Welcome to this week’s Postcard From – the feature where I chat to some lucky explorer about their recent travels.
This week’s Postcard comes from Ian M Packham, the blogger behind Encircle Africa. A scientist, adventurer, writer, speaker, travel obsessive, public transport buff, and accidental photographer Ian was a runner-up in National Geographic Traveller (UK)’s travel writing competition in 2013.
A quest for challenge has taken Ian to the summit of Mount Kenya, and, by way of a PhD in Biomedical Sciences, the length of Hadrian’s Wall. He completed his circumnavigation of Africa by public transport – the first solo and unassisted journey of its kind – at the end of September 2012, and visited Sri Lanka in August 2014. You can follow Ian on Facebook and Twitter @ianmpackham.
Hi Ian! This is my first Postcard from Sri Lanka – tell us about your trip…
In August 2014 I travelled independently 200 miles across Sri Lanka from the capital, Colombo roughly north-east, following the route of the country’s longest river, the Mahaweli Ganga (Great Sandy River). I travelled on foot, by inflatable kayak, and by bus.
Following the river meant I saw parts of Sri Lanka rarely visited by tourists, as well as more popular sites such as the ancient capital of Kandy. I was immediately struck by the ease of travel in Sri Lanka – at least compared to Africa – as well as the vibrancy, the friendliness of locals, the beauty of the countryside, the colours, sounds (and diesel fumes).
Wow, this has got to be one of the most adventurous postcards I’ve ever had. Was the weather good for such active travel?
In August, pretty much the whole length of the river was dry and hot, though there wasn’t much humidity so the heat was easier to contend with my seeking out the shade. It was so dry the river often disappeared entirely, which is the reason a kayak trip became one with the need to travel by foot and bus too.
Where were you staying during the trip?
I stayed in a variety of places, but it became clear very quickly that the places to stay were those run by locals, where lodgings were simple and cheap, and good local cuisine available at really low cost. It also gave me a chance to talk as much as I was able with the locals milling around.
Sounds like a fantastic experience! Where were the best places you visited?
From Colombo and the international airport, I headed into the cooler climes of the hill country for the source of the Mahaweli and some walking, before heading into the tourist-free central plains. My favourite location was the East Coast city of Trincomalee. Given its history as a Tamil Tiger stronghold and the damage it received from the 26th December 2004 Tsunami, I was a little apprehensive about visiting but very glad I did. There are not a great number of landmarks and things to do or see, but it has a fantastically laid back atmosphere, and an amazing Indian Ocean location.
What was your highlight?
Sitting on the beach at Trincomalee watching a full moon rise over the ocean was particularly memorable. It was so unexpected I couldn’t even work out what it was at first!
How did you find the food in Sri Lanka?
The food was a mix of old British colonial influences (there is tea everywhere, as well as cake, and sausage rolls) and traditional Sinhala and Tamil curries. Often vegetarian, and made up with beans and lentils, the emphasis seemed to be on strong simple flavours, like dal made from stewed lentils flavoured with garam masala. For snacks there are ‘short bites’, samosas, chapatti rolls and the like. They are sold everywhere, are very cheap, and very tasty.
Were there any disasters during your trip?
I did fall backwards down one of the river’s rapids while on the kayaking part of the trip… It’s not necessarily the best idea!
Oops – glad you were ok! Do you have any tips for people headed to Sri Lanka?
Sri Lanka is a great place to visit. Everyone I’ve spoken to who has visited says the same. Despite its past the country is very easy for bureaucracy (visas and the like), so my tip would probably just be to go and see for yourself. And avoid falling down any rapids.
Travelling into non-tourist areas is often difficult – did you learn any of the local language?
I don’t recall speaking much Sinhala or Tamil. Part of that was because I didn’t want to offend either culture by speaking the wrong language, but it was mostly because almost everyone has a smattering of English, which makes travelling around very easy, and informative. Smiling and making eye contact seems to works very well in a situation where I don’t speak the language, which is basically everywhere.
And finally, my favourite new question: what were you reading on your trip?
I always like to read about where I’m travelling, but there aren’t a lot of books about Sri Lanka. The best of the bunch I read was Cherry Briggs’ The Teardrop Island, where the author loosely follows the tracks of a British explorer in the 1800s to investigate the island she’s living in, and The Village in the Jungle. It’s a fictional account by Leonard Woolf (Virginia Woolf’s husband) taught in every school in Sri Lanka about how colonialism affected the traditional communities of the country. It’s something of a Things Fall Apart for Sri Lanka.
NB – all images are owned by Ian M Packham.