A road trip is always gonna be a great idea, some friends, new places, completely different type of holiday. Heini and I have always enjoyed having total independence from tour packages so when we finally landed in Colombo I was pretty stoked to rent a vehicle, throw the timetable in the garbage and let rip on the “roads” of Sri Lanka. I used my best and well honed googling skills to contact several rental shops in and around Negombo, which is actually closer to the airport than Colombo. I got a fast response to my mails from Suranga Perera at Sha Lanka rentals, they seemed to deal with organising motorbike and 4×4 tours of Sri Lanka but they did have a few cars with or without drivers that we could rent.
Now I should mention for those who don’t know, I have a thing for 80’s style 4×4 jeeps that look, sound, and drive like a Sherman tank on crack. I already had plans in my head of driving around the country, not just the roads. I wanted beaches, hills, and dirt tracks ensuring I sees much of the “off the beaten track” locations as humanly possible without being in need of medical assistance. Suranga assured me he had “the” Jeep I wanted.
The shop was closed on the Sunday after we landed but Suranga opened up anyway to meet us and hand over the Jeep. Problem was I didn’t have my driving licence with me, in fact I’d not seen it in over 2 years, it was in the envelope sitting in my friends kitchen in UK. All I had was a email copy. Without this I couldn’t get my Sri Lankan licence and car insurance the next day, though Suranga quickly came up with a plan to go to Colombo with a picture of the licence which may or may not suffice. We decided to try anyway as I wasn’t so keen to be driving around without insurance. So the next morning we headed over to the Sri Lankan Licensing office with a 50-50 chance of getting one. After a lot of head bobbing and other confusing gestures we paid our “agent fee” to the clerk and were issued with a month licence SUCCESS! All set and ready to go we opted to stay one more night in Negombo at Sha’s Residence bungalows and head out early the next morning giving us the night to plan the rout and supplies.
Apparently seat belts are not such a big deal with Jeeps in Sri Lanka, so when I test drove the Viper (Yes, I named the Jeep Viper) the next morning and enquired where they were. Suranga replied “Oh you don’t need them!” to which I replied “We do if we want to get my wife into the car!”, so after a quick smile and head bob side to side Suranga popped over to a scrapyard and rectified the problem. Eager to get on the road and head to the central hills I donned my driving denim picked up the wife and fired up Viper, for what was gonna be my first time driving a vehicle in over 3 years!
Heini turned on our tablet and selected the rout to Bopath Ella, which we were told has a perfect waterfall (Ella meaning waterfall) with hotel overlooking it, I floored the accelerator basking in the manly roar of Viper. At around 300m into the journey I realised that due to the big boy tires fitted to Viper, the steering functioned a lot like the thought process of GW Bush and with more delay than his reaction to Hurricane Katrina. But my pride took us past these small “issues” as the average speed of traffic in Sri Lanka is around 40kmph I wasn’t worried, and my days of boy racing were over anyway. Plus I kind of loved the extra hight and the look of the “big boy” tyres matched my double denim outfit as we cruised Sri Lanka’s roads – so I decided not to tell Heini.
It took us a leisurely 3 hours or so to reach Bopath and the waterfall (after our chief navigator lost all google maps and took us through a “short cut”). We were hot, dusty and sweaty by then, so we checked into the hotel and headed for the waterfall, which was only a hundred meters or so away. This was a truly perfect location and we had it pretty much to ourselves, aside from a couple of kids sneakily drinking booze on the footpath. With a quick hello we started to climb up and find our dip pool to cool off in. The waterfall was huge with lots of cool “dip tanks” so without delay I was in, gingerly trying to keep my footing over the slippery rocks I beckoned Heini to join. The water ran down about four levels, each having a comfortable pool to swim in which was not too deep. But with all waterfalls comes current and slippery rocks so beware!
After a few minutes I wanted to take some pictures so left the pool and Heini to reach higher ground. It took me 5 minutes to climb up some rocks before I heard Heini scream, I looked back and saw her desperately trying to grab rocks, tree roots, or anything to stop her being dragged over the edge of the pool by the current. It took me 30 seconds to scramble down to her, she’d failed to stop herself due to the rocks being smooth and coated with algae, but thankfully the waterfall was only about a meter drop in that area. Heini managed to survive with only a few scrapes and was a little shaken up. I was relieved that she was OK but at that point we realised that my wife and waterfalls were a dangerous combination.
Next up was a trip to see some wild elephants (elefantti in Finish) at Udawalawe National Park. So with an early start we headed out to Udawalawe to find some accommodation and see some elephants in their natural environment. After a few miles we had our first “TaTa” bus encounter. These are the main public transport around the towns and villages, their drivers must be Jedi or have some kind of “force” guiding them. They overtake on blind bends, speed past you only to slam on the brakes and stop 20 meters later to pick up and drop off passengers. Sometimes not even coming to a halt as passengers struggle to jump on or off!
Even so, the road trip there was amazing. We came across huge monitor lizards crossing the roads, breathtaking views, more waterfalls and lakes. As well as the scenery making this a trip of a lifetime, the people of Sri Lanka’s countryside were some of the friendliest we met, never any effort to strike up a conversation or give us directions or advice. Even when the police once pulled us over it was only to ask where we were from and to tell us to drive safe. It made me wonder later in the trip if Sri Lanka actually had any assholes living in the country, because we were not to meet one on this whole trip.
Every few hours we stopped to grab some food from one of the many “hotels” which we figured out were cafes, and they had the most tastiest snacks known to man. The food was extremely cheap and for only a few coins you could fill up with enough cookies curried bread and other goodies. Since our trip Ive tried and failed to replicate theses snacks which is probably a good thing, as a lot were fried or bread based, I would literally be twice the man I am now! We arrived in Udawalawe a small village on the edge of the park in good time and found ourselves a landcover and driver that would take us into the park the next morning.
Bright and early we got into the modified landcover with only a few others and headed into the park to see some “Elefantti”. We picked up a local guide from the park office, these were usually trainee rangers or students looking for holiday work and were not paid by the park but from tips. Our young lad proved his worth by leading us around viewing many herds of elephants, and even some close encounters with a few bull elephants. These did not travel with the herd, they were exiled when they reach their teens to keep the elephant gene pool fresh. We were treated to the herds bathing and the babies playing around, we did venture to a well known rock where the Sri Lankan leopard has been spotted regularly, but were not to be in luck that day. After fairways to the crew and the rangers we got back to Viper and headed north and inland for Ella, a village nestled in a valley which boasted great food (of course), treking, more waterfalls, and the famous railway bridge.
Again we were grateful we’d chosen to rent the jeep as we climbed high into the hills and were treated again to spectacular view of a huge lake surrounded by thick jungle interspersed with waterfalls. It seemed we were the only people on the road as we drove down the hill and past a huge man made Dam, until we met the military checkpoint who waved us through with a smile and a bobbing head. At this point I started to remember that vehicles tend to run on fuel, and we hadn’t put any in since we set off from Negombo. The lack of fuel stations in this part of the country started to worry me a little as we were not going to find much help if we ran out. But as always a helpful chap at the side of the road pointed us towards the tip of a mountain in the clouds saying “Haputale”.
The town of Haputale had a gas station and was only 30km away along the mountain road, at times no bigger than most European driveways. So we gunned the jeep trying to conserve fuel and praying to any god listening not to run out on a steep incline. This was a hell of a rout, even if i say so myself, the view to my left was rock face and steep mountain side, and to my right? Well there were clouds below us and couldn’t see much else as the temperature dropped and my ears popped. As we continued I was wondering if we’d be able to get out in time should the engine stall. My mental image of the Jeep rolling backwards towards the cliff edge not enhancing my calmness, just then I saw the outline of Haputale emerging from the clouds. We pulled into the gas station and filled up to the brim. It was getting late so we figured to stay a few nights in this “cliff face town”. Viper would get a rest as we noticed this town would take a few days to explore fully. We’d climb to the tea plantations and take in more spectacular walks on its steep hills with breathtaking views over the next few days.
Later on in the trip we found that our friends Steve and Barbara were also holidaying in Sri Lanka. We decided that Viper could handle all four of us, and as a plus it gave me a break from driving. We met up in Ella after a few days and decided to head down the hills to Arugam Bay, a small surfing village on the east coast, though Steve decided not to join me with double denim atire. Again leaving early and packing 4 people and luggage into viper we set off. The noticeable difference in Vipers “never amazing” handling somewhat troubled me as we headed down towards the coast at almost double our previous weight. Later we came across a group of cops and onlookers looking through a gap in the roads broken barrier, a truck had gone through and was clearly visible about a kilometre lower on the hillside, for sure the occupants could not have survived.
This sight prompted me to take it very slow causing a 2 hour drive to become more than 4! As our passengers sat on the metal backseat the sun rose higher in the sky turning the back into a oven on wheels, I was sure for a moment I could smell flesh cooking! So I swapped seats with Steve and sat in the back with Barbara. I got the feeling of what it felt like to sit looking down from the skids of the helicopter as the jeep weaved through the roads, being careful not to touch any metal exposed to the suns heat or I would pay the price! Even though the cost of sharing the driving was an hour in the hot seat it was nice to sit back and enjoy the views, and they were spectacular.
All in all we traveled Sri Lanka for about a month, the jeep only once failed us and that was just a small oil refill for the clutch. Though driving along the roads without a clutch is quite a achievement, making grinding noises of a sawmill we received questionable looks from the locals. Of course the TaTa busses gave us no grace speeding past causing me to off road more than a few times. We saw places and villages we would have never seen, met people who we wouldn’t have met, and the wildlife of the country? Its breathtaking. We saw elephants, lizards, snakes, cows, and much more to fit into one blog post. In particular the Sri Lankan highlands will have to wait for a later post as there is far too much information for one post. But after a month we had go say a sad farewell to Viper our trusty steed and return to normal transport.
When we first told Suranga at Sha Lanka tours our plans to drive around the country he applauded it. He told us too many people are put off with driving in a foreign country by horror stories on “trip adviser” of the roads. But if a diver who only drives a vehicle for four weeks every few years can do it, so can you guys. After all its gonna make a great story, and you don’t have to drive like a crazy TaTa bus!