Cycling over 100km any day is a big ask. We knew we had to do 118km today, there’s absolutely nowhere to stay or even wild camp between Mannar and Jaffna and so we would just have to push on. It’s a flat road, but things never go exactly as you want them to and our day began with heavy monsoon showers, we were cursed with a headwind all day and to finish it off, we had some pretty dug up roads where work is being done for the last 25km or so. But we did it. Needless to say there are aches and pains afterwards, but we managed.
Having set the alarm for half five, it felt like I had barely shut my eyes when it went off. Sam did the hard work, hopping out of bed and turning on the light so that we didn’t fall into that familiar, cosy snooze-sleep-snooze routine that I will happilly adhere to for an hour before I decide to get up. Breakfast consisted of some puri left over from last night’s feast and some stawberry flavoured melon jam (that doesn’t taste like strawberries), a couple of bananas and the necessary cup of coffee. It’s refreshing to have something for breakfast that isn’t heavily spiced, not tha I mind the spice, I just want something a litle bit more normal every once in a while!
As we cycled out of Mannar, the donkies were still at the roundabout, but had taken shelter under a tree in it’s centre because they were wise enough not to stay out in the open when the heavens are about to open. We’re not that wise, or rather, we don’t have that luxury. With close to 120km to cycle today, hiding from the monsoon downpours is not an option. Putting our heads down and getting on with things is the order of the day. We were crossing the causeway between Mannar and the mainlaind when the first drops fell, big plonky drops that make everything wet. Within minutes, there was rain dripping off the peak of my cap and down my face, even my hands started to go wrinkly. Yuck! After a good half hours heavy shower, the sky began to brighten, but in a trick of the light, the rain continued to fall in sheets while I simultaneously wondered if I should put some suncream on.
As the rain dwindled, we approached an army checkpoint. Despite having had to apply for permits to visit the Northern provinces, they haven’t been checked up to today. However, according to the guy running the guesthouse we stayed in, it is likely that they may be checked several times on the way to Jaffna. And he was right. The three bored looking guys at the checkpoint wave us to a halt and ask for passports and permits. A quick call is made and a young fella arrives up in a tracksuit looking as if he has just been for a run. All the other soldiers address him as ‘sir’ despite the fact that he looks about 12 and a half, so he must be the head honcho. As we wait for our details to be taken, and a call to be made to verify our permits, we are asked the usual questions about where we are going and where we are from. I takes almost 20 minutes for them to get through to an office somewhere to verify our permits are legit and all the time wasted gradually begins to grate on my nerves. But there’s little we can do about it, if we want to visit the north, we have to play by the rules! Eventually we got going again and although there was some monstrous looking clouds on the horizon, it stayed dry for anoher 15 minutes or so before we were subjected to our watery torture again.
After this next bout of rain, during which time we sailed through another checkpoint with no stop needed, the rain started looking like it might hold off for a while and it started getting pretty hot. Seems like today we have had both our hottest and wettest days cyclng in Sri Lanka. At this stage, we were both getting a bit peckish, and the short eats that we had stowed in our panniers for snacking on along the way had long run out and so we stopped at a small place at the side of the road. It didn’t look like it was any great shakes, but we’re in the sticks here so we figured it was best to buy a few bits. And so it came to be that we parted wih 120 ruppees in exchange for what may be the most vile snack to ever cross my lips. It was like a greasy bread with bits of burnt onion in it. They say hunger is a great sauce, well I mustn’t have been as hungry as I thought so, cos it tasted like ass.
Our day of cycling was flat as a pancake, and with the wind in our faces progress felt painfully slow. Although it has to be said, the howling wind and driving rain put me in mind of Galway, it’s nice to be reminded of home! We spent our time spotting birds but eventually even that lost it’s novelty and we put in some music to help pass the time. The flat scrubland stretches as far as the eye can see in all directions and there was very little all day to keep us visually stimulated. As we racked up the kilometres, our bums began to get sore, our shoulders tired and I wondered if we would make it before nightfall. We eventually came to the 10km causeway to take us across to Jaffna peninsula, but could only cross it after one last checkpoint that seemed to take forever as the soldier recorded our passport details painfully slowly. It was all I could do to stop myself snatching the pen from him and doing the paperwork myself. I wouldn’t mind, but it’s not like it’s ever going to be checked. Our details are scribbled in a copy book that will have disintegrated in the permeating damp by next week!
Once we had been cleared to carry on, the most excruciating ordeal of the day began. For 5km of the causeway there are roadworks, potholes everywhere, mud up to our ankles and the usual crazy driving we see all the time. In addition to this, we now had absolutely no shelter from the gale blowing off the sea. Our pace slowed to a snail like 7km an hour and we battled on, pedalling into the seemingly never ending construction site that was our route. And just like that, we came to the section they had finished. Not only that, but we changed direction and suddenly found ourselves zipping along in a way we had struggled to all day. It left us with little to do but put our heads down for the last 20km and find ourselves accommodation.
When we got to Jaffna, we headed for towards a couple of guesthouses, hoping that one of them would povide decent accommodation wihout breaking the bank. On arriving at the first, the gentleman there informed me that he would not lower his price as he could fill his rooms “when the next train comes in”, despite the fact that he was charging far too much money for pretty grotty rooms. This seems to be an attitude we see at many places that are featured in guide books, they have a captive audience, raise their prices but not their standards. Fortunately this wasn’t the case in the second place we tried, a big old colonial house, and we got ourselves settled in a massive room and even have some warm water!
In celebration of our long day, we decided a beer was in order and headed to a bar not far from our accommodation. The beer was great, the food they served there, decidedly less so! Thankfully, a few nippy sweeties will help me forget the most tasteless thing I have eaten in a long time. The guy serving us was amazingly friendly and told us that they have seen tourist numbers plummet in the last few months since getting a permit to visit the Northern Provinces has become obligatory. It seems the government are intent on putting as many obstacles as possible in the way of this area recovering from it’s difficult and violent past. Despite the fact that this permit appears to be in place in order to weed out journalists and their ilk visiting this area, the very idea of it conjurs up images of danger for a lot of tourists. It’s most definitely not the case, everyone here has been incredibly helpful and friendly, but for now, it seems many people have been discouraged from making the trip to this part of the island.
And so, i’s time for bed. It was a difficult day with some pretty adverse weather conditions but a rest day or two should see us ready to get back in the saddle again and hopefully we’ll see some elephants!