Thrills in the Hills

I feel like I’ve walked from east to west through the heart of Sri Lanka. My calves are still sore, despite being back at the beach for 2 days now. Nothing the ocean can’t fix, right? After leaving Arugam Bay, we headed west to the small town of Ella. Tea estates blanketed the rolling hills between massive rock formations rising in the distance. As we exited the bus, a nice old man offered a place to stay. “Only 2 minutes’ walk down the road,” he promised. Yes, it was 2 minutes down the road…then another 4 minutes on a rocky path through the forest, down stairs, over a rickety bridge, up stairs, (with our packs) and finally to a quiet guest house overlooking a valley and famous Ella Rock. Luckily, it was a beautiful little place, newly remodeled, and the price was right, so we stayed.

The next 2 days we did various hikes around the area; Little Adam’s Peak, Rawana-Ella Falls, and Ella Rock. Little Adam’s Peak was about 2km from town. It offered beautiful views of the surrounding area, a nice trek through tea gardens, and only about 300 stairs to the top. Rawana-Ella Falls is about 6km from town and 90m high. When we got there, we sat down to have a snack and a monkey almost snatched a cracker out of my hand as I handed it to Gabriella! They were suddenly everywhere at the first sight of food! But the best hike was to Ella Rock. A solid 4 hours there and back, down the railroad track, over a waterfall, through the forest, and a good 40 minutes of incline until reaching the summit. The weather was still clear and the view was amazing! This was a nice warm-up for the days to come.

After 3 days in Ella, we took a 3-hour train west to Haputale. As with Ella, the only reason to stay in Haputale is to see the surrounding landscape. We decided to splurge a bit and visit Horton Plains National Park. To save on transportation, our hotel manager recommended taking a 40-minute train to Ohiya, then getting a tuk-tuk for the remaining 11km into the park, which would be about 1,000 rupees. Unfortunately, there was only 1 tuk-tuk at the station in the ghost town of Ohiya and he wasn’t going to get out of his chair for anything less than 2,000 rupees. We even started to walk for a bit, figuring we’d see another taxi since we’re usually barraged with transport options everywhere we go, but there wasn’t a soul in sight. We reluctantly headed back to the station, gritting our teeth, and agreed to his exorbitant price. (We later found out that we could have hired a tuk-tuk all the way from Haputale for 2,000 rupees) As if this price-gouging wasn’t enough, we got hit with a foreign visitor fee (10x higher than locals), service charge, car charge, and 12% tax at the park entrance. All said and done, it was about $30/person for this little adventure (which feels like a lot when you’re living comfortably on $15/day). Luckily, the weather was in our favor and the park was stunning. It consists of a 9km loop that takes visitors past various sites and lookout points, including World’s End, Mini-World’s End, and Baker’s Fall. The sites are interspersed throughout a trail of cloud forest, streams, and open plains. The view from World’s End, which is the main attraction, was bright and clear. It’s a sharp 825km drop down the cliff face! Despite the trouble (and fees) to get there, we both agreed it was worth it.

The next day in Haputale we visited Lipton’s Seat and the Dambatenne tea factory. Lipton’s Seat is named after (you guessed it!) the famous Sir Thomas Lipton, of Lipton’s Tea. As legend has it, he used to go to this particular lookout point to brainstorm about sharing the wonders of his favorite drink with the world while pondering the meaning of life and sipping a piping hot cup of his soon-to-be-famous tea. It’s here where the idea for tea bags was first invented. Ok…so maybe I made that up, but the view does have a tendency to incite some existential thoughts; as does a hot cup of tea. 😉 At the Dambatenne tea factory, we witnessed industrial tea production first hand. It’s still used by Lipton’s tea and sent all over the world. Seeing the whole process was pretty neat, from people picking leaves outside to the dried, cut, and finished product that is bought in stores.

From Haputale, we took a 2.5-hour train to Hatton, then 2 buses to Delhouse for the famous Adam’s Peak hike. Adam’s Peak, standing at 2,243m, is a Buddhist pilgrimage. At the top is a temple that claims to have a footprint from the Buddha. Others believe it is the place where Adam was placed when he was exiled from the Garden of Eden (thus, the name). Although the path is merely 7km, the ascent takes about 3 hours due to the 5,500 steps along the way. Many chose to begin hiking around 2am in order to make it to the top for the sunrise. On a clear day, the peak casts a shadow to the west of a perfect triangle (search “adam’s peak shadow” in google images), which is said to represent the Triple Gem of Buddhism (similar to the Holy Trinity). During pilgrimage season, the trail is lined with lights, pilgrims, and tea stalls all along the way. Unfortunately, the season is Dec-May, so we made the climb at night, in the dark, and alone.

We left our guesthouse at the foot of the trail at 2:50am. Through the darkness, clouds, and leaches, we arrived at the peak around 5:10am. Despite the cool air, we were sweating profusely. Clouds surrounded us and the wind threatened to fling us back to Earth. The sunrise came soon, but it was too cloudy to see anything. There were moments when the clouds would break and the view was clear to the land below, but it was quickly swallowed up and obscured again. It wasn’t until we descended a bit and got below the clouds that we could enjoy the spectacular views. We had no idea the area we had been trekking in through the night! Off to the northeast was a giant cliff face with waterfalls trickling down. Adam’s Peak itself was covered in a lush forest rich in biodiversity. In the distance we caught a glimpse of the early sunshine shimmering off a lake creating a silhouette of shoreline trees that made us believe we saw heaven. Pictures do it no justice. Going down the mountain felt harder than going up, because our legs had turned to jelly by then, but the spectacular views made it worthwhile and gave us a rush of adrenaline. We made it back to our guesthouse around 9am and sat down for a large, well-deserved breakfast. Then we packed our things and headed off on the next bus to Hatton where we caught the 1:54pm train to Kandy.

Kandy is the second biggest city in Sri Lanka, located in near the middle of the country. Gabriella wasn’t too keen on stopping by, but since we had to pass through on the train anyways, I wanted to have a look. We thought we’d stay 2-3 nights depending on how we felt. After a good night’s rest from a long day of hiking Adam’s Peak and traveling to Kandy, we planned to explore the town. Our legs thought otherwise. Overnight, our calves sought revenge and tightened up like a snake around its prey. We could barely wiggle our toes without wincing in pain! But we couldn’t afford to simply lie around, since food and our accommodations were more than double what we had been used to paying. We did a few stretches, rubbed on the Tiger Balm, and gingerly went about exploring Kandy. Every time we came to a set of stairs we had to take them one at a time! Only now can we laugh about it…

The main attraction in Kandy is the Temple of the Tooth. It claims to possess a tooth from the Buddha that was recovered from the ashes of his cremation over 2,500 years ago. The temple is decorated with many ornate artifacts and beautiful Buddhist artwork. In the center is another two-story building that actually houses the tooth. On the second floor is a chamber that contains the tooth in a dagoba-shaped gold casket, which contains a series of 6 more caskets of descending size, like Russian dolls, the smallest of which contains the tooth. You can’t actually go into the chamber with the relic and the entrance is inaccessible for most of the time, except after the daily pujas. Even then, spectators must file past the doorway for a quick glance at the gaudy capsule and take pictures from a distance. We toured the grounds for a few hours in the afternoon, and then returned at night for the evening puja for a glance at the sacred relic. In between, we must have had some crazy juice because we decided to walk up a large hill for a close up look at a massive Buddha statue that overlooks the town, wincing the entire way. It was about 20 minutes to the top, but we were suddenly caught in a rain storm on the way down and got drenched. Luckily, the warm summer air dried us quickly before returning to the temple.

After such a long day of walking around the city with sore legs, up and down hills and stairs, we figured we had enough of the hills in the countryside and would leave to the southern beaches the next day. When we got back to our hotel, the manager asked us, “What time would you like to have breakfast?” to which we told him that we wouldn’t be having breakfast (since we found a much better and cheaper place to eat nearby) and that we were leaving to the train station in the morning. He quickly threw a guilt-trip hissy-fit in our direction saying that he had already bought the food for breakfast, although we hadn’t requested it, and that we agreed to stay 3 nights, not 2, which is why he gave us a “deal” for the room. His tone was quite aggressive and bitter, which didn’t make us want to sympathize or stay any longer, especially since we were being price-gouged as it was. Perhaps it was because we were the only guests in the place. We quickly said goodnight and retired to our room, avoiding further conflict.

The next morning, we packed our things and went to pay and exit, but there was no one to be found. I called out for anyone who was around, but no answer. I tried to look out the front door, but it was locked from the outside. We were trapped! Rage quickly set in because we had a train to catch. I explored other options for an escape, which would be difficult since the hotel was perched on a steep hillside. I found a way out on the top floor so we grabbed our things, climbed 2 flights of stairs and fled. As we were making our way down the outside stairs (still in pain), we saw the man who worked there and bitterly handed over some money for the 2 nights stay. “You need a tuk-tuk?” he asked. “Not from you,” I responded. My temper finally cooled over a delicious Sri Lankan breakfast at a reasonable price down the street. We got to the train station with plenty of time to spare and made our way west to Colombo, then changed trains to go south to Galle.

We’re now relaxing in a small beach town called Unawatuna where life is slow and the water is warm. Our legs are still a bit sore, but getting better each day. We’ll be here until Tuesday, recovering from the amazing hikes, long train rides, and crazy hotel owners. Oh the joys of traveling!

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Categories: Sri Lanka | 1 Comment

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One thought on “Thrills in the Hills

  1. Mindi

    Great account of your adventures, OMG – the pictures!!!! I can’t believe all the climbing, climbing, climbing. Always on trails I hope. 🙂 You had some amazing sights and were surrounded by some awesome “energy”. Hope you’re enjoying your rest at the beach!! XOXOXO

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