The SLA and LSR Adventure; Day 3, Cycling to Ambepusa

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.

We woke to clear skies over Negombo and a calm sea, it was to be the last time we’d see the ocean for 3 weeks so I took some time to sit next to the friendly dogs who live on the beach and contemplate the journey that lay before us. I’ve been lucky enough to travel in a great many parts of the world so have something to compare Sri Lanka to and know just how good it is as a destination. To be cycling and hiking across the whole country as we were about to do, well, if anything deserved the title ‘Holiday of a Lifetime’, this was going to be it.

This was the view from just outside our room at The Catamaran Hotel as we got ready to go down to breakfast.

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Our destination for this first day of cycling was going to be the rest house at Ambepussa, which was just under 50kms away. The first railway tracks in Sri Lanka, laid by the British in the mid 19th century, led from Colombo to Ambepussa and the rest house there became famous as a place to stop off en route to the city of Kandy. Apparently the rest house hasn’t been altered much since those days and the trees we were soon to sit under on it’s shady patio were the same ones that were planted over 150 years ago.

We met up with LH, our guide from LSR, and our support van driven by Tilak, soon after breakfast and found the first 2 hours of cycling easy. The roads were flat and although the traffic was heavy and the air therefore a little polluted until we got out of Negombo the 5 of us made for a very visible group so the car, bus, truck and tuk tuk drivers gave us plenty of space to ride safely. The road surface was well maintained; twice I saw several local guys in full cycling kit riding racing bikes hard towards us, confident that they could reach high speeds without worrying about encountering obstructions. Most of the roads we encountered as we made our way across the country would be great for fast cycle touring actually, with rarely a pothole to worry about, although why you would rush a country like Sri Lanka is beyond my understanding.

We made frequent stops to take a drink and enjoy the surroundings. Here’s Hanna, Lamia, Jane and LH resting up after 15kms.

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Once we were stationary we started to notice much more, such as the different animals and fruits that literally surrounded us but were hard to see because they blended into the surroundings so well. One animal we saw on our first stop and that we were to get used to seeing often on our trip across the island to the east coast at Passikudah was the chameleon.

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During another stop our guide LH showed us a cashew nut tree. He threw a stone up into the leafy middle and brought a nut and it’s fruit down. In the photo below the fruit is what you can see above the nut, it’s very tasty. To think that each nut I’m used to eating in a pack of cashews has to be individually broken out of it’s shell, I’ll never complain of them being expensive ever again…

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Further down the road we came across a couloir factory, where the husks of coconuts were taken and processed, largely by hand, so they could be made into rope, brooms and other items.

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The people were very friendly and it was our first chance to take portraits, which they were happy to pose for.

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Now, you don’t have to give money to everybody you meet in Sri Lanka who poses for your camera. Our guides were very strict about that, sometimes it’s just not appropriate to do so. But in this case it would have been ok to offer a small amount by way of thanks. The problem was we’d just changed money up and the bank had given us large denomination notes, so we couldn’t offer these people anything, as asking for change from them isn’t right either. So, if you’re going to Sri Lanka do remember to ask the bank for some small notes (50′s and 100′s) so you can tip if the occasion demands it.

The clouds closed in after a couple of hours and the rain fell, but it was nowhere near as heavy as the day before.

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I intended to make a film about the whole journey so I was wearing my Garmin head camera a lot of the time. Lucky the Garmin is waterproof so I never had to worry about taking it off. Of course, the more well known action cameras created by Go Pro can be put in a waterproof housing but if you do that you loose microphone quality whilst the Garmin functions as well in the rain as in the dry.

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Here’s Lamia taking a portrait of a lady on the roadside. Sri Lanka is a photographer’s paradise really, there are so many pleasant looking people around and not a single one of them was frowning or saying no when we asked to take their photo. It’s possible to get good portraits in many parts of the world but the feeling associated with them is never the same as in Sri Lanka, usually because you have to pay for them or people are too shy or reluctant to pose. But in Sri Lanka you raise your camera and the locals immediately smile and relax into a pose that lasts as long as you need it to.

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After a lunch of fresh mango and pineapple which Tilak bought from one of the many fruit stalls that lined the road we moved eastwards on wet tarmac flanked with banana trees, palms, cashew nut trees, fields of pineapple and pea-green rice paddies and arrived at Ambepussa early afternoon. Lamia and Hanna didn’t ride all the way, having decided that 3 hours on a bike was enough for the first day. We had the support van and there was no compulsion for any of us to cycle all the way, every day. Whenever anybody got tired or too hot it was a simple matter to take off their front wheel, load the bike into the back of the van and for them to sit up front alongside Tilak. I never wanted to do that as I’m reasonably fit and enjoy doing a lot of exercise but for Lamia, who isn’t a strong cyclist and isn’t used to exercising every day, it was ideal. This was another great aspect of the trip, LSR had catered for cyclists of all abilities in their plans and we all felt that there was something personally satisfying to be found in each day’s riding, whether we rode all the way or just for an hour or so.

Here is the view as we arrived at the lovely Ambepussa rest house.

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And here is our room. In the other corner that you can’t see was a TV and air con unit.

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We got showered and dressed and walked across the car park into the main building to use the wifi, which was a stronger signal the nearer to reception you got. Here’s Lamia standing outside our room on the way out.

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The colonnade leading from reception to the restaurant was airy and cool. Many of the older building in Sri Lanka were built to take advantage of local wind directions, so as to harness that wind as a natural fan.

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The relaxed atmosphere was enhanced by a man playing a flute in a little wooden tree house just beyond the restaurant area.

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And in the restaurant area itself was a jackfruit tree, you can see the huge fruit hanging down from it in the photo below. The skin is tough but if you cut it open there are many juicy segments to be eaten or used in curries.

We sat around this area Skyping the folks at home in England and Canada for the rest of the afternoon, then after dinner we got an early night. The day’s cycling had caught up with us and tomorrow was going to be another 50km ride to Pinnewala, followed by the possibility of riding elephants in the evening, and even bathing with them in a river!

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If you want to learn more about the Ambepussa rest house you can do so here - http://ceylonhotelscorporation.com/explore-our-hotels/rest-house/ambepussa-heritage-rest-house.html

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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