Tales of CEYLON
Bikepacking adventure in the south Sri Lanka
Wild elephants, dog bites, vegetable rotties, liters of tea, surf, monkeys, thousands of smiles, fresh fruits juices, very hot temperatures … Riding in Sri Lanka is a completely different experience! We have never come across such welcoming and positive people as the locals here! Bikepacking in Ceylon is an attractor for good souls!
Riders: Thomas Calcagno & Rafal Ramatowski
Distance: about 640km
Duration: 9 days of touring
Gear: TRESHOMBRES the WOLFBORN
Wheels: TRESHOMBRES 3.8
Shifting Group: Shimano 105 & Shimano Ultegra hydraulic
Bike Bags: Blackburn OUTPOST Series: Carry All Bags, Frame Bags, Seat Pack & Dry Bags, Handlebar Roll & Dry Bags
Tires: WTB Riddler 37c x 700
First 3 days after landing in Sri Lanka were mainly about assembling our CX bicycles. Even though it was really tempting to explore a little bit more around, you know - palms, coconuts and the beautiful weather, we realized, we had to put our Wolfborns together to make them as reliable and durable as possible! Luckily , thanks to Far Ride Mag’s recommendation, we got to know Ilhan, who runs a bicycle service named Cyclalogy in Colombo. Hats down to Ilhan’s skills as a bicycle mechanic! Without him we probably wouldn’t have been able to assemble the Wolfborns so well and so fast, as we encountered several serious obstacles.
We started with Rafal’s bike, which went quite smooth. The hassle started, when we began assembling Tom’s frame.. Wrong bottom bracket and no adapter for the rear 160mm disc rotor!
So what do you do, when there’s no such parts in the whole country?? You have to produce them yourself!
Thanks to Ilhan we found the local CNC magicians. We had to cut out the BB shells fitting the adapters we had. The second mission was the rear 160mm rotor adapter. It took us one day to get the parts produced! Price - 50% of original Shimano parts and priceless satisfaction of us and the CNC workers! The rest was a matter of half a day. We assembled the beautiful Wolfborns and then dressed them up with our awesome Blackburn Design bike bags!
You might hear from many locals, how terrible and hectic the traffic is on Sri-lankan roads and how careful
you've gotta be, especially because of the bus drivers! So what is our view on this topic?..
The traffic is really chaotic and hectic, BUT after a while you'll see, that it works fine
and there is a certain awareness
of the whole movement! People will see you and will honk to let you know, they are coming.
This awareness makes you feel paradoxically safe in this intense traffic!
The famous bus drivers are in fact pretty crazy on the roads, but honestly we never had any close situation
with any bus. They always honk, always warn you, they're coming and overtake you with a decent distance.
All the roads from and to big cities are rather unpleasant to ride. Rush, noise and heat make you wanna
just leave the urban areas asap. Secondary roads on the other hand are magical, full of beautiful, vibrant vegetation,
happy people and much less traffic! We recommend you to try the mountain roads between Colombo and Ella.
Riding along the coast from Colombo to Matara is heavy and monotone after a while, so try make some breaks at the ocean!
We left on March 30th from Ilhan’s shop, Cyclalogy. The first challenge was to sneak our way out of the city, since it’s traffic is so heavy and intense. 20 km later we finally made our exit and we were now riding towards Galle, south west from Colombo. Even though we were finally on open roads, we still had to stay extremely focused, as the roads are rather narrow, and the drivers are fast. In case of danger they will honk rather than slow down. It was a totally new experience for us and we were really happy about it and what we were about to experience during these 9 days.
90 km later we reached our campsite which was actually nothing more than a beach close to the Jungle Beach. There we bumped in a group of local youngsters, who usually gather there in the evening and just hang out while smoking 'magic cigarettes'. We had a quick chat using mainly sign language and then walked a couple hundred meters away to find a nice spot to pitch our tents. It was a beautiful night, clear sky, we had a quick „wash” in the ocean and then just relaxed while enjoying the stars and the sound of the waves. And also the stray dogs barking at each other for hours in the area. But that is apparently part of the experience.
The next morning 2 locals came to our tents. They were both very curious to see people riding traveling by bicycle with bags strapped to them and pitching their tents in random places. At least that was our interpretation and we hurried up to pack up our stuff because the sky was already getting threatening. The plan of the day was the following: reach Matara (only around 70kms away), drink many fruit juices and have a long lunch break at the beach. Needless to say that we ticked all 3 boxes.
Within an hour after leaving our camp spot we arrived in Galle where we had a quick breakfast and cruise around the Fort. It is crazy to think that thanks to it no damage was made to this city after the Tsunami in 2004.
The third day was really exciting, if you have ever been to Sri Lanka, you know, that Matara is a good surf spot. Rafal was excited to go back to a good place he went to a few month ago (Seven’s Wave) and Tom to surf again after 7 years without touching a board. We rented some surfboards for the day and made the most out of them. It was really nice to break the routine and diversify ways to spend our energy so needless to say that we had a great day.
Just before the sun had set we left to ride to Hiriketyia Beach, 25km away from Matara. After a quick walk along the beach we found a house in the process of being build and just decided, we would sleep on its terrace. There we were sheltered in case of rain, partly out of people’s sight and only about 20 meters from the ocean. Beautiful, right? Yes, until a group of stray dogs came and decided the best place for them to play and fight would literarily be between our tents. Rafal woke up twice in the night because some of the dogs took his shoes to play with them. That was probably the weirdest night of the trip, but in the morning we woke up to a beautiful sunrise and enjoyed watching the stunning scenery from this little bay and from there we felt good again and ready for another day of adventure!
Cycling diet in Sri Lanka can really consist of following ingredients: rotti, rice & curry and fruit
One delicious veggie rotti will cost you 50-100 Rupees (0,25 - 0,50 E) and with 3 of them you're good to go
You can find little shops with ready rotties in every town on the way! bon appetite!.
Needless to say much about how fresh and tasty fruit is here in Ceylon! Pineapples, papayas,
mangos, passion fruits and bananas are out of this world! Look for little booths with fresh fruit juices
along the roads. You'll love some little stops for a glass of this refreshing ambrosia for 150 Rupees!
It was a hot day, once again and as we were now heading inland towards Katharagama, we looked on the map for a lake or a river to refresh ourselves during the lunch break. We found a lake in Bundala National Park and decided to give it a go. Just before the turn to ride to that lake a food booth grabbed our attention. Apparently there was only one dish available, contained in clay pots covered by white cloths. There was plenty of them pilled on top of each other among the store. We walked in and took a closer look at what these few people where eating. It was Curd, a locally made buffalo milk yogurt. That looked delicious, we ordered one big pot for both of us and a little bottle of what we thought was honey. It was in fact some sort of liquid sugar.
After that we rode a couple hundred meters to the lake. There was only a dozen small canoes and 2 scooters. We had a quick dip in the water and made a little fire to prepare ourselves a coffee. 2 fishermen came on their motorbike and before launching their boat in the water informed us, that some wild elephants live in the area and can be dangerous. ‘Un’ fortunately no elephant came and we left after the long and refreshing brake.
Normally we try to find a spot to camp before it gets dark but that day it did not work. We arrived at an other lake where we thought we could easily pitch our tents and have a quick wash before going to sleep. What we thought would be nice grass area turned out to be sort of swamp with thousands of mosquitos. We had to continue our way to find a descent place. As we got to the end of the little road we were riding on, we got to a dead end with a house. Our bike lights intrigued the people living there and 2 men came out to us. We asked them if we could pitch our tents on their land for the night. None of them spoke good english and we don’t speak singhalese. After a long time of looking at each other in the eyes not really knowing what was going on and making a few signs they made us understand that we could stay there for the night. As soon as we finished setting up our tents they came to us and told us to come inside. They prepared us some tea and we had series of discussions which did not lead to much sense but made all 4 of us smile, laugh and have a good time. From our interpretation of their stories they work for a national park and their task is to track down poachers.
„Mister Polish! Mister French!” was the sound of our alarm the next morning. We believe that these peoples’ curiosity pushed them to wake us up and interact with us. Two foreign guys sleeping in front of their house in the tents is an event in the end!. After warmly thanking them for their hospitality we rode away, along the lake to reach the main road and make our way to Ella. Not even 2 kms after leaving we saw a group of locals washing themselves and playing in the lake. Of course we decided to join them since we really needed to wash ourselves and freshen up our minds before kicking off the day! As usual we had a very nice exchange with the local people, one of them works in a resort and thus speaks good english. One thing he told us, that we will never forget, is that apparently their are some crocodiles on the other side of the lake but they never come to where we were. Interesting. We did not know if we had to believe him or not but anyway we were already out of the water and safe. He also told us that there are 4 wild elephants living on the land we were about to cross a few kilometers away.
Riding through that 30 km-long Jungle Corridor leading to Buttala and having the chance to see some large mammals sounded amazing to us!
When we started riding on the jungle pass, we saw a big sign warning about the danger of elephants on this road. We kept our eyes peeled the whole time and even though we couldn’t see any big animal, the tension was in the air, even difficult to describe, but we felt the thrill of the moment!
As a joke we said to each other that it would be perfect to see at least one elephant on the last section of the road! Guess what happened?..
As we approached to the last curve we saw a car standing in the middle of the road. Soon enough we understood why, a massive elephant was blocking the road. The car driver did not look panicked at all, he waited a couple minutes for a truck to come and let it lead the way. Now it was only us 2 and the elephant. We took our phones and camera out to immortalize that moment. Rafal started rolling a bit too close to the animal and while he was looking back, Tom saw the elephant turning around starting to chase Rafal. Rafal was roughly 30 meters away and as he rode away, the elephant just gave up after 10 meters, uff… Still enough to give a big push to our adrenaline level. We felt trapped, the road was narrow and the animal took so much room, there was no way to pass it safely. We waited and soon enough another truck came and told us to stick to one side as he will drive pass the elephant. We followed the vehicule and as we got into the curve and passed the first elephant we saw a second one which was even bigger. That experience was unbelievable and we were glad it turned out so well for us. We then decided we would take a little brake and watch the show as quite a few cars, tuk-tuks and trucks were clumsily trying to pass the 2 elephants.
So much happened already that day, but we still had to reach Ella! A famous and beautiful town in the mountains! It meant though, from roughly 0 to 1100 m above see level! Filling up our bodies with juices and rice&curry, we took up the challenge! Ascents are easy if you enjoy challenging yourself in this way. And so we do!
Sweating like little pigs we got to Ella. The town is situated literally on the the slopes of the mountains which looked really beautiful while climbing up the windy roads! After one more ascent we finally reached our apartment (yes we needed shower and good beds that day!).
There is this special feeling when you arrive in a place during the night and the next day you’re being surprised by the new environment lit by the sun! And so it was that morning! Beautiful mountains, intense vegetation and the breakfast waiting on the terrace! We spent our breakfast enjoying the company of a very nice german couple and after they left we continued our relaxation on the terrace trying to look through the footage of the past days.
We left in the afternoon heading west through the mountains towards Nuwara Elija. Somewhere on the road we came across one very sketchy hanging bridge. Tempted by the local youngsters swinging on it we decided to do the same. An extraordinary experience indeed, as the river below was probably around 15-20m down! On the other side of the bridge, a local man and an elderly woman, fascinated by who we were and how we were traveling, invited us to their house in the middle of a close by tea plantation!
What an amazing experience it was! Drinking local fresh tea, chatting with the whole family and listening to the man of house singing and playing his drum was a magical moment!
We left a while later, continuing towards Nuwara Elija, but shortly before in a little town called Ambagasdowa we stopped to refill our bottles. The local tiny shop didn’t sell water, but a customer insisted, she would bring us water from her house next by! While we waited we talked to the owner, who then insisted, that we sleep in front of his shop, as he claimed, it would be very difficult to find any other spot to pitch the tents! We didn’t resist;) The lady came back after a while and invited us for a dinner at her house. Again we could’t say no!
After this amazing and friendly time we came back to the shop, pitched the tents and were about to get into them, when it started to rain suddenly. The shop owner insisted that we move into his living room. AGAIN, we could’t say no!
Unbelievable welcoming and friendly, always smiling and positive people, who will love to help you,
host you and share a meal or tea, just because they enjoy doing it!
It's absolutely no problem to ask locals, whether you can pitch a tent in their garden or under the roof next
to their house! But be ready to be invited for a meal at their home, chat and laugh and most probably
sleep in one of their room!
While bikepacking, you will see thousands of smiling faces and waving hands! Tuk-Tuk drivers will slow down,
asking you questions about your journey. It's so encouraging to see so many Sinhalese admiring traveling on a bicycle!
Next day we woke up to a beautiful weather and to one more thing we could’t say no to: the breakfast was waiting on that lady’s table and so we enjoyed the fresh Rotti and left Ambagasdowa happy about this amazing experience!
That whole day was like a dream, cycling through tea plantations, having long windy descents most of the time! At some moment, attracted by the beauty of one tea plantation and a small tea shop we stopped for a while. A woman wearing a beautiful Sari started chatting with us, very interested by what we do. We don’t know if it’s bikepacking or some sort of soul magnetism, but this lady invited us to stay at her and her husbands place, 30km away from the tea plantation! Go with the flow boy! We don’t say no, when life gives you hints!
2 hours later we found their house and were welcomed by their happiness. We spent the whole evening talking, eating and drinking as if time stopped!
In the morning we went for a walk with the whole family to enjoy the local goat milk and yogurts! We left around noon heading back to Colombo. It started raining right after our departure and it didn’t really stop until the night. Tom got the flatty, miraculously just next to a little hut, where we decided to spend a night, relaxing, listening to the sound of rain, jungle animals and talking about the amazing time we had over the past days!
Another sunny morning woke us up and we started rolling down the hills again after a quick breakfast! It was our last day of bike touring, as we were planing to get to Colombo that day. We arrived in the busy city after 95km and after a quick hi5 with Ilhan at Cyclalogy we went to get a proper sleep.
Most of the next day we spent at Cyclalogy dissembling the Wolfborns and preparing for the flight to Vietnam. The next adventure was awaiting us, although our minds were still amazed by the beauty of Ceylon and how friendly the locals were to us all the time! We’ll be coming back Sri Lanka!
1. Colombo - Jungle Beach: 90km
2. Jungle Beach - Matara: 70km
3. Matara - Hiriketiya Beach: 25km
4. Hiriketiya Beach - Katharagama: 116km
5. Katharagama - Ella: 90km
6. Ella - Ambagasdowa: 40km
7. Ambagasdowa - Kotagal: 60km
8. Kotagala - camp somewhere: 50km
9. Camp somewhere - Colombo: 95km
Daily Average: 70km