Walking the length of Sri Lanka (part 2)
From Kandy to the south coast, the second section of my slow adventure walking Sri Lanka
“You must visit the mountains, they are gorgeous and not to be missed”, that’s what everybody kept telling but my answer to this was: “I’m sure they are but you were on a train and I’m walking and that’s about 2000m to climb!”Once in Kandy, it was time to decide which route I was going to follow for the next section of my trip as I had 2 options available: head West towards Colombo and follow the coast all the way to the south or go straight over the mountains and then down to the ocean.
The original plan was to take the first option which on paper looked like the safer and easier one; the downside of it was that it didn’t really look very interesting and it involved navigating my way around Colombo and its traffic (and I was really dreading this idea). After spending a few hours with a map, looking at all the different options and evaluating all the things that could have potentially killed me on the mountains (including elephants, tigers and leopards), I came to the conclusion that, if I was to take to coastal route, I would have regretted that decision and that spirit of this trip was not about taking the easier way but to give myself a challenge. So, the morning after, I headed in the direction of the highlands: after all, the odds of being attacked by a tiger were pretty low and, if that was to happen, it would have made a really good story to tell after!
I’m really happy that I followed that advice (and that I didn’t get attacked by a tiger) because those 4 days on the highlands were by far the highlight of my trip. Cool weather, no mosquitos, tea plantations, silence and stunning views: that’s how I would describe the central region of Sri Lanka. The added value for me was that I was going through villages where no tourist ever stops: my presence raised a few eyebrows when people saw me walking on those hills, been offered several lifts, refusing them and not using a bus like everybody else. I honestly lost count of the number of people that stopped offering me a lift in their car, truck or tuk tuk, all of them genuinely wanting to help and not asking for any money in return...I have to admit it was very tempting at times but I was determined to walk, so I kindly refused all the offers, although I’m pretty sure not many people understood why I wanted to walk instead of going by car!
Sri Lanka is also famous because it offers some of the most stunning train journeys in the world so I decided to experience them in my own way. It is a pretty common sight there to see people walking on the railway line so I decided that, if it was safe for the locals, it would have been safe enough for me to do the same and that’s how I spent my second day off...it turned out not to be much of a rest day considering I ended up walking about 15 km along the railway but it was definitely a fun way to spend the day!
Having passed the mountains, my mind was now in “countdown mode” as the hardest part was done and I was only a few days away from reaching the south coast. Little I knew that I was heading against a brick wall and the 2 hardest days of my walk!
Maybe because my brain realized that I was close to the end of the journey and therefore it allowed my body to start feeling tired or maybe the fact that I was back in the scorching heat or (more than likely) a combination of all the above, but day 18 and 19 were pretty miserable! Especially the day from Thamanalwila to Hambantota was by far the lowest point of the entire trip: in a small scale it felt like walking in a desert: no trees, no people or villages around and the only company was provided by a few dogs that were also so exhausted by the heat that didn’t even bother barking at me! In addition to this, no villages also meant no food and I had to resource to an emergency packet of crackers that I was kindly donated a few days earlier in a monastery.
Has anybody heard of the “crackers challenge”?? It involves eating 6 crackers in 1 minute without drinking: pretty easy, right? In case you don’t know, crackers are not only pretty much tasteless but are possibly the driest food in the world! Try having those for lunch when it’s about 35 degrees...not a pleasant experience, trust me!
I had finally found a shop with cold drinks but, when I got up, my head was spinning as I started to have cold sweats... as I sat down again, for the first time since the start of the walk, I seriously considered getting on a taxi to the nearest town. After taking a prolonged rest, I managed to trick my brain by telling myself that I would have walked just one more kilometer and then, if I was still feeling that bad, I would have got in a car. Reaching Hambantota was quite a milestone for me as it was the first town on the south coast: although it was not the end point, it meant I had actually walked north to south and that I could see the ocean again, 19 days after leaving it behind me in Point Pedro! Although it wasn’t the glorious entry in town that I had pictured in my mind, there was no way I was going to reach it on a bus! So I kept going and, very slowly, I reached my guesthouse just a few meters away from the ocean!
At that stage i was only about 70km away from the finish line (about 2 days) but, after only 16 km from where I started my penultimate day of walking, I found myself sitting in a restaurant, staring blankly at the wall in front of me. From previous experiences, I have learned the only way for me to get out of these moments is to isolate myself from the surroundings, stop thinking about what I am doing and take my mind to a different place. For me that translates into putting my headset on and listen to the loudest and fastest music I have with me! Once I was in my own little world, any negative thought was gone and I was full of energy once again!
From Tangalle to the lighthouse in Dondra Head (the official southernmost point in Sri Lanka), it was just a matter of hours now and it was a very pleasant walk, not only because of the sense of relief from having actually completed my challenge but also because it was genuinely a very nice stretch of road with great views over the ocean (despite the traffic).
Sri Lanka went definitely above my expectations, not only in terms of natural beauty of the place but above all because everybody made me feel extremely welcome: I definitely felt like, if anything was to go wrong, someone would have stepped in and help me out with whatever I needed. Having that sort of peace of mind definitely made a difference and allowed me to focus my energies on what really mattered and ignore any other potential worry.
If I was to compare this trip to the cycling one I took a couple of years ago I would say that mentally I felt much more relaxed this time: it’s maybe because I am a rubbish mechanic but the thought that my bike could potentially breakdown leaving me in the middle of nowhere made me feel always a bit nervous. This time instead I felt much more in control since, as longs as my legs allowed me to, there was really nothing that could have gone wrong and, if the worse was to come, getting on a bus would have been really straight forward. From the physical side of things, walking was probably harder because of the constant stress on feet and knees.
What I really enjoyed about walking was the simplicity of it: not only you don’t need any special skill (if we start walking when we are just older than 1 year, there is really no excuse here) but you also don't really need any expensive kit and this makes it accessible to any sort of budget. It is obviously a much slower way of moving (I would say that in 1 day of cycling i could cover pretty much the distance of 3 days of walking) but probably this same fact makes it somehow more rewarding: I could have cycled the length of Sri Lanka in less than a week and that would have not felt much of an achievement!