Unawatuna – Arugam Bay- Sri Lanka
Shooting stars, AK47s, 3 men on a bike!
10th-12th June 2007
I do this trip many times and on most occasions it is a straightforward 340km drive or 200 of your imperial miles. Of course, I would not be writing this if the last trip had been straightforward; “Nothing happened” is not entertaining reading and even I can not abuse the spelling and grammar of such a short statement.
I was in Unawatuna to look at and test an air compressor I had purchased off eBay – just love it; £50 delivery, Falkirk to Wood Green, £41, Wood Green to Sri Lanka. I am starting a dive centre further along the south coast in Tangalle later this year when the season starts, November.
I was also in Unawatuna to collect wood samples for another project, that of exporting coconut wood to Dubai, USA & Europe. Four great samples of 2?x4?x 4ft, each one brilliantly coloured from 50+ year old trees and heavy, 20kg apiece. Four months I have been trying to get the right quality; watch out for “Coconut Wood Flooring” – awesome! They play a part in the story to come (if you read on that is).
Anyway, set off at 9.30am, 6hr drive, home by 3.30pm – yeah, right. All goes well, making good progress until I pass the “gateway to the east” Monaragala; 80kms, 50 miles to go, 2.30pm.
There are three checkpoints on this section of road, all good security, the last of which closes its doors at 6pm until 8am; therefore if you do not make it by 6pm you will be sleeping in or on your vehicle; bus, van, lorry or bike, whatever.
Because of the current “Conflict/Political” situation we have become “Prisoners of Pottuvil”. I’m all for vigilance and security in these uncertain times but given the recent history of calmness in the Pottuvil area, Arugam Bay especially, we never see or hear of the LTTE; this is unnecessary propaganda but, hey, “it is what it is” (shortly to become the “strapline” for Rocco’s Hotel).
With this in mind I am very happy with my progress – until the rear tyres screech to a halt on the downward section of narrow, potted road, jokingly called the “A4? halfway between the towns of Monaragala and Siyambalanduwa.
Years as a mortgage broker are fun & lucrative but it is the years of being a Kwik-Fit fitter (”they’re the ones to trust”, jump & shout “Hey”) that prove to be of most benefit in these circumstances (if only they knew). An inspection of the rear end indicates that the main leaf spring has snapped, if any other of the 5 leaf springs had snapped I would have been able to limp home the remaining 40kms, however the main spring is the one that holds the rear axle in place, 1991 Nissan Caravans were not designed with a “floating” rear axle, therefore it was imbedded in the rear wing!
Sri Lanka is a wonderful place to break down (vehicle not mentally!) especially in the countryside/jungle, no one is going to pass by the opportunity to help an obviously in need visiting foreigner. Before long I have a crowd of sympathetic looker-on’s all humming and haa-ing at the predicament, some even diagnosing the “spring, problem, having”.
I am a member of the AAC “Automobile Association of Ceylon” (free parking & cheapest members’ bar in Colombo, worth every rupee). £9 a year and valid with the RAC in the UK? Card in hand I contemplate a rescue service 300 miles from their only office on a Sunday afternoon… contemplation over, no signal on phone to call, dawn!
It’s 3.30pm before I realise the only solution is to strip to the waist (commando so not going any further) and set about removing the offending spring and get a replacement. This is fairly easy to do for someone of my mechanical background – if I had the tools!
As I jack up the van & remove the rear wheel a gentleman announces: “I am director of education for the Monaragala district, what seems to be the problem?” I am lying on the dirt-covered A4 trying to smash the axle back in place with a large rock so I can at least unblock the road, sticking my head up from under the van I now have at least 20 “lookers-on” all with their vehicles waiting to pass!
No-one is cursing or abusing me, well not that I can understand anyway, then another voice says “Rocco’s”. Two guys recognise me from Arugam Bay, insurance salesmen we insure the hotel with, young guys who now explain to the crowd what a wonderful individual I am, what I do and where I live – or at least I hoped that is what they were saying.
After explaining the situation, the three of them depart on their bikes to search out the required tools for me. In the meantime, I carry on trying to get the axle in a position so that I can roll it off the road. With the help of the crowd we eventually succeed.
Traffic flowing again, my new-found saviours return not only with the required tools but also the owner of the tools, a local mechanic. He gets to work immediately after the 20-minute introduction and assessment of the problem, removes the spring, hails a tuk-tuk out of nowhere -”Welding doing,” I am told.
My three saviours introduce themselves; they get me water, biscuits plus a chair to sit on, converse best we can about their jobs, why I am in Sri Lanka and why I am not married – “How do I survive?”
Mechanic is back, spring welded, he will fit, needs large rocks or wood to prop the axle…. Ah, those 4×2 samples, looks of astonishment as I produce the required “props”, casually bringing them out of the van as though I knew this would happen. They mutter amongst themselves making gestures, looking around. “Rope” the director of education informs me, he needs rope to tie axle; strange but true I have 5 lengths of half inch blue rope in the van. More looks of astonishment, “torch” the director of education announces, again I go into the van and produce a large diving torch! Can never be too prepared!
6.30pm I am back on the road, 30 miles to go at 10mph so as not to stress the welded temporary repair, 9.30pm home if I can blag my way through the check points………To be contd………
2 hours, 20 miles on I make Siymbalanduwa, last town before Pottuvil taking me through elephant-infested jungle, 8.30pm, checkpoint closed at 6pm. Mmmm… I know, go to bus stand find nice policeman who is heading to checkpoint, give him a lift, he will get me through, great plan. Also phone Naleem, brother & business partner let him know of problem so he can pull a few strings. I find said policeman, all covered, home by 10pm.
Wishful thinking; spring gets me 10 of the remaining 20 miles before giving up again. Now I am really in the middle of the jungle, again in the middle of the road, admittedly not a lot of traffic around but still. Dark as dark can be, no moon, no lights anywhere other than the van’s.
Luck would have it that there is an exposed rock of the right size that if I reverse hard against should push the axle back in line so I can get off the road. It works! I get out of van to be greeted by sounds of chatter and giggles.
If I was in the same situation in France, the only French I can remember of my schooling is “Je m’appelle Steve” or “Ferme la porte” others I can remember were learnt behind the bike sheds and would be classed as insulting, so I am greeted in the jungle by unseen people trying desperately to remember their English schooling, “your name?”, “my name”, “what country?”, “Gold Leaf”, “Married?”, “Children?”, “Problem!?” – think the last was about my predicament not my lack of spouse or could have been a statement about his spouse??
Eerie to be talked at and reply to a black space, you can sense the presence of people but believe me it was so dark I could see no-one! I turned the van lights on, another crowd of people looking on with concern and a touch of excitement at having a foreigner in trouble on their doorstep.
This time it was not how to fix the van, no point dealing with the impossible, now I just wanted to get home, a night unprepared for jungle sleeping, mosquitoes, elephants – way to extreme for me, even with wood, rope, baked beans, sausages etc in the van (did some basic needs shopping in Galle before leaving Unawatuna).
One of the on-lookers has a tuk-tuk but cannot take me to Arugam Bay, just the checkpoint. We unload van into 3 wheeler tuk-tuk. Policeman has left as late for duty because of my slow progress, hope Naleem has made those strings jangle!
No evidence of the checkpoint being pre-warned of my and my belongings’ arrival, however mention Naleem’s name and “OIC” – Officer in Charge – gets me a chance of a phone call… No signal! Sergeant even tries. Now how does this work? My Sri Lankan, Dialog SIM card shows no signal; calls are 3p a minute, my UK 02 roaming SIM shows Dialog, full signal, £2 a minute!!! Works; Naleem is coming to get me, local tuk-tuk driver is not allowed or happy to go through checkpoint, so Naleem will collect me from the other side as I am allowed to walk through. Job done, thank God for that.
Sergeant takes pity on me when he hears the full story from Naleem, sends his crack troops to get me water, chocolate & fruit juice, supplies a seat and storage for my belongings. Tell me where else such generosity would happen? Not just here at the checkpoint but all the people who have turned what should have been a 14hr horrendous experience to one of fun, adventure, learning and simple humbling at how I have been helped.
Sitting at the checkpoint drinking my juice, looking up at a brilliantly clear night sky, shooting stars scratch a line across the blackness, clinking of AK47s, sound of a transistor radio broadcasting Sri Lankan music cuts in with the National Anthem, every soldier stands to attention salutes an imaginary flag, I sit not knowing if I should join them. Then I hear “Steve Jones”.
Naleem has arrived…. On his motor bike 150cc Honda Hero, I hate riding pillion, something about the position starts off an old injury created by a horse called Wurzill (not going to explain); but wait, Naleem is not alone, he is riding pillion, Mushraff a good friend has come as well!
Three men on a bike! I’d guess at 270kg, 40-odd stone to travel 10 miles on the worst the A4 has to offer, not to mention sitting that close with my legs straddled around another guy. Saving grace was I was not the one in the middle!
11.30pm, home! Beers with Naleem, Mushraff, a couple of guests and discuss events of the day and arrange to get to Monaragala next day, buy new spring, shocks and fit them.
Following day we did exactly as planned, guess what? As I got stripped for fitting action a mechanic rode by and offered his help to remove & fit spring. See, get your kit off and everyone rallies round to prevent you from having to. What complex? I don’t have a complex, yet.
9am we commenced journey, 5.30pm we arrived back, van spring & shocks replaced, new friends made, belief in people’s generosity renewed, not a bad couple of days. Power steering went on the way back but that’s possibly a tale for tomorrow