The heart of Sri Lanka is said to be the hill country and it is astonishingly beautiful, particularly the ‘high country’ where the terrain rises to over 2400 meters (8000 feet) and the cool hills are dotted with Ceylon Tea bushes. Most visitors start in Kandy, the gateway to the Central Highlands, once a remote city that resisted hundreds of years of colonialism until the British took over the whole island in 1815.
Kandy is a busy place imbued with old world charm. At its core is a large, man-made lake; the hills are its backdrop. It is a religious centre and home to the Sacred Tooth Relic of the Buddha, which attracts pilgrims from around the world. The nearby Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage is a popular stop for many visitors as is the spectacular Peradeniya Botanical Gardens.
I stayed just outside the city, up in the hills, in a wonderful hotel called The Mansion for US$50/night and found it easy to get around by tuk-tuk. The hotel setting is very peaceful, very bucolic.
You pass through many tunnels on the train from Colombo to Kandy and this ride is said to be one of the best in the world. I skipped that trip but did take the train from Kandy to Nanu Oya, the closest station to Nuwara Eliya, a town often called “Little England” because it was a favourite British hill station. The tallest mountain in Sri Lanka overlooks Nuwara Eliya and a perch there is well worth the climb for an overview of the incredible landscape that surrounds the town. Close by is Horton Plains National Park where a sheer precipice called World’s End drops 1050 meters.
The tea plantations around Nuwara Eliya are astonishingly picturesque, with bushes laid out in perfect lines that follow the contours of the land. Tea grows best at high altitudes where there’s plenty of rain, so everything is lush and green and the air consistently fresh. The British not only introduced tea to these highlands but also built roads and railway lines to transport the tea out. Many Europeans migrated here to be tea planters. And when the British discovered they didn’t have enough labour to work the tea estates they brought over Tamils from southern India to do that.
These so-called ‘Plantation Tamils’ are very different from the ‘Sri Lankan’ Tamils that live in the North, although they have a common language. The tea here is picked by hand, not by machine, with the workers bending over the tops of the three-foot high bushes picking only the bud and two youngest leaves. Many of the tea pluckers are women.
Ceylon tea (Sri Lanka was called Ceylon until 1972) is famous, exported to countries around the world. You can visit a tea factory where the tea is withered, rolled, fermented, dried, sorted and packaged. No preservatives or artificial flavourings are added to Pure Ceylon Tea.
The climate in the hill country is not only ideal for growing tea but also for temperate crops such as carrots, cabbages and apples rather than the tropical fruits and vegetables that are grown in the low country. These terrace gardens are also perfect and add to the beauty of the setting.
There is a private club in Nuwara Eliya that was founded by British coffee planters in 1876 as a ‘home away from home’. Staff cheerfully showed me around the place and I suspect it is much the same today as it was more than a century ago. There’s also a golf club that imposes a strict dress code on its infrequent visitors. Quaint.
Nearby is a rather interesting Hindu Temple called Seetha Kovil and the modest Hakgala Botanical Gardens. I hired a tuk-tuk driver to take me around for a couple of days and then, when he was able to obtain a car, to drive me over to Ella and down to Tissa.
Ella is a popular place for visitors, with small shops and restaurants and a laid-back atmosphere. Accommodation can be difficult to obtain. What do you do in Ella? You walk for it’s the base for trekking expeditions to Ella’s Rock and beyond. This was also the first place in the country where I ran into young backpackers catching a local bus.
What makes Ella spectacular is the view you have from here through a gap in the hills. It is acclaimed and simply referred to as Ella’s Gap. The garden of the Grand Ella motel is reputed to be the best place to see the Gap. There’s also the Rawana Ella Falls, the pastoral setting, the friendly people…
I will surely return.
By Sylvia Fanjoy
Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy
© Riding the buses