We took the 12.30pm train deeper into Sri Lanka and toward what is frequently mooted as being the most picturesque village on the entire island and the place that offers the single best views anywhere in the whole of Sri Lanka – Ella.
Again, completely on the back packer trail and far from most typical holiday makers itineraries we spent almost three hours on a cramped train as it chugged its way through the mountains and spectacular scenery.
Ella is a tiny place that really consist of one main road with the railway station, which is just a shed at the top and then a few hundred metres down the gentle slope forks off. The left heads up toward Little Adam’s Peak and the road going straight ahead goes on to the South coast some 3 hours away. Dotted on either side of the road are guesthouses and restaurants, though not many. It really is an intimate little place. The village is flanked on both sides by huge mountains and at the front right is the renowned Ella Rock, a stunning cliff face rising intimidatingly high above the village. The space between the two sides is known as Ella’s gap, and through this gap you can see the plains below, it is this famous and absolutely gorgeous view that has encouraged backpackers to venture this far East for years.
The climate is one of the best in Sri Lanka at this time of year and sits at a perfect 26 degrees with a gentle breeze daily. The skies are blue and everyone that lives in Ella is proud of the beauty and tranquillity that the village provides.
Everywhere within the village is in easy walking distance and so when we got booted off the train we headed down into the village in search of accommodation. There are two trains that stop at Ella daily that have much chance of bringing tourists in. We were on the second and so we took our time getting to the guesthouses. The reason behind this was to let everyone get their places and by the time we turned up we would be last chance saloon for the day. In other words most places would accept the rooms they had empty were likely to stay empty – This is perfect for us because it means that when we turn up we really have bargaining power. We found a perfect little place and I bargained 60% off the rate for two days. Doing what we did holds some risk, you of course might end up with no where to stay and then when somewhere does open up the rates will be sky high, supply and demand and all that.
There are only a few restaurants in Ella and all seem to have free WIFI, the village caters extremely well for tourists except for the fact there is no ATM. Something my knob head guide book refrained from advising me about. The nearest ATM is in Bandarawela a quick bus ride away.
The following morning we woke up and had a breakfast of fresh bananas, oranges and avocado. The intention was to get ourselves ready for the days hike. We were to climb Ellas rock which sits at around 2000m, Ella sits at 1000m and so the prominence of the mountain, or the climb, was some one thousand metres or 3300ft. That is comparable to heading to the Yorkshire Dales and climbing Whernside, Ingleborough and then giving up halfway up Pen y Ghent all in one go. Or climbing Englands highest mountain and a bit.
We had no map, but could see where we needed to be, we had brief directions and so headed to the railway station. We jumped down onto the rails and started walking South along the railway lines. I had checked the train situation and we had about three hours before the next one came. As we walked along the lines it was special. We found ourselves alone again and we just plodded along at our own pace. We walked for about a mile along the stunning railway line high on the side of the mountain. Once we got to a rickety bridge we went left and found ourselves looking down the 100 metre drop from the top of Rawana Waterfalls. It was a sight behold, we then continued on and got lost. I just could not fathom out where we needed to be. Abi spotted a farmer cutting his crops with a sickle. I asked him the way to Ellas Rock and he gestured a way. We set off and got lost again within minutes. We backtracked to the farmer and I asked again, he was trying to explain the way and I just could not understand. So I said to him “I’ll give you 500 Rupees (£2.75) if you take us” he dropped his tools, jumped up, slid on his flip flops and we were off. We walked through stunning scenery and every now and again the farmer would pick the plants that were near us and show us them. The journey took us through fields of chilli, tomato, eucalyptus, lemon grass, banana, avocado, Jack fruit and a huge tea plantation. We also saw some Venus fly traps and smelled the root of a plant that makes wintergreen (the stuff rugby players put on their legs) The walk was quite difficult and the ascent steep in parts. It took us about an hour and a half and once at the top we edged out onto the rock – Ella’s Rock – The view was spectacular. I hoped my jaw didn’t drop off the end and the kids and I just gazed in amazement at what lay beneath us and the absolute natural beauty that Sri Lanka held. I had bought a loaf of bread and picked a few bananas on the walk up. As we sat having a picnic some 2km above the plains beneath us it was almost surreal. Except for our farmer cum guide we were the only ones there. The silence and intimacy was almost as amazing as the view. It was as near to perfect as anywhere on earth could ever get.
The descent was much quicker and despite our guide’s efforts to get us to stick our hand in a tree to get some honey it was every bit as amazing as the ascent. We came down a different way and found a different waterfall. Eventually we came back to the railway line and made our way back along to Ella. This time we heard a train coming and so bailed into the bushes.
Getting to Ella has been a pain in terms of travelling and so it’s easy to see why only backpackers make it this far. I doubt it will remain that way for much longer and so strongly urge any visitors to this amazing country to make the effort to get here.
Our decision to ditch the Cultural Triangle was something we didn’t have a great deal of say in. But I believe heading into the Hill country has been the best thing we could have done. We have travelled all over the world and seen and done some amazing things, things many people only dream of. With that experience behind me I suggest that travellers follow our decision to ditch the North and head into the stunning Hill country. Take it from me, there are amazing Temples all over the world. The Temples of Angkor in Cambodia are at the pinnacle of amazing temples. As for Sigiriya, no doubt it is special, but the view is only from a prominence of 200m. The only place I wish we could have gone to is Minneriya National Park, it is there that Asia’s largest congregation of elephants (some 300 or so) chill out. But we had seen wild elephants and spent time with them in Nepal at a fraction of the cost. I can’t of course comment with any sort of authority about the cultural triangle because we didn’t go. But I have spoke to people and they have all said the Hill Country offers so much more. In addition the CT is expense after expense after expense. I personally don’t see anything up there that is that unique it deserves the time and expense. The Hill country on the other hands offers something special, there are few places we have been in the world that are as beautiful as this is. Indonesia aside, this could well be the most beautiful place in Asia.