INTRO – After spending six years bringing him up in a Land Rover travelling around Asia and Africa, Miguel Willis's parents settled on living in Oman in the Middle-East when he was nine-years-old. In this, his third column, Miguel is once again on the road less-travelled in Sri Lanka
The squeal of brakes and blaring horns filled the air. The truck we were passing on a blind corner wasn’t going to brake and the oncoming tractor had nowhere else to go. As our bus went into a full skid on the wet road I hoped this wasn’t going to be the end of our trip which had barely begun.
We had arrived earlier that day to the chaos of the Colombo rush hour and were taking a bus north to the town of Kalpitiya. The northeast monsoon had just started and we hoped that the accompanying winds would push around the north of the island and hit a strip of land jutting out from the mainland. It’d been almost ten years since I’d last been in Sri Lanka and it seemed that little had changed. There were a few more mobile phones and the cars were a bit newer but the relaxed attitude and smiling faces were still there. I was travelling with Kris Kinn and Tom Ring, two kiters, who were joining me for a month’s kiting and now sat wide-eyed as we slid towards disaster.
At the last minute our driver swung the bus back on to our side of the road; glass shattered and metal buckled as we didn’t quite make it. Luckily it was only a broken mirror and some superficial bodywork, and few of the other passengers took any notice. To try and take my mind off our psychopathic driver I chatted to the man sitting next to me. Sri Lanka has a variety of religions, including Buddhism, Christianity, Islam and cricket. Our main topic of conversation was that week’s test match which England had lost to Sri Lanka. Although my neighbour claimed to know nothing about the game he was soon rattling off obscure players and match results from the 1970s whilst I nodded my head and tried to look like I knew who or what he was talking about.
It was the dead of night when the bus pulled into Kalpitiya, and we headed for a local rest house. It had a run down, faded air about it and the stained bed sheets matched the walls. Starving from having travelled all day, we immediately headed to a restaurant and ordered curry and rice. Even though we asked for “not hot”, the first bite of the bright yellow curry was accompanied by the crunch of chillies and a burning sensation. Sri Lankans like their food hot and I guess “not hot” meant only one handful of chillies in the curry. However it was a delicious meal, if a bit of a minefield. With mouths on fire, we returned to our room to be bombarded by swarms of mosquitoes. Within half an hour we had killed over thirty, at which point we admitted defeat. We barricaded ourselves in behind mosquito nets, lathered in insect repellent and popping malaria tablets.
The next morning we asked around to find a place where we could ride. Using simple English, and drawing pictures in the sand, we tried to describe a long beach exposed to the wind, and it wasn’t long before half the village had joined the discussion. Soon we were bouncing along mud tracks through palm tree groves on a couple of three-wheelers called tuk-tuks, our bulging board bags making them so top-heavy that they threatened to tip over. After checking out a few unsuitable beaches we found what we were looking for; a long sandbar, with the sea and small waves on one side and a sheltered lagoon on the other. The wind was blowing directly cross shore so you could ride on either side. Apart from a few local fishermen on rafts made of palm tree logs lashed together we had the place to ourselves.
My first tack on the lagoon wasn’t too successful. There was so much sea grass growing in the water I was soon crawling along, with trails of greenery wrapped around my fins. Dropping a kite here would have been a nightmare so I headed back to shore. Further upwind there were no weeds and it wasn’t long before the three of us were shooting back and forth across the lagoon. As the sandbar was only thirty feet wide it was easy enough to cross over for a session on the small kickers in the sea. The water was so warm we were able to ride in t-shirt and boardshorts, although we made sure we were well covered with sun cream to keep off the intense sun.
At the end of the lagoon was a village that we decided would be an ideal place to base ourselves for the next couple of weeks, rather than have to face the long tuk-tuk drive every morning and the filthy rest house. It was a tiny place where a few fishermen sat around repairing their nets, cows and pigs dozed by dirt tracks and local kids played cricket in the dust. Unfortunately they didn’t have any shops or restaurants and certainly no hotels. However a friend of a friend of our tuk-tuk driver had a house he was willing to rent out. It was pretty basic accommodation; we had to draw water from a well and cook over a wood fire, but it was ideal for us. Visiting the scorpion-infested outhouse in the middle of the night was an adventure in itself.
The arrival of three tourists in a remote village that saw few outsiders created some interest, and to our relief everyone was very friendly and helpful. Each day we would trudge up the sandbar for twenty minutes carrying all our equipment so we were grateful when a couple of fishermen offered us a lift in their fishing boat one morning. They didn’t speak any English but smiled and chatted away to us in Singhalese. Indicating where we would like to be dropped off they swung the boat towards the beach and gunned it at full speed. Sure that we were about to crash we gripped the side of the boat and braced ourselves. Laughing at our panic the fishermen gave it one last burst of speed, lifted the outboard engine at the last minute and slid twenty feet up the beach with practised ease.
It was windy from the moment we woke up in the morning to sunset, and we rode on either 11 or 13 metre kites every day. The flat lagoon was ideal for freestyle, but after two weeks had passed we decided to take the train south to a town called Tangalle to look for some waves.
The train was a far more enjoyable way to travel compared to the bus. Our carriage was a bustling world of its own, with charming ticket inspectors, beggars and musicians, and vendors balancing trays piled high with deep-fried chillies, prawns and coconuts. For a couple of dollars we were travelling almost the entire length of the country, although, at an average speed of 30 kilometres an hour it took a while.
On our first morning in Tangalle the wind was light but looked promising so we pumped our kites and waited... and waited. Two weeks later we were still waiting. The wind that we’d seen forecast for this area had disappeared as soon as we arrived and so we spent our time surfing and constantly checking weather reports for the non-existent wind. The locals assured us that this time of year was usually windy, so I guess we were unlucky.
Instead of kiting we now had time to explore, and it was evident how hard this area had been hit by the 2004 tsunami. Many houses that had been half-flattened were still abandoned, and crushed railway carriages and boats lay overgrown. Most of the people I spoke to explained that although it was a devastating event, it was an act of nature and so was understandable to a certain extent. What they found harder to accept was the political violence involving the Tamil Tigers that has killed so many, kept tourists away and hampered the country’s development. A couple of hours after we had passed through Colombo a suicide bomb went off there, killing eighteen people - an event which, sadly, is all too common here.
After two weeks of no kiting we were starting to get desperate. Our last chance was a storm that was forecast to hit the west coast so we headed to Hikkaduwa, a town that looked like it would pick up the most wind and waves. It is more known for its surfing but we scored some good conditions, with cross-onshore winds that built throughout the day, and waves with six to eight foot faces. We rode a reef break that started to suck dry at low tide on the inside, so you needed to make sure that you got off the wave before you lost your fins. The water was incredibly clear and full of wildlife, and it was great sharing a couple of waves with turtles, though Kris wasn’t too enthusiastic about the dozen or so urchin spines embedded in her foot following a close encounter with the reef. It was also one of the few places where local surfers welcomed kiters riding waves.
Although we didn’t have the most consistent conditions during our stay in Sri Lanka, we all had such an enjoyable trip that we have already planned our return. The country has so much to offer the travelling kiter with some great riding, warm-hearted people, beautiful countryside and a rich culture. For our next visit we’re looking at going to the east side of the island, where fingers crossed we’ll again find that elusive combination of strong wind and good waves.
This column is in issue #32