Sri Lanka Cycling Tour, 25.06. – 06.07.2020

The last few months that I lived in Sri Lanka were filled with uncertainty due to COVID-19, and this had particularly large impacts on the end of my school life. One of the best moments in this challenging time though was that we had an in-person graduation, which my classmates and I appreciated as a proper way to commemorate the completion of the past 13 years that we spent in school. I was also lucky that the restrictions had loosened during the last few weeks which meant that I had the chance to meet many of my friends again. This allowed me to do one last trip on the island, another highlight before leaving to Germany in mid-July.

As I approached the end of my time living in Sri Lanka, I became increasingly eager to travel to some places on the island that I hadn’t had the chance to visit yet. After both of my parents had already left to Germany, I went on a 12-day cycling tour that took me to several places I had wanted to visit since I arrived here two-and-a-half years ago. In our dining room in Colombo, we had a large map of Sri Lanka covered in green and orange stickers, with the orange ones representing places I still had not visited. After returning from trips to such places, it was always satisfying to replace the orange sticker with a green one. On this trip, I wanted to visit the remaining places that were marked orange and locate as many of the special birds they harbor as possible.

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Places I visited (green) and that I want to visit (red)

Fortunately, the targeted places are located in such a way that they can easily be visited in one trip. In the end I decided not to visit Kandy but instead stay in Sinharaja rainforest again since I wanted to see Sri Lanka Thrush, the only Sri Lankan endemic I still missed. After reading trip reports, memorize bird calls and find accommodation, I felt quite well prepared. It turned out to be a very successful trip, with a lot of fun (but tiring) cycling and many lifers.

Itinerary

  • 25.06.: Colombo – Sinharaja (Blue Magpie Lodge)
  • 26.06.: Sinharaja (Blue Magpie Lodge)
  • 27.06.: Sinharaja – Udawalawe (Lizard Safari Lodge)
  • 28.06.: Udawalawe – Tissamaharama (Hotel Birds View)
  • 29.06.: Tissa (Hotel Birds View)
  • 30.06.: Tissa – Bibile (Saffron Resort)
  • 01.07.: Bibile – Nilgala (Nilgala DWC Bungalow)
  • 02.07.: Nilgala (Nilgala DWC Bungalow)
  • 03.07.: Nilgala – Gal Oya Lodge
  • 04.07.: Gal Oya Lodge – Arugam Bay (The Villa)
  • 05.07.: Arugam Bay (The Villa)
  • 06.07.: Arugam Bay – Colombo

Accommodation

Accommodation was harder to find than usual because travel restrictions in the country  caused many places to close. I reserved most of the places on Booking.com in advance since I didn’t wanted to arrive at a place after a long day of cycling to look around and find an accommodation.

In Sinharaja, only Blue Magpie Lodge and Birds Paradise Hotel were open. I chose the former since it is closer to the entrance to Sinharaja. Blue Magpie is a popular place to stay among birders but is quite overpriced (although when I came they had an offer for LKR4000/ night half board). Normally there are a few homestays but they weren’t open, nor was Martin’s Lodge.

In Udawalawe, finding a place to stay was very hard and only after contacting several accommodations did I manage to get a room at Lizard Safari Lodge. This was a charming place and was only LKR1800 for the room (incl. breakfast), plus I got a free dinner because I was their first guest after COVID-19 lockdown. Definitely the best value-for-money accommodation on the trip.

In Tissa I stayed at Hotel Birds View (a homestay not a hotel), which is very well located and was worth the LKR2750/ night. The food (I had breakfast and dinner) was of average quality.

In Bibile, most birders seem to stay in Kinkini Hotel (where Jungle Owlet can be seen opposite the road) but I chose Saffron Resort which was the only accommodation in the town listed on Booking.com. It was hard to find as the location on Booking.com is wrong and it’s not on Google Maps, it is actually on the B56 in the south-east of the town. I had an AC room which was LKR2600 (excl. breakfast). Since I only needed a bed, the room was ok, but it’s not a nice place to stay as the walls were a bit moldy and the bathroom and covers weren’t very clean.

The following two nights I spent in the bungalow inside Gal Oya National Park run by the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC). Reserving this works best by going to the DWC (which is close to my home in Battaramulla) in advance. I paid around LKR2800 per night for the whole bungalow – it holds up to five people. The best part of the bungalow is of course the location – many good birds can be seen right there and it provides easy access to the entrance road which has the best habitat. You have to bring your own toilet paper, towels, and food.

Close to Nilgala, I stayed at the Gal Oya Lodge, which is beautifully designed and located in an attractive setting. They had a deal for LKR18000 per person sharing but since I was alone I contacted them and managed to get a room for LKR17500 (half board). This was nearly as much as all the nights up to this point added up but after this much cycling I really wanted some comfort and I must say that it was worth it. The lodge and DWC bungalow do not have any phone signal. Paying with cash is also easier because of the weak connection.

In Arugam Bay, my final destination, I stayed at The Villa (which was the name on Booking.com although their actual name seems to be Guitar Bay). This was around LKR3000 per night (incl. breakfast), which was a fair price since it is located right at the beach, but the bathroom was quite dirty and didn’t seem to have been cleaned after the last guests.

Daily Report

25.06.

The trip started at 06:00 when I left my house and headed towards Sinharaja. I’ve never cycled this far before (not even a quarter of this day’s distance), let alone cycled with 15kg of optics, clothing, cycling repair material, food and water, etc., so I was unsure of how long I would take (I did not do any training before the trip). The roads were pretty good most of the time so I made good progress and stopped for a breakfast of rice and curry at a small restaurant at 09:00 after having cycled around 50km. After this it gradually became hotter and the ride became tiring. During my lunch stop, Indian White-eye, Common Iora, Sri Lanka Hanging-Parrot, Chestnut-headed Bee-eater and Crested Treeswift kept me company as I ate some cream crackers and several rambutan that I bought along the roadside earlier (this was a real delight in the wet zone – literally all along the road people were selling rambutan and mangosteen in addition to the more widespread fruit). The vicinity also held Crimson-fronted Barbet, Sri Lanka Swallow, White-browed Fantail, Sri Lanka Grey Hornbill, Alexandrine Parakeet and Asian Emerald Dove.

I got caught in the rain twice before I finally reached the turn-off to Kudawa. I was very exhausted at this point and it started drizzling again, but I did not want to stop at this point to put on my rain coat so I just kept going. After arriving at Blue Magpie Lodge and settling into my room I went on a small walk along the track to Jansen’s Bungalow, during which I met three Sri Lankan birders who also stayed at the lodge. I joined them and we saw a close-up juvenile Changeable Hawk Eagle, Sri Lanka Green-Pigeon, Layard’s Parakeet, Crimson-fronted, Brown-headed and Yellow-fronted Barbets, Southern Hill-Myna, Back-capped Bulbul, Orange-billed Babbler and more common wet zone species. After this I went to Thandula’s house to arrange a trip into the forest to see Sri Lanka Thrush (the only endemic bird I still missed) the following day. Thandula is one of the more experienced guides and is excellent with calls. His contact is +94 (71) 367 7166 (and his house is right next to Blue Magpie Lodge).

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Colombo – Kudawa

26.06.

I was given a lift to the ticket gate by Thandula who passed me on his motorcycle. Once we arrived at the actual entrance (the ticket gate had been moved down to Kudawa since they were renovating the entrance building) we waited for three hours since it had started raining again. Not much was seen here due to the weather, but Small and Orange Minivets, Bar-winged Flycatcher-Shrike, Spot-winged Thrush, Sri Lanka Blue-Magpie, Asian Emerald Dove and Sri Lanka Junglefowl put in an appearance. At around 10:30, we finally went up the entrance track towards the checkpoint. On the way up, we heard Sri Lanka Thrush and amazingly, we saw a pair as they gave their ultra high-pitched whistles. Unfortunately, a male Sri Lanka Junglefowl flew in and scared them off after only a few seconds, and since it was very dark and the birds were at a distance, I couldn’t fully appreciate their beauty. I was nonetheless very happy that I saw this elusive bird, which completed all of Sri Lanka’s endemics for me. We passed the checkpoint and continued into the forest, hoping to get better views of the thrush or other birds, but the forest was quiet. Only Black-naped Monarch, Sri Lanka Drongo, Velvet-fronted Nuthatch and White-throated (Legge’s) Flowerpecker were birds of note. We returned back to Kudawa where I ate some dhal and dosa at a tiny place that I remembered from on our Geography field trip. Since I saw my target and my legs were hurting from the previous day I relaxed for most of the afternoon, but walked up to the entrance gate again to refill my water bottles (they only had plastic bottles at the lodge). At the gate I saw Sri Lanka Myna and Brown-backed Needletail.

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Thandula and I on the bridge at the entrance to Sinharaja
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Sri Lanka Blue Magpie
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Sri Lanka Thrush
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Black-capped Bulbul

27.06.

Having packed my bags the previous evening, I left the lodge after breakfast and headed to Udawalawe. Since the park is in the lowlands, I expected the drive to be mostly downhill and relatively easy (it was only 75km compared to the first day’s 110km). It turned out that I was very mistaken since the road mostly ascends for the first 40km to cross a steep pass at the eastern end of Sinharaja. I got off the bike several times to rest and push since I simply could not continue cycling. However, the scenery was breathtaking, as the road led through a valley that was bordered by hills covered in rainforest. Crested Serpent-Eagle, Common and Stork-billed Kingfishers and Ashy Woodswallow were nice birds before reaching the top of the pass, where the view into the lowlands was excellent. This is the rarely visited Morningside area of Sinharaja, which is home to several point-endemic reptiles and amphibians. After the pass, the ride was quite easy and I arrived at Lizard Safari Lodge around midday. I headed out with my bicycle in the afternoon to an open area where, according to a trip report, nightjars can be found. Here I found my second lifer for the trip, Indian Silverbill, together with Scaly-breasted and White-rumped Munias, while Paddyfield Pipit, Yellow-wattled Lapwing, Indian Thick-knee and Oriental Skylark were also in evidence in the sparse grassland that adjoins the tank. On the opposite side of the road the grassland is dotted with trees and scrub, and Indian Peafowl, Orange-breasted Green-Pigeon, Asian Koel, Tawny-bellied Babbler, Grey-breasted Prinia and Coppersmith Barbet were seen. As dusk came, Black-crowned Night-Heron passed overhead and I finally got my first positive IDs of both Indian Nightjar (many birds calling and hunting in the sparse grassland) and Jerdon’s Nightjar (one bird calling from a dead tree on the south side of the road). Happy about the sightings of three more of my targets, I headed back to the accommodation where I had very good rice and curry for dinner.

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Kudawa – Udawalawe
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A small roadside stop
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Asian Elephant

28.06.

Today the ride was relatively short so I had a more relaxing morning before heading to Tissa. The shore of the huge Udawalawe reservoir had Grey Heron, Oriental Darter, Indian, Little and Great Cormorants, Kentish Plover, Paddyfield Pipit and Oriental Skylark. After being on the road for around half an hour I stopped to watch two Asian Elephants behind the Udawalawe NP fence right next to the road. The area also held Malabar Pied Hornbill. I stopped twice at small juice bars along the road as the temperature rose, and during a stop along the Lunugamvehera NP boundary, I saw Jungle Prinia, Painted Stork, Indian Paradise-Flycatcher and Jerdon’s Leafbird. I got to Tissa at noon after 60km of cycling and stopped to admire the huge Indian Fruit Bat roost in the large trees along Sandungama rd (Grey-headed Fish-Eagle, Spot-billed Pelican, Asian Openbill, Grey-headed Swamphen and other common waterbirds were seen too) before arriving at Hotel Birds View. This is essentially a home stay run by two brothers and is surrounded by coconut trees (there are woodpecker holes so I assume that with luck, you can see White-naped Woodpecker here, a main target in Tissa for most birders). In the afternoon I checked trees in the area where, according to trip reports, White-naped Woodpecker is most often seen. Initially I just saw a beautiful group of Red-backed Flameback and Common Kingfisher at the canal along the road, but then had unsatisfying views of a flying White-naped Woodpecker. I was aware of a garden where the woodpeckers come to roost in a palm tree in the evening (around 17:30) but didn’t know exactly how to get there. The owner of the place however saw me walking around with camera and binoculars and said the woodpeckers come to his yard. I waited in his garden (which borders a few palm trees and is reached by a small lane off the Lake road) and had good views of a pair as they clambered up a palm trunk. In the evening I went to the big dead tree at the bund of Debera Wewa where Eastern Barn Owl roosts. I saw one bird but it was partly hidden. Young men that live in the house opposite of the tree (so-called ‘owl boys’) are good at finding this and other owl species in and around Tissa (contact: +94 77 324 1933).

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Udawalawe – Tissa

 

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White-naped Woodpecker

29.06.

I spent my full day in Tissa searching for three targets: Cotton Pygmy-Goose, Slaty-breasted Rail, and Watercock. I checked locations where the pygmy-goose had been seen on eBird, but despite scanning the whole of Debera Wewa and cycling to the Eastern edge of Tissa Wewa, I was unlucky (ironically, this species was seen by another birder during this time at Thalangama Lake, just 15 minutes from my home). At midday I walked into Tissa town to buy a small lunch and withdraw money for my stay at Gal Oya Lodge. In the afternoon, I walked along the road close to Hotel Birds View. Various large waterbirds, White-throated and Pied Kingfishers, Zitting Cisticola, Tri-coloured Munia, Baya and Streaked Weavers and Pheasant-tailed Jacana were all around. In the early evening I finally saw a splendid male Watercock in full breeding plumage.

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Baya Weaver
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White-throated Kingfisher

30.06.

I got a packed breakfast, paid for my room and was ready to leave when I noticed that the lights from my bicycle where missing. It turned out one of the kids had taken them, which was fine since I got them back once they were found but unfortunately it delayed my start quite a bit. I stopped at a tank close to Kataragama where the pygmy-goose had been seen in the past but I was unlucky. The road towards Buttala leads through Yala NP and doesn’t have a fence so I was stopped by police who warned me of the danger of elephants. I saw a lifer Sirkeer Malkoha, as well as Sri Lanka Woodshrike, on the way through the park. The policemen’s concern was valid when I had to pass two separate Asian Elephants that stood on the side of the road, but neither minded me passing them on my bicycle. In the morning I already saw that my tyre was very brittle and I was scared that I wouldn’t make it to Arugam Bay without a puncture. My fears came true when I got a flat tyre soon after having crossed the park. Fortunately, the owner of a small store and two local boys helped me fixing it, so I was on my way again quite soon. After having reached Passara (where I saw Alpine Swift), the road was under construction all the way to Bibile (about 40km) which was extremely tiring as it was very bumpy and dusty, with trucks passing most of the time. Adding to that, it started getting dark and a few km before Bibile I had a second puncture. At this point it was around 19:00 and I did not intend to stop in the dark to fix my tyre so I just kept going until I arrived in Bibile, where I followed the general location of Sapphire Resort given on Booking.com and tried asking some locals, neither of which options brought me any closer to the place. I then called the owner who came to where I was waiting and led me to the actual location. For dinner I got some fried rice from a nearby stand. I cycled nearly 140km today and was very tired.

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Tissa – Bibile
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After passing an elephant on the way to Bibile

01.07.

I fixed the tyre in my room after waking up (I needed the basin in my bathroom to find the puncture) and then bought some food before heading to Nilgala, fortunately on a good road through beautiful woodland. On the way, I saw Greater Racket-tailed Drongo, Golden-fronted Leafbird, White-rumped Shama, and heard two Common Hawk-Cuckoos (a would-be lifer, but I didn’t get visuals) and Fork-tailed Drongo-Cuckoo (also not seen). I also got a third puncture which I fixed quickly, although I realized that I should’ve gotten a new tyre in Bibile, since mine had ripped open in some places by now. Close to Nilgala I got a fourth puncture and pushed the bike to a tiny garage, which was shown to me by some policemen who I asked at a checkpoint. Fortunately, they had a used but intact tyre of the suitable size and I also gave them a new inner tube. I paid them LKR500, but they had asked for even less and they gave me two mangoes and oranges, which was very kind of them. I continued along the gravel road towards the DWC bungalow and park entrance. On the way I saw Coppersmith, Brown-headed and Crimson-fronted Barbets, Small Minivet, Indian Robin (abundant here), Jungle and Grey-breasted Prinias, Velvet-fronted Nuthatch and Brown-capped and Yellow-crowned Woodpeckers (the latter being a lifer). Arriving at the entrance office, it was quite difficult to persuade the staff to stay at the bungalow since I only had a bicycle (the fact that I don’t speak Sinhala and they spoke very little English didn’t help either). However, after I made clear that I didn’t intend to go inside the park but only the entrance road, they were ok with it. They recommended the room on the first floor, which was small and simple but very nice. I walked along the entrance road in the afternoon and recorded the species seen earlier today, Sri Lanka Swallow, Crested Treeswift, Southern Hill-Myna, Sri Lanka Woodshrike, Sirkeer Malkoha, Large and Black-headed Cuckoo-Shrikes, Common and Marshall’s Ioras (the latter being a lifer and surprisingly more common than the former), Layard’s Parakeet, Sri Lanka Green-Pigeon and a heard-only Painted Francolin. Jerdon’s Nightjars called around the bungalow in the evening.

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Fixing my puncture at Saffron Resort
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My tyre…
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Old typewriter at the Nilgala Office (still in use)
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Changeable Hawk-Eagle

02.07.

I woke up early and walked along the entrance road towards the main road, from where I would cycle to Gal Oya Lodge (I arranged lunch there in advance since I didn’t want to carry too much food on my bicycle). I recorded lots of good birds, including all from the previous day but also Peregrine Falcon, Blue-faced Malkoha, Tickell’s Blue-Flycatcher, Asian Emerald Dove, Sri Lanka Spurfowl (heard only), and Streak-throated Woodpecker, the latter being a lifer. The ride to the lodge was quite easy (apart from a very steep pass where I just pushed uphill) and I saw Black Eagle and Green Bee-eater breeding in the road cuttings at the top of the pass. After an excellent lunch (I was already looking forward to staying there the following day), I headed back to be on the entrance road in the afternoon and evening. Again, most of the same birds were seen, but I added Eurasian Hoopoe to the list and was happy to flush a pair of Barred Buttonquail (another lifer!), even though I would’ve preferred them to be Jungle Bush-Quail, one of the main targets of my trip which I ended up missing. When I came back a Fork-tailed Drongo-Cuckoo called in the dead tree right next to the bungalow – always great to end the day with a lifer!

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DWC Bungalow, Nilgala
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Gal Oya Lodge

03.07.

Another early start on the entrance road was very successful with a brief and rather distant Painted Francolin calling from a termite mound around 2km from the bungalow, another one of my main targets in the bag. A few birds new for the trip list were Dark-fronted and Brown-capped Babblers, Jerdon’s Bushlark and Plum-headed Parakeet. On the way back my second lifer for the morning, a Jungle Owlet, was exactly at the spot where I saw the francolin earlier, and I was even more surprised when the francolin called again. I rushed to the site but unfortunately flushed it from a tree, I didn’t know they call from that high above the ground. Back at the bungalow I was greeted by a Banded Bay-Cuckoo, the third target bird this morning! I ate breakfast (the same thing I had the previous morning and two dinners – oatmeal with fruit), packed my bags and headed to Gal Oya Lodge. I mostly relaxed at the beautiful lodge and saw Thick-billed Flowerpecker and Sri Lanka Scimitar-Babbler (a rare bird in the dry zone) from my room. 

04.07.

After a very big breakfast I left the lodge and continued to Arugam Bay, another route mostly through elephant country, although I didn’t encounter any (fortunately?). The drive led through nice landscapes, particularly in the morning, but nothing special was seen, the only new birds for the trip were Little Grebe and Black-winged Kite. Strong winds before Pottuvil made the last half an hour very tough but I was very satisfied when I completed the cycling of my trip – around 530km in total – when I arrived at Spice Trails, the accommodation where Ian Lockwood, my Geography teacher (and birding friend, especially since I’ve graduated now), stayed with his family. They invited me for a refreshing drink and we exchanged some of the highlights of our trips (they came to Arugam Bay after being to Sigiriya and Trincomalee) and later took me to Elephant Rock, a nearby beach. In the evening they invited me for dinner where I also met my school’s counselor, which was all very enjoyable.

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Gal Oya Lodge – Arugam Bay

05.07.

At 05:00, I was already at the entrance of Spice Trails with my gear and packed breakfast, since Ian had arranged a half-day trip to Kumana NP for us. The park is quite a distance away (on the drive we flushed a large owl, most likely Brown Fish-Owl but could’ve been Spot-bellied Eagle-Owl). After getting our tickets we continued inside the park and saw the last lifer for the trip, Black-necked Stork. White-bellied Sea-Eagle, Eurasian Spoonbill, Woolly-necked, Yellow-billed and Painted Storks, Lesser Adjutant, Oriental Darter and Lesser Whistling-Duck were also seen at the villus (pans). On the wader front, we saw Black-winged Stilt, Kentish Plover, Yellow-wattled and Red-wattled Lapwing, Great Thick-knee and Marsh Sandpiper, but it was especially interesting to see Black-tailed Godwit and Common Redshank, both migrants but a few birds seem to stay throughout the year.

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Kumana NP villu and thickets (with Black-necked Stork)
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Yellow-billed Stork

Another such species was Blue-tailed Bee-eater, although for this species a small resident population is known in Kumana NP. The scrub jungle held no new birds for the trip but we did see Malabar Pied Hornbill, Large-billed Crow, Crested Treeswift, White-rumped Shama, tame Green Bee-eater and Blue-faced Malkoha, as well as Mugger Crocodile, Spotted Deer and many Golden Jackals. On the way back, Ashy-crowned Sparrowlark was quite common in the bare grassland and I also spotted Oriental Pratincole, my first sighting of this species in Sri Lanka.

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Blue-tailed Bee-eater
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Green Bee-eater
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Golden Jackal

The second half of the day I arranged transport back home (I really did not want to cycle all the way back which would take a few more days and I less than two weeks remaining in Colombo before leaving Sri Lanka anyway). In the end I got a van that would take me back the following day at 05:00, which was both expensive and a bit wasteful to use such a big vehicle for one person, but the AC bus from Pottuvil to Colombo was fully booked. I went for dinner with the Lockwood family again in the evening, which was a very nice way to end the trip as we had interesting conversations about a variety of topics, from birding all the way to racial injustice.

 

All in all, the trip was excellent with memorable experiences every day, from cycling to birding and experiencing more of the lives of locals than I did before. Cycling was very tough at times but in the end I luckily did not have any major complications. A great part about cycling is that you experience the countryside much more than when driving since the low speed and stopping often allows you to get a better chance to appreciate the landscape and to have more interactions with local people. I managed to see several places on the island I hadn’t been to before and as a result of this observed a very large number of species, including many lifers that I wanted to see since coming to Sri Lanka. During the remaining ten days in Colombo, apart from packing, I spent a lot of time with my friends because we all don’t know when we’ll have a chance to see each other again since we will all disperse to different parts of the world for university, gap years, or any other plans some of us have.

7 thoughts on “Sri Lanka Cycling Tour, 25.06. – 06.07.2020

    1. Thanks! Yes, luckily nothing happened while cycling. I think the traffic is a bigger danger than the elephants to be honest; fortunately I mostly cycled on small roads.

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  1. Fantastic account of an epic trip Luca! Lots of great sightings and experiences and a very impressive effort on the cycling part. We enjoyed meeting up with you as you completed the ride in Arugam Bay. Thanks for sharing this wonderfully rich experience and congratulations on the achievement!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much! The trip was exciting and it was such a great experience to do something completely different than my trips usually are. Meeting you in Arugam Bay and going into Kumana NP was a lot of fun!

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