It was my 8th week in Sri Lanka and I had just about recovered from a viral infection which left me with a troublesome cough and headaches. I was getting itchy feet again and wanted to visit the Deep South of the island with its national parks and pilgrim centres. I booked a three day trip with Flamingo Tours – a small local tour company. In the next few posts I would like to tell you about that journey.
On Day One, we drove from Colombo to Udawalawe, taking the road through the central hills. A Kangaroo Cab dropped me at my pick-up point in Pannipitiya on the A4 at 6.30 in the morning. At 430 kilometres, the A4 Highway is the longest in Sri Lanka connecting Colombo with Batticaloa on the east cost.
Fifteen minutes later we were on the pink 18-seater coach with Padmini, the tour leader and thirteen other happy souls looking forward to a great weekend.
Our first stop was for breakfast at Hanwella, a small town on the banks of the Kelani River – the fourth longest in the country (90 miles). Today, there is nothing much to see at Hanwella but historically, the last king of Sri Lanka was defeated by the British here and sent in to exile. The ancient fort that controlled the ferry over the river is long gone. The section of the A4 between Colombo and Hanwella is called the High Level Road which was constructed because the original Low Level Road got flooded every time Kelani River was in spate.
We had breakfast at a roadside eatery called the Ambalama. The chef was making hoppers – crisp rice flour and coconut milk pancakes – a Sri Lankan breakfast speciality, sometimes with an egg in the middle. Outside, a merciless photographer was marshalling overdressed and sweating members of a wedding party. In the cool open sided restaurant, I ate herb porridge, plain hoppers with onion sambal and fish curry and drank black tea.
Back on the coach, the atmosphere was relaxed and fun. Some dozed but others chatted, boxes of sweets and snacks were opened and shared and music was played. Traffic on the A4 was chaotic but no one cared.
A ‘pit stop’ was made near a supermarket in Ratnapura. The smell of rotting fish was overpowering. “The freezer broke down last night” the girl in the shop said. Across the road, a bill board urged tourists to visit a nearby waterfall and behind the shop, green paddy fields stretched towards the distant blue hills.
Ratnapura is gem country and most people here depend on the gem trade. Fields are dotted with little gem mines and the town is littered with shops trying to sell ‘gems’ – real and fake. However, the 1440 carat blue sapphire, the world’s largest, that was found in Sri Lanka a few weeks ago came not from Ratnapura but the north central province.
It was midday when we reached Udawalawe Safari Village Hotel – our base for the night. Accommodation was basic but adequate. No one bothered with the swimming pool. WiFi was free but worked only near the reception desk. Staff were friendly and helpful. There was no bar but they were happy to get chilled beer for anybody fancying a drink. We had rice and curry for lunch and got ready to explore Udawalawe.