Sri Lanka Maps

TRAVELLER PROMOTION

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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