Day 2 of my tour began with a brief visit to the Royal Botanic Gardens in Peradeniya. We only had forty minutes to explore the beautiful surrounds, which was nowhere near long enough to appreciate everything this 147 acre garden has to offer. I could’ve easily spent the whole day there. It’s one of the unfortunate downsides to group tours- activities are often rushed, which is frustrating when you come across something you’d like to take your time to explore. But such is the nature of an ‘express’ tour, and considering the Gardens weren’t actually on the original itinerary, I’m grateful that I got to have a little glimpse, at least, of one of the best botanic gardens in the world.
The British began the transformation of the site into a botanic garden in the early 1800s, and today, about 1.2 million people visit the garden each year to enjoy over 4000 species of plants (as well as monkeys and flying foxes). There are areas devoted to ferns, spices, palms, cacti, bamboo, and trees, but in the end, I decided to focus on just one area, and spent most of my time at the Orchard House, photographing the amazing colours and patterns of these stunning tropical plants.
After the Botanic Gardens, we rushed to the nearby train station to catch a local train to Nawalapitiya. I’m planning to do quite a bit of train travel around Sri Lanka in my week of solo adventure time once the group tour ends, so it was a good introduction as to what to expect. One thing I will keep in mind is that departure times and journey times do not always correspond to official timetables. We ended up having lots of time to spare after arriving at the station, and watched as locals walked along the tracks without a care in the world, or at least, without a care about oncoming trains.
The train engine that eventually pulled into the station was about sixty years old, according to our tour guide; a dying breed even in Sri Lanka. We were seated in third class, which ended up being a lot more pleasant than any of us expected- even our guide was surprised. We thought it was going to be cramped, crowded, and stifingly hot, but instead, we all had seats, plus space to move freely around the compartments. I sat by the open compartment door for a while, enjoying the balmy breeze and the green countryside, wondering from time to time if the locals were not a little bemused, or bewildered perhaps, by our excitement and countless photos of something that is so common and everyday to them.
During the course of the journey, the train thundered over bridges, descended underground into a pitch black tunnel, and passed a number of waving school children. Seeing these smiling children brought back memories of when I was a kid, waving at planes that flew overhead as I played in the backyard. Despite all these sights and sounds, I felt tired, and the constant motion of the train almost soothed me to sleep.
Luckily, I was awake enough to hear our guide tell us we had arrived at Nawalapitiya. Everyone exited the train having enjoyed the experience- it possessed an old school charm that is not captured by the modern train rides we are accustomed to in our home cities. We then hopped back onto the tour bus, and drove the rest of the way to Kitulgala, with views of increasingly lush and hilly countryside passing us by as the bus navigated the windy roads leading to our accommodation for the night, The Rafter’s Retreat.
The serene location of the eco retreat was an instant hit with everyone. It was nestled amongst tropical palms by the banks of a river, and our open air cabins reminded me of my stay at Spider House in Boracay. We enjoyed a delicious Sri Lankan buffet-style lunch before commencing our activities for the afternoon.
Most of the group opted for white-water rafting along the river made famous by the movie ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’, but four of us decided to go for a hike instead. A local man ferried us across the river and we strolled through a local village with plenty of fruit and spice trees, before arriving at the entrance of the national park, where we started our hike. It was an easy, leisurely walk through tropical forest, and we made our way to a waterfall. Unfortunately, it was only a little trickle, as it is currently the dry season in this region of Sri Lanka, but we enjoyed dipping our toes in one of the natural swimming pools before heading back to the retreat.
I really enjoyed the hike, as it was peaceful and quiet, and provided an opportunity to really enjoy the natural beauty of Sri Lanka which I’d read so much about. Up until the hike, most of the experiences on our tour were quite touristy, although even hiking came with a price. We managed to reduce the twenty five US dollars we’d each been charged for the hike down to eighteen dollars, which still seemed excessive, considering our local guide did nothing to enhance the experience. Perhaps the best things in life are not always free.