There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Ella, Little Adam's Peak and the Demodara Bridge: Part 10 of Sri Lanka, The Isle of Serendip

When I was young I thought that sleeping under a mosquito net would be very exotic and exciting. The reality has proved rather different, though on this particular night it was Lynne who had the problems: with the net flapping in her face she found the flimsy material becoming strangely claustrophobic.

Breakfast in a small guesthouse was not going to be like a hotel buffet, but the plate of fruit - mango, pineapple, watermelon and banana - that preceded the fried egg were ripe, fresh, local and in every way lovely.

Ravi arrived shortly afterwards. We inquired how his accommodation had been. 'There was no water to wash in this morning,' he replied, then shrugged and added. 'They are poor people in this region, but they do their best.' His words echoed those of the German proprietor of the guesthouse the previous evening.

Looking down the Ella Gap at the road we drove up and down to our guesthouse
The main item on the day’s agenda was the scaling of Little Adam's Peak so Ravi drove us back up the road clinging to the side of the Ella Gap and parked at the southern end of the village.

Ella Rock from the top of the Ella gap
The gap is a deep valley, a cleft in the highlands that leads down to the coastal plain. On the western side of the valley, above and behind our guest house was Ella Rock while atop the eastern wall there is a protuberance known as Little Adam's Peak. It is a popular and fairly undemanding climb.
Little Adam's Peak, Ella

Adam's Peak itself, some 50km to the west may be only the 4th highest mountain in Sri Lanka but it is certainly the most photogenic. The conical shape of Little Adam’s Peak sitting on the valley wall was, maybe, reminiscent of its much larger namesake.
Southern Sri Lanka
Ella is between Bandarawella and Badulla

Ravi indicated a path leading past a small shop and into the tea plantations. 'The route is obvious,' he said, and indeed with the bulk of the peak rising in front of us way-finding did not look much of a challenge.

We set off on the level path between the tea bushes. It was a lovely morning; Ella was much warmer than the cool and drizzly Nuwara Eliya but lacked the aggressive heat of the plain.
Through the manicured tea bushes towards Little Adam's Peak
A tea picker with her sack on her back stopped us, suggesting we might like a photograph. We took the photo op, handed over an appropriate tip and continued on our way wondering if she was a tea picker at all, or a professional model of sorts. Rounding a bend we found a gang of pickers working their way through the bushes; our ‘model’ appeared behind us and scuttled down to join them.
Tea picker and part time model, Ella

A little further along, at the base of the protuberance, a set of concrete steps led up the nose of the hill. We thought we should climb them, but some more tea pickers – the next gang along the hillside - shook their heads, indicating that we should continue along the level path.

We followed their advice and after a few hundred meters the path started to zigzag gently up the flank of the hill.

The path started to zigzag gently up the flank of the hill
Little Adam's Peak, Ella
It was a steady climb but in no way difficult and in due course we reached a shoulder between two peaks and took a breather before heading for the top.

The shoulder between the two peaks
The views from the summit were impressive.
Looking over the Ella Gap from Little Adam's Peak

Looking towards Ella, Little Adam's Peak
We encountered a group of Spanish girls who asked us to take their photo for them and then took one for us. In the exposed and breezy location the brim of my hat blowing upwards gave the impression that a village in Staffordshire was temporarily lacking its idiot - and now I've put the picture on the internet for all the world to see. Oversharing, or what?

On Little Adam's Peak
We made our way back down to the sheltered saddle, sat down and ate the rambutans we bought yesterday. They were excellent, sweet and juicy.

A good spot for a rambutan break, Little Adam's Peak, Ella
Then we climbed the second, lower peak just for the sake of completeness and started our descent.

The descent, looking down on the hotel which so nearly was swept into the valley in the rainy season
Back on the level path through the tea bushes we noticed a sign to a hotel pointing along another path. The climb had been thirsty work, so we took what promised to be a short deviation. Lynne was not impressed when it turned out to be a longer walk than expected and mostly uphill, but she was mollified when we finally arrived and found some clean toilets and a nice deck to sit on with a good view of the hill we had just climbed.

A glass of ginger beer.....
It seemed the moment to try out Sri Lanka's favourite soft drink, EGB - Elephant Ginger Beer. I have always liked ginger beer and as we sat in the warm sunshine, facing the hill we had just climbed, drinking this fine example of a ginger beer we began speculating on whether the it was the British who had given ginger beer to Sri Lanka or the Sri Lankans, who grow ginger in great quantity, who had given it to the British. [It would appear to be a British invention, first brewed in the 17th century in Yorkshire - where ginger grows not at all.]

...and a view back to Little Adam's Peak, Ella
By the time we had finished, made our descent and found Ravi it was time for an early lunch, and had we been in the Far East that is probably what we would have done, but this was Sri Lanka, our routine was by now well established and we would, of course, make another visit and then have a late lunch.

Unfortunately there is not much to see in Ella once the peak has been climbed. Ravi suggested a tea factory, but it was scarcely twenty four hours since we were at the Pedro Tea Factory in Nuwara Eliya. He mentioned the Nine Arches Bridge though without much enthusiasm, but it sounded good to us, so we set off in the direction of Demodara.

Driving down the small main road we passed gangs of tea pickers carrying their full sacks back to the factory after the morning shift. We were amazed that the company did not have a vehicle doing the rounds to collect them; it would have saved a great deal of time. Ravi observed (again) that these were poor people and their time was cheap. I am no expert, but it seemed to me that continuing with such inefficient and antiquated practices was going to keep these people poor (and is it cynical to wonder if, perhaps, that rather suits the plantation owners.)
We passed tea pickers taking their full sacks back to the factory
We soon turned off into a narrow lane descending into a jungle filled valley. Hitherto Ravi had driven us wherever we went with confidence, but we began to suspect that he had not been here before, and as the tarmac surface disappeared and the road became narrower and rougher he became less and less happy and more and more concerned for his car.

The road became narrower and rougher
The descent to the Demodara Bridge
After much tutting and ooh-ing we reached a small village at the bottom of the valley. Ravi parked in a clearing and co-opted a passing local teenager as guide.

A village house at the bottom of the valley, Demodara Bridge
The lad led us up a steep concrete ramp that Ravi would not have wanted to drive up and then along a narrow path through the bushes. It did not take us long to climb up to the single track railway, a continuation of the line that had brought us into the highlands a few days before.

We walked along the track, passed through a tunnel....

Railway tunnel, Demodara
and emerged at the Nine Arches Bridge. Almost 200m long it is actually a brick built viaduct that crosses 25m above the valley floor. It looks like many British viaducts, which is hardly surprising as it was built by British engineers in 1921.

Lynne and the Nine Arches Bridge, Demodara
It would have been pleasing to watch a train go over it but our youthful guide told us there were only two trains a day, and neither was due. Nevertheless, we heard a distant whistle so we waited a while, and then a little while longer before realising our new friend was right.

I start to walk back with Ravi and our young guide
We made the descent, gave him an appropriate recompense for his time and drove back out of the valley, Ravi being much more relaxed on the return journey as he now knew the worst of what was ahead.
The road back looks so much better

We returned to Ella and the Café Chill where Lynne went for a cheese and tomato sandwich and a portion of chips. I was not much more local in my choice of chicken and noodles, but the noodles arrived with vegetable curry and an apology that they had run out of chicken - such are the hazards of late lunches.

Ella 'High Street'
After eating we took a more lengthy walk round Ella attempting to find some reason why the writer of the Rough Guide had described it as 'like an English village'.  We spotted a small restaurant advertising 'fish and chips', but that apart we found little or nothing to justify the comment.
The Ella chippy?

We did, however, see a restaurant called, in English, 'Something Different'; underneath the sign, in large letters, it offered 'Traditional Rice and Curry'. Well, you would not want to be too different.


That evening, back at the guesthouse, I returned to more normal Sri Lankan fare with devilled chicken while Lynne had chop suey with chillies. After ten days in Sri Lanka we were resigned to the food being pleasant enough but very same-y. Rice and curry is the national dish, but there are only around half a dozen different vegetable curry dishes of which four will be served at any one meal along with a chicken or (always tough) beef curry. Beyond that there are the 'devilled' dishes; chicken, fish or (equally tough) beef in a sauce like a Chinese sweet and sour with added chillies. Lamprais is just a variation on rice and curry, and then there are the ‘Chinese’ dishes, usually with noodles, which make a pleasant change from rice, but would not be recognised in any part of China we have ever visited.

Our pleasant, if not exactly memorable meal over, we decided to order a glass of arrack. We had already drunk ginger beer today, the country's favourite soft drink and Lion lager, its favourite (only?) beer, so it seemed appropriate to end the day with a glass of the national spirit. Arrack is distilled from palm toddy, looks as brown as a blended whisky and is sold at 32% alcohol. The premium brand we tried seemed to have little flavour and was too weak to have any fire. Perhaps it says more about me (and, indeed Lynne) than it does about arrack but we found it boring and rather tame.

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