Cycle Touring Sri Lanka 2: And they’re off

Rest stop before Kadugawanna

I was worrying in my last post about whether our bikes would have arrived in one piece. They did arrive, thankfully, so I tootled off to Colombo airport to find out if they were in one piece. I expected to be back at Negombo Beach with them in time for a spot of lunch and a lovely afternoon of assembling, test riding and feeling pleased. The Customs Officials had other plans.

It took 7 hours, 3 rides on the back of a motor bike, about 300 forms and 13000 Rupees (about £70) to get our bikes released. This was bad because I didn’t expect to have to pay anything when I set off, and £70 is 3 ½ days budget. It is also fantastic, because they initially wanted to charge me over £1000, mainly in import duty against the insurance value of the bikes!

My argument that it was not an import because we’ll be leaving with them was rejected on the grounds that they didn’t arrive on the plane with us so procedures had to be followed. A helpful chap suggested that used bicycles couldn’t possibly be worth the insurance value on the form. This argument went down much better with everyone involved, with the consensus being that a lightly used Bob Jackson Tourer and Surly Cross Check probably had a combined market value of about 8000 rupees, or £45. My poker face was tested, but held. If only they knew.

Unpacking and building the bikes was bliss. Like the anxiety prior to meeting an old friend after too long replaced with the simple pleasures of sitting down for a pint and remembering why they’re an old friend. Trusty old multi-tool back in hand, and magnificent Sir Bob and Chrissy Cross Check to work on. Not to mention the prospect of spending the next 18 weeks riding, which I’ve missed so much it hurts. Brilliant.

The next day was spent doing a 45km loop up the coast and back with the panniers loaded to check that everything was working right before setting off properly. It was, and after passing through a small village (which seemed to have an economy based entirely on the low volume sale of very small fish in various shapes and moisture levels) we drank ginger beer on a lovely little deserted beach, which managed to get one over us by shooting a surprise wave up our trouser legs while we were paddling. We headed inland a bit and looped back to Negombo.

Katuneriya Beach

Linds’ knee gave no bother all day, so we celebrated with a pancake (having realised we’d missed Shrove Tuesday) and a couple of Lion Lagers, which are surprisingly good. (I do realise that this probably means that I desperately need to re-calibrate with a nice cask ale. Anyone who can bring one here is welcome to my left arm.)

The first day’s proper riding was a mixed bag. We set off at 6.45am to avoid the worst of the traffic and heat, and made a pretty straight line from Negombo to Mirigama on the B324. There was more traffic about than we’d hoped, and even though it was only 40km some smallish hills caused Lindso’s knees a bit of pain. She thinks it’s the pain you’d expect to get trying to hustle a loaded touring bike up some hills after a year of little to no riding rather than injury pain, so we’ll take it easy and give it time to strengthen up, which it will reeeeeeally need to do before we arrive in Nepal, methinks!

Fortunately we stumbled across bargain-guesthouse-of-the-trip just in time to bring Lindso back from near terminal grumpiness brought on by the pain and the repeated hills. Lovely room and as cheap as any we’ve found in Sri Lanka at 1000 rupees (£5.60) a night. Bingo! We were the only guests, as their main business is hosting weddings. Check out the water feature next to the top table. Nice. Isn't she lovely? She's 10 foot tall...The only fly in the ointment came at check out time – seems Rs1000 is the rate for a night from 6pm to 10 am, and you need to pay another Rs1000 for the day! Very odd, and not the impression we got at check-in but we’ve come across it elsewhere in Sri Lanka so we settled on Rs1,500 for the day and night and left it there – still great value.

We ordered a lunch of ‘Rice and Curry’ – the universal term for the universally fantastic assortment of 4 veg curries plus rice at anywhere from £1.10 to £1.50 per person – and then watched the waiter pretend to go back to the kitchen to get it before merrily leaping on his scooter and nipping to the restaurant down the road! Same happened for every drink we ordered – great fun. After a fairly melted ice cream desert (the outsourced kitchen idea had its limits), I set about investigating my totally ineffective rear disk brake. Skip the next paragraph if the tech stuff bores you!

Turns out that the usually awesome German Rohloff internal hub gear has chucked a load of oil out onto the brake, which is a tad concerning. My current theory is that the cargo hold of the flight wasn’t pressurised, so the oil that bathes the internal workings was forced out through the bearings. I cleaned everything with soapy water and a toothbrush, then reassembled and test rode – still not right, but improving after a few stops to lay some brake pad on the newly cleaned rotor (this is the bedding in you need to do with disc brakes – getting a layer of brake pad material on the rotor by performing around 30 stops). Hopefully it will bed in OK, because if the oil has totally contaminated the pads I have none spare – along with padded cycling shorts and spare Rohloff cables they are the only things I so far know I’ve forgotten to pack! Rubbish.

An easy 25km to Kegalla was the plan for Friday, but it didn’t quite pan out like that… After breakfast of a sweet dry shreaded wheat type thing with honey on it, we joined the A1 and headed off.

The A-roads are busier than the Bs, but have the distinct advantage of having a sort of slow traffic / pedestrian lane at the side, so you are at least protected by the traffic thundering past by a white line painted on the floor. Better than nothing. We had originally planned a much less direct route using the B roads, but decided our current course was preferable.

Kegalla came and went, and with Linds’ knees holding up well we kept going; mainly because we couldn’t find a palatable guesthouse that we could afford. To be honest we didn’t look very hard – Kegalla itself wasn’t that appealing, so we pressed on with eyes peeled. We were told that there were a few guesthouses a few km down the road at the top of a hill. Excellent! Turned out the hill was a mountain. False summit begat false summit, thighs turned to lead, and Lindso’s heroic riding turned to equally heroic walking. Eventually we reached the top, featuring a nice restaurant (lime soda and cheese toasties please!) and an impressive monument to the Englishman who built the road around 450BC. We didn’t linger long in reverie, as we’re pretty confident he could have made it much flatter if he’d put his back into it. Later inspection of the stats (see MapMyRide) revealed the climb to be 3.5 miles at an average gradient of 5.2%… Pretty harsh!

The top!

I knew that the rest of the road actually was relatively flat, so we decided to carry on and stay near the botanical gardens 5km short of Kandy. We certainly passed the gardens, complete with 100+ enormous flying foxes (3 foot wingspan bats!) flapping around scaring the fruit, but never spotted the guesthouse that was supposed to be there. Which is why we ended up staying in Kandy, having done a ride that we intended to do in two days in just one. 67km in total, and a superb day for Lindso’s recovering knee considering that 24hrs previously she struggled with a total of 152m of climbing; Kandy is 500m above sea level, and we did a total of 780m of climbing to get there! I suspect she will be beating me up the climbs in about a week, which will be bad for the pride, but a great excuse to take some luggage off my bike and put it on hers. My plan is that she will be carrying everything within a month.

They'd be terrifying if they didn't eat fruit

We spent 3 nights in Kandy, exploring the town (very nice, but quite a lot of tourist-botherers) and the botanical gardens, which were a very pleasant way to spend the day – I particularly liked the Burmese Giant Bamboo, and Linds surprisingly took a shine to those Flying Foxes, of which there were thousands.

Really big bamboo. Maybe I'm easily pleased.Having bikes with us is brilliant – no good for exploring the City Centre because the traffic is chaotic and you miss all the sights for concentrating on not becoming Tuk-Tuk fodder, but the sense of freedom you get from having independent transport to anything within cycling distance is fantastic. We had a hire car in New Zealand, and since then we’ve really begrudged being tied to public transport and worse, taxis and tuk tuks since leaving there – it makes it much harder to get away from the crowds.

Our legs are still pretty sore, and discretion being the better part of valour we’ve decided that we’re definitely not attempting the 80km 1400m climb to Nuwara Eliya (the highest town on Sri Lanka at 1889m) tomorrow, we’re getting the train. This is for two reasons – to protect Lindso’s recovering leg, and also because the road there has a very bad reputation for being narrow, having a sheer drop on one side, and being infested with very naughty buses. I do hope our Mothers are proud of this eminently sensible decision.

Route Maps – MapMyRide
Negombo to Mirigama
Mirigama to Kandy