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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.