Hiking Sri Lanka – Hill Country

It’s 2am on December 17th my alarm has just gone off and I’m stumbling out of bed. We arrived in Dalhousie (pronounced Delhouse and sometimes spelled that way too) yesterday afternoon after taking a train to Hatton and then lurching the 90 minutes round lake and mountain roads here to Dalhousie.

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We’re here to climb Adam’s Peak. Or Sri Pada.  The mountain has been a place of pilgrimage for more than 1,000 years.  Named Adam’s Peak (the place where Adam first set foot on earth after being cast out of heaven), Sri Pada (Sacred Footprint, left by the Buddha as he headed towards paradise).  Some even believe the huge ‘footprint’ crowning the peak to be that of St Thomas, the early apostle of India, or even of Lord Shiva.

In two weeks this place will be really busy as it marks the start of the official climbing and pilgrimage season.

We saw Adam’s Peak from our hotel last night.  Yep, GULP was my thought too.

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Tradition has it that we climb in the dark, take a cup of tea just before the top and then summit for sunrise. Hence the alarm.

Our host here at the Pinsiri Rest assured us last night that it wouldn’t rain – it was torrential at 6pm – that we wouldn’t need torches and that we’d be back in time for check out at 11am.

We set off wearing walking shoes, trousers and fleeces. There are waterproofs in the day packs and a brolly just in case.

It’s dark.  It’s well before o dark hurty.  Even the puppy dogs are asleep.

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It will take us around 3 hours to climb and around two and a half to descend we’ve been told. It’s really more of a saunter at first as we set off through the bus stand area, past the food stalls and over the first bridge.

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We sign our names in a book, have pieces of string tied onto our wrists and are wished luck and by the second bridge have removed fleeces and are in shorts.

The route is easy. Lit by electric lights that you can see trailing up the mountainside and food and souvenir stalls it seems impossible to get lost. Even when the path seemingly splits it comes back together later.

It turns to steps.

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It’s a mix of folks heading up – families, couples, Westerners, Sri Lankans. There’s even an old man with a walking stick. That’s right a walking stick, not a hiking stick.

This path is mainly steps. In the main they’re good steps, big enough for Western feet, not like those piddly Chinese mountain steps. And the lower reaches are wide. Wide enough that when a local descending at speed sees me struggling he says “zig zag”.  And I do and while I may now be traveling further it’s easier. How did I not know this before now?

I hit the wall at just under two hours, when the stairs – and they are little more than a ladder now – narrow, when the handrails become slippery and when there is no end in sight. But there’s no point in giving up.

I count them out. I’ll do 20 steps then rest. I make 9. But, I console myself, it’s 9 higher than before.

It’s considered bad luck to ask how much further, but a local vendor tells us just 15 more minutes. 300 meters to go. It seems manageable now.

And here we are. The last tea stop before the summit (it’s not actually, but it’s cosy in here).

The Last Tea Stop (on the way down)
The Last Tea Stop (photo on the way down)

We have hot sweet tea and a spicy vegetable roti. It’s just before 5am. All the clothes go back on, it’s pretty cold here, and my cricket sun hat goes on too (it’s the only one I’ve got!)  in preparation for our attempt on the summit.

The last bit is a piece of cake. A few minutes later and we’re there, removing shoes to wander around the shrine area, hurriedly putting them on again, it’s cold up here.

And we join the throng to await the sunrise.

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It’s pretty cloudy today and the sunrise isn’t great.

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Neither is there any sign of the Adams Peak shadow, when the sun casts a perfect shadow of the peak onto the clouds down towards the coast.  Says Lonely Planet “As the sun rises higher this eerie triangular shadow races back towards the peak, eventually disappearing into its base.”  – didn’t happen for us

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The summit empties as folks head back down. We stay, there’s a ceremony happening in the shrine area and we haven’t paid our respects to the whole reason that we climbed.  Apart from the sunrise of course.

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Here is the footprint of Adam, or Buddha, or Lord Shiva..

There are no photos allowed. And you can’t actually see it, drapes of clothes and flowers make sure of that, but we file past solemnly watching the devout lay down their offerings and then begin the descent.

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We pass the man with the walking stick and I want to cheer and shake his hand. He’s made it!

We’ve climbed in our Merrells. Many climb in their flip flops.

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We’re in much better shape going down than they are, but it still takes us two hours and fifteen minutes of jumping down calf tightening steps.

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There are different stalls open on the way down – now is the time to eat sweets and candies – although we restrain ourselves.

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Now too is the time when the porters are carrying building and food materials up the mountain, now that we tourists are deserting the mountain.

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It seems a long way down, but the views are magnificent. Of course we saw none of this on the way up, dark as it was. And it’s nice to descend in relative peace the crowds having departed quite some time ago.

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We move on from Adam’s Peak on a tortuous bus trip from Dalhousie to Hatton Train station where we pick up a train (two hours later than we planned, you can blame it on the bus) and head to Haputale – home of the first tea plantation in Sri Lanka.

This is Sir Thomas Lipton country and we are here in an attempt to see Lipton’s seat.

Sir Thomas Lipton

Lipton was the youngest of five children born to Scottish parents who emigrated to Northern Ireland. His first few jobs were what he described as dead end, so it was perhaps little surprise that at the age of fourteen with the permission of his parents he emigrated to New York. After a stint in Virginia and Charleston he returned to New York where his love of the “grocery business” began. In 1869 he returned to Scotland. He took over his parents shop and after two years opened his own.

He followed his mother’s example of dealing directly with farmers and not middlemen at the market and within a couple more years had moved to bigger premises. By 1882 he had shops in four other towns. His use of advertising was key – his promotional events quite magical and ahead of his time.

After this success in the grocery trade he turned his attention to tea. Tea had become popular in the late 1880’s, but was still too expensive for working class families. He again cut out the middleman, then took steps to go one further and control the whole production process.

The summer of 1878 brought coffee crop failures in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), increasing tea production there. Lipton bought a plantation for less than half of what he’d been prepared to pay. Previously tea had come from China, Ceylon meant less distance to travel to bring it to Europe. Soon he owned five plantations.

By now he had 300 shops, but it was tea that made him a household name. In 1898 Lipton’s became a public company, with Sir Thomas as life president. He retained control of his tea estates until his death.

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Here at Lipton’s seat is where Sir Thomas used to bring his guests to consider his holdings and pontificate on the future. We take a tuk tuk for 800 LKR from Haputale up to the entrance to the seat.

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It costs us a further 50 LKR each to get through the gate and it’s a winding 1.4 kilometers further up to the seat itself.

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We’re walking through an increasing gloom. It’s pretty misty today and we hold out little hope of seeing anything beyond the end of our arms at the top.

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That turns out to be a reality, but never fear.

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Our visit to the tea house is well worth the trip.

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It’s a tiny little place. Not more than a hut. The two Germans who beat us here by a long way are sitting outside drinking water. Pah, we think, you can’t come to Lipton’s Seat and drink water! Welcomed by the guy who can say hallo and offer you tea in FOURTEEN different languages, we hustle inside and have hot tea and a smorgasbord of Sri Lankan delights, all cooked in the tiny little kitchen.

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We munch on the amazing samosas watching as the next batch are made.

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There’s Indian bread, curried potatoes, vadai.

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I’m in heaven for a mere 470 LKR (GBP 2.50 ) and glad we didn’t breakfast before setting off.

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We learn that we’re to suck on the pieces of jaggery — the cane sugar that’s been boiled down and set into blocks.  I imagine my teeth dissolving as I’m sucking the sweet caramely like solid sugar – and then drink down the tea.

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I surreptitiously fish out the lump that I’d dropped to the bottom of the cup in the vain hope that it would dissolve…

All too soon it’s time to head off and we spend a lovely couple of hours walking down through the tea plantation.

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The road winds slowly down.

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We walk past the child friendly school, past signs to assistant managers bungalows and meet the kids heading to school.

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Pen? Pen? they ask – wanting pens for school. We give away our only pen and then plead pen poverty for the rest of the hike.

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We’re walking as far as the Dambatenne Tea Factory, where we’ll join an American family, now living in the Republic of Georgia on a short tour before we catch the bus back to Haputale.

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Heading to Ella

It’s two days after Adam’s Peak and the calves are really tight now. But there’s no stopping, we’re heading off to Ella.

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We’re met in Ella at the train station by Ashoka.  Her home stay, the Rock Face – has a spare room and is only five minutes away – we walk off with her and find the most delightful place that we stay in our month in Sri Lanka. Her 20 meter long veranda is perfect for the following day when it rains all day. We sit hunkered down, perfectly dry but miserable. Her internet connection allows us to Skype call home. We help put up the Christmas tree for this Buddhist family that welcomes travelers into their home.

The sun comes out the next day and we change our plans, we decide to stay another night and head for Little Adam’s Peak, even though my calves haven’t yet forgiven me for the lil bro’s big daddy.

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And it’s a pleasant saunter, through the streets of Ella, up a winding path through the tea plantation.

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It’s only the steps at the top that are reminiscent of the big peak, and now that’s a distant memory, so these are rose tinted glasses that I’m wearing now.

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The view from the top is glorious.

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The rain clouds in the distance, adding drama more than anything.

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We spent a pleasant half hour at the top conversing with a British expat who’s here for the winter and then head down for a fortifying coconut (for 50 LKR each GBP 0.25).

Ella Rock in the Background
Ella Rock in the Background

We have our first shared wood apple juice.

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The taste is gloriously moorish, especially considering the fruit itself has the consistency of a cricket ball.

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Suitably fortified, we head off for Ella Rock, starting at the Railway Station.

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“Which way?” we ask the station master. “that way, along the line” he says.

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Past the “Walking Along the Track is Prohibited Sign”.

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So off we go.

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No wonder the trains are so rocky, so bouncy when we walk along the tracks and see their general condition.

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Some of these gaps look as though they’re expecting some serious heat expansion. The sleepers move as I step on them.

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I resolve not to think about what happens when a train goes over them. Some are rotted away and we jump across pools of water.

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We jump also out of the way, as with surprisingly little warning, a train appears rumbling slowly down the hill.

Our perusal of TripAdvisor tells us where to get off the line and we find it on the second attempt, head across the river and wind round a field of growing vegetables.

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It’s the local kids, still asking for pens, who direct us. It’s like we’re going through people’s gardens now. Perhaps we are.

We end up in a wooded area where the track just peters out, when we spot a local, yelling “Ella Rock?” and looking lost does the trick. He comes up and gestures us to follow him. The good news is that we wouldn’t have guessed this direction at all. 10 minutes later, there’s the semblance of a track so we give him a couple of hundred rupees and thank him, figuring his brother is probably waiting for us in a few hundred meters if it’s really that difficult to figure out where the track is.

Most folks who hike Ella Rock meet a local on the railway line, and go all the way up and back with them before handing over a tip of around 1,000 LKR. (GBP 5.00)

Despite all the reviews, there are no sign posts or blue arrows – I imagine the locals remove them, we’re just glad to be on our way.

It’s a scramble up and down. There’s little in the way of directions and we’d have been lost without the local. We climb up part of a stream and meet folks coming down with a guide. And then, as we wander out of the trees at the top, we’re there. At the top.

Where there is the obligatory sleeping Sri Lankan dog.

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And we can see for miles.

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One minute. The next, and it takes literally 30 seconds, a mist comes up the valley and up the mountain and it’s white.

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We can see no further than fifty metres. It’s a magical experience.

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We’re passed on the way back down by a Frenchman, who’s decided to run down the hill. Nutter, I think as he hops from rock to rock. Then he points out his guide is barefoot and seriously outrunning him.

It was perhaps our best day in Sri Lanka, this trip to the top of Little Adam’s Peak and then to the top of Ella Rock.

Ella Gap from the Railway Line
Ella Gap from the Railway Line

Simply a lovely day, glorious views a two pleasant hikes and of course the rain that we beat on the way back to the verandah at the Rock Face.

The Verandah at The Rock Face, Ella
The Verandah at The Rock Face, Ella


Horton’s Plain – World’s End

So from the best day to the biggest disappointment and that was at World’s End. We’d arrived in Nuwara Eliya days earlier, it was our first stop in Hill Country. We were here to hike Horton’s Plain National Park and see World’s End and to take some tea. So we found ourselves in a minivan with a German couple.

A 5am start held the promise of a sunrise en route to the park, but the early morning fog put paid to that.


Sunrise through the fog
Sunrise through the fog

We see Adam’s Peak in the distance, and the fog clears for a glorious day.

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We pay our entrance fees and herein lies the major disappointment. The entrance for four foreigners to Horton’s Plains is 2,500 LKR each. Plus it cost us 1,500 LKR each for the minivan.

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Whereas our hike to Ella Rock and Little Adam’s Peak and our hike up Adam’s Peak itself were all free, what turned out to be little more than a pleasant walk in the countryside cost us 4,000 LKR each. (GBP 20.00)

There are no animals to see here. We are hiking from the entrance to “mini-worlds end”, then to “World’s End”, then to the Bakers Fall waterfall and back. It’s a circular route of around 9 kilometers that takes around 3 hours.

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Some of the route is through the trees, some along tracks that are well maintained, others that are not.

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Other parts of the route are on open grassland.

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little world’s end is a cliff that drops off for a view of the valley below. World’s End is a bigger cliff (an 800m drop) with a view to the valley and “as far as the ocean on a clear day”.

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It’s not that clear a day. It’s an expensive day for a pleasant walk in the countryside. Save your hiking for Adam’s Peak and Ella.

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This is a pleasant hiking country – from train tracks to waterfalls, tea plantations to grasslands. We found no crowds, just friendly locals. Apart from on the pilgrimage route at Adam’s Peak there were no constant stalls to hawk you anything, but enough to make sure you didn’t starve or go without. Most of all, it’s temperate – in our rainy December in Sri Lanka, we manage to hike these places on dry days – not a raincoat in sight!

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