The Jungle Trails Of Sri Lanka - An Untapped Riding Paradise
Phi Evans (Yak Attack) / 26.06.2014
I first visited Sri Lanka way back in 2006 as a backpacking tourist, at which time, the country was recovering from the 2004 tsunami and still caught in the grips of a civil war that had started in 1983 and continued sporadically until 2009.
At that time, large parts of the island, including all of the north and most of the east, were out of bounds or just too dangerous for tourists to visit, so travelling was confined to the west, south coast and the central highlands. To compound Sri Lanka's woes, the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami had devastated large sections of the south coast and tourism was at an all time low.
The upside for us was that we practically had the island to ourselves and were warmly welcomed throughout our entire 18 day trip by a nation of proud and patriotic Sri Lankans.
Despite the travel restrictions, we were able to see a wide variety of the diverse landscape this tropical paradise has to offer during our stay, from the cultural centre of Kandy with its Temple of the Tooth, to the cloud and mist shrouded central highlands, to the glorious palm fringed white sandy beaches of the south coast. Sri Lanka made a distinct impression on us with its breath taking scenery, easy pace of life and passionately friendly inhabitants and we vowed one day to return.
Fast forward 7 years and I was delighted to receive an email from Sri Lanka Airlines inviting the YakAttack team over with a view to ascertaining the viability of hosting an international mountain bike race there. The civil war had ended in 2009, it was now safe to travel island wide and the whole of Sri Lanka wanted to highlight their amazing homeland to the rest of the world.
Our first reconnaissance took us to Sri Lanka in November 2013. The guys at the airline and LSR (Sri Lanka’s biggest adventure tour company, who also organise the Colombo marathon) were keen to show us the parts of the island that were out of bounds during the conflict era and so, 24 hours after landing, we were in an air conditioned mini bus bound for Jaffna, 400km north of Colombo, the country’s capital city.
There has been a massive amount of investment in the island’s infrastructure of late and the road taking us north was a rolling carpet of smooth tarmac that eventually transformed into a very flat, very straight and very hot highway, all the way to the very northern tip of the island. Not ideal mountain biking terrain but, with minimal traffic, it would make a great touring route, plus it was enlightening to see the once strong hold of the Tamil Tigers now at peace and everyday life going on at a laid back pace.
From here, our journey doubled back and headed south, down the east coast, which had also been closed to tourists until recently. Rolling hills, golden sandy windswept beaches and some of Sri Lanka’s best diving lay ahead of us but we were still finding it hard to find any decent mountain bike trails, such had been the push to improve the road surfaces.
During this trip we covered over 2000km, mostly in a vehicle, but sometimes by bike, traversing the island from North to South and East to West, enthralled by the amazing diversity that lay around each corner. It wasn't until the last few days however, as we drew close to the foot of the central highlands, that I could get really enthusiastic about the prospect of a world class mountain bike race taking place.
To be fair, mountain biking is a very new concept in Sri Lanka, it has a massive following of road bikers, but only a handful of “off roaders”. My guide, LH, was an avid roady and ex Sri Lanka road race national champion; he didn’t have much concept of what we were looking for and, at first, seemed rather perplexed when I finally discovered some ideal trails, cutting through the virgin jungle to the south east of the island. At each rocky section or river crossing we encountered, he would glance at me with a look to say “Are you sure” but by the end of the day my exhilaration had rubbed off on him and, he'd not only discovered what makes a great off road trail, he was actually having a great time riding it!
Unfortunately, my time in Sri Lanka had come to an end, just as I had discovered the best trails (from a mountain bikers perspective) and we had to return to Colombo and all the city entrapments of 5* hotels, international restaurants and shopping arcades.
I returned 3 months later with a distinct game plan; to find the best trails Sri Lanka has on offer and to put together the ultimate mountain bike adventure race through the biggest variety of terrains we could cram into a 4 day race.
We immediately returned to the jungle trails we had discovered 3 months previous. LH now had a firm grip on what was needed. The reconnaissance operation was often slow and time consuming with frequent stops to enquire of directions from local villagers and jungle dwelling farmers, together with many dead ends, but each day we made progress and the plan was coming together. It was fun being out in the jungle, riding through uncharted terrain but it wasn't without its hardships.
Whilst at one of our many stops to ask for directions, the locals pointed at something on my neck, I reached back to feel what they were pointing at only to discover a large leech had attached itself to me. There was then much heated discussion as to whether it was a field or tree leech; I didn’t really care, I was just glad it had been spotted before it had drunk all of my blood! That same evening I had to remove a tick that had embedded itself into my inner thigh!
The days continued along the same vein, discovering trails taking us out of the jungle and climbing up through tea plantations onto the high mountain plains. Along the way, we encountered villagers with tales of wild elephants and even came across fresh elephant dung but never actually saw any of the magnificent creatures face to face! We did, however, encounter other, less scary, forms of wildlife, including junglefowl (the national bird of Sri Lanka), peacocks, water buffalo, monkeys and snakes but unfortunately no glimpses of one of the world’s rarest and elusive creatures, the Slender Loris, as we passed through the Horton Plains National Park.
The highest mountain in Sri Lanka, Pidurutalagala, is 2524m high and the trails climbing up to its flanks from close to sea level can be extremely steep. Each day’s exploration entailed covering around 80 – 100km of trail, which invariably meant there would also be around 2000m of ascent involved. This, coupled with the heat and humidity, left us both physically exhausted at the end of each day but thankfully there was always a cold Lion beer close to hand to alleviate the aches and pains!
After 2 weeks we had the route - and it’s an epic one. Virgin jungle, river crossings, steep ascents on rocky mountain trails, bone clattering descents dropping 1200m in 15km, and much much more.
Sri Lanka Airlines immediately came on board as title sponsors, offering discounted flights to all participants and accompanying friends and family, keen to promote their beautiful island and highlight its amazing potential as an adventure seeker’s paradise.
With the YakAttack team’s wealth of experience garnered during the 8 years of organising the World’s highest mountain bike race, Yak Attack, in Nepal, coupled with such an adventurous course and a prize purse of over $20,000, it wasn't going to be long before this race attracted the attention of some big name riders.
Already enrolled on “Rumble in the Jungle” are Topeak Ergon riders, Yuki Ikeda and Sonya Looney, Team Kona rider, Cory Wallace and 4 times Yak Attack winner and Nepal National Champion, Ajay Pandit Chhetri, along with many other riders merely looking for the ultimate jungle challenge.
The race closes with an almighty beach party at the coastal resort of Negombo, from where participants can either immediately return home via the international airport at Colombo or continue on to enjoy one of the many varied activities on offer on the island, from relaxing on a palm fringed beach, to white water rafting to windsurfing or scuba diving.
Either way, what better way to end the 2014 race season?
Full details of the Rumble in the Jungle can be found on the Yak Attack World Challenge series website – www.theyakattack.com