There’s something equally nerve-wracking and exciting about group travel. That first night you meet everybody is like the first day at school. Questions start to circle in your head like, will I get on with everyone? What if no one likes me? Well, it was my first time travelling with Intrepid and I was happy to find a great bunch of people with one thing in common – our love for travel and adventure.
Intrepid’s hike, bike and kayak trips are for the active and, well, intrepid amongst us. It wasn’t easy. I didn’t want it to be. The appeal for me was the challenges I’d face along the way, the times when I would question if I could do it. On the other hand, I knew it wasn’t only going to be physically demanding, and that’s what you want. You are on holiday after all and you need time off to recover, and we had enough of a mix of hotels and camping to offer the best of both worlds.
The first day of the trip didn’t involve a hike, bike or kayak. Instead, we headed to Dambulla and one of Sri Lanka’s biggest attractions (and one of my personal highlights), the Minneriya National Park. This part was all done by Jeep, so you had the opportunity to sit back and enjoy the view of hundreds of wild elephants right before you. That was an incredible sight. Then the following day the active part began, our first hike to what is possibly the most recognisable landmark in Sri Lanka, Sigiriya. The Lion Rock of Sigiriya is such a spectacle, you’ll stand beneath it in awe of just how mighty it looks rising tall in the middle of a strangely flat land. It’s also at this point that you realise how high it is and how hot it is, and that you’ll be climbing the 1,201 steps to the top.
We got to Sigiriya at the crack of dawn, just as the park opens, which I strongly recommend. After we stopped a couple of times for our guide Mathisha to explain the history of Lion Rock, there were already some big groups marching ahead of us. Naturally, it gets busy, it’s a huge tourist attraction, so don’t question the guide when they have you checked out of the hotel early. The walk itself isn’t too challenging, the steps and stairs are strong and don’t require any real hiking. It’s the humidity that’s a challenge, so take your time and carry plenty of water. As you walk you learn how incredible Sigiriya is, as Mathisha explained ‘it’s a 5th-century concentration of architecture, urban planning, civil engineering, hydro-engineering, poetry and paintings’. Something for everyone!
That afternoon we had a further two-hour hike to our campsite, where the following day we embarked on the big one. Camping in Sri Lanka hadn’t really been on my list if I’m honest, but as I mentioned I wanted to push my limits and find myself off the beaten track, without too many home comforts. We had that, but also some impressive facilities too. I had two things I’ll remember most. Firstly, the food; traditional curries cooked and delivered for us to eat next to the waterfall overlooking the mountain we would climb the next day. And second was the fresh water shower the next morning that came directly from the waterfall itself. Perfect.
Day four was the big one, the 14km Manigala hike in Sri Lanka’s Knuckles Range. 14km doesn’t sound too long, but when you see how high it is, you realise what’s in store. We’d start and finish at our campsite, firstly walking through small villages and rice paddies, along river trails and then up a long, steep and at times incredibly tough climb. This is the first part of the trip that you need some fitness for, you don’t need to be super fit, just active with some stamina and determination. As you reach the top you’ll see why all the effort was worthwhile, spectacular views out across Corberts Gap. It was stunning, and the best bit, we didn’t see another group on the trek. Manigala isn’t that well known yet, and it should be. This whole area is stunning, including the beautiful spot by the river, where we stopped for lunch on the way back down.
After a couple of nights in Kandy, exploring and recovering, we took a scenic train journey to Hatton where we’d pick up the bikes for the trip’s next activity. We were given a safety briefing where they made sure everything fitted well and off we went. After about five minutes we all realised something, this would be a challenge! It was after we navigated our way through the busy town of Hatton, people everywhere, buses always in a hurry and crazy overtaking manoeuvres. Nonetheless, the roads did get quieter and it wasn’t long before we were cycling through winding mountain paths with endless views of Sri Lanka’s tea plantations.
The first day wasn’t too strenuous, we weren’t eased in by any means, but it was 50km and less uphill than the days that followed. Our overnight stay was another highlight and another example of why this is a great way to see Sri Lanka. We were in a traditional guesthouse in the middle of a tea plantation, with a superb chef cooking up some local food to enjoy that evening. The following day the cycling got tougher, there were steep climbs as we headed towards Adam’s Peak (which I will conquer next time). It’s another example of why you need some fitness for this tour, but it was all manageable and the bus was always following us if we needed anything. Here we all realised how amazing our guides were, the bus assistant would hand round bananas, electrolyte sachets and water at every stop, and even search our shoes for leaches.
It seems with every struggle on this trip comes with a reward, again we saw some amazing views, but the thing that stuck with me was the long winding downhills through small villages. This was a brilliant way to get a feel for the local surroundings, places that most people only see from the window of a bus. On top of that, the warm welcome from locals and children waving frantically and shouting “hi” at us will stick with me.
The following day we swapped bikes for kayaks and made off down the Black River to our camp. The kayaks are for two people, so choose your partner wisely, you’ll need them as much as they need you. We kayaked around 20km a day, and kayaking is more about mental strength than physical. It can also be a little uncomfortable, but once you get used to it and get in a rhythm, it all works out. It was another amazing way to see Sri Lanka, kayaking passed gem miners and fisherman, seeing how much the locals rely on the river. We were again really impressed with the camping facilities at each campsite along the river too, they had everything we needed.
I must admit by the third day I was ready to hop on the bus and meet the others at the end, we’d been warned that this was the hardest day and often against the tide as we approached the sea. But I’m delighted to say I was talked around, as this ended up being my most enjoyable day. The muscles didn’t hurt as much for some reason and we managed to get in the zone with our paddling, which is half the battle. And then there was the finale of making it to the sea, kayaking right up to the beach with our bus assistant cheering us on from the side, not to mention being the first of the group to make it back. Not that I’m competitive at all.
That pretty much brought us to the end of the tour. Our next two nights were at one of the nicest hotels we stayed at, in Mount Lavinia just south of Colombo. There were no organised plans for the following day, and the hotel had a swimming pool, so you can imagine how active we all were after three days in a kayak. It was time to unwind and reflect, reflect on a tour that genuinely took us off the beaten track. Where we all felt we captured some of the real Sri Lanka. That was coupled with superb guides, spectacular scenery, and lots of challenges and stories to take home with us.
Ready to try out this active adventure for yourself? Click to find out more about Intrepid’s Sri Lanka: Hike, Bike & Kayak tour.