Jason Heaton Takes On Sri Lanka’s Hill Country By Bicycle
Sri Lanka In Spandex
By the middle of Day Three, Upali’s knee could take no more. Turning the cranks caused him shooting pain and his knee was starting to swell. We had 1,500 metres of climbing ahead of us, and he wisely chose to flag down a tuk-tuk to take him on ahead. When they disappeared from sight, I realized I was alone, a bit afraid of what lay ahead, besides all that climbing. That was the day I saw the elephant.
It was over beers, in the depths of a northern winter, that my friend, Upali, and I hatched the idea to ride our bicycles, self-supported, across the Sri Lankan hill country. We were both avid cyclists, always looking for new challenges. Somehow, the notion of dodging top-heavy lorries on steep, narrow roads with precipitous drop-offs, all in tropical heat, sounded appealing. We laid out a map of Sri Lanka and traced the serpentine roads we would follow from Kandy up to Nuwara Eliya and then back down to finish at a friend’s house near Hatton.
In early January, a week before flying from the U.S. to Sri Lanka, I bought a hard-sided shipping box for my bike and filled it with all the gear I thought I’d need to ride for three days away from cities and bike shops. I stocked plenty of spare tubes and spokes and chain links, plus all the tools needed to rebuild a bike on the side of the road. I was thankful to see the box emerge intact on the baggage carousel at the airport in Katunayake, its journey complete, though mine had hardly begun.
Before setting out, we spent a last night in Kandy, at Upali’s mother’s house. She fed us heaping plates of vegetarian curries and rice, then proceeded to stand over me and make sure I was enjoying it. I found the food less spicy than what I was used to eating in Colombo and I later asked Upali if Kandyan food was tamer. He laughed and told me that his Amma was concerned that her usual level of spice might be too much for me, and so left it out entirely.
Our riding started at dawn, as any good adventure should. Day One promised to be grueling, due to the 1,500 metres of climbing and also to my soft winter legs that hadn’t turned a crank since October. My fears about crumbling tarmac and bike-swallowing potholes were unfounded, and a ribbon of what Sri Lankans call “carpet” – newly poured blacktop – stretched out before us. We settled into a rhythmic pedaling cadence that we sustained for hours. I lodged my chain firmly into a low “granny” gear and spun my way up and up. Upali’s lighter bike allowed him to pull ahead at times, but his lack of a third chainwheel and low gear led to sore knees.
Our goal for the day was to reach Nuwara Eliya, the highest town in Sri Lanka, by dark. We had booked a room at the government-run guesthouse there. Around noon, we had made it about halfway and pulled off the main road at a busy restaurant for lunch. I tried to resist the urge to overeat, but my body cried out for calories, and I ate far more rice and curry than a man who has sixty more uphill kilometres to pedal should. We finished with some tea and, with no time to waste, swung legs over our trusty steeds and set off again.
The water inside the thambili, or king coconut, is nature’s energy drink. It is common for training athletes and sick infants in Sri Lanka to drink it for its restorative qualities, and there was no shortage of thambili sellers along the roadside. For a few rupees, these sellers expertly wield a scary-looking machete to hack off the top of the bright orange coconut and insert a drinking straw. The water is sweet but not syrupy, with a refreshing taste; it was far better than the powdered drink I had packed, and many of our kilometres were fueled by it.
As we climbed higher in elevation, the landscape changed from forest to open, misty hills and terraced tea plantations. The temperature changed as well, cooling to provide an autumnal feel. It was perfect for our level of exertion, and I could see why this part of Sri Lanka reminded the first English and Scottish planters of their homelands.
As the sun started to set, we were still 15 kilometres from our destination. We had reached an impossibly steep bit of road where, if we stopped pedaling, there was no way to get going again. We were resigned to push our bikes uphill, our ill-suited, cleated shoes clacking on the pavement. Upali finally flagged down a passing van and asked for a lift. The driver was happy to oblige, thus we threw our bikes into the back and climbed in. Though it was an early surrender on our trip, it was an compromise we were willing to live with.
The Nuwara Eliya guesthouse was a stark place on a windswept hill. Clouds had rolled in and lights were turned on by the time we arrived. We stowed our bikes behind the kitchen and settled into our room to drop our gear and clean up before eating. Dinner was a quiet affair. We were too tired to talk much but enjoyed a Lion lager and more rice and curry. Before turning in, we begrudgingly went outside to clean our bikes’ chains, much to the amusement of the kitchen staff, who looked on. I have rarely slept better than I did that night.