Sri Lanka – Ella
The train journey from Kandy to the hill town of Ella, passing through Nuwara Eliya and other popular little towns, is said to be one of the most beautiful in the world. The slow, slow train winds its way through miles and miles of jungle like vegetation, farmland and mountains, ascending into the hill country of Sri Lanka like an ethereal messenger from bygone days of beauty and simplicity.
At least that’s what our Lonely Planet guidebook would have you believe. The journey is undeniably beautiful and the train is undeniably slow, but after seven hours of crouching against the metal wall of the train corridor, being shaken around with all the other passengers in the packed compartment, I was ready for a break. Because we only arrived in Kandhy the day before we wanted to travel, we weren’t able to reserve seats and as a result the journey wasn’t quite as relaxing as it might have been. That being said, it was still a fun experience and I got a perch pretty near the door so I caught a good breeze and some breathtaking views across the valleys as the air grew colder and the mist rolled in as the train climbed higher into the hill country. We were glad to arrive in Ella, and headed straight for our guesthouse, where we had booked the luxury of a private room, and found beautiful views across the valley to the Rawana Waterfalls.
Ella is a small town almost entirely arranged along one main road, but it is very popular with tourists, so it was nice to wander into town and find a selection of little shops and restaurants, almost like you might find in a skiing village. It strikes me that I’ve never been skiing so I don’t really have the authority to comment on what a skiing village may or may not be like, but The Kardashians recently went to Vale, and I have been Keeping Up with them.
The next day we trekked a little way out of the village, taking the road upwards to ‘mini Adam’s peak’, little brother to ‘Adam’s peak’ in Nuwara Eliya. It was a steep climb up rough stone steps or dusty paths, but the views all along the valley were incredible, and we saw lots of waterfalls cascading down the valley sides. At the top, the view stretched into the distance where the farthest mountains looked almost purple in the slight mist. A quick descent (we were starving) found us back on the main road and we stepped into a roadside café for the most amazing potato curry (a rich yellow colour) with rotti (a dense flatbread) and the local Fanta, which came in a tall glass bottle which reminded me of the old glass coca-cola bottles.
Next stop, via tuk-tuk, was the Uda Hawathe tea factory, which was reached by driving through the steeply terraced tea plantations (tea plants look like short shrubs or bushes with glossy dark green leaves), where many women were at work picking tea. Our guide, obviously an expert in the industry and a lover of genuinely quality tea, explained how the tea leaves (picked by women because they are ‘more careful’ and it is essential that only the young leaves from the very top of the plant are harvested), arrive at the factory and are rolled, sorted, fermented, dried and packed, and how each part of the leaf, depending on how it is handled and at what temperature, will make loose tea leaves of different sizes, which will produce tea of a different flavour, colour, strength and quality. In the hotter months the factory only operates at night, but we were able to see some of the women packing the tea into huge brown paper bags, ready for the auction houses in Colombo. It was genuinely fascinating and we were able to taste the different kinds of tea produced and appreciate how much work goes into the production. I also learned that if you ever find yourself drinking a cup of tea in the UK, there is a fairly high chance that an enthusiastic elderly Sri Lankan man has at one time or other run his hands through it and encouraged tourists to appreciate its texture, smell and feel, as our guide seemed to do pretty indiscriminately with any of the tea he could get his hands on on the production line.
Our tuk-tuk driver, Shiva, was an enthusiastic young guy who had given us a running commentary on all the different types of fruit we were seeing, what vegetables were being grown in the fields, where his brother and cousins lived, what he thought of the drivers we were passing, and where he had recently been taking passengers in his tuk-tuk. He told us that he had recently driven a couple down to Arugam Bay (a three hour drive), and we decided to ask him to drive us there the next day, instead of taking the bus. Compared to the bus or train, tuk-tuk is a very expensive way to travel, but as the seven hour train journey had cost us less than £1.50, Shiva’s price was hardly breaking the bank either, and it meant that we’d have a chance to see more of the country, and avoid wasting one of our precious days stuck in a bus or waiting at bus stops.
We met Shiva the next morning on the main road out of town and he took us first to the Rawana falls so that I could satisfy my need to climb up, paddle in and generally clamber over a waterfall. It was an incredible fall, dropping away beneath a bridge in the road, it was high and fast with a couple of little pools for swimming and lots of different levels which we could climb between. It seems to be popular with locals and tourists alike, but it wasn’t too crowded and we were able to paddle around and bask in the sun as we pleased. We didn’t go swimming in the end, but we did dip our feet in the little pools and then dry off by running around on the hot rocks. After a while, Shiva came to see where we had got to, and was horrified to see Abi climbing up the falls several layers above us. I shrugged resignedly at him and watched through the gaps in my fingers.
Back on the road, we got on at quite a pace and passed through several small towns on our way out to the coast. Shiva bought us yellow coconuts from a roadside stall which, when cut open, were full of sweet coconut water (admittedly I thought it tasted kinda funky but I thought it was so neat how it was packaged up inside the coconut like that, and Abi really liked it). Before long we were driving past ‘elephants crossing’ signposts and through flat plains where we saw water buffalo resting up to their necks in pools of water or covering themselves in thick black mud, as well as pelicans and other exotic birds, and we once caught a glimpse of a herd of elephants in the distance.
By the time we arrived at Arugam Bay, a long sandy ‘hook’ that stretches along the east coast of the island, it was mid afternoon, but we could already feel the intense dry heat which, with a light sea breeze, will be perfect for swimming, sunbathing and maybe even a little surfing. I can’t wait!