It was early morning and reaching my friend’s new house should have been easy.  “Just after  Hakmana junction’’ they had initially said but then there had been other more confusing directions, “near temple road…a temple”.  People tried to convince me that they knew the way and sent me off down various side roads, past a [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

On a TVS with the mesmerising sea as companion

British writer and artist Lizzie Jones living and working in Sri Lanka for the past six years, writes of her journey on a scooter from Dondra to Point Pedro

Journey’s beginning: Lizzie Jones at the Dondra lighthouse

It was early morning and reaching my friend’s new house should have been easy.  “Just after  Hakmana junction’’ they had initially said but then there had been other more confusing directions, “near temple road…a temple”.  People tried to convince me that they knew the way and sent me off down various side roads, past a junction, near a college, until finally someone came to fetch me and I followed him, he on his motorbike and me behind him.   I had gone miles too far and a little further, he joked I would have been in the Nilwala River.

My friends were patiently waiting when I finally arrived. A little embarrassed, I was immediately sat down at a table of milk rice, the rice of goodbye and blessings, offered with plain tea, hakuru and cashew nut sambol which I was encouraged to eat while we chatted and laughed.  After that, a small candle was lit and reached up to the little altar with the Buddha statue and although they self-mocked their rituals, someone looked seriously into the little almanac to find the auspicious time for leaving; it was to be 8. 31.

We waited near the door, while I negotiated bag and bike, my friends pushing in a present of food before we leave to Dondra to say our goodbyes, they in the car and me following; past the already thriving Matara Bodhi and along the cluttered Tangalle Road. Passing Bawa’s Ruhuna University, a demonstration is underway and overflows onto the road. It’s so beautiful inside Bawa’s building, up and down hills, you can pass through cool sheltered corridors away from the sun, the sea in the distance.

Turning the corner almost unexpectedly, (after all it is the coastal road) it slaps me in the face  with its beauty, the mesmerising wild unending sea. I stare as if seeing it for the first time, unable to avert my eyes.  Further along the coast, some fishing boats are in a harbour.

Before arriving at the lighthouse, I go into the imposing Devinuwara temple. Perhaps it is here that the spiritual road to Kataragama begins, where anything can happen. Open backed trucks full of singing, drumming  pilgrims overtake me and wave; on their way to Kiri Vihara. In part of the strange unlikely blue temple surrounded by oil lamps, priests stand in their little cubicles each with an altar and an assortment of Gods. The one I enter into randomly has Skanda Kumara and Kali, mother of the universe and goddess of destruction; Ganesh is here too and there are various consorts. Under colourful neon, a priest touches my head and whispers, naming them, another blessing. There is comfort here somewhere inside my mind, while he ties the woven bracelet.

I return to my own little vehicle, a simple TVS motorcycle that I will travel on,  accompanied by its humdrum sound, called in jest a mosquito or maduruwa. I find this low dull noise comforting, like a whirring ceiling fan as we fall into sleep. This mini-motorbike is functional but has no glamour, the cheap Indian paint can rust in the rainy season and a full tank will last for miles.Women take children to school on such a bike, a modicum of freedom, farmers carry oversized objects. The speedometer only goes to 70 k.p.h., after that it shudders but I’m a careful driver so it’s usually only at 50 or 60 and even then if it’s on an empty carpet road, under an open sky.

There is no easy way to leave the South. Less adventurous people urged me to head for Colombo for safety though that would mean travelling to Galle,  then Hikkaduwa and taking that difficult road from Panadura into the city and out again. Crossing Colombo can be like a dream – where you don’t get anywhere.

Alternatively I thought perhaps I could travel by way of the hill country, via Sinharaja or Embilipitiya over shiny plantations and spiralling roads.  I am sorely tempted to experience this chilly beauty but perhaps hills and rain would make it difficult; there would be many tiny roads to navigate, labyrinths to negotiate.

Then, thirdly, there is the East coast. I could stop like a pilgrim in Kataragama and then like a surfer head across to Arugam Bay then take that long, hot,unprotected, endless road all the way to Batticaloa,toTrincomalee and even on to Mullaitivu and the north. Coast all the way, ocean on one side.

The options are all good but I finally choose a different, less travelled, more ordinary route and probably the longest way.

The small ‘’seeing me off’’ team arrive before me near the lighthouse built by the British in1890. The tallest lighthouse in Sri Lanka, its stones were imported from Cornwall and Scotland, no wonder the granite looks unfamiliar. There are 196 steps to the top.I’ve never been inside as entrance money increases notably for foreigners and anyway this morning it’s closed. Friends tell me they felt dizzy climbing the spiralling steps and scanning the endless sea from up there.

Dondra Head, Devinuwara. City of the gods. Southernmost.

At the entrance after a little house where they sell thambili, a family stands clustered together talking. They include a boy with Down’s syndrome. He stands innocently in the photos, wanting to be part of them and helps me traverse the gates with the bike, like a close friend. We can’t fit the whole lighthouse in the photos but go near to a little plaque which tells us we are the furthest south we can be on the island.

I’ve come here to go from Dondra, the southernmost to Point Pedro, beyond Jaffna the northernmost. We stand wondering when this should happen as if waiting for the lucky time again.  This ends up being after we finish our thambili.My friends go off in the car and I begin my journey; it’s 9. 30, late and definitely time to leave along Lighthouse Road.

We go our separate, opposite ways, they to the ebb and flow of ordinary lives, I, now all alert, into the crux of my journey.

I pass the temple again onto the road into this expedition, slightly emotional, heading into the unknown.  I check the mileage; it reads: 02816

Now I am alone on this rough road, the ride becomes meditative; travelling time is different and it takes longer than I thought to get to Tangalle.  On the hills heading in I notice I have a nearly flat front tyre.I use the moment to take in again that untameable sea, below to my right. I try optimistically to travel slowly, delicately, wondering if I can make it into the town which luckily is downhill.  How wimpish, so soon, but how typical, ordinary life in the way of adventure.

I get to Tangalle thankfully and ask random passers-by, if there’s a mechanic and am sent in various directions. A concerned passer-by asks what’s wrong and directs me ahead. Expecting a little dark mechanic’s shed, I come instead to a giant industrial looking tyre repair place, the sort that repairs huge lorries.

The mechanic is young, a tall sinewy adolescent wearing beads and a pottu…he’s perhaps from the hill country.

On an ocean road: A break for the TVS

The unlikely trio of workers, this young man, a man, a woman, perhaps his wife seem efficient and kind; as I wait I am offered a  plastic chair.They have noticed that I have sat on the little ledge where huge tyres are piled up. A few cars come and go, repairs are done. Finally it’s my turn but as the young mechanic starts to undo the wheel I feel suddenly anxious.

The bike now stands minus a wheel but I soon become fascinated, his work is inspiring and clever.  In a matter of minutes it’s all done and put back together with the dexterity of a Rubik cube player. I hand him the bag of food given by my friends and hope they won’t mind. Giving is always a difficult complex thing but it will free up my bag which sits uncomfortably on the front of the bike between my knees.I pay 700 rupees for a new inner tube and the work, say goodbye and thanks, perhaps too effusively; they will never know how important it is.

It’s really begun now the journey and turning the corner as I leave Tangalle, Skanda Kumara appears again; the many-faced deity staring down amid the colour chaos of gods. Crows fly low just above the temple and the passing spirit of Kataragama is here too but I must get on now. I make a supreme effort to absorb what I can of this sight and vow to return. The many faced or many armed gods and the Buddha are side by side and in the stratosphere far above them two Brahminy kites appropriate the sky looking for prey as they soar in large sweeping movements.

Paddy fields become emerald green on either side now and there are men in the distant fields carrying metal containers of pesticide. White egrets happily dip their beaks into the new rice plants.

The real journey has been hard to start but begins now, here on the Hambantota Road. It feels like afternoon already, but I’m hungry and I must stop once more at one of those agricultural centres. The food is cheap and delicious and run by ladies in clean kitchens wearing green aprons. I have two helpings of dosai and vegetables which I gobble down quickly.

It’s impossible to be in awe of the colour of every paddy field and the velvety smooth water of the lakes, to be constantly mesmerised by the sea so they eventually become ordinary in their beauty, taken in, absorbed and discarded.  After a long while of similar land and road with very little shade I am eventually forced to turn left to avoid the port and onto a four lane highway. This is the Convention Centre road, the airport road, the cricket stadium road nearing Hambantota but somehow missing the town.  Along the many-laned road, now quasi empty, I pick up speed. There is a wind farm and blades on my right that turn heavily amid the dry, dry zone hills. At the centre distant gardeners are conscientiously snipping bushes into sophisticated shapes, but the building seems empty and lonely looking; a white elephant.

I fill up at the petrol station where it says ‘next filling station Weerawila’  and where  water buffaloes wander obliviously on the road which no longer has the allure of a highway. The idea is to go beyond Weerawila and to Wellawaya before night falls and before  insects descend  bashing into my visor-less face.

In Weerawila there is apparently an  open prison, it’s written somewhere along the road and I wonder if it is there behind the wire fences. What the prisoners have done to be there.

Stalls along the little road sell baskets and curd. I turn just before that important Tissamaharama Junction, east to Yala, onwards to Kataragama and head on an inconspicuous road toward Wellawaya.

It’s a slow journey, still such a long way to go.It has been hot and dry all day and my face is scarlet in the bike’s mirror. When I eventually get to the entrance to the town just after nightfall, I turn into a number of little roads and dirt tracks in the semi dark, following guest house signs that don’t go anywhere in particular. I find one place which is open but it seems deserted…

The onset of nightfall is exciting and scary at the same time. It’s only evening but the dark and unknown takes on a different characteristic for a solitary traveller, even in such a small town and perhaps night always brings out the strange and dangerous. It’s my third attempt to turn into a little lane when I see bright lights from the Tissa Road and that’s when I find the ‘Little Rose Inn’ and head along a dirt track where a company function is in full swing. Boom – boom – boom, music blares out of speakers. It’s actually only seven o’clock.

It won’t be quiet says the owner.  He puts me near the family quarters, in a room with two beds a mirror and a mosquito net. On the wall a picture of a stupa is dark against the sky, a sunset and says Sri Lanka. The music is part blocked out by the whirring of the fan and my tiredness. Then it is silent but by then I am nearly asleep, hot with slight and not unpleasant feeling of vertigo; there is just the soft rise and fall of the lives of the next door family.

End of Day 1; The mileage reads 2984 – that’s 170 kilometres.

 Await the second part next week.

Advertising Rates

Please contact the advertising office on 011 - 2479521 for the advertising rates.