Elephants casually strolling down the sidewalks, glorious beaches, breathtaking hikes and one of the biggest homes of tea (can you tell I’m British?!) are just a few of the reasons I fell in love with Sri Lanka. This is part one of a series of posts I’m writing about the billions of reasons why it is so awesome, which will hopefully provide you with some inspiration if you’re headed there yourself (which you definitely should be!)
When people ask me about the highlight of my two weeks in Sri Lanka, or for advice on what they should do there, Ella and its impressive Rock is pretty much the first thing that springs to mind.
On my fourth day of backpacking life we took the six-hour train ride from one of the country’s major cities Kandy to the small but sweet wee hill country village of Ella. The train ride is hailed as the most scenic in Sri Lanka and one of the most beautiful in the world which is certainly hard to argue with. Coming from health and safety conscious England, it was a nice change to be able to sit at the train door’s edge admiring the view like I’ve seen on so many movies.
As a fresh-faced backpacking amateur, our first morning in Ella was exactly how I imagined backpacking should be – we took the bus down to the Ravana Falls and jumped in fully clothed, surrounded by locals, fellow tourists and, most special of all, a whole load of monkeys just doing their own thing.
Something to be careful of at the Ravana Falls is the weather. Being in Sri Lanka in the back end of monsoon season (September) meant that conditions could turn quite rapidly and we were lucky to have a local warn us of oncoming heavy rain and the danger that it posed at the falls. He pointed us towards a mural on a nearby rock remembering 34 people who had been swept away in heavy rain at the spot just the year before.
The rain came and went and later that afternoon we decided we would tackle the four hour round hike up to Ella Rock, which seemed to be popping up in all the guidebooks and recommendations from other travellers.
I’ve read posts saying that you don’t need a guide for this hike, and was also told this at the time by two fellow travellers who had done the walk the day before and given us a hand-drawn map.
If you’re confident, have heaps of time before the sun sets and have a good sense of direction then go without a guide, but if not I’d definitely recommend one. We would certainly have been screwed without ours.
We navigated our way through the town and along the train tracks which lead to the bottom of the route, which in itself wasn’t a clear path to follow and the whole time we wondered if we were even going the right way. It’s worth noting that at this point on the journey it’s wise to pay extra attention to oncoming trains, although their sound and slow speed makes them fairly easy to avoid. It was along the tracks that we met a fairly elderly Sri Lankan man who began to lead the way and wouldn’t leave us alone.
At first we were irritated. My friend Molly and I had not seen each other properly in a year and were hoping to use the time to have a proper catch up; we thought we didn’t need the guide and that he would only try and guilt-trip us into giving him money for providing a service that we didn’t want or need. We were very wrong.
The walk was incredible but much tougher than I anticipated, up steep intense mountainside for most of the way in extremely hot and muggy conditions. We went through tea plantations with our fellow guide, who’s name I feel guilty for not remembering, pointing out lizards camouflaging in plants and even the home of a cobra. All stuff we probably wouldn’t have noticed had we been on our own.
For the first time in my life on a hike I thought I wasn’t going to make the top. The climb was steep, hot, intense and seemed never-ending. I had to stop several times while our guide, who had done the trek 49 times before and god knows how many times by now, managed the whole thing in flip flops without even breaking a hint of a sweat.
When we got to the top, however, the pain had been well worth it as promised. The view over Ella, the serenity, the calm, the chance to breathe, everything about it was just stunning.
When it was time to head back down, the challenge wasn’t over. The walk down was difficult to navigate and in some parts felt even steeper than the way up, which again made me thankful for our kind guide who was there to hold my hand on many near-tumbles.
Stopping to have a mango juice at our trusty guide’s cafe, who we had got to know quite well on the journey, he told us that the cafe was owned by his family, that he had two young boys and lived in the hillside.
Once we left him, it got very dark very quickly – another thing to take note of in Sri Lanka is how quickly the sun sets and how early. The minute the sun starts to sink, it can be pitch black within the space of around 20 minutes, as early as 7pm, and with little street lighting this can take you by surprise.
As a result we lost our way on our walk back, feeling disorientated and with little light between the two of us. It was then, as we were still making our way back along the train tracks with only phone torches to guide us, that we heard some very loud bangs, which sounded close-by and seemed to be getting closer. To this day I don’t know what it was but it was a pretty terrifying experience at the time as we grabbed each other’s hands and made our way down a steep bank eventually finding a hotel who called us a TukTuk back to our hostel. The moral of the story is just to be prepared and don’t get caught out lost and disorientated in potentially dangerous situations, but I’m sure you all knew that anyway.
Should you find yourself in Ella, having conquered the majestic Ella Rock, get yourself down to Chill Bar, which is just on the main street, for Sri Lanka’s special arrack, ginger beer and lime – the perfect end to a perfect Ella excursion.
Dani – Traveling Voyager x