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.