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Sri Lanka: my friend the Marwari

Sri Lanka: my friend the Marwari

Pierre-Brice Lebrun - 2012-02-28

Surely there’s no better way to discover a country than riding through it comfortably seated on a good horse: the rider can admire the scenery, wander through villages, gallop along beaches and climb steep hills. Ah, the sheer freedom of it!

Our plane touches down during the wee hours in Colombo, the former capital of Sri Lanka. Before long we are on the road to Kalpitiya; neither the thirteen hours of the journey nor jet lag has put a damper on our zeal for riding. There’s no time to lose as we’ve been told there will be a romp on the beach this afternoon.
 
Until we reach Negombo, our minibus follows the Dutch Canal which - name notwithstanding – was built two centuries before the Dutch arrived on the island, which they controlled and developed from 1658 to 1796. This waterway runs due north parallel to the ocean. It used to transport merchandise of various sorts, but today hundreds of small boats are moored along its banks like so many miniature motor cars. Negombo is best known for its fishing port and the market which is held on the beach where hundreds of fish lie drying on canvas sheets in the open air.
 
Some say that the first catamarans were created in Negombo (in Tamil, kattu means binding and maram means tree or log). The fishermen of Ceylon have been using rudimentary vessels made from two trunks bound together for many centuries. Thanks to these primitive boats, Negombo became the island’s number one fishing port under Portuguese rule from 1505 to 1658. Ptolemy spoke of Ceylon as early as 2 BCE, and the island, which abounds in cinnamon and other spices, had already established trade relations with the Egyptians, the Nabateans and the Omanis at that time. After being colonised by the Portuguese and the Dutch, it came under British rule until its independence on 4 February 1948.
 
Kalpitiya, here we come!
 
Set on the peninsula that separates the Puttalam lagoon from the Indian Ocean, Kalpitiya boasts the most beautiful beaches of north-east Sri Lanka, complete with reefs, salt marshes, mangroves and dunes. Shrimp fishing and rice farming are the principal sources of income here. We take a quick lunch before going out to make the acquaintance of our Marwari horses and then head for golden beaches lined with coconut trees. The first day we cover 20-25 kilometres: around three hours riding.
 
My Marwari and me: friends forever
 
The Marwari is an Indian horse from Marwar, a region in south-east Rajasthan. Conscientiously bred since the 12th century, the Marwari is easily recognised by its crescent moon-shaped ears which curve unexpectedly inward, giving it a particularly sympathetic allure. The breed is elegant, solid and hardy; it naturally lopes with an ambling gait all its own called a ‘revaal’, reminiscent of the Icelandic pony’s tölt.
 
For our second day, we set out (atop our horses, naturally) for a picnic near an old Dutch fort (day two: 25 to 30 km; approximately four hours in the saddle). In the afternoon we go dolphin and whale watching – in these waters it’s almost as if there’s a cetacean frolicking in every wave. 
 
A Stroll through Dambulla
 
Day three is more restful: a minibus carries us to Dambulla where we stop and visit the ancient fortress of Yapahuwa and the temple in the village of Aukana, presided over by one of the island’s most magnificent and well-preserved Buddhas. Carved out of stone in the 5C, he rises majestically twelve metres above his pedestal. After lunch we stroll through the town of Dambulla and its incredible network of caves (6,000 m2), then pay homage to the famous reclining Buddha in the Golden Temple.
 
The elephant patrol
 
Early the next morning we ride along an elephant corridor, a wooded strip several kilometres wide which links different zones of wild elephant habitat. These corridors make it possible for elephants to easily move from one area to another without disturbing traffic or threatening to destroy crops. We have lunch at the fortress of Sigiriya, then change steeds and enjoy a short elephant-back safari in the immense jungle of Habarana (day four: 30 km; approximately four hours riding).
 
The Buddhas of Kandy
 
Next morning we ride around the jungle-girthed Kaldiya Pokuna Lake, (day five: 30 km; approximately four hours riding). After visiting the vestiges of an ancient site which was once a meditation centre for Buddhist monks, we enjoy a picnic and then take the road to Kandy. En route we stop at a garden where cinnamon, cardamom and saffron are cultivated - spices essential to the excellent cuisine of Sri Lanka. The oh-so-fiery flavour of the lentil dahl served for breakfast will be with us all day, in fact; less adventuresome travellers may choose jam or, if necessary, eggs instead. We take full advantage of this break to surrender to the essential oil-coated, expert hands of a masseuse. Ayurveda, I love you.
 
In the tea plains
 
The sixth leg of our journey is only 80 km long, but it takes nearly three hours via minibus to cover them. We’ve changed landscapes: fields as far as the eye can see are planted with row upon row of perfect hand-pruned tea trees of a lovely green, both tender and intense. We have lunch at Nuwara Eliya before reuniting with our horses for a ride through the tea plantations (day seven: 30 km; approximately 4 hours in the saddle). We return on the next day and ride all day (day eight: 40 km; approximately 5 hours riding) before heading for Colombo and, on the morrow, the airport.
 
 
PRACTICAL INFORMATION
 
Randocheval is a French agency specialised in adventures on horseback. In French, rando means ramble and cheval means horse. Randocheval belongs to Absolu Voyages, a French tour and travel agency specialised in ‘tailor-made journeys off the beaten path.’
 
Randocheval
Tel: (+33) 0 4 37 02 20 00
 
Absolu Voyages
Tel: (+33) 0 4 37 02 25 01
 
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