When we woke this morning we knew we had to change accommodation, we were told when we checked in that a large group of 60 had booked all the rooms where we were staying. Our loose plan was to move to one of the many other places in close proximity then hire a motorbike to explore the area around Jaffna, such as the small islands and Point Pedro – the most northern part of Sri Lanka. After stepping out of our room we were met with a heavy, dark grey sky that didn’t look promising for the days weather. We headed out early to have a tasty breakfast of daal, paratharas and the ridiculously sweet drink they like to call tea here, barely fifteen minutes later it was chucking it down and didn’t look like it was going to let up any time soon. By nine we were being politely ushered out, we packed and donned our jackets while deciding what to do. It really wasn’t a day to be driving around and there wasn’t much else to do in Jaffna so we decided it was probably best just to start heading south. Yesterday we were highly disappointed to find that we couldn’t take our bikes on the train from this part of the country. It has been a huge slog making it up here and we always intended to take the train south to save some time and avoid cycling the way we had come. The Colombo/Jaffna railway has only just reopened after being destroyed in the war so we thought it would be no problem. Bikes are considered as goods to be transported so we can only take a train with a goods carriage, due to increased security and potential continued issues the trains from the north of the country do not accept cargo and do not have a goods wagon. We were told it would be possible on one train, the night mail train and only from a station 7km from the centre. We decided to head there to find out how much it would cost and what the times were.
After cycling along the main road in the pouring rain we found the station and enquired with the station master. Furious button slapping on the calculator gave us a cost (presumably elaborately made up) and we found out the times which were not great. We sat outside the shiny new station deciding what the hell we were going to do… the night train left at 19.30 but would arrive at where we wanted to go at 00.30. It was 10.30 so we would have had to find something to do all day, with no coffee shops or ‘sights’ to see our options were limited. Cycling on would mean two or three days south along a road that we knew wouldn’t be very interesting… a long flat, straight road that is also the new north south highway. It took us ages to make a decision, but we decided to cycle for 70km to the next major town and if we wanted to get the train we could catch it from there, if we didn’t then we could stay there and continue the next day.
The road was dull and flat as expected but fortunately there was a wide hard shoulder to keep us safe from the many buses speeding past with their horns blaring. Again the landscape was the low tropical scrub wetland interspaced with palm trees that offers little eye candy and has been familiar over the last week or so. We made fairly swift progress without the wind in our face as it has been over the last week passing through a landscape mainly cleared of human presence. What was once the heartland of Tamil Sri Lanka is now mainly vegetation – closer inspection reveals the overgrown foundations of many houses, their population now dispersed over other areas in Sri Lanka or as diaspora across the world. We stopped for a vegetable rice curry in a small open sided bamboo canteen, the staff all captivated by the England/Sri Lanka cricket game being played. Our food was very tasty but we were there just at the right time to watch the tail end of the England batting squad collapse – 2-0 to Sri Lanka now.
Jaffna is practically on a large island situated at the top of Sri Lanka, branching off from this is a series of smaller islands and sandbars that curl towards India, just 30km away. There are a number of causeways connecting the Jaffna peninsula to the rest of Sri Lanka, the shortest and route we took today is Elephant Pass. Back in the day when elephants were a fearsome weapon of war in south Asia, Sri Lanka had a roaring trade in the beasts with India’s southern states. Captured in SL’s south, they were transported north and made the crossing to India over the Jaffna peninsular, having to pass ‘Elephant Pass’ on the way. During the war it was one of the most fought after areas, even now there are many trees snapped in half and large areas marked off due to UXO and mines. After stopping to take a photo of a very colourful bird (Indian Roller) sat on a mine warning sign a bunch of guys popped up from behind a bush 50 meters away in full mine clearing gear. Although they asked us to move on, they were also all taking pictures of us with their phones and gave us a big cheerful wave and hello. We’ve been through a few countries now where mines have been prevalent and its depressing to see such large areas of land rendered useless because of them. The signs poking ominously from behind vegetation prevent people from returning to their land and must be miserable to live with. They stretched for many KMs along the main road as we approached the causeway, people living amongst them with small marked out pathways to their property and land – shacks made from corrugated metal and NGO food sacks.
Kilnochi was one of the last towns to be liberated and as such not much remains. New buildings sand with lots of space around them, the road network seems to be barren of anything around it. Towards the end of the war the tigers destroyed a water tower which is still lying down as a reminder of the war. We peered at it from behind the fence when the soldiers guarding it invited us in to have a look around, it wasn’t particularly comfortable as they asked for our cameras and insisted we stood inside for a nice smiley photo. For the rest of the evening we didn’t do much, we found a nice new hotel to stay in and feasted on good food before turning in.