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!