After the intense heat of the ancient cities, we were grateful to arrive in the relative cool of Ella, a village nestled in the hills 1000m above sea level.
And we weren't just glad to arrive because we'd endured a kidney-damaging 5 hour car ride on roads that were more pothole than tarmac. Or because the last 45 minutes had been spent winding through ribbon-like turns that put New Zealand's windy roads to shame. Nope, we were happy to arrive because our first view of Ella was stunning, and the temperature was in the Golidlocks zone - not too hot, not too cold, JUST RIGHT.
After settling into Salient View Hotel, we ventured out into town for dinner. We chose to stay a little out of Ella's main street, as we'd read reports that accommodation in that area could get pretty noisy at night, as the local bars catered to the tourist crowd that were there to have a few drinks and a good time. Since Zev and I now consider a good time to be a good night's sleep, we elected to stay up on the hill overlooking the city. As we walked into town, we enjoyed a delightful stroll past the local refuse station, whose waste management plan appeared to be 'Shove all the rubbish in a pile - it'll rot eventually'. It took the rest of the walk into town to shake that particular odour...
The next bout of excitement was at the restaurant we chose for dinner - a delicious establishment serving both Sri Lankan and western food called Cafe Chill. First, a local over-friendly kitten came and made itself at home on my knee, occasionally nipping me for attention if I left it too long between pats. He had to be evicted eventually, as he decided that the nipping was more fun than the pats, and he didn't know the rule 'Cats don't go on tables'. During all the cat-based excitement, a fight broke out among the waiters. Sadly our Sinhalese is non-existent, so it was difficult to tell exactly what was going on, but one waiter got thrown out, then came back in yelling with his shirt off, while another waiter put his shirt on. 2 minutes later, the shirtless waiter came back in wearing a different shirt, and carried on as if nothing had happened. It was hard to tell whether he'd been fired and just really wanted to keep working, or if there was a shortage of uniforms, but it was a bit of drama regardless. The food was also top notch.
Climbing Ella Rock
The next morning started early - we were up, breakfasted and on the road by 0700h. We were tackling Ella Rock, apparently the best viewpoint in town.
The hike starts at the train station, where you pointedly ignore signs telling you that you'll be fined for being on the train platform without a ticket (when we arrived there was no one even at the train station), and that it's illegal to walk on the train tracks (we passed about 50 locals walking into town along the train tracks as there are no footpaths on the surrounding roads, and you're far more likely to be hit by a bus than a train). After about 40 minutes of reenacting scenes from Stand By Me (especially as we walked across a rail bridge), we came to the turn off. We'd read in some places that it's really easy to get lost, so you should take a guide, but we also found excellent instructions from our friends at Atlas and Boots (they don't know they're our friends, but they are), so we were on our own. With a little help from a local, we found where the trail head turned off from the train tracks and carried on our merry way. After about 20 minutes of hiking through tea plantation, we came to the bottom of a steep and woody hill, and were treated to a mini-view point through Ella Gap out over the countryside.
A little further up the hill, we met another couple with another dog. Turns out their guesthouse dog is pretty fickle, because as we passed them, their dog adopted us, so we had company for the rest of the climb. It wasn't an easy climb, but it wasn't particularly long, so about half an hour later we reached the top. The reward was certainly worth the climb. By hitting the road early, we had beaten the clouds that often roll in later in the day, and it felt like we could see forever. We'd missed the sunrise climbers, who had obviously already gone, and we were the first of the 'early' climbers, so we had the spot all to ourselves for about 10 minutes. Well - adventure dog was still with us.
After about 10 minutes, more and more people started arriving, and within half an hour, there were about 20 of us up there. There was an elderly local couple who had set up a 'shop' right near the viewpoint, so I got myself a cup of hot, sweet tea, and we lingered for a while enjoying the view. Everyone at the top was pretty tired and awestruck, so it was still pretty peaceful even with so many people.
Eventually, we headed back down the way we came, walking and talking with a French girl and a German girl, who had missed the turn off and walked 45 minutes in the wrong direction, getting horribly lost. When we reached the turn off for Small Ravana Falls, we parted ways.
Small Ravana Falls
We passed a turn off to Small Ravana Falls with a stall selling king coconuts and soft drinks on the way to Ella Rock, but decided to tackle the rock before the heat of the day got too much. On the way back into Ella, we detoured to check them out.
After a short walk down a path, we were at the top of the falls. The step-like rocks made it the perfect place for an explore, so we climbed down the rocks to get a better view of the falls themselves and the surrounding countryside. Within about 1 minute, we could no longer see anyone at the top of the falls, and we felt like we were the only people in the world. We hung out for a bit, admiring the view, trying to see our accommodation across the town, and having a snack.
We climbed back up and returned along the path, stopping for drinks and a play with a puppy at the stall back by the train tracks, before heading back to Ella for lunch.
Ella Spice Garden
After a relaxing and refreshing lunch out of the midday sun, we wandered into Ella Spice Gardens. Up a long driveway, we met a lovely Sri Lankan man who used to live in New Zealand (small world). He gave us a tour of his spice garden, and showed us pictures of the spices after they had been picked and processed. It was a really nice was to spend 20 or so minutes, and the guy was lovely.
From there, we headed back to Ella train station so that Zev could take some photos, and headed back to the accommodation to do some writing and photo uploading.
Our next day had a more relaxed start, with a leisurely breakfast at the guesthouse before Ajith picked us up at 1000h.
Our first stop for the day was Ravana Falls, the big sister to the falls we'd seen the day before. At 19m high, the falls were pretty impressive, especially considering its the dry season. We were horrified when we arrived to find a dog asleep in the middle of the road, with absolutely no idea how close it was to being hit or causing an accident (or not giving a shit if it did - hard to say with the dogs over here). I spent 5 minutes trying to chase it over the road while the vendors laughed at me, until one nice man came over to help and we finally shooed the dog off the road. 2 minutes later, it was back where it started. There's really only so much you can do...
We spent 10 minutes looking around, climbing as close as the policeman with the very loud whistle would allow us - a giant sign told us that there have been 39 deaths at the falls, so apparently tourist safety is something they take seriously here.
Ravanna Ella Temple
After leaving the falls, Ajith took us to Ravanna Ella Temple, down a short turn off from the main road. At the base, there is a small temple shrine, which was peaceful as we were the only ones there, and had a nice view out to Ella Gap.
From there, a climb of 650 steps took us to a pretty nondescript cave, which is apparently where the King of Sri Lanka lived when in hiding at some point.
Nine Arch Bridge
Our next stop was Nine Arch Bridge, a picturesque rail bridge just out of Ella. Of course the best idea is to be there to see a train coming over it, but we're not organised enough for that. We are, however, incredibly lucky, so managed to catch one passing over as we walked down. The bridge itself is pretty spectacular and incredibly photogenic. At 100ft high, the bridge is built entirely of rocks, bricks and cement, without a single piece of steel.
Finlay's Tea Factory
After a quick stop for lunch, we went to check out Finlay's Tea Factory, a casual 1.8km walk down the driveway from the main road. After donning shoe covers and hats, making me feel like I was back at work in the operating rooms, we were allowed into the factory to see how they process the green tea. The tour was pretty quick, but it was cool to see all the machinery in action. We got a cup of tea at the end, and headed back to the van, absolutely shattered after a pretty action packed couple of days.
Our next stop was Nuwara Eliya, commonly referred to as 'Little England'. We were expecting a sleepy hillside town, filled with tea shops and colonial architecture... Not so much... More on that next time!
Lots of love,
S & Z