There are good races and then there are great races. It was Nov 17th 2014 and I was running low on fumes after a long season and a pile of late season races, but when Phil Evans and Kate Hobson invited me to their newest brainchild, The Rumble in the Jungle, there was no question I had to be there. After racing the legendary Yak Attack earlier in the year, I knew these two only put on races which are super rad and the offer to race 4 days through the Sri Lankan jungles was guaranteed to be a wild adventure!
Sri Lanka is a small and diverse country just off the southeast coast of India with around 21 000 000 inhabitants and is often known as the teardrop of India due to its position and shape. The country has plenty of charm; from incredible wildlife and pristine beaches to famous tea plantations and ancient ruins. It was engulfed in a civil war from 1983 to 2009 but has since been peaceful and has generated a lot of tourist interest.
Heading to Sri Lanka on a first class ticket thanks to title sponsor Sri Lankan airways, set the tone for the trip to come. Landing in the country’s capital of Colombo was a welcoming experience as the Sri Lankan people were honoured to have you as their guest and made sure you knew it. I had shown up late due to a race in East Timor but Kate and Phil had arranged a car to pick me up and drive the 6 hours to race start in the middle of some jungle. The trip was rad, we stopped at numerous road side stands for fresh coconuts and fruits, then had a stellar Sri Lankan lunch full of rice hoppers, veg and chicken. The cuisine in the country was a nice variety of milder Indian dishes, classic rice and beans, and some weird but tasty fried things. What caught me off guard was the cleanliness of the country and the quality of roads we drove on through the rolling jungle. The colours were out of this world with street stands looking like circus venders set to the background of the lush green vegetation engulfing the country.
Showing up at race kick off was a family reunion seeing a bunch of familiar faces from the Yak Attack and race founders Phil and Kate who are two of the chillest, most down to earth people you will ever meet. With their laid back attitudes you would think we were off on a trip to the ice cream parlour, not departing on a country’s inaugural bike race, a 4 day journey through the unknown depths of the Sri Lankan jungles and tea plantations with wild elephants and leopards roaming around. It was a relaxing evening, getting the bikes in line, chatting with new and old friends, and listening to Phil give his pre race talk. In the days before the race the organizers had sent out a memo on what to do in case of an elephant attack. It sounded like a joke, but wasn’t, apparently your supposed to make sure your the fastest one in the group, and if your not, you should pack a blow horn or something loud to startle the mammoths with their enormous ears. I might be forgetting some key points as I was crossing my fingers we’d come across some of the beasts.
The accommodation for the night were some rad little jungle huts, pretty basic but providing all the necessities, and the sweet sounds coming from the jungle outside. After travelling the previous 36 hours from a small south pacific island I was ready for a good sleep and passed out for a solid 13 hours. Waking up we had a good buffet laid out with a pile of local Sri Lankan tea to kick start the minds and bodies for the adventure to come. Leaving in a bit of a drizzle the first 20 km of the race was cruisey before we hit the jungle wall and a small path leading into it. The next 1.5 hours was great as we ran across creeks, manoeuvred our bikes through technical rock and mud gardens, through open meadows and into the heart of elephant territory. This ended with a steep cobbled climb onto a small paved road which slowly deteriorated as we started to climb up into the high plateaus of the country.
Unfortunately fellow Japanese racer Yuki and I, riding in 2nd and 3rd, beat the course marshals to a key intersection and were lost for 20 minutes climbing up the wrong road. Eventually a race marshall on his motorbike caught up and turned us around.
Soon Yuki and I were back on track but fighting to regain motivation to hammer as we were now over 20 minutes down of the leader. The race organizers had told us to use our Garmins with the course marked on it, but we didn’t bother and paid for it, while race leader Ismael Ventura catapulted his 1 minute gap into a huge buffer as his Garmin kept him on course.
The course soon climbed out of the jungles into the high tea plantations with the local woman out in force picking the leaves. It was impressive how tidy they kept there enormous tea gardens as they terraced across the mountain sides. The literacy rate in the country is 92%, making it the most literate country in southeast Asia and likely part of the reason there country is so well taken care of. Reaching the top of the climb we road into some heavy clouds and soon the rain started and came down good till the finish line in the town of Haputale.
After the stage a few of us road 20 km downhill to the race hotel where we spent the next couple nights. It was top notch with our room built around a big rock outcropping with great views from our patois over looking the Sri Lankan jungles. The following stage was a loop, taking us up to a pleasant viewpoint, then down the roughest cobblestone descent I’ve ever done.
At the start of the descent we had to back track on the same course we road up and I came around one corner in the lead group of 3 and smoked another rider who was still coming up the climb but on the wrong side of the road. Unscathed but needing to fix my twisted handlebars and brake levers, race leader Ismael jumped at the opportunity and attacked. Once the bike was fixed and I was back on the road again I came unglued on the long cobble descent as my arms turned to jello half way down and my hands started to cramp up from the endless pounding. Finally off the descent from hell, the rest of the stage was unreal as we’d climb up and down tea plantations, through some rad little villages and through a tight little gully surrounded by waterfalls. Topping off the day we got to head back to the same hotel we started at which is always a pleasure after a long day of racing.
Stage 3 was the mother stage and didn’t disappoint. Starting on an epic climb below some huge waterfalls, we wound our way up the mountainside, through some more tidy tea plantations and eventually topping out on the Horton’s plains. This area was surreal, feeling like Africa on drugs. After a cruise through some prime elephant terrain, we started a big descent through dense jungle, eventually popping into an oasis of a valley full of more tea plantations. Ripping down the clean pavement was a nice contrast for a while before we found ourselves on the 12 km climb to the finish line at Nuwara Eliya. Catching Ismael 3 km from the top was a big lift and I made sure to make the most of it and get some redemption from the first couple stages by taking the win.
Right after we finished some big clouds came in and a solid rain storm settled in for the afternoon. That evening fellow Nepalese racer Ajay and I headed into town to check out the scene. There were colourful fruit markets, grocery stores full of local teas and some fine little restaurants where we could buy huge plates of rice pasta with veg for a couple bucks. The town is known for its refreshing climate and is popular for tourists and locals during the hot season down at sea level.
Stage 4 started with another cobblestone climb over a small mountain pass before hitting an epic 1300 meter descent to the finish line in Kandy. It was another spectacular ride, this time capped off with a rally car race along the last 10 km of course. It was sweet to watch but sketchy as the rally cars were ripping on an open highway, along with our bike race which created a masterful gongshow. Like the first 3 days of the race, this day kept us on the edge of our seats, alert for whatever we may stumble upon around the next corner! That night we stayed in a classy old school hotel on the edge of a lake in Kandy. Phil and Kate sure know how to treat there racers first class and this was no exception with a huge buffet meal on display for dinner. This was a wicked little party by itself but was nothing compared to what was to come on the beaches of Sri Lanka the following evening.
Instead of catching a bus back down to Colombo, we were treated to a train ride through the heart of the country on a train that deserved to be in a museum. This turned out to be a highlight of the week as we rumbled through tunnels, dense jungle, and countless little villages. At points the train would go ahead 5 minutes, then backwards for 5, negating any forward progress. This turned the 2 hour ride into 4.5 hours but none of us could care less. At every stop, random vendors would hop on the train selling there goods and then jump off at the next station. This was another great cultural treat to the Sri Lankan way of life.
After checking into another prime hotel on the beach front we all prepped for stage 5, a beach party at a 5 star hotel put on by Sri Lankan airlines. There were 100 feet of buffet tables full of everything under the sun, 80 bottles of liquor for us 40 + racers, and a Sri Lankan DJ who really knew how to throw it down. The Sri Lankan racers set the tone for the night with their impressive dance moves and pretty soon the dance floor was flooded with us bike racers from around the world. It was the best post race party I’ve ever taken part of and that says a lot given some of the TransRockies shows back in the day. After the legendary party we were all pretty thrashed and ready for some good R&R as we trekked back to our homes around the globe.
The Rumble in the Jungle lived up to its name and was a highlight of a highlight real year for myself. Sri Lanka is on the flip side of the globe from Canada but I’ll be going out of my way to make sure I get back there for another round of adventures someday in my life, hopefully sooner then later!
In 2015 the dates for the Rumble have been moved into June, out of the rainy season which should help dry things out a little. Get on it quick if your keen for an unforgettable adventure as the limited race spots will fill up fast!
Over and Out!