Sri Lanka’s central mountainous region, known to locals as ‘Up Country’, finishes in great style at its southern edge. It drops 4,500ft to the plains and paddy fields in one swift, heart-stopping descent. From the main street in Haputale, a favourite haunt of the tea baron Sir Thomas Lipton, I see flashes of the road we are to take, twisting down the mountainside on a series of precipices.
Halfway to Beragala, we come to a halt on a banked hairpin bend. The view from the escarpment over the jungle and the knuckles of rock is fabulous. But Lai has stopped to admire what is immediately below us. He points to a pile of rusting wrecks a few hundred feet down. ‘Mr Robert, a mistake can be very costly,’ says Lai calmly. ‘Many people have
driven their cars mistakenly over here. Some have survived but many are on the spot, not even a trouble to the doctor. We will not join them down there today.’ And with that curious confidence-booster, I return to my well-sprung seat.
On we go, each bend preceded by a two-handed lurch at the large steering wheel. Lai, seemingly oblivious to the peril, chats happily about bird species, the roadside shrines and cricket. In one momentary lapse, I mention Muttiah Muralitharan, the great Sri Lankan spin bowler. Lai casts
‘A mistake can be costly. Many people have driven their cars mistakenly over here. We will not join them down there today’ both hands off the wheel in an extravagant exclamatory gesture. ‘The greatest,’ he says, recapturing the wheel as my heart wedges in my windpipe.