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The Train to Haputale and Lipton’s Seat

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On the second of our three days in Ella, we hopped onto the morning train, having decided that we couldn’t pass up a visit to nearby Haputale (ha-POOT-a-lay): a town on the southern extreme of Sri Lanka’s hill country celebrated for its beautiful surroundings and tea plantations.

Best View in Sri Lanka
The finest view in Sri Lanka!

Everyone knows that “getting there is half the fun”, but the train ride to Haputale accounted for at least 80% of this day’s fun. The rusty old machine rumbled slowly through lovely mountain scenery which, after the recent days of rain, was even more lush than usual, and we spent most of the journey hanging out of the open doors.

We didn’t spend much time in Haputale, a busy town with an abnormally large number of liquor shops, and instead immediately sought out a tuk-tuk to take us to Lipton’s Seat: a viewpoint said to be as stunning as World’s End. We had been warned that a late arrival at Lipton’s Seat could mean the mountain would be covered in clouds.

Despite our hurry, we were too late; a thick layer of clouds had arrived by the time we reached the summit, completely obscuring the view. Suck. We ordered tea and lemon puffs from a shop perched on the hilltop, then sat down and, with vibrant imaginations, colorfully described to each other what the view might look like. Or… that’s what we would have done, if we were annoyingly whimsical people who see magic in everything. But really it was us just sitting there, staring dumbly at the fog and stuffing our faces with cookies. Whining about our crappy luck.

At least the walk back down the hill was enjoyable. We cut through the enormous Dambatenne Tea Plantation, founded by Thomas Lipton (oh fine: Sir Thomas Lipton). Around us, small women with red-stained teeth packed bags full of tea leaves, and posed for pictures. Near a tea-pickers’ village, a prominent sign reminded us to “Be Respectful of Others!” Thanks for the tip, Mister Plantation Owner! Meanwhile, in the ramshackle village that can only be described as a slum, your tea pickers live in squalor. But yeah, I’ll remember to respect others.

We attempted to visit the Dambatenne Factory but after fifteen minutes of waiting for someone to attend us, gave up and hopped on a bus back to Haputale. Despite our inability to see the viewpoint or tour the factory, it had been a decent day out in some of Sri Lanka’s most beautiful country.

Location of Haputale on our Sri Lanka Map

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April 18, 2012 at 1:45 pm Comment (1)

Ella and Its Rock

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Hotels in Ella

With an unbeatable setting high in the hills, tiny Ella has earned a reputation as one of Sri Lanka’s most beautiful villages. With its views over the Ella Gap and some incredible nature walks, the town has become one of the most popular destinations in the southern hill country. We spent a few days here, and had a wonderful time.

Ella Gap

The town itself is far more tourist-oriented than most of our other destinations have been. A variety of restaurants offer both Sri Lankan and western cuisine, free and speedy wi-fi (manna!) and cool, comfortable patios you could spend hours at. For a place which caters to foreigners, the accommodation was surprisingly cheap. We stayed at Ambiente, and I don’t think we’ve ever had a room with a more incredible view. Found near the town’s highest point, the hotel looks straight out over the amazing Ella Gap, a steep valley stretching out for miles between Ella Rock and Little Adam’s Peak.

Ella Rock was the destination of our first hike. We set out early, at 7am, in order to reach the summit before clouds settled in. As is the case across the hill country, afternoons are almost invariably cloudy. Indeed, we had rain every afternoon we were in Ella, and always tried to get our sight-seeing done in the morning.

Train-Bridge-Sri-Lanka

The hike was rough (see below for details of our route). After walking along railroad tracks, we found a path which leads up to a tea plantation and then onto the rock. Along the way, we encountered five locals who wanted to guide us up. It’s part of the system here: almost every tourist that goes up Ella Rock will have a local guide attached, who expects a tip at the summit.

They all employ the same trick. During your walk, if a Sri Lankan runs up to you and claims you’re on “the wrong path”, you are almost certainly on the right one. He’ll lead you backwards and then up a different path, and you’ll think, “Oh wow, this guy saved me! I owe him big time!” The truth is, there are about fifteen paths which all lead the same way. As long as you’re headed toward the mountain, you’re fine. We knew this in advance (plus, had one of Ambiente’s house dogs leading us), and were able to avoid the locals. Three separate times, we were told that we were “on the wrong path!” Guess what: we weren’t!

There’s nothing wrong with hiring a guide, of course, or contributing to the local economy. But we felt like being alone. After the tea plantation, the remaining path was well-defined and steep. The final 500 meters is extremely taxing and, even allowing for frequent breaks, we were drenched in sweat by the time we reached the top. The view, though, was worth the effort.

Our Route: Follow the train tracks away from the city for about 1.5 kilometers, until you’ve almost reached a small waterfall. Just before an old bridge, there’s a steep path which leads down to the left. Follow that under the bridge, and walk along a canal until you come to a small footbridge which leads past the waterfall. Now, it becomes confusing — a variety of paths lead upwards. Immediately after the bridge ends, the path forks: continue to the right. As you climb, the path enters the brush, and splits over and over again. You’ll want to tend left, but continue upwards when possible. Hopefully, you’ll emerge on the left-hand side of the tea plantation, where you’ll be able to spot the main path which cuts up through the woods. From here, you’re golden: just go up.

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April 17, 2012 at 1:00 pm Comments (3)

Horton Plains and World’s End

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Twenty miles south of Nuwara Elyia is the Horton Plains National Park, which is most well-known for its amazing viewpoint called World’s End. The relatively cool temperatures of the park, steady precipitation, high altitude, and the convergence of three rivers create a rare and fragile ecosystem in which a unique biosystem flourishes. Some of the birds found in Horton Plains are only found here.

Das Ende Der Welt

Clouds and haze are a constant presence at Horton Plains, and the only window of opportunity for a clear view at World’s End is in the early morning. So we climbed into a van leaving Nuwara Eliya at 5:30am. This was our first encounter with Sri Lanka’s national park system, and we were shocked at the fees levied on foreign visitors. Between the transport, the entrance, a “vehicle fee”, a ticket for our driver, taxes, and an undefined “service charge”, our excursion cost around $50 apiece. Perhaps at a later date, we’ll get into the shameless chicanery of Sri Lanka’s tourism efforts, but for now suffice to say that we started our adventure at Horton Plains in sour spirits.

The optimal hour for arriving at Horton Plains is no secret and, upon leaving the van, we found ourselves in an long line of hikers. Luckily, the loop walk through the park is long and we could eventually space ourselves out from others. Besides, the nature is strange and beautiful, and we soon forgot about the human presence. While walking, we saw a jungle fowl, the national bird of Sri Lanka, and herds of sambar deer grazing on the plains — one of these confident, hulking beasts would approach our van window on the way out.

Sri Lanka Deer

Baker’s Falls was the first stop during our three-hour walk around Horton Plains. Fed by the Belihul Oya river, this wide waterfall drops about 20 meters. A bit further up the path, we arrived at the World’s End, one of the most famous sights in all Sri Lanka. The highlands come to an abrupt end here, as though God suddenly ran out of “mountain”. The land plummets straight down for nearly a kilometer, and standing on the cliff looking down on the land below, I felt like I was in an airplane. Amazing.

Small World’s End, another twenty-minutes up the path, might have a smaller vertical drop but boasts the lovelier view (and actually, neither could compare to the view of Mini World’s End at Knuckles).

World's End Sri Lanka

The rest of the track, through cloud forest, was beautiful if unmemorable, and we were done with Horton Plains at around 10am. It’s a big park, and there are other trails to be explored, but that would have required more coordination with our driver (read: “$$”) and we couldn’t justify spending another cent. Overall, it was a cool day trip, but not worth the price. Regardless of how filthy rich you are, I can’t imagine a viewpoint which is worth $50 to peer over.

Location of World’s End on our Map
Spices From Sri Lanka

Here’s one scheme to look out for, which might be specific to Nuwara Eliya. Our van fit six people, and we had found another couple to split the journey with us. We would have saved on transport, and various charges at the park. But, outrageously, our driver demanded twice the amount for four people as for two. Later, a guy would tell us that at his hotel, three separate vans came to pick up three separate groups of two tourists. It’s all a swindle, coordinated to line the pockets of as many locals as possible, and the hotels are in on it too. Unfortunately, there’s very little you can do, except play along or refuse to go.
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March 5, 2012 at 10:55 am Comments (3)

Nuwara Eliya

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Known around Sri Lanka as “Little England”, Nuwara Eliya is the highest city on the island, at around 6128 feet above sea level. Throughout history, this mountainous patch of the country had been almost entirely unpopulated, but the British recognized the potential value of its soil and climate. In 1846, explorer Samuel Barker (who would later “discover” Africa’s Lake Albert) founded Nuwara Eliya, which quickly established itself as a favorite retreat for the ruling class, and eventually gained prominence as a center for tea cultivation.

Nuwara-Eliya-Post-Office

We arrived in Nuwara Eliya expecting to be enchanted by its quaint English charms, but were quickly disillusioned. Today, it’s a very Sri Lankan city, with the usual array of shops and smoggy, noisy traffic. Some vestiges of the privileged colonial life still remain, notably in the horse track, the grand old hotels and government buildings, but to call Nuwara Eliya “charming” would be a real stretch.

After pushing through the muck of downtown, we ascended Single Tree Hill, which cuts a beautiful path up through the fields of the Pedro Tea Estate. We passed a single Buddhist temple, and a ton of Hindu people — Nuwara Eliya is notable for having a majority Tamil population, brought over from India by the British to work at the tea plantations.

Besides the hike up Single Tree Hill, we couldn’t find much entertainment in Nuwara Eliya. There’s a park which we were done with in ten minutes, and a famous golf course. Golf’s not our thing, so we decided to spend the afternoon drinking at one of the beautiful old hotels near the course. The most storied is the Hill Club, which proved its snooty credentials by denying us entrance. No shorts allowed. The Grand Hotel, though, was less exclusive and allowed us to stretch our dirty, bared limbs on their veranda for a couple hours.

We didn’t have a great time in Nuwara Eliya, but the city’s attractions weren’t the main reason we were visiting. Horton Plains National Park is nearby, as well as a large tea plantation. As a base for excursions, Nuwara Eliya served its purpose fine, but the city itself was a disappointment.

Location on our Sri Lanka Map
Hotels in Nuwara Eliya

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Britain Meets Sri Lanka
Posh House
Kind of the Castle
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Tausend Fuessler
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March 4, 2012 at 4:29 am Comments (5)
The Train to Haputale and Lipton's Seat On the second of our three days in Ella, we hopped onto the morning train, having decided that we couldn't pass up a visit to nearby Haputale (ha-POOT-a-lay): a town on the southern extreme of Sri Lanka's hill country celebrated for its beautiful surroundings and tea plantations.
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