Journey into Hill Country

7th February 2017

***

It’s just after 9am and a tuk tuk takes me away from the ease and comfort that has defined the past week I’ve spent on tour. We are swallowed up by the traffic before being spit out onto the side of a curb at the train station, where I’m now left to fend for myself in the chaotic cavern of Columbo Fort.

I’m on edge. My recent tendency to travel in tour groups has spoilt me. It’s been a while since I’ve had to be totally independent in figuring out how to get around a foreign country by myself and organising my own transportation. Nothing makes it more apparent that I’m not on top of my game than when I board the wrong train.

What an encouraging start to my week of solo travel around Sri Lanka.

Thankfully, the only consequence to this mistake is a dent in my pride. The compartment is devoid of any passengers, and the train is entirely still. Even I know that no-one gets so lucky as to board a completely empty train in Sri Lanka. I step off the train bound for nowhere almost as quickly as I stepped onto it, and look around, confused.

I glance up at the platform numbers and realise the error I’ve made. My train for Hatton departs from Platform 3, but I am currently standing on Platform 4. As I turn my gaze towards Platform 3, I notice a guy who has apparently also picked up on my mistake. He waves to catch my attention and gestures that I need to walk back over the overpass. I nod in acknowledgement and sheepishly make my way over to the right platform.

The train arrives barely a minute after I’ve crossed over, and I know it’s going to Hatton because there’s a throng of people rushing to get on it. I board a second class compartment and find an empty window seat right at the back. Perfect- until the young man who helped me out with the platform knocks on my window and starts gesturing at me again.

What now? Am I in the wrong seat? Am I in the wrong carriage? He’s saying something, but it’s noisy around me and the window is closed, so I can’t hear him. I try to lift the window open, but can’t. It’s my second fail of the day. I don’t want to step out to ask what he wants and risk losing my seat, so I shrug my shoulders, and he disappears.

I’m relieved to finally be on the right train, but still flustered from the whole experience of actually getting on it. I just want to sit back and relax for the next few hours. A sense of calm is slowly returning to my frayed nerves when Mr Helpful reappears. Now, he is in the carriage, and he comes over and opens my window. This is my first experience of the friendliness of Sri Lankan people, but certainly not the last.

He walks off the train, and back around to my window. He starts up a conversation and I can actually hear him now. Where are you from? Of course. I reply I’m from Australia. Brisbane, Melbourne, Perth? I’m surprised when he mentions Perth (and not Sydney). Whenever I’m overseas and tell people I’m Australian, people automatically assume my home is in Sydney, or Melbourne. When I answer I’m from Perth, their expressions usually go blank, and tumbleweeds threaten to roll by. So how does this young fellow know about my oft forgotten city?

The answer soon becomes clear. I’ve watched some cricket matches from Perth. So have I, I reply, and he’s a bit surprised by this. But there’s not really much time left to exchange sporting stories. The train is gearing into life, and out of the corner of my eye, I notice a young couple with oversized backpacks running from carriage to carriage with the same flustered expression I was wearing not that long ago. I’m so glad to be settled into my seat. They disappear into a compartment, and Mr Helpful asks if I would like a newspaper as the engine signals departure. I decline- I know I’ll be too busy watching the world go by to need any reading material on this journey. The train chugs out of the station, and immediately, my anxiety melts away.

***

It doesn’t take long until I’m convinced that travelling by train is THE way to travel around Sri Lanka. It’s an experience that engages all the senses, and best of all, it’s cheap as chips. For 290 rupee- not even three Australian dollars, I am treated to what feels like a six hour movie, with each rolling landscape offering another breath-taking scene of Sri Lanka’s natural beauty.

A passing mirage of palms and ferns and banana trees colour the land in vibrant shades of green, from the edge of the track all the way to the far-off horizon. In between are lush fields of canary yellow, where scattered cattle sway their tails in lazy strokes and graze contentedly on grass, while short-bodied birds with long legs dance on their backs, like ballerinas twirling in the radiance of the sun.

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Every twist and turn of the track reveals secret glimpses into the daily life of the people who reside in the towns and villages which line the railway. There’s a spectacle of sights to behold: men in suits ambling along the tracks, completely unperturbed by the possibility of encountering an oncoming train; women strolling along the streets in bright saris, clutching umbrellas to protect themselves from the intense glare of the midday sun; farmers toiling in the fields with bent backs; motorbikes and tuk tuks bumping along country lanes; passengers waiting with vacant expressions as we pass through peach-coloured stations; curious children gazing at our rushing train with wonder in their eyes and their hands over their ears.

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Every now and then, the inside of a family home is on full display. In one house, I can make out the details of the sofa chair in the corner of the hallway. Other houses have corrugated rooftops and threadbare interiors, shacks stacked together in a shanty town. I don’t mean to pry but they’re so close to the tracks that there’s nowhere else to look. Sometimes, there are clotheslines supported by bamboo poles serving as fences, adorned with colourful shirts and pants and undergarments that flap flimsily in the breeze. There is little peace and less privacy, and whenever we pass by a line of washing, I wonder about the family it belongs to, and whether they like living next to the tracks and listening to the trains that thunder past multiple times a day.

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***

The train is like an orchestra that has decided to revolt against the maestro’s signal for quiet, and every instrument is trying to drown out the others. There’s the constant clanging of compartments; and then, suddenly, a grating jerk as the train stops to change lines, followed by a prolonged screech of metal which can only be likened to nails scraping a chalkboard, only more extreme. There’s the thundering echo of metal on metal as we pass over bridges, and it feels like there’s a giant gong reverberating right next to my ear.

Inside the train, people talk quietly, if at all, except for the vendors selling food, who wander up and down the aisles with baskets on their heads, or under their arms. They yell out words I don’t understand (but can guess at), always with the same intonation and in a frantic pace, as if they’re being chased by a conductor. Otherwise, it’s noisiest when people get on the train, before the sharp whistle of the engine announces that it is preparing to leave the station, and the station-master replies with a whistle of his own.

Sometimes, there’s a soft whoosh of reeds in the countryside. Other times there are tunnels, where eerie, high-pitched screams bounce through the air, as if ghosts are hiding in the shadows, and the train itself is afraid and rushing to get out of the dark. But above all of this noise and commotion, there is always the steady, rhythmic click-clack, click-clack of the wheels grinding over the tracks, a soothing and comforting sound of perpetual motion.

There are times when I close my eyes and manage to block out the sounds. My mind focuses on the air, instead, which is scented with spice and smoke and dust and engine grease. The air is not clean, or fresh, but the smell of it is heady nonetheless, and I breathe it in deeply because it is laced with the secrets of dreams.

It’s as if the trains in Sri Lanka were made for sticking your head out a window so that you can inhale the fragrance of the island. And when Paradise sees you smile, it delights in your joy, and it asks the world to send forth its balmiest tropical breeze, borne out of time in lands that know only harmony, and this gentle wind tickles your face and dances through your hair, and all you feel is gratitude and peace.

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I open my eyes and there’s a tree almost in my face. I’m close enough to touch the leaves of its overhanging branches, and then I’m running my fingers over the rock walls that rise far above the train.

***

I experience a sense of deja vu as we pull into the train station near Peradeniya. This is where I boarded my first train in Sri Lanka, not even a week ago, with my tour group. For a moment, I feel sad thinking about how we have all now gone our separate ways, and likely will never see each other again. A man from Argentina sits down next to me and breaks my reverie. He is travelling to Ella, and we talk about hiking. He recommends that I check out the Seven Lake Zone if I am ever in Argentina.

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I am now travelling the same route as I did a few days ago, yet my memory of what’s ahead is a blur. I’m stunned at how much I apparently didn’t notice the first time around. I may as well be journeying on a new route, and this time, I make sure to take it all in. Funnily enough, a tour group boards the train at the next stop, and they’re enchanted, just like we were, taking photos hanging out of doorways with beaming faces. Nostalgia makes me feel old.

Not long after Nawalapitiya, where our train journey finished last time, there’s a change. It’s imperceptible at first, but gradually I sense that the air feels brisk instead of balmy, and palm fronds are being replaced by forests. This is the beginning of hill country, where the sprawling estates of some of the country’s most renown tea plantations reside upon rich undulating plains.

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The train arrives in Hatton at 3.15pm, about forty five minutes late. I’m not bothered by the delay, though I still have an hour to travel to get to Ayos Hill, the guest house I’m staying at on the outskirts of Dalhousie. This small village lies at the base of Adam’s Peak, which I’ll be climbing in less than twelve hours.

I take a tuk tuk up some very bumpy, winding roads to get to my guest house. My driver, Sanga, is lovely, and kindly stops at a few viewpoints along the way, including an old British church lined with graves, destined to linger forever on a hill. Sanga’s softly-spoken voice matches the solemn surrounds, but the topic of conversation that arises is hardly sacred. Do you like cricket? It turns out that Adam Gilchrist is his favourite player, and he likes Mitchell Johnson’s bowling. I tell him about the latter’s impressive performance in the Big Bash League. He’s not familiar with the BBL, and I’m not familiar with the players on the Sri Lankan team, including the former captain, Kumary Sangakkara, who Sanga is obviously delighted to share a nickname with. Being all out (of conversation), we head back to the tuk tuk.

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The road slopes ever upwards over a sunlit land. Below me, there’s a glittering lake that draws attention and takes centre stage in the landscapes, that is, until a very triangular peak looms into view from up above. Sanga pulls over and I have my first glimpse of Adam’s Peak, or Sri Pada. It is shrouded in sunlight, bathed in an ethereal glow. At 2230m, it’s less than half of the altitude I managed to reach while trekking in Nepal, but I know I’d be foolish to dismiss it. Whatever challenges await, I am officially ready for them.

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Galle to Ahungalla

After a few days of nature based experiences, we bid farewell to the Udawalawe region on Day 5, and headed off in the direction of Sri Lanka’s famed southern coastline. Our first stop for the day was Galle, a coastal city renown for its Dutch colonial architecture. We had an hour and a half to explore the city, which was obviously nowhere near long enough to fully experience the rich history of the area, but it was just enough time to walk around the Fort and take photos of the old streets and buildings, as well as the beautiful Indian Ocean which surrounds three sides of the city.

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Galle played an important role in the ancient trading routes between the east and west, and the Fort, which is such a key feature of the appearance of the city today, was first built by the Portuguese in 1588. However, from 1649 onwards, it was the Dutch who set about on an extensive fortification of the city. Today it is the largest remaining fortress in Asia built by Europeans, as well as being recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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There are a number of additional interesting architectural features around the city, aside from the impressive fort structure. These include the clock tower, constructed in 1883; the Dutch Reformed Church, a Protestant church constructed in 1755; All Saints Church, an Anglican church constructed in 1868; and the lighthouse, which stands 26.5m tall at the southern end of the city. It was constructed in 1939 after a fire destroyed the original structure which the British had built in 1848.

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After Galle, we made a brief pit stop in the popular beach town of Hikkaduwa, as it is where we were originally meant to stay. There were many water activities available, but we only had time for a short stroll along the beach. It is one of the coastal areas that was badly affected by the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, in which over 30,000 Sri Lankan people died.

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There were certainly no complaints about the change to a new beachside destination when we drove down the long paved entrance to Heritance Ahungalla, and realised this luxury five star hotel was our accommodation for the night. Everyone’s jaws dropped when we walked into the hotel lobby and saw the view below.

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Once we’d checked in, most of the group headed straight down to the beach, which was much less crowded than in Hikkaduwa. I, however, had got sunburnt in Galle, and wanted to avoid the sun for the rest of the afternoon. Instead, I started planning for my solo week of travelling around Sri Lanka. I did make it down to the beach for a stunning sunset, though. There’s no denying life is good when you’re treated to this sort of beauty.

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Kandy to Kitulgala

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

My Top 10 Travel Memories of 2016: #5

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Number 5: Walking along White Beach while listening to Mark Ronson

At the beginning of April, my friend, Suz, and I spent two weeks holidaying in the Philippines. Considering there are over 7000 islands to choose from, it was difficult to decide which ones we wanted to see. In the end, we settled upon four islands: Bohol, Cebu, Boracay and Palawan.

We’d read mixed reviews about Boracay. In fact, the first article that popped up when we searched ‘Boracay’ on Google was It’s the worst island I’ve ever been to. While my friend and I are not big on the whole party island vibe ourselves- one of the author’s main gripes- we thought her assessment was a bit harsh and that we’d be better off making up our own minds.

After further research, we found out that White Beach, which is the main beach on the island, is divided into three ‘stations’ and if you stay in Station 1 or 3, it’s far less crowded than in central Station 2. As fate would have it, a picture of an amazing looking location called Spider House popped up on my Facebook newsfeed. It was in Station 1, at the very end of the 4km long beach. The decision was made. We were going to Boracay.

I’m glad we decided to visit Boracay because both my friend and I ended up really loving the place. Spider House was the perfect spot to stay- about a 20 minute walk to the busy part of White Beach but even there, we didn’t find it to be more touristy than any other island in South East Asia.

We did a lot of day tours over the two weeks but decided, for our three days on Boracay, we would just chill out and do nothing. It was blissful. The added advantage of our accommodation being further away was that we did a lot of walking each time we headed to or from Station 2.

Walking along the beach became my favourite thing to do. I was captivated by the tides and how they changed the colour and texture of the shoreline.A turquoise dream at high tide and an intricate web of wavy streams at low tide.

One afternoon, after having had lunch in Station 2, Suz decided to have a massage while I opted to go back and relax at Spider House. I put in my headphones, ready to pass the 30 minute walk with some tunes, and pressed play on ‘Uptown Special’, the album by Mark Ronson that I’d recently acquired. At this point, there were a couple of songs on the album which I loved and kept listening to on repeat. I soon became too wrapped up in the stunning surrounds to notice what songs were playing.

Until the twentieth second of the third minute of a song called ‘In Case of Fire’ started playing. The dreamy twangs of this short instrumental interlude jolted me and I had one of those transcendental moments where you look at the world around you and realise that, right here, right now, everything has aligned into perfect harmony- the water, the wind, the sand, the palm trees, the people, everything.

And to think I had always skipped over this song. Needless to say, I found a new song to listen to on repeat. Even though I never recaptured that same feeling of zen, I think the reason I love this memory so much is that it provided me with one of those rare times in life when you are truly living in the moment. And in that moment, I heard the soul of Boracay sing.