Allow to me to introduce Mr Ambakubura; 80 years old, a lifetime of stories and a handshake that lasts almost as long as the three hours we shared sat next to one another on a bus. He spoke like a Sri Lankan Rowley Birkley QC – mostly rapid inaudible mumbles interjected by sudden bursts of coherence – but during our time together I was able to gather two things. Firstly, he loves the English. “It wasn’t the same after they left” he sighs, wistfully “there was no discipline, no one did any work“. He reiterates this by attempting to give us presents as well as inviting us to stay at his house purely on the basis of being English, as he harks back to years gone by of colonial influence here in Sri Lanka. This quickly leads us to our second discovery about Mr Ambakubura, that being that if there’s one thing he loves more than the English, it’s tea. “We have the best tea in the world!” he cries triumphantly, a clenched fist punching the air, and if anyone should know, then it’s him. For forty years he worked on the tea plantations here, and as our bus rattles back towards Kandy he tells us about his former life, and promises to write and send 5kg of tea to us in the post. I think I’ll return the favour by sending him some Hobnobs for an even greater tea drinking experience. I expect we’ll see his head explode from England.
We were almost there now, ten months of travel had come down to its final two weeks which were to be in Sri Lanka. Once seen by the English as the ‘pearl of the Indian Ocean’ and the jewel in their colonial crown, to me Sri Lanka would be a country of elephants and spices, wicked spin bowlers and sari clad women. I wasn’t wrong on any of these as it happened, but it soon became apparent there was plenty more to enjoy here. We found culture and history in abundance, some incredible wildlife and well, we couldn’t go home without some more time on the beach could we?
Having enjoyed a night or two of luxury in Negombo thanks to Jamie’s mother (hot water AND clean sheets, amazing!) we hopped aboard a train bound for Kandy, where we found an ancient Ceylonese kingdom steeped in history and traditions, the sacred tooth relic of Buddha and most astoundingly of all, an incredible amount of bakeries and pharmacies. Almost every shop was one or the other, sometimes both, so I can only presume that Kandy is a city of pastry loving hypochondriacs. These are the kind of travel insights you’ll find nowhere else people, savour it. It’s also a handily placed city, not far from a selection of Sri Lanka’s world heritage sites, so armed with a selection of baked goods and medicines we made for Sigiriya.
Now I don’t usually have much time for builders of the world – if they’re not roaring around in white vans leering at women they’re generally having tea breaks within tea breaks to avoid doing any work – but in this case they get my sympathy. Sigiriya you see, is a massive rock about 200 meters high. You can’t miss it really, it’s rather large and the walls of it are pretty much vertical. So I can’t imagine the local building firm were much impressed when in around 477AD King Kasyapa was looking for a spot to build his new fortress; he opted for a location not just nearby the rock, or even in front of it, but bang on top. You know that moment when any tradesman will puff out his cheeks and give a sharp inwards whistle upon weighing up a job and giving you a price? Well yeah, I suspect the foreman of that job gave a bigger puff of his cheeks than most. But build it they did. Only its ruins stand today of course, along with some gargantuan carved lions feet and the worlds first example of pornography – sorry, no pictures, this is a family blog – but the climb, the crumbling walls and marvellous views all make for an incredible experience. Having clambered back down we trundled our way back towards Kandy via the impressive cave temples of Dembulla, made acquaintance with Mr Ambakubura and caught a quite breathtaking sunset over the city. It had been quite a start.
We boarded a train to our next destination – a small hilltop town named Ella – and despite it raining more than ever (sorry, that’s awful) we were able to sit back and enjoy one of the worlds great train journeys. Over the six hours it took to heave up into the central hills, the world around us become a verdant green as tea plantations began to fill every view. Smoke curled into the damp grey sky from the chimneys of small shacks below us while crooked villagers bent to prune tea bushes in the same way as their ancestors had surely done and their children will do as well. There was a gentle silence to the landscape only punctured by the reassuring clunk of our train as it ambled upwards, with station stops the only real sign of activity. Passengers laden with worn leather trunks would disembark while hawkers scrabbled to sell their lot before a whistle would blow and once again, we’d creak onwards into the clouds. The joy of these trains is being able to sit or stand at the carriage doors and watch the world unfold beneath you, probably not something I’d attempt on the Cambridge to Kings Cross express as it rattles through the delights of Baldock.
We hadn’t taken on any big walks in months – nothing since New Zealand really – so it was with a combination of enthusiasm and terror that we set about donning our hiking boots on arrival in Ella and taking to the hills. Some quite fantastic scenic views and mightily impressive blisters were our reward, I’m still not sure which outweighed the other, before we further relieved our pain with some of the best curry I’ve ever eaten. And I include all those life changingly delicious drunken Chicken Tikka Masalas in that. We’d also timed our visit to Sri Lanka well due to the fact we’d unknowingly coincided it with Wesak, a celebration of the birth, death and enlightenment of Buddha. It’s pretty much the biggest Buddhist festival going and so along with the fantastically colourful parades we came across, elaborately decorated streets and general festival atmosphere around the country, they also give out free food and drink, which after 10 months of backpacking is an incredibly welcome sight, believe me.
As wildlife spotting goes we’d been pretty lucky so far, and I apologise if the next few lines sounds like I’m gloating, but well, I’m afraid it’s because I am. So far we’d seen killer whales from the beach, penguins, crocodiles, a kiwi, orangutans, koalas, a zillion dolphins, swum with giant Manta Rays and Turtles, Proboscis Monkeys, Gibbons and Komodo Dragons, all in the wild – and we had high hopes to add to the list in Sri Lanka. Elephants we could be pretty sure of finding – about 10% of all Asian Elephants are found here, albeit often in captivity, so a trip to Uda Walawe National Park offered us the chance to find a few of these wonderful lumbering beasts in the wild. This was the second of two safaris we did and although yes, we did see elephants, it was slightly tarnished by the fact our ‘wildlife spotter’ had a surprising habit of punching any elephants which came too close and was also slightly limited in his knowledge of the other wildlife we came across…
“There is a bird”
“Oh yes, what kind of bird is it?”
“Bird” (while flapping his arms)
To be honest, Uda Walawe always had a lot to live up to following our previous days safari down at Yala National Park on Sri Lanka’s south coast. Heading out well before dawn in our open top jeep we set about our hunt for the parks most famous resident, the Sri Lankan Leopard. It’s a funny thing really, as such is the desperation for the guides and drivers to find the leopard, I suspect in their own hunt for a big tip, that they forget about everything else. For the first two hours we hurtled around potholed roads at breakneck speeds, flashing past herds of buffalo, spotted deer, the odd elephant and a whole array of other disillusioned animals probably wondering why they weren’t receiving any attention. Thankfully, we found one. Aside from the relief at Nigel Mansell up front now being able to calm down, seeing a wild leopard no more than 20 feet from us was quite breathtaking. Eyeing us warily it stayed put for a minute or so before eventually slinking off into the undergrowth, something that was repeated by the second one we saw two hours later. As throughout the trip, we’d been ridiculously lucky.
We finished up by the coast. Having clung to it for most of the previous ten months we had to get our final fill now, before the domestic landscape of green and pleasant hills took over once again. We were heading for the south-west coast at pretty much the exact time we’d been warned the south-west monsoons would be arriving, and sure enough, our arrival was met by one of those tropical squalls that near drowns you on your feet. Not an ideal way to spend our last few days, but having said that, we were in no place to complain. We’d missed the worst winter at home for about 50 years while enjoying the best summer New Zealand had enjoyed in decades, before two months of 30C plus conditions in Western Australia, Indonesia and then here. And as it happens, it turned out fine. We spent our final days on deserted white beaches, watching the local stilt fisherman ply their trade and wandered the cobbled streets of historical Galle.
It was a wonderful way to finish a quite extraordinary trip, and despite the gloom of heading back to blighty; friends, family, festivals and weddings beckoned, as did cooler climes, a proper bacon sandwich and most excitingly of all, a decent pint of ale. For after all, if there’s one thing I love more than a life on the road; more than glimpsing the mighty peaks of a mighty Oceanic mountain range, floating above another rainbow coloured Indonesian reef or supping a fine cup of Ceylon tea, then it’s England. My England. It was good to be going home.