2020 – Sri Lanka


Welcome in Tamil

Sadarayen Piliganimu

or in Sinhalese

Quite a while ago we received the brochure about this event and Sri Lanka has always been on our list of “must do” places so there wasn’t really much debate.

Since then there has been some domestic strife in this country. Not the twenty odd years of civl war but since then with a religious mass murder in 2019. The Foreign & Commonwealth Office made it a place that Her Britannic Majesty’s Subjects should not travel to. Anyway, that passed and it was eventually decided that it safe again but by now, the earlybird discount option had passed so we were resigned to having to pay the full whack. Until………….. One day I was telling our local estate agent about the trip and he then described the most incredible coincidence that linked Sri Lanka to Northern Ireland, but I’ll describe that later. So, with tongue firmly in cheek I emailed the organisers and asked that if I could prove a link like this could I have the discount – described the details and sent it off. Blow me down but he replied saying that he couldn’t refuse. Top Bloke is John Bridgen.

It will be a 4X4 touring trip, a bit like Madagascar and with a (smaller) bunch of the same people.

16th January 2020

Here we are at stupid o’clock in Dubai waiting for the connection to Colombo. It is 9:40 here and 5:40 at home. Eleven hours after we set off and with another four hours flying to change another two and a half hours. My head hurts!
I have to add that Emirates isn’t what it used to be. Business seats were small, hard and with very little stowage and no new movies to watch. To cap it all, we were woken up two hours before landing for breakfast then they turned the lights out but kept us awake with PA announcements.

17th January 2020

Woohoo – we’re here! OK, no baggage yet but, fingers crossed that’ll arrive on the next flight. Sinalhese traffic is as mad as anywhere else and obviously an MoT (a UK vehicle saftey certificate) isn’t an absolute must but at least, unlike Madagascar where few vehicles had any working lights, here most have some which is a plus. Pleasantly surprised with the weather – high 20s but over 80% humidity. Still, sitting outside in a sort of Spanish Carribean bistro with a super mambo/samba band and waiting for chuletas de Cordero and P is waiting for a seafood brochetta, as you can see, beside the sea!

17th January 2020 Pt 2

About 15 miles from where we live is a small coastal town called Donaghadee (where I also lived for a short while) which in the mists of time was the property of Viscount Montgomery as was Portpatrick, just over the North Channel in Scotland. Back in the dim and distant past a Royal warrant of about 1616 officially restricted travel between these two ports for some reason, perhaps it was a bit like Trump and President Xi of China, who knows? The bold Viscount however was prepared to play the long game and built two harbours, one each in Donaghadee and Portpatrick and eventually, when travel bans were lifted, he also built two matching lighthouses. Moving forward to about the end of the 19th Century and the navigation and saftey lights around the coast of the British Isles became the responsibility of Trinity House, a decision was made to move the Portpatrick light house a bit further up the coast where it would be more use to marine traffic in general so the old one was dismantled, put onto a ship and sold to the harbour authorities in, guess where – Colombo!

Trade between the two has continued ever since; these days mostly by the members of Ballyholme and Royal Ulster yacht clubs whereby the members sail to Scotland, OK and my club, Royal North of Ireland too, export a lot of cash and bring back very large hangovers to Northern Ireland.

There is another very strong line between Northern Ireland and Sri Lanka but more of that later – again!

Moving on. We both slept like logs last night and woke at what should approximately be breakfast time here so maybe we’ll catch up soon. We met a few of our gang and after the meal headed out to do two important things, be tourists and, more importantly, buy tonic water and lemons for our cocktail cabinet.

On the main road outside the hotel we stood for ages waiting for the traffic lights to change. Afrter what seemed like an age, a local came up to cross and signalled for us to follow him. He steps out into the torrent of tuc tucs, busses, cars and whatever simply gesturing for them all to stop immediately and let us, his honoured guests cross the road. Worked like a dream. Once safe on the other side, he introduced himself as one the porters who had shown us into the lobby yesterday! His holiday starts today so he was off to catch the train to Kandy where he will be spending time with his family on this most important holidau for all Sri Lanka. We didn’t find out what the importance was but no matter. He kindly asked what we were up to, rattled off a string of things to do and see, flagged down a Tuc Tuc ind instructed the driver, in no uncertain manner, where to take us, look after us like royalty and not to rip us off, It worked a treat.

He first took us to a beautiful temple but that was closing so off we went to another.

the biggest Buddah in Colombo (with Penny showing due veneration)
a car museum in the temple, naturally! – actually, there was lots and lots of other stuff on display too
more Buddahs
the tiny black thing on the cotton wool, inside the gilded jar is a genuine piece of the Buddah’s hair, or so we were told
the purble Buddah is in fact a 14Kg lump of Amethyst
another Buddah between lots of gilded ones.
outdoors Buddah
this Buddah is outside the Chinese Embassy and seems to be giving ‘the finger’ to everyone in general

18th January 2020

Here are some pics posted by others on our WhatsApp page. We picked up our trucks this morning, checked them for damage and signed away our lives in the off chance that, heaven forfend, we should damage them. Can’t happen to P and I (or for pedants P and me), because we both have wee Buddist string bracelets to protect us from bumps, punctures and other misfortunes We collected them up yesterday in the temple we photographed.

After lunch we re-sorted the packing for travelling and embarked on the Tuc Tuc tour but more of that later, once we’ve had a bite to eat.

So, in order:

At breakfast every day we have two of these smartly uniformed guys with catapults shooting at crows that, like Malagasy Lemurs, are always trying to beat us to any nibble. Our hotel is a grand old Colonial pile and like just about any hotel these days, makes it’s money from weddings. Here are some ladies from today’s (the third so far). Another pest are these wee squirrel/chipmunks. Collecting all our navigational electronics and road book. Finally, our transport for the afternoon. Thanks to our former US diplomat Don for these pics. He’s the right sort, if you know what I mean!

tuk tuk safari in Colombo
this is the organiser’s video compilation

19th January 2020

We’re off. Another excellent breakfast from the Galle Face Hotel’s superb buffet, a quick check around the room then off into the mayhem of Colombo’s traffic. Actually it wasn’t too bad being a Sunday but we stll had to keep on our toes as the junctions and route instructions were coming thick and fast. Once we eventually reached the more rural scenery we still had to stay alert for hundreds of mopeds, thousands of Tuc Tucs, dogs, children and all sorts of others. I think the biggest concern were the local busses. Big, really big for Sri Lankan small roads, Indian built Leyland monsters who don’t tolerate ditherers and they certainly don’t take prisoners. We pretty soon found that the quickest way to make headway was to get behind one as they force a path through everything at top speed. After a while though, we had to give up as the constant choking from the diesel fumes became too much. Other roadside hazards were a grey and black monkey that scampered across in front of us and one car also reported a big land Monitor lizard.

On the road South we stopped off at a small Sunday School run by the local estate and it’s principal theory seems to be to keep the children occupied and hence away from the clutches of drugs and worse. We’ve never seen so many bright beaming smiles in one place before so it seems to be working. On the site was a Buddhist temple of which parts dated back to the fifteenth century.

We learnt that the road was closed a bit further on so drove in convoy behind the estate owner along some tiny forest tracks through a government rubber plantation. State owned but farmed as a sort of co-op we stopped at one of the collection points to see the stuff being readied for onward shipping. We then went to a farming display and learnt about rubber, coconut, cinnamon and banana harvesting and their respective manual preparation before being given a wonderful fresh lunch prepared by the owner’s mother and staff.

We trundled on and drove through a village swathed with white bunting, flags, banners and arches over the street. At first Penny thought it was a sort of fiesta but later we found out it was a funeral procession. A local bigwig had passed away, funeral notice posters had been plastered all over the place (much like using the papers at home) and his remains toured around the district to make sure that everyone paid their due respects. Interesting to see a bunch of guys with their nets – washing them, not fishing.

An interesting ferry trip, thankfully not as adventurous or hazardous as Madagascar last year, then on to a Moonstone mine. All very interesting but we weren’t really in the mood for buying.

There is no real evening in Sri Lanka. from daytime, there is so little dusk the nighttime really thuds down to complete darkness; this was principally ok but then the rain started, big heavy drops at first then, very soon after absolute sheeting down torrents. That seemed to keep the Tuc Tucs and mopeds at bay so it wasn’t too bad.

We arrived in Galle, at the very southern tip of Sri Lanka and our lovely old hotel is inside the old fort. Portugal, Netherlands and Britain all seem to have the run of things over the centuries and it was lovely to have a guided walking tour this morning, partly along the fortress walls and partly in the old town.

By the way, my earlier report about lighthouses was slightly inaccurate, the Portpatrick light isn’t in Colombo but here in Galle.

funeral notice

21st January 2020

Longish drive today with more bonkers Tuk Tuks, mopeds & etc, in fact the whole lot but it isn’t as stressful as you might imagine. We had a lunch stop at a herbal garden and I was the victim of an organic depilation cream demonstration – Tumeric, Papaya, Saffron and lots of other exotic things and I now have a patch on my right shin that is as smooth as a baby’s bottom. There were a few calls for a Brazilian amongst the more rogueish in the party.

This evening we’ve had yet another stupendous buffet. All cooked to order, fish, chicken, curries (Indian and Sri Lankan), rotis, more salads than you can count and the desserts to die for. The food is superb. Early night for a 5:00 a.m game drive tomorrow
The hotel has fenced off part of the dining area because they are fed up with elephants coming in to partake. When we dropped off the cars we were warned to make sure that there is no food or tea in it because they can sniff it out and tear the doors off. BTW, everywhere we go we seem to be given little boxes of tea. Tonight we were also given a wee wooden pot of cinnamon toothpicks.

children rehearsing a parade on the cricket ground at Galle Fort

22nd January 2020

Early morning call at five o’clock and out to the Jeeps before sunrise, or breakfast. There were a few flashes of lightning around the horizon but nothing to really concern us. We had a fair drive to get to the reserve gates and the closer we got, there were more and more other Jeeps. Our driver reckons about 200 every day so it isn’t going to be like the fantastic game drive we had all those years ago in Sabi Sands. The rain started spotting and gradually got heavier and heavier and the electrical storm grew brighter and more spectacular. Once our permits had been checked and we were into the reserve, we trundled along hoping to see something spectacular. We did see more rain – lots and lots of it; and Toyotas (the game spotting sort) as those who were in before us stopped wherever and took up prime positions to see what they could. They drive these things like Tuk Tuks, overtaking left and right which is quite something on a single lane gravel and mud track with deep gullies on either side.

So we drove on seeing Storks, Egrets, Bee Eaters, Water Buffalo and did I mention the Toyotas and more rain. Eventually our driver started to make his way back; maybe he could hear our tummies rumbling for breakfast! We did glimpse a Crocodile doing a respectable impression of a log in the river but too far away to make a photo worth looking at. Then we came across a traffic jam of about eight or so Jeeps. They had stopped because a small family group of elephants were trying to cross our track.

Jamie, the official photographer setting up one of his video cameras

23rd January 2020

Yala to Udawalawa. Try saying that after a couple of G&Ts! A shortish run that we were expected to set off at about noon. Rally maestro Brigden decided that we’d had things a bit too soft on the opening days so sent us up some farm tracks, if you could call them that. Actually, the lanes led to a variety of game lodges so I suspect that what should been a bit interesting turned into a real low gear trial with differentials locked after the recent torrential rain. Some tracks were only just discernable whilst others were deeply rutted because of the run-off. What looked like a couple of large puddles came up to the top of the bonnet and traction became a wee bit puddingy, if that’s a word. We had rally cameraman Jamie in the back seat today and he and Uncle Google worked out how to get into low gear diff lock to get us through. Thanks Jamie. We’d set off about elevenish and eventually enjoyed a lovely gentle drive sort of North Westish, away from the coast and a bit into the uplands. No surprises in the eighty odd Km to the Udawalawa game reserve. Before starting the afternoon safari drive the three of us had a lunch of Sri Lankan Rotis. Sort of stuffed pancakes made with rice flour and prepared fresh for us at the Elephant Shack Restaurant. We might have been the only guests for the day. About 2,100 Lk (SriLankan rupees), less than a tenner including a pot of coffee, a ginger beer and a free sample of ginger tea, including free WiFi, mobile WhatsApp and email address and served by the cheeriest three folk you could imagine anywhere. Delightful. A few of the others became a bit stuck in the quagmires earlier but eventually got free and arrived, nearly on time.

The game drive was stupendous. Lots more Asian elephants, crocs, monkeys, multicoloured birds and of course, everyone’s favourite, baby tuskers. They really are sweet wee things, unless you annoy their mums, of course.

Tonight we are at the Grand Udawalawa Game Resort and dinner was, yet again, super (reminder – must look up more adjectives).

Tomorrow we are apparently driving up the Sinhalese Stelvio! More on that later.

This is Chris, from the organising team when he met a rather large bull elephant on the beach in front of the hotel. Unlike most normal people he walked towards it to give it a pet. He very soon realised that the bigger of the two was beginning to charge him so he scarpered PDQ.

24th January 2020

Apologies for not posting this last night but we had a long day’s driving; not so much in distance but very rarely on a straight and towards the end I was using second and third low gears on the automatic gearbox to make it easier coming down some of the very steep inclines. At the hotel here in Haputale we had a proper “Pimms on the Terrace at Sunset” and then straight into dinner so no time to spare.

After breakfast we drove a couple of Km to the Elephant Transit Home nearby. Here, rescued and orphaned elephants are hand reared until it is thought they are safe to be released back into the wild. There are about 6,000 of these magnificent beasts in Sri Lanka and there are as many as about 300 injured every year in road or rail accidents. If found in time, they are brought to this camp which is on the fringe of the largest National Park. Our guide, Roy also told me of some other “accidents” which thankfully, under the new, more caring government are on the decline. It seems that some farmers, pestered by having their crops damaged, have in the past put out some food with a small quantity of explosive in it. Along comes an elephant and it blows it’s jaws off. Not nice at all.

After that we returned to the hotel to collect our bags and have a cup of coffee. The drive today isn’t too long, only 143 km in total but we have been invited by a friend of our guide to have lunch at his house at Rakwana but this can’t start until after two o’clock, after Friday prayers are finished in the Mosque. At the last minute the venue was changed to a Muslim guest house just across the road from the Mosque and the meal, typically Sinhalese of course was fresh, aromatic and delicious. The day’s driving was relaxed as we headed north east then north west, higher, higher and higher towards the centre of the island. While everything is very tropical, it gradually became more and more lush and luxuriant as the day went on. We had lots of steep climbs on very twisty roads with occasional glimpses of verdant mountains and scary drop-offs through the teak forests. Mostly the roads are pretty decent but often they are very narrow, sometimes only just wider than our cars. Penny and I had a debate on the first one about whether it was on a bus route and prayed that it wasn’t – it was. These huge demons of the road are everywhere and everything else gives way – or else!

Our hotel clings to the side of the mountain at about three thousand feet. The views are magnificent but very hazy.

I also have some interesting videos to post but the Wonderweb just isn’t good enough here so I won’t bother until we get home.

a pleasant drive through some of the high tea plantations

25th January 2020

Today is a rest day from driving so I decided to have a slow start. Penny however was up at half six this morning and went down for breakfast with the rest of the group. At eight o’clock, she and photographer Jamie thumbed a lift with Nicholas and Leslie for the run up to the tea factory in the Lipton Estate where they were thoroughly educated in the intricacies of tea production. After this they were taken by Tuk Tuk further up to Lipton’s Seat where the great man was able to commune with nature and survey his domain. They enjoyed tea (naturally) and Roti up there. Sir Thomas Lipton is another connection with home. He based his America’s Cup yachting challenge – Shamrock – in the Royal Ulster Yacht Club (where I used to be a member)

When they came back to the hotel I was raring to go and we were all squeezed into a couple of mini busses for a ride of about two hours to Demodara, high in the tea country. The reason for this? for a choo choo ride (to keep the men happy) back to Haputale, near the hotel. What a ride – the manic driver had me holding on for dear life and most people were surprisaingly quiet. The front seat passenger asked the question we were all wondering about “where are the seat belts?” to which he replied “don’t worry, I will drive very carefully for you”. I’m glad we made it in one piece. Once there we had to wait a while for the “up” train to pass through the station before our “down” train arrived. It seems this train is a bit of an attraction, for the locals too as there were throngs watching and photographing it and it’s loop around a small hill to enter a tunnel under the station. Not a huge, luxurious train, more a typical working mountain train with just three coaches, one goods van and a diesel locomotive that would have looked more at home in a much larger terminus performing shunting jobs. Off we set, all of us in the “First Class” panorama carriage at the rear with the seats looking aft. Sri Lankan first class is…………….. very Sri Lankan – enough said? All the way back we were entertained by the crowds waiting for and photographing our wee train. Incredible.

Once back at Haupatale, eight of us piled into the same mini bus that we had earlier in the day and set off. Five minutes out and he pulled over to negotiate a day rate with a couple of tourists he’d carried previously and then we set off again but very cautiously down the mountain road which was a bit of a surprise. Just short of the turning into our hotel’s lane, the motor died and couldn’t be coaxed back to life so he coasted a few hundred yards further and we started negotiating with some Tuk Tuk drivers to get us home.

That’s about it for today. Tomorrow we’re off to Nuwara Eliya via Horton Plains and The Devil’s Staircase. Watch this space!

our wee train arriving

26th January 2020

Haputale via Horton Plains to Nuwara Eliya. We had Jamie, the rally photographer with us today and it was only 70 km but not the simple short hop you might expect. After just 9km we left the main road and started heading up a narrow track into the mountains. Very soon after, we passed the spectacular Banbarakanda Falls on the left. They cascade over the edge of the plateau we’re heading for and land, not far from the road, nearly nine hundred feet later. Our photo didn’t do it justice so I’m hoping to get one from our WhatsApp group. Shortly after, the road surface, if you could call it that disappeared completely into a mixture of rocks, rubble, mud puddles and clay and it was only just a tiny bit wider than the car. We were now on “The Devil’s Staircase”, so that should have given us a clue as to what was coming. We engaged the low ratio gears and locked all the differentials to make sure we had sufficient traction on the incredibly tight hairpin bends and vertiginous climbs in some places. Fifteen km later we were back on tarmac after an hour and a half that converts to about ten kph or six mph, nearly all in first and second gear. I think the best description of the drive is “Character Building” Whoever was on the outside of the road, i.e. the down side rarely looked out at the spectacular views because of the vertical drops and conversation frequently stopped altogether just so that I could concentrate. Some of the tight hairpins were so steep I think we had an inside wheel off the ground and that hasn’t happened since Japan but that was in the Talbot with a longer wheelbase, solid axles and a lot less supension travel.

About two thirds through we reached an open bit after passing the highest point through a very narrow pass from one valley to another. We had a discussion with Jamie as he wanted to be left there so that he could photograph the other cars as they drove down the opposite side of the valley. The weather was a bit grey and with no mobile coverage we couldn’t find out if everyone was still climbing. We knew it was only about ten km to the gates of the National Reserve so, if the worst came to the worst, he could walk out and so, with a manly handshake we said cheerio and that we’d remember him to his friends and family in case he didn’t make it.

The Horton Plains gates, at 7,071 feet was the highest part of the drive and Penny and I both needed the “comfort break” there. We headed on to the cafe (for want of a better description) and visitor’s centre. Lunch consisted of a couple of Rotis and Penny also tried a fried surprise with a couple of chickpeas. She’s still alive. Our two cups of coffee turned out to be drinking chocolate but delicious nevertheless.

Back on the road again we headed for tonight’s destination at Nuwara Eliya or Little England. It really is a bit like stepping back in time to the Edwardian period in the home counties, if you ignore the 30 deg heat, Tuk Tuks, monkeys scampering around and all the other stuff. This place even has a horse racing track across the road from the Hotel!

Post Script: Is Rally Director, John Brigden clinically deranged for setting us that route today? Possibly so but thank you for finding it!

not for those of a nervous disposition

27th January 2020

Day off today in Nuwara Eliya so only a few pictures to see. I’m finding it very difficult to get the videos onto YouTube so they’ll have to wait until we’re home. The video is of a short walk through the council market. Fresh produce looking super everywhere we looked; fish very fresh and the meat counters looking suitably gory. The signs are on the trees in the grounds of the Grand Hotel and the shrubbery is in Victoria Park, across the road. We dandered up to Cargill’s to re-stock (Gin if you must know). Cargill’s is one of the national chains from the days of Empire and this one has been here since 1898. Now, I don’t suppose the lady of the house would go shopping but maybe her housekeeper would send the servants out for “Smoker’s Requisites, Fishing Tackle, Fancy Goods” and the like. The important part is that it might have the town’s only liquor store! The last shot is of a road sign. Navigators have to be quick to get their drivers to understand where they’re going!

28th Jauary 2020

Nuwara Eliya to Kandy. Sitting at about 6,250 feet, Nuwara was cool enough last night to have the electric fire on in our room! Only about 100 km today so we had a leisurely breakfast and set off at about ten past ten this morning. Everything was going exceedingly well until we reached the outskirts of Kandy. Before that we stopped out in the country at a sort of job creation scheme for rural women. Described in the road book as a “food court”, it was in fact three roadside kitchens, staffed only by local women and serving local food and refreshments to passing travellers. No coffee break this morning so I had to put up with black builder’s tea sweetened with jaggery, a sort of fudge made with unrefined sugar. It was at the right place for us to take a break and set us up for the rest of the drive. Once we were about 25 km from town we were in endless roadworks. It looked as though it had been swept away in a landslide but, whatever, the track was rough, very narrow and clogged with big busses. Eventually we reached the town and the traffic was truly manic. Trying to stay alert with two million Tuk Tuks half a million busses and another two million mopeds all trying to use the bit of road I was on was entertaining to say the least. Our hotel is high up in the mountain out of town and reached by a (vertical) single lane road that is also – guess what – on the bus route. so I was ready for a lie down in a darkened room after checking in.

Because there is so little to report, I thought I’d try and give you a taste of a few things – beginning with the food here. Penny and I arrived in Sri Lanka with no real preconception of the cuisine; yes, there would be curry and probably lots of it. Our only experience of Sinhalese grub is from the chef in “90 Mile” a bar/restaurant at Villacana in the south of Spain that we frequent. His curries are gentle, fragrant and so light they are a must have on every visit we make there. Here there are more varieties than we can count and we can have one at every meal if we wish. The buffets at breakfast and dinner are extraordinary and bigger than anything we’ve ever seen before. All fresh of course and with local as well as Indian, Chinese, Thai, Vietnam, Euro/Western as well as with meat or vegetarian it is difficult to make a choice every time. Definitely one of the high points of the trip. I’ll try and get some pics of the spread and post them here.

Do many of you remember my comments about driving in China, Russia, Japan, S America and the like? Here’s a quick reminder: China – never make eye contact. Toot your horn and move to whatever lane you want and the space will be made for you instantly (we’ve even tooted at a police car there and he moved out of our way). Russia – stay very alert because everyone else on the road is drunk, including the police. Japan – obey the rules of the road to the very last letter. Stop at every light, crossing & etc and never exceed 70 kph on the motorways. S. America – stick to the white lines and that frees up the lanes for trucks and taxis. Here in Sri Lanka, Karma is the thing to have. All the road users (including us) aim for the same piece of road, no matter how many vehicles are using it and if your Karma is good, a gap will open, as if by magic, at the very last second. Oh, and don’t bother slowing down or stopping at the zebra crossings, just drive around anybody using them. Indicators? If you have them, leave at least one on all the time and it doesn’t really matter what side and finally, an absolute must is to not indicate in any manner whatsoever if you want to turn right, left, do a U turn or pull over (to either side of the road), just do it. Karma is the thing!

29th January 2020

This morning we visited the Royal Botanical Gardens in the centre of Kandy. One hundred and fourty seven acres of parkland, all very well laid out and maintained. There are over 4,000 species under cultivation with specimens from all over the world. An Orchadarium (Estepona’s is better in our opinion), medicinal garden, magnificent palm avenues, the bonkers looking Cook’s (After the Captain I presume), pine avenue (they’re the crooked ones in the pics), Spice garden and lots, lots more. Worth the visit. After a couple of hours the sun was becoming very hot so we left and negotiated a Tuk Tuk ride back to the hotel from LKR 900 we finally settled on 400 Rupees and the ride included free deafening music from a boom box behind our seat!

In the late afternoon we went down to the Temple of the Tooth. Yes, there is a canine of the Buddha, in a casket, in a shrine, in a temple, here in Kandy. Apparently this was removed from his funeral pyre after he died after his 500th incarnation. It was located in several places in Indai and eventually Sri Lanka. It was finally brought here in the 16th Century. It is a beautiful building and the ritual of revealing the casket is performed three times a day for hundreds of waiting devotees. I think the tooth itself is revealed only once a year. Whatever, it is a very simple ritual of drumming, a reed pipe and a handful of monks who enter the shrine, inside the temple. When they reappeared on the second floor the human crush was incredible and quite strange for us westerners who are more reserved about our personal space. In the crush, we were pushed forward by the devotees who were so proud of their relic.

After the ceremony about eight of us retired to a hotel across the road for a quick reviving G&T while we waited for our bus to bring us back to the hotel and supper. Tomorow onwards towards Sigiriya and the “Lion Paw”.

apparently this altar tells the story of the journey of the tooth
floral tributes for the tooth
a couple of hotel staff, ready for CV
part of the ritual before the worshippers are permitted to enter the shrine of the tooth
and this is the next level up once the shrine has been opened

30th & 31st January 2020

Sitting in the Kandalama Hotel (famous architect) in Dambulla typing this with a curious Macaque and her baby on the terrace table watching my every move.

No time yesterday so here we go on our last day of being Europeans. We’re travelling on British Passports and Penny’s is new (British only) but mine is quite old (Euroland). Will we both be allowed back in together?

Thursday 30th was only 123 km but because of the nature of Sri Lanka roads it took all day. Another entertaining drive over tortuous mountain paths. All was going well until we met a smallish bus coming up as we were going down. We had our local guide, Roy in the back seat today and thankfully he had a chat with the driver who said the nearest passing place behind him was over two km away. We tried to get up on the grass verge when Penny also bailed out because the front outside tyre was only 50% in contact with (mostly) solid ground. We gave that one up and I reversed up to the previous corner and half way up the bank on the inside, This let the bus have a go on the outside which worked (thank heavens). About 200m further on we discovered that the bus driver was being economical with the truth. There was a decent passing place that could possibly have let about three cars through with almost no risks at all.

We stopped at the Iswara Spice Gardens for lunch and demonstrations about the medicinal benefits of these wondrous plants- another retail opportunity.

Once back in the valley we visited the Dambulla Cave Temples. These are reached by climbing about 405 steps ( a pleasant warm-up for tomorrow) and some date back 1,500 years. More Buddhas then only a shortish drive to the hotel for the next two nights. If James bond was into tourism, this would be his world HQ. I found myself automatically humming the 007 theme tune as we were shown along some tunnels to our room. It might have a famous designer as it’s creator but, like most hotels, the shower leaks everywhere.

Today was the big one – the highlight of the trip so far. We set off early for the drive to the Lion Rock at Sigiriya, one of the captials of Sri Lanaka in ancient times. The reason for the early start was to avoid as much of the midday sun as possible as well as the huge crowds that gather later in the day. The Lion rock bursts out of the tropical forests all around and shoots near vertically up to over 650 feet with an incredible complex of moats, defenses and gardens around the bottom. 1202 lung bursting steps later you are at the summit surrounded by the ruins of the palace and temple complex. 1202 doesn’t sound much but I can assure you that it is a real workout, expecially in to 30deg plus heat. Why Lion Rock? About 2/3rds of the way up there is a plaza where there used to be a massive lion looking out and from the plaza the stairs continued on up through the lion’s mouth. That collapsed in the past and all that’s left are the two massive front paws, carved out of the native rock.

It was worth every sweat drenched step to reach the top and marvel at the effort required to create such a thing and then to look out over miles and miles of verdant countryside.

Tomorrow onward to Trincomelee on the Eastern coast.

who has right of way?
Penny enjoying a quick massage in the spice garden
the view from our room, the Lion Rock is the square one to the right
entering the garden complex
the start of the climb, that’s our former US diplomatic chum in the hat
looking down on a part of the ascent
from the plaza, between the Lion’s Paws there is a more modern staircase
Penny at the top
the start of the descent – almost more difficult than going up
this is Chloe; heart of gold and spirit of iron; She can walk but spends a lot of time in a wheelchair yet she was determined to make it – with a little help.
Second from the left is her driver, John who celebrated his 80th birthday last night
more towel folding art – Monkey this time instead of an Elephant

1st February 2020

Sigiriya to Trincomalee

Our route today began with a meander around some very narrow single lane roads beside a couple of national parks. At one point we stopped to watch a school band being marched out, very proudly, for some practice on the sports ground on the other side of the road. The performers were very seriously keeping in step and concentrating hard, especially the band major who strode out very stiffly with his back ramrod straight and baton raised high; all except one wee scamp in the back row who stopped blowing her sort of plastic reed keyboard thingy to beam a huge smile and wave. Great fun. One of the supervisors stopped to explain that the band was out honing their performance before a big football match on Sunday.

A wee while later we all stopped at the archaeological site of Polonnaruwa. The majority of this spectacular place comprises the palace complex of King Parakramabahu and it is utterly incredible. Before coming to Sri Lanka I had only a tiny notion of the fantastic history of this magical land. It is very roughly the size of Ireland but the remains of royal dynasties are scattered all over the place. Some date back to before 2,000 BC and there is a near continuous record ever since. Parts of this site are from the second and third centuries AD while King Parakramabahu’s bits are 11th century.

We eventually joined the main road to the coast that was nearly arrow straight for about fourty km. Who knew that the Romans had been here building roads? There was surprisingly light traffic but lots of police checkpoints for rogue Tuk Tuks and the like. We noticed that we were passing more and more army camps and have been warned that the frequency will increase as we drive north – a result of the civil war twenty odd years ago. In fact, we have both commented on the number of armed police we have seen since we started over three weeks ago. Security has been everywhere; not unpleasant but one is always aware – having Penny’s handbag searched or my little backpack rummaged whenever we enter large buildings, hotels or whatever. All a bit like the early 70s in Belfast I suppose.

Once in Trincomaleee we detoured to restock the cocktail cabinet and replenish our drinking water. We’re both getting through a couple of litres a day; sometimes more. A bit more fiddling around in the back streets and we arrived at the Trinco Blu Cinnamon Beach hotel. Our room is right on the beach (Indian Ocean) with sunbeds, palm trees, in fact everything you could imagine of this type of tropical resort.. A proper day off tomorrow with nothing organised so maybe a bit of shopping and definitely an evening meal somewhere that isn’t a group buffet. Maybe no updates tomorrow.

lots of butterflies today
part of the marching band
nice road sign
apparently the Buddha’s tooth (remember the temple in Kandy) resided in this temple for a while so one wag in our group named this deity “The Tooth Fairy”
the view from our cabin’s terrace

3rd February 2020

Trincomalee to Jaffna.

First off, yesterday 2nd Feb. A proper day off so we did very little. A bit of laundry and lying in the sun. Super mixed fish platter for lunch, siesta, dinner then early to bed to recharge the batteries; hence no report.

Today was a longish boring drive up the East coast. Not much happens here and the roads prove it. We drove for long periods without seeing a single Tuk Tuk. Very few places to stop and eat so we pilfered a few bananas and cheese rolls from the breakfast buffet and that kept us going until we arrived at the hotel for a late snack lunch. Being a tea growing country, coffee stops are a rarity but, in the middle of a teak plantation we found what must be the only coffee shop here. It only sells Nescafe im small cups and pre-sweetened but, beggars can’t be choosers. About thirty pence for two cups and a fried spicy vegatable thingy, In the afternoon we took ourselves a further 25 or 30 km North East to reach the northernmost point of the Island, Pedro’s Point Lighthouse. Incidentally, nobody knows who Pedro was. The lighthouse is derelict, much like the naval base beside it and the tiny fishing village seems to dry it’s catch on the rocks so the whole place is a bit rank. Not like Kilkeel or Portavogie at all.

Back to Jaffna for a buffet supper and apart from that – not much else. During the day we did see substantial herds of cattle which we’ve not seen the like of before, a war memorial, lots of Hindu temples and quite a few more Christian churches, thousands of school children in their white uniforms being let out for a half day extra holiday because it is Independence Day tomorrow (No Booze!) and finally, as well as most strangely, lots more litter beside the road. The countryside so far has been remarkably clean, but today – horrible but still not as bad as Peru or Sicily. Penny has a few more photographs in her camera but it is playing hard to get so they’ll have to wait until I put the chip into a reader at home.

One thing we did notice though was a large number of derelict and abandonded buildings. This costal part of the country is very low lying for quite a way inland and must have suffered terribly in the Tsunami of 2004. The numbers are staggering: something like 35,000 killed and 900,000 displaced is something to think about.

5th February 2020: Jaffna to Anuradhapura

Sorry there was no post yesterday but the hotel didn’t have WonderWeb and the mobile signal was so poor in our cabin that the little “Hotspot” devices we have didn’t work either.
An easy day’s drive on Tuesday with the highlight being a security check on the road. We’ve been through quite a few army and police barriers without a hitch and passed by dozens of Brigade and Regimental camps so It really isn’t a surprise to finally be given the once over. All the suitcases out and a quick rifle through, a check of our paperwork and sign a paper to say that nothing had been pinched, a pleasant smile and we were on our way again after only about ten minutes.
Anuradhapura is another very early Sinhalese Royal palace complex and the hotel is another architect’s dream. He is creating a village / forest park hotel from nothing apparently. It looks like an ancient monument but made of distressed concrete, not stone. He claims that he’s been at it since 1994 and our guide book does say that it needs a refurb. Large parts of the site are like a building site and what has been created is a bit more Disney than historical recreation but, hey ho, worth a try. Once checked in and started un-packing we were invited to G&T on the terrace with the organiser which is very nice so “Thank You” Sarah. We had a quick shower first and on the way dropped into reception to ask for a couple of lightbulbs to be replaced in our cabin. The windows have blinds permanently screwed down and the only other opening window was in a sort of rear lobby but with the wardrobe in front of it so lighting was at a premium. When we got back to the room one lamp was working but the other, more important one in the middle of the main wall was still AWOL.
For some reason dinner was relocated from the dining room to a tree lined square in front of the fitness suite. Our turn for wine tonight so I’d organised that at the bar earlier. By the time we went to make our meal selections, all the vegetable dishes were down to last scrapings or completely finished and a few of the heating lamps had blown out so the grub wasn’t even that warm. One of our party asked for replacements and I believe some veg were brought to the table but they too dissapeared before I got to see them. This morning we planned having a look at some temples and Buddhas early to avoid the searing sun later in the day then perhaps spend a bit of time around the pool so, breakfast first! Only a paltry selection of fruit but no bananas, and for the first time, no curds or yoghurt so that didn’t start things off too well. I’m not a fan of fried brekkies so apart from a couple of days on this trip with poached eggs I’ve had a variety of cereals but today – no chance. The egg chef didn’t do poaching and there was no cereal of any description anywhere so I went for toast and pastries. No toaster! Penny had an omelette which was fine but then the coffee – Absolutely the worst in the world (when it arrived) Maggie sent a pot back and the second one was horrible too.
A junior member of staff was dispatched to ask “Do you have a problem” so I politely told him about the curds, bananas, toaster and coffee to which he smiled and retreated, I think it was outside his language range.
Did I say that the pool had things growing in it and our room and bathroom were grubby? After a very brief discussion which as you might gather was about the general ameneties and service here, we decided to “cut and run” for the coast as it were.
Once on the road this morning we noticed yet again how thin the Tuk Tuks were on the ground but that only reduced the stress levels so that’s OK. We stopped at Puttalama at the Bravo Restaurant for coffee. A wonderful welcome and hearty greetings all around but sorry, no coffee. Our host did offer something that sounded like Neste or perhaps Nestle so, in hope we nodded and waited. We’ve no idea what turned up. It was very sweet, might have been coffee, tea or, our best bet, an instant, milky malt confection but not bad for 200 washers.
Now that we were on the coast, it was all ribbon development so traffic was heavy and progress slow, hence my concentration levels were high. A quick lunch on the outskirts of Negombo (perhaps) kept the energy levels up as we approached the maniac driving in Colombo once again. We made one very small navigational error that nearly took us to the docks but soon found our way back to the right route only to be confounded by a detour caused by some striking workers of some sort, or so we were told. We eventually and with some relief arrived back at the first hotel, the lovely Galle Face. As soon as we opened the tailgate, one of the porters was there in an instant and, incredibly said “welcome back”. how nice.
Even when checking in, one of the reception crew also said “welcome back” with a delicious glass of unsweetened lime juice accompanied by a wee chunk of fudge and a refreshing damp towel. We have the same room as three weeks ago so – home again, but only for a short while.

That’s all for tonight folks.

One of the war memorials
we paid a quick visit to Adam’s Bridge, the nearest point to India and, in the local legends, the place where Adam (30 feet tall!) crossed to Sri Lanka – That’s the buch heading down to the sea.

7th February 2020: Colombo

This is the last post so to speak. We enjoyed a very relaxing day yesterday. We had a brisk walk along the prom in the morning and fell into conversation with a diplomat from the Malaysian Embassy. He is resident in the USA and this is his third posting to Sri Lanka. It was a lovely chat that ended all too soon. A snack lunch by the pool then back to the room to sort out clothing and stuff before re-packing for the flight(s) home.

In the evening we all relished a champagne reception on one of the hotel’s many terraces before we were escorted upstairs to our private dining room for the farewell dinner. We were shown a short film compiled by our wonderful travelling photographer, Jamie and he hit the spirit of the event perfectly. Dinner, speeches and bed. Thank You to the whole Bespoke Rallies team: Sarah Morgan, Chris & John Brigden, Jamie Turner and Roy our translator/guide for creating a truly wonderful event. We’ve seen sights and driven roads that very, very few tourists will ever be fortunate enough to enjoy as we have.

This morning we handed back our cars to the hire company and they really are a bunch of sharks.There were lots of complaints about the condition of nearly all the cars, including ours which had a little four inch rubber bruise on the front bumper, caused when we met a street vendor’s push cart on a roundabout the day before yesterday. They wanted $200US from me for repairs and I blew up, pointing out all the other marks on the car that I’d signed for and yet hadn’t been repaired. The car hire guy kept talking over me and thing were beginning to warm up when Roy, our local travelling tour guide stepped in, offered to take me somewhere to get it fixed for a lot less but I declined, explaining that toothpaste or if possible brasso would take it out in a few minutes. My Oral B dental paste removed most of the marks and Roy’s brasso, acquired from hotel housekeeping lifted the rest – much to the amusement of the wedding guests who were mingling outside the function room we were parked beside. We finally proved the mark had disappeared but it took a while longer to get the car hire guy to sign our contract with a “No Damage” statement. Nicholas Prior’s car needed a bit more attention with a couple of genuine scratches but when he asked for a fee of $500US for a consultation fee in respect of diagnosing and fixing brake and gearbox problems on his car it brough a smile and a handshake from the car hire guy. John and Fen Aird’s car needs to be raised on a lift to inspect some damage underneath so I’m not sure what will happen there. Roger and Maggie’s truck seemed to be OK but out of nowhere they were asked for an extrqa $200US for excess mileage! Can you see a pattern here? Roger is a big bloke and it didn’t really take too long the explain that there were no mileage restrictions on his copy of the contract.

To round off, what about Sri Lanka? About the same size as Ireland but with a population of around 22 million, it is hard to find any wide open spaces but Bespoke found them and they are beautiful. The people are genuinely cheery and always have a willing, ready smile waiting to burst out. They love their country and are obviously very proud of it despite the quite recent troubled history and corruption. It isn’t a rich country as we know it but it is improving properly and Penny and I would both recommend it strongly as a place to visit. We’ve both loved every second of our visit to “The Land of Limitless Beauty”

That’s it for now. Once we’re home I’ll post some more pictures and videos that I just couldn’t manage while we were here, so, In the immortal words of Bugs Bunny – “That’s All Folks”

there were several of these “fish” along the prom to encourage folk not to litter – and it works;
maybe our local councils at home could take note.
some eco messages beside a protected turtle egg site

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