First Published on Uncharted.io, August 2017
It all started with a Facebook tag. You know the story. “Somebody has tagged you in another cat video”. Reluctantly opening the link, I was thrilled to see that rather than a small fluffy creature with 4 legs, my partner had in fact tagged me in something quite different. Staring back at me on the screen was an equally small being, in my eyes just as cute as any juvenile fur-ball – but with Three Wheels!
And so it came to be. What we had stumbled upon was in fact a post from a small Sri Lankan social-start- up who specialise in renting TukTuks to foreigners, but with a catch – they don’t come with a driver. You have to drive yourself. Sri Lanka had long been on the agenda, and whilst it would be a few months before we could make our way across the Indian Ocean, we knew there and then that we had to get ourselves a trishaw!
As Tom explained, the money we were paying for our very own ‘Asian Chariot’ was directly supporting a local family who would usually struggle to make ends meet. We hardly needed convincing, but knowing that we would be giving something back to the local community certainly sealed the deal. We couldn’t wait.
Meeting “The Dark Knight”
We were greeted by ‘TukTuk Tom’ as we dubbed him, and Mr Wiejesinghe (say Vee-Jay-Singer), a jovial and instantly likable guy who was the owner of our new steed. And he was apparently just as excited about our upcoming adventure as we were. His shining three-wheeler was clearly a prized asset and it looked as if he had spent a significant amount of time preparing it for our arrival. It was immaculate. Painted a glossy black, and with numerous decals, trims and tassels for added flair, we could barely wait to get driving. A large sticker across the back windscreen proclaimed “The Lavinia Express”, but we didn’t find that very catchy so dubbed our ride “The Dark Knight” instead.
Behind the ‘Wheel’
Or, to be accurate, Handlebars. To drive, TukTuks are most similar to an old-school Vespa; Left hand clutch and gear change, right hand throttle and a somewhat dubious foot-brake. Following an expert driving lesson, even the manic Colombo traffic wasn’t going to stop us. With our bags loaded and the raw power of that 4-stroke engine behind us, we were ready to see what Sri Lanka had to offer.
There’s a lot of talk in travelling circles about experiencing countries at ‘street level’ and getting the ‘local experience’. But quite frankly, nothing could have prepared us for the raw, in-your-face experience of driving The Dark Night out of the sprawling Colombo suburbs. For the first 30 kilometers or so heading south, we did begin to wander whether we’d made the right decision. It was hot and noisy, incredibly congested and the bus drivers were every bit as suicidal as the guys back at base had warned us they would be.
But then something remarkable happened. The traffic cleared, the multi-lane suburban highway came abruptly to an end and we found ourselves on a textbook beach road. Running right along the sand with the spray of the Indian Ocean in our face, this was what we had come for. Our first night stop was around 4 hours south of #Colombo in the fishing-village turned surf-haven of #Midigama, which we reached without hiccup in the early evening. Despite being wholly out-of-season, we stumbled into the aptly named ‘Mamas’ for a sensation spread of potato curry, spicy dhal, paratha bread and coconut sambol – all Sri Lankan staples to die for.
The Elephant in the Room
TukTuks are simple beasts, and are not known for their reliability. Not 50 metres on the road the next morning and *ping*, our clutch cable broke, rendering our chariot immobile. Fortunately, with the help of some local taxi drivers, just $10 worth of parts and an hour or so later we were back on the road. Backtracking ourselves slightly, we spent the rest of the day exploring the wonderful colonial fort at #Galle. The Dutch influence is clear to this day and there was a distinctly European vibe throughout the town, compounded when we were lucky enough to catch the last few hours of a college cricket game.
From there, our Chariot carried us faithfully along the southern coast through surf spots such as #Weligama and #Mirissa, both of which boast equally renowned beachfront nightlife. Turning inland just past #Tangalle, and the scenery began to change rapidly as we approached the #Yala National Park. A well-known and somewhat overdeveloped tourist destination, #Yala is home to vast open plains, dense bushland and the chance for some mind-blowing Elephant encounters. The road that leads across the Western corner of the park is where some of Tom’s previous customers had encountered Elephants up-close and personal. Sadly, we were not so lucky, although the perfect strip of almost deserted tarmac running through the scrub made for our most memorable drive to date.
On the road again
Continuing our path northwards, we began to climb into the hills that make up the Sri Lankan heartland. Open plains soon became rolling hills, which in turn yielded to some simply astonishing peaks, complete with Tea Plantations clinging desperately to their slopes. A relic from the days when Her Britanic Majesty claimed Sri Lanka as her own, tea is still big business in hill country. The vast majority of plantations have some form of visitor center where a charming young lady will invariably be on hand to show you around. A tip of 200 rupees (Around $1.50) per person is usually enough for a half hour tour of the estate and a taste of the wonderfully fresh tea that they produce. It’s quite easy, not to mention pleasant, spending a day ‘plantation hopping’ as you weave your way along the winding mountain roads.
The well-established backpacker hub of #Ella is a great place to take in the mountain air in the company of other travelers. Although not a big town, there are plenty of great hikes that deliver absolutely stunning views of the area, particularly from Little Adam’s Peak. Chill Bar is a backpacker favourite where travelers congregate most evenings to indulge in a dose of respectable western food and cheap beer!
Heading back out of #Ella, we sensed that our little TukTuk was particularly grateful to be heading downhill again. The steep gradients, coolers temperatures and thinner mountain air had taken their toll on it’s 194cc engine and, if we’re honest, it would have been quicker to get out and walk some stretches on the ride up! As we dropped back down towards Colombo, we had just enough time to take in the former British hill town of #Nuwara Eliya. Tea plantations, golf clubs, a rowing lake and a plethora of hill side bungalows make up this quaint community, which is a hit with Sri Lankans looking to escape the heat for a few days. Just the one night was enough for us, but one could easily spend longer in this oasis of tranquility.
All good things must come to an end…
We’ve started and ended many a trip over the years, but crawling back to TukTuk Rental HQ through #Colombo rush-hour traffic, we felt particularly sad to be parting with our three-wheeled friend. Like all good friends, there had been times when it had let us down or hadn’t behaved as we would have liked. But oh boy, the memories we had made together. From the policemen who stopped us simply for a chat as they couldn’t believe their eyes, to the locals who had come to our aid in our hour of need, it had been a truly immersive two weeks. And we all owe it to our now good friend Mr Wiejesinghe and his Dark Knight!