Unawatuna, Galle & Mirissa Tues 26 July – Thur 11 August 2011
We had a very nice last few days in Negombo - especially when our overlanding friend Penny and her colleague Qayoom arrived. We first met Penny when we travelled through Kochi - over a year ago now. She and her husband Brian made the journey overland to India from the UK in their land rover in 2008. and sadly Brian passed away in India. Penny remained in Kochi to set up and run a charity helping some of India's many street animals. As mentioned on the front page of this site Penny is always keen to hear of people with a love of animals and any skills to contribute who wish to volunteer at the centre in return for free accommodation. To get her contact details and to see more about the great work Penny and her team do to help sick animals see their website www.maddogstrust.com
Anyway Penny and Qayoom were staying at the very nice Villa Araliya and we went over to see them. A gorgeous boutique hotel it was a bit more "personal" than the huge chains and with a troop of adopted street animals living there Penny felt quite at home! We even got a swim in the pool which was gorgeous. Lovely to see Penny again.
Meanwhile we were getting some maintenance work done on the car. Our car parts finally arrived from Dubai and were quickly fitted. As mentioned previously we had had a nightmare getting the parts as it is extremely difficult to transfer money out of Sri Lanka - even when it's actually Aussie money which never made it into SL in the first place! -anyway Tim came to our rescue and helped us out and thanks to him and to Ramdas in Dubai who was very efficient, we finally got them. Ramdas can be contacted on the following number for anyone needing spare car parts from Dubai, though we enclose here mainly as a record for us if we need him again ! +97 1508840551
However once the parts were paid for and had landed our troubles weren't over as we still had a hefty amount of duty to pay. All done now -but just a note SL is one of the worst countries in the world for import duties apparently -customs are a bloody nightmare they just seemed to pick a figure at random. Toyota to speed things up paid on our behalf which was very kind but unfortunate as we could have argued for a reduction as we have the carnet -but there was no way we were getting it back once paid! As I type Andrew is off dealing with customs for our third and last parcel (Durapoly some spare locks.) 2 parcels received one to go …he seems to be taking a worryingly long time -dealing with customs is as ever a nightmare. Thank God we didn't ship the car! Incredibly the import duty paid on new cars here is 400% of the vehicle's value!! Obviously this isn't enough to deter some people as we saw a gorgeous brand new Porsche in Colombo the other day - mind you the young guy driving did have 2 vehicles following with hired muscle yielding walkie talkies so no doubt he was "someone"!!
Toyota did a great job changing the differential. The day we went was a training day so our job was carried out by a well supervised large team of apprentices. The only Toyotas which usually make it into SL are brand new so our 27 year old vehicle was quite a learning curve for them! Amazingly after a meeting with management Toyota Lanka very kindly agreed to come on board as a sponsor. Thus they have provided the car with a full servicing as well as providing us with any genuine spare parts we need whilst here in SL. Thanks so much to all the Toyota team, especially the MD here in SL Mr. Yoshiaki Kato, the service advisor Mr. Jagath, the senior technical trainer Mr. Wilson and the head mechanic Mr. Karunarathne. On our trip to date we've been in numerous Toyota workshops and met a fair few mechanics and Andrew reckons Mr. Karunarathne's technical knowledge is head and shoulders above any other mechanic he's met. Praise indeed! -thanks guys we really appreciate it. We're probably the first tourists to eat in the Toyota canteen too- tuna curry -delicious! See more about Toyota Lanka both on our sponsor's page and their website www.toyota.lk
Poor Tim was no doubt wondering if we'd ever really leave as he watched us "re-grouping." To the unitiated this is a very scary looking process by which everything comes out of the guts of the car, we panic and think "OMG how'll it ever all get back in?" before miraculously it all does. Tim looked very nervous at times as he passed us, surrounded by chaos over his front porch -but it all came together! Thanks so much for letting us stay Tim, we really enjoyed the break.
By the time we finally left Negombo it was getting late - we didn't want to admit defeat and stay another night so we decided to just head out of Colombo and park anywhere we could find. Heading into the up market beach suburb of Mount Lavinia -just south of Colombo -didn't at first look promising but we were so glad we did. We saw the signs to the Mount lavinia Hotel, and as it looked like it was on the beach (better for sleeping-cooler breezes) we thought we'd give it a go. Thus we scored the ultimate camp spot. We arrived as the manager was out the front of the hotel meeting and greeting so we could plead our case with him directly!
I think we have a good novelty value here, as no one has come across by a vehicle for such a long time we have a scarcity value! They were a little nervous about the whole thing but very kindly agreed we could camp in their spacious parking area. The Mount Lavinia is a gorgeous hotel. Built in 1806 to house the British Governor it has a wonderful beachside setting, really welcoming staff and lots of history including a starring role in the movie "Bridge on the River Kwai." The terrace and pool area were lovely and the meals actually pretty reasonable if you picked well - fish and chips for 600 LKR or under $6 Aus.
The full on buffet breakfast was a major treat with all the usual culprits but a few real treats as well like…PROPER BACON!!!... smoked fish and a huge bakery section. We waddled away after eating way too much -all for 1,000 LKR or under $9 Aus -really good value. We really liked the local squirrels too - emboldened by being fed and pampered regularly they are very tame letting me hand feed them almonds from my croissant. Apparently the chef's an Aussie guy and he's obviously doing a great job. Highly recommended have a look www.mountlaviniahotel.com Not sure how much it costs for those who don't come with their own accommodation but looks good for an end of holiday splurge anyway.
We drove on down the coast - a bit hairy in parts as lots of crazy truck and buses on the road - twas ever thus! A major highlight was the Ceylinco VIP toilet! Sponsored by the insurance company of that name this was a really good clean loo, even having its own visitors' book! We later found out it's really supposed to be just for Ceylinco customers but the nice man let us in. Finding reasonable public loos is an ongoing challenge "on the road" and as I wrote in the visitors' book, they could do with a few of these in India or throughout Asia for that matter! The only other stop we made was to get some local oranges from the smiley roadside orange seller, only to be told they were from Australia -bizarre!
The southern coast really got a smashing in the Tsunami and various monuments-like the giant Buddha gifted by the Japanese government- in remembrance of the dead are dotted all along the coast. The sand in a lot of areas was completely washed away and we saw a lot of bizarre stone stairways to nowhere on what was once a sandbank. A huge amount of damage to property too, lots of resorts that sadly looked like they weren't likely to re-open anytime soon, but then a lot of new swanky ones too.
We got a puncture on the way down when we drove over a huge bolt and the tyre deflated in seconds. Considering all the hard driving we've done in between it's amazing that the last one was in Pokhara, Nepal on our Muktinate trip with Jyoti. Not bad going for the Maxxis tyres! As we've often found on our travels we're never short of a helping hand and after some road side assistance we were back on the road in no time at all.
Next stop was the little beach town of Unawatuna just out of Galle. We quickly found a great camp spot at Milton's Hotel -run by the man himself. Sadly Milton's wife died in the tsunami and the security guard we got to know had had 2 shops previously but lost everything and so has had to find this alternative job, just 2 of the 1,000s of people affected by that terrible tragedy.
Milton's was perfect for camping, we could turn the car around and back up to the beachfront and so sleep with that all important sea breeze and the waves drowning out most of the traffic noise! A new road from Colombo to Galle is due to open imminently -this'll be a great thing as at the moment the traffic is pretty relentless on this road.
Milton's was a lovely spot, located right on the beach front with its own little private swimming cove which we took full advantage of. The food was also really good and we enjoyed fresh fish /calamari/prawns over the next few days.
The area was pretty busy and when we took a walk down the beach we were amazed at the number of people-lots of trendy little coffee bars too - looks like the area is really getting back on its feet thankfully. When we got bored of relaxing we took a walk up to the cliff top Buddhist Stupa -great view from up there and some fabulous bird life on this whole stretch of coast -lots of vividly blue kingfishers.
Before leaving we had a wander around Galle. We'd stayed there a year ago when we last visited and whilst it's a lovely spot especially the old walled city with lanes of gorgeous old buildings, we didn't really feel the need to stay long. We'd done the museums and being a touristy spot it's pretty pricey -good quality cafes -but Western prices, also like all cities not ideal for car camping .
We had a look around SL's oldest library (nice old guy in charge) and a Dutch reform church dating from the 17th century before walking along the seafront.
There was a huge invasion of white uniformed school kids as well as a great many tourists, the latter no doubt the reason for so many hawkers selling old coins, lace tablecloths gems et al.
There was also a guy asking for payment to fling himself off the seawall into the water narrowly by - passing the rocks below-not for the faint hearted! Amazing how quickly he scrambled up again to collect the money!
Next day we headed on down the coast to Mirissa, on the way seeing a fisherman on a stick (sounds like a snack!) These guys are everywhere in the tourist guides but we'd never managed to track down a live one before!
Anyway we saw him but he was actually posing for some other tourists - and he was off his stick pretty quickly to get a donation from us! Finally though we got the picture! We also saw the very posh resort island of Taprobane - with its one house a snip at 1,000 USD a night..or maybe even more now. As it's water only access by a small row boat no way we could snag parking there or we'd have given it a go!
At Mirissa we parked at a great spot -the Coral Beach Hotel - a small hotel overlooking the surf break, in the far corner of Marissa beach. Run by a very friendly guy, Mr. Amal it doesn't have a website though it's sister hotel further up the hill does www.villaseaviewmirissa.com Tucked away from the road with no traffic noise, right on the beach so nice and breezy at night and with Mr. Amal as an excellent chef serving up fresh fish daily this was paradise! Just to make it perfect Penny and Qayoom turned up for a couple of days so we all hung out together.
We had been booked in to come back for our Mobil organized press conference that Wednesday but we got a call to say this had been postponed, as the press (very government controlled here)had been told it was compulsory that they go up to Kandy to cover the opening games of the cricket with Australia, so we were shunted and postponed until the 18th of August.
We'd already booked in to get our brakes serviced in Toyota and collect our new truck stickers for Lanka Toyota so we decided to still return to Colombo as planned , then head to Kandy and the hill areas before the conference. A bit back and forth but the distances aren't too great here, and we want to keep enough time to explore the east coast and far north afterwards. So, reluctantly we tore ourselves away from Mirissa, said goodbye to Penny and Qayoom who were due to return to India on the next ferry, and headed back to the big smoke.
As the 2 places we've stayed before in the Colombo area -Mount Lavinia and Negombo -were both quite a hike from Toyota's workshop and we had an early morning appointment, we asked Toyota to recommend somewhere to stay. They sent us to the Pegasus Reef Hotel a nearby beachfront hotel which they use a lot for corporate events. Sadly when we turned up and asked if we could camp they knocked us back -our first refusal here blemishing a perfect record!
By this point it was dark and we were out in an area with very few other hotels none of which had parking space, near a large fishing village. Running out of options we just camped on the beach where a delivery truck was parked. Really breezy it would have been a good night's sleep if not for a few men who woke us up 3 times to tell us "no parking".
Not sure what their motivation was, maybe just concern for our safety but they were the only ones disturbing us and we felt quite safe! The next morning various fishermen doing their thing around us and the police who were on beach patrol both seemed quite happy we were there, so we're not sure what the problem was! May the powers that be protect us from "concerned citizens" please!
Thankfully Toyota assisted us the next day and we got in touch directly with the marketing manager at Pegasus, Mr. Musthaq who very kindly agreed we could camp there the next evening and in addition gave us a complimentary breakfast the next morning. Thanks very much we really appreciate it. The hotel was very busy seeming to have a lot of package tourists ( predominantly Koreans and Russians when we were there) but was also a very popular wedding venue. Apparently the 10th of August was a very auspicious day to marry, and we think the 11th must have been too as they were coming through thick and fast at breakfast next morning - brides everywhere you looked! We watched them all progress in line around the photo circuit as we ate breakfast. www.pegasusreefhotel.com
So as at Thursday 11 August I'm once more sitting in the very comfortable VIP lounge at Lanka Toyota - next to the coffee machine under the a/c. The car's brakes are being serviced as we're getting any little maintenance jobs done whilst we have chance. Later on today we start our journey north -first night probably in good old Negombo, after which we head to Kandy to catch the Esala Perahera festival, and then on to the scenic hill country.