Last week, armed with little more than a spare change of clothes and a toothbrush, my Italian friend, Luca, and I decided to take on the epic 318km drive from Hikkaduwa in the South coast, to Arugam Bay on the East. We had been told that there was going to be a huge party on the beach in Arugam Bay, but neither of us were willing to sit on a bus for 9 hours to get there. I had rented out a scooter to use for the month in Hikkaduwa, and keen not to let my money go to waste, I proposed the idea of taking a road trip.
“You want to drive there on this little thing?” Luca said with an eyebrow raised. “We need a motorbike if we want to make it there in time for the party.”
My all-white scooter, aptly nicknamed ‘Ghost’ certainly didn’t look like she was up to the task. Only last week someone tried to break off her right wingmirror, and it now hung awkwardly to the side. At only 100cc and with the both of us riding her, we thought there was no way we were going to be able to drive much more than 65km an hour. But with a little persuasion my friend caved in to the idea, on the promise that we would make an overnight stop in Tangalle on the far South Coast, and possibly leave the scooter there to take a bus if things weren’t working out too well.
We got up early in the morning, filled Ghost up with a full tank of fuel for just 500 rupees ($5) and headed off. The road from Hikkaduwa to Tangalle runs alongside the coast, and is also the main road leading from the capital into the South. Because of this the road is full of traffic, with careless buses weaving around tuk tuks, cars, and motorbikes at breakneck speeds. Despite the chaos of the road, however, the 96km drive is a beautiful one. The jagged coastline running alongside the road offers glimpses of wilting palm trees, powder-white beaches, and moonstone-tinted sea. The salty wind blowing in on the surf makes the heat of the day much more manageable, and since it is just one straight road the entire way there, navigating is child’s play.
We reached Tangalle in just 2 hours and a half, much quicker than it would have taken by bus, and so we decided to rest for the night and continue on with Ghost in the morning. Tangalle was the perfect place to stop, with isolated beaches and quaint sea-facing cabanas making up almost the entirety of the town. Having never been so far South in Sri Lanka, I was impressed by the beauty of the coastline at this point.
In the morning we set off again with a plan to drive towards Tissa and then head inland and back out again to reach Arugam Bay since the road was much better there. However, weather was against us and just 10 minutes into the drive, it began to rain. Our progress from Tangalle to Tissa was extremely slow, as we seemed to simply be following the rain clouds, and had to make several stops. When we eventually arrived in Tissa after a three hour drive, the sun came back out just in time for us to enjoy the beautiful surroundings. Tissa is right on the edge of Yala National Park in what is known as the ‘deep South’ of Sri Lanka. It has a giant lake at the centre of it, where tropical birds come to fish, and monkeys dangle from the trees. I would have liked to have stayed and explored for longer, but we were keen to make the most of the good weather and continue with our drive.
The next part of the drive was easily the best. We headed away from the coast inland towards Yala National Park, where the road stretched out endlessly with not another vehicle in sight, and the parched dry grasslands around us were filled with all kinds of interesting wildlife. The rain seemed long-forgotten as we made our way around the outskirts of the park, where clouds of butterflies fluttered on the gentle breeze, and waterbuffalo grazed in the fields or lounged in murky waters. The only person we spotted was a monk taking a stroll around the entrance to the park, his saffron robes blazing in the sunshine.
After about an hour of driving we came across a very interesting warning sign….
I had heard that it was possible to spot wild elephants along this part of the road, but I didn’t want to get my hopes up. Only moments later, however, we came to a stop. There was a giant elephant blocking the road! We weren’t sure whether it would be safe to pass it so we waited and took a few photos. Eventually a car came along and appeased the elephant with some bananas and we were able to drive off whilst it was being distracted.
Just after Yala we hit the rains again, and a Sri Lankan family waved us off the road and invited us into their house to drink some tea and wait for the rain to finish. Sadly the weather did not seem to be letting up, so we stayed for the night in the nearest city – Buttala -which had a reasonable hotel with cheap rooms. In the morning we set off again, with just a two hour drive left to Arugam Bay. This part of the drive was stunning, with large areas of forest lining the roads, cooler air, and a constant backdrop of mountainous peaks that make up the highland area of Sri Lanka.
We arrived in Arugam Bay in time for the party, and it was great to have Ghost there as we were able to explore the surrounding areas of the town. Just nearby is a place called Panama, where red brick roads and rolling plains filled with grazing cattle make up the extent of the landscape.
The drive back to Hikkaduwa was much faster, as luckily the weather had completely cleared up and we were able to reach Tangalle in just 4 hours. The drive back was just as enjoyable as the one there, and we even saw another wild elephant as we passed Yala.
Being so small, Sri Lanka is the perfect place to do a road trip, and it offers a new and exciting way to see this country. Now that I’m back, I’m already planning my next trip!