Two wheels, temples & tea

Exodus’ Ian Langford gets more than he bargained for in Sri Lanka

In March I joined the hundreds of cricket fans descending into Colombo Airport, ready to explore ‘The Pearl in the Indian Ocean’ – the teardrop island of Sri Lanka.

Bleary-eyed from the early morning arrival, it did not take long for my eyelids to drop on the four-hour transfer to Sigiriya. I awoke to the alarming sight of a truck transporting 16 coffins on the back of it, uncertain if I was still dreaming or if this was some sort of bad omen!

Any fears were soon dissolved, the gentle rides of the first few days were the perfect introduction to the local sights and sounds of the island; the ideal way to wake up those sleepy calf muscles!

Sri Lanka is home to temples aplenty, my first taster being the magnificent Golden Temple at Dambulla, an intricate cave complex thought to date back to the 1st century. Housing 157 Buddhist statues, it is a worthy UNESCO treasure.

Next on the UNESCO Hit List was the ancient Lion Rock fortress, Sigiriya. Looming imposingly, there were just 1,200 steps between us and the prize. Another test for those calf muscles but what a view. You may be perspiring profusely at the top, but the sense of achievement you feel looking out over miles of verdant landscape makes it well worth the exertion.

The test of our stamina was to carry on as we reached our toughest day; 100km ride to the highest point on the island, Nuwaya Eliya, a mere 2,000 metres above sea level. On reflection the days spent before this visiting Polonnaruwa, cycling through the stunning Kalanduwa Hills and exploring the hill capital of Sri Lanka, Kandy, seemed like a warm up! Passing through miles of lush tea plantations, I thought we were nearing the top. Much to my dismay there was another steep seven-kilometre stretch lying in wait, as well as a tropical dousing of rain.

But it was mission accomplished as we sloshed our way through the hotel foyer, hot shower bound. If you don’t fancy this tough ride, the train from Kandy is an equally scenic alternative.

What goes up must come down and the terrific downhill stretch out of Ella more than made up for the previous day’s uphill saga. My only regret is not stopping to take any pictures of the staggering emerald views – I was far too busy enjoying the thrill of the ride!

Sri Lanka is also renowned for it abundance of exotic wildlife both on land and beneath the waves and the second half of the trip was to be all about the animals.

As we headed into Yala National Park on a jeep safari, the astonishing variety soon became apparent. We were lucky enough to have jackals, elephants, crocodiles, eagles and water buffalo grace our presence. However, with the highest concentration of Asian leopards anywhere, it was the ever-elusive spotted predator that was the ultimate goal.

Keeping keen-eyed, my patience paid off as I spotted a dappled tail dangling from a tree. I gasped and frantically (but silently) signalled to the rest of the group. Unfazed by our imposition, the leopard continued to laze up in his tree. Nothing was spoiling his siesta.

Still high on my big cat triumph, I was eager to get to Ahangama Beach to go whale watching. The weather meant our first attempt was a wash out but with the weather gods shining down on us the next day, we set off over the azure Indian Ocean with optimism.

A barely comprehensible message hissed over the radio. A nearby boat had spotted whales.

Speeding in their direction, the boat rose and slammed down against the swell, but as the captain began to ease off the gas, I knew we must be close. More unintelligible messages crackled over the radio. Scanning the expanse of blue intensely in all directions, I held my breath in anticipation.

And there it was. A gigantic tail fluke. A blue whale was upon us – the daddy. Full marks. I watched mesmerised, soaking up every second of this awe-inspiring experience. Soon more whales swam within eyeshot, followed by a playful pod of dolphins to make it a truly multi-cultural cetacean ballet.

Not only was I lucky enough to see the most beautiful creature in the animal kingdom, but also the heaviest. There aren’t many places in the world where you can see both leopards and blue whales. In fact, are there any? Well you can in Sri Lanka.

On the reluctant transfer to the airport, my mind wandered back to the truck of precariously balanced coffins that had left a sinking feeling of doom in my stomach at the start of the trip. Now though, it just made me smile as I thought back over the 700km I had just clocked up on my bike pedometer.

Expertly researched and lovingly crafted by Peter and supported by Upali (driver), Dasun and Kasun, Cycling the Backroads of Sri Lanka is an incredibly well organised and fascinating trip for both biking enthusiasts and wildlife aficionados alike.

See more of Ian's (Langers) pictures from the trip in his album on the trip page

Read our expert insights on...

Call us on 0208 772 3936