Streaks of lighting whipped the dense canopy around us as ear piercing thunder crashed simultaneously. Counting the seconds, the comfort I’d taken as a child, was pointless. We were in a tree house (the tallest for miles) in the middle of Sri Lanka, with nothing between us and tropical anger but a highly conductive tin roof. Apparently, I was whimpering, or so my partner waxes lyrical.

Self-drive Sri Lanka; google maps, a lot of luck, and a few sessions of relationship counselling.

We had already covered 800km of a 1500km journey. Each morning we’d scuffle through a crumpled wallet of printed maps and embark on the next leg of our drive and subsequent navigational bickering.  Having ignored all advice about driving in Sri Lanka (most hire a car and driver), we’d hike giant rocks, sample tea in colonial trophy towns, spot wild Leopards and play birthing partner to a Leatherback Turtle – all whilst enjoying the incomparable freedom of the open road, beautiful hotels, and a memorable night in a tree.

Lost

Sri Lanka is a small country, perfect for self-driving. Twenty-five years of civil war has seemingly left no scars; its people warm, welcoming, and always happy to point you in the right direction. Distances between major destinations are manageable, though venturing onto the ‘white roads’ on the map, I had a distinct feeling of being lost.

After a detour to the Pinwala Elephant Sanctuary, the seemingly best-reviewed ele-experience in the country, we head north along jungle back-streets.

As a general rule, we found that allowing three times the amount of time recommended was much more of an accurate estimate. Uneven roads that flect at every opportunity are more suited to the family of six on a moped than a dishevelled hire car, making for an enjoyable, but laborious drive. Travelling with plenty of light to spare gave the chance to experience being completely lost – an enjoyable experience, full tank of fuel permitting.

Sri Lanka Sigirya Rock

Top of the Rock

Not quite as tall, but much more impressive, Sri Lanka’s New York equivalent is the graceful cake topper of the country’s pinnacle. Almost 200 metres high Sigiriya, the Lion Rock, has historically been a symbol of power, dominance, and ultimate man cave. King Kasyapa, who ruled between 477 and 495AD, is described as ‘troubled but visionary’. Keep reading and you’ll realise that the man was an absolute lunatic – fleeing his former capital and empire after being cast out by his people, finding the largest rock he could and setting up camp – before painting the sides with ‘naked nymphs’… as you do.

Despite its more egotistical past, Sigiriya has always had a spiritual importance. Clambering up 1,200 steps, precariously sown into the rock parallel to the light indentations formally used to reach the summit, it was the day of the full moon. We traversed along the steel stairways side-by-side with local Buddhists taking their monthly pilgrimage, embarking on a different cause but one equally inspiring.

Teetering on the lawns of the old empire we gazed at a broccoli like canopy top sweeping to the horizon in every direction. Comparable to perhaps the rainforests of the Amazon, the view was tireless and mesmerizing. (Accommodation near Sigirya>)

Journeying to South Sri Lanka

Coined the ‘City of Light’ Nuwara Eliya is a typical colonial masterpiece. Tudor style houses line the streets behind rows of equally spaced trees, and entrances to parks with swans and ducks sit on every roundabout. Roundabouts along with pelican crossings, in fact, simply exist.

Surrounding this small town are thousands of acres of tea estates. Ripe green bushes leap from the orange clay and roll with every undulation of the mountain side. At almost 2000 metres above sea level, a duvet of cloud regularly dampens the air, with mini rainbows appearing sporadically as piercing sunlight quickly dries each drenching – the perfect environment for tea.

1468521_10151912732065194_1459188088_nDespite our delightful hotel, [eafl id=”1702″ name=”Unique Cottages Sri Lanka” text=”Unique Cottages”] , lacking an alcohol licence our stay was rather pleasant. At the centre of the town a large indoor market brings you back to Sri Lankan daily life, and if that’s too cultural, The Hill Club provides the perfect black tie evening with a six-course meal and optional cigars – you can even hire a suit if you haven’t come fully equipped.

Most spectacular was the drive there. Over the space of a day our little car climbed over 1500 metres. As the altitude increased, the landscape vastly changed; dry flat plains transformed into dense, voluptuous pine forests and higher up, majestic mountain summits became wrapped in lushes plantations – each with their own wooden sign stating its owner . No kilometre was complete without at least a dozen kinks in the road, doubling back on itself as it wiggled up to Sri Lanka’s tea bag summit.

Nuwara Eliya sceneryA night in a tree

I think it was around 8pm that the lights went out. Our £30 a night tree-house, in the south of the country by Yala National Park, was fully equipped with en-suite and balcony. A double bed, fresh fluffy sheets, the most mesmerizing view of the reserve and even a biscuit awaited. We still weren’t roughing it, but power was one thing it struggled to retain.

A brawl of dogs, cats and chickens ruffled around our legs as we struggled to fork our grilled chicken and risotto in the lightless evening. 10 minutes passed. Eventually, a small birthday candle hovered its way over to our table and illuminated our cold food.

Cracks of thunder could be heard in the distance – the beast that had taken out our power. By 10pm we’d given up on cards and opted for an early night ahead of our safari and dawn pick-up. A few hours later and that was apparently when my whimpering started – ending only when we sought the sanctuary of the car.

THe view from our tree house near Yala National Park.

It was my partner’s first safari experience, and I was apprehensive. Six months earlier I’d jeeped around Malawi, jumping in and out of safari parks and reserves – a very different experience to anywhere else. Sadly, the experience here is far from exceptional. At one point, 40 jeeps chased after an elusive leopard tail, and a defeated bull elephant smiled for the camera. Overtiredness didn’t help, but still – comparable to everything else we had experienced on this adventure it was pretty forgettable.

Squeeze my flipper

Our final stop before heading to the beach resort of Unawatuna (where the story gets boring as I mainly vegetated on the beach) was a small pocket of golden sand around 5km East of Tangalle. We’d heard this was the place to see turtles, so hurtled into a tuk-tuk and clung on as we head east. The tuk-tuk driver knew where he was going!

Paying a nominal entry price we were quietly hustled down onto the sands with strict instructions to be quiet. Red head-lights sparkled off the sea as we scouted the area before we turned a slight bend in the shore only to see a MASSIVE Green Turtle laying eggs in the sand. This was a conversation project so pictures, loud noises or generally getting too close were completely disallowed. And, actually, I felt like there was respect there – this wasn’t a tourist attraction, and more a way of raising a little extra cash to support a good cause.

These creatures are absolutely massive and a fascinating animal to see in person. I would highly recommend you include turtles in your trip to Sir Lanka. Well worth a visit!


Sri Lankan UnawatunaSo it was off to the beach and the beginnings of the end of my time in Sri Lanka. What a fantastic trip though! Many say don’t drive, but I wouldn’t have enjoyed this experience half as much if I’d been hurtle along in an air-conditioned bus full of tourists in caramel flavoured shorts.

Sure, self-driving in Sri Lanka isn’t for everyone but consider it. And, if you decide against it then be sure to get your own driver and car – it’s the next best thing!


My Sri Lanka Resources

Accommodation

Kandy: With such a fleeting visit to Kandy / more of a stopover, I needed somewhere pretty cheap. I stayed in the [eafl id=”1703″ name=”Hotel Thilanka Sri Lanka” text=”Hotel Thilanka”] . I thought the restaurant was a little westernised, and the monkey poo was a little unpleasant, but the views over the lake were great – and so was the price!

Sigiriya: I actually booked accommodation whilst visiting Sigiriya Rock through [eafl id=”1635″ name=”Booking.com Genera;” text=”booking.com”] , however, having looked back it seems to have been removed. I stayed at a place around 2 miles from the Rocky called Elephas Resort – beautiful swimming pool, nice and peaceful, and a great restaurant. It was also pretty price conscious. You can book directly through their website I believe: www.elephassigiriya.com

Nuwara Eliya: I stayed at [eafl id=”1702″ name=”Unique Cottages Sri Lanka” text=”Unique Cottages”] in Nuwara Eliya. A beautiful Tudor style building with lovely decorated rooms. It was right in the centre. A little higher priced than the average in the area but worth a stay. They also lend free bikes for guests! Note they do not serve alcohol!

Unawatuna: I cannot more highly recommend the [eafl id=”1704″ name=”French Lotus Sri Lanka” text=”French Lotus Hotel”] in Unawatuna if you’re looking for a beach break at the end of your time in Sri Lanka. Whilst there the guest house was being run by a beautiful French couple – always more than happy to go the extra mile. Breakfast was a true delight. A particular memory being the freshly made jam concoctions such as mango and kiwi!

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