Sri Lanka Part 4 – The highlands

This is the 4th part of my series of posts on Sri Lanka. Enjoy!

After a few relaxing days in Tissa, we were feeling much better and beginning to really enjoy our time in Sri Lanka. Our next stop was the small mountain town of Ella. There are no trains from Tissa to Ella, since the 1000 metre climb up from sea level is simply too steep. So, it was back on the chicken buses for us! We were informed that we would need to take two buses to get to Ella, the first one to the town of Wellawatta, and then a second bus up to Ella.

No sooner had our tuk-tuks dumped us on the side of the main road, than a bus pulled up. The conductor shouted “Ella, Ella?”, and we said yes. The secret luggage was opened, and we threw our stuff in and climbed aboard. I didn’t think it was possible for a bus driver to be crazier than the previous bus we took, but I was wrong – this guy was seriously on something! As we overtook trucks going full pelt around blind corners, I began to regret having been so cheap and not hiring a private car to take us to Ella. Sophie and the kids were also turning a pale shade of green. Luckily, the ride came to an end without incident, and after about an hour we got off at the Wellawatta bus station and went to look for the bus to Ella.

After a short search, we located the bus. This time, however, there was to be no storing the luggage away – it was simply piled up on the top of the engine cover next to the driver, along with a few other tourist’s bags. “That looks a bit dangerous…”, I thought to myself. We waited for the bus to fill up for about 15 minutes, and then we headed off. This bus was a bit long in the tooth, and I wondered if it would make the climb up to Ella. The route started out flat, and then we began to see mountains appearing in the distance. The bus could not really do more than about 40 km/h, but that was fine by us! Eventually we began winding our way up into the mountains. Sophie and Nina were sat on the left of the bus, while Greg and I were on the right. This happened to be the side that looked down into the valley below. I was glad that the girls could not see the hundreds of feet drop down into the valley… As we got further along the road, it got steeper and steeper, and the switchbacks began. The bus was pretty much stuck in first gear for the last brutal part of the climb. As we went around a blind switchback, another huge bus came around the corner and our driver had to slam on the brakes in a hurry to avoid running into the other bus. The bus stalled, and I began to say my prayers, with visions of the headlines “Bus plunges into ravine in Sri Lanka, tourists killed.” Our driver had obviously done this a thousand times before, and he stopped the bus from rolling back into the valley, started the engine and off we went, much to my relief! Soon afterwards, the bus rolled into Ella and we gladly got off.

The first thing that struck us about Ella was the sheer number of tourists milling about – they were swarming around everywhere like ants, quite a contrast with sleepy little Tissa. Coffee shops, restaurants, and little mon & pop stores lined the main road. It was also a bit cooler than Tissa, which was a pleasant change. According to Google Maps, our guest house was only 950 m up the road, so we ignored the tuk-tuk drivers and headed off on foot, dragging our cases up the potholed street. Turns out that Google Maps has a lot to learn about Ella, since half the roads were not even shown, including the road our guest house was on! After a bit of asking around, we soldiered on until eventually we got to the Mount Breeze Villa, a tiny home-stay hidden away down a windy side street. We collapsed into the chairs at the shaded sitting area, all sweaty despite the cooler temperature. Our hosts were very welcoming and friendly, and we were offered tea on arrival. After a cuppa, all was well with the world again.

Greg & Nina at Little Adams Peak, Ella

Now, you may be wondering what attracts so many tourists here, and I’m not really sure I can answer that. It’s one of those places that was once unknown, but has since undergone such a tremendous period of growth that it has outgrown itself. Even today, there are building sites everywhere, of all sizes, all vying for a better view of the famous Ella Rock, and the surrounding valleys. Despite these shortcomings, we did enjoy our time in Ella. We went for a walk up to Little Adams Peak for a great view of Ella Rock, and along the train tracks to a waterfall also with stunning views. We also made it on foot up to a tea factory and had our very own guided tour of the factory, which the kids loved! We visited a Buddhist rock temple with a 12 m tall statue of Buddha carved into the rock face many centuries ago. We ate at a great Italian restaurant, which made a change from the Sri Lankan food we had been eating.

Walking the rails, Ella

After three nights in Ella, it was time to move on again. On thing that might explain the hordes of tourists in Ella is that it is located on the scenic train line that winds its way through the central highlands of Sri Lanka. Even if you are not a train geek, this is one train journey you have to experience! Upon our arrival in Ella, we had the foresight to go to the train station to book tickets for our onward journey to Kandy. We were told that first class seats were the way to go, so that’s what we asked for. We were then informed that these seats had sold out a long, long time ago, and that the only remaining reserved seats were in 3rd class. Images of us sitting on the roof of the train came into our minds as we stood there, trying to decide what to do. Eventually, the station manager came over and said to us something along the lines of “Stop whining and get the 3rd class reserved seats already! It’s only you tourists on the train in any case…”, and so, that’s what we did.

High up in pine forests

It turns out that 3rd class reserved is a very good option, as the bunch of Germans that had gotten on the train at Ella promptly got off one station later, and we practically had the carriage to ourselves for the rest of the journey to Nuwara Eliya. The distance traveled was a mere 65 km, but it took the train 3 hours! That works out to a slower average speed than I cycle at usually. There was something magical about that journey, just slowly chugging away around the hillsides, through endless tea plantations, and then as we got up to higher elevations, we started entering giant stands of eucalyptus trees, and then eventually tall pine forests. The highest station we stopped at was at an elevation of 1898 m, and we were totally immersed in the clouds. Visibility was a few tens of metres, and the temperature had gone down dramatically. It was time to put on a jumper! As the train continued on its way, we began to descend once again, and soon we broke out of the clouds and we welcomed the sunshine. The train station is located about 8 km out of town, and we had to get a taxi to our hotel.

View from the train to Nuwara Eliya

The town of Nuwara Eliya is located at almost 2000 m above sea level, and is quite a large, bustling place, with countless hotels and guest houses either built, or under construction. This is a resort town where Sri Lankans come to escape the heat. Lots of British colonial heritage here, including a horse racing track right in the middle of town. As we walked beside it, we were accosted by about ten guys on little ponies, wanting to sell us tours around the track. So eager were they that we nearly got run over by horses in the scrum! After walking to visit the very underwhelming Gregory Lake (how could we not visit it?), where foreigners had to pay 200 Rupees each just to walk next to the lake (umm, no thanks!), we got a tuk-tuk back towards town, and visited Victoria Park, supposedly the most lovely gardens in south Asia. We were scammed by the ticket lady, which left a somewhat bitter taste in our mouths, but nonetheless, we enjoyed a rainy stroll through the park. We had wondered where all the Chinese tourists were, since we had not seen any since Galle. Well, we found them in Nuwara Eliya, by the busload!

Gregory @ Gregory Lake!

We were getting a bit worn out by this time, so after a long and frustrating hunt for a working ATM, and a quick dinner, we returned to our hotel. We had a nice big room with two small balconies looking out over town. But the downside was that the room was cold, and the small portable heater was not doing a lot to heat it up. Luckily, we still had some sachets of choco-latte that our friend Arti had given us in Delhi, so we made got drinks and snuggled under the covers. We actually had quite a good night’s sleep, until the dogs started fighting at 5 am, that is…

The next day we had to get back to the station in order to catch the 9:19 am train to Kandy. This was to be another 3rd class reserved trip of 5 hour duration, mostly going downhill to Kandy, which is at an elevation of about 600 m. While not quite as stunning as our journey of the previous day, it was still a lovely way to see the country. Tea plantations are just everywhere! Eventually, we entered the built-up area of Kandy, which sits at the bottom of a valley surrounded by hills on all sides. We were now in central Sri Lanka!