The Sri Lankan Airlines and LSR Coast to Coast Adventure; Days 1 & 2

During 2014 the Trek and Run team joined others to cycle and trek over 650kms, coast to coast across Sri Lanka. We were supported on our journey by the following companies, who provided the resources we needed to make the best of our time there.

In early May, 2014, my wife Lamia and I flew from London to Colombo to begin our coast to coast adventure that would see us travelling across the island of Sri Lanka. Most of the 650km journey would be covered by cycle but there was a 22km mountainous stretch, up and down Adam’s Peak on the holiest full moon festival of the Buddhist year, that we’d have to traverse on foot, sleeping in pilgrim shelters and a local village home for 3 nights and taking on a 1,000 metre ascent through thick jungle that no tourist had ever attempted before.

It’d been challenging to pack for such an expedition. It wasn’t that it was that difficult to think about what we would encounter, only that we’d never cycled, climbed or tried to make a film (that was part of our mission, to film the action) for any length of time in a tropical climate so we had to find out about a whole new range of clothes and equipment that would be best suited to the heat, monsoonal rain and humidity. The temperature in the highlands was likely to be around the 22 degree mark and in the lowlands up to 41 degrees, whilst the first 2 weeks was due to be spent battling the monsoon and the last week the dry zone, so we’d need clothes and footwear that would allow us to cycle and hike in that varying weather as well as keep the leeches away (the jungle climb was going to be crawling with them). Then there was going to be the evenings to deal with (the hotels that LSR own and use in Sri Lanka are always very decent, so we wanted to look respectable when we sat for dinner of an evening) and beaches to enjoy for a few days at either end of the tour, and then finally some general touring at religious sites which meant we’d need to be modestly covered. After must searching we settled on;

A Garmin Virb Action Camera to do the filming (alongside our Nikon SLR’s). It’s study, waterproof (so no need for a housing), and it can also do still photos of up to 12mb and time lapse sequences.

Gore Bikewear for our cycling. It’s high quality, good value, looks great and was built to handle the temperatures and monsoon rainfall that we were due to encounter.

Gore Runningwear for when we were at the beach and wanting to keep in shape (we do enjoy our fitness and need to do something every day or we get a bit twitchy) for the same reasons as the bikewear.

Helly Hansen for evening and general sightseeing clothes and shoes. The clothes are hard wearing but presentable and their sports shoes are good for a multitude of situations and keep their looks after repeated wear.

Tilley Hats. They’re very hard wearing, they do the job of keeping your head protected from the sun and heat, and they’ve got a lifetime, no-quibble guarantee against loss.

Craghoppers new range of Nosilife insect repellant clothing for hiking and evenings on the beaches, where the mossies and sand bugs can be an issue. Lamia also had a pair of Columbia insect proof trousers for hiking and relaxing in areas with lots of biting insects.

(I’ll add a full kit list at the end of this article in case you were thinking of doing this sort of thing yourself)

As it turns out, biting insects weren’t a problem. We’d thought they might be but it was one of those preconceptions that we had lots of that turned out to be wrong. Another was the monsoon; it was due to hit us for the first 2 weeks of our trip and we thought that hiking and cycling through it was going to be hell. The reality was that apart from one time the rain was little more than a fine mist and far from dreading the appearance of black clouds we welcomed them, knowing that soon we’d be refreshed. But more about that in the future blog posts…

We took the night flight from London; Sri Lankan Airlines offer the only non stop flight from London to Colombo so it was good to settle down into our seats knowing that we didn’t have to change or stop in the Middle East as we would do if we were flying Emirates or Qatar Airlines. Another plus of flying Sri Lankan is the friendliness of the staff. They greet you as you board the plane in a very genuine manner, hands clasped together below broad smiles, and the smiles stay throughout the flight which is rather different to the Middle Eastern based airlines such as Emirates or Qatar staff who offer, in my experience, a very Western version of politeness. They’re nice enough but make it clear that it’s purely business, you know what I mean?

The food was great and when I asked for a large Arak (coconut spirit) and Soda with a Ginger Beer on the side the attendant gave me them and then asked, with a smile, if I’d care to take advantage of the ‘take one get one free’ offer? Why not, I thought, it’ll help me sleep… Then he said the same thing when he bought the dinner wine around…

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So, we both slept very well and woke to bright skies over the Indian Ocean.

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Airport procedures in Colombo are very, very different to those in the west. There are no scowling immigration officers here, no security staff scrutinizing your every move and possession. We’d got our one month visa online a few weeks before we’d be due to fly for $20 so the officer just stamped my passport, gave me a welcome pack with a free phone simcard in it (honestly, would this happen anywhere else in the world? The only thing immigration officers are likely to give us innocent travellers in our home countries of England or Canada are superior scowls, silly questions and a cavity search if we dare point out their arrogance) and told me that I was welcome and to enjoy my stay.

An LSR representative, Siri, who was going to be our driver and guide for the first couple of days and then for the last 2 weeks of the adventure, met us as we emerged into the arrivals hall. He was a kind, humorous man, a great linguist (with Italian, Spanish, Russian and German spoken as well as English) and an excellent guide; there was no question we could ask that he couldn’t immediately provide an answer for and no subject that he didn’t have an interesting and funny story about.

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Siri drove us to the Catamaran in Negombo, one of 3 fine hotels that we were due to stay in during our tour that are owned by LSR themselves. It’s an airy place with bright, clean rooms (this is a photo of our room before we unpacked)…

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…and a swimming pool area that led straight onto Negombo’s sandy beach.

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The garden looked like this when we arrived at around 2pm…

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…but by 4 it was a very different sight as the monsoon rain began to fall.

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The rain was warm but still, we were worried at the thought of having to cycle in such a downpour. Luckily though we never encountered such heavy rain whilst we were on the road, it only rained 3 times with such ferocity and always in the late afternoon and by then we were already in our hotel.

We sat on our veranda and watched the heavens continue to empty well into the evening. The rhythm of rain pounding on palm leaves was hypnotic and Lamia, who was born in noisy, monsoon-prone Dhaka, started to doze. I, however, raised in the quiet corner of England known as Kent, could never sleep through such a racket and instead sat and watched the storm light up the Indian Ocean until about 8 or 9pm, when the rain stopped abruptly and we could explore the hotel and immediate surroundings a little.

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The next day we were to have a trial ride on our mountain bikes, just a few kms around the town of Negombo to get used to the climate and road conditions. Our other 2 team members, Hanna and Jane, who would stay with us until halfway across the island (they had jobs to go back to England for and couldn’t afford to take a month off) joined us after breakfast and we also met our cycling guide LH, who was to lead us across the island to Passikudah, a beach paradise that has only become developed and safe since the civil war ended 5 years ago. Here’s a shot of us when we first chose our bikes and helmets, before we got changed and went for a ride.

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Most of our cycling was to be done on sealed roads but we had mountain bikes instead of road bikes as there were a few times when we’d be on dirt tracks or broken up roads whilst in the highland areas. Lamia mounted her bike uncertainly, she’s only learnt to ride a few months ago and since then hadn’t had any practice at all. She didn’t have anything to worry about though, there was no pressure on any of us to complete all of the ride. We’d have a van following us every km of the way, carrying our bags but also with enough space for us to climb in (complete with our bikes) if we got tired or just felt like we didn’t want to ride anymore that day.

I’d been a bit worried about road conditions; I’d read a fair bit of news about traffic accidents in Sri Lanka and even staff at the Catamaran hotel had warned me “Watch out for the Tuk Tuk taxis, they’ll indicate left but then go the other way!” But we had no issues on this first day, in fact, the ride showed us clearly what we were in for. The drivers were careful of us, nobody cut us up or made us fear for our safety, lots of people smiled as we passed (including all the traffic police), several waved and we felt welcome everywhere we stopped.

I’ll say this now, just to make it really clear, Sri Lanka is by far the friendliest country in the world that I’ve visited, and cycling is a great way to experience what it has to offer. Ok, I haven’t been to all the world, just 70 countries, but of those even Malawi, the next friendliest, is miles behind. Over the next month we’d be invited into village houses often for tea for no reason other than to offer us hospitality, always be met with genuine smiles wherever we went and, this is important for those of us who enjoy capturing our memories with cameras, never had a request for a photo turned down, no matter who we asked.

The Sri Lankan heat, which I’d feared as much as the traffic, didn’t actually prove itself to be a problem either. When we stood still on this first day it was baking hot and after a few minutes would become unbearable, but when we were cycling the breeze was cool and I could feel that as long as I had my Gore long sleeved cycling top on, and sunscreen, and kept moving, I’d cope pretty easily.

Naturally riding in the air conditioned van would have seemed more comfortable but the reality of that is you miss so much. You can see roadside scenes, sure, but the smells and sounds that lead you off the road (up alleyways and into hidden areas where there’d be a mini festival or joyous gathering going on) were only going to reveal themselves to you if you were travelling by bike, exposed to the open air and not insulated by closed windows or the whir of the air condition unit.

As for walking, well, usually I prefer it to cycling but on that first ride, through the hot, crowded streets of Negombo, I was glad to be on a bike. We travelled slow enough to notice everything but fast enough to be cooled by the breeze and being on the roads we didn’t get bogged down by the pavement crowds. So, we were happy, and satisfied that we were crossing the island by the best means possible.

Here are a few images we snapped during our ride about Negombo. The first stop was at the pungent fish market. The catch was being unloaded from the boats straight onto the beach where some was then laid out to dry, like this;

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…whilst the glistening, silver and blue sardines were piled high on stalls.

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There was much to occupy the camera. I tried to do some filming but everytime I got the tripod out a crowd gathered which made it difficult. It’s not that they were hassling me, far from it, it’s just that I wanted a natural scene and everybody was intent on facing the camera, smiling and waving. I quickly decided that the tripod would have to go!

Another problem I encountered was that since I couldn’t carry my larger cameras with me I stored them in the air conditioned van and as soon as they were brought out into the humid air their lens fogged up for 5 minutes or so due to the sudden change of temperature. The answer was to keep their bag sealed tight whilst in the van, so that they didn’t get very cold. So, these were the initial challenges encountered regarding cameras in the humid, tropical climate of Sri Lanka.

Our second stop was at a roadside stall selling King Coconut. The coconuts are full of water and once the seller hacks the top off with a machete they make for refreshing drinks. We came to look forward to our King Coconut stops and I’d advise any visitor to the country to try them out as they’re cheap, tasty and far better for you than any fizzy drink will ever be.

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After the ride it was back to the Catamaran for dinner, sunset and an early night. The next day we’d begin our adventure with a 50km ride to the town of Ambepussa, which was the terminus for the island’s first railway, built by the British in the mid 19th century. We were aware that we wouldn’t see the ocean again for the 21 days it would take us to cross the island so we enjoyed it’s company whilst the light lasted…

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…and then enjoyed dinner. In all we were to stay at the Catamaran Hotel for 6 nights, 3 before we left for our adventure and 3 after we’d finished and were relaxing before we flew back to England, and throughout that time the food, offered buffet style, was excellent. If you don’t like spicy food you would be on salads all the time, true, as almost everything that was cooked had a level of spicy heat to it. I love this sort of food but if by chance you didn’t, the salads were excellently presented, varied and fresh…

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For vegetarians there was a good range. Here’s a photo we took of half of the veggie dishes on offer one day, you can see the far end is rice  and noodles, then nearer the camera is a green veg mix and a potato curry.

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Fish was always on offer, wherever we went on the island. At the Catamaran the fish curry was lovely. I always had it with rice, daal and some sort of veg curry. Breakfast, lunch or dinner, I never tired of it!

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The LSR staff, at the Catamaran as elsewhere, were great. If you wanted to talk about the food on offer that day then Chef was always on hand and the waiting staff were similarly always available. As I said the food was self service, buffet style so the waiting staff were mostly employed in bringing drinks and making you feel comfortable and at home, which they achieved easily. When a nation is as friendly as Sri Lanka is then working in the hospitality industry comes naturally to the people. I very much doubt that you’d find this level of service anywhere else in the world. Recently I’ve travelled widely in India, Thailand, Italy, France, Greece, Canada, England and Morocco and to be perfectly frank none of those places comes close to Sri Lanka when it comes to offering a genuinely friendly standard of service. Sure, they have isolated pockets of friendliness and good service in all of these countries, especially Greece, but it’s all too often the exception rather than the rule, whilst in Sri Lanka a genuine welcome is something you experience almost every day, no matter where you go and regardless of the amount of money you’re spending.

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Here’s a full kit list with web links, made in hindsight, of what we think you should take on such a journey as our coast to coast cycle and hiking adventure.

Craghoppers insect proof hiking trousers and light hoodies - www.craghoppers.com

Gore bikewear and Gore runningwear, including a single biking waterproof which you can also use for hiking - www.goreapparel.co.uk

Helly Hansen travel/beach clothes and shoes (we used their hydropower shoes for cycling and hiking) – www.hellyhansen.com

Tilley Hats – www.tilley.com

Sunscreen – ultrasun - www.ultrasun.co.uk

Lip Balm – Dr Bronner - www.kinetic4health.co.uk

Bloc Eyewear Sports and Leisure sunglasses - www.bloceyewear.com

Lifemarque First Aid Kit - www.lifesystems.co.uk

If you’d like to know more about LSR, please visit www.lsr-srilanka.com

and if you’d like to discover more about the service offered by Sri Lankan Airlines - www.srilankan.com

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