t be outside the hippin-hoppin-happening surf bar where everyone was too cool for school, and were either great at surfing already, or so young, tanned and sexy that they looked great trying even if they were rubbish. I signed up on the spot, and wandered down to his Uncle’s surf shop with Pasanda to collect my board. There are probably several models of ironing board that would have been better than this thing. One fin was hanging off broken, the whole thing was clearly ancient and about as smooth and flat as the local B roads, and it had seen more repairs than I’ve seen rice and curries in the last 7 weeks. And not all of them were successful – there was a particularly large jagged piece of fibreglass sticking out of the top of the board at exactly the place where my sternum was when I was paddling it. It turned out not to be too important though, because after 20 minutes of utter basics, the waves which I’d been watching since arriving in Hikkaduwa nearly 48 hours previous, just stopped. We agreed to reconvene later that day at high tide for another attempt.

Photo - Worst surfboard in Sri Lanka

The worst surfboard in Sri Lanka?

At high tide my teacher Pasanda didn’t show up, and Eranda was so embarrassed that he invited me to his house for a beer. I happily accepted the offer before getting the heeby-jeebies in the tuk-tuk on the way there, and texting all the details I could think of to Linds so at least someone knew where to look for a body. Ridiculous, of course – I enjoyed splendid hospitality from Eranda and his wife and Mother, including dry fried fish, fresh jack-fruit from the garden, and when they realised how impressed I was with that I got a full tour of the garden and the fruit growing therein – coconut, pineapple, jack-fruit, and several others I don’t know the English (or indeed, the Sinhala) for. After two Lion beers, I was feeling a bit merry and poor old Eranda was clearly concentrating very hard on walking straight, so his good friend from the Navy drove me back to town in his tuk-tuk.

Photo - Eranda and Family

Eranda and Family

Having resolved not to have a miserable night in again, I took Eranda’s advice and after dinner at the rotti shop I headed to Mambo’s Night Club. The England cricket tour were passing through town, so plenty of the Barmy Army turned up and I got a bit of a dance in with some guys from darn Sarth. Easily pleased with my hour on the dance floor, and sober enough to be well aware that things could only go downhill from this point, I went home to bed.

I even managed to get up in time for my final arranged attempt at surfing with Pasanda, at 7am. Sadly he didn’t, and neither did the waves. I had tea and curry at Eranda’s rotti shop, then went back to the guesthouse to pack my things to begin riding back to Negombo to meet Lindso. I headed straight up the main A2 Coast Road, and was making pretty fast progress when I caught up with a couple of local racers. Let’s hope for their sake that they were warming down after a long run or something. We went through the usual stilted conversations, exchanged numbers, and they told me that 15km down the road was a shop that sold the ‘racer handles’ (tri-bars without the arm rest) that they all used. This was good, because I had a plan!

Photo - Sri Lankan Racing Cyclists

Sri Lankan Road-Racers.... Not fat

The gear system on my Bob Jackson custom tourer is a Rohloff internal hub gear. This is an extraordinarily reliable and durable system, but the only shifter that Rohloff make for it is a twist-shift style one designed to fit on the flat handlebars of mountain and hybrid bikes, not the drop bars that I use on my tourer. The fix for this so far has been to use a bar extension plugged into the right hand end of the drop bar onto which the twist-shifter fits. I’ve never been pleased with the aesthetic of this, it makes my very wide bars even wider, it puts the shifter totally in the way of harm and it also demands a huge cable run. Aussie Adrian was using a sawn-off tri bar instead, and I decided to copy him! I found the bike shop in Balapitya, and £9 and a sawn up pair of nice new tri-bars later, and I was on my way. It’s not a pretty solution, but it’s much better than the previous set-up.One day I will treat Sir Bob to the recently released Gilles Berthoud shifter, but at over £100 it won’t be soon!

My planned stay for the night was at Kalutara, and I got there at about 3pm and set about looking for a place to sleep. As I cruised down towards the beach, thee view across the river to the enormous pagoda caught my eye so I stopped to take a photo. As I framed it something else caught my eye and I turned to see an enormous water-monitor in the river a few feet away! The tuk-tuk driver next to me was also quite impressed by it – these huge lizards and their land cousins seem to be well liked, and despite appearances they aren’t dangerous. I asked the driver if they eat fish, and from what I gather the answer was no. To be honest though we had so little vocabulary in common that monitor lizards could dine on nothing but trifle and pork pies for all I know.

Photo - Water Monitor

Water Monitor

I had a pretty bad time finding a room in Kalutara. Most were pretty awful (‘look – it has window! You can open if you like. And here – electric light. Working!’) and I also got pursued – actually chased down the street – by a tout, who followed me back to the first guesthouse I’d been to, and had an extensive argument with the proprietor along the lines that he was due a commission for my stay there. The only reason I wasn’t already in a room at this place was because someone had it booked until 4pm (that funny price for the day / price for the night thing again) and so I’d decided to look round a few more while I waited. This same tout later found me sat on the beach and tried to get me to change my mind again, using the argument that the guy I’d been dealing with was a drunkard. I’ve become a lot better at asserting myself in these situation since we began travelling in Asia, and he soon left. As it turned out he was right about the drinking though!

After a night’s sleep in a room with a fabulous spider’s web headboard, an even better misquote on the wall (see below) and a less fabulous collection of cockroaches in the bathroom, I set off early again for my last day riding alone. Negombo is about 100km up the coast from Kalutara, but Colombo is between the two of them and I had no particular desire to spend the day on the hectic roads in and around the capital, so I planned a route that looped inland. I ended up doing 132km, and it would have been about 120 were it ont for the practical-joke road system in Gampah, which cunningly sent me back the way I’d come without me even realising it, and the fact that I missed a turning and acually ended up entering Negombo from the North instead of the South! Ah well. I bumped into more slow-seeming racers as well, and it turned out that they were members of the SL Army Cycle Team. Again, I hope they were on a rest day, because if not they had no business getting overtaken by me!

Photo - Keep thy eyes before marriage

Well Boss we couldn't fit all the words on and 'open' didn't seem that important really

Getting Linds back is great. It was good having a week travelling on my own – something I’ve never done before – and I think that it is something I would like to repeat for a weekend every year or so, probably with a small tent and a change of clothes on the bike and not much else. At the end of the day though there were so many moments I wished she’d shared, and without her company I had to set myself ludicrous things to do like climbing that ruddy mountain in the middle of 350km of riding just to keep myself occupied.

She is also glad to be back, but going home has made her realise that she is now ready to go home. After 7 months, she’s pretty much had enough of sleeping in a different room every night and the stresses of getting by in a foreign culture. She misses our friends and family. We both agree though that this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us and we would kick ourselves forever if we went home now, so we have one week left in Sri Lanka, and then we will be flying over to India to begin the next, and most intimidating, chapter of our travels. But more on that later.

Route Maps – MapMyRide

Dalhousie to Ratnapura

Ratnapura to Hikkaduwa

Hikkaduwa to Kalutale

Kalutale to Negombo


Apr 10 2012

Cycle Touring Sri Lanka 5: Ten days on me tod – part 1

Photo: Sunrise from Adam's Peak

Sunrise from Adam's Peak

So my wife Linds has leapt on a flight home to go and do a job interview, leaving Wiggins the elephant, Sir Bob and me to our own highly disorganised devices in Sri Lanka for 10 days. I have a bit of history here, with an unfortunate propensity to get myself in trouble when the wife disappears for an extended period. Last time she went home I got lost on a night out in Thailand before finally finding my friend and host Adam at 8am, only for us to jointly pour boiling oil on both our feet when we got home. The time before that she went to the Isle of Man for 16 weeks, and came home to find that I was re-building a car engine in the living room, having grown a big red cyst on my face that subsequently needed removing in hospital. She was a little concerned about leaving me, to say the least. As I said at the end of my last blog post, my plan for the week was to get myself into a meditation retreat in Kandy for a few days, and take it from there.

Linds left before 6am to get to her flight, so seeing as my plan was to get all the way to Kandy in one day – a journey which we had previously taken 2 days over – I got my stuff together, said my goodbyes to Thositha (very nice hotel chap and there’s a picture of him coming up) and we (Wiggins, Sir Bob and I) set off.

Photo: Thosita

Thosita. Sound bloke.

It’s amazing the difference a few weeks’ regular riding makes to the fitness! I got to our previous overnight stop by 9am, and pressed on towards the hellish 400m Kadaganawa climb. Turns out it’s not actually that bad – still a bit of an ordeal, but climbing it without experiencing second-hand the exhaustion and pain that my dear wife was going through the first time made it a lot easier. About 2/3 of the way up I came across an Aussie on a modified Cannondale mountain-bike-turned-tourer, who was busy haggling for a couple of avocados. He looked as sweaty as me, which was very pleasing until he mentioned that he’s just been hosed down by a car-washing guy at the side of the road. We agreed to meet at the top and have a chat, on the basis that we both wanted to finish the climb before stopping, and there was no point me waiting for him to complete his avocado negotiations as he would surely catch up before the top anyway. Which he did. Turned out his name was Adrian, and he had been touring Sri Lanka for nearly 3 months – the first leg of a potentially 18 month long journey including Indonesia, Taiwan, China, Thailand, Malaysia and other assorted highly visitable countries.

He was going to Kandy too, so we rode the last 15 miles together, and ended up staying at the same guesthouse (‘Room together? No thanks, we’ve only just met!’. Slightly awkward.) That evening we went out into Kandy to find food, and discovered the town centre in utter chaos – enquiries with one of the thousands of police present revealed that qualifying was about to start for a series of motorbike and car road-races! I have a bit of a soft spot for fast cars (though I don’t own a car any more) and it turns out that Adrian is an ex-motorbike nut with several large Ducatis, BMWs and some lovely classic bikes in his past, so we decide to stick around for a couple of nights to spectate, seeing as it was free. Promisingly, an hour after the announced start time, the first group – a dozen 125cc standard motorbike racers – are released for practice, and half of them immediately fall off at low speed on the first corner. Crikey. Valentino Rossi they are not. It’s getting late, and we’re both tired from the ride, so we agree to reconvene the next night and watch the racing itself. You will notice that this does not exactly constitute the meditation which was my alleged reason for being in Kandy. Hmm.

Kandy the next day is a death trap. A lot of the racers and would-be racers appear to be practicing on the race course, despite the fact that it is public road, and still in use as such. The police are out in huge force again, and seem to be divided on the matter; some are enjoying the spectacle greatly, and the rest are totally disinterested.

I did make some effort at achieving enlightenment in Kandy, but they were probably a bit lacking. I had been in touch with Upul from the Nilambe Meditation Centre (recommended by Lonely Planet and others), and been advised that the centre was fully booked up due to an event commemorating the death of the centre’s founder. He recommended that I try the Llewellyn Centre, an affiliate located in a suburb of Kandy. So before race night on Saturday I cycled over there, only to find that an event for the same commemorative purpose was underway, and the Priest was not available to speak to me. The extraordinary quiet of the place despite the many people present immediately put the willies up me and even as they were telling me to call back later I already knew I wasn’t going to. I had done a bit of reading about the schedule at this place after the qualifying session the night before, and was already a bit perturbed a by a couple of things; no speaking apart from during a 30 minute break in the afternoon, and the fact that as far as I could discern there was to be but one – ONE – meal a day! Can you imagine? I also had some doubts about whether I wanted to spend the week without Linds doing this, or whether I would rather take the opportunity to get some serious miles in. So I hate to admit it, but I turned and fled. Maybe we’ll try again in India when I have a bit of moral support from the Missus. Then again, anyone who’s met her will now that she is not particularly one for staying quiet. Ever.

That decided, I headed back to the guesthouse and met up with Adrian. We went for a dosa masala (my first; blummin lovely. Good job because apparently they are a staple in South India) and then decided to have a couple of beers before the racing started. Being good travellers-not-tourists, economy-minded folk, we shunned the tourist bars and headed down to the local version. These pubs offer instant social-life if you are Western, but the guys (invariably no women) you meet are not always those you particularly want to socialise with – drunk, and apparently often pretty unhappy with it. I don’t think most happy, well-adjusted Sri Lankans spend much time in pubs. Conversation that night included, not for the first time, a man who was despairing that although Sri Lankan people were very lovely, they often made terrible mistakes. If there is such thing as a national psyche, the Sri Lankan one seems to hold a few pretty deep insecurities. On the plus side, the beer was cheap and strong, and the Arrack cheaper and stronger. Suitably impressed by 2 beers each, we headed out to watch the racing.

The racing ran from 9.00pm and was a series of short races, most of which were 3 laps long, with each lap lasting no more than a couple of minutes depending on exactly how terrifying the race in question was. There were allegedly meant to be 14 races of various categories of both standard and modified cars and bikes, so if everything had gone smoothly you would expect things to be finished in roughly 2 1/2 hours, right? We left at 2.30am, with at least 3 races yet to start. We saw all manner of vehicle harried round the course by incredibly enthusiastic but often truly worryingly incompetent drivers and riders – the only thing missing (and it was a damn shame) was the ubiquitous tuk-tuk. The car present in greatest numbers was the awesome old Austin Mini – most of the other cars couldn’t hold a candle to them. The most popular vehicles with the crowd were the Super Moto bikes, anything else that did a wheely, the ambulance – which got called out with sickening frequency, including to tend to a man who had apparently decided to cross the road in the middle of the field during a 250cc motorbike warm-up lap – but by far the biggest cheer of the night went to a very confused ginger mongrel who was lapping the wrong way, much to the amusement of the course marshals – who didn’t seem to see a problem having a dog running around in the middle of a motorbike race. Egads.

Photo: Kandy Night Racing

Super Moto rider pulls wheely; Monks love it.

By Monday morning I had formulated a plan for the rest of the week, and so I exchanged email addresses with Adrian, paid for my room, and set off towards Adam’s Peak, the 4th highest mountain in Sri Lanka, and a Buddhist pilgrimage site. Reputedly the place where Adam first set foot on Earth from Heaven, though no-one produced any good evidence to back this up while I was there. It was 89km from Kandy, and sadly not many of those km were down. Most of the roads were minor and therefore quite rough, but at least most of the climbing was steady rather than Kadaganawa-esque steep, so by sticking it in the (very!) low gears I could just dig in for the long haul and grind out the 1255m of ascent. I arrived at about 3pm, and after a wander around the small town of Dalhousie (pronounced ‘Dal-house’, bizarrely) I stretched my tight quads, had some dinner and got an early night, ready for the 3am start up the mountain. The important bit to pick out there is that I was planning on climbing the 5300 steps to the Summit of Sri Lanka’s 4th highest mountain, and my legs were already tight. I should have paid more heed to that myself, but decided that walking was, after all, a sport for fat old men with grey beards, so should be very easy indeed for me – my beard is only very slightly grey.

The way up wasn’t too bad. The whole way was lit with lanterns, which isn’t quite as magical as I thought it was going to be because they are electric neon tube ‘lanterns’, and as I had hit snooze a couple of times too many I hardly saw anyone for the first half of the trip. I did overtake a young Russian couple (“are you French”? “No, we are from Rrrrussia” quizzical expressions) about a ¼ of the way up though, who were very friendly, and he was hilariously out of breath wearing fabulous faux snakeskin pointy shoes, which made me feel a little under-dressed in my Merrells. Never saw them at the top, thinking about it. I did have one significant problem to overcome on the climb up – I was absolutely unable to pass by a single toilet without dashing in with considerable relief. Presumably either the unfiltered water I had uncharacteristically drunk the day before, or something I head eaten.

I was pretty sure that I was going to be too late to be at the summit for sunrise which was kind of the point of the whole getting up early thing, so I pressed on as hard as I could, and gradually started passing more and more people – mainly Sri Lankan pilgrims, but also a smattering of fellow tourists – in an effort to get to the Sri Pada Temple by 6.30am. This became seriously difficult, and by about 1900m I was having to stop every 15-20 steps to rest. I met a French couple (actually French this time, not masquerading Russians), and he casually dropped into conversation that he had ‘done it from ze uzzer side last time – you know, Ratnapura, Eet ees a seven hour climb from there’. I told him he was mad. His wife quite agreed, and fell about laughing, presumably already weakened by the climb. At this point the light was beginning to show over the horizon, rather beautifully it must be said, and Mssr. Sproingylegs assured me that we were very near the top. Thankfully he was right, and I stood with a large crowd of other sore legged folk to watch the sun rise over the mountains. Many had climbed early in the night and stayed on top in the cold – really, it was cold at this altitude – for some reason that I couldn’t quite fathom. All of us though, had done the climb, and no-one spoke as we watched the sky turn from purple to orange and listened to the pipe and drums being played in the temple, the first trills of bird song and the incessant shutter click of digital SLRs. There was something approaching a cheer when the sun finally peeped over the horizon at us, and then the few amongst us who had read The Lonely Planet walked round to the other side of Sri Pada so that we could watch the triangular shadow of the mountain we were on creep back across the landscape towards us. At this point I also saw the guys doing the pipe playing and drumming, and was mightily impressed to see the drummer leaping around in a fancy traditional outfit at the same time as holding down a good rhythm which was surprisingly funky for the time of day and the circumstances. But then we have found many Buddhist temples across Asia house excellent rhythm sections with seriously bassy equipment. Good effort, Buddhists.

Photo: Just before sunrise

Just before sunrise near the top of Adam's Peak

Having taken several thousand photographs in all directions to record the event, I put my cold feet back into my shoes, and head for the stairs down. First step. Doesn’t feel good. Second step.No, that’s not a good feeling at all. Third step. Oh crap. This is going to be really tough.

It was. I got back to the guesthouse, but it was a close-run thing. Fortunately my stomach had calmed so I didn’t need to stop at the first two of the four toilets on the path. By the time I got to the third toilets I did need to stop but knew that if I squatted (no western toilets here!) there was an extremely high chance that I wouldn’t be able to stand up again, without the assistance of some heavy lifting equipment, so took the painful decision not to. I met a lovely couple from London, who were quite sympathetic, and also a couple of teenage lads from Dambulla who were keen to practice their English, similarly keen to be friends on Facebook, also keen that I should go to Dambulla with them. Sadly they were less keen to carry me down the mountain in exchange for any of the above. Seriously, I have never felt so physically spent – at every step I had to grit my teeth and concentrate on preventing my knees from buckling. I felt like the legs trying to support my admittedly hefty body were not my own but those of a nine-year old girl – one who had just totally over-done it in the gym. I got back to the hotel at 9am, and the friendly young Manager ‘Crackhead’ (presumably spelled differently, but that’s how it was pronounced) laughed delightedly at me and then promised to bring some breakfast down to my room if I couldn’t get back up the stairs after showering.

I spent the rest of the day stretching, trying to contact Linds to wish her good luck in her job interview, sleeping, stretching, eating, stretching, trying to contact Linds to find out what had happened in the job interview, stretching, and sleeping. I didn’t want to stay in Dalhousie due to the problems I was having communicating with the outside world, and because I wanted to get to the coast and have a surfing lesson before heading back up to Negombo to meet Linds. So I resolved to try and at least make it 30km down the road to Hatton the next morning. I went to bed still struggling to walk.

So at the beginning of my 5th day without Linds I had climbed from sea level to 2,166m entirely under my own steam (Yesssss! Result!) and temporarily pretty much lost the use of my legs in the process. (Booo.) I’ll post up the following 5 days’ achievements pretty soon!

Route Maps – MapMyRide

Negombo to Kandy
Kandy to Dalhousie
Adam’s Peak – Hike

SNGEA6KRUBJK

Apr 1 2012

I am a father!

Not really – sorry Mum. But I have just heard that nine out of the ten eggs placed in the incubator I made in Mi Ella have hatched healthy chicks! That is pretty amazing. Photos if and when we get them!