Friday, 28 August 2015

Lipton's seat and Badulla

My second day started at 6am when I caught a bus to the Dambatenne Tea Factory. This is one of the most famous factories in Sri Lanka because it was built by Sir Thomas Lipton in 1890. I’m sure you’ve heard the name before but if for some reason you haven’t, just have a look in the hot drinks aisle of the local supermarket. Lipton was a remarkable man whose ambitions weren’t limited to success in business. In 1909 he donated a trophy for an international football competition 21 years before the first World Cup and he made a number of unsuccessful attempts to win yachting’s America’s Cup.

Lipton’s Seat

At the top of a narrow paved road that climbs for about 7km behind the tea factory is the lookout point known as Lipton’s Seat. It was here that the Scottish tea baron liked to host picnics and survey his burgeoning empire. The hike up took about 1 ½ hours and the view in the early morning sun was magnificent. The reason for going so early is you need to beat the cloud that usually rolls in about mid-morning. Coming down was much easier because I used the more direct route of the stone steps that tea pickers use when working in the plantations.

View from near Lipton’s Seat

Back in Haputale I made a second attempt to do the trip to Badulla that I hadn’t been able to complete from Ella. Although the train was running 45 minutes late, I did it successfully this time. As I anticipated, the railway passes through some beautiful scenery and my arrival time gave me a couple of hours sightseeing in one of Sri Lanka’s oldest towns that was occupied briefly by the Portuguese before it became an important social centre for the British. Today it’s a typical Sri Lankan bustling town but there are a handful of sights worth visiting.

Muthiyagana Vihara

Most visiting Sri Lankans visit Muthiyagana Vihara which is a beautifully kept Buddhist complex with a large white stupa, central temple, meditation room and small shrines. I also visited the Kataragama Devale which is a Hindu temple with carved wooden pillars and faded murals painted on the outer walls. I finished my afternoon at St Mark’s church which as some interesting old headstones in the graveyard that surrounds it. Inside the church itself is a plaque commemorating an elephant hunter by the name of Major Rogers.

There’s a fascinating story that surrounds this particular gentleman. In four years of carnage he killed some 1,500 elephants. Legend has it that during a severe thunderstorm in 1845 Rogers stepped onto his veranda and proclaimed to his wife that it’s all over. Seconds later a final bolt of lightning struck him dead. The remaining elephants probably trumpeted in delight! As if to complete the act of justice, Rogers’ headstone is now cracked in half, reputedly by another bolt from the heavens! 

Adisham Monastery
Before departing the Hill Country, I sneaked in a visit to the Adisham Monastery. This elegant stone-block building was once the home of a successful tea planter who wanted to recreate is English lifestyle. So he had this beautiful mansion built and surrounded it by immaculate lawn and garden. The finishing touch was a Daimler car in the garage complete with chauffeur! Nowadays it is one of only 18 monasteries in the world belonging to the Sylvestrine Congregation which is a suborder of the Benedictine fraternity founded in the 13th century.

Friday, 21 August 2015


My next destination was Haputale at the southern edge of the Hill Country. It would be my farewell to this beautiful part of Sri Lanka and I had a fabulous time there. It’s only an hour by bus from Ella so I had two full days in this largely Tamil town. It sits at 1580 metres above sea level and clings to a narrow mountain ridge that falls away steeply on both sides. So it’s a spectacular location and on a clear day you can see all the way to the southern coast. That would be early morning before the swathes of mist roll in and swirl around the peaks.

Mosque overlooking Haputale

After visiting the pretty Anglican church and adjacent graveyard I jumped on the train (which was actually on time on this occasion!) and travelled one station 8km to the west. I hiked back along the railway line which hugs one side of the ridge and is a proud achievement of 19th century engineering. It was interesting that I had beautiful clear views into the valley to my left, while on the opposite side was thick with cloud and I could see virtually nothing.

Views of the Hill Country

After a few kilometres I left that railway line and took a trail that led through the Tangamale Nature Reserve. This was a lovely hike that went through pockets of native bush. For a while all I could hear was birds chirping and the sound of a stream as it trickled its way down the mountain. It was a world away from the noise, hustle and pollution of the big cities so I appreciated the peaceful bliss while it lasted. It was then a pleasant 3km walk along a quiet road back to the town.

It was a day when things just fell into place because when I arrived at the station there was a bus leaving within minutes. This would take me 23km down the mountain to the magnificent Diyaluma Falls. At 171 metres, it is the third highest waterfall in Sri Lanka. Water seems to leap from the top of the escarpment and fall in one clear drop down the sheer rock face into the pool below. It’s a great sight from the road below but I didn’t stand admiring for too long because I wanted to do the 45 minute hike to the top. 

Diyaluma Falls (171 metres)

The track is a bit indistinct and steep in places but the rewards of getting up there are stunning views, beautiful rock pools and a few mini falls that lead to the top of the main fall. Although it was late afternoon I had enough time for a refreshing swim in one of the pools before sitting to admire the panorama of greenery below me. I could easily have stayed longer but I had to get down and pick up a bus before dark. It was 1¼ hours back up the mountain to Haputale.

Friday, 14 August 2015

Hiking in Ella

In the lovely little town of Ella it’s very convenient to ease back and not do a lot.  But it also offers some fine walks which I did during the couple of days I spent there.  The first of these follows a gently ascending road that goes through several tea plantations, some of which had pickers at work.  The destination is Little Adam’s Peak which bears a striking resemblance to its larger namesake but only takes about ten minutes to reach the top from the road.

Lush green tea plantations

The top offered great a panorama of the surrounding area, including a view down the large valley known as Ella Gap.  I sat for a while and watched vehicles snaking their way along a winding road far below me.  In the other direction there was a tea factory.  Like many others, it is a distinctively large corrugated iron building, four storeys tall.  It sits at the top of a ridge in order to catch the breeze which helps dry the tea leaves that have been recently plucked (in the tea world apparently leaves are plucked rather than picked).
It’s interesting to note also that Sri Lanka only started growing tea in the colonial era.  Until the 1860’s coffee was the predominant crop in this cool climate.  It was only when a virus virtually decimated the entire coffee stock that the British turned to tea.  Today Sri Lanka produces millions of tons of tea and is second only to India when it comes to exporting the product.  Aside from the quantity though, Sri Lankan tea is award winning in its quality of flavour and body.

Top of the world!  On Ella Rock.

Bright and early the second day I did the more strenuous hike up Ella Rock which is a higher viewpoint overlooking the valley on the opposite side.  The first part of this route is a 2½ km walk along the railway line which seems to be a pathway many of the locals use.  Never mind about any safety regulations relating to this because they don’t exist.  It’s much in line with passengers being able to stand in doorways and hang out the windows as the train gathers speed.

Inside the Dowa Temple cave shrine

From the heights of Ella Rock I returned to the town and took the descending road down to the Dowa Temple.  This is a cave shrine that dates back centuries in one form or another.  Today the internal walls are covered with beautiful Sri Lankan style Buddhist murals and there is a four metre high standing Buddha image carved into the rock face beside the temple.  Altogether I’d walked about 16km that day but it was well worth the effort and very enjoyable.  I did get the bus back to Ella though!

My travel in Sri Lanka was almost exclusively by bus.  There’s something romantic about taking the train though and I thought I should do it at least once.  So having a few hours to spare I decided to take an excursion to Badulla which is at the end of the line that begins in Colombo.  The only problem was that almost everything I’d heard from other travellers about the rail system reflected an appalling record for timeliness and reliability.  It was my turn to realise that yes, this is unfortunately true.

The pace of life is slow in rural Sri Lanka

The train was scheduled to depart Ella at 3.07pm and initially I was told it was running 30 minutes late.  I waited and was then informed it would be an hour late.  I went and had a cup of tea and returned to find it was going to be between 90 minutes and 2 hours late.  I waited till 4.40pm and gave up.  Regrettably there simply wasn’t going to be enough daylight left to make it worthwhile.  So I had the best of intentions but I guess some things just aren’t meant to be…

Friday, 7 August 2015

Nuwara Eliya, the City of Light

The journey from Dalhousie to Nuwara Eliya is where you can really appreciate that travel is slow in Sri Lanka.  The jade green hill country doesn’t cease to capture the imagination with its serene beauty.  The area overlooking the crystalline Castlereigh Reservoir is just gorgeous.  Nuwara Eliya sits at an altitude of about 1,900 metres and it’s a spectacular climb up a winding road.   

The beautiful Castlereigh Reservoir

Nuwara Eliya means ‘City of Light’ and it is Sri Lanka’s main hill station.  It is sometimes referred to as ‘Little England’ and a walk around the town offers reasons why.  There are influences evident in the red post boxes, colonial bungalows, and pink brick Victorian post office.  Right now it has an unassuming, misty mountain ambiance that you can’t help but enjoy.  During spring though the town is crowded with holiday-makers enjoying horse racing, sports-car hill climbs and the Sri Lankan New Year.  So, despite the cold nights it’s probably a good time to be here.

Visitor instructions at Victoria Park

The first thing I did here was visit Victoria Park which was pretty but really comes alive when flowers start blooming in April.  I then jumped on a bus heading down the winding road toward Kandy and got off at the Ramboda Waterfall where water tumbles down a rock face of 108 metres.  Back in town I did a hike up into a hill for great views of the surrounding area.  I passed a number of tea plantations, some with Tamil pickers at work.  Getting late in the day, I had to seek shelter from a shower of rain before getting back to my hotel.  The bright, sunny mornings are always the best time in the higher parts of the hill country.

Before arriving in Sri Lanka, I was naturally curious how it was going to compare with India which I’m now reasonably familiar with.  Well, without wanting to state the obvious, there are similarities and obvious differences.  Without being unkind toward India, Sri Lanka is cleaner and more refined.  Western influences are more obvious in dress and cuisine.  If I can give a vague analogy, Sri Lanka is to India what Singapore is to Malaysia.  Costs are similar but India is certainly a bit cheaper and offers better value accommodation.

View of Nuwara Eliya from Single Tree Hill (2100m)

Although travel is slow, the roads are generally good and despite often being crowded, the buses are more comfortable.  The horn is used with more moderation although bus stations are hectic, noisy places.  The people here are generally very friendly, helpful and a pleasure to meet.  Like Indians, they share a love of cricket and often a conversation will be sparked simply because I come from a country that plays the game at international level.  Even those that can’t speak much English don’t shy from at least an enthusiastic greeting and smile.

So, all in all it’s a pleasure to be in Sri Lanka and in about an hour I’ll be on a bus to the lovely town of Ella.  There are some pleasant walks through tea plantations to waterfalls and temples but nothing too strenuous.  After a month of fairly intense travel it’ll be an opportunity to ease off the accelerator before making my way down to Galle on the southern coast.