Ask anyone in a Sri Lankan travel agency where you should go for unspoilt nature and great hiking and they will inevitably tell you to go to Nuwara Eliya.
Ask any traveller who has been to Nuwara Eliya and they will invariably tell you they wish they had spent more time in Ella.
Both are towns nestled among tea plantations in the the Sri Lankan hills but, (and this is purely from hearsay) as Nuwara Eliya is better known on the tourist trail, it is crowded and lacks some of the appeal of Ella’s remoteness.
I had opted to visit Ella after chatting with some Sri Lankans back in Colombo. The drive from Kandy was typical of mountain roads: littered with sharp bends and frequent changes of altitude. I love that kind of driving so was grinning like a Cheshire cat. In addition to the joys of driving, the route offered something to the aesthete:
On arrival in Ella I was in need of hydration after the long drive. Having read once (possibly on The Onion, admittedly) that beer hydrates faster than water, I chose to listen to science by heading to Cafe Chill, the largest and, arguably, best resto-bar in town. There I met a friendly and very interesting Hungarian by the name of Balazs (pronounce it if you can) who had been working as a care-giver in Arizona. As you do.
The cafe was serving Lion lager so I drank three to be patriotic. Then decided to be doubly patriotic and drank three more. We were several sheets to the wind when we finally stumbled off towards our respective guesthouses.
I was planning to climb Ella Peak – the second tallest hill in the area – the next morning and had booked breakfast for 7.30am. I regretted this deeply until I caught sight of my breakfast.
When I tell you the other half of the breakfast was brought out shortly after this photo you’ll realise I was well fueled for the hike. Heck! I was well fueled for a week’s hiking!
I had a piece of paper with typed directions which read something like this:
“Follow the railway then turn off left. Arrive Ella Peak.”
This was about as much use as a solar-powered torch! For a start, it didn’t stipulate in which direction I should follow the tracks, nor did it give any indication as to where I should turn left.
After some enquiries, I struck out in what I hoped to be the right direction.
After a mile or two and at least one wrong left turn, I came across a group of men chatting by the railway. They pointed me off left across a bridge towards Ella Peak. Following their directions, I ended up in a field of maize. At that moment one of the railway men materialised and told me I was in his field and had gone the wrong way. I hadn’t. It was a scam.
He led me back onto the correct path this time and, knowing it would be easier than arguing, I offered him 100 rupees. He raised an eyebrow. “500?” he suggested. Here my virtuous rage started to simmer.
“You gave me the wrong directions on purpose. I didn’t ask you to lead me back to the path either. I’m going. Take the money or it’s going back in my pocket.”
He took the money. I stalked off.
I got lost at least once more on my way to the peak, once when I couldn’t have been more than a few hundred metres from it. I did eventually arrive, though, and was glad I had.
It is often pleasant, on accomplishing a goal, to share one’s experience or celebrate in some way. I looked around for someone to talk to. The other hikers on the peak were:
- Three gap-year-age girls from northern Europe somewhere
- A weatherbeaten hippie from the U.S. who was pushing seventy yet happy to bombard the aforementioned girls with his best chat-up lines
- An Aussie couple
Choosing not to interrupt the hippie now that he was hitting his stride, I picked the Aussies (lucky them, right?).
“All the sweating was worth it for a view like that!” was probably the kind of ice-breaking opener I offered them. 5 minutes later I’m heading downhill chatting to Matt and “call me Sue” Suiyin, Melbournites who’ve been averaging a 12km hike per day whilst on holiday, as if I’ve known them for donkey’s years.
After 30 minutes I’m listening to unplugged recordings of their son Callum’s music (he’s got a cool sound so check out his band Folkie and the Punk if you’re in Melbourne or looking for nascent talent) and we’ve decided to double down on the hike by following the railway tracks back past the town to the Nine Arches Bridge. (Any guesses why they called it that….?)
The engineering was astounding and the overall effect quite Harry Potter-esque, but our enjoyment of the bridge was inhibited by a noise that sounded like a swarm of very angry bees with megaphones. It was a drone.
Averaging an impressive 30 poses per minute, a Russian girl was prancing about on the bridge whilst her boyfriend took aerial shots of her via the drone to boost her Egostagram. To get the perfect photo she even posed provocatively on the bridge wall, perilously close to the edge. I’m reasonably sure I didn’t make any comments about the desire to see Darwinism in action. At least, not out loud….
Hungry from hiking, we stopped by the bridge for curds and honey. Matt and Suiyin told me they’d picked up “a stray” (verbatim) like me the day before too. Then as if eavesdropping, along he wanders.
Before wandering off again, Dave (I think that was his name), happened to mention that we were very close to Little Adam’s Peak, the highest in the area. The less hardcore in the group (that’s Matt and me) exchanged a nervous look. But it was too late.
Suiyin: “Now that we’re here we should probably just climb Little Adam’s Peak too, don’t you think?”
It was happening. Hike part #3.
Whilst the hike was actually quite fun, I have zero evidence of our final ascent because, just as we reached the summit, a contrary cloud came and sat on our heads and obstinately refused to move.
We walked back into town and agreed to meet later for dinner and drinks. I invited Balazs along too, as he was still in town (thereby creating an Australo-Hungarian alliance – see what I’ve done there?) and, by about 9pm it was looking like the night before had just been a warm-up!
Somewhere during the evening I offered to give M&S a lift to a wildlife reserve in the south on my way to Weligama, the beach resort that was to be my next stop.
Hungover me collected hungover them after breakfast and, via a brief photocall by the Ravana Falls just south of Ella, we made for the Udawalawe animal reserve.
On arrival in Udawalawe, unlike in Anamalai, where I had seen virtually no wildlife, here the animals were a little more prominent:
I dropped Matt and Suiyin with a promise to visit if I were ever again in Melbourne then drove away south towards my next blog post.