Sri Lanka was never really on my radar of places to visit. So when Kate said 'Let's go on a surf camp to Sri Lanka!!!' I actually had to stop and think about it - normally I jump at the chance to travel! But I can't thank Kate enough for getting me there - Sri Lanka is such a wondrous place.
On paper, it doesn't really grab me - Sri Lanka is hot and humid; the pungent smell of people, animals and crowded cities fills your nostrils; the sound of tuk-tuks, buses, trucks and motorbikes all tooting at each other mingles with the babbling of so many people; and the constant press of so many people... did I mention there are a lot of people?? (We Australians are so lucky to live in such a spacious country. By comparison, Sri Lanka is approximately the size of Tasmania, yet holds the entire population of Australia!!)
But once you get past the sensory overload, you start to find the real Sri Lanka. The friendly smiles of locals who will go out of their way to help you. The spicy aromas of an amazing array of foods. The sound of elephants splashing and playing in the river. And a rich cultural history to explore.
After spending an amazing week surfing at Talalla Retreat, we grabbed a car and headed up into the Hill Country in the central part of the island. The climate cools considerably as you climb - perfect for growing tea. British settlers obviously couldn't do without their daily cuppa, and now massive swathes of the hillsides have been transformed into tea plantations. Tea-pickers are hard at work collecting the delicate new growth tips of the camellia bush.
We stayed in Ella for a little while - a thriving little town. It's a great base from which to explore, as there are several hikes from town. You can also jump on the train to one of the neighbouring towns for a truly scenic ride. But most importantly, there is a Roti Hut which we must've visited at least twice a day!! We stayed at the Raveena Guest House, a great little place with fantastic views across to Ella Rock.
This short hike is a great start to appreciate the Hill Country around Ella. Easily walkable from town, the trail traverses through some spectacular tea plantations, before a bit of a pinch up to an amazing view!
You can also look across the valley towards Ella Rock - the next hike!
If you're lucky you will also come across some locals on their way to pick tea leaves.
The hike to Ella Rock is a bit longer, so we started nice and early for this one! There are some great directions for this hike here (updated April 2017!) - you'll get a lot of locals offering to guide you for money, but it's not really necessary. Once you leave the train tracks it can be a bit confusing finding a way through the village area, but keep heading uphill and you can't really go wrong.
The first part of the hike follows the train line (yes, you literally walk along the tracks) around the head of the valley. It's a bit of a local's highway, and you'll hear the trains long before they reach you :)
Once you leave the tracks and cross the river, you pass through some local villages and their fields.
It's pretty steep going for the last bit, but luckily most of it is in the shade of the trees. The view is well worth it!! We also felt a little bit humbled by the elderly man who carries tea, coffee and coconuts up to the top every morning at 5am for weary tourists like us!!!
If you walk a little further past the look out, the trail passes through some wonderfully airy eucalyptus forest - low clouds sometimes drift through here, making for an almost eerie atmosphere...
To take a well earned break from all the hiking around town, we spent a day on the train travelling up to Haputale and back. Haputale itself isn't that exciting a town (although there were some cool local markets to wander through) - it was more about the journey than the destination for us. The old style train bumps and rattles it's way through the hills and tunnels, providing stunning views of all the tea plantations.
Clearly we hadn't had enough hiking, so we decided to tackle Sri Pada, Sri Lanka's highest peak at 2,243m tall. This is a 6 hour round trip, but here's the kicker - we set off at 2am in order to reach the peak for sunrise!! Depending on who you ask, there are around 5,500 steps to the top (it's a very well marked path), with the peak covered by a monastery (and cloud if you are unlucky!). There are plenty of shrines and dagobas on the way up to look at (and sneak a cheeky rest stop!) along with the occasional teashop for drinks and snacks. My tip - avoid 'poya' days (coinciding with the full moon) when the hike is very popular... it can take twice as long due to the crowds!
Either way, if you get a nice sunrise like we did, it's a pretty epic feeling to sit on the roof of Sri Lanka and watch the sun light up the clouds beneath you.
We stayed at the Slightly Chilled Guest House - a great spot and only a short walk to the trail head.
I highly recommend exploring the Hill Country of Sri Lanka! You can find out more about seeing elephants in Sri Lanka here!