Sri Lanka by bike

A 300-mile cycling holiday across Sri Lanka might sound masochistic, but it brings the landscape and history alive

Whizzing along a stony path past a school of waving pupils in the Sri Lankan jungle, you could be forgiven for feeling like a visiting dignitary. Everybody in this neck of the woods - from paddy-field workers to Jeep-driving estate owners - wanted to befriend us. Only the many dogs lolling around seemed indifferent to our presence.

I was on an Exodus cycling holiday. There were 11 men and two women in the group, ranging in age from 23 to 58 and in ability from mountain bike debutantes to seasoned off-roaders. Three were doctors, among them Hereford heart transplant recipient Andrew Watts and Oslo urologist Trygve "Trig" Talseth, with an Essex police officer and a Hertfordshire tax consultant among the others. Singles, divorcees, two marrieds with partners back home and a couple were all here to cycle Sri Lanka.

When we had arrived at Colombo airport a few days earlier at 2.45am, it had been 75F. "This is as cool as it gets," said Peter Bluck, our tour leader, originally from Hertfordshire, and now living in Sri Lanka with his Sinhalese Burgher wife, Hetty. Peter was the Sri Lankan national mountain bike team coach, and looked unreasonably perky for the time of day.

Having transferred 100 miles inland to Sigiriya - the centre of the ancient Sinhalese kingdom - on a clattering, hooting minibus behind our bike-carrying van, we prepared for the largely-off-road 300-mile route. As our 24-gear mountain bikes - some personally owned, some hired - were unpacked or removed from the roof rack and reassembled in a corner of the Hotel Sigiriya compound, a parade of inquisitive Toque macaque and long-tailed, grey langur monkeys scuttled across the roof.

With Peter warning us to beware of the spiky tamarinds, we set off on a river valley trail. Soon, we turned "off piste" into some gnarled root-covered vegetation. It was intermonsoon season, when for a few months the heavy rains are replaced by isolated thunderstorms and squalls, and reddish-brown puddles marked the path. As we swished through the undergrowth, with parrots squawking around us, we swept past a stream of thousands of white butterflies. Lunch at the hotel's poolside restaurant was a taster of those to come. A long, leisurely affair, preceded by a cold beer, it included spicy chicken, fish, beetroot and green bean curry dishes, offset by a mound of grated coconut and chilli infused with lime.

Later, in the rain, we climbed the Sigiriya "lion" rock, the fifth-century granite citadel of King Kasyapa - with frescoes of bare-breasted women painted on the rock-face - which rises majestically above the plains. At the top, however, the ruins of the king's palace and gardens were hemmed in by a murky grey. Over supper, the group mellowed as a blue tunic-wearing band warbled out some plaintive love songs to the sound of the sittar, the organ-like sarppina and drums.

The next day, after a 7.30am start, we cycled to the second-century BC Buddhist cave temples in Dambulla, where a huge golden statue looked out over an expanse of paddy fields and hills. "Caves are very important for Buddhists - they enable them to meditate away from distractions," said Peter, as, hired sarongs covering our newly-cleaned legs, we wandered among the painted statues.

In the afternoon, as we cycled through rivers, and dismounted to push the bikes through a swampy area, thick with elephant grass, Peter warned off elephants with cries of "Arora!", used by the Sinhalese to invoke the gods' protection. The day's 55-mile ride culminated in a steep, winding climb to the Giritale Hotel, which overlooked the serene Giritale Lake. Time for an ayurvedic massage. First there was a herbal sauna, followed by a massage with hot oil worked into sore limbs, then a cavernous wooden steam bath and finally an oily head massage.

The following day started with a gentle 14-mile ride along an irrigation canal and a pelican-populated lake to the 12th-century capital, Polonnaruwa. As our umbrella-wielding Hindu guide led us through the Parakramabahu palace complex in our biking gear, past souvenir sellers with their magical wooden boxes, miniature Buddhas and ebony elephants, he recalled the king's hundreds of concubines. As the light began to wane, we went in search of real elephants. Following an abortive mission through a thick, putrid sludge, composed of rotting rice husks and watery mud, we spotted two elephants in the gathering dusk. We watched in silence until they plodded off into the trees.

Sri Lanka is the world's third largest producer of tea, after China and India, and the biggest exporter, and our next transfer took us, via Hunnasgiriya Mountain, into the heart of the tea estates. Descending through the Knuckles mountain range, we passed through several villages with children playing cricket matches in the grassy clearings. After transferring to Sri Lanka's spiritual capital, Kandy, we were taken to the top of the awesome Huntane Massif.

The route climbed through verdant, mist-topped tea estates and hillside villages. Following lunch at the Pitawella rock pools and waterfall, we cycled to the Glenloch estate, where the tea-making process was explained. From the hand-picked leaf, through drying, grinding, fermenting, fanning and, finally, sifting the granules, it takes just two days to produce.

An hour's windy mountain drive further south, to Nuwara Eliya, lay our next overnight stop, the Grand Hotel - all vintage wooden furniture and fittings, chandeliers and white tunic-wearing waiters. Built in 1891, it harks back to the British colonial era, as does the nearby Hill Club, set behind high, manicured hedges. A golf club and racecourse are close by, and during the hot season, from March to May, wealthy Sri Lankans retreat to their holiday homes to enjoy the cooler climate in this hill country.

Heading south to Horton Plains the route took us through more tea estates and Tamil villages, in one of which an elaborate Hindu temple took pride of place among the shacks. We had now arrived at "triathlon" day: an early-morning climb up the 7,360ft Adam's Peak - 11 miles north-east of the gemstone city of Ratnapura - an 18-mile ride, and white-water rafting.

Following a 4.30am wake-up call, our minibus felt its way through the dark before dropping eight of us off amid zinging crickets and eddying streams. Considered sacred by the country's four main religions, Adam's Peak is also called Sri Pada (Sacred Footprint), as the Buddha is believed to have climbed it during his third visit to Sri Lanka. However, when we reached the summit after a humid, two-hour climb up its 5,200-plus steps, the Buddha's footstep temple was shut. The next leg took us to Kitulgala, where we white-water-rafted in grade three rapids.

With calves sore from the climb, day 10 was the biking equivalent of walking on hot coals, when we cycled across the Kelani river on a 4ft-wide swing bridge. Later, we climbed through a rubber estate, and ended up descending to the stunning Bopath Ella waterfall and rock pools for lunch.

The trip finished on the beach at Hikkaduwa, on the south-west coast and with a group awards dinner. "Four-puncture" Paul won the "bike wrecker of the week" prize; "PC" Mark scooped the "most comical fall" award - and I walked off with the "worst dress combination".



SriLankan Airlines (020-8538 2000; flies non-stop from Heathrow to Colombo. Qatar (020-7896 3636; flies via Doha from Heathrow and Manchester.

To reduce the impact of your flight on the environment, you can buy an "offset" from Climate Care (01865 207 000; The environmental cost of a return flight from London to Colombo in economy is £18.30.

The writer travelled with Exodus (0870 240 5550;, which offers "The Tea Trails" cycling trip from £1,429. This includes flights with SriLankan Airlines from Heathrow to Colombo, 12 nights' accommodation with breakfast, lunches and transfers. An additional payment of around £100 is made locally to cover food and fuel.


After the bomb attack on the Sri Lankan army headquarters in Colombo on Tuesday, a state of emergency has been declared on the island. The Foreign Office (0845 850 2829; urges visitors to avoid the north or east of Sri Lanka. On Wednesday, the government restricted access to the north of Sri Lanka by closing military checkpoints.


Sri Lanka Tourist Board: 020-7930 2627;

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Mosul dam was retaken with the help of the US
voicesRobert Fisk: Barack Obama is following the jihadists’ script
Arts and Entertainment
Loaded weapon: drugs have surprise side effects for Scarlett Johansson in Luc Besson’s ‘Lucy’
filmReview: Lucy, Luc Besson's complex thriller
A cleaner prepares the red carpet for the opening night during the 59th International Cannes Film Festival May 17, 2006 in Cannes, France.
newsPowerful vacuum cleaners to be banned under EU regulations
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
A polar bear’s diet is rich in seal blubber and half of its own body weight is composed of fat
London is the most expensive city in Europe for cultural activities such as ballet
Flocking round: Beyoncé, Madame Tussauds' latest waxwork, looking fierce in the park
travelIn a digital age when we have more access than ever to the stars, why are waxworks still pulling in crowds?
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson has rejected criticisms of his language, according to BBC director of television Danny Cohen
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench appeared at the Hay Festival to perform excerpts from Shakespearean plays
tvJudi Dench and Hugh Bonneville join Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC Shakespeare adaptations
Arts and Entertainment
Is this how Mario Balotelli will cruise into Liverpool?
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Oracle 11g SQL 2008 DBA (Unix, Oracle RAC, Mirroring, Replicati

    £6000 - £50000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: Oracle 11...

    Recruitment Consultant (Graduate Trainee), Finchley Central

    £17K OTE £30K: Charter Selection: Highly successful and innovative specialist...

    SQL DBA/ C# Developer - T-SQL, C#.Net

    £45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Working with an exciting ...

    Sales and Office Administrator – Sports Media

    £23,000: Sauce Recruitment: A global leader in sports and entertainment is now...

    Day In a Page

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
    Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

    Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

    A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
    Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

    Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

    Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
    Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

    Nick Clegg the movie

    Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
    Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

    Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

    Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

    Waxing lyrical

    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
    Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

    Revealed (to the minute)

    The precise time when impressionism was born
    From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

    Make the most of British tomatoes

    The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
    10 best men's skincare products

    Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

    Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
    Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

    Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

    The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
    La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape