Sri Lanka 2023

We start at Waikkal and go clockwise round the island. Allison’s father served with the RAF at Batticaloa during WW2 and she has been in touch with a very friendly tourist office there and exchanged emails and photos – a deviation from the route so we’ll see if we can trace any connections there.
Now Wednesday 18th and everything looks good! We spent the first night on the west coast then a night inland near Anuradhapura, a one time capital and now north of Trincomalee on the east coast. The first thing to report is that from what we’ve seen so far there are no shortages, no demonstrations and fuel is available but rationed. The concerns we picked up from TV reports and FCO advice are allayed. Its difficult to tell if there are fewer cars on the road than normal but there are certainly very few tourists. We have been to many sites with large car parks, lots of vendors but few visitors. At our hotels, our 11 cars and support team make up the majority of the guests.
Our departure from Waikkal required a good luck dance routine and the presence of a senior official from the Ministry of Tourism

Dance troupe

Allison was determined to start her sight-seeing asap so we had no sooner arrived at our hotel early afternoon when she wanted to be off. It was actually quite a challenge to navigate a journey on our own when we started in the middle of nowhere, had conflicting directions and couldn’t read most local road signs so it was an achievement to get to one of the outlying temples in Anuradhapura – and back to the hotel and with a full tank of fuel!

a deserted Isurumuniya temple, one of the most venerable temples

Wednesday we followed the group route up till lunch,

Paddy fields at the hotel

the feature was a tour of the main ruins at Anuradhapura (the island’s capital up to the 10th century), starting with the Jethawanaramaya Stupa – said to be the larges stupa in the world, solid and made from 93 million bricks. Originally plastered using crushed sea shells but now suffering from an incursion of scaffolding – and no plaster, or tourists!

Twin bathing ponds for the 500 monks at the complex

The Guardstone

After lunch we headed for the next day’s tour of Trincomalee as we had other plans for that day. We started at the Naval museum where Allison was hoping she might find something about the RAF but not to be; then to Fort Frederick

Temple at Fort Frederick

We particularly liked the accurate timing of the discovery of this sculpture (3pm).

Nanthi Thevar

At 3pm

There were plenty of vendors at Fort Frederick – just a lack of tourists We started early on Thursday so as to get through Trincomalee and on to Batticaloa, avoiding the majority of the day’s rally route. There we met Sandrine who runs a tour company and who recognised the one photo out of her father’s collection of 20 or so which Allison had happened to email to her. It was of the old Mosque but the fountain in the foreground, the railings and the tree (now cut back) were unchanged. It turned out that the Mosque did not have a photo of the previous building so the photo was of interest and would also show the location of the old building.

Batticaloa with the new Mosque behind from the same angle as the 1942 original

The Imam and Mosque Trustee viewing the car

Then a blast to catch up with the Rally which was now 100 km or so in front of us. The roads were good and traffic much lighter than in the morning and we had time for a very quick tour of the ruins at Polonnaruwa (after much navigational challenge as there are no street signs in English).

Polonnaruwa Council Chamber

Polonnaruwa Sacred Devalaya

Polonnaruwa Shiva Devalaya

Polonnaruwa Stupa Rankoth Vehera

and …..the Lotus pond

Friday, a rest day, required an early start to get up the Sigiriya Rock – visible from the hotel when the haze clears but a tuk-tuk ride away. The summit contained a Palace complex from 490AD built by a king who was in constant fear after killing his father before his brother killed him some 20 years later. The rock is 300m high and modern stairs make access much easier than all those years ago!

Sigiriya Rock

From above (in the road book)

At the summit – bathing pond

In the afternoon we went to Dambula Caves – though actually it is an enclosed rock overhang and not a cave. The Tuk-tuk ride to get there was interesting because of (wild) elephants on the road. This was significant because the day before, one of the Bentleys had stpped near an elephant to take photos. Then a tuk-tuk started up, the elephant charged the tuk-tuk, whose driver jumped onto the Bentley’s running board as they pulled away asking to be saved. The elephant trashed the tuk-tuk. So both we and our drivers were at bit concerned at having to drive past two elephants. The elephants were more interesting than the caves.

Elephant at roadside

Dambula Caves showing the rock overhang

On our way back, one elephant was still there and seemingly trapped, unwilling to fully cross the road but with a fence behind him.

Inside one cave

Elephant in the road at dusk

Saturday turned out to be wet and cloudy – and damaging. Our route took us to Kandy and a climb our the hills and into the cloud – sadly the organiser’s offering of a “drive on one of the most scenic drives” did not materialise. The police had been evident at various junctions but sadly mis-directed us way off route so from being the lead car we were last at the coffee stop. After coffee we ascended, only to 1300metres but on a rough lumpy road and the suspension got hammered and passing busses on the narrow wet road was fraught. Others got more lost on the way to lunch so we got there “mid-pack”. More tuk-tuks took us to the Temple of the Sacred Tooth relic. Apparently, a monk pulled just one tooth from the Buddha’s mouth as he burned on his funeral pyre and first Indian then Ceylonese Kings, then the British Raj and now Sri Lanka had the duty to safeguard this relic. It is paraded round Kandy in its casket in a 100 elephant convoy in August but normally resides in this temple

Flower offerings at the Temple

An examination of the car at the hotel (in the rain) showed that one side rollbar fixing had snapped and the exhaust pipe was tight against the sump guard. We jacked up the suspension with help of the rally mechanics and drove very carefully next day! A mention of the Jetwings hotel in Kandy – the meat at supper was tougher than any other meat I eaten anywhere but they did put on a dramatic display of traditional and fire dancing.
Sunday was a short drive to The Heritance Tea Factory (hotel) in Nuwara Eliya – the Little England of Sri Lanka.

Some of 18 hairpins

The drive included an 18 hairpin descent and lunch at a very welcoming and contrasting restaurant with the hustle of the street one side of the building and the peace of a lake and hills behind.

lunch stop

We finished early to get to the hotel and were more than happy to find a workshop next to the car park, complete with a vice where I could shape the sump guard supports! Job done, car happy, well nearly as the roll bar is still strapped up and hopefully out of harm’s way.

tea plant

A view of the tea plantation area

Not the Heritance Tea Factory but similar

The Factory/Hotel hade been refurbished in 1932 and abandoned in 1973. It was founded by Edward Flowerdue of Hethersett (Norfolk in the 1860’s. The conversion into a hotel some 25 years later had retained a number of pieces of machinery which generated a great atmosphere.

Tea Trolley

Hotel Stairwell

The evening was coolish and we wore pullovers all of the next day. This started wet and cloudy and our first activity was a visit to a tea museum with participatory tea leaf picking. Clearly if this was my job, I’d starve! Slow to identify the leaves to be picked and incapable of dropping the leaves in the basket – my arms aren’t flexible enough.

Amateur tea picker in costume

The drive today was choice of scenic (cloudy and wet) or direct to Nuara Eliya. There we had more history hunting to do so we selected “direct” and were later told it was bright and sunny on the scenic…. Our clues were photographs – a town entry sign, a hotel, a building, a roundabout with monument and a pagoda in a park. We found a similar town entry sign as the design hasn’t changed much in 80 years

Today’s town sign – the original showed 6191 ft

Grosvenor Hotel today – abandoned

The hotel lead us a merry dance as what was the Grosvenor in 1942 is now the abandoned
Seabank Hotel and the current Grosvenor was the Grosvenor Hotel Bungalow – which is where we started. The building was the Golf Clubhouse which we found, it still exists and we had tea and a tour round

Clubhouse – unchanged but many more trees.

. We thought we had two more successes – A Church shrine and a Buddhist stupa – but both were close but not what we were looking for.
Tuesday – a short day which started with concern over the headlight vacuum system but that eased during the day. We drove in the drizzle and cloud to Horton Plains National Park, passing Pattipola Railway Station – possibly Sri Lanka’s highest altitude station at about 1900metres – and we saw a train!!

The train just going

The ticket office clerk at the Park was still having breakfast when we arrived – in the mist which remained on/off or most of the day. We saw some deer and a stuffed leopard (in the museum) and I’ve not met anyone who did better, then a peaceful drive through the hills to coffee stop, which we left before anyone else arrived, and on to a leisurely lunch with the usual vast quantities of food – I feel quite embarrassed at the amounts we don’t eat. The afternoon’s excitement was a waterfall, Sri Lanka’s second highest, but not much volume. Despite the rain we’ve met in the hills we were assured that now is the dry season.

Diyaluma Falls

. At the hotel, the inspired chef created our rally logo – entirely from rice
Wednesday turned into wildlife day after a radiator repair. I had added a lot of water the evening before and overnight realised that maybe there was a leak somewhere! Quick check revealed that the frame holding te electric fans had chaffed against the radiator and created a small hole. Our Rally mechanics had the rad out in no time and with a combination of liquid metal, araldite and radweld – problem solved. We drove broadly south to a “tented” camp on the coast and on the way we encountered two elephants, one was peaceful at the roadside whilst the other came marching towards us swinging his trunk as we sped off – see video below. The tented camp did not contain, as I had imagined, a set of luxury tents but some very solid fabric covered structures with extraordinary plumbing constructions

Tent with plumbing

Our afternoon excitement was a 3 hour jeep safari into the neighbouring wildlife park; there were no barriers between our “tents” and the park so we were under instruction (ignored) not to walk around without a hotel guide after 6pm. The safari objective was Elephant, Leopard and Bear – we broadly managed two!

Camera shy leopard


done it all

Land Monitor Lizard

no ordinary pig

no ordinary log


too busy to talk

two bee eaters

Egret eating frog, with buffalo friend

The day was rounded of with cocktails by candlelight on the beach and (another) large meal (and an escort back to our tent).
Thursday we moved to an even grander hotel in the same chain further west at Weligama Cape. We travelled via a school which the rally was supporting with a gift of a couple of computers and a printer – and T-shirts for pupils. We were first to arrive and were greeted by assembled parents and children along with the flower bouquet – also obligatory at each hotel.

welcome party

Irving with Head Teacher and bouquet party

Assembly Hall

Classroom; these kids had a day off

After another large lunch we passed on the opportunity for a two hour wait to see orphaned elephants being fed and headed for the hotel, passing a beach with fishing boats, back home after a morning at sea. These boats have a single main hull and a separate additional float, all held together with tree trunks; the fishermen checking their nets under a canopy

Fishing boat with attached float

net check

At the hotel, we reported a problem with the shower and three guys came to look at it (a valve was broken and it produced only (very) hot water. We left them to it when we went for supper and a minute after we returned at about 10.00,the manager came to tell us it needed a part and would we mind being upgraded…. So at 10.30 we relocated to an even grander room. It is linear, a bathroom, entry hall and bedroom/sitting room and measures some 9*21 metres.

bathroom with shower, loo and dressing room off



Private pool with the Indian Ocean beyond

ok, shared with peahen and chick

Friday was a rest day so we passed on the option of a 5.30 departure to go whale watching, opting for a morning swim in the pool (shared between 3 rooms and a peahen), a late breakfast and another unpack of the boot to dry it out after a downpour last night. We later found out that it was a nice boat – but no whales. In the afternoon we visited a boat building/sail making business, run by a friend of a rally participant, which started as a training enterprise but then expanded to employ the people who had been trained; then to cocktails at the owner’s house – an austere all-concrete block construction on a promontory designed by the Japanese architect Tadao Ando.

Sail making

Rope making

austere concrete

Saturday we had all of 40kms to drive to Galle via a White Tea plantation, White tea is high in anti-oxidants and the story runs that in ancient China the leaves picked by virgins wearing gloves and using gold scissors to avoid contamination; even now it commands much higher per kg prices than other teas.

White tea – but no virgins

Tea Talk

Tea Picking

Then on to Galle and a tour round the Portuguese/Dutch/British bastions

Galle Cricket Ground

Old Town Rooftops

A view along the walls

Looking towards the Lighthouse

From Galle we had a twisting route to our lunch stop with the Classic Car Club of Sri Lanka at the home of Mr Akbar – and he has a Lotus Esprit Turbo in his collection (but tucked away in a gallery of red cars at the end against a wall) – I didn’t count the number of cars in his collection but there were lots of them and all are on-the-road. The setting was fantastic with a wide spread of lawn flanked by collectible cars and the ocean behind. Te meal was excellent and far exceeding our ability to consume it!

Amongst the palm trees

Popular beach?

Car Club Members cars

Lunch Stop

After lunch a police escorted convoy took us to our Colombo hotel, where we parked up and the car’s journey was at an end. For us there was a little bit of war-time research to follow up. Our route had lead us to an area on a wartime map and Information for Visiting Troops, issued by the Troops Entertainment Committee. It marked hotels, shops, information centres and the Canteen. Some street names have changed but Lotus Road is still there

No other roads required

. We wandered the near deserted roads by the old port area, dereliction being the main feature, even though it was quite close to the Presidential Palace – the scene of mass protests just a few months earlier.

Magnificent Cargills Store

GOH – Grand Oriental Hotel

. Ending at the GOH, we found the Tap Room in the basement and drank a toast to Allison’s father – did he drink here 80 years ago? In all probability yes. Then a tuk-tuk back to our hotel on the Promenade where next week will host Independence Day celebrations and even now people were congregating. All that remained was to remember that the car radiator was full of water only after its repair and to add some anti-freeze just in case it got cold on the journey home.

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