This is a story of that time we rented motorbikes in Hikkaduwa and spent a few days getting lost in Sri Lanka.
One of those times of your life that you retell and retell over again always with the same amazement on the faces of your audience.
When we decided to travel Sri Lanka by motorbike, it was a spur of the moment idea grown from sitting around drinking beers on the beach and surfing for a month or two. So settle in, and let me tell the story!
Us 4 intrepid adventurers go down to the rental store to choose our new best friends – the dirt bikes on which we are to spend the next few days. My bike is awesome! Only a couple of years old, a 250cc Honda with the luxury of an electric start – yay! Unfortunately the front brake doesn’t have much hold, but otherwise it’s the best bike in the shop. They make me do a quick lap up and back as if they doubt my bike riding ability because I’m a girl. Ha!
My companions – my husband Brian, our buddy Chris and his buddy Essex – they got themselves 3 big old girls that need to be kicked hard to get them started. I am not even sure what brand they are. Essex has never really ridden a bike before, only a scooter but he only stalls it a couple of times before lurching off into the Hikkaduwa traffic. The fuel station is busy. It’s 7pm, rush hour, we didn’t get started til so late! And we look so different to the locals, especially me – a girl on a bike! What?! This gets us to the front of the line quickly. I get my tank filled before the only bowser just stops working and cuts out fully. No more fuel today. Not sure what has happened, maybe the power has gone out, that happens often here. So, now nobody else can have any fuel. We hang around for a little bit, unsure of what to do, hoping it might miraculously come back on, but then we say “Fuck it” and go and have pizza a little bit down the road instead.
The Hikka crew of backpackers rock up as we are fuelling our bodies with the best pizza in town, they think we look bloody dangerous on our red bikes, but I think they are just jealous that we are doing something super cool. We fly back to town and to our hostel, refreshed and ready for a big day of riding tomorrow.
We are young, proud and full of dutch courage as we put our beautiful beasts to bed for the night. Planning an early morning start tomorrow, needing fuel first thing, then will head straight across the country toward the East, and towards Ella where the plan is to spend tomorrow night.
We leap out of bed at 6am, today our adventure really begins. Chris’s bike is having heaps of trouble even getting started, and then he totally breaks down on the way to the fuel station! Not a good start.
But luckily we are right across from the police, who call the rental guys, and they show up and repair the fuel filter on the spot. Slight delay, but then we are finally properly away by about 9 o’clock.
So, we head in a general Eastward direction, hitting crossroad after crossroad , taking the turns that feel right, but we go so wrong. We follow a river along a wicked windy roads through rice paddies. All the dudes with their big hoes wave from across the paddocks. We use the map but it is useless if we are unable to figure out exactly where we are on it, so we just keep cruising, zig-zagging on through the hills.
The boys don’t get any attention if I am at the front of the cavalcade. It is so much fun, but then it starts to rain and we pull into a medical centre for shelter and try to figure out just how lost we are.
The doctor on duty draws us a mud map and rain subsides (sort of) so we turn right and keep getting lost on our quest to ‘Ella’. Asking for directions is such a mission! “Is this the way to Ella?” “Yeah, sure!” gesturing further down the shittiest potholed dirt road…. This is not the way. Then it starts pissing down again so this time we take refuge in a little shack with some bemused old local guys. They give us some gross weird lollies, which we are not even sure we are supposed to eat, and then once the worst of the weather has passed, we go back the way we came, back to that little town with no name where we finally meet a guy who tells us some decent directions, and we drive off into the rain again.
We stop at a strange sort of a ‘rest house’ for lunch and get lost again afterward but finally feel like we are on track, but now we are soaking wet and our eyes are stinging. We are not about to give up though, stopping for cup of tea in the midst of the tea fields helps us to feel a bit better, and as we pore over our map the cloud covered sun is starting to sink lower in the sky and we think maybe we had better find a place to sleep tonight. We decide to hammer it to Ratnapura and get dry and refreshed for tomorrow.
The road is great fun, but soon gets dark, windy, wet, and dangerously busy as we get nearer to Ratnapura. 9 hours after we left Hikkaduwa, we finally pull into a guesthouse and we hang our wet clothes up on dental floss clothes lines and fall into bed for the night.
We get moving nice and early at 7am. My hands, shoulders and bum aches from so long in the saddle yesterday. A piece of bread for breaky and off we go. The road is brilliant. It’s wide, quiet, winding through hills and most importantly, the sun is shining down on the road and on us! Our wet soggy clothes are soon a distant memory as we actually start to enjoy ourselves.
Chris has got all his boxers and socks hanging off his handlebars.
Brian and I are both grinning at each other as we cruise along, having the time of our lives!
The group gets a little bit separated as a bus overtakes me and then pulls in right in front of me, splitting me from the boys. Then the bus proceeds to pull over, and is braking right in front of me! I slam on my brakes, the stupid front brake is not doing me any favours here.
The back wheel locks up, and the bike stalls, but I manage to just stop just before crashing into the bus, I swing to the right hoping to coast past the stopped bus, but see there is a truck coming straight for me in the other lane, somehow without putting my foot down I manage to get the clutch in, press the start button with a bit of throttle, gear down to first, get some purchase with my back wheel again before throttling on and accelerating past the bus, in the gap just before the truck zooms past.
Woohoo!! I am elated as I catch up to the others. “I just nearly died!” I call out excitedly. Thank goodness I didn’t crash. I shudder to think what might have happened if you needed medical treatment out here!
The tire on Essex’s bike is starting to look at little flat. Some old guys pump it up with a bike pump but it’s down again straight away. He needs a new tire in Balangoda. It only takes about half an hour but we are the talk of town! A crowd grows across the street to see the crazy foreigners and we start to feel like celebrities!
There’s a big crossroads and we’re told “Straight through for Ella!”. But the road is suddenly blocked by busses and yelling Sri Lankans who gesture wildly at us to turn around. So we try a different road and keep asking if this is the right way to Ella. “Yes, yes” they all say. Little do we know. 30km later, we still haven’t got to Ella, but we did have lovely swim in a waterfall. So… Back up the bloody range, and then it starts raining so we stand under a freezing shelter for an hour, smoking cigarettes and watching the water build up and flood the road. We have to keep moving, and when there’s a little lull in the down pour, we keep cruising.
We’ve had no food all day and stop for a quick cake and cuppa. God it’s cold. Back in Balangoda finally and discover that the dudes yelled at us earlier because we were going up a one way street, so we finally got onto the right road and well on the way. It’s apparently 50 odd kilometres to Ella and the road is in the middle of a major repair job so there’s some hardcore potholes and its muddy and slippery and it’s slow going for us, but that doesn’t slow the busses down!
The sunset is awesome but we know we are never going to make to to Ella. Still we try and then it gets dark and the bugs start dropping down out of the trees of the thick jungle we are meandering through this dusk, Brian’s head light on his bike won’t even work, my arms are getting pins and needles and still it continues to rain and now we are finally admitting that maybe Ella is just a fantasy and it doesn’t even exist.
So we had better start looking for a hotel for the night. Just as we think this, a sign saying ‘World’s End Lodge’ looms up out of the darkness. It is a sign!
We turn into a skinny windy wet tarmac pathway that gives way to skinny hairpin rocky slippery path straight up the side of a dark mountain in the rain. Just how far or how high this is going to be we know not. Essex drops his bike a few times, he thinks he is in a race up the mountain. Brian is trying to keep up with him because he is using him as his light source. I drop my bike on a hairpin bend near a cliff because my arms are no longer working just like my front brake and then I lose my shit a little and stomp my feet next to my fallen bike in the dark and in the rain.
It’s been over an hour since we turned off the main road and we find out later that it’s only 4km to the lodge altogether. It’s slow going that’s for sure. By now, Essex has won the race against himself and has reached the top of the mountain and rallied the troops so we can see some spotlights racing back down the hill toward us now. A rescue mission! A young Sri Lankan hero rides my bike the rest of the way and I take refuge in the car’s dry interior. I am shaking and shivering too much to barely move let alone ride. We are incredibly wet and miserable.
Lucky for us, there actually is a hotel at the end of the shit road and even luckier for us is the fact there are hot showers! We haven’t had the luxury of a hot shower in the 3 months we have spent in Hikkaduwa. Hey, it’s a cheap hostel right on the beach, who needs hot water. This hotel at World’s End seems so luxurious compared to our little room with the twin beds back at the beach and we begin to wonder how much this much needed night’s rest is going to set us back as we are short on cash.
We sleep the sleep of the dead on the crispest whitest sheets after a few of the coldest beers and a gourmet Sri Lankan feast.
We rise at dawn to see the sun rise over the valley and the view takes our collective breaths away. We are perched up at the top of a valley. I feel like a bird. The sun touches each of the mountains in turn as we have a generous breakfast of champions. We are the highest things around. That gruelling ascent was really worth it. The bill isn’t as bad as we expected either. It’s a great start to the day and it’s hard to leave.
As we descend back down the mountain, I am stuck in first gear all the way and discover my little stack the night before bent my gear lever out of whack but someone bashes it back into place for me with a rock. We take a shortcut to the waterfall road and have some fun in the dirt. Brian nearly crashes, Essex does crash of course, Chris is loving every minute. There’s some savage dogs up there though and they try to bite our tyres and our ankles as we come past and surprise them. Bambarakanda Falls are not as impressive as I expected for the highest falls in Sri Lanka. Chris and Essex climb up to the top of the waterfall 260m up but Brian and I are not liking the look of those clouds rolling in and we decide we need to start heading back to Hikkaduwa to try and beat the rain.
On the way back down a group of about 30 monkeys run out in front of my bike and I nearly crash into them. We speed all the way back to Ratnapura almost without incident, oh apart from Brian getting cut off by a tuk tuk and then almost side swiped by a tractor! We stop for an amazing buffet lunch and rest our aching arms for a while and talk about Chris and Essex, wondering where they ended up.
From Ratnapura, it should be straight forward. The highway cuts directly over to Galle Rd, and then meets up with the highway South to Hikkaduwa. We are hanging to get back. But, alas, the rain is going to try and stop us. We have a break in sort of a bus shelter until the heaviest shower goes past and consult the useless map again. This time we discover that once again we are not where we thought and actually heading straight into Colombo! Shit, that’s why the traffic was getting so heavy! We stand there feeling sad and helpless. We are never going to get home to Hikkaduwa!
A little Sri Lankan dude is watching us from his doorway. He waves us over and invites us in for coffee in his halting English. The coffee and black sweet and hot. Sludgy but soul warming.
We chat a little while waiting for this damn rain to stop. It soon becomes evident that this rain is here to stay. Proper monsoon rain. Heavy and soaking all afternoon, but dry and hot all morning. So the little Sri Lankan lets us sleep on his floor. We give him beer and cigarettes and his mother feeds us fried noodles and boiled eggs. He makes us have a conversation with his girlfriend on the phone who is studying university in Colombo, then he lets us go to sleep on the hard ass floor. We wonder quietly if we can trust this guy. But he seems harmless enough so here’s hoping we will wake up alive.
This trip was only going to last for 2 days you know. We were supposed to drive up to a place called Ella, stay the night and then drive straight back. Up and back. That’s it. We had no idea we would have such a memorable adventure instead.
We are up and out of the guy’s house before dawn’s crack, leaving some cash under our pillows for his trouble. Our aim is to beat the traffic, and the monsoon. So far so good. Cruising slowly in the dark, I’ve got shitty vision and Brian’s got shitty headlights but for once we have found the right junction and are heading the right way. We meander through rice paddies keeping the sun on our left and heading south. Things are looking up!
We go past a bus that has driven off the road and into the wet rice field. It looks so surreal and out of place.
Fuck I am so tired. Brian’s my hero and keeps making me laugh. When we get to Galle Road we cheer our heads off but it’s still a hard slog 100km to Hikka and home! The traffic is tricky on this road and you have to have your wits about you, we are concentrating hard, hoping our survival instincts will help us get home in one piece. Bus drivers are such arseholes though. We fly down the road with a few near misses and I nearly cry when we see our beloved Hikkaduwa rocks in the distance at about 9 in the morning.
It’s so good to be here! Chris and Essex are sitting at the rental place waiting for it to open as we drive into town. Turns out they took the same wrong road as us and got almost to Colombo but they kept powering through the dark and the rain with no head lights and loads of crazy traffic non-stop to Hikkaduwa the night before. Hats off to them! God it’s good to be at the beach. The rental guy of course tries to charge us double, he reckons all the bikes are wrecked. The other thing that is wrecked is our bodies from 4 big days of holding onto handlebars. The boys all have bruised and bloody shins from their kickstarts.
What a journey! I need a surf.
The funny thing is that Ella actually means ‘waterfall’ in the local language so every time we asked “Where is Ella” and they would gesture down a road, they thought we were looking for any waterfall, hence the continual bum steers! Hahaha.
Just a little disclaimer: Please make sure your travel insurance covers you for motorbike crashes before attempting this sort of trip on your own. If you don’t have a motorbike licence in your home country, you are not usually covered for injuries sustained on a motorbike overseas. Be careful.
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