Tag Archives: hiking

Going solo

I’m writing this post as I sit reclined in a plastic chair outside my guest house room above the town of Ella, in the Sri Lankan hill country. I arrived this afternoon, and I barely had time for a quick wander of the town street, and a buffalo curd and honey at a local restaurant, before the rain set in. I’ve been incredibly lucky with the weather so far – sunshine and hot weather everyday – but the initial odd sprinkle of rain has started to become a regular afternoon or night time downpour. Perhaps the October monsoon change has finally hit.

I have spent the past hours here sitting on my covered balcony with a cup of tea, chatting to my neighbouring traveller (a fellow forester as it turned out), doing laundry, catching up on emails, and, when the rain finally ceased, walking back down the hill to the same restaurant for a dinner of kottu rotti and vegetables, with mango juice on the side.

I have been in Sri Lanka for barely ten days, and yet I already feel a change of pace, and a sense of relaxation setting in. I was supposed to be travelling with a friend Clare, but she decided to stay longer in Europe, so now we are meeting in a few days, on a beach somewhere down south.

Looking back, these ten days of solo time may have been just what I needed.

After spending my first night in the little beach town of Negombo, I jumped on a rickety local bus and headed inland to Kandy, in the hill country. Going against my normal Asia way of travelling, which is to turn up in a town and head for a recommended guest house, or just wander until I find something suitable, this time I booked in advance – albeit only that morning. I found an amazing looking room in an upmarket ‘home stay’ in the hills above Kandy, and, while blowing my (perhaps overly optimistic) budget for a few days, it turned out to be the best place to start my trip.

I ended up spending four nights there, enjoying my luxury room and my view over the Kandyan hills, and settling into the pattern that has defined my last 8 days in Sri Lanka: getting up early, eating a home cooked Sri Lankan breakfast of rotti and coconut sambal, or string hoppers, curry and fruit; going for a hike through the hills or a walk into town; wandering through the surrounding countryside or catching a local bus out to a certain site; coming ‘home’ for an afternoon nap, then another epic feast of rice, curry and fruit. Taking a book and a cup of tea up to my room each evening, and going to bed before 11pm.

So passed these first four days in Kandy. I spent a day following a ‘temple loop’, a ~10km walk between three temples around Kandy, passing through villages and rice paddy farmland.

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On my last morning there I got up at the ungodly hour (for a backpacker at least) of 6.30am, and went with Pathi, the father/guesthouse owner, and his friend on a ‘one hour walk’ (three hour hike) up through the hills and tea plantations, passing tea pickers and local villagers out for a walk, and dodging honking tuk tuks on our way back down.

Pathi and his family made me feel so welcome in their home, but after four days it was time to move on, to Haputale, higher up in the hill country.

One piece of advice I was given for Sri Lanka was to ‘take trains, LOTS of trains’. And so I did, buying a second class ticket for less than $5 for the 6 hour train ride from Kandy to Haputale, a window seat so I could take in the views. And what a view it was! After a few hours, the train noticeably climbed higher and higher, and the distances between stops became greater and greater until we were in the vast, wild looking landscape of the Horton Plains National Park.

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Passing through the isolated train station of Ohiya, and looking up at the tall, silvery gums shrouded in the oncoming mist, it was almost like driving through Victoria’s central highlands on a misty winter’s day.

I arrived in Haputale as darkness had just fallen, and was met by the son of my next guest house’s owner. After piling my luggage into the back of his tuk tuk,  we drove at high speed up out of town, to my little cottage where I would be spending the next four days.

Nothing could have prepared me for the view I awoke to the next morning – my cottage, perched on the edge of a steep hill, looked out over nothing but mountains, hills covered in tea plantations, and the jagged Eagle Rock above which eagles were seen soaring every day.

I could have stayed there for weeks. Each day I felt more and more at home in my basic little cottage. While I had enjoyed a little luxury in Kandy, I realised that this was really all I need – a bed, a shower, a roof over my head, good food, and to be surrounded by an incredible landscape such as this.

Every morning I got up early and, after breakfast, set off on a hike. I walked up the road away from town, passing tea fields dotted with the green and white bags slung over the tea pickers’ backs as they toiled all day in the heat, just so we can have our morning cup of Ceylon tea.

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I caught the local bus up towards Lipton’s seat, where Sir Thomas Lipton himself sat as he admired the landscape he had been instrumental in transforming into what it is today, then hiked the 16km back down, stopping for a tour of a tea factory, and, at each village, to chat and take photos with the swarms of children who came racing out after me.

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And, one morning, I walked down through the tea fields below my cottage then climbed up the steep hill to Eagle Rock, where I sat for an hour or more on a smooth rock beneath an old gum tree, a precipitous drop below and a breathtaking view in front, just sitting, letting my thoughts wander, relaxed in the way you can only be when you have nothing you need to do, and nowhere else you’d rather be.

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Of course, I was never truly alone for long. Whether it be the couple I joined heading up to Lipton’s seat, or my guest house family in Haputale who I chatted away with every evening, and who invited me to join their extended family for a feast to celebrate Hadji, there was always someone to talk to and share my days with.

However, these days travelling solo have reminded me of how much I also need my time alone. Sitting in front of my bungalow, hiking through forests and tea fields, walking kilometres each day, it has been a chance to clear my head, some much needed time to myself. And I’ve finally been able to justify carrying my hiking boots around Europe for four months.

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A week in Granada (or, a reminder of what I love about travelling)

People travel for different reasons.

For many young backpackers, it’s about taking a ‘gap year’ – from school or uni, or the responsibilities of real life in general – and taking off overseas, a chance to gain some independence or just an excuse to party 24/7 for a few months.

For others, it’s about getting out of a comfort zone and jumping head first into a new culture, a new language, a new way of life that is at once both daunting and exciting.

For some, as my friend Luke of Here Comes the Planet put so well, it’s about seeking those ‘moments’, when it suddenly hits you that ‘I’m actually here‘; that wow moment when you first catch a glimpse of the sparkling blue Mediterranean Sea or a spectacular new landscape, or fully realise you’re in very different place to home.

For many people I know, travel is about the people you meet – your room mates in a ten bed dorm in a hostel, the local serving you coffee every morning at your new favourite ‘local’, a fellow backpacker you end up sharing a gruelling overnight train ride with. Five minute friends, holiday friends, and every now and then, those rare few who become lifetime (or at least real life) friends.

And, for those not able to ditch real life and take off for months on end, it’s simply about taking a weekend, a week, or even a month to escape the daily grind and just relax, to lie on a beach or in a hammock and learn that wonderful skill of tuning out for hours to the sound of the ocean.

Travel for me has been about all these and more. But this trip so far, these three months in Europe (apart from IFSS, which was a crazy melting pot of all of these combined) has been different. Yes, I have had my fair share of ‘wow’ moments – camping on the Isle of Skye and driving down to the Piano Grande come to mind – and yes, my original motivation was very much about escaping the decisions of post-Masters-real-life.

But, on the whole, I haven’t been travelling to new places, I have been returning to places I’ve lived or travelled to before. I haven’t been constantly meeting new people, I’ve been visiting old friends from my Denmark exchange or from home, and staying with family. Don’t get me wrong, this has been amazing – it was the reason I planned to spend so long in Europe. But it hasn’t had that same excitement of the new, and constantly catching up with people has left little time to really wind down and feel like I’m on holidays.

Until Granada.

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Ever since I knew that I’d be in Spain for IFSS, I knew that I would spend the next week in Granada. For something so certain and planned so far in advance, you would expect me to have known something about the city and have had an idea of what I’d be doing. In fact, I had nothing more than the impression I had got from Tegan (who has spent many a summer there in a crazy house slash informal hostel), an impression that told me that this would be the place for me, and the perfect post IFSS trip. And, as always with Tegan and travel tips, it was right.

I stayed in a wonderful guesthouse in a narrow cobblestone street high up in the Albayzin, the old Moorish quarter of town that still retains a strong Moroccan feel.

I spent whole days doing little more than lying in a shady hammock reading a book and napping through the afternoon heat, or listening to the sounds of fellow backpackers playing violin or guitar around me.

I purposely got lost in the winding maze of the Albayzin streets, suddenly emerging into one of the many miradors to see the whole city spread out below.

I drank wine and manzanilla in rustic bodegas, and beer in packed bars, just to see what free tapas would come next.

I caught a bus out of town with Maisie, a young Australian girl from my hostel, to the Sierra Nevada. We followed our excuse for a map through shady river gorges and up rocky mountains scented with lavender and rosemary, then down through farmland and villages – picking grapes and plums from overhanging branches – until finally finding our way back and out of the scorching sun.

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I finally made it along on the free walking tour, which took us up through the Albayzin to Santa Fe, to the hollowed out caves where a growing community of Senegalese immigrants live, complete with running water and electricity.

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The next night at their invitation I made the trek back to the caves with Neylan, yet another Australian from the hostel, where we sat and shared our beers in the dark and watched the men singing and dancing themselves into a slow trance-like state to the beating sound of drums. Right on midnight they stopped, so I walked with Neylan and a new friend Ela back down to the mirador de San Nicolas where we sat for hours, Ela talking of his experience making the move from Senegal to Europe, his family at home and his community and customs here, with my Spanish getting better and better with every beer and hour that passed.

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It was a week of meeting new people – from fellow Australian backpackers to a group of wonderful if slightly crazy Austrians intent on camping high in the mountains, from German buskers in the street to Senegalese migrants in the caves.

It was a week of doing exactly what I wanted, even if doing what I wanted to do meant doing nothing at all.

It was a week of exploring – the city, the mountains, and even the beach to the south. Of getting lost just so that I could later find my way, getting to know my little patch of the city yet still every day finding something new.

It was a week of amazing food – not just the free tapas, but enjoying cooking for myself after two weeks of being fed during IFSS.

It was a week that was nowhere near long enough, that I felt should have been a month, or a whole summer in length. It is quite rare that I travel somewhere and know that it is somewhere I will come back. That feeling is one of my versions of a ‘moment’, the ‘wow, there is something special about this place’.

So Granada, I say hasta luego, but I’m not done with you yet.