Two hikes, one day: Ella surrounded by trails, vistas — and one rain-soaked railroad track
ELLA, Sri Lanka — I just made my first brutal brain lock of my trip. I was going to have a leisurely breakfast and a leisurely tuktuk ride to the train station for a leisurely 9 ½-hour train ride to Colombo. I looked at my ticket, which they told me left Ella at 6:39 a.m. The departure time on the ticket said 5:45 a.m! It was 5:40.
So I tossed my license plate-sized key onto the guesthouse office table, where I was supposedly to have my leisurely breakfast and ran through the morning dark halfway to the train station. Hey, maybe it’ll be late. This is Sri Lanka. It didn’t help when the only merchant open asked me if I wanted any bananas or water.
“No, I want a tuktuk,” I said as I ran by.
Seeing no one else on the road, he said, “You’ll have to walk.”
Cursing St. Christopher, the patron saint of travelers, I raced up Main Road when, out of the dark, one tuktuk driver came by.
“Train station,” I said, panting. “I’ll give you everything I have.”
I arrived at 5:55 a.m. No train. I asked the uniformed station master, dressed like an army lieutenant not averse to beating Tamils, if the train left at 6:39 or 5:45.
“Six thirty-nine,” he said. “It leaves Badulla at 5:45.”
What? I looked at my ticket. Sure enough, it says right above “Departure time 5:45” is, written in blue pen, “Ella 6:39.”
So here I am waiting for a train with nothing in my stomach and only three precious energy bars to last me 9 ½ hours.
I don’t need the rest. I went hiking yesterday but the workout was more like a rain-soaked slog than a trek. At 7 a.m. I hiked up to Little Mark’s Peak, a very aptly named mountain that affords some of the best views in Ella. They are views that made backpackers start flocking to Ella about 10 years ago. Full of energy after a sloth-like Friday, I walked up Marissa Road where my erstwhile high-end guesthouse was booked and took a right up a muddy road past the high-end Garden Isle Resort. All the rich tourists stay out in the jungle, apparently. I kept seeing them sitting on polish verandahs reading stodgy British novels and drinking from tall glasses.
The trail winds up slowly through a small tea plantation before it wraps around a small hill with a fantastic view of Ella Rock, the seminal vista in Ella. I curiously saw a paved walkway in the middle of the plantation. I took it up and it zigzagged about 15 minutes straight up where I had a major-league panoramic view of central Sri Lanka. In front of me was Ella Rock, truly a rock standing about 7,000 feet with some riveting drop offs. I could see the top through the mist that drifted past it as the sun failed to break through. Behind me were tea plantations, forests and palm trees as far as I could see. I saw only two other people on the entire trail. I felt atop of Sri Lanka again, where tourism has failed to spoil and nature has continued to bless.
I got back to town by 8:30 a.m. and was barely breathing hard. My guesthouse manager told me there were no guides going up Ella Rock yesterday — “Everyone was leaving,” she said — but I felt restless. I needed to walk. I didn’t care if the skies opened up and Main Road turned into one giant mud puddle. However, while Ella Rock is only a three-or four-hour round trip, it is nearly impossible to hike without a guide. Mass tourism has failed to produce any signs along the trail. I have been lost in mall parking lots. Yet I thought I’d give myself a chance at being some day soon labeled “Whereabouts unknown.”
I walked to the train station and, per instructions, I walked along the railroad tracks. Actually, it wasn’t “along” the tracks. It was “on” the tracks. I walked right past a sign that reads, “Walking on Railway is Dangerous.” This isn’t getting off the beaten track. It’s on the track, literally.
I didn’t have much choice. The skies had opened up. Hitting me was a torrential, tropical downpour you only see in National Geographic documentaries. I either walked on the track or sunk ankle deep in mud lining the entire way. I saw a few locals walking on the same track carrying umbrellas. They all pointed behind them when I asked for Ella Rock. If this were Rome, each one would try selling me an umbrella.
It was actually quite peaceful walking on a railroad. You hear nothing but birds chirping under the cover of dense foliage. I saw only one store. I saw one building that served as a meditation center. I didn’t want to spoil the local atmosphere by talking to the white people gathered on its porch.
When I reached a small pagoda, I took a little muddy embankment to a small bridge which I crossed for a lousy view from above of Rewala Waterfalls. I ventured over the bridge and gingerly walked up a few feet toward Ella Rock. I heard yelling. Some old man in a Hindu robe pointed me up another road. Christ, I hadn’t gone 50 meters and I was already lost. I went up the right trail when the old man walked toward me.
“You want guide?”
The guy was about 60 and wearing flipflops. I was wearing sturdy Merrills and still slipping on the trail. What I wanted was some privacy. I needed to take a leak. I didn’t want to pay 1,500 rupees (about $12) by myself to slog in the mud for a view that won’t be much in a rainstorm.
I limped back to town, soaked but refreshed. I wound up, again, at Chill where I watched Crystal Palace beat Queens Park Rangers in almost a relegation soccer game and saw the first half of the Ireland-Wales rugby match before the power went out.
Talking in the dark with a bunch of British medical students from Wales didn’t interest me much. I went home for a good night’s sleep and an early wake-up call. Too bad I couldn’t slept in.