Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Hill Country: Ella

The train journey from Hatton to Ella was even more breathtaking than I anticipated. Unlike all our other crowded train rides in Sri Lanka, this journey on the second-class carriage was comfortable and relaxing. Definitely one of my favorite memories of the trip. Coming off a strenuous midnight hike to Adam's Peak, you would think we would fall asleep enroute to our next destination. Trust me, I can fall asleep just about anywhere - cars, planes, trains - doesn't matter, I am a sleeper. We just couldn't peel our eyes off the spectacular scenery as the train made its way up, up, up to the highest town in the hill country, Nuwara Eliya at 6,128 ft, and back down to the little town of Ella. 

The change in vegetation was dramatic, switching from subtropical jungle to woodloods and back again to tropical forest. We saw amazing waterfalls in the distance, rolling hills engulfed by fog, and endless miles of manicured Ceylon tea plantations. No matter what, even if you have a driver in Sri Lanka, make it a point to take the train through the central highlands, preferably from Hatton onwards. We met two Japanese girls who took a seven hour train ride from Kandy to Badulla (the end of the line), then all the way back to Colombo in one day just to enjoy the scenery. It's that beautiful. 

I previously alluded that we spent New Year's Eve in the little town of Ella. We envisaged having a quiet dinner at our B&B, the Waterfall Homestay, a beautifully appointed property facing Little Ella Waterfall, and heading to bed early due to exhaustion from the previous night's hike. Upon arrival to Ella train station that evening, our poor legs were feeling tight so we rang for a tuk tuk even though the guesthouse was within walking distance, albeit up a steep hill. Due to a road closure, the tuk tuk driver took us on a roundabout way up through the hills, parked his three-wheeler, and told us to start walking. Walk? Uh, okay. It was dark. Down the path, we came across some train tracks and hesitated. Train tracks? I don't recall any train tracks. Were we taken for a ride I thought, deliriously tired at this point? Sri Lanka is one of the easiest places to travel through and definitely a lot cleaner than its neighbour India with the benefit of being hassle-free. We rang the guesthouse again to confirm, and with some hesitation, followed the tuk tuk driver down a steep path where we finally had a visual of the stunning property. 

View of Little Ella Waterfall from our B&B

The proprietor, Karen, was back in her native Australia for the holiday season, leaving her manager and the assistant in charge. He invited all the B&B guests to a "New Years BBQ" at his friend's B&B, explaining that his friend was returning the favour since he hosted the Christmas event. What a kind invitation we thought. No, not really. We were probably better off starving and spending the evening by ourselves than wasting our time at this so-called "New Years BBQ" -- it was terrible. However, we were in the company of some eclectic individuals, which made for a very interesting evening: an Indian-based American sculptress who went to Berkeley in the 60s and her visiting-from-Hawaii teenage daughter; an irate and cynical British national and his 11 year old son who he candidly introduces as "a product of an affair with his mother whilst in India;" a solo female traveler from Japan who spoke maybe three words; and a nomadic family with two teenage kids who left behind a life in New York to travel the world a year. 

Waterfall Homestay

After the horrible New Year's Eve dinner, the B&B manager and the assistant eagerly shuffled everyone back to the Waterfall Homestay at 10pm so they can attend to their own new year's event in town, leaving the guests behind the keys to the main house and access to the beer refrigerator. Keenan and I managed to stay up until midnight, shared a toast with our new British friend, and escaped to our room before he went on another angry rant about the New Years BBQ and the fact that "someone" let out the air out in the back tires of his rental car. It was a very interesting New Years Eve to say the least. We were happy to put 2011 behind us and welcome a new year.

Our room at Waterfall Homestay

The next morning we were off for to explore Ella. They call Ella the closest thing to an English village, and rightly so, the town is quaint with a handful of restaurants and bars catering to tourists, and some lovely walks around town. Our plan was to conquer Little Adam's Peak, a relatively easy walk from town passing through gentle hills and the Newbourg Tea Factory with a short climb to the top. The views again were amazing peering across the small cleft known as Ella Gap and Ella Rock which frames the entire town. For the rest of the afternoon we enjoyed the warm sun on our pasty skin and an ayuvedic massage to smooth our aching legs. 


Ella is also a nice base to explore the tea region, and to learn about the production process of the famous Ceylon tea.  The rule of thumb is to pick "two leaves and a bud" for the highest quality. The leaves are then air dried for 16-24 hours before being rolled and crushed to start the fermentation of the tannins. The tea leaves are left to dry for about an hour in a cool, humid-controlled room. Then the tea are placed in a special oven until the leaves are completely dried before being sieved and packaged. 

For any tea lover who want to pay homage to the tea magnate, Sir Thomas Lipton, you can head to Haputale, about an hour from Ella, and visit the historic Dambatenne Tea Factory from where you can hike up to Lipton's Seat, and I am sure the scenery is just as brilliant as elsewhere in the hill country.


Ella was our last stop on our week long journey across the hill country. Endowed with amazing vistas and picturesque hill towns, we were sad to say good bye, but looked forward to exploring Sri Lanka's South Coast: Tissa & Katagarama (Yala National Park), Tangalla, Unawatuna, and Galle.  

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