Trekking, trains and tea – SL#35.

Welcome again everybody to another post in the series regarding my first trip to Sri Lanka in 2014 which was already memorable and becoming moreso by the day. If any new readers wish to see why it was so memorable then they can read from the beginning here.

I had walked up to the Nine Arches Bridge in the last episode and had throroughly enjoyed myself and so when I woke up early the next morning I thought I might repeat the process and go to visit another local landmark. If you want to find out what it was, please read on.

5th February, 2014.

Before I tell you about my day’s walking I should mention my friend Jo briefly. If you have not read my previous posts Jo is a South African mate of mine who had lived in London and who I had met through the wonderful Virtual Tourist website, now sadly no longer in existence.

By the time of this trip she had relocated to Sri Lanka, initially to Trincomalee and then to Kandy which is not too far from Ella. We were in contact and she was asking me when I was coming up to see her as I had agreed to do. I kept telling her soon and I did fully intend to do so but, as the title of a previous post alluded to, I was stuck in the Ella Triangle and I just could not seem to leave. I call this phenomenon travel inertia.

On any extended trip there always seems to be one place I go to for a day or two and end up staying weeks or even months. In the Philippines it was Dumaguete City (over four months!), in Lao Luang Prabang (twice) and there are other examples. This is very much a double-edged sword.

On the one hand I have some wonderful times and get to know a place far better than if I was on a whistle-stop tour but on the other hand I always come home regretting that I did not visit more places. After a total of nine months in Sri Lanka on three trips I still have not visited Jaffna which has become something of a Holy Grail for me. I blame Ella largely for this although I do not regret a single day I have spent there.

Most guides, both printed and online mention three “must see places in and around Ella. I had already climbed Little Adam’s Peak and seen the Nine Arches Bridge, both of which were fabulous excursions and that left the Rawana Falls so that is where I was off to.

I set off downhill towards the “bottom” of town but my route took me past the Chill Bar so a quick breakfast of coffee and arrack was called for but it did not delay me too long as I was taking the image above before 0930 where the market was in full swing as you can see. There are always stalls at the side of the road but there seemed to be more than usual this day, it must have been “market day”.

I could have grabbed one of the many tuk-tuks that congregate down the hill near the police post but I preferred to walk. It was a lovely day and I had nothing to do and so off I went. At least it was all downhill.

This was the road I had come along on the bus from Tissa all those days before and which I knew was perilous but the local authorities leave you in no doubt about the matter as you can see. A sheer drop on one side, landslides on the other and the image I have used before indicating dangerous bends are all pointed out in pictographic detail. Ah well, if a landslide came I would just jump off the precipitious drop on my left, no problem.

The journey to the falls is about four miles but I was in no hurry and I was rewarded the entire walk with some superb views over the mountains. Sadly, the photography was not great as there was a bit of a heat haze but I hope the images give the reader some idea.

On the way I saw this strange sight at the side of the busy road with about three feet maximum of clearance between tarmac and forest. There was not even a stream nearby to fetch water from.

Some way down the hill I stopped at the lovely Ella Mount Heaven hotel where I surprisingly did not have a beer but rather a very refreshing cup of lemon tea. Well, it is Sri Lanka so it is sort of expected. The hotel is slightly vertiginously built out over the side of the sheer drop but the views, as you can see, are magnificent. A nice pot of tea in Sri Lankan tea country with that view, it is not a bad way to have a morning cuppa, shame I did not have a ginger nut biscuit to dunk!

It was still literally all downhill until I came to a small area of stalls (food and tourist trinkets) where I took an image of one of the many monkeys that congregate here. This one, along with others was scavenging from a waste bin lef there presumably to hold the rubbish of all the visitors.

I know (s)he looks adorable but they are a bit of a nuisance as they create an awful mess by throwing all the rubbish out of the bins to get to the tastiest morsels. I have encountered this all over Sri Lanka where many locals get really annoyed at their actions. Also, it affects their behaviour as they become dependent on the rubbish, which may or may not be good for them, rather than obtaining food in the natural way. My brief video here shows what I mean.

It looks like I had made it to Rawena (aka Ravana Ella Falls aka Ravana Alla Falls, you get the idea) so let me tell you about them. They are 82 feet high and are one of the widest falls in the country. Although I mentioned the rain of a few days previously, it was the dry season and so probably not seen to best effect although I would not plan a trip to Sri Lanka in the rainy season just to see them in full spate.

Being Sri Lanka there is obviously a legend associated with the falls, in this case concerning the deity Ravana who features in the famous Indian Sanskrit epic Ramayana. The story runs that Ravana, who was a demon and King of Lanka in his spare time, kidnapped the princess / goddess Sita and hid here with her in a cave behind the falls which is there to this day. Sita was the wife of Rama, the “hero” of the Ramayana, hence the name. Eventually, Rama kills Ravana and they all live happily ever after.

On a musical note (pun intended) Ravana is supposed to have played the one stringed Indian instrument called a ravanatha for Sita. Some claim the ravanatha to be the distant forebear of the violin and it takes it’s name from Ravana and, trying out my new found trick of obtaining images from the internet I have included an image here (© commons licence).

I’ll bet my mate Steve Mulhern could play one of these, he is a demon on a violin although as far as I know he does not go in for kidnapping princesses, divine or otherwise.

On slightly firmer scientific ground, archaeologists have discovered evidence in this area suggesting human habitation in the cave as far back as 25,000 years ago. Obviously our long-distant ancestors knew a good place when they saw it.

I had considered hiking up to the cave but in the end I decided against and contented myself with sitting looking at the falls for a while and cooling my feet in the very refreshing water. Well, that was Ravana Ella Falls and so back to town which was a bit of a slog up the hill but still pleasant enough with the views although the diesel fumes of the occasional passing lorry wasn’t so pleasant.

I was back in the village by lunchtime and having walked over eight miles in the heat I didn’t feel like doing much more so I retired to the Chill Bar once again which gives me an opportunity to share something with you.

I told you that the owner of the Chill is a guy called Darshan and that Jo is a friend of his. She had told me to go there and introduce myself. At this point I had not met Darshan as he was away on business although I die eventually meet him on this and subsequent trips, he is an absolutely lovely guy. Whilst I was researching these posts I came upon an article, syndicated on various websites which proves this and reinforces most strongly all I have told how about the massive generosity and hospitality of Sri Lankans. Have a read for yourself.

That would normally have been that for the day and you would be expecting me to say now that I went home to my comfy bed and slept like a baby but there was a little more to do yet. One of the barmen who I was friendly with had asked me if I wanted to go to a party after he finished work and what sort of stupid question that was I do not know. Of course I did. On the principle that it is rude to turn up empty-handed to a party I scored myself the necessaries from the bar at at the appointed hour off we went.

My mate guided me to a rather grand looking house behind the Dream Café and if memory serves it was the home of the owner of that establishment but I really cannot be sure. I was the only non-local there but I was welcomed warmly and settled down to listen to the rather good local band which you can see a short clip of here.

Of course I had stupidly mentioned at some point to my barman friend that I played in bands and so I was “persuaded” to knock out a few tunes on the guitarists rather nice instrument. I am not sure what the good people of Ella made of it but they were good enough to clap politely and press arrack on me, presumably in the hope that it would improve my performance.

I had a wonderful night until the not so small hours of the morning and then I went home to my comfy bed and slept like a baby.

That was a fairly long walk but a reasonably short write-up and so I think I shall pass straight on to the next day which will save you having to change pages. You know I like to make life easy for you.

6th February, 2014.

I was up bright and early this morning as I had plans for the day. I mentioned above that there were only three major sights to see in Ella and I had now seen them all so I thought I would move further afield in search of new adventures. I had decided to go to Haputale as I wanted to visit Lipton’s Seat which I had read about and also see what else I could discover obviously.

I had found out that there was a train at about half nine in the morning so that was my plan. I also knew it was one of the “blue trains” so I was not sure if I would get a ticket or not as they are often sold out days in advance but that is moreso for the stretch nearer Colombo. I reckoned I would be OK as I was only one station down from the end of the line in Badulla and I was proved to be correct.

I bought a ticket from the friendly station master, the same one who had invited me to illegally trespass on the track previously and waited for the train which, remarkbly was on time. The “blue trains” are the pride of the Sri Lankan Railways as are more modern and reliable than most local trains and they even have a snack bar.

Whilst they are called “express trains” they are anything but and it took me about 50 minutes to cover the 14 miles to Haputale. The reason for this is that when I was there in 2014 there had been no major upgrade of the network since the 1930’s when the British were in charge although I believe work has now begun on new lines and major improvements to the existing system.

Unfortunately we were going the “wrong” way to pass over the Nine Arch Bridge which would have been a thrill but the journey was still spectacular with the most wonderful views. Once again there was a bit of a haze but I hope the images give you some idea. The entire stretch from Kandy to Badulla regularly features in articles about the most scenic rail journeys in the world and it is not hard to see why.

We got into Haputale and I set about finding myself a tuk-tuk to take me up to Lipton’s Seat which wasn’t difficult as there were plenty of them about the station. I settled on a driver who appeared to speak good English and off we went.

The driver turned out to speak not good but excellent English and we had a great chat on the journey up an we certainly were going up as Lipton’s Seat has an elevation of almost 6,500 feet and by the time we got up there my photographic endeavours were hampered not by heat haze as on the train journey but by cloud.

On the way up the driver was good enough to stop regularly so I could get busy with the camera and I hope you like my efforts. It is a shame it was not clear as it is possible to see no less than five different Provinces from here on a clear day.

When we got to the top there was a small café and, of course I had to have a nice cup of tea along with some tasty snacks the driver ordered. By inclination I am more of a coffee man than a tea one but I am not averse to a decent cuppa and of course it was excellent here. Dammit, I was sitting looking out over the plantation where they grew the stuff and it reminded me of when I did a similar thing at a Darjeeling tea plantation in India some years before. There is something terribly “last days of the Raj” about it and it was a great experience.

If you are a tea drinker anywhere in the world the name Lipton is probably familiar to you, it refers to Sir Thomas Lipton, Bt., the founder of the Lipton’s Tea brand amongst many other things. I recently saw an excellent documentary on the BBC iPlayer about him which was presented by the entrepreneurial multi-millionaire Duncan Bannatyne. I have not put a link here as it will not be available outside UK and will expire soon but it was very good.

The expression self-made man could have been made for Sir Thomas and I shall give you a very potted history of his long and fascinating life.

I feel a certain affinity for the man as his parents came from Rosslea in Co. Fermanagh which is in my home country of Northern Ireland although they were forced to leave by the potato famine and Thomas was actually born in the Gorbals in Glasgow, a notoriously hard and deprived area.

“Tommy” Lipton left school at 13 and had a succession of jobs including cabin boy on the Glasgow – Belfast ferry but when he was made redundant he headed for America where again he had various occupations until he returned to Glasgow in 1870 to help in his parent’s small grocery shop.

The following year he opened his own shop with the principle of selling the best goods at the cheapest prices which he achieved by cutting out wholesalers. For example, he had agents in Co, Fermanagh buying all sorts of farm produce direct at market which cut prices. It was obviously a winning formula as he soon had shops all over Britain and had bought into stockyards in the USA, again to cut out wholesalers and keep prices down.

He sold these interests in 1887 and used the capital to purchase tea estates in the then Ceylon, including the very one I was sitting in the middle of, Dambatenne, again on the principle of supplying himself directly. The company exists to this day as a subsidiary of Unilever.

When he was not making millions, Lipton was a keen sportsman and holds the record for having contested the Americas Cup yachting trophy the most times, a total of five. He competed under the pennant of the Royal Ulster Yacht Club as the ultra-snooty Royal Yacht Squadron would not allow them to compete under their pennant albeit that he could probably have bought and sold any of them. Despite all these attempts he never won, giving rise to the soubriquet “the best of all losers”.

Another label attached to Lipton was that he was the “world’s most eligible bachelor” which I suppose is hardly surprising given his bank balance and immense charm but he never married on the principle, so he said, that nobody could match up to his Mother. He was finally re-united with with that paragon of female virtue, as well as his Father and siblings, when he was buried in a fairly simple grave in Glasgow on his death in 1931 aged 83.

During his lifetime, when he had occasion to visit his estate, he was very fond of sitting here at his seat looking out over the surrounding area and contemplating and I can certainly think of a lot worse places to do such a thing.

When we had our fill of tea and vistas we headed back off down the hill again and the driver asked me if I would like to see a tea factory. Sure, why not but there was time for some more images on the way including a pleasing one of the extremely hardy ladies (men never seem to do this) who pick the tea.

It is interesting that most of the plantation workers actually live “on the job” in dwellings provided by the owners. A look at the 2009 figures (the latest available) show that in the Haputale area almost exactly one third of the population live on plantations. There were 18075 such residents compared to a mere 5238 in the town itself.

The plantations also account to a large degree for the large Tamil population in Sri Lanka. Whilst there had always been Tamils, who originate from Tamil Nadu in Southern India, in the North of the country, their numbers were considerably swelled when the British brought in large numbers as indentured labourers to work the estates. I have included an image of one of the plantation settlements above.

My trusty driver took me to the Dambatenne Tea Factory which for some inexplicable reason is rendered on Google maps as Fabbrica di Dambatenne. I know the Romans got about a bit but not as far as Sri Lanka to my knowledge!

For some other inexplicable reason we were asked not to take images as our small group was shown around the large and very noisy factory by a very knowledgeable guide who spoke excellent English. It is indeed a fascinating process of turning green hand-picked leaves into what turns up in your teabag (actually the lower quality broken tea) or teapot if you are being posh.

If you want to be really posh and have a bank account the size of Tommy Lipton’s you might want to head to the Palace Hotel in London where a pot of Ceylon (how anachronistic) Golden Tips, picked near here, will set you back £500 or $625US (2019 price).

I knew about regional variations of tea like Darjeeling and Assam, both of which I love but I did not know so many variants were available form the one plantation. It all depends on which leaves you have picked (apparently the smallest ones are best) nd how long you dry them for. I also got an interesting tip from the guide, who should know what he is talking about.

Like most tea heathens I thought you always needed boiling water but not so. The guide told us the water should be slightly less than boiling point for the best brew, I was amazed. If you are interested, white and green teas are best with the water at 70°C and black at 80°C without milk or 90-95°C with milk. I never knew there was so much to it. We were treated to a cup of their finest and, naturally, I had never tasted anything quite like it.

What I do remember about the visit very clearly is the smell of all that tea, it was beautiful.

My driver had waited outside for me, chatting to some of the locals as he presumably knew all about tea picking and processing and when I jumped into the tuk-tuk again I did something really stupid, just by way of a change. Actually, it was not stupid then but it got a bit daft later on.

It was only early afternoon and my return train did not go until about 1630 so I asked the driver to take me somewhere for a beer. I told him not to take me to anywhere touristy although I am not sure if any such places existed then in the town, it was not really that sort of place.

I asked him to take me where he would go for a drink himself and that is exactly what he did. He obviously did drink in there as he was greeted by a few of the men sitting in the Acme Lanka Restaurant. At least that is what it said on the front window. The price list you can see in one of the images informed me that I was in the Everest Inn and just to complete the confusion the address given on the price list is miles away. Don’t bother looking it up on the internet, this is not the kind of place that has an online presence and I have just spent quite a while trying to work out where it actually is.

Wherever it might have been it was a beer for me and this is where it starts to get completely stupid as I asked him if he wanted one. I reckoned one beer would not hurt but Lion Strong had slipped my mind. As the name suggests that is one of the lunatic brews the Sri Lankans seem so fond of, Lion Stout is another one. Still one would be OK for him surely. What then prompted me to offer him another one when I went for a refill is a complete mystery to me even now.

Although I doubt they got many travellers in there I was made to feel most welcome as I had obviously been put “on the firm” by my driver. He insisted on my trying out some of the local snacks which were gorgeous as usual. The language was no problem with my “new best friend” translating but I am sure I would have got on OK on my own, I usually do. I seemed to be finding “new best friends” all over Sri Lanka, it is that sort of place.

You can probably guess what happened next, we sat there for a couple of hours until it came time for me to head to the station and he insisted on taking me. I had thought he was going to get someone to drive him home in his vehicle or whatever but he wouldn’t hear of it. In truth, he did not appear to be drunk but I do not think he would have been passing any breathalyser tests.

I am not particularly proud of this bit of nonsense although thankfully the journey was a short one and, apart from stalling in the middle of a busy junction, there was no major mishap. He deposited me at the station in good time and I paid him off, along with a decent tip so he had had a good day all round, a tipping customer and a few beers. I do hope he got home OK.

On the way back it was still light and so time for another few images. I cannot stress this enough, bring the biggest SD card you can lay your hands on as just about everything in Sri Lanka is worthy of an image.

As well as the scenery and obligatory train image I have included one slightly less savoury one although it is much more savoury than it might have been as anyone who has travelled on Asian trains will tell you. This was possibly the cleanest train toilet I have seen on that entire Continent so I just thought I’d share.

Back into Ella, back into the Chill Bar and back in the old routine as the Strawbs once sang. You may even have noticed my Strawbs 2000 tour T-shirt in an image in an earlier post and I’ve still got it! After the requisite number of beers it was off to look for a new place to eat and I chose the Wok restaurant which, as the name suggests, offers a predominantly Chinese menu with one or two Thai dishes. Unusually for Ella there is not a Western or Sri Lankan dish to be seen.

I had the crab meat and sweetcorn soup and the stir fried prawns with hot garlic chilli sauce and it was not lacking in either department, very tasty. I have not included details of the restaurant as it no longer seems to be operating under that name.

A couple more beers and it was time for my lovely cosy bed.

In the next post I spend a whole lot of time doing a whole lot of nothing before I finally make a move under threat of dire consequences if I do not. To find out all about that and where I end up, stay tuned and spread the word.

Author: Fergy.

Hello there. I am a child of the 50's, now retired and had been enjoying travelling pre-virus. Now I am effectively under house arrest. Apart from travelling, I love playing music (guitar, vocals and a bit of percussion) as the profile pic suggests and watching sport, my playing days are long over. I read voraciously, both fiction and nonfiction I'll read just about anything although I do have a particular interest in military history of all periods. I live alone in fairly central London where I have been for over 30 years since leaving Northern Ireland which was the place of my birth. I adore cooking and I can and do read recipe books and watch food programmes on TV / online all day given half a chance.

7 thoughts on “Trekking, trains and tea – SL#35.”

  1. I’m now back to read this page properly and I can see you had two excellent days. The scenery looks wonderful and the tea factory tour sounds very much like one we did in Kerala a few years ago (although we were allowed to take photos). But I’m puzzled why you’ve not included a single photo of the falls? I would have loved to have seen them!

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  2. Fergy, By all accounts, I’d say that your extended time in Sri Lanka has given you a lifetime of great memories to share with your followers. I enjoyed the added video clips and photos too. As you know, Sarah W. has booked a trip there for early next year! Between the both of you, I guess I will learn a lot about Sri Lanka!

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    1. Well, yes there were indeed lifetime of memories from that trip and a couple more to come. It is a place I love with a passion and had seriously considered relocating to before health issues and the Chinese virus made it impossible. Sadly now, I shall die in London.

      I am so glad you enjoy my meagre efforts here, it gives me so much pleasure to share my experiences with those who care to read them.

      I know Sarah has a potential trip planned on a “money-back basis” and I hope she and Chris can get there as there is so much to love but I fear it will not be.

      For people of our age, the world has effectively ended and there is nothing left to look forward to but the inevitable. I know you are a positive minded person and will decry this but come back to me in 20 years time and tell me who was right.

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      1. I really hope to prove you wrong on that Fergy – if we don’t get there next February I do believe it will be feasible later in the year or 2023 at the very latest!

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        1. I know, Sarah, and I sincerely hope you get there. Trust me, you will not be disappointed and if you do get there you there.

          I know you have a huge mastery of the English language but believe me, if you get there you are going to run out of superlatives fairly quickly, it really is that good.

          Liked by 1 person

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