“hello, can you hear
me? the internet’s dropping
out, urgh, where were we?”
“hello, can you hear
me? the internet’s dropping
out, urgh, where were we?”
Our fourth day in Sri Lanka was the busiest of them all. We worked our way down the mountains to the sea on the South Coast.
We began our day at 3:30am, before the sun reared it’s head, before the birds cleared their throats. Our hotel staff farewelled us, handing us each a box of breakfast- an orange, an apple, a sandwich and a muffin for the road. We needed it and were very appreciative.
Our drive to Udawalawe was long and windy. Through the mountain mist, skinny dogs raced in front of the car as we swerved around pot holes and bumps. Every so often someone would emerge from the darkness, in a beanie and a sarong, standing roadside. It was spooky.
Udawalawe National Park has roads etched through it for jeeps to take tourists on safari. There’s apparently 600 elephants in the park, in herds of about 50, and there are other animals about, languid in the heat. We were excited to see them, but less excited for the motorcade of grumbling jeeps which stumbled through the entrance gates in single file at dawn.
We broke from the pack like a renegade gazelle and took our chances. It paid off. We saw water buffalos going about their business, jackals darting in and out of the shrubs and eagles soaring. There was life everywhere, even the smallest of chameleons and tiny bee eaters had us gasp in awe. See there, on the river bank, a crocodile! See there, up in that tree, a painted stork! A peacock, a herron! The elephants stole the show. At first, I spied them through the thicket, just going about their business, but later, they came, right up to the jeep all cautious-like, eyeing us and swinging their trunks. What beautiful and gentle creatures.
Once we had our fill of great beasts, we raced down to the sea. Galle sits on the south coast and has a very interesting history of Portuguese, Dutch and British colonisation on display through it’s architecture. The Galle Fort is a quaint little township with boutique shops and bed and breakfasts peppered across narrow alleyways. One can stroll along the top of the rampart the whole way around, and see the Dutch Hospital, the Clock Tower, the Lighthouse. There’s cafes and restaurants every few meters and all offer something tantalising.
We came for the main event- the Galle Literary Festival. What a fabulous occasion it was! Charles Cumming and Anthony Horowitz in conversation about crime fiction, Sir David Hare interviewed about his career as a playwright, Lucy Fleming in a duet with her husband discussed her uncle, the great Ian Fleming. An intellectual feast!
We stayed at an aborable bed and breakfast, with polished hard wood furniture and a bathroom less spacious than advertised. But our hosts were fantastic, so warm and accommodating, and we went hunting for dinner. We found a little cafe recommended in Lonely Planet and tried the Kotta, and Dhal and Rotti. Such divine flavours, and fresh tuna from the sea! A fabulous day, as we collapsed soon after.
Instead of the typical wake up call from the city, the call to prayer, the blare of horns, we were treated to a different kind of cacophony. Up in the mountains, 1300 feet above sea level are all kinds of birds, all screaming at the top of their tiny lungs to herald the dawn. I think I heard each and every one as the sun swept out the carpet of stars.
Breakfast was a fantastic platter of fruits and hot foods and sweet breads and coffee. We amused ourselves until we decided to go for a walk to Melheim View Point. As we trekked through the trees, I kept turning back to see clouds descend over the mountains. The sun was bright and fierce in the sky, and yet we could both feel the light sprinkle of rain from somewhere above us. Mist raced down the mountains swallowing whole trees as it climbed.
They were still a long way from us, though. We had enough time to reach the view point and gasp. A panorama. True beauty. The horizon was just layers of blue, shades of distant blue, causing you to stop and think hard- is that an outline of mist rising from the valley, or is it a a mountain peak?
Around midday, we traveled to Ella. There, we walked through a tea plantation, past the cows that grazed on the weeds there (milk tea perhaps?) and up an almighty set of stairs that reached into the sky. Mini Adam’s Peak is no mean feat. It’s not terribly intimidating, but when you’ve got a staircase that has no end in sight, and your thighs burn, and you weren’t aware that it would be this much effort, you’ve got to dig deep into your soul and push through.
True majesty awaits at the top of Mini Adam’s Peak.
Stray dogs curl up in holes they’ve dug for themselves in the shadow of a serene golden Buddha. Perhaps they’re guardians.
The hills roll through emerald and moss greens. Ochre roads cut into the mountainsides like veins. Ella Gap is deep and lush, dropping away from the cliff and ending somewhere far below. As the sun peaks through thunderclouds, a bruised grey brewing fast, light spills over the mountain range. The colours are vivid. And then they’re gone.
We trekked back down, a journey much easier than the climb up, then made our way to a nursery for some tea. Sri Lankan tea, served with milk, is not bitter. It is light and refreshing and it is best enjoyed slowly, surrounded by succulents while peering our over the valley. That, is the perfect cup of tea.
Before dinner, our driver checked the train timetable and saw that the Blue train, the very same that carried us from Gampola to Haputale, would be passing through the Ella Gap and the famous Nine Arch Bridge in precisely 45 minutes. We had to go. Take that paved road up past the lake to a fork in the road. You must take the left, do not go right. Walk until you see a small shop but do not stop there. You can buy things if you want to, but I suggest you don’t. Keep walking until the tuk tuks. There will be plenty. When you see them, take the stairs straight down and follow, follow until the train tracks. Be very careful. There is a viewing area. Watch the train.
So we did. We followed these instructions carefully and picked up a few other confused tourists along the way. Some Germans, who nearly took the wrong path at the first fork joined us as we made our way to the bridge.
Sri Lanka has been voted number one for Lonely Planet’s Top Travel Destinations in 2019. It feels like it’s on the cusp of a boom, but it’s not there yet. The path we took down to the bridge was a little goat track worn down over time by tourists and locals. The little shops along the way were shacks attached to homes, and they sold bags of chips or bottles of water. Some charged to show directions to lost foreigners. It seems as if tourists have been told to come to Sri Lanka, but noone’s told the local people that we’d be coming. Residents scramble to make the most of the tourist influx. It’s raw and exciting. In fact, I sighed in relief that there was no escalator down the mountain, no Starbucks or McDonalds or wifi. The infrastructure and corporations haven’t come here yet, and nor should they.
Tourists flock to the most instagrammed bridge in South Asia, like seagulls to a bag of chips. They set up Go-Pros between the rails to capture the train passing over. They sit poised, ‘candid’ on the guard rail, swinging their legs over the chasm. They offer a king coconut husk to the bareboned dogs who aren’t the least bit interested.
5:30pm, the train leaves from Ella.
5:40pm, the train crosses the bridge.
Right on time, a brrraapp echoes through the valley and the train is heard before it is seen. Two headlights push through the darkness of the tunnel and out comes the Blue Train, charging through over the bridge, waiting for noone. There’s a clap and a cheer, and then it’s gone from sight, rails thundering through the trees.
We had dinner in Ella. The town is a small strip that carries backpackers and those in the service industry. It feels like Franz Josef Glacier, a town made up of a strip of shops and transience. It feels a little bit grimey, like anything could happen here on the cheap cocktails, in the side alley tattoo parlours.
The food is good, however. “Best in Sri Lanka” said our driver, who wasn’t wrong. We tried lumprais, which is rice and ten types of curry steamed in a banana leaf and served with chutney and sambal. Food heaven.
a most breathtaking
vista. a panorama.
a sight to behold
instead, we have the
only room with a large shrub
obstructing our view
With her finger she
raps him on the head: “How Dare
You I Am Eating.”
I woke up to the call to prayer from the local mosque. It was nice to hear something familiar in this city of unknowns. We headed up to have breakfast in the dining area- it’s all lovely and open plan, with panoramic views of a blue-skied Kandy. One thing I’ve noticed about Kandy is the amount of potted plants on each residence here, each windowsill and ledge. The plants spill out of the pot and reach up to the sun; orchids and bougainvillea and crepe myrtle. Such stunning bursts of colour really add a welcoming warmth to the town.
Breakfast was a delicious selection of tropical fruits; rambutan, papaya, pineapple, sugar banana. We also had scrambled eggs, rice (laced with coconut) and chutney. The meal was wholesome and delicious.
The sounds of Kandy wafted up to us as we sat on the balcony. A school marching band was parading through the streets practicing for their next sports meet. A crackly megaphone was blasting pop songs. An anvil hitting metal, a dog barking. The overwhelming cacophony of horns blaring in the traffic. A military helicopter carrying none other than the President of Sri Lanka. It was nice to sit mountainside away from the noise.
We left Kandy and drove towards a tea factory, but not without stopping at the local supermarket first. I always love going to supermarkets in other countries, there are minute differences in the way things operate. There was a jewelry section, a pungent fish section, a weighing station for fruit and aisles and aisles of packaged goods. We grabbed some bags of chips and left.
The tea factory smelled of woodfire. We were served a cup of tea each before entering and my goodness, the tea was light, clear, unsweetened amber and I loved it. The tea factory seemed rustic, as if the processing machines had been running since the 1940s. We were shown the difference between two camellia varieties and how they create different teas, and how to categorise the leaves into different grades- Best, Below Best and … something starting with P. I was very impressed. Did you know that there’s a machine invented in Japan that can categorise tea leaves by colour? Remarkable!
We made our way to Gampola, the town were we were to catch the train. Our host at the bed and breakfast was telling us how Gampola was his hometown and he was very proud to have us visit there. It’s small and sits in the shadow of a mountain. I probably would have walked right past the train station had I not been shown it. The station is has all the original train paraphernalia which still in use. The switch room still has a thousand levers for all the different train lines, and there’s a scale of the watermarks left by different floods since the 1930s.
The blue train came, picked us up, and jolted onwards.
We were given first class tickets, which Snidely and I were a little bit disappointed by at first. We wanted the authentic, original Sri Lankan train ride through the mountains, and instead we got a sealed capsule of foreigners, all pressing up against the window for the perfect snapshot of the tea country. After a while, however, we were happy to have comfy seats and air conditioning, so we can’t complain.
The train jerked it’s way up the mountains and through little communities on the way. We passed through tunnels and over bridges and gained speed on on the flats. I had to use sports mode on my camera to make sure the photos weren’t just a blur of green. Once you emerge from the congestion, the mountains open up to reveal terraces of tea plantations. The landscape soars and the tips of trees become shrouded in mist.
The wind picks up and clouds race the train.
We pulled into Haputale, then traveled a short distance down the mountain to a little community called Beragala. I watched rains smear from the clouds from the window. All the townsfolk had knitted beanies.
At our accommodation, we settled in, then gorged ourselves on Ceylonese Fried Rice and a hundred types of curry- all so flavoursome, all so delicious.
Iffa House is a quaint, boutique bed and breakfast. Although the room and bathroom weren’t particularly spacious, the accommodation itself was fantastic. Right in Galle Fort, the B&B is close to the rampart for a stroll to the famous Lighthouse, and a cross-street away from Pedlar Street, with it’s many restaurants, cafes and shoppes. The accommodation is new, clean with cozy communal areas. For me, what made this place great was it’s staff. The service team were good humoured, attentive, welcoming and warm. We were offered a Western style breakfast, or a Sri Lanka breakfast each morning. What a spread! We had the Sri Lankan breakfast and loved it. Also, the beds are so soft, it was like sleeping on a cloud.
Disclaimer: This review was also posted by me on TripAdvisor. This blog has no affiliation with TripAdvisor. I just share my experiences to spread the love to fellow travelers.