Sri Lanka Challenge

Sri Lanka by tuk tuk: Could the Lanka Challenge be my greatest adventure yet??

Nine days of self driving and navigating a tuk tuk over 1,000km, with daily challenges and tests along the way? It’s certainly not a break for those looking for some downtime! It is however one of the greatest adventures I’ve had along my travels, pushing my boundaries, testing my limits, and getting us truly off the beaten track and into the local communities. And it’s not as intimidating as it sounds! For anyone interested, I cannot recommend it highly enough, I went on my own, joined a team and had an amazing trip!

Read on to hear more about our adventures…

Day one – A fishy tale with time for tea!

After taking a day and evening to meet the teams, make friends with our tuk tuks (and learn to drive them around the hotel grounds), we had a great paparazzi-fuelled flag-off to the adventure, with all teams in their own choice of fancy dress (we had everything from farm animals to clowns, nurses to hippies and with a couple of minions and the Super Mario Brothers thrown in too!) We were given our routes and challenges for the day every morning in the breakfast briefing, and our first challenge on day one was to find Negombo Fish Market and convince a local fish monger to let us sell some fish (recording what we sold, for how much – and with video evidence of us hard at work). Finding the market was no great challenge (not for us at least, it wasn’t the same for others!) but trying to sell fish was hard work, still at least we drew a crowd! As a result, our knowledge of the Sinhala language started with the words for ‘come’, ‘fish’, ‘fresh’ and ‘cheap’ – not the standard first words to learn in a language! The second challenge proved somewhat harder – getting invited in to someone’s home for tea (the traditional ceremony). After four or five attempts of trying to talk to people who didn’t speak English and invite ourselves into their homes, we eventually struck lucky with some English speakers who talked to the shop owner where we found them and got us taken through the back to their living areas. The tea was nice, but seeing where and how they lived was the real experience.

After travelling 165km in our tuk tuk (at maximum speeds of 50km per hour, and with lots of stops for challenges, fuel etc) we arrived after dark at the stunning Aliya Resort, Sigiriya pretty exhausted, but with pretty of learnings for the following day (i.e. drive faster, make less stops and get food from roadside stalls rather than stopping in restaurants for lunch).

Day two – Tuking in the countryside

After waking up in a beautiful hotel and treating ourselves to a nice big breakfast, we were refreshed and keen to get out into the surrounding countryside. The first challenge today was to find Pidurangala Rock, which involved driving along lots of pot-hole filled country roads, but did help with the challenge of trying to get photos of a team member doing shot put with elephant dung! Once there, it was a race to the top (and it was a tough climb!) to get a lotus blossom, return to the bottom and make a traditional Buddhist offering and recite a mantra as taught by the monks in the temple. We were not competitive with this one as we were keen to make the most of the 360 degree views of Lion Rock and the surrounding countryside from the top (and seeing the number of tourists making their way up Lion Rock, I was glad we were where we were!)

The drive was much shorter (only 93km) but the roads were often dirt tracks through the countryside to our campsite in Wasgamuwa National Park. The other challenge invited us to try ‘Tambili’ which turned out to be fresh king coconut water (I didn’t need to be asked twice!) and ‘bullat bitte’ which was local chewing tobacco – and nowhere near as pleasant!! We also experienced the unplanned challenge of the first monsoon rains, stopping to take tea on the roadside when the relenting water made its way through the tuk tuk’s plastic covers. Luckily the weather cleared up for our camping and we had a lovely evening on the side of a lake with traditional food and entertainment (our temporary camp also had flushing toilet tents and open air shower tents – certainly a lot more than I’m used to!)

Day three – A military operation to reach the coast

It was well worth getting up a little early today to see the stunning pink sunrise over the lake. While most were still sleeping, it was great to go for a little walk along the water and watch the birds fishing as the sun rose – as an added bonus, I also got a fresh chapati from the cooks who were preparing breakfast! With 142km to cover today to reach the east coast and with everyone keen to cover some distance while the weather was good, we set off full of purpose. The route took us through several main towns and military bases, and today’s challenge was to convince some soldiers to take part in a push-up face-off. All of the 15 tuk tuks taking part must have stopped at every poor camouflage-clad guy we saw, but without much luck – until we finally we teamed up with another tuk tuk and managed to convince one group of soldiers to do the competition if we didn’t show their faces on the video, but it was definitely no easy feat! As we drove through the vast expanses of farmland, we also took the opportunity to do another of the photo challenges – helping rice farmers with the harvest. We blundered our way out through the paddies in our flip flops until we reached a big family hard at work – they didn’t speak English, but we seemed to make our intention to help clear through our actions! We did as best we could to help bundle up the crops and shift them into piles, and despite no doubt thinking we were crazy, the family were incredibly friendly and smiley and gave us a good wave off when we were done!

A lot of the journey seemed to be in small convoys today and we all reached the luxurious Maalu Maalu Resort in Passikudah by mid afternoon – giving us enough time to make use of the hotel’s pool and beach bar, which we had to retreat to when the rains came again (although I also managed to squeeze in a much-needed massage during the downpour too!) We had the first of our evening challenges while at the resort too; we had been tasked to buy a local sarong earlier in the day, and in the evening we had a competition to see who could tie it correctly as the Sri Lankan’s do, and then a competition to see who had the best head wiggle, which was made even more amusing thanks to the afternoon’s refreshments!

Day four – There’s no I in Team

Today we were split into three groups, and needed to complete all challenges and arrive in our groups in order to get the points. It was another 145km today but on easy roads up the coast, so we were able to make all of the stops required to complete our challenges. The first was to get a group of at least 15 local people to teach us a local song which we had to sing and record for at least 20 seconds. We managed this one easily by stopping at a local school playground and having children teach us the words and actions to a local nursery rhyme. The second challenge celebrated the diversity of the region, and tested our cultural awareness by getting us to stop for group pictures at a mosque, church, Hindu temple and Buddhist temple.

We all met in the afternoon at one of the local schools in Pottuvil that the funds we raised goes to support. We were incredibly warmly welcomed by the children, with flowers and smiles and lots of requests for photos. There was then a formal presentation where we donated musical instruments, and were rewarded with some great song and dance performances from the children as a thank you, and after being treated to tea and cake, we were waved off by our new friends to complete the last part of the journey before our rest day in Arugam Bay. Whilst not the same as the five star luxury hotels we had experienced at the start of the trip, Bay Vista Hotel had a charm of its own, located right on the beach of the surfing mecca of Sri Lanka, an,d knowing that the following day was a rest day, we took the evening to explore the barefoot beach bars and indulge in local rum cocktails!

Day five – A well earned rest!

Arugam Bay is a small town full of backpackers and surfers, so it was easy to have a wander around the roadside clothing shops, enjoy some relaxed food and drink, and we even managed a medicinal Ayurvedic massage at the Ayurvedic Treatment Centre. The more competitive teams booked lagoon safaris with local guides in an attempt to capture photos of crocodiles for the photo challenge, some took the opportunity to hire surfboards and try out the famous waves, and one group even took the time to go back to one of the towns we had passed the day before, to buy a bed for an old man they had met and given a lift home. After a long few days of early starts and long drives along bumpy roads, everyone was grateful for the break!

Day six – Dodgy dealings!

Unfortunately Yala National Park is closed at this time of year, so our route for today was forced inland again, but with no complaints from us as we hit more beautiful countryside. This was another of my favourite drives as we passed through hundreds of villages, breathing in the smell of the roadside wood fires heating bubbling cauldrons full of fresh corn on the cob, and stopping for fresh king coconut water and local snacks.

Our first official stop and challenge was not too far from the starting point, where we had to find the ancient shrine and rock carvings at Budurawagala (well worth the pot hole jarring to get to!) From here it was a simple drive through the countryside to get to Uda Walawe National Park where we were camping for the night, but this was not taking into account the second challenge of the day – getting hold of some toddy (basically, locally made palm/coconut wine), not to be confused with the illegally produced kasippu! We tried asking all over and did not get much encouragement, until after seeking out the most connected looking men on the markets, we were pointed to a local taxi tuk tuk, who took us out into the middle of nowhere, through fields of sugar cane taller than our tuk tuk, where I was requested to stay on my own with the tuk tuk for safety (!) while the guys went to find the man with the alcohol! They did come back for me pretty quickly once they had checked it out, and we were led to a clearing where a group of drunken men were pouring the cloudy moonshine into plastic bottles – we were offered some direct from the jug and with some nice dirty dried fish to go with it! Unfortunately it wasn’t really a situation we thought we could refuse, but actually the drink was nicer than I had expected (the fish wasn’t!) After collecting our plastic bottle and paying the money, we retreated from the very surreal experience and still managed to complete the final challenge (a litter pick) and make it to the camp in Uda Walawe National Park in time to catch the final safari of the day. The park is known for its elephants, and our three cars were not disappointed, getting up close to several groups of female elephants and even a couple of babies! This evening’s camp was again lakeside, but this time at an organised camp site with a shower and toilet block, which was possibly a bonus, given that the evening’s challenge was a chilli eating competition!

Day seven – Almost paradise

This morning I was woken to a cacophony of bird song – from the shrieks of peacocks and grumpy groans of egrets, to the alarm sirens of waterfowl and squeaks from the flocks of parakeets! It was like a completely different lakeside to the previous day where I had fallen asleep listening to frog song and cicadas!

Today was another day of being put into groups to complete the day, unfortunately several of our group had gone out on an early morning safari and were held up by a traffic accident on the way back, so we had a later start than we would have liked. Working as a team was actually a lot more of a challenge than it sounds, and required regular stops for communication along the route, particularly as during these team days, all maps were taken away except for one person who was nominated captain, so the other four tuk tuks were following blind! Our route took us back out past herds of water buffalo grazing on vast expanses of flood plain, to the south coast, stopping only for the most delicious street food treats. Here we made several stops as we tried to think about the main challenge of the day – a create your own! We had to be creative and come up with an original challenge, and eventually settled on trying to get local people to join us in a conga along the beach. This took a lot of work and persuasion (and looking ridiculous) but eventually a few people were convinced to join (and we actually won that day’s challenge for our resulting video!) We arrived at Paradise Beach Club in Mirissa a little too late to make full use of the beautiful beach and surf boards for hire, but we did make it to the stunning beachside pool for a dip and some congratulatory drinks before a delicious dinner.
Day eight – Back to school before running around town
Today it was a very short drive to our first stop at a school in Habaraduwa (although we did jump out very quickly for another photo challenge to try and get some local fishermen to go up on their stilts even though the tide was out! They were convinced for some rupees however, and we earned a few more challenge points!) This school was less rural and much more controlled and well behaved, but the children were just as keen to see us, and after a lovely welcome from students and staff and a presentation from LORIS (another of the charities that the challenge supports) about the destruction of the rainforest in Sri Lanka, we set about planting trees with the children to help with rainforest regeneration, and were shown inside their new English centre which our funds had helped build.
High on cuddles and smiles, we set off up the coast for the tourist fort town of Galle. We met at the clock tower and were given the challenge to race each other to find various key places (the lighthouse, a certain church, cafe etc) and answer trivia on each whilst there. This was another challenge that we were less competitive with, choosing to take time to enjoy each of the sites and stop for a lunch at the cafe. We still managed to make it to The Palms Resort in Beruwala in time for a sunset stroll along the beach and dip in the pool before dinner, before being split into teams for the evening challenge of a quiz to test our knowledge of Sri Lanka.
Day nine – The last stretch and a meal to remember
The final leg of the journey was very short in comparison to what we were used – only 56km – and this lulled us into a false sense of security, expecting to arrive very early at our final stop. However, we hadn’t taken into account the final day’s challenges. The first was straight forward enough, we had a shopping list of ingredients (although not in English of course) and 500 rupees with which to purchase the curry-making ingredients from a market – which took some serious bartering. The second was much harder, finding a local family to take us in to their home and cook us lunch using our ingredients. This was possibly the challenge I found the most uncomfortable as it didn’t feel right to invite ourselves in, but we eventually found a lovely old lady who welcomed us in to her kitchen with all of the family and showed us the traditional way she makes a curry, before serving it to us in their living room! Although the most uncomfortable, this was probably one of the most rewarding challenges of the trip, and a great one to finish on, and everyone else seemed to have had similar results – a cultural experience which you would never have gotten anywhere else (plus the tastiest meal of the trip so far!!)
We all met just outside Colombo back in the original fancy dress outfits to drive the final little stretch in one long attention-grabbing convoy into Mount Lavinia Hotel where cameras were waiting with the hotel staff and guests to take our unusual pictures! It was a real sense of accomplishment, and once we had calmed down and checked in, we celebrated with happy hour drinks by the pool at sunset, before meeting for the announcement of the winners (of a Sri Lankan airlines flight anywhere in the world) and other prizes and our final dinner. Despite being exhausted, we gave the trip a fitting farewell that night, before most people left from Colombo airport the next day.
Overall, it was a fantastic experience, and one that would not be possible in any other way than in this challenge environment. It was very well organised by a great team of people who handled all the hiccups along the way very professionally, and who had chosen the perfect combination of challenges to push us out of our comfort zones and get us out and seeing the real Sri Lanka. You can find out more, or sign up for next year at, for me, I’m already starting to look at the Cambo Challenge for next year… 😉