Day ten: Spectacular train journey into the mountains
If you are up to it, take a train journey from Nanu-oya station to Ella village. It is known as one of the most picturesque jo;; country train journeys in the world. Ells is everyone’s favourite fill country village due to the fact that it’s a wonderful nature friendly location. Rawana waterfall is one of the most popular sightseeing attractions in Ella. It currently ranks as one of the widest falls in the country; in fact this waterfall measures approximately 25 metres.
Another amazing spot is the Nine Arch Bridge, a massive bridge built entirely of solid rocks, bricks, and cement without using a single piece of steel. The bridge was finally commissioned in 1921. Ella is a great place for walking and climbing and its most famous hiking route is to ‘Little Adam’s Peak’.
I stand at the open door of the blue train, a soft breeze flows through the carriage, cooling and refreshing. One man stands at the door, hanging half-in, half-out, whilst a German woman sits on the floor, legs dangling out of the door. I’m not that brave. I stand back and hold tight to the handle secured on the side with one hand, whilst taking photos with the other. Up until now, it’s been a wearisome day; stressful, and a deep-seated anger directed toward our driver is simmering below the surface.
Earlier we had asked our driver to take us into the town of Nuwara Eliya and to leave us alone as we wanted to explore the busy shopping strip. He isn’t enthused at the prospect of us spending money in stores and he not being able to collect his kickback, so he tries to dissuade us from venturing out on our own, citing it being 'dangerous'. We stand firm and arrange to meet him at the Post Office in an hour. We start from the pub where we ate last night, and decide to pop into the Windsor next door for a toilet break. When we see the interior, we are sorry we didn’t venture in here last night; it would have been a better option than the pub. However, we cannot turn back the clock. We explore the shopping strip: the shops in the main street, the hardware stores, cafes, and clothing stores. It’s a pretty place and the people are very friendly, although I notice that despite it being called ‘Little England’, there are few Caucasians here. Perhaps they, too, have been discouraged by their respective drivers from visiting these small towns and engaging with the locals.
Our next stop is a small place in the mountains for lunch, before taking the afternoon train to Ella. When we arrive at the driver’s selected cafe on top of a hill with wonderful views, we find it closed. The Ceylon Tea Board has a tea room close by and in the absence of any other café in the nearby village, we opt to visit. It is New Year’s Day, and after we are given the general spiel about tea production, we are offered a selection of teas and special New Year’s Day treats. This place has large windows overlooking plantations and market gardens and the view is wonderful. We visit the showroom and make some small purchases, given that the ‘morning tea’ was for free. Sticky-beak driver makes sure he knows how much we spend before doubling back for his free gift. Since we have initiated this visit, I feel that it isn’t up to him to collect any kickbacks, so this is really annoying me.
We arrive at the station at the nearby village of Nanu-oya, and our driver gives us the tickets and asks us to wait for him on the platform. It is crowded. The driver has somehow mentioned in passing that we are unlikely to get a seat on the train, but he has a ‘friend’ who will get us one. He is such an inept person, I’m not sure we can trust him to do so. There is the usual number of touts who skim the crowds and one surreptitiously approaches us with a deal. He offers us seats for 1,000 rupees (about $8). We agree and we are given specific instructions on what we have to do to get the seats. No money changes hands unless we are successful, and members of his paid staff have it in their best interests as this is a supplement to their meagre income. Everything is in order.
Our driver turns up out of the blue and I sort of suggest to him that we don’t need him anymore and that we will meet him in Ella. He refuses to leave, stating that if the train doesn’t turn up, he will have to back track to collect us. We are unable to shake him loose and despite a short delay of half-an-hour, and our tout telling us to walk up and stand under a specific sign, we are ready to jump on the train. As I follow the masses with our tout within my sights, our driver stands in front of me and says he has a seat for us. I’m torn because I’m fast losing sight of my tout. I’m blocked from advancing any further. Relenting, I’m told to follow another bloke who flies through three 3rd class carriages before disappearing out the window. Of course, there are no seats, but then again, we’ve not lost any money in the process. On reflection, we may never have gotten a seat, but the confusion and the crowds all surging into the carriages vying for seats that are already occupied seems a little counter-productive. Of course, the train operators could limit the seats available for sale, but here we are, experiencing one of the greatest images on earth; people hanging out of overcrowded train doors and we are amongst them. Of course, we have an advantage over many of the other travellers. We are not carrying our luggage; that’s been left to our hapless driver, who is hopefully already well on the way to Ella by road.
I’m mesmerised by the magnificent scenery before me. I click away at the small area bound by a man’s arm and other obstructions, but I can see the layers of mountains, the terraces, the plantations, the forests. I see people hard at work and I enjoy my small place in front of the door with the wind blowing at my hair as I enjoy the views. We pass eucalypt forests; the trees have grown straight and so very tall; some have survived bushfires at some stage. We pass grand estates on top of hills, and the humpies of the poor tenement farmer. Ahead there are mountains shrouded in mist and waterfalls disgorging many thousands of litres of water down the rocky hills. We stop at stations, standing back to allow people to disembark and embark before resuming our spot near the door. Tom briefly stands near the door long enough to take photos of the train as it rounds a bend. We see more tea plantations on the highest slopes, dark clouds almost touching the tops of the hills.
Eventually, about an hour away from Ella, we find a seat. The activity within the narrow train is every bit as interesting as I try to photograph people without their knowledge. Railway employees walk up and down the aisles offering tea and curry puffs and other small treats. I wonder how they manage to make their way through the crush of people in these carriages. This train is as much a means of transport for the locals as it is for the hundreds of visitors being carried today. There are many interesting people, like the gentle and very tolerant grandmother nearby, whose inquisitive grandchild constantly taps her on the shoulder to ask her something.
After almost four hours, we reach Ella. We are exhilarated and very much refreshed by the experience, albeit ready for a cup of coffee.
There he is! Our driver is waiting with the throngs of people outside the station. We walk down to his car and then set off for the hotel. We decide not to stop for coffee, because after not getting the upper-floor room last night, we are not going to let it happen again. There is plenty of time for coffee later.
Our hotel is on top of one of the many hills surrounding Ella, and is aptly named Ella Gap Panorama. A small patio juts out over a cliff and the views are magnificent. We arrive at the same time as a family of four; the mother is totally disinterested in the surroundings and has her nose buried in a book. This is the time for me to act!
‘Where is our room?’ I say.
‘Under there.’ The reception staff points below the patio.
‘We only want a room upstairs, if you don’t mind.’ I turn to the driver and ask him to ensure that we get an upstairs room. A discussion ensues as they try to tell us that the upstairs rooms are reserved only for families. We hold our ground until we are given a room on the highest level. It’s a very nice room and we have a lovely balcony. I open the doors and from somewhere below, the sounds of the Buddhist chants float up on the breeze. Gentle, calming, and beautiful tones somehow match the spectacular views from this location.
We decide to go out for dinner. Asking our host to call us a tuk-tuk, we wait down by the entrance. We notice that there are four drivers, including ours, talking together, some of whom we’ve seen at other hotels during previous days. One of the drivers approaches us and asks us whether we want a lift into the township of Ella. Refusing, we tell him that we’ve already ordered a tuk-tuk, which arrives as we speak. To add insult to injury, our driver approaches us and asks where we are going. I explain to him that our tuk-tuk has arrived, just as some other guests jump into it and it takes off.
The anger I’ve controlled all day almost bursts out as I explain curtly that he has the ‘night off’, and that we don’t really need his assistance this evening, before asking the hotel staff to order yet another tuk-tuk. This time, we decide to walk down the pot-holed road and wait for our transport, far away from the drivers in their little cars. It occurs to us that given there are four cars with an average of two tourists inside, that there had been enough people for a tour bus. This tour is an absolute sham!
The town of Ella is pretty; full of tourists and there are many cafes, shops, and restaurants in the main street. We wander around the street, batting off offers for tuk-tuks, as we enjoy the balmy evening. We are still at high altitude and the night chill will set in before long, but now it’s quite pleasant. Apart from Colombo, this is the first town we’ve encountered that actually caters to the overseas guest and there are many good hotels, hostels, and restaurants here. They say that Ella is the home of good quality food, and they are not wrong. We have a delightful meal at Café Chill, is a huge place with excellent staff and food.
TOUR: Across the Best Sites of Sri Lanka - Capital Lanka Tours
ACCOMMODATION: Ella Gap Panorama, Ella, Sri Lanka http://www.ellagappanorama.com/ Ask for one of the rooms at the top of the hotel.
DINNER: Cafe Chill. Nice Sri Lankan and western menu.