The peleton left the hotel at 5am from Arugam Bay in Sri Lanka. It was still dark. At 5:20 the blinking red lights on the bikes in front of me stopped suddenly. A wild elephant had been spotted on the road. We passed the herd later in a nearby paddy field. It was all part of Around the Pearl, cycling a lap of Sri Lanka to raise money to provide wheelchairs for children with Cerebral Palsy.
The ride is beautiful and brutal. Covering 1400 kilometres (900 miles) over ten days we experienced 40C temperatures (around 100F) and life threatening encounters with tuk tuks. The roads are remarkably good and the landscape is beautiful. We passed through lush green foliage, with the sapphire blue of the Indian Ocean twinkling through the trees. Wild elephants, peacocks and myriad birds kept us company. Someone spotted a sloth bear.
I rode part of the route exploring the east coast of the country, contested by terrorists for almost thirty years. Nine years after the civil war the area is peaceful and bucolic. The people welcomed us with the friendship and hospitality that Sri Lankans are famed for. Kids waved enthusiastically at the peloton, with wide beaming smiles, high fiving the riders. A group of girls in an open truck beckoned enticingly – causing several riders to forget their tired legs and set off in pursuit! My rental car driver took me home to meet his family over tea and rasa kavili (local sweets). Near Trincomallee, the world’s largest natural harbour, the navy took us under its wing, hosting breaks for the riders and even providing a make shift shower to cool us down!
Food was a highlight of the trip, with crab featuring regularly on the menu. Sri Lankan Lagoon or mud crab is highly sort after; its sweet white flesh works well in hot, spicy preparations. Flower or sea crab is also plentiful along the east coast. Once a sea crab sheds its exoskeleton it becomes a “soft shell” crab. It is delicious when grilled with a simple lemon butter accompaniment.
The emotional high of the trip was a visit to a Cerebral Palsy camp where the wheelchairs we helped purchase were donated to children. Many of the children had never been outside their homes, spending their lives on a mat on the floor. The sheer joy on their faces at the realisation of their new found mobility will remain an enduring memory. We all felt tears welling up inside.
Around the Pearl is a tough ride through searing, unrelenting heat. It challenged me both physically and mentally. But boy was it worth it to see the smiles on the kids’ faces!
Where to eat Sri Lankan crab
We had excellent crab at the Nilaveli Beach Hotel, a perennial favourite near Trincomallee. In Colombo, the Ministry of Crab, the brainchild of cricketers Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene, is reliable, and reassuringly expensive. A cheaper and more atmospheric experience is available at the Fat Crab. Located on Marine Drive, next to a knocking shop, the Fat Crab makes traditional Ceylon murunga crab curry, served with kadey paan, pol sambol and dhall (murunga is a local vegetable, sometimes called drumsticks. Kadey paan is a rough village bread, pol sambol is a coconut chilli sambol. Dhall is a mild lentil curry). Simply delicious!
For the curious, the knocking shop charges Rs 2500 an hour (about £11 or US $15). I suspect you get what you pay for, but am unable to comment further.