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Published: March 25th 2012
We bid farewell to Kandy and headed off through the manic morning rush hour to catch the train, a short hop in 3rd
class to the nearby Peredenia Junction before boarding another Expo Rail carriage for our journey up to our next stop in Haputale. Given our time constraints we flipped a coin and chose a few days in Haputale rather than the larger town of Ella which, everyone tells us, is beautiful. The train journey was amazing, sharp peaks and dramatic 500m vertical plunges punctuated by mile after mile of beautiful geometric tea plantations, pickers perching on impossibly steep slopes providing the basis for our daily cuppa. This, now, is the Sri Lanka people have waxed lyrical about, it really is quite spectacular.
Haputale is perched on a ridge between two peaks, it has to be one of the most amazing locations we have ever seen. You stand in this small village and look down 300m to the valley below then a few steps across the road and the ridge drops sharply away 500m off down towards the lowlands. When we arrived it was throwing it down, and a bit chilly, something which is quite usual here as the
village is actually above the cloud base and the forest below it is called a cloud forest. Apparently these positively Scottish conditions are one of the reasons why the area is so fantastic for tea production.
Just a word here for the guest house we stayed in, the Amarasinghe Guest House in Haputale is brilliant. The rooms are basic but large, but the position, the friendly welcome, the very chilled laid back atmosphere and the best food we’d had in Sri Lanka, all combine to provide a wonderful, relaxing stay. This is a family guest house where family is the operative word.
After arriving we quickly wandered off to explore the village, to get there we had two options, walk down a very steep hill then up a much longer steeper, windy road or walk up a flight of steps and walk to town along the railway line just like the locals do. So the railway it was then, even with Lisa feeling a tadge nervous. I was sure that we had arrived on the only train of the afternoon, Lisa wasn’t sure whether to believe me especially when I mentioned Penelope Pitstop being tied to the tracks
(showing our age now). The village took around 3 ½ minutes to circumnavigate, but it had all the Sri Lankan standards. A ‘snack shop’ where Sri Lankans lure gullible tourists with tasty looking baked goods and then laugh their heads off when, after the first bite, the roof of your mouth is completely incinerated, the fruit stall where the kindly owner, talking through both of his remaining teeth, swears he’s only charging you the same as a local for the lovely looking pineapple, a bank where you go in and talk to people to get your money out and finally the taxi stand where enough tuk-tuks are lined up so that everyone in the village could get a taxi at exactly the same time. Nice place though.
The following morning we were up at around 4.30am to be taxied off to the local National Park called Hortons Plain. We are not sure why it’s a national park, it’s very like Scotland, flat, lots of grassland and heather and quite a few deer. Maybe it’s simply that it contains possibly the most dramatic viewpoint that we have ever seen. Called the Worlds End it marks the end of the
hill country (mountains) when suddenly the earth disappears, literally. The plains end in a sheer drop, about 1000m, straight down. A lot is made of the trek to get there, it’s a very easy 7 or 8 km, but to tell you the truth not a great walk but boy is that view incredible. Vertigo sufferers will have a tough time here. On a very clear day you can see the southern coast of the country we are told, it wasn’t quite that clear but we certainly had a great view of the beautiful countryside 60 or 70 Km further south to the lakes in Uda Walawe national park that are filled from the rivers in the mountains where we were standing and provide a lifeline to the wild elephants that roam freely.
On the walk back there is a lovely waterfall, the Baker Falls, and unusually for us, there was quite lot of water. Not that Lisa saw it because after hearing the guidebook describe the climb down as a steep and slippery scramble, she declined to chance to test out another country’s medical services. Chris however can attest that the guidebook description was correct but also
that the view from the bottom was definitely worth it.
We had shared this trip with a German couple and their baby and another couple of young German girls, you can see who’s got the money to holiday now, and sharing these views and this stroll with people, exchanging thoughts, ideas and experiences was one of the nicer aspects of the day. The reason that you need to get up at stupid o’clock to go there is that the clouds form, below you, as the sun starts to heat things up, and very quickly these clouds rise and obscure your view, and sure enough by 8.30ish they were starting to form. It’s obvious when you witness it why the area is called the cloud forest. After our trek back to the car park, a group were just leaving to head off there, possibly choosing bed before beauty, a mistake we expect they will regret.
That’s the good stuff, now the downside. Because Sri Lanka in many ways is like Borneo, it’s really quite difficult to get around if you want to venture away from a bus route or the railway, this inevitably leads to having
unlike most waterfalls we see this time of year
to go on a tour, hire a driver or a taxi. This makes visiting the joyous things this country has to offer both difficult and expensive. Next we come to the National Park fees, the head of the National Parks (whom we believe also happens to be the president’s brother) has vastly increased the park fees for foreigners, so much so that many people we spoke to limited which ones they visited and that is shameful. Charging foreigners 200 times more than Sri Lankans, when the average wage here is about 1/10 of the UK is wrong and the level is stupidly high. Unless Sri Lanka gets its act together nobody is going to visit, and that would be a shame. Each park visit, per couple, can end up costing $100! In the case of Hortons Plains, because you have to use a taxi or tour, you don’t really have a chance to explore the plains further than this one small trek. This means you come away from this stunning viewpoint, a natural marvel, feeling somewhat underwhelmed.
The next day we decided to go it alone and decided to dedicate the day to our favourite morning beverage, Tea. After
another early brekkie we felt we needed to walk off a few days rather unhealthy eating. I’m not sure about the folks who have been overly effusive about Sri Lanka’s culinary delights, here we have to disagree. We have to declare up front that we are not great curry or hot, spicy food fans, but most food here is pretty unhealthy, pretty bland or a mixture of both and also fairly expensive (for Asia), Thailand it isn’t. We have really enjoyed the meals at Amarasinghe but possibly in the same way a pint of John Smiths tastes great after a month in the desert.
So back along the railway to the village, we caught a local bus full of workers from the tea plantations and really didn’t expect what an incredible 20 minute bus journey that would be. The road snakes through 3 tea plantations, round sharp switchback bends and all the time with a massive drop a few inches to the right of the window. What this did offer was possibly the most spectacular views we have ever seen on a bus journey. Arriving at Dambatenne tea plantations, this was founded in 1890 by Sir Thomas Lipton, the
tea magnate, we headed off for our destination. The guide books all describe Liptons Seat, the favourite rumination spot of the man himself, as “one of the finest viewpoints in the country, at least the equal of the Worlds End (without the hefty entry fee” (Rough Guides words) we set off along the well sign posted road for what promised to be a breath shortening 7Km walk to the top. The first few K’s of the walk we were joined by some lovely, and very enterprising, school children making the daily climb to the local school. Every child we met asked us for “School Pen” unfortunately we had neglected to bring any with us, only one cheeky little blighter asked for the G-Shock on my wrist. The journey us offered, again, some magnificent views over the very steep slopes and down into the valleys below. There were a few shortcuts on offer, walking with the myriads of smiling tea pickers up the steep stairways, they may have been laughing but we’ll stick with our version. After close on 2 hours of relatively hard climbing (keep in mind we were at about 2000m altitude) we neared the summit and the magnificent
views. All of a sudden we realised we had made the same mistake as that poor group yesterday and left too late. Literally 5 minutes from the top, the clouds suddenly rose out of nowhere, enveloped the peak, the pickers and certainly any hope we had of confirming the guide books description. That will have to wait for another visit but as the walk alone offered truly breath-taking vistas we’re inclined to believe them.
The trip back down was a lot faster and no less dramatic and we had plenty of time to visit the tea factory. For the princely sum of 200 rupees (£1) you get a very informative, half hour tour of the factory, checking out some of the magnificent British engineering that was installed during Lipton’s residence and is still in use today. We really didn’t know the process from tea bush to Yellow Label bag and suddenly it all became clear, the various drying, rolling & separating processes. What was surprising was how few people worked in the factory actually processing the leaves that the tens of thousands of pickers on the hills toil assiduously to supply.
A great morning that was a complete
Why fit one on a single seat when you can fit two on it!
contrast to our trip to Hortons Plain and our advice, if you have one day in Haputale, don’t waste your money take this great day out, meet these great people, experience this great bus ride and see Sri Lanka in all its glory. All too soon our time in the hills was finished. We will miss it, not the very cold nights but the beautiful views, the wonderful scenery, the warm and friendly people who want to spend time just chatting. It only left the simple task of getting off the mountain.
The following morning we had to hop in a tuk tuk to go the 10km to Bandarawela, the next town over to catch a bus that was coming back through Haputale, that’s because only the first 52 or so of the 249 they allow on the bus get a seat. When we said earlier Sri Lanka is like Borneo we didn’t realise how close we were. The only other time we have been genuinely scared for our lives in a vehicle was the psycho in Borneo, well this Sinhalese bus driver ran him a very close second. Down a tiny twisty mountain road, massive sheer drops he
decided that overtaking on completely blind corners was OK, often hitting 80Km/h it was as if all his driving frustrations were being taken out on that one journey, maybe it’s being Buddhist and believing in reincarnation that causes someone to recklessly endanger not only their own life but that of everyone else but if there is any justice and he does shuck off this mortal coil then we hope he is reincarnated as a brake pad, because ours died a horrible death on that journey. We even resorted to offering to pay him 10 times the fare if he would slow down, that offer was greeted with a laugh and more pressure on the accelerator. Imbecile was the only way to describe this driver, terrifying the only way to describe the journey. Unfortunately this behaviour brings shame on Sri Lanka, nothing to do with foreigners but it seems acceptable that thousands of their own citizens’ lives are put at risk every day by these maniacs. Obviously as you are reading this we arrived in Tissamaharama, our destination, but we both left a few years on that mountain road.
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