The excitement and bumpiness of the 4 hour Safari had left us both feeling like we had been through two rounds in a boxing ring, I guess that all the bouncing and jigging around makes you use your neck and shoulder muscles as it was these that we’re a bit stiff this morning…just think, our bones would have been rattled to pieces if we had travelled in one of the older jeeps that we had seen!
Today we were leaving behind the hot, arid low lands in search of the cooler temperatures of the Hill Country, our next destination being the small hill town of Ella, from which we would take the winding hill train to our next destination Nuwara Eliya, otherwise known as ‘Little England’ as it was here that many of the colonialists took up residence whilst creating their tea plantations.We were in for a long drive, but we could just sit back and enjoy the ride.
These were the rock carvings of Buduruwagala, located in a beautifully unspoilt dry-zone forest populated with abundant birds and butterflies. These figures are some of the largest on the island and are thought to date from the tenth century. Hema had really come up trumps here, this was magical. As with all Buddhist temple complexes, one has to remove shoes and once again the floor was baking hot, I tried to walk onto the terrace to take a closer look at the shrine and it’s offerings, but my tender toes just weren’t up to what felt like walking on red hot coals, so it quickly ‘hot-footed’ it off the terrace, much to the amusement of some locals who obviously had spent years developing their asbestos-soled feet!
Back on the road and we were beginning to climb, the flat straight road was being replaced by a snaking one, curving its way up into the hills, providing us with stunning scenery and breathtaking views. The straw coloured dry zone was now becoming dark green as lines of tea plantations, followed the contours of the hills, creating patterns across the landscape. As we climbed higher and higher our ears began to pop and the temperatures began to drop, the A/C had to be turned down as we could feel the coolness, which was such a contrast to the baking hot of the south. Rocky outcrops and waterfalls were dotted along the route, with pilgrims, making their way south, bathing in the coolness of the tumbling water. Small shrines, where offerings were being made sat nearby.
The views were becoming more and more spectacular the higher we climbed, the hills in the distance fading in the heat of the day. Hema received a phone call from Rohan, who was on a tour with our Belgian friends, Mieke, Joost and their twin girls, the family who had been staying at the Shangri-Lanka, whilst we were there. We were to meet briefly a few kilometers away, as they were heading South to Yala. Our paths crossed and both vehicles stopped in a lay-by. It was nice to see them again and to have a brief chat about our various adventures…The girls had enjoyed the elephants and were hoping to see the elusive leopards too! We said our goodbyes and carried on climbing, the road twisting and turning until we hit the small town of Ella. This was to be our over night stay and we were hoping for a room with a view…
Hema suggested that we eat before heading to the hotel and recommended at small cafe on the main street. The three of us sat down to a typical Sri Lankan, curry, which consists of numerous dishes, of vegetables, dhal, chicken and rice. It was delicious, but very spicy and hot. The Sri Lankans love their chillies and the hotter the better. Even a curry which has been tamed for our western palette is still pretty fiery and not for the feint-hearted! But we ate up and enjoyed every mouthful. Hema was being polite and using a spoon, but normally he would have eaten in the traditional manner of just using his right hand to scoop up the food.
Lunch completed and off we went to find our accommodation. Out of the village we had to take a turning up a very steep incline and eventually found our guesthouse. It looked a but shabby, but apparently the ‘permanent’ hotel as Hema put it, had been booked up, so we were staying next door. We got out of the car and made our way up the steps to the reception and oh my! The view from the terrace was breathtaking. We were looking at what is known as ‘Ella Gap’, a huge cutting through two mountains, looking out in to the distance as far as the eye could see. We sat down to admire this magnificent view, with a view like this it didn’t matter that the accommodation itself looked a little worn around the edges it was certainly a matter of Location! Location! Location!
Our plan was to spend the afternoon, just sitting and admiring the view, albeit from a rickety chair which looked like it might not hold out for much longer! Hema seemed to be taking his time, their was a lot of discussion going on and I suspected that something was wrong…the receptionist, if that’s what you could call him, was searching though a heavy-looking book, I guessed for our booking. Hema came out and I asked him if there was a problem. He told us that the booking had been made, but, and this was a huge BUT, they had written it in for the 28th August and today was the 28th July…and as you might guess, they were full. There was to be no room with a view!
Hema got on the phone, but it was no good all of the hotels in the area were full, so we had to think of a new plan. There was a hotel in a town about 10 kilometres away that we could try. “Don’t worry it’s a very nice hotel and there will be a nice view there too.” He told us, trying to remain positive as he could see our disappointment. But, it wasn’t going to be that view, the one that had enchanted and excited us…his concern now was to find us a bed for the night!
On the side of the road on the way to find a hotel, we passed a homemade shrine next to a shack, where the owner of the shrine clearly lived, we just had to get Hema to stop so we could take a closer look… It was pretty freaky, with various Hindu/Buddhist statues, painted in the bright gaudy colours that we were becoming used to seeing everywhere in Sri Lanka. The objects were almost voodoo or fetish like and whoever made them was obviously taking their shrine making seriously…
We arrived at a dusty, grubby looking town called Haputale, this didn’t look too promising, it was only 2 pm and there was not much evidence of anything to see or do here. He took us to the grandly named ‘Olympus’ Hotel, which was surrounded by workman, drilling and sawing, they were creating a new wing…so much for peace and tranquility! The hotel was perched on the edge of a precipice with yes, a breathtaking view, but not a great spot for vertigo suffers, of which I am one…my vertigo came into play as soon as we walked to the open stair well, where a combination of the floor to ceiling window looking out at the view and the view down to the bottom of the stairwell made me freeze and literally shake in my boots, well sandals. Andy took my hand and escorted me down the stairs where we were shown to a room in the lower part of the hotel, which was pleasant enough but smelt of cheap air freshner and had a pretty grotty terrace…he knew immediately that we wouldn’t be staying here, even for one night. They tried to show us a couple of other rooms, but it was no good, it just wasn’t going to be!
We looked at another place, but that was really grotty…what to do next. Hema had looked at a room above the cafe in Ella, where we had eaten. I suggested that so he called them to see if the room was free, and it was. So we got back in the car and off we drove back the way we had come. I was pleased to be leaving this place. Whilst we were en route, Hema received a call from Rohan, who was furious with the guesthouse, that had messed up the booking and wanted to apologise. He told Hema about a guesthouse in the next town, which was in an old colonial tea plantation bungalow. It sounded interesting enough and was in a place with a garden so we could have a bit of outside space to chill for a couple of hours before dusk. So we all decided that it was worth a look and if it really wasn’t up to much then we still had the room in Ella.
We arrived at ‘Cairn View’. It certainly was an old, well 1930’s, colonial bungalow, complete with old British car, decorative brass objects on the walls and all manner of dusty antiquities…reminiscent of a faded bygone era. The rooms were huge, with dark mahogany furniture and the manager and caretaker extremely polite and hospitable. We had to stay just because it was like going back in time…and the guest house sign said it all…
“Where Service is Understood and Luxury is Displayed” who could resist staying in a place that described itself in this way!
We sat at the front of the bungalow with a tray of tea soaking up the peace and quiet, it had been a pretty exhausting afternoon and we were other in need of some relaxation and fresh air after our disappointing no room with a view…all was well until a small coach turned into the drive and the peace was shattered, it looked like a football team had arrived, indeed a large group of 20-something lads go out and started playing on some swings and slides that were opposite all acting like a bunch of overgrown kids. Oh dear, what had we done…we were in for a loud and noisy night! Who were this unruly bunch? Criminals from the local borstal? Military boys? No, of course they were a group of lads on their pilgrimage to Kataragama and this was a stop-over for them, a place where they could be fed, watered and bedded for the night before continuing their journey to find enlightenment, along with the guys who stick skewers through their cheeks, hooks in their backs, heavy weights on their man bits and walk on hot coals!
It was a bit weird for me as I seemed to be the only female in the place and was drawing a bit of unwanted attention. I spoke to the manager who told me that they would not disturb us and there would be no noise as they would be taken down in to the garden away from the bungalow to do their partying…”Please be assured Madam that you will not be disturbed, I will make sure of that”. He said in his most earnest voice. Ok, So I had to believe him, as we had now made our decision to stay so nothing more could be done. Anyway I had my ear plugs, so I’d just stick them in and then I wouldn’t be able to hear them.
We were asked what we would like for dinner. I fancied something simple as the curry,
especially the dhal, we’d eaten at lunch time was beginning to take effect..say no more! I think they must have gone out specially to buy food for us, as we were summoned to the ‘dining room’ that was formally laid up for supper, making us feel like lord and lady of the estate and served pan fried fish, chips and vegetables. A bit bland for Andy but it filled a gap and settled an explosive tummy!
The owner arrived and introduced himself. He was obviously quite wealthy as he was a rather well rounded chap, which is a sign of having money in these parts. He was proud of his old colonial bungalow and had bought it as it was seen with all the oddities and bizarre Englishness, that doesn’t really exist much nowadays in the UK, except perhaps in the odd B&B in a seaside town such as Blackpool, that hasn’t changed with the times. The manager was true to his word and kept the lads away from the bungalow for as long as he could and as we were both shattered and with ear plugs in we were soon off to the land of nod.
In the morning at breakfast, the owner was there to greet us. We had a chat and he apologised to us saying that he doesn’t normally allow ‘lower class people’ such as ‘the lads’ in to the guesthouse as it is normally reserved for a ‘higher class of clientele”. He was also pleased to have been awarded a rating of 9.7 on one of the hotel booking websites and was quick to inform us that a rating of 10 is the highest! Our Man had also used his local ‘contacts’ to arrange seats in the observation carriage of the train and was very pleased with himself to have been able to do this for us…All in all it was an interesting, but quite surreal overnight stay…