2017 - Sri Lanka Road Trip - Hill Country

2 March 2017  Kandy to Ohiya, Sri Lanka
Shayamala produced a huge traditional Sri Lankan Breakfast for us with String Hoppers, Dahl, Spicy Coconut, etc.  There was enough food for four people, so Shayamala made us up some lunch boxes to take with us on the train.  We’d only stayed one night, but wished that we’d stayed a week, so it was with a heavy heart that we climbed into a tuk-tuk and went to the railway station.

Train from Kandy to Badulla

There were lots of tourists waiting on the platform for the train from Kandy to Badulla, so we were very glad that we’d had tickets for the Third Class Reserved carriage.  This train journey is supposed to be spectacular and a “must-do” train journey, but I thought that it was just interesting and not much to rave about – perhaps I’ve seen too many mountains and spectacular vistas in my life.

We’d been allocated seat numbers on our ticket, but it was fairly loose with people sitting where they liked - that is until a German couple arrived.  I’m not a great believer racial stereotypes, but these people wanted precision and caused some disruption.  Bizarrely, they could have had window seats, but insisted on having their allocated isle seats and therefore couldn’t see the fantastic view out of the window.

We arrived in Ohiya, in grey skies and drizzle.  There’s absolutely nothing at the railway station, which is surrounded by thick pine forest – it seemed more like a nightmare in Transylvania than a tropical island.  There were only two tuk-tuks hanging about and neither seemed very enthusiastic about taking us to the Hill Safari Eco-lodge, but one eventually relented.

The road out of the station is single track, but not too bad and climbs quickly into the forest.  At a junction, we turned left and the road deteriorated with huge pot holes, reducing the tuk-tuk driver’s speed.   The last ¾ kilometre was down a very scary, steep access road – think, tipping over and plunging off the edge, down a 70 degree slope to the valley 200 metres below.  I’m not one to worry, but I was close to saying that we’d walk and he could drop the luggage off at the lodge for us.

Tea Country

The Hill Safari Eco-lodge is in the middle of a tea plantation with nice rooms and fabulous views down the valley.  The sky was clear when we arrived and we could clearly see the lake in Udawalawe National Park, which is 50 kilometres away and a place that we’ll be visiting in a few days.  There was a spectacular sunset and we had a very tasty Rice & Curry for dinner.  They don’t serve alcohol, but we’d had the foresight to buy a few cans of beer before we left Kandy.

3 March 2017  Ohiya, Sri Lanka
After a reasonable breakfast, we set off on a hike to the railway station at Idalgashinna about 5 kilometres away.  We first headed towards a prominent hill overlooking the valley.  The lodge doesn’t have any proper maps, but has a few hand sketched trail guides.  Unfortunately, they are not very detailed and I got us lost a couple of times.

My first mistake was only about 300 metres from the lodge.  The trail guide said that there was a shortcut along a path.  I found a likely looking path and set off along it, but after a couple of hundred metres it was apparent that we were descending, not going up as desired.  However, we were heading in the general direction of the hill, so I kept going.  It was a very nice mountain path and we came across a small house, were we could see a steep path heading up towards a road.

We attempted to ask the house owner if it was okay to cross his land, but he didn’t speak any English, so we just pointed up and signalled walking with our fingers.  He did the Indian head-wobble, which we took as OK, so we strode through his garden and up the path. Once on the road, we could see another road 200 metres above us, so we took a steep set of steps up through the tea bushes towards a Tamil village.

Tamil Tea-pickers

The village contained fifty tightly packed, single-storey shacks, with narrow mud and stone paths between the dwellings. I arrived first and stood in the village waiting for Glenys to catch up.  By the time she’d climbed up, I had several Tamils watching me, as though no European had ever been there before.  We smiled and said hello and a small group of women gathered. 

The ladies were wearing brightly coloured saris and seemed friendly.  A young guy turned up who could speak a little English, so he translated for us.  The ladies of the village are all tea-pickers and the men do the maintenance work on the plantation.  We asked politely if I could take a photo of Glenys with the ladies and they seemed to be happy with that.  I REALLY wanted to take portrait photos of each of the ladies, but we felt that we’d intruded enough and left.

I’ve seen many villages in our travels and this one shocked me.  There was an overall smell of effluent and their homes were in a poor state of repair.  We’d arrived on a non-working day, so I think that they were wearing their Sunday-best clothes, which were threadbare. No-one seemed to have shoes and everyone chews betel-nut, which is a mild narcotic.  These people are the third generation of Tamils that were brought into Sri Lanka to work in the plantations, yet they live in poverty and squalor.

Having left the village, we found our way to the hill, but couldn’t find a clear way to the top, so we walked on paths, circumnavigating the hill.  We had some good views, but the clouds were starting to roll in, so we continued on our way along a single track road heading east.  There was supposed to be some stone steps at the “end of the concrete road”, but the track turned to grass about 400 metres before the steps (where there is a very obvious large stone).

Raining at Idalgashinna Railway Station

At the bottom of the steps/gully, the trail turned into a very pleasant path that weaved through bush, then after passing a small Hindu shrine, became a pine forest.  At the end of the woods, the view opened up to a tea plantation with the railway line cutting through the valley below.  After walking for another kilometres through Eucalyptus woods, we arrived at the Idalgashinna Railway Station – it was close to noon and had taken us three hours including our various diversions.  

There’s nothing at the railway station, so we turned around and headed back.  By this time, the clouds had descended and was raining – a persistent soaking rain, so after 20 minutes we were drenched.  We stopped for lunch at the Hindu shrine, where I took off my boots, poured out the water and wrung out my socks - it’s a very unpleasant feeling putting on wet socks.

It only took us a couple of hours to get back to the Lodge, where we discovered that Glenys had a leech on her foot.  The damn thing had gone through her sock, so half of it was outside her sock and half inside where it had latched onto her flesh.  When she pulled off her sock it slithered through the material.  The landlord went to get some Dettol, which he sprinkled onto the leech causing it to withdraw and drop off.  He then sprinkled more onto the squirming leech to kill it.  I thought Glenys was very brave waiting until I got my camera out to take a photo, but for some reason, she drew the line at me putting the leech back on her foot, so that I could have a photo with the leech and the blood together...  

Leech on Glenys's Foot

We had a hot shower and a nice cup of tea to restore our body temperatures.  There’s no heating anywhere in the lodge, so we had nowhere to dry our soaking clothes apart from hanging them up in our cold, damp room.  I’m glad that we brought long trousers, jumpers and our down gilets which we wore all the time.

Dinner was very good again, but the rain persisted at times heavy with lightning.  During dinner, the dining room was inundated with hundreds of small flying ants that were swarming around the lights.  Foolishly, we’d left on a light in our bedroom, so we also had hundreds of the damn things flying and crawling everywhere in our room.  We resorted to brushing them off our bed and then dropping down the mosquito net. 

Having restored a little order, we went to bed and, after I turned off the light, I noticed a flashing coming from the enclosed light shade - very strange.  Was this some kind of smoke alarm LED flashing?  After watching it for a couple of minutes, I noticed that it varied in brightness and the light actually moved around inside the smoked glass light shade – a damn firefly was trapped in there.  Fortunately, it exhausted itself after ten minutes and turned off. 

4 March 2017  Ohiya to Haputale, Sri Lanka
Glenys’s carefully planned itinerary had us travelling to Haputale today.  There were only two trains one at 11:00 and one at 13:40, so we decided on the later train and headed off for a walk around the beautiful valley.  We started walking towards Horton Plains, but the trail became a steep single track road heading remorselessly up, so we turned around and walked down a road into the valley, where there are two old tea factories and several Tamil Villages.

It was interesting walking down paths made by the locals, which passed between their fields of leeks, cabbages, carrots and potatoes.  The fields are small, but neatly laid out on terraces with raised beds and deep irrigation channels between the beds.  We went through a Tamil village which was no better than the one we saw yesterday and much bigger.  In fact, we got a bit lost in the labyrinth of narrow, muddy streets, with the villagers pointing us the way out of the place.

Tea Plantation Line Houses

I did some reading on the situation of the Tamil Tea-pickers:

The plantation workers were brought from Southern India in the 19th century.  The majority of these were Tamils from the most impoverished regions, where they were predominantly landless and poverty-stricken agricultural workers occupying the lowest position in the caste hierarchy called “Dalit” (or the “Untouchables”).

Having been brought to the plantation, they were bonded in labour, paid poorly, managed by higher caste employees and discriminated against. Even today, they are usually badly educated, have little access to health services and live in 'line-rooms' where a family is allocated one or two rooms in a long building.  Almost without exception, the companies that own the tea estates also own the settlements that the Tamils reside in.

This combination of landlessness and social ostracism effectively ties many workers to their plantation in exchange for a fragile right to housing and a cycle of perpetual poverty. With no chance of a pension, women regularly work well into their 70s to support themselves.

The daily regime is harsh. At dawn, the tea-pickers walk (mostly in bare feet) to the designated picking area and toil into the mid-afternoon.  The women pinch off the top two or three leaves from the tea bush and place them into large sacks carried on their backs.  

Carrying picked tea leaves

When it rains, the women wrap plastic sheeting around their waists and on their heads like a cloak, and carry on picking. The rain brings out leeches, which attach to the pickers' bodies until they have sucked enough blood to be full, before dropping off.  Snakes also live amongst the tea bushes so the women have to be careful not to step on them with their bare feet.

At the end of the working day, once the minimum tea-leaf quotas are met, the women carry the day’s pickings, collected in large sacks, back down the hillside to be weighed before they are transported to a nearby processing factory up at the top of the valley. An average 18-kilo haul brings in around 400 rupees (£2).

Sri Lanka is the third largest tea producer in the world, and tea is the third biggest sector in its economy, yet here in the Hill Country it’s clear that the tea field workers are not sharing in this billion-dollar industry.

Having escaped the village, we stopped off at one of the two tea factories in the valley - they both shut down about ten years ago.  To my surprise, the building was in fairly good condition and the ground floor was packed with the old tea-making machinery .  Another small surprise was to find a family living in the building – perhaps they are caretakers.

We found our way back to the lodge by 11:00 – thankfully we were still dry.  An hour later, a tuk-tuk picked us up and took us to the Ohiya Railway station, which is very old fashioned. There were only six people waiting for the train, but we were not allowed to buy tickets until 10 minutes before the train arrived.  The station master had a very splendid white uniform that he wore when the train was arriving.

Handing over clearance to the next station

A little ceremony takes place when a train pulls onto the platform.  While the train is still moving, the driver hands an 18” diameter wooden hoop to an official on the platform and then the Station Master hands another hoop to the driver.  The hoop has a pouch attached, which contains the official clearance for the train to proceed to the next station.  I guess that they have to check the documents when the train arrives at each station – it’s bureaucracy gone mad.

Glenys bought us 2nd Class tickets for 30 Rupees each (£0.15) on the basis that if we couldn’t find space in 2nd class we could down-grade ourselves to 3rd class.  We managed to squeeze into 2nd class, but only just.  It was heaving with people standing and sitting on every bit of available floor space.  We had a very uncomfortable 50 minute journey, but it was better than walking.

We arrived in Haputale early in the afternoon and quickly grabbed a tuk-tuk which took us a mile out of town to the Leisure Mount View Holiday Inn - it’s a small lodge with about eight rooms and nothing to do with the international hotel chain.  The view out of our room window is fabulous – we’re in a tea plantation looking southwest down to the lake in the Udawalawe National Park.

We had a quiet afternoon and had the buffet dinner at the guest house, which was good, but very mildly spiced for tourists.  I asked for something to make it hotter and they produced a fantastic Chili Sambal, which was the best dish in the whole meal.

5 March 2017  Haputale, Sri Lanka
We had a late start and didn’t get out of the guest house until 08:30. We were worried about the cloud building up at midday again, so instead of catching a bus up to the Lipton Tea Plantation, we hired a tuk-tuk for 700 Rupees (£3.50).  The tuk-tuk dropped us off at the Danbatenne Tea Factory, where we had a 20 minute tour of a working tea factory for the grand price of 250 Rupees each.  This tea plantation was the first purchased by Thomas Lipton in 1890 and is still owned by the Lipton Company.

The tea-pickers pluck about 20 Kilos of tea every day and, with over a thousand pickers on the plantation, the factory processes 20 tonnes of fresh leaves every day.  This yields 4 tonnes of dried black tea.  The process begins by drying the green leaves for 16 hours in huge mesh troughs through which is blown hot air.  This “withering” process removes 50% of the moisture from the leaves.

A large 19th Century Tea Factory

The semi-dry tea is dropped into tea rolling machines which literally roll the leaves into cylinders and at the same time crush them slightly to release enzymes.  The tea then gets chopped into small pieces and is passed through a vibrating sieve. Leaves that don’t make it through the sieve get chopped again.  The chopped tea is laid out on the floor in 6 inch thick mats and left for 4 hours to naturally ferment, which causes the green leaves to turn a coppery colour.

The fermented tea is then placed in drying ovens, which stops the fermentation process and finishes the drying process.  The dried tea is passed under electrostatically charged rollers, which pick up the fibrous stalks and leave the dried tea leaves on the conveyor belt. The stalks are used for fertiliser and the tea leaves are put through a series of five vibrating sieves to separate the various grades of tea e.g. Broken, Fannings and Dust. 

Twice a day, the Manager of the plantation tastes the various production batches of the tea.  We were lucky enough to be there as they were preparing the samples for the Manager and watched him taste the tea. The tasting is done using tea after it has been in the drying furnace, but still contains the stalks before grading. 

There’s a strict ritual to the whole process.  Exactly 2.9 g of the tea sample is placed into a brewing pot and infused for 5 minutes in 120 ml. of freshly boiled water.  The liquor is then strained into the tasting bowl and the infused leaf retained on the upturned lid. There were four batches to be tasted and it was all laid out very neatly.

Tea samples ready for the Manager to taste

The Manager swept into the room and after a cursory glance at the colour and consistency of the infused leaf, used a spoon to sample each of the four brews, sucking air in to his mouth as a wine taster would do.  The tea is spat out into a container.  The tasting took a minute; there was a very brief discussion about one of the batches and the Manager swept out.

We were allowed to taste the four batches, but it was difficult to tell any difference – Number 3 was maybe slightly less bitter.  We were told that the tasting and the inspection of the infused tea leaves, is the primary method of quality control and a good tea taster can detect faults in the withering, rolling, fermentation and drying processes.

After being educated on tea production, we walked up the road, through the Danbatenne plantation for seven kilometres to Lipton Seat, which is the tallest hill on the estate and has a great view of the surrounding area.  Apparently, it was a favourite place for Thomas Lipton, but now tourists are charged 50 Rupees each to go up the hill where there is an observation platform and a couple of shacks where they serve a nice cup of tea to visitors.

Unfortunately, it was a Sunday, so the 1000+ tea pickers were not working, so my anticipated photo-shoot of tea pickers in action didn’t happen. However, there were plenty of stunning vistas and the quite a number of the Tamil women were out gathering dead tea-plant branches, which they use for cooking.  They collected huge bundles , which they lifted onto their heads and carried back to their villages, which gave me something to photograph. We passed several large villages and the housing is much better than we saw in Ohiya, so the Lipton’s workers are obviously better off.

We strolled back down to the Tea Factory; caught a local bus back to town and then a tuk-tuk to the guest house, where we chilled out for the afternoon.  Haputale is a very small town and we couldn’t find any decent restaurants, so we ate at the guest house again, which was much better because we asked for the Chili Sambal as soon as we sat down.

Bus to Ella

6 March 2017  Haputale to Ella, Sri Lanka
The guest house laid on a huge breakfast with a combination of western and Sri Lankan food.  After ten days of curry, three times a day, my digestion has been suffering (with sheet lifting effects), so I restrained myself to egg on toast.  

By nine o’clock, we were on the move again, catching two local buses to Ella.  It was a bit of a culture shock arriving in the small town, which is lined with restaurants and bars catering to the hundreds of white tourists wandering about.  It cost us 300 rupees (£1.50) to hire a tuk-tuk to the guest house and there was no way that he was going to budge from his “standard” price – we’re just going to have to accept inflated “tourist” prices.  

The Village View Home Stay is a bit rudimentary.  The entrance is on a single track road and all you can see is concrete steps descending past tin-clad roofs.  The interior of the building is in construction, but the owner has three finished rooms which are basic, but clean.  On the plus side, there is a fabulous view from our balcony towards Ella Rock and Little Adams Peak, which are the two hills where we will be hiking over the next two days.  The room only costs £20 per night, so we can’t complain too much and the owner is very nice and helpful.

At lunch time, we wandered into Ella town, taking a shortcut along the railway line.   Railway line?  Did I not mention that the railway line passes 10 metres below our room?  The passing trains slightly shake the room.  Fortunately, there are only a handful of trains each day.

Hiking along the railway line

There are scores of restaurants in Ella and we chose to continue my western food theme by having toasted chicken sandwiches with french fries for lunch.  We checked out a few evening meal menus; bought some cold bottles of beer and retired to our room for a quiet afternoon, barely making it home before heavy rain started.  

There was a terrific thunderstorm in the late afternoon, but it stopped before we went out for dinner.  We resisted Rice and Curry and opted for pizza and salad at the Dream Café, which was excellent.

7 March 2017  Ella, Sri Lanka
We had a nice breakfast, sitting on the balcony in our room (mostly because there’s nowhere else in the guest house to sit and eat.)  By 08:45, we were walking along the railway track heading for Ella Rock.  I’d taken a photograph of a hand written map that landlord showed me, which said to turn off the railway line at a small shrine.  This led through a small café and onto a foot bridge just above the Kithal Ella Falls.

After that it went badly wrong.  I took a path to the right, then steeply up to the left which put us in a small tea plantation.  Then I got lost.  A teenager was following us and told us we were going in the wrong direction - obviously touting to be paid to guide us.  I was now unsure where to go, but told the guy that we didn’t want to pay him anything.  He left us and I was still lost.  

Another guy appeared and took us to the correct path, then (of course) asked for a donation even though he’d only walked 100 metres.  I politely declined and left him muttering behind us.  It’s very confusing if you get off the main path where there are scores of small paths leading through the tea bushes and the large patches of head-height grass.  There are no signs for the correct path - I guess that’s because the locals remove them, so that they can scam tourists.

Clouds briefly clear on Ella Rock

The path became more defined and we had little trouble until we passed a small café and reached the top of a small hill.  Here (unbeknown to us) the path splits into two – one is a steep grind up the edge of the ridge and the other is a longer, but less arduous route along forest tracks.  Somehow we got onto the less arduous route, which was very pleasant.

At the top, we found 20 or 30 people milling about waiting for the thick cloud to clear, which would happen for a few seconds every ten minutes.  We gave up and headed back down, following the steeper ridge route.  At the bottom of the trail, we finished at a different foot bridge.  If I was doing the walk again, I would continue along the railway line past the Hindu shrine; through a small railway station and, after another 100-200 metres, there’s a well-worn path which doubles back on the left, leading to a small foot bridge.  The main path from there is very obvious.  

Back at the guest house, we had cold, leftover pizza for lunch.  Glenys went out in the afternoon to find us a better hotel for tomorrow night and also managed to find an antique shop where she bought herself a small brass tea caddy for her birthday tomorrow.

8 March 2017  Ella, Sri Lanka
It was Glenys’s 60th birthday today.  The owner of the guest house gave her a Birthday Cake, which was really nice of him and made us feel a little guilty that we were switching hotels.  After breakfast, he ran us down to the town in his tuk-tuk and wouldn’t accept any payment for it, which made us feel even guiltier.

Glenys on her Birthday

We checked in to the White House guest house, which is very nice with tiled floors and a spacious room. Unfortunately the place is in the middle of town and the view is terrible – you can’t have everything.  After settling in, we walked to the top of Little Adam’s Peak, which is an hour’s bumble up a road, a dirt track and then stone steps.  There were lots of people up there, but it’s a great view and there are three peaks that you can walk to making it worthwhile.  The sky was crystal clear and we had a fabulous view across the valley to Ella Rock.

Walking back down the access road, we turned right and walked past a very posh resort, which even has a Helipad. Back on the “main” road, we turned right and then left onto single track road which took us down to a railway line.  We turned left and walked for a ½ mile to Nine Arch Bridge, which is one of the Ella Attractions – it’s (errr!) a bridge with nine arches.  The ”attraction” might not be much, but the walk there is interesting.

We had a drink at a small café on the other side of the bridge and then walked back and took a steep clay path up to a small café overlooking the bridge.  After regaining our breath, we headed off to a single track road and walked back into Ella, where we indulged in a beer and a sandwich at the Café Guru, which was very nice.  

In the evening, we went to the Tea Factory restaurant and had a three course western meal , which was relatively expensive, but it’s a restaurant that wouldn’t seem out of place in London.

9 March 2017  Ella to Udawalawe, Sri Lanka
We had a lazy start to the morning with a good Sri Lankan breakfast of Roti with dahl and spicy coconut and then caught a local bus to Wellawaya.  As we got off at the bus station, the conductor told us to catch the No.98 bus to Udawalawe National Park.  

Bus Stations are confusing

We strolled onto the platform to look for said bus and within seconds we were approached by a young guy asking where we were going.  This was not a great surprise, but we told him the truth, expecting to be pointed to the bus stand.  He said that he’d show us the bus routes on a map and then started an outrageous set of lies.  There was no bus going directly to Udawalewe;  if we catch a bus to Thanamalwila, then it’s a tiny town with only three tuk-tuks;  a tuk-tuk from Thanamalwila will cost 4,000 rupees (if we can find one);  we’d be obviously be better off with him driving us there directly for 6,000 rupees.  (Oh yeah!)

Unfortunately, this steady stream of lies confused us, but I wandered away and rang the owner of the guest house, who told us to get on the No.98 bus, which will drop us off at the National Park entrance and his guest house is only 400 metres from there.   I went back to find the scam-man and had a loud rant at him, pointing my finger in his face.  Fortunately, he didn’t hit me, but looked well pissed off about his public dressing down - serves him right.

There was further confusion, because the No.98 bus goes to Colombo and doesn’t stop at any of the bus platforms, instead it stops alongside a dirt pavement.   Another “helpful” local latched onto us and said that the Columbo bus was very crowded and there might not be space.  We ignored him and waited.  

A No.122 bus turned up and our “helpful” friend told us to get on this one.  But we wanted a No.98? Chaos ensued with our “friend” and the bus conductor telling us to get on board.  But we want a No.98 not a No.122.  Much waving of hands and waggling of heads ensued, before we decided to trust them and got on board.

It was heaving with standing room only, so it was an uncomfortable 2 hour journey.   The bus stopped in the “3-tuk-tuk” town of Thanamalwila, which was bustling and had three tuk-tuks per square metre.  We were dropped off at the entrance the Udawalawe National Park and walked to the safe haven of the Hotel Gayan, which is very nice.

Udawalawe National Park

We were in our room by one o’clock, so we decided to go for an afternoon safari which left at 14:30.  Udawalawe National Park is bigger than the one that we visited in Sigiriya and has more varied wildlife.  The wild Indian Elephants are seen in smaller groups in the bush and around watering holes, so it seems more natural.  We saw Crocodiles , Crested Serpent Eagle , LittleGreenBeeEater and even a Mongoose trotted by.

The guest house prepared a tasty Rice and Pork Curry for our evening meal and actually served cold beer which was a bonus.

10 March 2017  Udawalawe to Mirissa, Sri Lanka
We were up at the unsociable hour of 05:30, so that we could go on a morning safari.  At the entrance to the park, we had to buy tickets and there was a huge queue with about 30 safari jeeps jostling for parking.  We had the same driver (Gunni), who was very knowledgeable about the birds and animals in the park and understood that we’ve seen plenty of elephants, so he took us off the beaten path - we saw only one other jeep in the first 2½ hours. 

Again, we saw lots of Indian Elephants, Malabar Pied Hornbill and a couple of Jackals.  There are Peacocks everywhere and we were lucky to see some of the males strutting their stuff, displaying their fabulous tail feathers to attract the females.   We had another enjoyable 3 hour safari, which cost us only 10,500 Rupees (£53).

After breakfast, Gunni took us in his tuk-tuk to the town of Embilipitiya - it cost us 1,000 Rupees, but saved a couple of bus changes and a lot of time.  From the big bus station, we climbed onto a local, rickety bus.  The three hour journey was uncomfortable, but at least we had seats next to an open window.  Thankfully Saranga met us at the bus station and whisked us back to Alba, which to our relief hadn’t sunk or been damaged on the tiny pontoon.