Welcome to Hill Country – Haputale and Ella

Rather than going straight to Ella, we took a slight detour off the beaten track and stopped for a couple of nights in Haputale. Tourists aren’t unheard of here but are very much in the minority. The bus journey is a dramatic uphill one winding through small towns with monkeys clambering along the electricity wires, small waterfalls appearing around corners and no official bus stops, people simply stand on the side of the road and wave. Despite the fact that the bus whizzed around corners and squeezed past tuk tuks on impossibly narrow roads, never for a moment did we think there was a potential for an accident, the bus drivers are amazingly skilled. As we wound our way up the mountain it started to get cooler and the bus windows were gradually closed as people started to feel the chill. By the time we reached Haputale, the entire mountainside was shrouded in cloud. We made friends with a tuk tuk driver called Ali who was to be a helpful guide in various ways over the next couple of days and who took us to our homestay when we dismounted the bus.

Being budget conscious, we had booked in to a guesthouse on the cheaper end of the scale. Once again, the hosts were lovely and the food was great but the room was rather interesting. Please bear in mind that we paid a grand total of £11 for two nights. To begin with it was underneath a building site, although no works were going on while we were there.01The room itself was drastically damp, water was actually dripping from the bathroom ceiling and the bedroom walls had foreboding black patches. The bedroom light emitted a consistent buzzing noise and the first time we shut the door the shelf above the sink in the bathroom fell down. It did, however, have a spectacular view.0203It gets pretty chilly in hill country and that night we were both glad of our sleeping bag liners, which we snuggled down in to with piles of blankets on top. The following morning Ali rustled up a tuk tuk driver for us and we made our way to the Dambatenne Estate, which was the first estate purchased by Sir Thomas Lipton when he arrived in Ceylon in the late 19th century. It seems to be the case with most beautiful places in Sri Lanka that you are advised to get there in time to watch the sunrise. As with everywhere else, we rejected this entirely and made our way there at a far more civilised time in the morning. The journey to the estate is absolutely beautiful as it winds through the hills with cracking views back over Haputale.04We also passed a policeman wearing Crocs, so that was a day well spent already. We were dropped two kilometres from Lipton’s Seat and made the climb up through the meticulously maintained rows of thriving tea plants on foot.0506The women picking leaves turned to smile and wave as we walked past and were happy to pose for photos without asking for money in return. Tea workers earn around LKR600 per day, which is the equivalent of just under £3 and less than we had paid to get there in a tuk tuk, they work from 7am to 4pm, 6 days a week in an almost literally back-breaking job. And they smile and wave.07The fitness of our New Zealand hiking days seemed a long-forgotten memory as we reached the top of Lipton’s Seat. The mist had rolled in so we were unable to admire his views. We did get to take a typically touristy picture next to a plastic Linton though.08On the return journey, we walked the full 7km back to the tea factory. The estate and factory together employ about 1300 people but at least 3 times this number live on the estate itself, in hamlets nestled in the valleys and surrounding the factory.0910The rain that had been threatening all morning started to come down but hurrying was really out of the question. We were at the top of a hill and some of the tea had been planted on near vertical slopes, so it took us quite some time to wind our way around the road. We admired one chap who had made an art of running directly down the slope along the narrow aisles that ran between the rows of plants. Each stride took him at least 3 metres; a single misstep would have guaranteed a broken ankle or worse and a long tumble to the bottom.11Once back at the factory, we were taken on a tour with a handful of others. The tour takes you through every stage of the tea making process from piles of harvested leaves on the loft floor to sacks of tea ready to be shipped. It is a surprisingly quick process, taking less than 24 hours from end to end with some stages lasting only a few minutes. This means that it is a labour-intensive process requiring constant supervision and the factory was buzzing with people, mostly women, all barefoot, constantly moving and systematically shifting piles of tea from one place to another. It was a really interesting experience and our only gripe (Caro’s gripe really) was that no one gave us a bloody cup of tea at any point. What kind of tea factory tour doesn’t even offer a cup of tea? There wasn’t even one for sale. We were politely asked not to take photographs inside so all we can do is recommend that you go yourselves. There is an excellent topiary teapot outside too.

When we got back to Haputale, we immediately ran in to Ali who pointed us in the direction of the Risara Bakery for lunch. It was absolutely heaving with locals but we were served quickly and managed to nab a table in the corner for our lunch of fried carbohydrate and (finally) a cup of tea.12This was the last time that either of us attempted to drink tea with milk in Sri Lanka; there were many large white lumps floating in our cups and we just couldn’t make ourselves drink it. The food on the other hand was very tasty. Ali showed us to the supermarket and then dropped us back at our homestay where we both promptly curled up on our beds as, unfortunately, we were still feeling quite ropey.

Caro bounced out of bed the following morning feeling right as rain again and ready for the journey to Ella. James continued to feel rough and, in the interests of getting there quickly, we opted for an incredibly cheap tuk tuk journey rather than the bus. James did manage to get out and see some of the sights of Ella but generally spent the next 4 days alternating between sleeping, sitting, drinking water and occasionally drumming up the strength and courage to go out for a meal. It was incredibly tedious for him and the only upside was that we had plenty of time to come up with more euphemisms for travellers’ stomach trouble, our absolute favourite was Ceylonic irrigation.

In many ways it was good that we were forced to stay in Ella for five nights rather than the originally planned two. It meant that we really did wind down, which we hadn’t achieved all too well at the beach. It probably helped considerably that we stayed in slightly more expensive homestays, so that James could sleep it off in comfort, and that the standard of accommodation in Ella is generally higher than we have seen in the rest of the country. We were so delighted when we arrived at our first guest house, Blue Ribbon Homestay, which was immaculately clean had an enormous bed, a bathroom arrangement that made sense and a balcony that faced out over Ella Gap. It was heaven.13Our additional time also gave us, our Caro at least, an opportunity to actually grow to like the place, which took a little while. We should probably be skewered for saying this but a final upside was that we could have some western food; a salad, a vegetable that wasn’t curried, something that wasn’t carbohydrate based. The food in Sri Lanka is delicious but we just needed a bit of a change and James wasn’t feeling particularly enamoured with foreign food at the time anyway. We also saw a mongoose on day 3 and giant squirrel on day 4, so that was wicked.

When we first arrived in Ella our initial impression was wow, that’s a lot of white people. Ella is chock full of tourists and we instantly wished we were somewhere else more authentic. Nonetheless we threw our trainers on and set off to climb Little Adam’s Peak. The first joy was walking along the train tracks, a staple activity for any Ella local or visitor but we found it to be a teensy bit of a thrill every time we did it and a real kick the first time. When you get past the main drag of town and turn up the road towards Little Adam’s Peak the tourist shops fall away almost instantly. There are still homestays and regular shops but the real tourist hub is restricted to a couple of hundred metres right in the middle of Ella.

The climb up the hill is a nice one. Unlike our previous experience at Dambatanne, the tea workers were much more commercially minded and actually came up to us asking if we wanted to take pictures, the smiles immediately sliding off their faces when we politely declined. Don’t get us wrong, we have absolutely no qualms about their trying to get a bit more money, it’s just a shame that there are so many tourists that it has become normal practice for them. The final stretch to the top is up a fair number of steps but in the grand scheme of things it’s a fairly easy climb. The view at the top is beautiful and certainly worth the journey.1415a

We strolled around for a bit and assessed Ella Rock, which stood opposite and was our next planned ascent, it looked a good deal more challenging.

16Nine Arches Bridge is another 15 minutes along the same road and we decided to tick it off our list at the same time. There’s an enormous sign off the main road but after that It’s not immediately obvious which way you should go; tuk tuk drivers, locals and other tourists will happily point you in the right direction, which is down an ominously steep hill. At one point you arrive in someone’s front garden and are sent scurrying down a slippery forest path. Just when we thought someone was having us on, we emerged on to the railway line.1718The bridge is undoubtedly cool and certainly beautiful, but once you have your photo you pretty much want to get a wriggle on as the sun beats down relentlessly and there are a lot of other tourists around. Rather than scrabble back up the hill, we decided to walk back to Ella along the railway. This, fortunately, seems to be the less popular option so we had long stretches where there was no one but us and the enterprising locals who have set up stalls along the sides of the tracks, presumably for the sole purpose of selling freshly opened coconuts to tourists. The walk is a lovely one and we enjoyed the peace and quiet and the beautiful scenery.19

That was largely James’s experience of Ella, Caro was the sole rolling stone for the next 3 days.

James was adamant that he was going to climb Ella Rock so on day one of recuperation Caro went for a wander around town instead. Lots of souvenir shops are a blight but they do come with one benefit: lots of souvenir shopping. Caro returned to the room having scoured the shops and purchased some elephant trousers, an elephant t shirt, a present for our little niece and copious quantities of ginger flavoured treats.

When it became clear that James was still sick the next morning we found a new place to stay and Caro got geared up to climb up Ella Rock, with James resignedly agreeing that at least one of us should do it. It’s a rarity that a walk is great from beginning to end but that is definitely the case with Ella Rock. The main event is the view at the top but the journey there is great to. Caro is going to write a separate post on the walk and climb itself because it can be a bit tricky, and that will be complete with more pictures but here are a couple from the top to keep you going for now.2021We ended up staying another 3 nights, each in different guesthouses and eating in various restaurants, so we are kind of experts now. We are therefore confident in making some recommendations, which are at the end of this post. Our host on night four, Aruna, was keen to chat and described Ella before the tourist industry took off; most of the locals were employed as government labourers or in small-scale tea cultivation and farming. (We’d seen some evidence of this the previous morning when we watched a woman board the local bus with two churns of milk fresh from the family’s one cow. We learned that she was taking it in to Ella town where it would be collected by a lorry and taken to the central dairy. The family will be paid a small amount monthly for this.) Aruna told us that the tourist industry and opening a homestay had allowed him to send his son to university, the crowds of tourists didn’t seem such a problem to us when seen in this light.

 

Ella Recommendations

Blue Ribbon Homestay: Close to town via the railway line but far enough away to be quiet and restful. The host was so kind, fixing James a ginger infusion to help settle his stomach and driving us in to town when we couldn’t get a tuk tuk. The breakfast is yummy too and there was a kettle in our room so we drank all of the tea ever.

59B Rest Inn: 30 seconds from the main road but still pretty quiet. Two lovely rooms and the owner spoke better English that we do. He will bend over backwards to make you comfortable. Awesome breakfast.

Gleam Homestay:  A bit further out of town, surrounded by lovely forest and wonderfully quiet at night. It’s a bit tricky to find but apparently the map on booking.com is being updated. There is a shortcut to town on foot so don’t worry about the slightly longer tuk tuk journey. The top floor is currently being built so it looks a bit ropey when you arrive but don’t worry there is no noise, the rooms are immaculate and enormous. There’s also a very cute dog that lives next door.

Dream Café: Don’t be put off by the pictures of food stuck up outside, something we always take to be a bad sign, the food is great. The service is super-fast and really friendly. We actually preferred the service here to what we received at Chill, the hugely popular restaurant further down the road. Try the lemon and mint drink, it’s yummy.

Different Corner: Even if you don’t do anything else in Ella, eat here! There are two chaps working their socks off and the food is out-of-this-world good. The 5-vegetable curry was shovelled away in seconds because it was so damn tasty.

 

 

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