25th Feb 2017 - 1st Mar 2017 - Sri Lanka
Within the hills, there is a small little backpacker haven looking very little like the rest of Sri Lanka. A small hill station where you can hike in the morning, get a massage in the afternoon and watch some live music in the evening. This place is called Ella. Once again, the best way to get here is on the train. There are three trains a day – a slow, third class only train at 9.30, then two faster, second and third class trains later on in the day. I had decided to try the earliest train, in the hopes it wouldn’t be as busy as my train from a few days earlier.
My tuk tuk dropped me at Nanu Oya station, where there certainly wasn’t as many people waiting. However the train, which arrived 45 minutes late at 10.15, only had three carriages. So we all piled on and once again I was standing. However, the train had arrived with a lot of locals who were getting off at the intermediate stations. Which meant that after about half an hour, I had a seat. We arrived in Ella around 2, where the entire train emptied and all the tourists were met by large numbers of touts. Here I met Peter who had a room in his guesthouse, just off the main road. Driving there, I got my first view of Ella – one street, side by side restaurants, western food on offer in most and so few locals. By night, everything was lit up in neon and there was an abundance of music, some live, playing Western backpacker classics such as Bob Marley or The Beatles, blaring out onto the street. Not usually favourite thing. But the views, the views were spectacular. From just beyond the main street, you could see down the Ella Gap, with Little Adam’s Peak on one side and Ella Rock on the other. Even on a cloudy day, the view was astonishing.
The next day was my birthday and I had decided to do one of the hikes. There are two main ones to choose from, up either Little Adam’s Peak or up Ella Rock. I decided to do the easier Little Adam’s Peak and save Ella Rock for the next day. Little Adam’s Peak is named after Adam’s Peak a few miles away which is a site of pilgrimage for many as it’s believed to be the place where Adam first set foot on earth after being cast out of heaven and where Buddha left a footprint as he went up to heaven. The real Adam’s Peak is a tough hike whereas Little Adam’s Peak is a much easier hike. The path began just up beyond my guesthouse and, like all the best Sri Lankan hikes, passes through a tea plantation. It was also much easier to find than my experiences in Nuwara Eliya. It was a slow, steady, winding path until the final section which was a number of steps. But soon I was out on top from where there were stunning views down the Ella Gap and across the valley to Ella Rock on the other side. There were a series of three peaks and the final one was particularly tough to reach, following a steep downhill section. I spent quite a while at the top enjoying the views, before heading back down stopping for a coconut en route. Back in town, I had a relaxing afternoon doing some shopping and wandering up and down various roads finding better and better views of the Ella Gap. In the late afternoon, Peter had booked me a massage and was going to drive me down at 4. But he had gone out and didn’t reappear until 4.40. Once we got to the massage parlour, my slot had gone and I couldn’t get in until 5.30. I then had a 75 minute full oil massage, which was very relaxing.
The following day I was going to hike Ella Rock. This is a much tougher hike and also the trail is less well marked. This meant I needed a guide. Peter said he’d find me one and whisked me off in his tuk tuk down to town and asked around and then, hey presto, I had a guide. My guide told me we were going to take the shortcut which then involved walking down the valley a long way. This confused me since we were ultimately aiming for the top of a hill, so how was going down a shortcut. Then I saw it. Hundreds and hundreds of steps. Up, up, up, up, up. We cut through some more tea plantations and some other overgrown areas before joining up with the usual path. This was a bit flatter to begin with but then began a steady uphill through the forest, with some scrambling at steeper sections. We finally reached the peak, where the views down the Gap were even more incredible than yesterday. We could see right over Ella, across to Little Adam’s Peak and right down the Gap. We took the more usual route back down which included walking along the railway track for 45 minutes. This is particularly fun when a train comes along the track towards you, at which point we had to dive into a siding until it had passed. Back in town and I had a lovely rice and curry lunch which was 4 different curries (bean, plantain, potato and dahl), pickles, mango chutney, rice, plantain chips and poppadums, before a very chilled afternoon.
My final morning in Ella, I had asked Peter for breakfast at 8.30 so that I could catch the 9.30 bus to Bundala. When I saw Peter at 8.20, he gave me my morning tea but then began doing housework. At 8.45, I asked him where my breakfast was and it suddenly became apparent that he had forgotten breakfast, but then he promised it would be ready in half an hour and disappeared off in his tuk tuk. However, he was good to his word and half an hour later breakfast appeared but there was no chance of the 9.30 bus. The next bus to Matara was at 11, which I made with plenty of time to spare. I boarded the bus and told the ticket man that I only want to go as far as Bundala. He tells me I need to change at the next town, which seems strange as I know it’s on the main road to Matara. Anyway, we reach Wellawaya and I jump off at the bus station where the ticket man asks me again where I’m going and again I tell him Bundala. He points to another bus, but then someone else points back at the bus I’ve just got off. My original ticket man looks confused then asks me to show him where I’m going, so I get out my Lonely Planet and show him Bundala at which point he decides his bus will take me there after all, so I hop back on the same bus! Around 1pm, he tells me we really have reached my stop, the bus drops me at the side of the road and pulls away, leaving me alone and on a main highway in the middle of nowhere. Thankfully, it is my stop and there is a guesthouse 100m down. There were a handful of other guests who would be coming out on safari with me tomorrow and we were served a delicious rice and curry dinner before an early night.
It rained heavily during the night, but was dry when I awoke at 5.30. By 6, there were 4 of us loaded into a jeep and heading out into Bundala National Park. The park is predominantly wetlands and marshes which makes it popular for birdlife but there is also a herd of elephants living there. During our first couple of hours, we saw a number of birds including eagles, bee-eaters, wading birds and a lot of peacocks. We reached the coast where we were able to get out of our jeeps and stretch our legs but then it began to rain. Heavily. We took shelter back in the jeep but had to head for the exit meaning we weren’t able to see any elephants. Back at the guesthouse, we had breakfast then decided when we should leave as it was still raining heavily. Around 11, it had eased a little so I made a mad dash for the bus stop and flagged down a bus to Matara, where I was able to change bus for Mirissa. The rain had stopped by then but it was still grey and overcast. However, I was able to sit on the beach until it got dark when I went to one of the many beachside restaurants that had freshly caught fish outside. I picked the specific red snapper that I wanted to eat, got a cocktail and waited whilst the cooked my chosen fish.