Sri Lanka’s 25 year-long civil war officially ended in May, 2009. However, it took years to rid the country of over 1.6 million landmines and rebuild the war-torn infrastructure. Now that Northern Sri Lanka, formerly occupied by the Tamil Tiger insurgency, is considered safe to visit, it’s a great time to take advantage of the many newly rebuilt roads with Sri Lanka’s Tip to Tip by Road Bike.
The flat expanses of Northern Sri Lana make for a great start to the tour- especially with the mountains looming ahead in the center of the country. The region is also dotted with wetlands, a perfect breeding ground for water birds. Bird sighting from the road was incredibly easy, and a highlight was counting 11 rare kingfishers in just one ride!
At the northern tip of Sri Lanka is the Jaffna Penninsula and its eponymous city. Elephant Pass controls access to the peninsula, and is a somber stop and a glimpse into the war that waged across the small island not long ago. Three major battles played out at this strategic pass during the civil war, with many casualties on both sides.
While Elephant Pass is till a military base, a memorial has now been constructed to honor the selfless actions of Corporal Gamini Kularatne. The Sri Lankan solider died with honor, saving his camp and sacrificing himself by exploding grenades on a Tamil Tiger bulldozer laden with explosives.
Jaffna itself is still recovering from the extensive damage from the war. The population is slowly returning home after a mass exodus to escape the fighting and signs of the war are still evident. Seven years later bombed out buildings, bullet holes, and piles of rubble can still be seen.
However, there are positive signs of rebuilding. Local life and the economy is slowly returning to what it once was, and cycling through the fish market we saw fishermen and sellers actively plying their trade.
Rebuilding efforts have resulted in an excellent new road from Jaffna via a causeway to the Kayts, a series of low-lying islands connected by bridges and ferries. Rebuilding also extends to schools, churches, and the Hindu temples protected by their deities are a colourful splash in the often somber landscape.
Cycling provided a great opportunity to witness Sri Lanka’s thriving wildlife. We spied plenty of cormorants, fish eagles, kites and pelicans, all from the road. Sri Lanka’s beaches as well, off-limits during the war, and taking a break at one we had the opportunity to relax and enjoy the northern tip of Sri Lanka. Back in the spread out city of Jaffna we rewarded ourselves for our riding with a visit to one of the many new ice-cream parlours.
Leaving Jaffna we cycled to another peninsula and beach – Manar. This lonesome route was surrounded by military bases and reserves and so experiences minimal human presence except for the occasional cow herder. Animals were in abundance from dusky langurs in the bushes, to a myriad of birds in the water and air, and of course the cows we had to divert around. Once on the peninsula there was a new animal, feral donkeys. These are the ancestors of donkeys brought to Sri Lanka by the Arabs to carry spices.
The potential for Manar to one day become a beach resort is there, but for now the beaches are raw and natural. A welcome respite. Cycling back on the mainland we returned to the interior of the country and were soon back to more popular places to visit such as Anuradhapura, Sigiriya, Dambulla, and Kandy. After spending days with no other tourists it took some adjustment but it also made the experience of visiting the north more prized.
By Patricia Weismantel – Product Manager for SpiceRoads who joined the June 2016 tour of Sri Lanka’s Tip to Tip by Road Bike