Sri Lanka – Slow TravelCycle tour from the 'Tip to Toe' of Sri Lanka

Max Hepworth-Povey


2 years ago in Adventure

“Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance you must keep moving”

Albert Einstein

If you are reading this you are probably aware that I cycled through France and Spain a few years ago and turned the Basque Country segment of it into a cycle and surf tour we named the Cycle Surfari. So I’m no stranger to time in the saddle, but I’m far from an enthusiast.

With global travel and flights off the agenda for the last year, I used this as an opportunity to explore a country that I am ‘stuck’ in but fortunate enough to call home, Sri Lanka. On a bike. You can watch my insta stories documenting the trip here, or read on for a run down of our adventure.

Now I’m not in the best shape and have some unhealthy habits that definitely hinder the hobby, but the main lure of riding a bike for me is the pace at which you experience the place you’re cycling through, you are the engine, your vehicle stops when you’re physically beat and flies when you’re fuelled up. The bicycle is a humbling mode of transport which as Einstein observed, I believe can bring grounding and balance to turbulent times and mental states of mind.

There are highs and lows, geographically, physically and mentally. You learn the contours of a country as you sweat up the hills and cruise down them with the wind in your hair (or helmet). Some minutes take hours and whole sections of the day can be boring as hell, whilst others pass in pure meditation. You will no doubt hit a physical wall which feels impenetrable, but you persevere, break through, releasing endorphins and you’re high as a kite.

A lot of the best experiences in life are those where you bite off a bit more than you can chew, and live through it. After announcing to the social world that we were going to cycle the length of the country, from tip to toe, for a local charity, in a week, I did start to feel a little anxious and wondered if I could deliver the bolshy claim.

A few weeks and £1800 worth of donations later, after acquiring a late 90’s Bianchi road bike and crushing a few kilometres locally we were heading north to Jaffna, getting transported to the start of our journey.

The decision was made that a night of comfort and good rest would encourage an efficient start to the trip, so booked the Jetwing. We checked in during the golden hour and headed to the rooftop bar for a sunset beer, some decent hotel food and to of course plan our route.

Un / fortunately, pints were on offer at the outrageous rate of 160lkr (70p) and having not had a pint of beer in almost two years, became quite giddy off a few in a short space of time. This led to a less than ideal breakfast choice (fry up) the following day and we had completely changed the route I had planned out meticulously over the past few weeks as we figured the road to Mannar, 120km away, looked nicer. Spirits were high though and off we went.

When hitting the road at the very start of a long cycle journey, there’s a daunting feeling, like an anxious excitement that sits in your belly. It’s an indescribable feeling, I assume only a cyclist knows. It’s the essence of adventure.

The road to Mannar did in fact turn out to be very nice, it was pretty much flat, perfectly tarmacked and there was no traffic for 100km. Navigating into town was simple enough, crossing a 5km long bridge into Mannar Island was a highlight and the charming town itself welcomed us nonchalantly.

The road / bridge into Mannar Island from Sri Lanka mainland. Photo credit

The end of the island is just 27km from India, so we made the call to cycle to the edge and take a look. However, getting there from our hotel was another 10km and after adding 20km onto our route already, combined with the hearty curry we wolfed down for lunch, decided it was probably too cloudy to see anything and go for an afternoon nap. The nap turned into full blown sleep, only interrupted by the dirty burger delivery around dinner time.

Adam’s Bridge, where Sri Lanka meets India. We didn’t see it. Photo credit

The following morning was grim. The rain had dampened spirits, and although seeing dozens of wild donkeys raised the mood, seeing a dead one on the side of the road brought the vibe back down.

We were aiming for a leisurely 100km per day and had nearly 140km to get to Anuradupura. The first stint was like something out of a marsh-land Mad Max, kind of beautiful, but bleak at the same time. The day was eventless but unforgettable, we had a curry at an army base, saw an eagle, saw a snake, and essentially just kept cycling through a haze of fog and thoughts.

Things switched up a gear when evening came and we decided to skirt the ancient kingdom of Anuradupura assuming it would be busy, and find a place to stay in a chilled area a few km away.

All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware, ours was this assumed quiet place to stay.

After having the obligatory celebratory Lion lager we ordered takeaway pizzas to the room. Whilst in bed carb loading watching Sinhalese TV we heard a knock at the door. I answered to the owner who was so excited to see western tourists for the first time in 9 months, he insisted we go to his nightclub. Now my arm is pretty rubber, and Jimmy, my cycling partner, rarely says no to anything. Several hours and a few days food budget later we are back at the room looking at a few hours sleep before we had to hit the road again.

Ancient (1,561 year old) Buddha statue in Anuradupura. Photo credit

Fortunately the Universe (and Jimmy’s Dad) threw us a bone and our plans changed yet again, we were now heading a short 60km to Sigirya to stay in a fancy resort overlooking the ancient temple site.

We eat 60k for breakfast and although it was lunchtime when we got going, we soon found ourselves by the pool enjoying the ambience (and room service). The invite was welcomed and turned into a two night stay of gluttony and rest.

Sigirya Rock. Photo credit

After what felt like a bit too long of luxury living, the lycra was back on and we got in the saddle staring at a daunting day ahead. The destination was basically as far as we could go to make up for time. But we were now skirting the famous hill country and knew that there would be some gradients to get stuck into.

We did a whopping 165km that day. The bulk of the day was amazing, the views of the mountains were breathtaking, we were really in flow. The final 30km was a slog, it rained the whole stint, which ended in a town called Bibile.

Here we experienced our first taste of corona racism if that’s even a thing as we got turned away from the only hotel in town just, despite it being quite clearly empty. Although it was pitch black at this point I was high on life and the law of attraction sent the only guy in town who spoke English in our direction, who showed us to the low key hotel that he got married in and got us a nice AC room overlooking a mountain for a few quid.

The road coming into Bibile. Photo credit.

The following morning we set off for Tissamaharama, just over 130km away. We were now in the Uva Province, where things are a bit busier in general. The roads weren’t as pleasant, there were a few close calls with buses and packs of street dogs who for some reason hate cyclists.

Coming into ‘Tissa’ was beautiful as the landscape switched up drastically, there are a few lakes in this area and the surroundings are barren, so we were cycling through what felt like a nature reserve. The small hotel we found was on the lake, around £5 for a suite with AC and the one kid running the place cooked us up a great selection of chinese food strangely enough, which sent us to sleep peacefully.

Paddy fields in ‘Tissa’. Photo credit

Day 7 (6 of cycling) was the last day! Just 90km to Dickwella, nothing, where we were going to end our tour to a small welcome party at Jimmy’s place. This involved basically riding along the main road which runs along the south coast. Fortunately it was Sunday so the roads were quiet and it was overcast the whole way which is a massive blessing. Navigating our way through the super busy port town of Hambantota on market day was hectic, but the vast empty, brand new highway that leads to the south coast road was a dream, averaging 40kmph with hardly any effort.

We made it to the end of our journey in time for lunch, feeling elated and honestly a bit sad at the same time. I didn’t want the simplicity of life on the road to end and would have actually cycled back to Jaffna if it wasn’t for the fact that Christmas was just a few days away.

“I love to travel, but hate to arrive.”

Albert Einstein

Although this adventure was intended to raise money for charity, whilst giving myself the opportunity to see the country in a different way, it has also been a good bit of research and development for Ticket to Ride.

We are an adventure travel company, and with COVID as the catalyst are shifting our ethos back how it all started, with slower travel, focusing on traveling less, but seeing more, visiting less countries but taking your time to truly experience them. The original 13 week South Africa Adventure (which has been running for 13 years) is the epitome of this and something I will be bringing to Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka is a beautiful country which needs to be experienced over time, to get to know, understand and appreciate. The culture is unique and there’s an adventure around every corner.

Maybe we’ll run our tours completely pedal powered in the near future…

If you like the sound of cycling through Sri Lanka, please feel free to email me or send us some suggestions 🙂