Lions and tigers and… wait! Leopards and Elephants and Bears, Oh My!

On the morning we left Ella, we planned to head to Haputale, to base ourselves for the 9.5km round walk to Hortons Plains and World’s End. Sipping tea from “our balcony”, as had become our daily routine, we “rock, paper, scissored”, and let fate (and Jake’s cheating!) change our plans.

We’d asked Sujatha, the cook at ‘our’ restaurant, if she could prepare us some roti for breakfast – we’d bought ourselves an avocado from the markets and wanted to eat it with roti. Declining sugar for the avocado (as Sri Lankans seem to eat it only with sugar), Sujatha was shocked at what these two weird westerners were eating!… so shocked, that she’s quickly added it to her menu!

That’s right. We started a new trend in Ella – and possibly Sri Lanka. Fresh, hot roti with avocado, salt and pepper… Try it; it’s our new thing, and it’s bloody good.

After tea, and roti and avocado, we decided that since it’s our last day in Ella – home of the specialty food buffalo curd and kittul – we better get some curd “for the road”… In the curd shop, our plans changed again with the help of a local guy who explained the bus system and the complex “some buses is direct, some buses is not, all is not direct – must change the bus, most is direct, sometimes direct, sometimes not” time tabling.
Helpful yes, but of course at the same time, he tried to coax us into going via taxi, very cheap – of course, with his “brother driver friend” who was leaving Ella and heading back to Tissamaharama, the same route we were now planning on going.
3,000 rupees was too much for us to part with, and instead we took the 300 rupee direct bus which came with added bonuses; the threat of a cardiac arrest and through-the-roof stress levels.
At 1014 meters above sea level, Ella is situated in the hill country area – surrounded by mountains and valleys and big, big cliff edges – of which our bus driver seemed to thoroughly enjoy driving through at record breaking speeds. Sri Lankan buses don’t seem to be able to close the bus doors, and lucky enough for me, my seat was opposite the open door – revealing the cliff edge way too close for comfort. As the bus breaks squealed every time they were slammed into use at the last second, just before the bus nearly hurtled over the cliff face, I banned myself from looking anywhere but ahead at the flashing-light neon gods and overflowing flower garlands stuck to the front of the bus, above the driver’s head.

I may not be religious, but during that bus ride I prayed to every neon god that we would get through this journey – without hurtling over the edge to our deaths; in return for saving our lives, I promised the flashy neon gods, and myself, that we will never again compromise our safety for the sake of a few thousand rupees.

Once the nightmare journey was over and I was able to remove my white-knuckled grip from the seat handles and my backpack, we were no longer in the hill country, and instead, way down south in Tissamaharama. Try saying that name fast 5 times over.

Tissa, as it’s referred to by tongue-lazy travelers like ourselves, was to be our ‘base’ for a safari trip to Yala National Park – one of the big parks in Sri Lanka, and known for the highest density population of leopards in the world. Yep – stuff the lions and tigers and bears, oh my! – no, no, we were going so see some big, spotty cats… And actually, hopefully a shaggy sloth bear or two.

The hype for this park was massive, and the town of Tissa is brimming with rust bucket (and a few not so rusty) safari jeeps, all driving into town mid afternoon carrying hoards of daggy hat wearing, sun-burned and tired looking tourists. What an exciting prospect to think that we too, the following day, would be one of them (minus the daggy hats – we’re not that tragic just yet… give us time.)

Our guest house owner was a bit of a weirdo; very pushy for us to pay some ridiculously over-priced amount for his safari tour, in which we would get to ride in one of his glorious rust bucket jeeps. We turned him down and went for a highly regarded tour company, decked out with a new, luxury Mitsubishi jeep – for way less money. Mr. Guest House owner was not too happy, and basically kicked us out at 4:30am the following morning before our safari began – gloating that if we aren’t going with him, we’re obviously going to have a shitty time. Proudly, he promised us a glorious afternoon of fun-filled happy times on our return, where he would make us read about “how terrible independent jeep companies are” on his lap top.

As lovely as that sounded at 4:30am, that was not high on our list of priorities for the afternoon, and we had to politely decline.

A 4am start was the beginning of a very, very long day. Seeing as I don’t do early mornings well, and reserve these sorts of ungodly hour wake-up times for only the most important occasions – “we better see a leopard!”

Bleary-eyed, we climbed into our luxury jeep and drove off to Yala National Park, leaving behind Mr. Guest House owner who was trying to quickly repair his jeep before take-off.
The cold air rushing through the windowless jeep reminded me quickly of, firstly, what it felt like to be cold, but more so, that this was to be our first real safari experience…

In the park we spent around 6 hours bouncing around in the back of the jeep, and whilst we saw a lot of deer, water buffalo and peacocks, elephants, crocodiles, coloured birds and some fluffy mongoose-animal, we did not see a leopard or a bear. A little disappointed, we reminded ourselves that this is nature, not a zoo (although some of the jeep drivers drove around as though they were a bunch of crazed animals at times), and we were overall very happy with the fact that we got to see anything at all. The elephants we did see, including one very gorgeous baby, were the highlight of the tour.

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On exiting the park, we passed our guest house’s jeep, which proudly sported a large “INDEPENDENT JEEP COMPANY” sticker on it. What was that Mr. Guest House owner said about them all being terrible?

Driving back into town at 12pm, after having already been awake for 8 hours, we had become those sun burned, tired looking tourists. Eager to get out of Tissa (Mr. Guest House owner ruined the vibe of the place a bit) we got our bags, paid and marched slowly down the road towards the bus station in the heat, with our bulging packs on our front and back.

Exhausted, sun burned, dehydrated, head-achy and sore-bummed (after 7 hours of bouncing around in a jeep), we boarded a bus headed for Galle, our next destination. I hoped – oh, how I hoped – that this four hour journey would be a peaceful one…

It was not to be.

The next three hours – yes three hours – should’ve been four, but our driver drove at speeds I did not know buses could do, and wiped off an entire hour by breaking the speed limit the entire time. Within the first five minutes of the trip I’d lost count of the near misses, my neck was starting to ache from whiplash – caused by the slamming of breaks, my ear drums were about to burst from the combination of incessant horn beeping, break screeching, and incredibly loud Sinhala music that blared through several speakers, and I was struggling to breathe from all the pollution being blown into my face through the open window.
Jake found it to be a real life example of Einstein’s Relativity Theory – Relativistic Speeds really do appear to slow time down; three hours (although better than four) felt like an eternity.

Five minutes in, and I was reminding myself of the promise I’d made on that terrifying bus journey just one day earlier. Five minutes in, and we were planning at which stop we would just get off at, in order to save our lives.

But we didn’t get off, and we survived again to tell the tale – along with every other local passenger who slept their way through that entire ordeal.

We arrived into Galle, absolutely shattered with exhaustion, wrecked from the stress of the drive, covered in sweat, sun screen, dirt and pollution, and with really sore bums. Instantly hassled by a surge of quick thinking tuk tuk drivers, we were easily ripped off by a driver who would not agree to my excellent bartering deal, but were too tired to care.

Driving into the Galle Fort, it was an effort to keep our eyes open, but we did – we were here, we’d made it, and now, all we needed to do was find a budget room in one of the most expensive, touristic places to stay in, in Sri Lanka – without any prior reservations…

Tea, Curd and Smiley Faces: Ella’s Warm Welcome

The train from Kandy to Ella, in Sri Lanka’s Hill Country area, is renowned for being incredibly beautiful; the train winds through hills and mountains, tea plantations cover the hills like patchwork, and clouds roll in as the train climbs higher and higher.

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We spent 6 and a half hours looking out the train window, our mouths wide open in awe of the beauty of the scenery that we passed. The train wound through tiny villages with waving children and adults alike, people working in the fields, and little homes and buildings covered with brightly coloured clothing spread out to dry on the tin roofs.

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The mountains seemed to go on forever, until the clouds swallowed them whole, waterfalls gushed and the greenery is endless.
What a journey.

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Arriving into Ella, we were greeted by a quaint, sleepy little town full of friendly-faced locals. The one dusty main street is lined with guest houses, little shops and produce stalls, roti huts and restaurants, and of course the obligatory Sri Lankan tuk tuks and their touty drivers. Cafés are quite popular here – but so are tourists, it seems. This is a place you can immediately relax into: no rush, no bustle, not too many honking horns, cows grazing next to the bus stops, lots of good quality Sri Lankan tea, and surrounded by 360 degree views of the most incredible scenery.

Pimped Up Ride

Pimped Up Ride

Ella Junction

Ella Junction

The specialty food here, besides the obvious Sri Lankan rice and curry, is surprisingly Buffalo Curd – often served drizzled in ‘kittul’ or treacle (the local menus refer to it as “hunny”). It’s a strangely delicious any-time snack, and the several tiny market stalls sell it in ceramic bowls. Buffalo curd mixed with fresh diced avocado and a pinch of chilli is a real delicacy.

Curd and Kittul

Curd and Kittul

We spent our first evening in Ella enjoying rice and curry on the balcony of our guest house looking out towards incredible Ella Rock, before retiring under our mosquito net where we spent a happy few hours fighting off  possibly the world’s biggest cockroach and several mammoth mosquitos who were tricky enough to claw their way through the net. We won that round, but in the nights following, their army was to return…

Ella Rock

Ella Rock

Ella is home to two very popular climbs; Ella Rock is the big one, and Little Adam’s Peak is the smaller, more popular one. We decided to tackle Little Adam – an hour or so climb each way, and a guide not necessary. We meandered through the tea plantations and smiled at the Tamil tea pluckers who asked us for money with outstretched hands the moment they saw us.

Little Adam's Peak

Little Adam’s Peak

The very top of the peak was the steepest part of the climb, but the 360 degree views from the top were breath-taking; sitting on a little piece of rock at the top of Little Adam’s Peak, we felt as though we were on top of the world.

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Back in Ella, we explored the little shops and avoided the over crowded tourist cafes (the ones with free wi-fi, western food, sports on TV, overpriced beer – you know what I’m talking about). Instead we sat at the back of some tiny little ‘eatery’ (I would be more inclined to call it a shack with a tarp roof) that sold everything from roti and dahl to biscuits, sugar, lottery tickets, vanilla essence and baby formula.
These little places seem to have a little bit of everything; it’s entertaining to look at all the things shoved into every crevice of shelving and wall space.
On dodgy plastic chairs we ate 90 rupee coconut roti, chilli sambol and dahl whilst the locals chattered and stared at us relentlessly, something we have almost come to accept as normal.

Passing the local “beauty saloon” ( a wooden shack with a tarp roof), Jake was feeling a bit too beardy; for 200 rupees ($1.70 AUD) a well groomed Sri Lankan man worked with absolute pride and precision to ensure Jake’s beard was perfectly manicured.

So manicured

So manicured

The hill country and the areas and towns surrounding Ella are famous for tea – as is Sri Lanka in general. This is like heaven for Jake and I: I could quite easily lay in a pile of tea leaves, cover myself in hot water and milk and be happy forevermore. Unfortunately I can’t quite do that, but here in Ella we got the next best thing – a tea factory tour!

We spent our second full day taking a local bus out of Ella (whilst every passenger on the bus stared at us as if to say “shouldn’t you be in a tuk tuk?”) we clung on for dear life, laughing as the bus swung around corners and darted passed trucks – I think the driver was imagining he was on a race track.

From the bus stop we took a 2km walk up and up and up a winding hill, past rice fields and tomato farms, with a little Sri Lankan girl following us the whole way, requesting that we give her bubble gum and pens. We didn’t have anything to give her, but I made sure I bought a pack of pens to hand out when we got back into town – I can say no to money and candy, but I can not say no to pens for school.

Where milky cups of dreams begin...

Where milky cups of dreams begin…

Halpewatte Tea factory is the biggest tea factory in this province (Uva Province), and it was a pretty cool place to visit – even more so because they gave us these awesome forest green “lab-coaty costumes” which we strutted about in until they got too hot and started sticking to our skin. They were then no longer so awesome.

The tea making process is incredibly laborious and fascinating to learn about; the processes and stages that the leaves must go through, and the hard work people must do to ensure tons of tea are processed each day is very impressive. Tasting the different grades of tea at the end of the tour was deliciously interesting.

The evening was spent in the tiny kitchen of a local lady – Sujatha – who taught us how to cook Sri Lankan curries with love and precision – and lots of spices and deliciousness.

Yep. We made that.

Yep. We made that.

Today is our last full day in Ella, and has so far been spent in a similar fashion to the first two days: we found a routine quickly here and it works well for us. It involves a cold Milo (yes, Sri Lankans are Milo-fanatics here and I love them for it!), a fresh bunch of bananas from the smiley man at the tiny Ella Junction produce stall, a lot of cups of tea on the balcony of Sujatha’s little restaurant while we people watch, a bit of hot roti, and a good dose of vitamin C.  Dinner will involve some sort of Sri Lankan curry feast, and the rest of the day – who knows.

Locals mulling

Locals mulling

Ella has been a fabulous stop in our Sri Lankan travels, and so far a real highlight. The slow pace of the town, the big smiley people, men in their traditional skirts and women in their saris, excellent food, a spontaneous street-side market and spectacular scenery has been a winner for us, and we will no doubt miss it when we leave tomorrow on the train for Haputale.

Spontaneous Mid-Week Markets!

Spontaneous Mid-Week Markets!