9,000 miles away, a paradise of adventure

3 Weeks in Sri Lanka: Serendipity and Happy Accidents

Culture By Photo by JH and Christopher Winters

Editor’s Note: Gear Patrol Correspondent Jason Heaton was dispatched 9,000 miles from Minneapolis to Sri Lanka with the goal of chasing down as much adventure in three weeks as possible. As you’ll read below, he didn’t disappoint.

On a dusk drive looking for elephants, we happened upon an old goat herder on the roadside, his few betel-stained teeth the same color as his sarong. He pointed across a clearing towards some trees, and whispered hoarsely, “Aliya, aliya.” Elephant, elephant. At first, nothing. We got out of our jeep and walked warily across the hardened turf. The evidence of elephants was all around – huge piles of dung steaming in the cooling evening air, giant footprints in the dried mud. Then, like a scene out of Jurassic Park we heard the crashing of tree limbs before the giant beast emerged. Then another. And another. A big bull emitted a deep bass rumble that made my chest vibrate and that primal, caveman place deep inside my brain said it was fight or flight time. This mammoth didn’t like the look of me.

We back pedaled and then turned and ran for the relative safety of our vehicle. The goat herder was giggling and talking in Sinhala and though I couldn’t understand what he was saying, we were sharing this adventure together. We piled into the jeep, the old man wedged in the backseat. The elephants were massing together, like a rugby scrum. They made their way towards the road and it was clear we needed to move.

The big bull, obviously the leader of the herd, flapped his ears, trumpeted loudly and rushed at us, stopping just short – a mock charge. He got close enough that I could see the dust coming off the massive head and the small eyes staring us down. If he had decided to make good on his threat, our small vehicle wouldn’t have stood a chance. Our driver slammed the jeep into reverse and floored it. The herd pressed together and rumbled across the road in front of us and disappeared, as well as a herd of elephants can, into the scrubby trees. Enough fun and games, we were giddy with adrenaline and ready for a stiff gin and tonic.

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One ancient name of Sri Lanka, the island country that drips off the southern tip of India, is Serendib, from which we get the English word, serendipity, meaning a “fortunate accidental discovery.” No doubt many ancient travelers stumbled upon this tropical paradise while sailing to India or the Far East and wondered at its beaches, misty mountains and steaming jungles. The famous vagabond, Marco Polo, once called the island (which would still be one if it were dropped into Lake Superior) “the finest of its size in the world.” Last winter, my wife, Gishani, and I left behind a brutal Minneapolis cold snap to see what happy accidents we could discover.

As we climbed back into the boat, our divemaster smiled and pointed at the hazy skyline of the city and said, “Most people there don’t know about all the beauty out here.”

A mile offshore from the bustle and diesel fumes of Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo, we checked our SCUBA gear one last time and back-rolled into the 85-degree Indian Ocean. The visibility was good and we quickly made out the familiar shape of a shipwreck below, resting on its side. As we got deeper, we made out the lifeboats strewn about, and the ship’s masts resting on the sea floor, 100 feet down. It is a largely intact wreck, an Indian freighter that sank in the early 1990s. It swarms with life – batfish, sergeant majors, lionfish and the stray barracuda. We swam a lap around the wreck, peering into the black cargo holds and wondering what secrets this boat kept.

Rounding the upturned stern, we caught sight of three ghost-like figures in the near distance. As we swam closer we discovered three cuttlefish performing a mating dance, their mesmerizing flanks rippling and changing color. I looked at Gishani and could see she was smiling behind her mask, transfixed by the scene. We stayed as long as our air supply would let us, before kicking slowly to the sun and noise and heat above. As we climbed back into the boat, our divemaster smiled and pointed at the hazy skyline of the city and said, “Most people there don’t know about all the beauty out here.”

After dodging pachyderms, exploring the depths and sweating in the heat, we aimed our jeep for the cooler climes of the Hill Country. Torturous switchbacks, potholes, stray cattle and pedestrians provide constant obstacles for a driver on these narrow, colonial-era roads. There are other, more exotic road hazards here too. Monkeys – grey langurs and macaques – scamper across the road like oversized squirrels. Road signs warn of monitor lizard crossings, and if you’re lucky you’ll see one of these six-foot dinosaurs with forked tongues ambling across the cracked pavement. What should be a two-hour drive turned into six. But somehow, it seemed appropriate to spend the day driving to the highlands because it really is a different world up there.

The rising elevation and undulating landscape strip away the heat and chaotic pace of life at sea level. At 2,000 feet, we started to see terraced tea plantations, the dark green bushes clinging to the near-vertical mountainsides and walking paths for the tea pluckers carved precipitously above the road so that we had to crane our necks to see them above us. At 4,000 feet, the fresh mountain air felt like air conditioning and we stopped repeatedly to photograph scenic valleys and waterfalls that cascaded out of jungle cliffs.

Our destination was the Tea Factory hotel. As its name suggests, this hotel was once a nineteenth-century British tea processing plant that has been meticulously renovated and converted into a luxury hotel. After six hours of winding, bumpy roads, we were ready for a little luxury when we finally caught sight of the Tea Factory. The hotel sits, literally, at the end of the road, and it played peek-a-boo with us for the last mile of approach, behind twisting hedgerows of tea. It is a grand place, perched on a 6,800-foot mountaintop, above a deep valley of tea terraces and small villages.

After a week of triple-digit heat index readings, the 60-degree temperatures felt like October in Minnesota and getting out of the jeep, I reached for the only sweater I packed. It’s not hard to imagine why the hill country is sometimes called “Little England” and why the British made themselves at home up here, playing golf and building bungalows with fireplaces. After a quick tour of the hotel grounds, which included a putting green, hedgerow maze and small organic tea processing factory, we went to our room to change for dinner.

The view out our window was spectacular. The setting sun bathed the mountainsides in a warm glow. I could see the tea pluckers walking single file along the paths, with tall wicker baskets on their backs, their job done for another day. Tea is a primary industry in Sri Lanka, and has been since it was introduced there by the British in the mid-1800s. Now Ceylon tea is known around the world. The country is proud of this heritage and evidence of the tea culture is abundant, from the upcountry factories to the high tea served at the old hotels on the seaside.

Dinner at the Tea Factory is in a cavernous dining hall that still bears some of the old machinery from its days as a sorting and packing room. A band played traditional Sri Lankan music and the food was served buffet-style, consisting mainly of hot curries, pork, chicken, and various vegetables. Sri Lankan curries are different from the Indian curries with which most people are familiar. The spices are typically roasted which gives them an earthier, smoky flavor and coconut features prominently in most dishes. Traditionally, Sri Lankans eat with their fingers but after giving it a good attempt, I reached for knife and fork and polished off a heaping plate, sating my hunger from our long day on the road.

After dinner, Gishani and I strolled outside onto the hotel lawn. Music from the dining room wafted out of the windows, mixed with laughter and conversations in a dozen languages I didn’t understand. Mist was settling on the grass and there was a chill in the air. Up there, there is no ambient light from civilization and the stars above burn brightly. It was not hard to imagine those same bright equatorial constellations guiding travelers from bygone eras – the Moors, the Arabs, the Portuguese, Dutch and British as they navigated to the East, perhaps stumbling upon this enchanted island.

Tomorrow we would head back down to Colombo for a New Year’s Eve party on the beach. Then it would only be a few more days before flying home. Though sad to go, we would carry a pocketful of treasures, fortunate discoveries made on this island of serendipity.

Our thanks to Lexus and the all new CT 200h for helping make this month’s features possible. Welcome to the darker side of green.