I bloody love Sri Lanka. I love the climate, I love the food, I love the scenery, I love the history, I love the people, I love the tea, I love the cricket.
We ended up there almost by accident . Our annual family holiday was going to be a canoeing trip down the Yukon, retracing the old gold rush route. Bored with a lifetime of “adventure holidays in unusual places”, my son insisted we go somewhere “warm with a pool”. I couldn’t think of anything worse. Horrified at the prospect of a fortnight in the Med surrounded by hundreds of other British people ( yes I’m a travel snob), my mind began to wander further east …
My fascination with Sri Lanka didn’t evolve as a result of watching some David Attenbrough documentary about the monkeys and cheetahs and elephants which inhabit this emerald island; nor was it the result of Mr Massey’s geography lessons at school (we never seemed to get much beyond German industrialisation on the Ruhr or land reclamation in the Netherlands).
I can pinpoint the exact moment when I fell in love with this beautiful country.
In my early teens, I was a Duran Duran fan. And by “fan”, I mean I was completely obsessed to the point of near hysteria. I had every one of their records ( LPs, singles, 12 inches, EPs) and knew every word of every song (B-sides too). I still do. I can re-enact every video, should the need ever arise. Every fortnight my friends and I would eagerly await the publication of Smash Hits magazine; there was always a dash to Gilmore’s paper shop round the corner and we would spend ages analysing every article, memorising every lyric and lusting after every photograph.
My particular favourite band member was bass guitarist John Taylor- all chiselled features, pouting lips , cheeky grin and floppy hair.
I knew that one day, I would marry him.
It was inevitable.
It was written in the stars.
It was meant to be.
The fact that I was 13 years old, flat chested and sporting a Princess Diana haircut was immaterial. We would live happily ever after in a rock star’s mansion in the Home Counties, travel everywhere by private helicopter, enjoy frequent exotic holidays and attend glamorous parties with Bananarama, Limahl and Spandau Ballet (google it, youths)
My bedroom was a shrine to the band; every square inch of wall was covered in posters and magazine clippings, particularly of the lovely John. I was convinced that if I kissed each of these posters in a certain order every night, by some combination of black magic and sheer willpower, he would be mine.
I did not get John Taylor.
I did get sore, inky lips.
The early 80s had ushered in the era of the music video; bands like Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet and Wham competed to see who could produce the most glamorous, the most colourful and the most outrageous videos to accompany their singles. We didn’t have a video recorder at home. My parents thought it “wasn’t necessary”. We were the last people in the street to get one, in about 1986.
My friend over the road, Christine had one though and when her parents were at work we would all pile into her house and spend hours in a state of hormonal teenage frenzy watching Simon le Bon, Nick Rhodes, and Roger, Andy and the lovely John Taylor cavorting around in exotic locations in crumpled linen suits and eyeliner, miming to their many hits.
It was on such an occasion that I saw for the first time the video created for the band’s 1982 electro-ballad “Save a Prayer” (B-side Hold Back the Rain…) I was mesmerised – for once not by the lovely John – but by the landscape. I had never seen anything like it before. An ancient fortress set atop the vast outcrop of rock, huge figures of reclining Bhuddas carved into the sides of mountains, stone temples, processions of saffron-clad monks, cream-sailed fishing boats, long white beaches, amazing sunsets and playful elephants splashing around in jungle streams.
(You can watch the video here https://youtu.be/6Uxc9eFcZyM )
“Filmed on location in Sri Lanka”.
I eventually outgrew my love affair with John Taylor (sorry John – your loss mate) but my fascination with Sri Lanka remained. I often imagined standing as he had done on the top of the rock fortress at Sigirya, staring wistfully at the jungle below and the mountains in the distance. I longed to sit atop an elephant giggling whilst it squirted river water at me over its head, recreating that famous scene from the video. I yearned to explore the Cave Temples at Dambulla and the magnificent remains of the 11th century city at Polonnaruwa.
33 years later, I did.
I did all of those things, and many others besides. With the family in tow, I watched Sri Lanka take on India in the test match at Galle; I stood next to Kumar Sangakarra and Virat Kohli in the omelette queue at breakfast.
I visited a tea plantation and drank the finest tea I have ever tasted; I experienced an Ayurvedic massage at the hands of a tiny Sri Lankan woman who covered me in orange herb paste and massaged bits of me that were , let’s just say, unfamiliar to the touch of British masseuses.
I saw fire dancers and the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy; I climbed up hillsides past towering golden Buddhas; I went on safari and witnessed families of elephants wandering down to the watering hole, and a particularly angry bull elephant charging a jeep a just a few metres away. This was one of the best family holidays we have ever had.
The highlight of the trip for me however lasted only moments, but will stay with me forever – a herd of elephants crossing a river in the midst of a violent thunder storm.
Not even a night with John Taylor could top that.
We travelled with Trailfinders. Their “Private Touring” department were fantastic. Learn more here.
If this article has whetted your appetite for this amazing country, check out the Lonely Planet website here.
MY BOOKS (NON-FICTION/HISTORY)
The Horsekeeper’s Daughter (2017)
Above Us The Stars: 10 Squadron Bomber Command – The Wireless Operator’s Story (publication date Summer 2020)