After 8 hours rattling along on the train, we arrived in Colombo. Colombo is a crazy place – frenetic, colourful, noisy and muggy. By the time we got to our hotel we were feeling hot and tired so opted for a quick dip in the pool and had dinner in. We were up early to go and arrange a Sri Lankan motorbike licence which we need to hire a Royal Enfield – the bike Ian had set his heart on. Everything went according to plan with the paperwork filled out, the forms provided and a couple of patient hours waiting in the queue. Just as they were about to have our licence granted they noticed that our Aussie drivers licence was not valid for a motorbike so they denied us the Sri Lanka version. we contacted the company we had arranged the bike through and they said we could still hire from them but the insurance would be invalid. It was a no-brainer – we couldn’t hire a Royal Enfield. Ian was really disappointed but we will try again in India.
We found a little restaurant had some biriyani and set off to see Mount Lavinia. We were expecting a fun filled tourist region but in reality it was a bit seedy with a not so clean beach so we just had a drink in the hotel and decided to head south early the next day.
The bus journey down to Hikkaduwa was excellent. Not as crowded as the one we took in Trincomalee and this time we travelled mainly along the coast. It was only a couple of hours and so we arrived late morning and set off to find a hotel. The one we found was clean, had air con, was near the beach and seemed fine. We dumped out stuff and went for a walk along the beach. I had stayed in Hikkaduwa 35 years before when it catered for the surf crowd so it had obviously changed but it still had that small backpacker feel with lots of little restaurants and small hotels. The small towns all along the coast now cater for tourists but it still felt relatively untouched. In comparison to Thailand it was blissfully quiet. On our return to the hotel we discovered that the air con didn’t work and hadn’t worked for over 15 months! So we stepped across the road and booked into another small hotel which was much cheaper and had a huge fan no air con but it was much cooler than the first place. We were glad we moved as we ended up staying for a few days. The family were lovely and all the guests sat around the verandah at night swapping stories.
The next day we hired a scooter and explored the coastline and found a small but very informative Tsunami museum. Sri Lanka suffered the second highest casualty rate in the 2004 Tsunami but received little in the way of media attention. The lady who runs this small museum told me of her experience – how she clung to a tree by one arm with her 2yr old under her other arm waiting for help. She thought her son had died but wouldn’t let go until she was rescued. Miraculously he was only unconscious and they both reached safety. Her 11 year old daughter was found a few hours later unscathed. She lost various members of her family and decided to start this museum on donations only to help some of the surviving orphans from the village. Many of the deaths in Sri Lanka were on the other side of the island away from the main tourist areas and were mainly fishermen and their families. To date this small museum has sent 22 orphans to university – all paid for by donations to the museum. It consists of three rooms. The first dedicated to how a tsunami forms and the world history of earthquakes and tsunamis, the second room is dedicated to the actual event and is very graphic in its photos. In fact one wall has a curtain over it and they ask you if you would like to see the pictures. The third room is dedicated to the progress they have made since and the on-going work. It was a stark reminder of the power of nature and the shocking devastation it caused. Over 1200 people were killed in a train that was derailed near the village alone. We left feeling shell-shocked but it was well worth the visit.
We continued heading north and passed through various small towns all of which seemed to have markets in full swing and everybody out and about. We stopped at a small cafe and had the best lassi ever and watched the fishermen pulling in their catches. It was really hot and sticky – hotter then Trincomalee even though we were on the coast. We passed this sign and I had to jump off and take a photo!
We visited a boatyard, a mask factory, the tsunami memorial and did some shopping – it was a great day.
The next day we headed south – to visit Galle. We were originally going to come into Galle but decided instead to opt for the safe harbour of Trincomalee. Galle is a fortified old city founded by the Portugese. The lovely old walled section within the fort grounds are car free and cater pretty much for tourists only. It is a a Unesco World Heritage site and is now full of cafes, hotels and restaurants but a great place to just wander around on foot. We went to the fort, saw the cricket ground (obligatory site here in Sri Lanka) and had lunch in a stunning old cafe – this place had more tourists that we had seen since we arrived and even the girl who served our lunch was from Denmark! After lunch we headed down to Mirissa which is the only place in Sri Lanka that has a yacht charter company. We went and saw them and asked if we could bring Indian Summer round to the bay for a day or so. They said it was fine – not sure what the authorities would say, but we thought it would be a nice break on our way to India. Many of the small towns along this section of coastline cater for the surfing crowd and it was much more like the Sri Lanka I remembered from 30 years ago. We saw the famous stilt fishermen – they balance on a pole in the water and are synonymous with Sri Lanka. I jumped off the bike to take a photo and they wanted $6 for the priviledge – I had some old ones from before so decided not to – they were just young guys posing for photos. Good luck to them – I reckon they are making a good living with all the tourists around.
We spent the next few days having a bit of a holiday – no boat chores, no maintenance and no cooking for me! It really is a lovely place to spend some time recharging the batteries. We had to get our train back to Trinco from Colombo so we took the crazy bus back to the capital and arrived early in the afternoon. We had had a call from the Chairman of Mackwoods Tea Estate who was interested in our connections to Mackwoods so we dumped our stuff in the hotel we had found on-line and set off to meet him. Mackwoods have a few coffee houses and we met in one opposite the main lake in Colombo. We got lost on the way and ended up walking around for about an hour – which we loved as we saw so much fantastic architecture. Mainly left over from the British but well maintained and now most of the large buildings are for government use.
It was lovely to meet Chris – his family bought Mackwoods from our family back in 1956 and I was able to fill him in on some of the previous history. Chris has not only been the Chairman of Mackwoods, but a Cardiologist at a London Hospital, and the High Commissioner for Sri Lanka among other things. He is a very busy successful man and we were touched that he found the time to spend with us. We ended up going back to his home for drinks and to meet his family – and were taken back to our little backstreet hotel in a chauffeur driver merc! A great fun evening.
Up at the crack of dawn, we took the train back to Trinco. We had to travel third class this time as it was the only one available but we reckoned we could cope with 6 hours of it. After about 7 hours we realised something was wrong and discovered that we should have changed half way – we were heading back down the coast! We jumped off at the next station and backtracked until we could get the connection. This of course added about 4 hours onto our journey but it was just another adventure. We were the only tourists on the train and the schoolgirls giggled at us, the kids waved and the men stared…
We met a guy on the train who told us he had a tuk tuk at the station and he could run us home. He is a mechanical engineer but drives a tuk tuk part time. We eventually got back on board about 7.30pm rather than 3pm – a 13 hour journey!
We had never left the boat on anchor before so we had been a bit worried about her, but the agent Sandeep – a fabulous guy from the agency GAC had been looking after her and had even sent us photos of her to us while we had been away. We were not the only boat in the harbour anymore – so the next day we went and introduced ourselves to a couple of them and discovered it was sv Brickhouse’s Rebecca’s birthday. We invited them over for coffee and cake that afternoon and discovered that Rebecca was really keen to see some elephants. The next day we visited some hot springs – not very exciting but with the hot water we thought we could do some washing (the harbour water is too dirty to make water) so we took bags of clothes and our washing powder and asked if we could do some washing! They said we had to go into this changing area where there was a well so we found a bucket on a rope and did our washing!! There were hoards of school kids here, all dressed in white and all taking selfies – they were very amused at us.
Our tuk tuk driver told us that every day at this spot around late afternoon the elephants cross the road to go to the rubbish tip to feed so the next day we set off and waited by the side of the road. Some local people asked us if we would like to sit in their garden and wait and provided us with chairs so we sat and waited, and waited, and eventually were rewarded with two large bull elephants crossing the road right in front of us. It was really exciting and worth the wait.
A few days later we went to Dambulla – a town in the centre of Sri Lanka to see some cave temples and Sigiriya rock. When we arrived we went and had breakfast. In Sri Lanka they have ‘short eats’ which is a very good description of various fried foods – all delicious. You get given whatever they have cooked that day, Onion, egg, fish, rice etc. They are incredibly cheap and fill you up – we loved them.
We took the bus to Sigiriya first as we thought it best to climb earlier on in the day. Sigiriya is an ancient rock fortress and is the number one tourist attraction in Sri Lanka. King Kasyapa built a palace on the top of this rock and decorated the sides with frescoes. About half way up there is a gateway in the form of a lion and it is now known affectionately as Lion Rock. It was only about 30 mins from the bus station but they dropped us about a mile from the entry and it was pouring with rain, so by the time we got there we were soaked through – this hadn’t affected the temperature though so we were feeling tired before we even started!
We were a bit startled at the cost of entry $120US for us so we decided to skip the climb and wander around the grounds. Suddenly we found ourselves walking up the main path, so we must have entered by some back door. Surrounded by rain sodden tourists we made our way up to the top of the rock. It was quite a steep climb and on the way there were secret gardens, amazing views across large lawns and shrubs, massive rock carvings, flights of steps and caves to explore. It was huge – and we were exhausted by the time we got to the top. At the last section there were guards checking tickets so Ian did a great oscar winning performance of searching for his ‘lost’ ticket but we had to turn round and head back down.
A long walk down and a hearty late lunch later and we realised we were not going to get time to see the Cave Temple. It was a shame but we had a 3 hour bus journey home and we didn’t want to miss the last one. The journey home was eventful – first we stopped at a cafe because the driver wanted something to eat – and then there was a loud rumble and the bus started shaking (more than normal) and so we stopped. Everyone got off and it was decided that one of the tyres was about to burst, so they pulled a bit of loose rubber off it, chucked it into the ditch and continued. Amazingly the noise stopped and we arrived back at Trinco in one piece. These buses were donated to Sri Lanka from Britain about 70 years ago and I think they are held together with bits of string and twine – either way they work but are in a very dilapidated state with no upholstery left, windows falling out and wierd noises coming from the engine!
We were due to leave in the next couple of days, so our last days were spent provisioning for India, checking the weather, checking the boat, laundry etc. One final ‘Kottu’ meal at our favourite cafe – a local dish of mixed rice, roti, chicken, veg etc all cut up on the hotplate with huge machetes and served piping hot, and we had an early night. Up early to check out, last check of the weather and spend our last rupees on bread and milk and we headed off on our way to India.