Walking Along Railway Tracks and Lost in Tea Plantations

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September 14th 2017
Published: September 14th 2017
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For us English it goes against the grain to walk along railway tracks, especially for a few miles but it is the norm in Ella despite signs telling you not to. I guess if you don't speak Sinhalese, Tamil or English, you can't read the signs anyway, so the Germans had a good excuse! So that's how our afternoon went, our morning started in Udawalawe.

We've eaten too much in Udawalawe. Our host keeps cooking us large meals and there's always so many dishes! So it was hard to fit in breakfast despite it being very good. This morning it was time to leave the best accommodation we'd experienced in Sri Lanka so far and were chatting with our host whilst waiting for his mate to arrive with the tuk-tuk to take us to Ella. He asked what we do for a living and it's surprised me that people here know what a Graphic Designer is as often this is not the case when I go travelling or at least no one knows the translation.

We left at 8.10am and thankfully it was sunny again. Today's tuk-tuk is smaller than the one that got us here so it was a squish to get everything in, plus it's open both sides so more scope to fall out. We passed the usual elephant at the wire as seen yesterday, waiting for his fruit from tourists, thus proving why we should not feed him, he should be off doing elephant things!

The trip to Ella is around 75km, a lot of it uphill. I've noticed that on the downhill, the driver stops accelerating to conserve fuel. We passed through more national park areas hoping to see wild elephants crossing the road again.

After 90 minutes the uphill got steeper as the tuk-tuk soldiered on up into the mountains. A brief stop at Ravana Falls gave us a much needed stretch and time to photograph the long falls and scenery. A few guys carrying trays of rough gems 'not available in our country' followed us for a bit, one claiming he didn't like money and wanted to give us a rock. And then others asking for our foreign coins as they 'like our country's coins'. We didn't have any on us and they had no chance anyway.

Continuing up in the tuk-tuk, we arrived in Ella after about a 2 hour drive. Ella is a small but busy mountain town full of young back-packing tourists and cafe/ bars with names such as 'Chill' and 'Ice Cube'. There is one small main street with a couple of side streets. To find our accommodation, our tuk-tuk drove to the end of the side street called 'Police Street' where a police station and tiny primary school sat at the end. Here we found a steep, pot-holed dirt track with a multitude of signs claiming various accommodation further along. Following the track for a fair distance and passing a cat (hooray!) we finally came to a concrete path so steep there was no way the over-stuffed tuk-tuk was going to make it so I got out and walked. Rowenrich Cottages were the very last accommodation on the track, apart from those still in the process of being built. After the tuk-tuk pulled up, it was still a steep climb up a long flight of steps to our room. But it was a lovely room, only built 6 months ago, with hot water, a loft area with an extra mattress and balcony with a view over the side of the mountain. Plus it had fancy cushions and lots of electric sockets which is a real bonus as many places we stayed at had just one.

The reason we chose to come to Ella was to take the train to Colombo tomorrow as the journey is said to be one of the most picturesque in the world. The only other reason to come to Ella is hiking and so after consulting TripAdvisor decided upon making our way to Ella Rock. Now it is suggested that you need a guide to do this but TripAdvisor posts were adamant that you don't, but be aware of dodgy locals trying to send you the wrong way and then charging to guide you when you are lost. I came across a pictorial guide on GapYearEscape.com and saved it as a PDF on my iPad mini and off we went.

The trek started at nearby Ella Railway station where we were instructed to walk on the tracks. WHAT? Already we were dubious, there were signs saying this was dangerous and a crime, we stood at the end of the tiny rural platform not sure what to do. Then a young lady walked past and dropped onto the single track without any concern. We asked her if it was ok and it turned out she was deaf, so shrugged her shoulders and motioned that if we hear a train, we just get off the track. Simple really. At this stage there was a path beside the track.

The lady soon left us, as the entrance to 'Really Cheap Hotel' was just off the track and this is where she was going. We carried on still unsure and nervous: the path at the side was narrow and we had no idea how wide the train was. Further on, the track cut through rock covered in long grasses and it did not look like there was much space either side. However, it's not a busy line, there's only one station after Ella, the speed limits were 25kmph and 15kmph plus trains were few and far between.

Soon we saw tourists also walking on the lines and we began to feel reassured, it is recommended to start the hike at sunrise, so people were on their way back. Plus quite a few locals were either crossing the track or walking down it, shading themselves with umbrellas, carrying farm gear or carrying a sack bigger than themselves. Also, small shops, cafes and hostels had signs and entrances along the edge, so they must be expecting people passing on foot. At first I insisted on at least walking beside the track, but after the path disappeared and my legs got ripped to bits on thorns and sharp grasses, I decided the railway was safer.

After a couple of miles, we met some French girls going our way and this is when the train came, quite slowly but I still had to yell at Glyn to get off the track, he had an idea that there was a station in between and it would stop but he was mistaken. Passengers waved and the slow train was soon gone. We walked over the railway bridge fairly confident that another train would not be coming for a while. This was where the famed trickster locals tried to convince us to leave the track early. Oh no you don't, we've read TripAdvisor, were not falling for that! But despite us telling the French girls not to, they did and we parted company.

Ten minutes later we came upon the marker where we should look to get off the track and met Germans coming the other way. They asked if we were going to Ella Rock and confirmed that we were getting off at the right place, warning us they had been 'mugged by locals' on the way up. I guess they don't read TripAdvisor and were duped.

Crossing a bridge, we continued uphill by tea plantations and small homes. The route became steeper, through forest and over rocks becoming empty of others save a few workers in the fields. We followed my guide to the letter (I think!) and eventually made it to a ridge where we finally came across other tourists using another path. We met the French girls again who had been through a tea plantation and we were glad they got here ok.

The view here was good if that's your thing. It's my mum's thing; I have childhood memories of being dragged up hills to see views that I found completely pointless and never worth the suffering to get there. So I wonder how come when I'm an independent adult, why I'm actually choosing to do this when I could be at a bar or reading my book on the balcony instead? Glyn claims it's something to do with maturity but I dispute that.

Anyway, at this point the climb became quite torturous, stupidly steep and over rocks, sometimes through grasses taller than me. Plus lots of tree roots to trip us. It was quite hot and it took forever to reach the top.

Eventually I could hear bongos being played and knew we must be at the summit. The usual pack of stray dogs were fighting and the rock was full of chattering people taking selfies and wandering dangerously close to the edge. The view was fine, probably not worth it, but I'm in it for the journey. We sat a while then started the journey back down that because it was so steep, was slow but we did see some chameleons that posed for photos. Glyn also spotted the trickster local from earlier guiding two whiteys up the path and them paying him, so his scam does work.

Back at the ridge I said we could either return the way we came or the way we saw other tourists go. We opted for the latter and all was well until we stopped for a drink at the hut of a very miserable old man who didn't speak English. The path spilt, which way to go? We guessed and carried on. Then the path spilt again; one way was a more substantial path, the other heading in what we thought the right direction. Again we went for the latter ending up being lost in a tea plantation. I did have my head torch with me just in case we were here for a while - the plantations and jungles are vast and there were many paths to choose from. We soon had to turn back but upon another path spied one of the fighting stray dogs, this had to be right because they do gravitate towards tourists - well that's my logic and it was all we had. Luckily it wasn't long before we met other foreigners and presumed we were going the right way. To be honest I'm quite impressed that we left it so late in the holiday to get this lost, well done us!

Some young people I think from India asked for a selfie with us which we thought bizarre. But maybe the workers in the tea plantations further down thought it bizarre we wanted to photograph them. They beckoned to us so we could get closer and let us take photos. It amused us that there was a pile of flip flops beside the path - the workers must remove them before toiling amongst the tea plants just like they remove footwear when entering buildings.

Finally we returned to the railway, feeling utterly blasé about walking upon it now, thinking that if cows are allowed to graze by it (as they were now) it must be fine! We saw no more trains.

After a quick shower, we walked into the tiny town, passing 'Chill' quickly before Glyn could be too annoyed by the crap music. He spied an empty place that offered Sri Lankan food so we sat overlooking the street and both had a delicious cheese kottu. The drinks menu offered spirits yet the beer had the price covered, but I asked anyway. Yes I could have a beer, but I must keep the bottle and glass on the floor hidden behind the table leg. Another one without a license, and this time no sign of a cat!

We went shopping for snacks for our long journey tomorrow plus drinks for sitting on our balcony with. I struggled to get a beer as supermarkets and general stores cannot afford the license to sell it. So after much walking up and down, I asked some tuk-tuk drivers who directed me to a bar. This was very much a bar for locals, extremely sparse and no tourists, but I managed to get a bottle to take out. The rest of the evening was spent on our balcony, listening to jungle sounds and distant music. The view is pitch black with a few pin pricks of light, a lovely place all in all.

Additional photos below
Photos: 21, Displayed: 21


16th September 2017
Path to our accomodation

Off the. beaten path so too speak
18th September 2017
Path to our accomodation

A bit of a jaunt but very good at the end!

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