Hiking the hills

We arrived in Ella on a Sunday afternoon. Sundays are the busiest day to travel in Sri Lanka and we always seem to manage to travel on them! We needed to change buses and the first bus we got on was packed to the brim and we really thought we stood no chance of boarding with our backpacks. Luckily the conductor hauled our bags into the boot and a random passenger took my day bag with our valuables on his lap for the duration whilst we stood. Ella was quite different to what we’d experienced so far – there were hills and it was noticeably cooler. The first stop was actually to a medical centre to get my face checked out following my accident in Dickwella. It was still very swollen and painful and I was actually starting to believe my jokes that I’d fractured my cheekbone. The medical centre seemed to be in a hotel lobby, there was another western couple waiting – we got the comfy seats and WiFi in the lobby and all the locals were waiting outside on plastic chairs! Thankfully a quick check over revealed that I hadn’t fractured anything and instead had a hematoma. She sent me packing with four lots of drugs and a gel to reduce pain, swelling and prevent the infection spreading to my brain (these were her parting words to me so I ensured I diligently took all my drugs!). I was just grateful I didn’t get a jab in my behind like when I was in Colombia! Thankfully the drugs did what they were supposed to and I no longer resemble a chipmunk, nor whince every time I touch my face.

The next day we set off to hike Ella Rock. This took 4 hours in total. You spend the first 45 minutes walking along the railway track and jumping out the way when the train comes. Then you climb steadily uphill through tea plantations and forests of eucalyptus trees. I found this such hard going, I realised we have barely seen hills in our time away and my hill fitness has massively diminished (if it was ever even there). I don’t mind admitting that I had a little paddy about the whole thing and was regretting all my life choices. What was really weighing on my mind though was a hike we’d planned to do a week later. We did make it to the top though and the views made it worthwhile. The descent was equally as bad as there was lots of loose gravel and everyone seemed to slip and slide their way down. We rewarded ourselves afterwards by going to a bar for a pint. Ella is definitely the most backpackery place we’ve been too and this was demonstrated by all the bars and cafes and more travellers than locals.

Ella Rock viewed from our homestay
The view from the top of Ella Rock

The next day we got up at stupid o’clock to hike up another hill, Little Adam’s Peak to catch the sunrise. It was beautiful and worth the effort. That day was Independence Day in Sri Lanka but celebrations seemed low key compared to when we had celebrated Independence Day in Chile. We also took a bus to some waterfalls and quite frankly, they were a little disappointing. They were nice enough, but honestly? Once you’ve been to Iguazu Falls anything else seems a little underwhelming. Maybe I’m becoming too well travelled?

Sunrise viewed from Little Adam’s Peak

That afternoon we set off for the famous Nine Arches Bridge. Again this was a 40 minute walk along the railway track. The bridge was a nice piece of architecture and it led to Joey and I having an interesting discussion about how many sights are must see now because of Instagram and social media? 10 years ago would we have walked to see a bridge?!

Nine Arches Bridge

The next day we walked miles to a tea plantation. As the previous day had been a national holiday no tea had been picked so there was no production but it was still interesting to see the equipment and learn how it is produced. We also tasted some tea which even I managed to sip.

Then it was time to do the famous train ride to Nuwara Eliya. The train journey between Ella and Kandy is reported to be one of the most beautiful train journeys in the world. It was very pleasant, through hills, clouds and tea plantations. The most amusing thing about it though were all of the people trying to get *that* shot of them hanging out of the train door. I’m sure you know the one I mean. Couples seem to do it kissing and we watched one couple spend about 20 minutes trying to get the shot, shouting to their friends getting them to take it and retake it. She was hanging on the bottom and nearly banged her head on low hanging things and walls more than once! Not for us thank you!

Nuwara Eliya is described as Little England and is certainly the coldest place we’ve been to! Even then it wasn’t as cold as I’d been led to believe. We have to confess to this being the first place in Sri Lanka that we didn’t fall in love with. I didn’t hate it, but it’s not somewhere I’d choose to come back to. We arrived and then after some discussion opted to not do the big attraction in the area- Horton Plains. After our time at Udawalawe we have been reluctant to do any more national parks as we fear they won’t be as good. Plus the cost was quite high. Instead we chilled for a few days, going to a town park and another tea factory. This tour was dialled in by our particular tour guide who was definitely more interested in flirting with the guys in the factory then showing us around. From Pedro’s tea factory you can walk to another waterfall, I actually found this one more impressive than the other one, but we did have this one to ourselves so maybe that made a difference?

Lover’s Leap Waterfall

From here we took three buses to reach Dalhousie. Dalhousie is one of the starting points of the hike to the summit of Adam’s Peak. Adam’s Peak is 2,243 metres high and at the summit is a footprint. Some purport that the footprint is that of Buddha, some that it is of Shiva and some that it is Adam’s footprint from when he was cast out of the Garden of Eden. To reach the summit you have to climb over 5500 steps (no one seems to know exactly how many there are) and start in the middle of the night to reach the summit for sunrise. So here we were taking three buses to get to a town which the sole purpose of visiting was to climb 5500 steps in the dark starting at 1am. If climbing Ella Rock hadn’t made me question my life choices then this was definitely making me wonder whether I was drunk when I included it in the itinerary.

Some of the dark dark steps needed to climb Adam’s Peak

So we went to bed at 6pm as our alarms were set for midnight. Our guesthouse had very thin walls and you could hear all the comings and goings and when I’m trying to sleep before a big event I start to think very irrationally and was getting annoyed at all the noises. How dare they have a conversation outside my room at 7.30pm! We did eventually get some sleep before the bizarre act of getting up at midnight and trying to eat something and drink some coffee before leaving. It was a Poya Day (full moon) a couple of days before which had caused me all sorts of angst. Climbing Adam’s Peak is a pilgrimage for Buddhists, often to be undertaken on Poya days and we’d heard story after story of people almost making it to the top but not being able to reach the summit as there was an hour long queue to climb one step! I was fearful of it being too big a challenge for me and fearful that even if I did make it to the top I wouldn’t even get to see the footprint. I spent the nights leading up to it having lots of anxiety dreams.

We left our guesthouse just before 1am and started the slow ascent. According to the Lonely Planet it takes between 2 and 4 hours to ascend and 1-2 to descend depending on fitness and crowds. I definitely expected it to take me nearer 4. The first hour was quite easy. You start off very gently, going through a small temple and receive a blessing (in exchange for a small donation of course!), then you ring a bell to mark your start and off you go! As I say, it starts gently at first and there are flat patches. There are also tea houses and benches all the way up so you can rest regularly. We had our first rest after about an hour, stopping first for a bite to eat then about 5 minutes later when we spotted the first tea house selling coffee rather than tea. Then we ploughed onwards, passing pilgrims on their way up and on the way down as well. Our guesthouse has told us that Sri Lankan’s climb with the intention of performing Pooja at the top so don’t really worry about when they climb. They also do the climb in flip flops! We saw one guy with his leg in plaster and wearing flip flops so this definitely spurred me on. We stopped about 40 minutes later for another coffee break. As we went further up the hill the refreshments got more expensive – I guess someone’s got to carry the supplies up!

At the start of the walk, it was very dark!

As we continued on the steps got narrower and steeper. It was impossible to get into any rhythm. We had a quick bathroom break and then we realised that we weren’t that far from the top which lifted our spirits. The last hour had been tough but honestly? It wasn’t as bad as thought it was going to be. Ella Rock had felt tougher. It took us 3 hours to ascend which was way better than I expected. Upon reaching the top there’s another bell to ring to signal that you made it. You are supposed to ring it once for every ascent. We heard one person ring it 16 times. Then we queued for the temple to see the footprint. The actual footprint is covered in gold and it’s massive!! I obviously hadn’t done my research properly as I was surprised at how large it was. It’s over 5 foot long so I guess it’s not often that something’s bigger than you expect! Then it was time to wait for sunrise. It is cold at the top and there’s quite the wind but it was fun to watch the first blue of the sky gradually appear before the sun came up. Was it the best sunrise we’ve ever seen? Probably not. The best part was Actually once the sun was up seeing the perfect triangle shadow cast from the mountain appear on the other side. This is quite the phenomenon as it’s not the shape of the mountain!

Sunrise from Adam’s Peak
The perfect triangle shadow

Then it was time to make our way down. The first hour was hard going, everyone was leaving at the same time so it was busy and the steps that were steep on the way up were steeper on the way down. We had borrowed sticks from our guesthouse and were so grateful to have something to lean on. We breaked once on the way down and it took over 2 hours to reach the bottom. It was hard, hard going.

The descent

We reached our guesthouse just after 9am and were greeted with a huge breakfast! We spent the morning catching up on sleep and then went for a gentle walk around the town. As the day went on we could feel the aches and pains gradually creeping in but at that point it was manageable. It was enjoyable and quite the achievement, particularly for me with my lupus and arthritis. Would I do it again so I can ring the bell twice? Definitely not!!!

We made it! Somewhere en route I lost my hairband

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