Super crush load
Trains which you don’t book a seat for are a lottery. That is doubly true when you’re getting on halfway up the line. True to form, the Colombo-Ella train arrived at Kandy station fairly well packed. It’s a matter of sheer luck (and possibly prior knowledge) whether the place where you end up on the platform accords to any space on the train itself, or whether you happen to be beside a third class carriage and just decide to give it a go anyway, wasting the second class premium on your ticket (About £1, meh) My primary top tip here is that possession is everything and all of the train will end up packed anyway, so just get on where you can. Enter the train and get as close to/far onto a seat as you are able. Just hop on, and stake a claim.
It so happened that I actually managed to get a proper seat, which I quickly converted within two stops’ time to a coveted window place- on this part of the line it’s photography heaven. Doubly lucky that the large group of drumming and singing young men fecked off rapidly too. 6hrs of bhangra beats would have bored a hole into my skull and it’s possible that the drum might accidentally have fallen out of the open train door.
Much indeed, like my new German friend. Probably a nice guy, but one who insisted in hanging out of the door for the ENTIRE FRICKING JOURNEY with a luminous green drybag ruining 90% of my train photos… Get in the sea, with your drybag, German Ed Sheeran!
Despite this, the lovely clattery meander up into the tea plantations was an absolute treat. Initially I’d planned to get off at Nuwara Eliya, a venerable old hill station with a grand old hotel, however seeing the crowds of people at intermediate stations trying and physically failing to get on the stupidly busy train, I decided to take the bird in the hand and just stick with it. Sometimes you need to take a long journey day to save yourself repeating the crushing.
Arriving in Ella was somewhat of a relief after an incredibly scenic train journey which had seriously outstayed its welcome. Despite me having immense luck and actually getting a seat, more so a window seat, any seat becomes a bit of an ordeal after you’ve been welded to it for 7 hours straight. I didn’t dare to visit the toilet since I’d have to relinquish this treasured perch.
On arrival in Ella I surmised that it was somewhat of a tourist hotspot, as literally 70% of the train, mainly Europeans, decamped onto the quaint platform, rendering a crush nearly so great as within the train on our toil up the mountain.
I’d not eaten substantially on the train due to the simple expedient that, whilst seated, I had about the same range of arm movement as a Tyrannosaurus Rex. So, finding food was a priority. A trawl through the tourist ghetto surrounds of the station provided little of interest so I just hiked up to the guest house instead.
It’s fair to say that you aren’t likely to be homeless in Ella. There’s a huge array of accommodation, and quality is much of a muchness. I’d scanned Hostelworld prior to coming and my choices were “Sleep Cheap”, a budget backpacker place where all of the furniture was pallets- Beds, tables, benches and everything. Not modified pallets, just pallets. So that was out. As was the intriguing-looking hippy colony a few kilometres out, which was universally slated by all online reviews as being a complete hellhole where you had to sleep in filthy tents and be somewhere only hardcore techno aficionados would appreciate. So that was a no too.
Sita’s Heaven proved to be a great choice. Situated right up on the hillside overlooking the magnificent Ella Gap, it was mentioned in Lonely Planet as one of their favourites. Refreshingly there’s no way to book it online, so a phone call went into the owner and a room was secured. 3000LKR (About £14) a night for a ‘single’ room which actually turned out to be a bit of a palace with a huge double bed and en-suite. And a terrace overlooking that!
The owner was an incredibly warm, hospitable man and offered to cook me dinner since the prospect of a walk back down to the dusty tourist ghetto centre wasn’t appealing. A medley of amazing curries duly appeared, which I feasted on in his family dining room. A great day.
I firmly now believe in quality not quantity when holidaying, since I had 3 nights in Ella there was no need to rush the sightseeing. A leisurely breakfast on the terrace and then a hike out to have a look at the Nine Arch Bridge. Built by the British, this remains one of the highlights of the Kandy-Badulla railway line.
By far the easiest way to get there is to walk along the tracks from Ella station. Whilst there may be signs at every station saying “don’t walk on the tracks” actually everyone does it, locals included, and the danger factor is several orders of magnitude lower than, say, the main line between Bristol and Paddington. Up here the trains rarely achieve 20-30mph and make liberal use of the horn. There are also only about 7 a day on this stretch.
The walk to 9 Arch Bridge is easy and takes around 30-40 minutes. En route I chatted to a British couple (Brits LOVE Sri Lanka) who gave me some good tips for later in the day. I traded the tip that they should just walk back to Ella along the tracks, rather than the hugely circuitous route they’d actually followed.
Nine Arch Bridge is a railway engineering triumph on what must have been an incredibly difficult railway to construct. Constructed in 1921, it is 300ft in length, towering 80ft over the gorge below. Unfortunately it has become somewhat of a tourist trap, as evidenced by the parking lot full of infernal tuk tuks shortly beforehand.
As a confirmed railway geek I’d consulted timetables and found a decent spot before the train arrived…
I’d even managed to get out of the way of the large group of selfie stick muppets. But luck was not with me. Like German Ed Sheeran on the train, fate was determined to screw with my train photo geekery. Minutes before the train arrived a guide led his charges right onto the bridge. Right in the way of the perfect shot. To a pointless place where they nearly got run over by it. Interpol have been informed of this crime and are currently hunting the prime offender…
A MULTIPLE offender in fact. Reviewing other photos reveals this heinous photo crime:
Nonetheless, I managed to grab a few half decent shots, through the haze of my outrage and indignation. Not with all 9 arches though, and that was important. But hey, I wasn’t about to return, especially not with my notebook and specs.
Putting murderous thoughts aside, I climbed the hill towards the tea plantations, in search of that great British desire, the perfect cuppa. I didn’t do too badly from the small shack above the bridge. 70 rupees (30p) and a magnificent brew in a proper mug. This readers, this is holidaying proper. A lovely bunch of people from Denmark willingly grabbed this snap of me, somewhat of a triumph since my eyes are open and I’m not gurning too badly.
I continued the steep scramble up the slope in search of the green tea factory on the hill which does tours. I was joined in this endeavour by a couple of Finns. It wasn’t immediately obvious, but I had a vague idea once we hit the verdant carpet of green and saw the large building on the top of the hill. The views from here across Ella Gap are incredible.
As it happened I got a great self-led tour of the plantation itself since I had a few really stupid navigational moments and simply couldn’t find my way into the factory, first entering a nearby hotel, then wandering down into the plantation (clearly the wrong way) and, stupidest of all, thinking I’d seen a sign for ‘reception’ and walking straight past the wide open main entrance gate. Old age I reckon. Or the altitude. Let’s blame that.
Tours at the Finlays factory are 500LKR (About £2.30 currently) and they don’t get the best write-up in Lonely Planet however I found it fairly succinct and informative, I’m not too sure how much else the guy could have said about the process really. This factory produces 40x40kg bags a day for export, mainly to China and only green tea, which unlike black tea is not fermented in any way. At the end of the tour you get a jolly lovely cuppa of Gunpowder tea to sample.
After that, I decided to act on the tip from the British couple about the 98 Acres Resort at the top of the hill. It’s a luxury hotel on the path to Little Adam’s Peak which has a cafe… A cafe slap bang on the hill with incredible views.
Actually, for the rarefied surroundings, it’s not mega expensive either. I probably wouldn’t/couldn’t stay here- The helipad is a hint at the general clientele level, however it’s ideal for a spot of lunch and a thoroughly scenic pint.
Now, I’ve developed a bit of a knack for pool blags- Generally if you go to a nice hotel and act/dress like you belong there, after the second drink from the poolside bar you can generally get away with a free dip. However, here seemed just a little more…policed than other places and I didn’t fancy acute embarrassment and being chucked out in my trunks so I headed off, slightly overheated and without a cooling dip.
From the 98 Acres Resort, Little Adam’s Peak is only a short stroll uphill. Naturally for such an easy win it’s absolutely riddled with tourists, however them’s the breaks. On a clear day you can see for miles- Sadly today really wasn’t a clear day but you could get the idea nonetheless.
There’s a point where you reach the ‘peak’ however then go around a corner and see an amazing vista, another peak. Yeah, that looks doable… until you then see the massive drop that needs to be descended and then ascended to reach it. My musings regarding this were relatively brief as I wasn’t quite in the right shoes for a scramble, and more relevantly I just couldn’t be arsed. Another woman clearly reached the same conclusion as she turned around and we both laughed at the ‘nope’ moment. Back down for beer and medals then.
I tried for dinner at the venerable Matey Hut in town however was thwarted… Dinner instead at one of the identikit tourist restaurants…
The next day I’d decided to try for the other local ‘must do’ climb up to the peak of Ella Rock. This is considered more of a challenge to Little Adam’s Peak as it is apparently very easy to get lost. This is not strictly true- It is, however, very easy to get bamboozled by local ‘guides’. It’s easy enough at first- obvious where to walk to as it’s railway tracks and then obvious where to leave them. However display any indecision at this point and you’ll be pounced upon by one of the local lads who seemingly makes a good living out of this shit.
The lad got me as i was trying to nonchalantly attach myself to another group going up, however the game was up as the first ones weren’t actually going there at all, just to a nearby church. After a brief period of gnashing my teeth about the prospect of such un-necessary expenditure, I slung him a few bucks and we headed up the trail. Well not THE trail, that would have given the game up, a windy path just off to the side. As soon as you start off the main path is comically obvious. Ah well.
In fact, it’s not very easy at all to get lost on the way up the mountain- Just keep the big drop on your left and follow the hordes of tourists. Don’t get swayed, as I did, by the wider logging trails as they don’t go anywhere, and enquiries with locals definitely will cost you dearly. At least the views are worth it…
Similarly, don’t get clever on your way down. I went by my usual UK navigational norms, reasoning that a wide logging road must head back to civilisation, surely? Plus, I was following another group so had false confidence.
I started trying to do all of the usual Bear Grylls bollocks that I like to think I’m good at, but actually it’s just artful guesswork. A gap in the trees revealed a rail line a few miles away so it seemed prescient to head towards there.
It looked like there was a path however this petered out extremely quickly. Still, the railway line was still in sight and surely it’ll get wider soon?
No, it really didn’t. The forest opened out into small agricultural terraces which I gingerly picked my way over, around and down. This had all the makings of a Very Bad Idea. At one point I dislodged a huge boulder, which made its way at alarming pace towards a small farmhouse and privy… This was DEFINITELY a very bad idea. Thankfully it flew harmlessly past all parties.
Eventually I got down to flat land. Phew… right, long walk along the railway time. I wasn’t sure quite how long it would be, and annoyingly just missed a train rumbling past the next station halt. It turned out to be a proper trek, and by the time I finally got back to Ella I was destroyed.
On my final night I’d again hoped to dine at the renowned Matey Hut but was thwarted… Unfortunately this is the way of the Lonely Planet- Obscure quirky little eating places get a mention for being obscure and quirky and then the world descends. Never mind. I met an English woman from the hostel who seemed interesting and really, really wanted to try a local dish which you apparently don’t get everywhere, so I tagged along… “Lamprais” or in the strange translation of most places, Lump Rice. Which, basically, it was… A big lump of rice and some other stuff in a banana leaf. Not earth-shattering but decent enough.
She too was a bit of an escapee- A few years in a stressful airline job and then chucked it all in to wander the world. It’s a bit of a privilege that this is an option. Quite a lot of the world don’t even have the concept of ‘holidays’.
Suitably engorged with rice, I waddled back to the hostel for a well-deserved early night before tomorrow’s trek southwards, and the terror of Sri Lankan bus travel…
Next up, Tissarahama and Yala National Park.