FLASH FLOODS, MOUNTAIN PASSES AND KILLER CURRIES – SRI LANKA HAS ’EM IN SPADES. THIS IS THE ADV TOURING DESTINATION YOU’VE NEVER HEARD OF
Speeding Lanka Ashok buses were all-too-common as we made our way across Sri Lanka, but this was the first time I’d inspected one from underneath. Ten days into the trip and feeling comfortable on the bike, I was suddenly confronted by the menacing grille of an oncoming bus as we swung into another blind corner.
Sadly, there was no room for both of us on this particular stretch of single-lane mountain road, so I grabbed the brakes and headed for the drainage ditch. Inevitably, the front wheel slid out from under me and all I could see was rapidly disappearing blue sky as the undercarriage of the bus began to swallow me up.
Thankfully, the bus, the bike and its rider all came to a neat halt, mere inches from each other, and passengers began piling out to see the silly tourist that had interrupted their commute. In reality, the lovely Lankans had genuine concern for my wellbeing and, after being reassured the only real damage was to my pride and my paintjob, we all continued onward.
“The Bus Incident” was marked down as another near-miss in a fortnight of unending two-wheeled adventures as my buddy Rhys and I rode a loop across central and southern Sri Lanka. The decision to wrestle ageing Honda Baja 250s in a 1200km circuit around the island state evoked a wide range of reactions.
But the most common – especially among those who had visited Sri Lanka – was that we would surely meet a sticky end (probably under a bus). While the Lanka Ashok Leylands were certainly the biggest, fastest (and most deadly) obstacles we faced on the narrow mountain roads, there was also a fun mix of flash floods, stray wildlife, potholes and even the odd landslide to keep us on our toes.
But the scenery. The people. The food. The surf. And damn … those roads – that was what really made this jaunt special. It kept us pushing through unknown corners of the country to eagerly soak up what was waiting around the next bend.
After flying in from opposite sides of Australia, Rhys and I caught up in Kuala Lumpur before a short hop to Negombo on Sri Lanka’s west coast. It was here we collected out steeds. Smiling Suranga Perera from Negombo Motorcycle Tours helped fine-tune our itinerary before letting us loose in the traffic and we headed north, 150km to Dambulla and our first homestay.
ROAD LESS TRAVELLED
Roads out of the city and around major towns proved to be well-signed, but these were busy, hectic and well, boring. Our first full day of exploring set the tone for uncovering Sri Lanka’s lesser-known sights.
The chief attraction around Sigiriya (part of the country’s ‘Cultural Triangle’) is Lion Rock – a palace on top of a giant boulder. But the idea of joining hundreds of tourists and paying 30 bucks for the privilege was not very appealing.
Instead, we heard about Pidurangala – a semi-secret temple on top of an adjacent hill. So we climbed up there, had the place to ourselves and watched the tourists file up Lion Rock from a distance.
Day three brought “The Big Wet” – an eight-hour marathon of torrential rain, flash flooding and wrong turns, capped off with a broken bike. Sometime after breakfast, my blue Baja decided it didn’t think much of the wet weather.
The idle-adjust snapped off. The electric starter failed. As did the headlights. And there was no kickstarter. Cue an afternoon of Rhys push-starting me where there were no downhill slope, and all in ceaseless tropical rain. It got annoying pretty fast.
Angling toward the Hill Country, the rain and swollen rivers were replaced with misty tea plantations and lush hillsides. Not to mention sweet, winding mountain roads.
Murderous buses continued, but a quick burst of heel and toe action would usually squirt us out of trouble. Nuwara Eliya was the first target at 1800m elevation, where we stopped long enough to buy warmer clothes before pushing onto World’s End and Horton Plains (2300m) the next day.
At Horton Plains National Park, we were met with an alien alpine landscape that somehow resembled parts of Tasmania. Swampy marshlands surrounded by low shrubs and tussock grass mean this national park is unique in Sri Lanka and its crystal streams feed many of the country’s main rivers.
Best of all was the ride out – no trees, no buses, no traffic at all –just a wild blast down the mountain, surrounded by the otherworldly beauty of this strange terrain. Which brought us to Ella – a highlight of our trip. This compact town somehow balances on a steep hillside and is somehow serviced by trains from Kandy for what must be one epic rail journey.
Waterfalls and tea plantations cascade all around you, while monkeys climb through eucalypt trees. While those abundant gum trees help make Aussies feel right at home, they also serve to provide fast-growing hardwood.
That evening, in need of a sunset beer, we waved off the various backpacker cafes in favour of the local’s bar. A dim, seedy den of iniquity. Hopefully. Instead we find ourselves chatting to Rohan, a local who spent two years in Australia in the 1980s on a theatre scholarship.
TO THE COAST
Since its inception, our plan had included a surfing component. But before we could head to the beach, there was the small matter of another broken clutch lever (c’mon, those Bajas are heavy!)
Down the mountain from Ella, we found an agreeable bike mechanic in Bandarawela. Despite the relative obscurity of our bikes, the Sri Lankans never batted an eyelid when tackling repairs – they just took a bit longer.
Now the beach was calling. We initially tried Mirissa on the south coast, but that was a bit touristy, a bit crowded and a bit lacking in waves.
Twenty minutes on, we found Midigama – not so much a town as a collection of homestays along the highway. But there was surf…
Soon we had rental boards and were carefully navigating the four-lane highway.
The waves were less than epic, but Midigama had a friendly vibe and a few surf spots to choose from according to the tide. Plus, when it’s 35deg-plus and there’s not much else to do, surfing just seems like a sensible option.
We parked up the bikes and stayed there four days, enjoying the chance to explore historic Galle (via train) and the respite from the torturous seats of the Bajas.
LONG WAY UP
Heading north back to Negombo presented two options – the busy highway up the west coast, or a twisting inland route. It was a no-brainer.
Looking for a destination to break up the journey, we settled on Kitulgala, a white-water rafting hotspot a lazy 200km north. Hot dog!
A relaxing morning spent tootling through misty tea plantations soon gave way to small-town gridlock and maniacal overtakers. By lunchtime we were stress-eating. I think I even ate dessert by accident. It was a tough day on the bikes.
Even though our treehouse overlooking the river was falling to bits (a common theme in Sri Lanka), it sure was pretty. And those rapids looked fun.
Next morning saw us piling into a raft to take on the Kelani River.
While we did get dumped on our arses, the river was fairly tame – so why not tackle it with inner tubes and no guides?
This sounded appealing in a dangerous sort of way. After a quick trip to the tyre shop and a tuk-tuk ride up-river, we launched off the bank once more into the raging torrent. No one died, so our inner-tube rafting was deemed a success.
What we learned on this trip is that in a country with decent roads, where most people speak a bit of English, and with a decent bike under you, there are few boundaries. It’s easy to follow the tourist trail, but in Sri Lanka it’s really no harder to discover a scenic back-lane, an unknown town, or a deserted viewpoint.
The country is littered with amazing sights and equally astounding roads to take you there. You just gotta look a bit harder.
Now get cracking.
Motorbikes are readily available for rent from Negombo, a popular beach town near the international airport, starting from around US$30 per day.
We used Suranga Perera from Negombo Motorcycle Tours, who was extremely helpful, but he does get busy so bookings are recommended.
Suranga runs a fleet well-maintained of Honda Bajas, NX650 Dominators, Royal Enfields, sports bikes, scooters and hire cars. See www. negombo-motorcycle-tours.com
Yellow Fleet also hires bikes out of Negombo, but we have not tried them.
Negombo Motorcycle Tours: See www.srilankamotorbiketours.com
MAKE IT LEGAL
Sri Lanka requires that riders have their International Drivers Licence endorsed in Colombo to be road-legal. If not, your insurance could be invalid. Suranga organised this for us before our arrival for an extra $50, but in two weeks of riding, we were not stopped once.
WORDS // BEN KEYS
PHOTOS // RHYS STACKER & BK
Readers ride appeared in ADB #450