Rob Penn takes a passenger seat as he is whisked back to 1959 in an ancient Austin Cambridge, driven from the mountains to the sea by Lai, his talkative chauffeur
The driver arrives as I am finishing my scrambled eggs in the wood-panelled dining room of the Bandarawela Hotel: Jeewanlal Priyantha Hendavitharana, at your service,’ he says. Rob Penn,’ I reply curtly. We shake hands. It’s good to meet you… I’m sorry, what’s your name again?’
Ah.’ he says, smiling brightly, my name should be tricky after a glass of whisky, no? But you can call me Lai. The car is ready.’ The cream-and-black Austin Cambridge gleams in the morning light. I am keen to give it a once-over. It is a handsome, honest vehicle, conjuring images of country parsons and cream teas – although the tail fins and wing mirrors hint at something more racy. As Lai shows me round it becomes apparent that he is an old-car aficionado. In 40 years of restoration projects, he has also owned a Renault Dauphine, Morris Travellers, Triumph Heralds, Peugeot 203s, a Ford Prefect and – the most splendidly named of them all – an Opel Kapitan.
I have some little tactics to keep the old boys going,’ says Lai, so the condition of this car is first rate.’ And it is: the seats and the elementary dashboard look new, and the engine starts with apparent ease. There is a metal kiss as Lai finds first gear and eases out into the tangle of traffic on Bandarawela’s main street.
Sri Lankans have something of a passion for old cars. You do not have to travel far on a highway before a Morris Minor or a Hillman Minx chuffs by,
taking commuters to work or returning children from cricket practice. These are not antiques rolled out for collectors’ shows; they are re-conditioned bangers, servicing daily needs’ as the hotel manager had put it the previous day, when I told him that I wanted a car. But please – not a Toyota van,’ I said. Something more authentic.’
That is how I come to be sitting in the well-sprung passenger seat of a 1959 Austin Cambridge, careering through the hill country on a spectacular morning, on a journey through Sri Lanka’s three climatic zones, from the temperate mountains across the Dry Zone’ to the tropical beaches of the south coast.
On the road to Haputale, I feel like a minor dignitary – perhaps a government tea inspector. Bandarawela is famous for two things,’ Lai begins his commentary, the best climate in the world and flavoury tea, top quality.’ We wind through the high sierra in the cool, eucalyptus-scented air, passing the rows of vivid green bushes
and Tamil women, bright as parakeets, plucking the buds.
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