Kalu Ganga, Sri Lanka
This vacation is no vacation. Though we left Kandy by scenic train, we would be spending the next couple of days motoring our own arses, by means of pedal and paddle.
I choo-choo-choose Sri Lanka
Amongst the most famous things to see and do in Sri Lanka is taking the scenic train ride through the lush landscape, the tea plantations and the green hills. We boarded the 7:40 from Kandy to Hatton and got to experience the land in one of the most satisfying ways possible. Although parts of me would have preferred either the classic crowded cart with people on the roof and/or clinging to the sides, or the luxurious victorian Passage to India style steam train, one has to accept that technology marches on, and trains and beautiful views are always a good combo.
Rolling, rolling, rolling….
As we got off the train in Hatton, the next mode of transport awaited. As we had already declared our height, all the bikes were the right sizes, with just minor adjustments of saddles to be done. Although the lowlands of Sri Lanka is perfect for road biking, the mountains really aren’t. It’s very hilly, and the roads are either busy with traffic, in rugged conditions, or both. So, the best type would be a mountain bike with city tyres, lots of gears, and disc brakes. And that’s what we got, and in great condition to boot, or at least mine was.
The next few days were filled with biking through stunning landscapes, past rice paddies and tea plantations, through picturesque villages and gum tree forests, on undulating roads. Every so often we would stop for a photo opportunity, some tea and/or biscuits. There were fruit bats in the trees and monkeys on the electrical wires. People were picking tea and everyone, especially the children, waved and shouted “Bye!”.
The first day’s route was 48 km down-and-up, with almost 1000 m elevation gain. The second was a bit longer, roughly 56 km, with less climb, but more importantly, ended with a 20 km joyful descent.
Even though the average speed was a fair bit lower than I’m used to, the exceptional climb, the challenging roads, and the heat made for quite a few calories being burnt. And the weather was pretty much the best one could hope for: overcast, but no rain.
Seeing Sri Lanka from a bike saddle is truly a wondrous experience, and highly recommended.
Changing wheels to keels, the next part of our journey consisted of paddling down the Kalu Ganga in open kayaks. The name means black river, and its waters are indeed of the murkier kind. Following the gentle current, we set off towards the coast. The intense sun and proximity to water called for covering as much as possible to avoid sunburn, but at the same time the actual river water inescapably filling the bottom of the vessel craved the use of swimwear. Swimming trunks and a microfiber towel for covering the lower parts of the legs became the compromise.
The calmness, the relaxing floating downstream, with active paddling now and then, is a great way of taking in the landscape and the surroundings. Every now and then we would pass a boatman or two. Some were fishing for fish, but most were fishing for something else entirely: gems.
The sandy-silty river bottom contains, amongst others, sapphire, aquamarine, emerald and onyx, and is therefore the most important resource of the region, and the town where we started our watery journey is Ratnapura, a Sanskrit meaning translating to ‘City of Gems’ and as such it is the traditional centre for the Sri Lankan gem trade.
But paddling is more about nature, and after a day of tackling the streams, we put up camp by the river banks* and brought out the UNO deck**. The rain started shortly after the landing, and came down with no forgiveness. We spent the evening playing games under the tarp over the eating area. And once more, the camping was more glamping, with water closets and even showers.
The following day contained more paddling, but after the relative ease of the first day’s floating gently down the stream, this stretch had some rapids to offer. Going one kayak by one, we passed under a bridge where two of the guides were waving directions, sometimes contradicting. Maybe that’s a contributing factor in our 720 rotation down the currentiest part. Solely on the xy-plane, though. We remained firmly on board.
The paddling eventually ended. The unusually heavy rain had thwarted the possibility of paddling all the way to the ocean, but two days soaked in a kayak made for slightly smaller people was plenty, and we began prepping our minds for town and beach life.
After the beautiful but slightly unromantic train ride through amazingly green and lush landscapes we arrived in Hatton. Our destination for picking up bikes and the gear and start and finish that first day of wheeling.
So biking in the Highlands. Sounds like a piece of cake? No?
Well, we had some hard uphill ascents (Some? Plenty!) and some (not enough) descents. Ondulating roads.
But the views! The views. One think I wore out the word “wow”. The staggering beauty of the hilltops, the forests, the tea plantations and the small dwellings were to die for. In our merry gang of explorers we had the mountaineers (the Swiss, the Austrians and Martin), then we had the normal people namely the fabulous Canadian dame and me. We decided early on to do this in our own speed (really speed? I don’t think you can call our velocity speed. More a pleasure view watching huffing and puffing bike ride). Our kind and very fit guide Mr Mathish kept us company as he had designated himself as the sweeper. He rode with us as well as he were calling ahead to fix all the wonderful surprises he had planned for us.
I had some problem with my gears but truthfully it was my flat tire that hindered me the most. Silly me focused to much on the birds, monkeys, Tuk-tuks and breathtaking views to realise the flat tire. So much to see- But I managed to go all 48 k to the lovely lunch waiting for us at the end.
We spent the night in Hatton. Not a very touristy town. I hardly ever feel ill at ease but there was something with that town which made me reluctant to go exploring in the evening. Another reason for my unease was that we had the only windows of our hotel room facing out to the community staircase. The window from our bathroom. One had to time one’s bathroom visits to NOT coincide with the public usage of the stairs. Otherwise one would be sharing a lot of private parts…..
The second morning of the bike portion of the trip started out with some great descents. And bats. Lots and lots of bats. We saw their sleeping trees. Yup. The bats hang from special trees during their daytime sleep, looking like funny hanging fruits.
My tush though felt slightly raw. It was not the most pleasant sensation to put the full moonesque derrière of mine back to the saddle that day. But the views were worth it. We saw clouds roll in. Slowly and majestic like some benevolent wraiths. 1500 metres above sea level, and I did it with broken gears. When we started the descent bit of the 60k trek I got my third wheel change and then somehow it suddenly felt so much lighter. I should have said something earlier as we had the most wonderful back up crew with us. They changed wheels, supplied us with bananas, cookies (ah those ginger cookies! Nomnomnom) and water. What a splendid crew. I have to take the fault all by myself for not pointing out the faulty gears slightly earlier. Preferably before all the ascents. But I guess my brain had overloaded due to all the impressions from all the views.
But my poor derriere had not seen the end of trials yet. As my partner in crime has already written, we spent the night before the kayak portion of our trip in the Sri Lankan gem capital. But did I receive any gems? Nooo, But i did not give away any gems so I guess we are even.
Kayaking in the Black river is a pretty wet experience. The kayaks are all suited to the slightly less statuesque bodies of the Sri Lankans. I guess two fullbodied (very filled fullbodied) vikings weigh a bit more so our kayak, how should I put it, sailed low. I took the rear that first day and oh boy did My rear take it. My nether regions spent the entire day totally immersed in river water. The part that had been leech-free was now Black Rivered….
Muddy, tired, happy kayakers arrived to a great surprise (yet again). A glamping site. our tents were under a tarp and under another tarp a table with white tablecloth, white linen serviettes and beautiful white china were set. We, the wet river rats, were served as if we were the main cast of “Out of Africa”. I should not have packed a pair of very tacky grey leopard print tights . Oh well, live and learn. Glamping in Sri Lanka is true glamping.
As the rain was heavy and very unseasonal we had the choice of either spending another night glamping in rain or cutting it short after only two days of kayaking and instead go bike riding in much drier environments. Despite all the pampering and the wonderfully sweet crew, we all felt that a third day kayaking would be rather too much since the weather forecast were of a very wet variety. So after the white water rapids washed away my sunscreen and gave rise to an interesting sunburn pattern on my shins we said good bye to wet behinds, black water, plastic garbage decorating the trees, birds, monitors, fish, Aussie Ryan and the extremely sweet kayaking crew. New adventures (drier, much drier) were around the corner.
*) With we, I of course mean our crew. This is glamping, after all
**) Complete with rule debates, of course