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A Paws for thought. Singlespeeding through Sri Lanka.

A Paws for thought. Singlespeeding through Sri Lanka.
There’s something about the sight and sound of rushing water that captivates me; be it the soothing chatter of a brook speeding through a shallow glide or, like today, the deep base of white horses breaking on a sun-soaked beach. Last night I was lulled into a deep sleep by it, and today I stood on its edge with a wash of cool, foaming, surf tickling my feet whilst I studied, mesmerised, the infinite variety of the forming waves, no two the same, ever.
It was 36 hours since we’d rolled into Tangalle, on Sri Lanka’s southern coast, on our local singlespeed bicycles; seven days after leaving Jaffna, in the north, 804kms of cycling now behind us. My bike sat in the shade of our simple but pleasant beach-side accommodation, its tyres half submerged in the soft white sand. It was a nice place to end an adventure.

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With a budget of just £150 each we took the slow train from Colombo, the capital, to Jaffna, bought ourselves a couple of the ubiquitous singlespeed bicycles, known locally as “Standards”, for the princely sum of £63.00 each, and prepared ourselves for the long slog.
We were cycling from north to south via the most westerly and easterly points on the map – Jaffna, Mannar, Arugam Bay, and Tangalle. None of this was my idea I might add; it was all the making of my friend Phil Evans; a master of master planners if ever there was one.
For our efforts we were hoping to raise £2000 for the Helping Paws Neuter and Vaccination Program which in turn would help to enrich the lives of around 100 street dogs and cats (*I’m pleased to say we exceeded our target).

Our journey wasn’t without incident – how could it be – it wouldn’t be a journey otherwise; even our train was delayed en-route by a car colliding with it at a level crossing a few miles short of our disembarkation. Thankfully the driver appeared none the worse for the altercation, the car however didn’t fare quite so well – these lumbering old Asian trains are made of stern stuff. The type of stuff we would need to made of over the next seven days.

I loaded my bike, ad hoc fashion, with the new Alpkit Koala Exo Seatpack, a Joey Harness, and a 20l Airlok dual dry bag, and we rolled out of Jaffna with an eclectic mix of smiles, enthusiasm, and trepidation. This was no picnic, no leisurely bikepacking tour through a tropical dreamscape, we had big miles to cover and a tight deadline in which to do it.
Our reverie was soon tempered by the desolate northern landscape of scrub and desert, a pan-flat and arrow-straight road, and a relentless coastal headwind. We were about to earn our turns.
The first fifteen kilometres or so were on a raised causeway that dissected a saltwater wetland of sorts, before transitioning to the mainland and long stretches of nothingness, no settlements or services to speak of for miles at a time. The crippling heat and humidity made its presence felt from the start and would play a significant role in our suffering for the whole journey south, I only remember stopping to pee three times in seven days, and we drank copious amounts of water, tea, and pop, along the way.

The last thirty kilometres were where it got tough, no longer buoyed by the morning’s excitement, the smooth asphalt turned to concrete, with a corrugated ripple just for good measure, and I began to suffer. The heat, headwind, and unforgiving surface all playing a part. It was miserable. When finally this purgatory ceased we rolled on to a beautifully smooth asphalt causeway across to the island; the coastal headwind, of course, perpetuated our misery until the final turn of the pedals. The horribly cheap saddle on the bike had caused me problems all day, I was left to contend with a bruise on each bum cheek the size and colour of a Cox’s Orange Pippin; some urgent adjustments were required.


Our oasis for the night was a little hideaway in the backstreets of Mannar called The Pearl Rest, more homestay than hotel, and at the princely sum of five dollars each ensured we came in under budget. Isabella Fuchs, a Swiss girl we met in Jaffna, just happened to be staying in the very same place, and with a little wave of her wand some trail magic appeared; a bottle each of the local Lion Beer. Cheers Isabella.

Saddling up for the spin inland to Vavuniya (pronounced Vow-nee-er) we anticipated a pleasant morning of now favourable coastal winds over the trifling 80kms – a virtual rest day. Ha.

The weather gods decreed that we would be given no such quarter and prescribed us another vicious headwind. After a mere fifteen kilometres we pulled off the road, completely knackered, propped our steel behemoths up on their kickstands, and paused for tea. Tea in Sri Lanka is delicious (the coffee culture, on the other hand, is quite diabolical). We slurped down our first cup and then promptly ordered another. Sri Lankan’s like tea. They also like sugar. The tea was so sweet it made my teeth rattle, but, given our advanced levels of perspiration, we figured it may be more helpful than harmful and guzzled it anyway.


We were now far enough inland as to be untroubled by the draw of the tidal wind and we whizzed along happily, albeit in furnace like conditions, for a couple of hours through delightful arable farmland and pasture, so green that we might have been at home in Derbyshire.

It was at a fork in the road that our yin met its yang. As we gleefully swept around the bend towards Vavuniya we were hit with a double whammy, nay, triple whammy; the road surface deteriorated to unpleasant, our friend the headwind made an unwelcome return to the fold, and the furnace decided it was time to release molten steel upon us and soared to a mind-bending 38 degrees Celsius. A holy trinity of wrath was cast upon us.

To further propagate my sufferance my steed began to develop a few issues. Firstly, one of the front brake pads fell off and the nut was nowhere to be found, so I stashed it in my waist pack and continued forth. It wasn’t a real problem at that point because the brakes didn’t really work anyway. A short while later my left pedal started to wobble. It had worked its way loose and jammed, at an angle, in the threads. This wasn’t a good omen for success. With our crappy spanner set, thankfully an impulsive purchase in Jaffna, I managed to tighten it up a bit, but it was far from ideal. Phil, highly amused by all of this, said he might ride behind me for the rest of the day just in case anything else fell off. He then promptly cycled off into the distance (along with the spanners; do you see where this is going?); it’s what friends are for after all.


Phil’s bike remained steadfast throughout the whole trip whilst mine gradually disintegrated – the exact same bikes bought from the same shop.

Just as Phil was out of sight my pedal fell off completely. After attempting (unsuccessfully) to pedal one-footed for a while I found myself a slither of paltry shade from the incessant sun, fished out my phone and called him a number of times before making contact. 

With the spanners at hand I screwed the pedal in from the wrong side to clean out the damaged threads and then reinserted it correctly. It never once came loose again. Weird.

In Vavuniya we secured a room at The Princess Rose Hotel and managed to negotiate a reasonable discount by pleading poverty and charity. Choices were at premium in a town that is distinctly off the tourist track.
Food, it transpired, was also at a premium. Vavuniya is, unusually, a predominantly Muslim town, and this was Ramadan. Tracking down sustenance before sundown was a challenge but one that we managed to surmount with a meagre bag of spicy samosa’s and fried potatoes before going out in the evening and having a massive bowl of ice cream. When cycling a long way everyday it is perfectly acceptable to have ice cream for dinner. I also bought a massive cake for breakfast.



Day three – Vavuniya to Trincomolee – proved to be one of the best days on the bike for both of us.

The temperature was pleasant, relatively, around 30c, we enjoyed a favourable tailwind for the most part, the scenery was a delight, and we were beset by zero mechanical issues. What could possibly go wrong?
Actually, not much.
The terrain was rolling all day; we did plenty of climbing but we weren’t particularly troubled by it. The first eighty kilometres fairly whizzed by. We enjoyed our now customary tea stops every hour or so (about 20kms) and had nary a care in the world.

Perhaps half way in to the day we came upon a huge lake that enticed us off the road and down a short dirt track for a few moments of cooling refreshment.

I wandered ankle deep into the margins, soaked my tee shirt, and splashed the delicious cool water over my head. Phil had other ideas and fancied going a bit deeper – now at this point I should mention that a pair of likely lads where sat a couple of hundred metres away enjoying the shade of the palms, a tipple of the local firewater (Arrack – a type of coconut whisky), and, let’s call it, a toot of herbal relaxation. Many Sri Lankans enjoy drinking excessively; a good friend of ours once told us, with some pride I might add, that Sri Lanka has the highest per capita percentage of alcoholics in the world, and these two fellows had clearly embraced that.
Phil waded thigh deep, perhaps ten metres, through a gap in reeds to the point where the lake started to open up, at which point we began to hear some faint catcalling from our friends up the bank. We chuckled at their drunken absurdity, until the calls became a bit louder and a bit more distinct… “CROCODILES”. I don’t believe that I’ve ever seen anyone move quite so fast, it was like watching Roadrunner rev up his legs before catapulting away from Wile. E. Coyote.
I couldn’t get my breath; I clutched my stomach and howled with laughter as Phil came scurrying out of the lake quick sharp. Now I don’t even know if there were any crocodiles or if those boys were pulling his tail, but it certainly got him out of the water in a big damn hurry.
The two village idiots then wandered down, chuckling, for a chat, and very kindly offered to share their refreshments with us. Now as tempting as that offer was, and it was tempting, we thought it best to decline; we did have another fifty kilometres of riding ahead of us and the searing heat of the afternoon sun to contend with.

Only in the last twenty kilometres did things unravel a shade, but only a shade mind.

At our final tea stop the sky turned a little brooding and began to spit with rain. We saddled up, cranked the bikes up to cruising speed, and just managed to keep it off our backs.
Then the sun appeared, and the temperature rocketed. In contrast to this my health plummeted exponentially. I hadn’t eaten sufficiently, and this combined with the heat and the extra effort to outrun the rain gave me a bit of a wobble, I was borderline bonking. We pulled over for a few minutes to cool down and I rummaged around and found a few snacks to get me going again. Ten minutes later I was back into kilter and we rolled the final fifteen kilometres into Trinco Beach and the enchanting east coast surf. As a Surfer’s paradise Trinco had plenty of food options, our accommodation, The Jungle Vistha Beach, was simple, affordable, and perfectly sufficient; it was a palm trees and hammocks kind of a place, just how I like it. A little paddle in the surf and a belly full of delicious Sri Lankan curry put the day to bed nicely.



The party was now officially over. After three days of reasonable distances we were now heading into the unknown and three days of big mileage.

Our route from Trincomolee to Pasikuda turned in to a bigger mileage day quite by accident. We headed out on to the road full of the joys of the previous days cakewalk, it just so happened that we hit the road in the wrong direction. Fortunately a friendly local turned us around after about 7.5kms and so the damage was minimal, and we hightailed it back to where we should’ve been.
The temperature was an unforgiving 34+ all day and we were beset with the now familiar headwinds making progress harder than it should have been.
For a while we cruised along close the coastline, crossing long bridges, and enjoying the views of beautiful lagoons and lush mangrove, before hitting some blustery weather. The wind picked up and the rain came down. To be fair it wasn’t much of a storm, it lasted little more than ten minutes, and was pleasantly cool for a change.
Phil had his bad patch between 40 and 70km. Mine came a little later when the temperature rocketed after the rainstorm. From 70-100kms I completely imploded, my energy seemed to drain away and my head felt like it might explode at any second. Fortunately it was on the most desolate stretch of road imaginable with no services or shelter; not even a muddy buffalo pool to wallow in and alleviate my torment.
I backed off a little, let Phil drift slowly off into the distance, and suffered in silence.
When, at last, a village appeared, I spotted Phil waiting patiently in the shade at a small roadside restaurant and I rolled slowly to a halt. I found a tap round the back, flopped to my knees, and spent a good ten minutes with the water gurgling deliciously over my head.
A sharp intake of fluids and food pulled me back from the light, and the sheer delight of a little pot of Creamoo yoghurt (one of my favourite treats in Sri Lanka) put a little cherry on the top. I was back in the game.

Did I say “Back in the game”? Well not entirely, it was still pretty hard going; accumulated fatigue, sunburn, dehydration, exposure, etc all make life tougher than it should be. With only about 30kms left for the day and the promise of a smashing air-conditioned room and a hearty meal to come we soldiered on; only to be betrayed by Google Maps barely a kilometre or two from paradise.
We turned off the highway and down a dirt road towards a causeway that cut right across Pasikuda Bay, a welcome little short cut. Only it didn’t. The causeway was none existent. We retraced our steps and trundled into town a short while later. We bumbled around for quite some time, wobbling down myriad side streets with little idea of where we where; the 4G had conveniently disappeared. A further six kilometres down the road, and with more than a hint of relief, we flicked down the kickstands and chugged down a welcome drink in the air-conditioned reception of the fabulous Pasikuda Beach Resort.
The Pasikuda Beach Resort was trail-magic at its finest. Phil had scored us a free room and free food via our friends at LSR (Lanka Sportreisen – they do the logistics for Rumble in the Jungle). It was great to enjoy a bit of pampered luxury rather than scratting around for cheap digs and cheaper food.


Luxury breakfast.
I arose early, walked down to the beach, made friends with a couple of stray dogs, and tried to grab a few sunrise images before the light became too harsh.
We gorged on a mighty breakfast, then slowly creaked our way out into the heat of the day, and boy was it hot. We were wise to creak out slowly, it turned out to be one of the hardest days of the whole trip.
For 149kms we were brutalised by a relentless sun, not a single cloud appeared in the entire sky for the entire day. It was bonkers.
We were perhaps the only tourists in Sri Lanka wishing for clouds.
The terrain, thankfully, was kind to us. The roads were very flat, and smooth as silk, as we wound our way through beautiful stretches of mangrove and jungle. A couple of major towns made for an unpleasant interlude, with choking fumes belching from a thousand cars, each one honking its horn incessantly. We didn’t bother to pause for tea until we escaped the melee.
For a while we picked up a peloton of enthusiastic kids who, from time to time, would try to goad us into racing. Much to their disappointment we were far too knackered for that particular game.
The last 25kms had us climbing quite a bit, just what you need after a bruising 125kms of purgatory, it was the final nail in the coffin of an already arduous day. Misery doesn’t last forever though.
In the delightful surf town of Arugam Bay we swam in the sea, treated ourselves to pizza, and washed it down with an ice-cold beer.
We crawled into our beds early, completely spent.

I liked Arugam Bay; it had that laid-back backpacker vibe. It was the sort of town that you’d visit for a couple of days and end up staying for a week.
Alas we didn’t have the luxury of a spare week and so we continued our relentless march south, like swallows on the autumn winds.

Actually that’s not strictly true; we headed inland to the west then south west then south today. Initially Phil’s plan was to cycle into the highlands to a town called Ella. After a little deliberation we agreed that this might be a tad foolish and decided to follow Phil’s reserve route to Kuda Oya, hopefully skipping about 30 or 40 kilometres of pushing our steel pigs uphill.
The route ahead was still uncharted territory and we knew that it was probably further, but it looked like the lesser of two evils.
It was an up and down kind of a day, mostly up with the occasional short down – how does that work? For the first 45 kilometres we climbed ever so steadily, barely noticing the gradual ascent into the hills. The weather, although still ridiculously hot obviously, was less troublesome than of late; the welcome shade of dense jungle helping us out here and there. I spotted a lot more interesting and varied wildlife too; Cranes and Egrets grazed nonchalantly around rice paddies, the occasional Peacock poked its head above the vegetation, and Monkeys hollered from the tops of ancient tangled trees. I find it oddly thrilling spotting Peacocks in the wild, in the UK they are completely ornamental and are often only seen in the gardens of the great houses.

In the Lahugala National Park I was thrilled again at the potential of spotting wild elephants roaming freely, all the signs were there – broken trees, footprints, a well-used bathing hole – but it wasn’t to be.

In the meantime my mudguards fell off. The front one became dislodged and rolled forward onto the tyre a couple of times, defiantly slowing my forward motion. Indeed, had it not been for the considerable weight of the bike, and the equally ridiculous wheelbase, I might well have been unceremoniously ejected over the handlebars. Small mercies and all that. I eventually took the hint and removed it. Phil tittered remorselessly at my misfortune.
Prudently I checked the security of the rear one too and found it to be in no better state, so I removed that one also and jammed them in behind my handlebar bag for safe keeping. Phil tittered some more.

I had been bemoaning the drag on the bike for a day or two and regularly squeezed my tyres to check if they were going down. I wasn’t sure if it was my tired legs or soft tyres, or both, that were the problem. Unfortunately modern Schrader and Presta valves haven’t yet made it to rural Sri Lanka so our regular bike pump didn’t fit. A small motorbike/bicycle repair shop/shack at the side of the road came to the rescue and I swapped with the proprietor two nearly new mudguards for a blast on his compressor. With firmer tyres and a reduced payload I set sail once again with renewed vigour.


From around 45 to 110 kilometres was were the more sustained climbing took place, no pushing but certainly no tea party either. We circumnavigated around the base of a massive mountain; we had seen it coming from a long way off and at that point had no idea whether we would be going around it or over it. The road was particularly undulating and steep so it felt like we were going over it at times. At this point my bike seemingly took on a life of its own, the back end was all over the shop and it just felt like constantly hard work. An investigation during a well-timed tea break revealed the problem, one of my seat stays had a bolt missing. Bizarrely the seat stays were bolted on and I may, or may not, have caused this problem when I removed the rear mudguard. It was a bit of a situation and some out-of-the-box thinking was required. Phil had a brainwave and suggested using my remaining front brake pad to bolt it together. It was out-of-the-box alright but it worked a treat. I was, once more, back in the game. On we rolled.

In Buttala (about 90kms) we struck gold. Trail magic at its most glorious. In Sri Lanka every full moon is a public holiday and each one is celebrated with a little festival called Poya. During Poya many villages have stalls and hand out free food or drink to anyone passing by.
In Buttala it was ice cream being handed out by nurses from the local hospital. Two of my favourite things – nurses in uniform, and ice cream.
We may have lingered awhile. Three ice creams later we reluctantly took to the road for the last leg of the day. (I preferred the legs in Buttala).

Nurses and Ice Cream – Dilly dilly.

Up to this point the day had been pretty nice all told, the last stretch proved to be the toughest part of the day. With no shade to speak of we were subjected to our now customary broiling from the shimmering afternoon sun. Phil pushed slightly ahead and I had a little wobble when I thought I might be lost after passing a small junction. I spent a good ten minutes at the side of the road trying to decipher the route on Google Maps before deciding that I wasn’t lost at all, and caught Phil up further down the road. We fairly whizzed into the jungle camp together at Kuda Oya. Kuda Oya is a place we are both very familiar with – it is the start point of Rumble in the Jungle – and we enjoyed, once again, the free hospitality of our friends at LSR. It was a real bonus at this point given that our funds were almost depleted.

The sun set over the distant mountains in a stunning blaze of pink and orange.
The Cicadas were in fine voice that evening and I was lulled to sleep by a beautiful cacophony of rapturous chirruping.

Seventh heaven. Finally, after a mountainous breakfast of delicious home cooked food and fresh fruit, we saddled up for the last time for our procession day into Tangalle – like The Tour de France but without the glory, spectacle, adoring crowds, or champagne.

Today, although relatively short at around 95kms, felt harder than it should have. Maybe the anticipation made the clocks go slower and the miles seem longer. The ever-present wind made its usual appearance, the climbs were plentiful albeit punchy rather than painful, resupply stops were notably absent for long periods, and my bike broke down once more. We took an alternative route on quiet back roads for quite a while before labouring on the busier highways, the roads around the impressive cricket stadium were massive but virtually deserted, save for a wandering herd of buffalo and the odd truck belching out noxious black smoke, and our final run in to Tangalle meandered along a neglected canal towpath with only a monitor lizard munching on carrion for company, and a final-final delightful ribbon of hidden singletrack lead us to the crashing waves and roaring surf of the majestic Indian Ocean.


En-route we had stopped briefly, for reasons that escape me now, chatted with curious locals, and patted a friendly dog. It was here that Phil spotted, curled up in the middle of the road, a little waif, a small brown puppy – flea ridden & mangy, and looking for all the world like it wouldn’t survive for very long without help. We couldn’t do much for her at the time but Phil pledged to return the next day to rescue her.



With less than forty kilometres to go my bike seemed to be in a terminal decline. The king pin holding my crank together was in a mechanical tailspin and it looked like I might be pushing home. On the day we bought the bikes Phil’s king pin had fallen out, (within ten minutes of leaving the bike shop) and he had returned and had it replaced with a new one (his one and only breakdown). Fortuitously he had pocketed the rogue one for a just-in-case spare – what a stroke of genius that proved to be. Also, I just so happened to break down outside a small rural house, and the inquisitive owner proffered assistance and promptly produced a rusty old hammer and a punch, enabling me to cobble a repair with the new pin and cycle ever so thankfully to our final destination. I like people.

Notwithstanding the almost complete disintegration of my bicycle, the biggest problem throughout our journey had been the bafflingly difficult task of ordering tea. Perhaps it is in the nuances of the pronunciation, or perhaps it was our Derbyshire and Shropshire accents that compounded the issue, but we seemed to have an awful lot of trouble getting a cuppa. Every single time.

In Sinhalese tea with milk is kiri tea.
We tried rolling the R’s. We tried kicking the K’s and accentuating the T’s. Nothing. Bafflement. Stares. Confusion.
We would repeat the words kiri tea over and over again until eventually the proprietor would exclaim “Ahh, kiri tea!” and bring us out a nice fresh pot. We never did get to bottom of the problem.
In Tangalle we met up with Phil’s partner (and my friend) Corinne and stayed in a groovy little beach-side place that they knew. The very next day Phil, good to his word, hopped in a tuk-tuk with Corinne and endeavoured to track down the little puppy some sixty or so kilometres away. To cut a long story short we ended up with a new friend “Hari”, and Phil and Corinne even managed to find her a loving home.

Hari <3
It was this poor little wretch, and my itchy feet, that provided the impetus for another bash at riding a long way quickly.
I decided to continue the journey, all the way back to where we began, and try and raise a bit of extra cash to help support Hari and her new owners.

 

One last effort; for Hari.

 

And so it came to pass that I rolled my bike from its resting place in that soft white sand and cruised another 247kms to Colombo Fort Railway Station.
I then gave away my bike to a kid less fortunate than me – and good riddance to the bloody thing. I will keep hold of the memories of riding the length of Sri Lanka with my friend though, if you don’t mind.
West coast again.
A familiar spot to lay my head. The Harmony in Hikkaduwa.
Escaping the intense traffic on the way into Colombo.
Colombo Fort Railway Station. 1011kms later.


Shortly after this moment I gave it away.
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Consume less, live more. Plant more trees.

About The Author

Neil Cottam

Neil is the founder of Chase The Rainbow. He has spent a lifetime exploring the outdoors, from a childhood climbing trees and scrambling his bike around old pit heads to hiking in the Himalaya and backpacking around Europe and Asia.

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