For the trip, Roger kindly offered his own vehicle and one of his drivers, Weernsinghe, to take me around. Kandy was the best place in Sri Lanka to start journeys from. It didn’t matter which direction you headed, within a few miles the scenery would change. Going east you dropped past the reservoirs into the semi-desert. Go south and you climbed through the high tea plantations to the welsh mountains, west to the palm groves and paddy fields of the coastal plain and north, well north was the way I was going. Out of town down the Matale Road we dropped through the suburbs and crossed the Mahaweli River. The drive to Matale, an important market town in the hill country, is only twenty miles but it took more than an hour, with all the twists and turns, the obstructions in the road, the state of the road itself, and numerous hazards in the many villages along the way. Once through a small mountain pass, with the old coffee and tea estates now predominated by clove and pepper farming, we dropped step by step to the town. Beyond the town centre, the scenery changed and so did the road. For the first time since entering Sri Lanka I drove on the carpet. This was not an Axminster but pure tarmac, no potholes, very straight and relatively empty. Much of the north central part of Sri Lanka is networked by the carpets, not because of some altruistic whim of Colombo government developing the country’s poorer areas, or to allow the tourists to get to their honeypots in comfort. The reason for these smooth roads is purely military, as good roads have been everywhere – like the old military roads of Scotland, the highly developed routes in South Africa and the Roman Road, the carpets of Sri Lanka are to allow troops to manoeuvre effectively around the front, and from the capital to the front.
Remarkably, the civil war between the Sinhalese and Tamils that was the centre of every world news story on Sri Lanka, was hardly evident in daily life in Kandy and the Hill Country. Kandy had its fair share of Tamils, many worked on the tea estates, and I had seen several Hindu temples on my trek to Nuwara Eliya the week before. Kandy was also a centre of the minority Muslim community, many of the small shops along the roadsides were owned by this community, the small lacelike caps of the shopowners giving away their religion. The area north of Kandy, in particular, had several mosques. But the communities, although there was still antipathy, managed to rub shoulders without too many problems. But the Tamils of the north, who dreamed strongly for their own homeland of Eelam, fought for large areas of territory in the north and east. The government troops generally held the northern town of Jaffna, but this enclave was often cut off from the rest of the country as the main A9 was held by the Tamil Tigers, either at the town of Kilinochi or at the isthmus to the Jaffna Peninsula, the so called Elephant Pass. Most of the time people and goods had to fly in and out of Jaffna, even shipping into the port was too dangerous. Several towns down the north east coast were de jure government but de facto Tiger held, only Trincomalee could be said to be relatively safe. I knew people who travelled to Batticaloa, and found the people fabulous, the scenery wonderful and the beaches and coral reefs more rich than anywhere else in the world, but who always felt slightly threatened.
Over the course of the next few days I saw the evidence of the war more heavily than in Kandy, and got closer to the front. The carpet roads, one facet of that war, sped us towards that front far faster than I had been before.
Weerisinghe was the best of the drivers I had. He was not slow like Saman. And not mad like Nandasenda. He drove well, fast when he had to but generally at a good pace, and he was incredibly talkative. His son had come along to help out in Roger’s Office. Although called Pradeep, they already had a Pradeep in the office, so he was christened Pradeep 2, and was proving to be picking up computing skills very quickly. Weerisinghe, who had spent much of his early working years in the army, was very proud of his son, and we chatted at great length about his family and all aspects of Sri Lankan life. He was well travelled around his own country and knew all the nooks and crannies. I carried a road map I had bought in Peradeniya Gardens, and liked to follow our route, and he was full of suggestion as to where we might go.
For the time being, he wanted me to see Dambulla and to get me to the hotel in Sigiriya for the night. Leaving Matale behind, we passed through a well kept avenue with spaced houses on either sides set in spice gardens. In the midst of here we stopped and took some lunch in a small artists gallery. A few miles beyond and the scenery opened up and we reached the low country of the north. A series of irrigated rice plots to the right of the road were the foreground to the steep sided mountains of the hill country. Scattered amongst these were twenty or thirty farm workers, reaping the harvest in the yellow fields. The river valley we were now in carried the diverted waters of the Mahaweli River that had travelled below us in a tunnel from the Polgolla Dam.
We arrived in Dambulla. I was expecting a town, but really it was just a single street of occasional houses. On the left, the entrance to the temple. A few hawkers were around, a man with a cobra in a basket, another selling coconut juice. Weerisinghe and I started our ascent to the cave temple, a steep climb up a sloping exfoliated rock face, little steps cut into the rock at the worst points. This massive rock dominated the area and the plain opened out to us as we rose. To the south west I could see a tapestry of tree plantations, some coconut, other trees I didn’t recognise. Then a sole conical hill rose above the plain, and beyond a longer line of hills, and finally, in the distance, the hill country again, still only thirty miles back, but a million miles away in terms of climate, features and culture. If I looked in the other direction the scenery was more scrubby, but drawing my attention were two lumps of rock in the middle distance, probably fifteen miles away. The large square one was the ancient palace of Sigiriya, near my resting place for the night and my aim for tomorrow.