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".

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

SriLankan Airlines (020-8538 2000; www.srilankan.aero) flies non-stop from Heathrow to Colombo. Qatar (020-7896 3636; www.qatarairways.com) 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; www.climatecare.org). The environmental cost of a return flight from London to Colombo in economy is £18.30.

The writer travelled with Exodus (0870 240 5550; www.exodus.co.uk), 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.

TRAVEL ADVICE

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; www.fco.gov.uk) 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.

MORE INFORMATION

Sri Lanka Tourist Board: 020-7930 2627; www.srilankatourism.org.uk

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