freelance writer & editor

Stop what you're doing and drive a tuk-tuk around Sri Lanka, right now

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More tourists are visiting Sri Lanka than ever before. But if you want to dodge the crowds, you could always sign up for a 10-day, 1000-kilometre self-drive tuk-tuk rally. What’s the worst that could happen?

It’s a Monday afternoon and I’m watching my brother, Matt, have a mild nervous breakdown. We’re lost in a tangle of spaghetti-nest back roads in rural Sri Lanka.

Matt has almost driven us into two separate walls in the space of just 10 minutes. He reckons there’s something wrong with the front wheel. I move him out of the driver’s seat, inspect the wheel (to check if it’s been put on sideways) and offer to take over.

A gaggle of local kids is laughing at us. Partly, I imagine, a result of our bad driving. And partly because Matt is dressed as a zebra and I am dressed as a giraffe. If we hadn’t already been driving for six hours, if the light wasn’t waning, and if I wasn’t lost in Sri Lanka with my brother, I’d be laughing too.

I rev the tuk-tuk and pull forward. There’s nothing wrong with the front wheel. Matt must’ve either slipped into one of these potholes – twice – or he really is having a nervous breakdown.

I can hardly blame him. We just drove an hour in the wrong direction (up a very handsome peninsula, mind you—almost worth getting lost for), and we’re now retracing our tracks, looking for our hotel and the rest of our travelling party (more idiots driving tuk-tuks).

Forget what they say about taking the road less travelled – it’s not worth the hassle.

Where are we? Kalpitiya province, looking for Alankuda beach. It’s not easy. Not so many road signs out here and most of these backroads don’t even grace the pages of our map. No smartphones, 3G or Wi-Fi, either. Just an old calls-and-texts-only phone and an unreliable battery. And thanks to our tuk-tuk’s aggressive lack of suspension, my arsecheeks are absorbing the shock of every single rock and pothole. Each mile is a hundred new molestations.

Matt lights a cigarette in the back seat, I play Jump by Van Halen over our speakers (it is for us what Eye of the Tiger was for Rocky Balboa) and we press on, still not entirely sure what we’re doing,  where we’re going, or how to drive a tuk-tuk.

We stop every now and then to ask for directions. “Dolphin Beach Resort?” we grin. Nothing but puzzled expressions, big smiles, and the ever-endearing Sri Lankan head wobble. These guys might not know where we’re going, but it’s impossible to be mad at them for it.

In step with the theme of breakdowns, as if by some kind of cruel magic, our tuk-tuk suddenly goes kaput. I roll the keys in the ignition and try and start her up . I pump the gas to make it look like I know what I’m doing. I make a few noises like hmmm and huh? and oh. Nothing. The thing is fucked.

Matt has just read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and thinks there might be something clogging the fuel pipe. I’m not so sure that Robert M. Pirsig’s wisdom extends to tuk-tuks. The light is fading now, and for all we know we’re still hours from where we’re supposed to be. Add to the scene a couple of mange-ridden stray dogs, and voila: welcome to the paradise.

I use the last bar of our phone battery to call Julian – one of the masterminds of this 10-day, 1000-mile tuk-tuk jaunt around Sri Lanka – to try and get an idea for how far we might be from where we’re supposed to be.

I tell him I can hear the sea and see a blue-ish building. He tells us to stay put and, no more than five minutes later, he comes strolling down the road, laughing. Turns out this whole not-quite-death-defying scene played out no more than 100 metres from the (until now) mythical Dolphin Beach Resort. We’d simply driven in via a bunch of backroads, instead of the major, “well-signposted” road. Forget what they say about taking the road less travelled – it’s not worth the hassle.

A local mechanic fixes our tuk-tuk and the pair of us, still bedecked in our giraffe and zebra outfits, roll into our accommodation – a cluster of rustic beach shacks. We’re met by cheers, laughter and derision from the rest of the idiots (an eccentric mix of nationalities, genders and ages) who signed up for this thing.

The beer, ice-cold, has never tasted so good. And that was day one of the Lanka Challenge.

But there’s little time for reflection. A sort-of-organised, self-drive tuk-tuk rally, the Lanka Challenge – devised by responsible travel company Large Minority – sees up to 20 teams of two or three complete various challenges to accrue points. ‘Organised chaos,’ they call it. And they’d be right.

A couple of days later, we’re pulled over on the side of the road and I’m locked in a push-up competition with a Sri Lankan soldier (I’ve always been more of a thumb-war kind of guy.) Later that same day, Matt and I find ourselves on a local bus, in a town we don’t know, trying (and failing) to sell things in broken Sinhala – the local language – to unsuspecting passengers. It wasn’t our idea, promise.

As two evidently non-Sri Lankan blokes driving a tuk-tuk through a country that sees few non-Sri Lankan blokes driving tuk-tuks, we attract a bit of attention. None more so than in tourist-bereft Jaffna, the northern city most affected by the Sri Lankan civil war and from where, between 1983 and 2009, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam fought to create an independent Tamil state.

I also submit that there are few purer feelings in the world than overtaking a gleaming, air-conditioned tourist bus in a filthy, Japanese-made, 200cc tuk-tuk.

After Jaffna, we head back down the east coast. Nilaveli becomes Trincomalee becomes Dambulla. Soon, we’re flinging elephant dung for a selfie, donating musical instruments to a school, taking photos with crocs, picking up litter, playing cricket with kids, camping by far-flung lakes, snorkelling with reef sharks, looking for shipwrecks, scooping rotting fish out the back of our tuk-tuk (a practical joke gone wrong), helping fishermen bring in their haul and – in my brother’s case – getting knocked about by a harsh bout of food poisoning.

All of this, we learn, is par for the course on the Lanka Challenge. Everything mentioned above, save the food poisoning, is a challenge – designed to banish comfort zones and encourage cultural immersion (selling things on buses, singing with locals) and responsible travel (donating instruments, picking up litter).

Minuwangoda, Negombo, Kalpitiya, Anuradhapura, Jaffna, Nilaveli, Trincomalee, Dambulla, Kandy, Nuwara Eliya. The destinations roll up and fade away in an action-packed cloud of dirt, sweat and petrol, and it’s all over before you know it.

Upon returning home to Melbourne – tired, filthy and confused – a friend who’d also visited Sri Lanka asked me about my favourite spot. Did I go here … did I go there?

I couldn’t give her a straight answer. I don’t know where we went. The Lanka Challenge isn’t a trip you embark on because you want to see all of Sri Lanka’s big sights. It’s a trip you embark on because you want to drive a tuk-tuk around Sri Lanka. Where other travel companies dish up sterilised, amusement park-style ‘local’ experiences, the Lanka Challenge yanks you from your safety net and sticks you right in the thick of it.

You don’t ‘engage’ with locals because you’re seeking an ‘authentic’ experience –you do it because, if you don’t, you won’t make it to the hotel that night.

You break down? You knock on someone’s door and ask if they can help (chances are, they can). You see someone lugging a bag of wood down the road? You offer to give them a ride. You get a speeding ticket from the Sri Lankan police? You pay them off. You roll your tuk-tuk? You flip it over and keep going (or, as was the case for one of our travelling party, you take a chunk out of your leg and fly home).

More tourists are visiting Sri Lanka now than ever before, yes. But only a handful have seen the country from behind the wheel of a tuk-tuk. Each day is a struggle, a test of nerves and character, and you’ve no choice but to call on the good people of Sri Lanka to help you through it. I also submit that there are few purer feelings in the world than overtaking a gleaming, air-conditioned tourist bus in a filthy, Japanese-made, 200cc tuk-tuk.

So I tried to regale to my friend the story of our breakdowns – nervous and mechanical – and explain how we came to be dressed as a zebra and a giraffe (it was part of the challenge, of course). But I couldn’t stop giggling. These kind of nervier travel moments have a way of becoming hilarious after the fact. “Sounds kind of crazy,” she said blankly, before walking off.

Yeah. It kind of was.