How To Spend It

Adventure | From Desk Till Dawn

Sri Lanka highlands cycle

Tackling punishing gradients and perilous traffic, Charlie Norton blazes a new biking trail traversing the island

June 24 2013
Charlie Norton

The unofficial council of great bike climbs has never paid much attention to the subcontinent, where two wheels tend to play second fiddle to buses, tuk-tuks and bovine beasts. But for serious cyclists looking for a weekend challenge away from the classic European destinations, it’s feasible to completely cross the Central Highlands of Sri Lanka. Starting out from Kandy in the north, there’s a long, epic climb of around 70km to Nuwara Eliya, at nearly 2,000m, then across to Ella and the Rawana Falls, before a descent towards the Yala National Park and a long flat drag onto the paradise beaches of the south for a final swim in the Indian Ocean.

With a bit of help (I will need to get in a support bus for the odd stretch of the 400km total), I’ll end up at the colonial port of Galle for a night, before a hop to Colombo and my connecting flight home. I’m a bit apprehensive about the road surface (I’ve had to opt for a mountain bike in case of terrible terrain) and chaotic traffic, not to mention the punishing nature of the gradient and the length of the climbs. But it’s all within the boundaries of possibility – and where else could you enjoy mountain vistas, tropical sun, wildlife and palm-fringed sands in the same day’s cycling?

Friday 1900

As I get off the Heathrow Express at Terminal 4, I’m pleased that I feel tired for the overnight flight to Colombo. I’ve been waking early for a week to shift my sleep pattern so that I can conk out en route and be ready to ride as soon as I arrive.

Saturday 1400

I slept so heavily that I missed the flight food; I buy some spicy cashews and bananas on arrival. It doesn’t take long to pick up my luggage and visa before meeting the support crew from My Ceylon Adventures: Kasun Madushanka, Anura Kumarasinghe and Ama Wijayathilaka, my driver, guide and cycle company owner respectively. They are taken aback by my weekend itinerary, saying they know of no-one who has done that climb and route before.

It’s far too dangerous to bike out of Colombo, so we make haste to the A5 road to Nuwara Eliya, where I can start riding. Hot tropical air blasts through the window as I peer out at the mobile phone shops, furniture stalls and tuk-tuks. Soon we are passing coconut plantations; a stone hits the windscreen, thrown by a rilau monkey in a tree. “Don’t you believe it Charlie, they throw coconuts at cyclists,” says Ama.

Saturday 1600

Finally, the road to Nuwara Eliya. After fixing my front brake, we are ready to set off – we have a few hours of daylight to ride the first half of the climb before we break for dinner. The whole of Sri Lanka apparently goes quiet at around 8pm, so we’ve planned a quiet, traffic-free ascent late in the evening to reach Nuwara Eliya.

Soon I am following Anura, an air-force technician who used to road bike competitively for Sri Lanka. The gradient starts ramping up as I weave past stray dogs and wave to children screaming encouragement. I feel the first pangs in my legs after 15km or so, but my nerves are more frayed by the constant beeping of buses and logging trucks. It’s like a Richard Scarry cartoon come to life, but somehow the traffic flows – the rule apparently being that no one gives an inch unless he or she is about to die. I just have to slot in, and stop imagining my ambulance rescue.

Finally, I start to concentrate on cycling. We go from jungle into plantations; a subtle tea-leaf aroma hangs in the air along with the smell of charred wood. The road is starting to sweep round in long hairpins with the odd ramp over 12 per cent.

Saturday 1830

A quick dinner for fuel. I order tea and a plate of spicy devilled chicken with coconut sambol at the Paramount Hotel, Pussellawa – eaten, like my comrades do, with my right hand and a finger bowl, overlooking the Central Highlands sunset.

Saturday 1915

It’s pretty much dark when we set off, and a bit cooler. I have brought a head torch to go with the bike light so that I can see the turns above and ahead clearly. There’s hardly any traffic, but now the steep hairpins come thick and fast, and I struggle to get in a rhythm. Anura is casually keeping up, alternately taking pictures and chatting on his phone.

After about an hour, we stop by the Labookellie tea factory for refreshments. My Lycra is ripped, and my saddle is digging into my leg. Ama jumps out of the van, saying, “Don’t you believe it Charlie, we have another saddle” – just as well, as I need it for the last 10km of this climb.

Now it’s just the bikes, our lights and the interminable creeping upwards. I am dry-mouthed and a little concerned. How long can this last? I am forcing down my pedals with what little energy I have left, but the steep hairpins just keep coming. Right now Nuwara Eliya, in the dark above, is the peak of my life.

Saturday 2200

Finally, it flattens out and we are there, at the highest point. Our lights hit a sign: Nuwara Eliya, 1,893m. I’m suffused with glee. It’s been five hours, over 60km and 2,000m of ascent. Tomorrow it’s downhill to the coast. We fall into the van to take us to the 98 Acres Resort in Ella, for a shower and a much-needed sleep.

Sunday 0600

A squawking crow wakes me to a glorious view. My luxurious wooden dwelling is built into the side of the mountain, and from my balcony light mists are stretching over to Adam’s Peak a few hundred yards away. It’s time to get ahead of the traffic.

Saturday 0630

Huge jungle valleys, roads twisting down the mountain and then the Ravana Falls: descending is the best sort of joy. We stop for a quick breakfast of dhal, sambol and omelettes at a roadside café. Ama appears suddenly – “Downhill now, Charlie!” – and he’s off overtaking buses and tuk-tuks. Even the monkeys give us no trouble. The muscles in my legs, under scant strain, are in fleeting ecstasy.

Sunday 0900

Like lightning, we have cycled about 30km. We enter Yala National Park, passing paddy fields and sweating now in earnest as the sun starts to beat down. The leopards this park is known for are retiring creatures who keep away from roads; an elephant corridor, on the other hand, is signposted on 5km of the A2 past Yala. I sigh; I’m far too exhausted to deal with a wild elephant right now, but fortunately the biggest thing we encounter is an iguana.

The road is flat but seems to undulate subtly; even the slightest rise sears through my legs. We stop to gulp down fresh coconut water from a stall before speeding on through scrubland and then flooded plains – we are gobbling up the changes in scenery like biking junkies. At around 75km, it’s over – I have used my last ounce of energy. We climb into the van to finish off the 120km route, heading for lunch at Tangalle.

Sunday 1300

It may be Valhalla; I do feel lightheaded. At the Beach Café in Tangalle, I sit regarding palm trees and the turquoise surf of the Indian Ocean beyond, and enjoy a huge fresh tuna steak, chips and a beer. I’m little more than a morning’s ride away from the tea country, but it feels ages ago and a world apart.

Sunday 1430

We cruise down the coast in the van, passing through the Dutch port of Matara and on for a swim at Unawatuna, the mellow Goan-esque backpacker haunt. I look out for reef sharks and turtles – these waters are abundant with big fish, and boats are returning from whale-spotting trips.

Sunday 1700

Like a lap of honour, we cycle the last few kilometres to Galle, a charming port I will hereafter forever associate with beach hammocks and snake charmers, as well as test match cricket. I take a rest at The Sun House hotel, a boutique idyll on a hill above the fort with crisp colonial green and white décor, porticos and a piano. It’s the kind of place you stay to finish (or not) your novel.

Sunday 1930

After a mango martini at the infamous Dick’s Bar within the hotel, and a sublime Sri Lankan curry, I climb into the four-poster bed catatonically exhausted.

Monday 0700

After a snatched breakfast of egg curry, it’s a rapid early transfer to Colombo airport. I cause a jovial rumpus at security when the gargantuan framed picture of me cycling – a gift from the My Ceylon team – is presented to me. With my tired mind, I cannot seem to explain that I have just cycled across the Central Highlands in two days. I get on the plane thinking I’ll be back with a serious road bike – and a foghorn.

See also

Cycling, Sri Lanka