Sri Lanka has a history of European rule for over 500 years. The country was occupied by the Portuguese from 1505 until the Dutch intervention and the capture of Colombo in 1656, and by 1660 the entire island was subjected to Dutch rule. In 1802 the British stepped in and by 1815 had overrun the country, eventually occupying the final independent state, the Kingdom of Kandy. The British transformed the island with coffee, tea and rubber plantations, hiring and importing cheap indentured labour from southern India and the population of the Indian Tamil people quickly increased to 10% of the countries inhabitants. The Sri Lankan independence movement succeeded in February 1948 and the country became the Dominion of Ceylon and remained within the Commonwealth. It wasn’t until May 1972 when country became the Republic of Sri Lanka. Through a series of subsequent political movements the country suffered civil unrest which culminated in a 26 year civil war between the Sinhalese and the Tamil peoples from 1983 to 2009. The war was largely concentrated in the north where the Tamil people resided. The war was devastating for the countries environment, economy and population with an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 civilian deaths and over 50,000 fighters of each side of the conflict.
Due to the recent conflict in the north, this area is generally less travelled. The tourism industry is not as prevalent as it is in the south and in contrast to the south, where the majority of the population were Buddhists, the northern population is largely a Hindu community and so a visit to the north offers a completely different experience. For these reasons Mario and I couldn’t resist a visit on our bicycles and boldly go where perhaps not many cycle tourists have been before.
We only had 21 days together which was insufficient time to explore the entire island, we had to modify our route and change our plan on more than one occasion. Unfortunately, the ancient cities and national parks, which were the most expensive attractions, were first to kick the bucket. This brought a great sadness as my chances of spotting a wild elephant were quashed. Perhaps it was for the good, one less tourist, one less jeep, one moderately happier matriarch and family.
After a three day rest in Kandy where we spent much of the time lazing about in hammocks overlooking the city, we decided to catch the train to Jaffna to maximise our cycle touring potential and broaden our Sri Lankan experience.
After stepping off the train, the difference in culture was immediately apparent, faces had changed and Buddhist stupas had been replaced by Hindu temples, Jaffna almost felt like a little India. A little, less-populated India. The following morning I ran along the seafront at sunrise passing groups of fishermen sorting through the previous nights catch as they prepared for the early morning fish market. They looked rather surprised to see a very sweaty, topless white man running for pleasure, so what else to do than a jolly “Good morning!” Later that morning we visited the Portuguese built, Jaffna Fort which, like Galle Fort, was later developed by the Dutch. We walked along the battlements firing invisible arrows at imaginary invaders. We then rode via the very architecturally European clock tower and library to the Hindu temple, Nallur Kandaswamy before making preparations for the final leg of our Sri Lankan cycle tour. The day came to a close and we watched in awe as the sun set behind fishing vessels across the Laccadive Sea.
Mario and I set off at 08:30 the next morning, as always, the sun was already high in the sky. We cycled out of the city as locals were busy preparing shop fronts and market stalls for the days commerce. They continued with a life of peace, the war now a distant memory as they waved joyfully at our passing. We followed the British built railway eastwards, cycling between perfectly uniform rows of coconut trees. Despite the recent conflict the roads were in good condition, though the land mine clearance stations were a reminder of the past animosity. We cycled via Elephant Pass, a strategic strip of land that linked the countries mainland to the Jaffna Peninsula, also referred to as the ‘Gateway to Jaffna’. It was the site of much of the conflict, the memorial commemorated a unified Sri Lanka after the truce in 2009.
Unfortunately, to tip scales of egalitarianism, the following morning we then passed the Victory Monument, which was erected to celebrate a final ‘victory’ against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam who fought for Tamil rights. Salt in the already sore wounds to many of the Tamil inhabitants.
Riding across the north of Sri Lanka was uncomfortably quiet after growing accustomed to the populated southern provinces and central highlands. But quiet meant that we had the roads to ourselves, a rare luxury, one that I had to think as far back as Pakistan to remember such cycle touring solitude. Peacocks roamed in fields and black lizards and mongoose, startled by our silent approach dashed across the road.
For many months I had dreamed of camping on the beach, listening to the waves washing up against the shore, a cool breeze caressing my skin. I was worried as we were fast running out of time to turn these dreams into a reality. We reached the east coast and cycled along a sandy road, past small fishing villages in search of a secluded beach. We hid like mischievous children in the scrub land and waited until dark before we man-handled our heavily laden bikes across the sand and pitched our tents. There was slightly more than a gentle breeze but it was refreshing, we enjoyed the scents of the sea. My dream fulfilled at last.
Unfortunately, the coastal winds increased in strength throughout the night, I woke many times and at 05:00 a squadron of tractors cut through the tranquility with a blunt, rusty knife, their raucous engines growling as they towed fishing boats into and out of the sea. However, we were in their territory and they had to make a living. Inevitably, they couldn’t resist the temptation, a few were brave enough to peer into our tents through the mesh and by the time the sun appeared over the horizon we were surrounded. Mario and I were in no rush, we took our time and some of the onlookers eventually grew tired of watching us undertake the menial morning tasks of packing up camp and brushing our teeth. But some continued to linger, frustratingly obstructing what could have been a perfect beach campsite photograph.
We continued cycling south along the east coast, the sea breeze just managing to sooth the blistering heat but by midday the heat was inescapable, tantalising mirages shimmered across the black tarmac. The end of my cycle tour was near, I tried to savour every moment and soak everything in through all of my senses. Subsequently, I started laughing out loud to myself as it occurred to me that, as we passed through one particular town, I realised that I was effectively cycling down the B4114 of Sri Lanka. Children finished school and bought sweets from the local convenience store, some cycling home from school, some collected by their parents on motorbikes, a public park situated by the side of the road, but instead of English oak trees, huge Banyan trees with aerial roots hanging from the branches stood proud. I turned a corner and local people were spreading rice out to dry on the main road. This was simply everyday life for the Sri Lankans of the north.
At the end of the penultimate day of my cycle tour we looked for a camping spot in Kuchchaveli, just off the beach, sheltered from the wind. Monks who resided harmoniously in the quarters of the Sri Lankan Army granted us permission to pitch our tents on their grounds. Throughout Sri Lanka we often camped on someones property or in buildings without seeking authorisation, we would just flee in the morning and leave no trace but it made me anxious and severely affected my sleep. I like my sleep and awfully aware of its importance and the ramifications of sleep deprivation. With permission to camp I felt at ease, no one would bother us and with the army nearby no one could harm us. The monks kindly allowed us to use their shower and offered us a cup of tea. To my amusement, Mario accidentally sat in a seat reserved strictly for monks, he was immediately accused and after a shameful look from a resident monk he apologised profusely, cowering, head down as he moved to join me on a low wooden bench.
The following morning I woke refreshed and rejuvenated after a sound sleep. I felt good, we only had 28 kilometres to Trincomalee, our final destination and the final day of my cycle tour. We watched the sunrise and packed up camp for the last time. For the last time I placed each item into its usual place in my panniers, I strapped on my rack bag, attached my handlebar bag, reset my odometer and cycled away from my last temporary home.
Mario and I cycled at a gentle, carefree pace, making the most of our final hours on the road together. Within two hours, and a break for a breakfast omelette, we rolled our tyres into the town of Uppuveli, the town just north of Trincomalee, and to the gate of the White House Guest House. I pulled my brake levers, Victouria came to a stop. That was it. It was all over. I felt… as I had felt every day. I didn’t feel sadness. I didn’t feel exhilarated. I could only assume that all the emotions cancelled out one another. But something didn’t feel quite right. I was so used to this routine, cycle touring had been my life for almost eight months. Was I ready for all this to end?
After checking in Mario and I headed into town for lunch, Mario was in increasing pain, he hobbled around keeping the weight off his right foot. A number of insect bites had become infected over the last few days. Deciding that a trip to the hospital was probably for the best, we took a detour on the way back. The doctor was concerned about the infection, Mario was in need of intravenous antibiotics and was admitted for two nights. I left his sullen looking face at the hospital and promised to return that evening during visiting hours. Quite the anticlimax but at least Mario was in good care.
As promised I returned, the manager of the guest house had kindly provided a pillow, blanket, bottled water and a hot meal of Mario’s absolute favourite, chicken friend rice. We woke Mario from an afternoon nap, he was certainly making the most of the rest and air conditioning. It was sad to see him confined to a hospital ward but thankfully he was on the mend, his wounds had been cleaned and he was dotted with cotton wool and medical tape. If all went well Mario would be discharged in two days, we decided to postpone any celebrations until he was free.
It wasn’t until the following day that the magnitude of the end of my trip finally sunk in. I armed myself with a bottle of Lion Stout, an ale that I had been itching to try since discovering it three weeks ago in Colombo, and headed to the surprisingly quiet Uppuveli beach. I sat back on a sun lounger, plugged in my ear phones and cracked open the stout. I sat for almost two hours and watched as the sun sank below the horizon, waves washing up against the shore. Apart from the occasional wanderer I had this section of beach to myself. I cast my mind back over the past months and found it hard to contemplate the extent of the trip. I looked back through some of the photos taken by Jacob, Mario and I, these images now memories. Memories of Jacob and I struggling to haul our bikes up mountain passes in Kyrgyzstan, back when we were merely cycle touring amateurs almost eight months ago, I vividly remember sweating it out under a bus stop by the roadside on day one, day one! I looked back through memories of the Karakoram Highway meandering through the red, Mars-like mountains of Xinjiang, China and the quality time we shared as a cycle touring trio. Memories of the sharp pinnacles of the Karakoram mountain range in Pakistan, voluptuous valleys, glorious glaciers and the delightful Deosai National Park. Memories of the fertile plains of north India, our journeys to the hill stations of the Himalayan foothills and the fantastic Indian food, perfect cycle touring fuel. Memories of the quaint villages of Nepal, the mighty Himalayas and life on the trail, trekking the Annapurna Circuit. Memories of my solo cycling adventures. And memories of the tropical beaches, tea plantations and hill country of Sri Lanka.
The trip had been largely alcohol-free, with the exception of the odd beer in India, at Christmas and time in Nepal off the bike. My body unaccustomed to alcohol, the 8.8% tall bottle almost swept me off my feet. I was overwhelmed with absolute joy, the kind of joy that brings a tear to one’s eye, it had been such an epic, epic adventure. An adventure that tested me, an adventure that almost broke me but an adventure that opened my eyes to the beauty of this world, my eyes had indulged in an abundance of natural, awe inspiring beauty. An adventure that opened my heart to the kindness and generosity of the people within it. I had the pleasure of meeting some incredibly humble and altruistic people who were so kindhearted and willing to help when I was in need and generous to offer what they could when they had little to give.
5,500 kilometres, eight months, six countries, one puncture, one million bananas, a colossal mountain of curry and rice and a razor sharp tan line. I have lived my decade long dream of a long distance cycle tour and I survived to tell the tale. I have countless memories. Memories to last a life time. And an insatiable appetite, one that could out-eat a silver back gorilla, but maybe that has always been the case.
Mario was discharged from hospital. We did what we, as cycle tourers, rarely ever did and splashed out. We went for a celebratory meal though unfortunately, considering the cost of the meal, it didn’t touch the sides. We had to order two main courses each. Mario had, on many occasions, attempted to entice me into continue cycling with him through Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and back with him to his homeland. As much as I have loved cycling with Mario and cycling through Asia, I was happy to see the end of this adventure. I have many more years of adventuring ahead of me.
We toasted to our adventures together and toasted to the health of the queen, a joke that we had carried across the continent, and wished that Jacob could have joined us. Mario had become more than just a friend, he was a companion, a brother. We shared some fantastically unforgettable times together from China, Nepal and Sri Lanka. I feel fortunate to have crossed paths with such a gentleman. The following morning I was extremely sad to wave goodbye. We embraced one final time, shook hands, said goodbye and promised that we would reunite in nine years time when Mario planned to cycle from China to the UK. As the tuktuk sped away I saluted a ‘legends’ salute. A salute that marked the end of an era. It was all over. I felt a sudden wave of emptiness, I felt I had no purpose and I was now stripped of my celebrity cycle tourer status, which meant that, in the words of my cycling companion, Jacob, I was officially a “Regular John“.
The end of one chapter welcomes the start of a new one. I would leave the bike behind and set out on an scuba diving, island adventure in the Philippines to, rather uncharacteristically, put my feet up and relax, to indulge in a few luxuries that the cycle tour was so devoid of, to celebrate my birthday and commemorate the last eight months.
“To love the journey is to accept no such end. I have found, through painful experience that the most important step a person can take is always the next one”
A passage from Oathbringer, Brandon Sanderson.