After living in rural Uganda for a few months, arriving in Tana (Antananarivo) can only be described as a beautiful, chaotic, polluted assault.
Madagascar is still a place people visit and travel with caution. Following their independence in 1960 they have struggled with their economy following corrupt politics and a coup d’e’ta as recently as 2009. In fact due to the recent elections it is harder to get a visa on arrival and I had to get a 60 day visa with the hope of extending it to 90 at the embassy in the next few weeks (fingers crossed).
The population of Madagascar is around 25 million and the average GDP per capita is $450, making it the 8th poorest country in the world. Poor sanitation and access to clean water continues to be a battle and dysentery is still the leading cause of death. Madagascar has also had 2 outbreaks of the pneumonic and bubonic plague within the last 10 years. Unsurprisingly, although still slightly off the tourist trail, Madagascar is a popular place for NGOs and there are multiple organisations, both grass roots and more global operations that operate from Tana.
Although politically Madagascar is more stable than recent years it is still inadvisable to travel around at night without a passport or without expecting to pay a police bride. I will consider myself exceptionally lucky if I have not been robbed or pick-pocketed at the end of 3 months, having already witnessed it in my first two days.
Yet despite this, I have already fallen a little bit in love with this amazing country. Having been a former French colony their influences are everywhere. Besides the obvious French language and chateaus on the hill, you can find baguettes on every corner, good coffee and old French cars on every street, painted cream and serving as ‘le petit taxi’.
The area I am staying in has markets the length of the street. The quickest route to the hospital is through a tunnel of markets providing everything you can imagine, the strong smell of meat offering an alternative wake up call.
Walking the streets of Tana you need to keep alert (definitely not my strong point), as open manholes and gaps in paving drop straight to the rubbish or sewage below. The smells can be particularly strong at times and only just mask the fumes of the cars which due to the old, cheap models and poor quality of petrol are what I have found most difficult to adjust to. (I should point out at this stage, that I live on perhaps one of the busiest streets in the city) As soon as you step out of your room, you are confronted by a lung full of emissions, along with the noises and endless calls that last until night, when the streets become unsettlingly deserted.
It is at these times when I miss the beautiful Ugandan hills and being woken by the cockadoodling of Allan and the beat of the school drums.
The rains, when they come, which is often in this season, are short but unrelenting. Within 5 minutes you can be ankle deep in gushing water; it pools in the roads and streams of roofs in torrents.
Every day stalls line both sides of the streets which makes navigating a route difficult but Thursday is particularly busy. Markets upon markets flow through the heart of the city, rendering it virtually impossible to walk on pavements. They offer everything from clothes to food and electricals. Although hectic, I’ve already become accustomed at weaving my way through and marvelling at the scenes…
Broken down cars that won’t start. Disabled people crawling down the street on their hands and knees. Pousse-pousse being pulled by men through the streets, contributing to the winding queues of traffic. Children following you like a shadow, then counting and pocketing someone else’s money.
I am staying near the hospital at a centre recommended by the Dean of their Medical School and it is only a short taxi ride into the main city or a 30 minute walk. I was taken aback by how hilly Tana is, although only a short walk it is a predominantly vertical one! Madagascar is still an under-visited country and the tourists and workers that come here are generally European, predominantly French.
Tana appears a city you need to discover for yourself. The Lonely Planet is outdated and inaccurate and although the Bradt guide has greater depth it doesn’t appear to give perhaps the content that you would expect of most guidebooks for a capital city. The only way to get to know the city is to find it for yourself or mix with true ex-patriots who understand its workings.
In earnest, I was a little taken aback by Madagascar. Having travelled to Egypt during the Arab Spring, the year of their revolution, you wouldn’t be surprised to learn that I’m travel first, research later. But in truth, I can’t think of any country I’ve visited where I have been restricted after dark. Perhaps it is this that makes me feel slightly uneasy, or the fact that limiting movement in the evenings I feel far more claustrophobic than I have ever felt travelling before.
Tana is intriguing and daunting, beautiful yet crumbling. A city of contradictions. Of all the many places I have travelled, it is the place I feel most unease. The place I am least likely to let my guard down. Behind the characterful facade lies an ingrained poverty, one where the police are so underpaid they live off brides and corruption and many people cannot afford medical care or reach basic standards of education.
The capital, Antananarivo has the potential to be one of the most beautiful cities. It appears to have good infrastructure, built by the French with grand villas, roads and hospitals. It is a city devoid of skyscrapers, with panoramic views that span over a plethora of architectural styles to the paddy fields and hills beyond. In fact, for a country that has been one of the poorest in the world for many years, the capital appears incredibly developed and the health care system run effectively with the hospitals appearing in far better conditions than the ones I have been to in Uganda. However, with the current political situation as it is I’m not sure the city is ready to embrace all that it has to offer. Most of the beautiful villas appear crumbling and disused, with many reluctant to show wealth for fear of robbery, which is common.
I feel that Madagascar will be the country that surprises me the most out of the places I’ve visited and I’m curious to see what the next few months have in store… Here’s to Tana!
The beautiful hills of Uganda are home to the famous mountain gorillas. There are around 850 wild mountain gorillas left in the world, habituating forestry between the borders of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Awareness and conservation for these incredible animals was made famous in the 70’s and 80’s through much of Dian Fossey’s work, the pinnacle perhaps being her book ‘Gorillas in the Mist’, an account of her thirteen years living in the rain forest with them.
Recently the cost of gorilla permits have gone up in all locations and Uganda is now cheaper than Rwanda to do the famous gorilla trek. DRC remains the cheapest but after the recent murder of both rangers and tourists in the area (2018), is not recommended.
There are two areas within Uganda to see the gorillas, the famous Bwindi national park and the lesser known but equally as beautiful Mgahinga national park, in South Western Uganda. This is where we did our gorilla tracking.
Mgahinga national park is the smallest in Uganda, covering the northern slopes of three volcanoes and bordering two national parks in Rwanda and the DRC. The setting is spectacular. At the base of the volcano is the town of Kisoro, the closest border town to the DRC.
It’s impossible to go to the border town and not see hundreds of refugees who are making their way into Uganda, a country with an open-doors policy to refugees. Mainly children, they wait near the border until they are transported to UN run camps. The poverty of some of these children is extreme and their health poor. The little boy trying to rub his face against me definitely had either oral herpes or a severe bacterial infection but I loved how happy they were to meet a friendly stranger.
To track the gorillas you need to set off early and we stayed right at the base of the national park. The guesthouse had only just opened and it was beautiful. Half way up the volcano, the views across the country were stunning.
The next morning we set off early to walk the remaining distance from the guesthouse to the rangers huts where we met the others in our group. The biggest advantage of choosing Mgahinga over Bwindi is the groups sizes are generally smaller. Although they only give a limited number of permits a day you can still have a group size of up to 8. At Mgahinga we were lucky enough to have just 4 in our group; another volunteer from my lodge, an Australian couple and myself.
It was a fairly steep climb from when we set off. The trackers leave at first light to where they left the gorillas the night before and begin their tracking. By the time you set off with the rangers, generally the trackers have either located the gorillas or aren’t far away. It can take any length of time but most commonly between 1-4 hours.
We were lucky that we only had just over two hours of trekking until we found them. Although this is actually more than many, the walk is stunning and having spent the majority of the previous day travelling in the car, welcomed the exercise. For anyone thinking this sounds a struggle, the first sightings of the gorillas is worth the effort.
Nothing can really prepare you for the first encounter. It is absolutely fantastic. The sheer size and elegance of these animals renders you practically speechless.
It shows how well habituated they are they walk right past you without even acknowledging your presence. In order for tourists to be able to visit the gorilla families, they first need at least three years of habituation by the trackers. This means that everyday for 3 years they are monitored, observed and slowly exposed to humans. Allowing tourists to visit ensures that the revenue comes in to protect the forests and the gorillas from poaching and deforestation. As mentioned earlier there are only 850 mountain gorillas left in the world and tourism is vital to maintain their species. To cause the least disruption to their normal behaviour the group sizes and time spent with the animals is always limited, as well as prohibiting any consumption of food and drink.
The infants are undoubtedly the sweetest and spend their time scampering around in the trees with unlimited energy. It is incredible. It is also incredible just how the trackers can find them. Often the gorillas come out to a clearing during the day but even so the forests are so densely covered it seems near-impossible to find them. For our sighting they weren’t in a clearing but instead dispersed around the trees, in the picture below. The fact that the rangers achieve finding the gorillas daily, in these conditions, is truly commendable.
For anyone wanting a truly unique, once in a lifetime experience, this has to be it. Tourism is still slow in Uganda and it is the most incredible country, rich in beauty and kindness, with so much on offer. Tourism is important not just to protect these incredible animals but also those all over the country, including the incredible [Queen Elizabeth Park] and the captivating [chimpanzees]. If anyone is still looking for a reason to visit, the fascinating life of Dian Fossey (my namesake) would inspire even the least adventurous and last but not least, the Disney film Tarzan arguably has one of the most underrated soundtracks!
Believe it or not it has taken over 2 hours to write the title. I am fully submerged into Ugandan life and finding any spare time to blog is as hard as ever. I’m finally getting out my laptop and I have an excitable 11-year-old next to me who won’t let my concentration drift even for a minute. We have discussed the reason for a belly button; worked out basic mental arithmetic and pretended to talk without teeth. Needless to say, it makes writing a little tricky; when school term starts in a fortnight it may become a little easier, but I’m not too convinced.
Life in Africa is exactly as expected, everything runs at a slower pace, on African time. The nearest town to where I am staying is Ntungamo, in Western Uganda, near the Rwandan border. The people of Uganda are friendly and inviting and as area I’m working in is fairly remote, it is still rare to come across white people which makes everyone is excited to see you! They point, stare and wave shouting ‘Muzungu’: white person.
Whilst staying in Africa I’m residing at a guesthouse adjacent to a school and when not working at the local hospital or health centre, free time is spent renovating the school before term starts and rounding up and playing with the local children whenever possible.
In addition to a school, the guesthouse I am attached to has a medical centre over the road and a development building which has brick making, sewing machines, shoe making and a barber to teach local trades. Much of this is still under development and they are hoping to set up more vocational style work for children to go into, that are unable to study at secondary school due to academic or financial reasons.
The whole development was started by a single, remarkable man named Denis. As a child he did not attend school, along with many other children in the area and the at the age of 13, became a child soldier. Now he is older, he still works for the Ugandan army but has started up this entire project with the aim to ensure that every child in his neighbourhood can get an education and access to health care.
The money Denis makes through various projects and volunteer opportunities is all reinvested into the community with any money being contributed to the school’s development and bursaries for the local children that cannot afford it. All the government schools in Uganda charge for attendance about 35 000/ term, this is approx. £7GBP. As this is a private school the fees are a little higher, also offering the addition to board for children from further away, however as this is heavily subsidised by charitable donations it generally works out at a similar price to the government run schools. Any families that cannot afford to pay cash are often allowed to pay in goods, for example beans or bananas and as long as it can be utilised by the school they are happy to accept it.
As mentioned, fees can be heavily subsidised, children at the school can be sponsored to attend and bursaries given to poorer households. Yet despite this, some children still cannot afford to attend. The area I am in is predominantly farming land and this also contributes to the main conditions seen at the health centre.
Due to the poverty there are limited water supplies and water is collected by children and families from water sources often polluted with animal waste, this gives rise to high incidences of typhoid and H-pylori. On my first morning at the clinic, every child that attended had one of these conditions and it is generally related to poor water access and not boiling water before drinking.
Other conditions common at the clinic include malaria and mosquito born pathologies. To reduce incidences of malaria in Uganda the government have issued free mosquito nets to families however, despite this they are seldom used. Often when visiting homes mosquito nets are found unused, for storage or even on occasion as fishing nets. This leads to large quantities of people catching malaria, however, as it can be fairly easily treated if caught early, the locals treat it in the same manner as catching a cold in the UK.
If you want to read more about the types of medical conditions I’ve seen then read my posts on [The Local Hospital] and Ugandan Community Visits.
Nuwara Eliya (pronounced as one word) is often referred to as ‘Little England’ and it is easy to see why. This beautiful city in hill country in Central Provence is full of quintessentially British charms and with the addition of the temperate climate, it’s a welcome change if like me, you struggle in the heat!
It is a truth universally acknowledged that all Brits LOVE tea and being a stereotype, tea was one of the things I was most looking forward to in Sri Lanka and it has not disappointed. The first tea plantation in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) was cultivated in 1867 by James Taylor, having made a trip over to India to learn about tea plantations. From here the business boomed.
Nuwara Eliya is world renouned for tea and if you have the time in Sri Lanka I would definitely recommend visiting the tea plantations here instead of Ella. 2 days is a good length of time to spend here and below is my suggested itinerary:
Visit Victoria Park
Tour of a tea factory and estate
Lover’s Leap waterfall
Take high tea at the Grand Hotel
Walk around the racecourse and down past the lake
Onwards train from Nanu Oya to Ella
Visit Victoria Park
Victoria Park is a public park by the centre of town and a nice place to walk around and sit and read a book. Compared to the rest of our trip around Sri Lanka, Nuwara Eliya was a good place to wind down and relax a little, so take the most of these opportunities.
Despite being a public park, tourists are expected to pay entry to maintain the park and this is a common theme in Nuwara Eliya, even some footpaths have tourist fees!
Also the disadvantage to this is that often it is all fenced off so there is only one clear entrance and exit and you essentially become trapped, so to get out we cheekily jumped a bit of fencing by the bus station in order to get out without having to go all the way around and along the main road again.
Tour of tea factory and estate
On the drive in to Nuwara Eliya we passed hundreds of tea estates as we winded our way around the hill sides passing through plantations with very English names, my favourites being Devon, Somerset and Blackpool!
Just out of the main centre of Nuwara Eliya there are tea plantations as far as the eye can see and some are better renowned than others and produce better quality teas (so do your research before hand – we were advised against the main ones such as Bluefield Tea Factory on the road from Kandy) and instead were recommended Pedro Estate by a few Sri Lankans. It may not be the most picturesque but it was very convenient; just a short tuk-tuk ride from town and a short walk over to Lover’s Leap waterfall.
Many reviews discredit Pedro on the basis that it is not as beautiful and has some pylons running through the plantation. This is true, however, I don’t think it dampend the experience at all as we had already seen the untouched, picturesque plantations on our 3 hour drive to Nuwara Eliya. Also, I think it’s impossible to expect a fully operating tea factory next to a town not to have pylons.. this is 2018 and although some people are searching for that fully Nomadic experience we are about 100 years too late.
We actually met a lovely French couple who were going to try find a smaller and less corporate plantation, however, most of the tea production in Sri Lanka is government controlled and have certain standards to meet. You can’t always sure that what you’re getting is 100% fair trade and that people aren’t over-worked but I believe the larger estates will be better at maintaining workers rights. Pedro, at least from the outside, appeared to try and uphold these values.
Also, it turns out Prince Philip visited in 1954 and if its good enough for Phil, then it’s good enough for me!
Whichever tea factory you visit it will be an amazing experience. We learnt so much about tea that I’ve filled about 3 pages of my travel diary just with interesting facts.
Also, I was exceptionally lucky to be travelling with a fellow tea-addict. Normally, we are proud Yorkshire Tea girls but I have to admit, since my return I have only been drinking black Sri Lankan tea.
Lovers Leap Waterfall
Just over the road from Pedro Tea Estate is Lovers Leap waterfall.
We were short of time when visiting as wanted to get back in time for tea (yes – more tea! But this time of the afternoon variety) so we actually asked our tuk-tuk driver Samanta to take us up. This is definitely not accessible in a car as the roads are very narrow and bumpy but after nothing but trekking for our first week I rather enjoyed the bumpy tuk-tuk ride.
Now for anyone like me who just thought Lover’s Leap was a lovely name it has a bit of a darker story attached. It is a small waterfall which got its local name as it was the rumoured point where a prince and his fiancee jumped to their deaths after they were refused the right to marry….. maybe not such a sweet name after all.
High Tea at the Grand Hotel
The only thing better than tea, is tea with all the trimmings, aka. an English Afternoon Tea. Coming from Yorkshire and being a frequenter of Betty’s I know I probably have high expectations when it comes to this and The Grand Hotel did not disappoint.
A beautiful establishment and very colonial. It reminded me of being in Kenya and some of the hotels we stayed at with a traditional facade, decadent interior, bellboys and chauffeurs. I have never seen so many waiters, overstaffed is probably an understatement and working in the NHS it is something completely foreign to me!
Initially our intention was to sit on the front lawn and take tea in front of the hotel but the waiters (who were obviously more knowledgeable then us) wanted us to sit closer to the hotel and we took a seat of the veranda.
Lucky we took their advice as the weather in Nuwara Eliya can change. Like I said previously it is much cooler than the rest of Sri Lanka, with low cloud cover that often creeps down in the afternoon until you are surrounded by a blanket of mist… glad we didn’t stay on the lawn!
High tea at the grand was perfect, just what we needed the day after climbing Adam’s Peak. It is served from half past 3 and as we were enjoying it so much we stayed the entire afternoon and then decided to treat ourselves to a cocktail each… when in Rome.
The highlight of the hotel, despite the incredible tea, stunning on-site jewellers and beautiful interiors, were the toilets. They deserve a mention as they were such a welcome change and were the only toilets of the trip that we awarded a 10/10 – yes, we graded toilets but this is an important element to travelling.
I know for a fact it was a highlight as when I flicked though Becky’s photos it appears we both took snaps of the loo; it was just that good!
Many people if they are short for time often cut Nuwara Eliya out of their trip and instead visit tea plantations around Ella. However, Horton Plains is a good enough reason on its own to visit here.
It is a nation park about an hours drive from the city and boast beautiful views including the famous World’s End. Unlike the rest of Sri Lanka this reminded me more of African Plains than anything I have come across before in Asia, the park being split into two distinct categories, the grasslands and the evergreen forests.
Even if you just stop off overnight and do a morning hike around the plains and then catch the train onwards I think it would be worth it. It is completely unique.
Horton Plains is best seen early morning just as the sun is rising and the whole landscape is surrounded by cloud forest: a thin layer of cloud that covers the floor and transforms this place into something magical.
If you’re planning a visit, you will need a driver, the roads are just not made for tuk-tuks. We actually stopped to pick up some German tourists whose taxi had broken down on the way.
The two main attractions of the park are the viewpoint at World’s End and Baker’s Falls. With a name like Worlds End you would expect a rather impressive view and it doesn’t disappoint.
It is at World’s End that Horton Plains comes to a sudden end, as a stunning vista overlooking the escarpment. Sitting on the edge of the precipice it is easy to see how this place got it’s name.
Depending on which way you are walking there is also a smaller but equally lovely viewpoint ‘Little World’s End’ you will come across. It is a circular walk around the park, we took a left turn on entry which took us to this first, then the larger and finally round to the falls. I personally think this was a better way to see it as in my mind the viewpoints were more impressive and if you are a quick walker you can miss the crowds.
Baker’s Falls, named after the famed Samuel Baker who attempted to settle in Nuwara Eliya and build an agricultural village, is a pretty waterfall within the national park. At only 20 metres it is by no means the most impressive but the setting is lovely and a great way to break up the hike by taking the short walk down and back again to see them.
As previously mentioned the weather in Nuwara Eliya can be unpredictable and an early morning walk here is essential. If you arrive any later than 9 or 10 am it is unlikely you will see anything at all due to the dense cloud cover often referred to as the ‘white wall’. The park opens at 6am and is an hours drive from town, so it is best to make an early start. Even though we left at 5.15, when we arrived the queue of traffic to get into the park was unbelievable. Although our driver said this was the longest he had seen, it is worth setting off a little earlier so that when it hits 6am you are front of the queue to get through and get hiking sooner, before the swarms of tourists.
By 9am there must have been thousands of people at the reserve, both international and domestic tourists.
A fast pace goes a long way so I’m thankful I was with the Machine Mason who loves a yomp as much as I do.
Racecourse and Lake
My favourite feature of Little England was the racecourse, proud of place in the middle, it even had a grandstand. Although used infrequently for one or two races a year, it was a nice touch, especially for Becky whose granddad is a racehorse trainer… Lets just say the ponies out there wouldn’t quite be up to scratch in a UK meeting.
As we were walking through they actually had the racecourse in use for a sports day with all the governors sat watching and the tannoy announcing the next house events. I could not stop smiling as this was scarily reminiscent of home and yet we were in the middle of Sri Lanka.
The main difference between this scene and home was that a few rouge horses which had been running around the fields, were being chased away by dogs and some of the maintenance team. I’m not sure our school groundskeeper would have been quite so relaxed in this position!
Lake Gregory is slightly further away from town past the racecourse and has that air of British summer times past. There are more ponies around the lake and pedelo swans, as well as picnic spots and well maintained childrens play areas. The perfect place for a summer getaway and mainly utilised by the Sri Lankas, both local and tourists which is amazing to see.
The disadvantage with the lake is, like Victoria Park, you have to pay to walk around it. And yes there is no way around…. I hate breaking rules but we couldn’t see a way in and all around it is fenced off, even with barbed wire in some places. So, Becky and I tried to jump over for a closer look, before being chased away by a security guard – yes, they actually have guards patrolling the lake!
So I would be lying if I said we actually walked alongside the lake, we didn’t. Being cheap (and yes I’m aware it’s probably pennies) we walked along the road adjacent to it instead and got just as good a look at what was going on.
I’ve added this to my list of things to do in 48 hours but having said this, if there is one thing to cut out of the itinerary if you are worried about time, it would be this.
The gardens were unremarkable and although lovely to walk around and sit and read a book, Kandy botanical gardens are equally as good. Also, unfortunately as with the UK because Nuwara Eliya is higher, it has a more variable climate. This brings more distinct seasons and with it, good and bad times to see the gardens.
I was desperate to see the rose gardens but these, along with a lot of the other enticing subsections to the garden do not come into season until May. Therefore my advice would be to visit during Spring and see the gardens in full bloom and they will be beautiful, otherwise it is nice to kill some time but is also quite expensive to visit if none of the displays are actually in flower.
Nanu Oya is the closest station to Nuwara Eliya and the only way to travel from here and onwards to Ella is by train. It is a must. For more travel tips/ advice on this check out my ‘Essential Guide to Travelling Sri Lanka’.
The Travel Stuff
Nuwara Eliya has lots to offer and is completely unique compared to the rest of Sri Lanka, from the climate to the people. Over half it’s population are actually of Indian Tamil origin and this also has a notable impact on the community. There is not as much to offer in the way of Sinhalese cuisine (I was dismayed), instead lots of Indian restaurants and street food. Also, to me there seemed to be a more obvious class divide between the workers and the wealthy living in the larger, typically British houses.
As a result, we were warned by our host to be careful in the evenings as some of the locals have been known to drink and she had mentioned of one or two female tourists who had been walking around had been targeted. This is not something to put you off, it felt a completely safe place to walk around during the day but just to beware it does have a different atmosphere to the rest of Sri Lanka and as a female traveller who often goes solo travelling I would want to pass this advice on. As I said, there is not much in the way of eateries or anything that would particularly entice you out past dark so my advise would be to avoid it unless necessary or grab a tuk-tuk back from town after dinner.
The other thing to be aware of, as I’ve already mentioned is the higher tourist prices that we noticed here more than anywhere else. They maintain the city well and therefore the odd tourist fee is expected but the gardens and the reserve are fairly expensive. If you’re travelling on your own you might want to look into that before you go, or if I were travelling solo just go for the day, try and grab a taxi with some others for an early morning hike around the plains, view a tea factory and then catch the train onwards.
I hope you enjoy Nuwara Eliya and happy travels!
If you decide to follow this at all let me know how you get on. x
Ella is the most beautiful place. High in the hills, with breath-taking views it is understandably one of Sri Lanka’s most popular stop-offs.
Ella is one of those beautiful places where it feels time stands still. It has much more of a backpacker vibe than the rest of the centre; which means if you have time on your hands, it would be an amazing place to while away a few days relaxing here.
If I had the time I would grab a bike and head up to the surrounding hills and visit even more tea plantations (as you can never have too much tea). But having said this, I think two or three days is more than enough for what we wanted, so for those with a tighter time-scale, these are my top 5 things to do in Ella:
Catch the train
9 Arches Bridge
Eat at Raha cafe
Little Adam’s Peak
Catch the Train
Catch the train… Now this sounds like simple enough advise but if anyone thinks this is easily done, then check out my diary entry: ‘no room on the train’. Needless to say any journey that I am partaking is unlikely to go to plan. However, despite this, we had the most incredible journey.
The stretch of railway from Kandy to Ella is one of the most beautiful in the world; it is a must and therefore tops my list of things to do in Ella.
You can catch the train from Kandy itself or Nanu-Oya, the closest station to Nuwara Elyia. The length of the journey depends on which train you catch as there are slower, local trains that run the same route. More information on how to catch the train is in my ‘Essential Guide to Travelling Sri Lanka’.
Ella Rock is coming in at number 2. In a place of such natural beauty, hiking is one of the most popular things to do in the area, the two most popular being Ella Rock and Little Adams Peak.
Ella rock is a short walk from the town along the railway tracks. Lots of people climb Ella rock for sunrise but having done Adam’s Peak only shortly before we were happy to have an early morning walk instead. This insured beautiful views on the way up and down; still kept it relatively quiet from a tourist point of view and increased our chances of passing a train on the tracks – we saw two.
You can either set off from the train station itself or at the crossroads in the main village there is a steep path up a hill, to cut up to the railway tracks. If in doubt ask the hosts at your hostel/ guesthouse – you do not need a guide. Take a left turn once you reach the tracks and keep walking until you pass over a small, metal bridge. Soon afterwards you will pass a 166.5 marker and there will be a large granite rock on your left where you take a sharp left turn (I forgot we were looking for 166.5 and thought we were looking for 165.5 which added a bit extra onto our journey!).
If you follow these instructions you shouldn’t go wrong.. when we retraced our steps to see if there was anything to make it easier to follow there really isn’t, it is a large rock and the only one around. I don’t know how we missed it.
From here the instructions we followed told us to ‘follow your nose’ – it appears that Becky and I have a terrible sense of smell as we went wrong on numerous occasions but contrary to all the warnings we read online, any locals we met were all really helpful, correcting us and sending us on in the right direction.
If you do go wrong, it’s not far to retrace your steps and once you’ve found your way to the base of the climb even we couldn’t go wrong from there!
From the base it only took us about 30 minutes to get up (we are quick walkers) so although lots of people advise 4 hours in reality it only took us about 2.5 from the village and back.
It is a steep climb at the top so don’t forget trainers and some food for sustenance. We LOVE peanut brittle!
Also, be warned, Ella is not as hot as the coast but most of the hiking we had done so far had been very early morning. Even getting towards 11am was becoming too hot for me. I would not want to be walking up during the heat of the day between 12-2pm as I am terrible in heat! Early morning or late afternoon is best.
Once at the top you have a beautiful panorama of Ella itself and the surrounding hillside. There is an obvious viewpoint but my advice would be to turn right at the main clearing and carry on for a further 5 minutes or so through the trees, to get to a prettier spot with less tourists.
There is a small cave temple so you will know if you’re in the right place and the views are definitely worth that extra bit of hiking.
If you time your walk right, you might even be lucky enough to see a train passing.
9 Arches Bridge
Now surely this has to be the most photographed spot in all of Ella. Nine arches, also known as the ‘Bridge in the Sky’ in Sinhala, is situated at Gotuwala, between Ella and Demodara. The viaduct was built in 1940 whilst Ceylon was under the reign of the British Empire and is a fine example of engineering. The bridge itself is made of rocks, stones and cement and it was rumoured this was as a result of the war effort and the steel assigned for the bridge was instead used on war related projects.
The architecture is beautiful and again if you time it correctly you will be able to catch a train passing through the bridge. We went around 5pm and incidentally caught the 5.30pm train passing. This is a great time to visit as the heat of the day is over, there are a few less tourists than earlier and all being well, you are generally guaranteed a clearer background for photographs.
It’s easy to spend time playing around taking photos at the bridge and even though I am absolutely terrified of heights there is a slight thrill in standing atop the bridge.
The bridge is in the same direction as Little Adam’s Peak so after we had been here we did Little Adam’s Peak at sunset on our way back to the hostel. Again the bridge is easy enough to find and if you grab instructions from your guesthouse you can’t go wrong (except for we obviously did!).
For anyone that knows me it is unsurprising that a restaurant/ cafe has made it into my top 5 things to do in Ella. To me food is so important and Sri Lankan cuisine is now one of my favourites. I think it would hard to appreciate a place without embracing their culture and with that comes their food.
Ella has lots of eateries, its sad to say that over the last few years it has hugely developed with more guest houses on the way. This means lots of lovely places to eat but my favourites will always be the small, local options which more often than not also prove to be the cheapest (yay!).
Raha cafe was both of our favourites and I think we ate here a total of 4 times, which I know seems excessive and we should have tried somewhere new but when the food is that good, it’s impossible not to go back. In fact, I would be tempted to go back to Ella just to eat here again!
The menu had the basic roti, kottu roti and curries and they were all incredible. Just go! You’ll see what I mean.
Little Adam’s Peak
Last but by no means least is Little Adam’s Peak. This is another beautiful spot. An easier climb than Ella Rock and from the road only took us 20 minutes to climb up. Towards the top it does get a little steeper, but having done the real deal only a few days before Little Adam’s Peak seem like a walk in the park.
The views from Little Adam’s Peak and over Ella Gap to Ella Rock were stunning and I would definitely recommend a sunset climb.
It is quieter than during the day and Becky and I were probably the last two to come down and it’s easy enough to find your way in the dusk. We perhaps left it a little late as by the time we hit the road we were walking back in the dark but it’s simple enough to follow the road back to the town.
Sunset itself was cloudy but still worth seeing as you watch it setting over the rock to the west. As mentioned above, link this is with the 9 arches bridge as they’re in the same direction and you’ll have an amazing afternoon.
This is by no means an extensive list of what to do in Ella but what I would recommend as definitely worth doing. Other things if you are around for longer would include hiring a scooter to see the surrounding countryside; going up to Lipton’s seat and visiting Rawana Falls (although you can easily do this as you are leaving Ella and I’m not convinced would be a good use of a day).
As I mentioned, as Ella is so popular it has understandably been going through development recently and has much more of a backpacker vibe than most of the other places we visited in the centre. Lots more guest houses and infrastructure was being built whilst we were there. However, having said this although there are bars and live music it doesn’t appear to be a wild night out or huge for drinking. Peak time appears to be in the early evening and often when we were vacating around half 10 a lot of the restaurants/ bars were already clearing out. Obviously like us, getting ready for another early morning hike the following day!
Sri Lanka has been growing in popularity these recent years and it’s easy to see why…
This guide is going to cover the basics to travelling. The things you need to know/ wish you’d have known, to get from A to B.
I have been desperate to visit Sri Lanka since some of my friends worked there after we finished Uni in 2012 and with its increasing popularity in the last few years I was keen to go before it became too commercialised, like other areas of SE Asia.
With incredible history, beautiful scenery and stunning coastlines it’s easy to see why over three times more tourists visited Sri Lanka in 2016 compared to 2010 (statistical reports of Sri Lanka Tourism). These figures likely have a lot to do with the ending of the civil war in 2009 between the government and the Tamil Tigers, lasting 26 years.
Normally when travelling, I like to create the whole itinerary myself. However, we had so many good recommendations for Sri Lanka we based a lot of our route on tips from friends and with a bit of improvisation, I now think we have it pretty much sorted.
We travelled in January and February, apparently peak season which we hadn’t realised until we got there. At this time of year we were pretty much guaranteed sunshine in the centre and on the South coast, so based our trip around these areas. This worked perfectly, as they’re the best!
I travelled with one friend, Becky (aka. Machine Mason).
Having travelled some of SE Asia together before, albeit 5 years ago, we were pretty sure we could survive three weeks in each others company!
One thing we did notice travelling here compared to other areas of Asia, was the majority of other travellers were couples. There were a few groups and solo travellers here and there, as well as some other female duos but we felt exceptionally single! So lucky we had each other!
Because of this, I would say it is potentially harder to travel around Sri Lanka easily on you own compared to other places if you’re not a confident solo traveller; unless on the coast, where you will find more of a backpacker vibe.
Getting to and from a place is equally as important as travelling around it. You can get a Sri Lankan Visa (ETA) easily online. I only sorted mine the night before, it cost $25 USD and came through immediately. Then you just need to fill in an arrivals card when you get there.
The airport is fairly standard, it flies planes but don’t expect the full luxuries of an international airport.
Shopping is minimal and I had forgotten/ lost my memory card for my camera. I was hoping to pick one up on arrival and although there are multiple electrical shops which sell everything from washing machines to toasters, they sadly don’t stock anything as practical as an SD card. I managed to last my entire trip on only 16GB by constantly deleting photos – quite proud of this achievement!
The airports closest city is definitely Negombo and as an interesting town with Portuguese and Catholic influences, as well as a long stretch of beach, it is generally peoples first choice over Colombo.
Colombo itself is worth a visit but a day is enough. It is further to the airport but the buses are good, taxis fairly reasonably priced or if you want something a little cheaper than a taxi, grab a metred tuk-tuk. All of Colombo have these, don’t believe them if they say they can’t put it on a metre; just grab the next one passing.
If you want a tuk-tuk from the airport then you’d have to leave the airport enclosure and make your way towards the road to flag one down as they’re not allowed into the main pick-up/ drop-off area with all the cars.
When leaving, the airport has limited choices available for eating and drinking; all of which appear overpriced compared to Sri Lankan cuisine outside the airport. My advise would be to eat before you go or grab some roti to take through with you which is far tastier and means you don’t need to pay a fortune.
Bring any electricals you need and don’t expect to pick up anything on arrival.
Negombo is an easy place to stay when you arrive but still about a 20 minute drive away. It is smaller and more picturesque than Colombo.
If travelling round Colombo, be sure to use metred tuk-tuks to get the best price.
On departure, eat before arriving at the airport or grab food to take through with you as the airport meals are basic and dear.
We used various methods of transport on our trip. It was so easy and I could not praise their transport system more highly, it’s great! In fact, so good, the buses when direct don’t take that much longer than driving.
Also they drive on the left which keeps things simple for us Brits!
Our first week we had a lot of ground to cover in a short space of time, so following advice, we hired a driver. Including drivers accommodation you can expect to pay about 9000LKR / day and this couldn’t be easier. £20 each for us to be driven the distances we were, door to door; stopping wherever took our fancy, without the hassle of worrying about backpacks was an absolute bargain.
Just to put this in perspective, I missed my train from Leeds to Manchester Airport (as I was still packing!) and my replacement ticket cost me £30.
It’s easy to arrange; we sorted ours 9.30pm the night before and he met us at 8am. Actually 8am as well, Sri Lankans it turns out are very good at keeping time and unlike most of SE Asia which runs on what I call ‘Laos time’, aka. 3 hours late, they were on the dot for everything.
That, and our driver Palitha was absolutely amazing.
Every time he saw us he’d jump up and give a huge smile and double handed wave to welcome us. So attentive – almost too much, we tried to explore a little on our own but he didn’t want us walking anywhere!
The other advantages to a driver beside stopping at beautiful services like this…
..is if you’re anything like Becky it means you can sleep in comfort. Trust me, this girl can sleep anywhere!
Buses in Sri Lanka are great and doable if you have more time but if you want to see as much as possible, as quickly as possible, definitely get a driver around the centre.
Our driver left us in the beautiful Nuwara Elyia (pronounced as one word), where we explored the tea plantations. From here to Ella we caught the train.
I’m sure most people, like me, have the train at the top of their Sri Lanka to-do list. The stretch of train line from Kandy to Ella is one of the most beautiful in Sri Lanka and the World; travelling through tea plantations, forests and hill country. You can either jump on at Kandy and go the whole stretch or midway as we did, at Nanu Oya (the closest station to Nuwara Elyia).
Don’t feel that because you caught the train from Nanu Oya you’ve missed out on some of the scenery, in fact we drove to Nuwara Elyia and our approach via road, winding through tea estates was equally as breathtaking.
We even picked up a friendly police officer en-route!
The trains are fantastic and the majority whilst we were there, were on time. However, they can get full… very full!
We hadn’t booked and when we tried to book a few days before, all the seats were sold out. This is not uncommon, it turns out most trains are fully booked a month in advance. We actually bumped into a tour guide who revealed he booked almost double the number of seats required just for his group to travel with a little more space. Assuming these tourists book trips months- years in advance, it’s hardly surprising we couldn’t get a seat turning up at the counter 2 days before!
I was also unaware that you could book online (in truth, I didn’t bother checking!) but was told by a Dutch couple it is possible and ‘seat 61′ [https://www.seat61.com/SriLanka.htm] is a great website for doing this.
If you are lucky enough to book a seat, firstly, congratulations! Secondly, either 2nd or 3rd class would be my choice of travel. They’re fairly comfortable and although 1st class has the luxury of air-con, this means the windows don’t open and you can’t get that wind-in-your-hair train feeling or those all important travel shots for instagram!
Not that we managed to get any at all.. as we were packed like sardines for our journey.
At one stage the small area between the carriages about half a metre wide had 16 of us and a stack of precariously balance backpacks squashed together. This is no exaggeration, Becky even had to scratch an itch on her nose using my shoulder as couldn’t release her arms! An insta train photo for us was out of the question.. or at least a less orthodox one.
Our train was particularly busy as it was national independence day so everyone was travelling. We wanted to catch the first train to arrive in Ella by lunch, however, this was one of the older Sri Lankan trains with less carriages and they travel slower; so we stood, very squashed, for 5 hours. The advantage to this, is we got more stops to enjoy the journey to the full extent and with the national holiday locals in the next carriage were singing and playing music.
If you don’t have a seat and are worried about this, check seat 61 as it tends to say which train is at what time and some of the later trains are the modern blue ones imported from China. These trains are faster, about 2 hours for our stretch of the journey and they have more carriages, which means more space if you are standing.
The other option, if boarding at Nanu Oya and you want to have a higher chance of getting an unreserved seat, jump on at the station before as it will be quieter. We did read about this and considered it but thought we would be OK being early. Turns out you have to be early, some people arriving ‘on time’ couldn’t even get standing room on the train. If you do try this, let me know how you get on!
Of course it’s not always as busy as when we travelled and I for one loved our experience and am glad it panned out as it did. I am also beyond impressed at myself, and those that know me will appreciate this, but I made it nearly 6 hours without going to the toilet! That has to be a new PB.
Just to prove it is possible to actually get a seat we also caught the train from Galle up to the capital at Colombo Fort. As this is a slightly quieter line and with more locals, we managed to buy our ticket on the morning and reserve a second class seat.
The main advantage of a seat is you can actually enjoy the view instead of worrying about being pressed up against a stranger for hours. Although the seat was wasted on Becky, who as usual promptly fell asleep and missed all the views.
The views for this stretch of railway were fantastic and having basically missed the panorama on one of the most beautiful stretches in the World, this was some consolation. Beaches and palm trees instead of tea plantations but equally stunning and at about £1 a ticket you can’t go wrong with the railways.
From Ella onward we took one taxi but otherwise used buses all the way to Galle. The buses were so easy, you literally just hop on and off anywhere. The technique is they slow a little, you shout at the conductor where you’re going and if they are too, the bus slams on its breaks. They only stop just long enough for you to clamber up the steps and find some seated/ standing room for the journey.
Going from bus stations is so simple and we generally found it easier on these occasions to get a seat but people are always on and off so it’s less of an issue than on the trains.
The buses go pretty quickly and the blue/ white ones even play out music TV, generally Bhangra style and good fun.
The distances between the coastal towns are minimal and with the cost of the buses being so cheap (only 70LKR from Mirissa to Unawatuna) this is definitely preferable to drivers/ taxis, unless of course money is no object in which case you should get the bus anyway just for the fun of it!
The faithful tuk-tuk. How they make me smile!
I even saw an ice-cream tuk-tuk for the first time and thought they were the most amazing things ever!
The key with tuk-tuks is always haggle and like I said previously, if in Colombo, go on the metre.
The final mode of transport we considered were mopeds. We had the idea last minute to hire bikes to get from Unawatuna to Galle but the morning we wanted to go they were all in use! We’ve been caught out before in Sri Lanka by everyone else’s organisational skills, so if you want a bike, you’re best booking it at least the day before
If travelling to lots of places in a small amount of time definitely get a driver.
Book a seat on the train in advance, 2nd class gets you an open window.
If you haven’t booked and fancy a seat travelling from Nanu Oya to Ella try turning up the station before.
You can’t beat buses as a mode of transport along the coast.
If you want to hire a bike, don’t forget your drivers licence and don’t leave it until the day you want it. Book a bike at least a day or two in advance to make sure you get one.
What you Need
So, what to pack?
Di 5 minutes before leaving…
Becky 5 minutes before leaving…
Sri Lanka had a warm climate and minimal rain whilst we were there and I took what I would consider standard things for travelling SE Asia, some I needed, some I didn’t.
On top of the obvious packing list these were essential/ would have been useful:
We didn’t buy/ take any adaptors for non-UK sockets as believed Sri Lanka to use both UK and 3 circular pin plugs. It’s true they use UK plugs in a lot of places but not all of them. We ended up relying on portable battery chargers in between places with UK sockets, so it would have been good to have at least one 3 circular pin adaptor.
Sri Lanka is a Buddhist country and like most others expect you to cover up when in temples. I never went anywhere without my shawl to cover up shoulders or maxi skirt to slip on over a pair of shorts, you never know when you might need it – essential!
Leggings and Hoodie
Believe it or not I was actually cold some days and not just from air-con! Hill country is a lot colder and although Ella you can just about get by with shorts and t shirts, Nuwara Elyia is much cooler. I ended up wearing a jumper during the days, hoodie in the evening and even needed to sleep in my leggings!
Layers are also useful for some of the early morning hikes in hill country such as Hortons Plains and Adams Peak, if you’re waiting for sunrise on top of the mountain it gets cold.
Immodium/ Dioratlye/ Senna
I won’t say which of our party (or both) needed to resort to the medicine bag at some point but I am ashamed to say I have never not needed one, or all of the above at some stage whilst travelling (except perhaps Australia) . I’ll leave you to come up with the details but don’t forget them! They save your life if you have a long days travelling ahead on public transport.
Sri Lanka is amazing for hiking but all of the terrain in manageable in trainers. I wore my trekking shoes (which are hideous but functional) but Becky wore trainers which were absolutely fine for all of our hikes, including Adam’s Peak.
Non-essential items, aka. I over-packed but don’t want to admit it:
I take this everywhere but sadly did not need it. Unlike previous travelling there were no long overnight buses to get place to place and no extreme camping that required a pillow.
Again no camping but I thought we would need it for Adams Peak ascent. This was not the case, candles and lit all the way.
I hope this is useful to get your trip planned, it is the most incredible country so enjoy every minute.
Have a look at my ‘top tips’ for Sri Lanka for ideas to plan your route in more detail! It combines our favourite things and our recommendations having made a few mistakes along the way. If you’re going on a 10 day or two week trip I have some suggested itineraries so take a look and let me know what you think if you decide to follow them.
If you want to know the basics for travelling/ getting around Sri Lanka then check out my ‘Essential Guide to Travelling Sri Lanka’. However, if you want to know the good stuff… then these are my top travel tips. Enjoy!
Don’t miss out Sigiriya, Lion Rock is definitely worth the trip.
When staying in Sigiriya, try Wijesiri for dinner. It is a family run restaurant and the food is delicious, a great introduction if this is one of your first stops. When we were here we weren’t allowed to drink as it was a public holiday so instead had a rather unusual cup of tea!
Grab a bike and cycle around Polonnaruwa as it’s the best way to see it and we ended up covering over 10km. (Yes, I logged it into Strava!)
If you’re visiting Polonnaruwa wear covered clothes for ease, even with a maxi and shawl we were taking them on and off every 5 minutes to go into the relics.
In Kandy, for a ridiculously cheap but incredible meal try the Garden Cafe by the lake, it’s on the opposite side to the Temple of the Tooth.
If you’re visiting the Temple of the Tooth, avoid going at 9am as this is when everybody goes. Either go earlier, or later, but 9am not only clashes with all the tourists but also all the locals giving their offerings at the start of the day.
A day is enough to see Kandy. If you’re staying longer then don’t miss the botanical gardens and get lost in wonderland when you try tea at Helga’s Folly, a quirky boutique hotel.
Visit Millennium Elephant Foundation, it’s amazing and about an hour from Kandy. Try walking with elephants instead of riding them. It involves a thirty minute walk around the forestry with the ellies and an opportunity to bathe and feed them. This foundation houses ex-working elephants and encourages tourists to engage in this instead of the bareback rides they also offer, in the hope to stop the exploitation of these beautiful animals.
If you do visit the Millennium Elephant Foundation go early, we arrived around 10am and it was getting busier as we left around lunchtime
Don’t forget to check out the Elephant Dung Factory next door, a great project! (We were told these Elephants can produce around 60kg of dung a day – which is impressive in itself! 10kg of dung can produce 10000 sheets of paper which if my maths is correct means 1 elephant can produce 60000 eco-friendly sheets of paper per day!!! WOW)
DO NOT MISS ADAM’S PEAK – if you like hiking that is. This was our trips highlight and I cannot recommend it enough.
Adam’s Peak is an incredible experience. Set off at 2am and you’ll have bags of time for sunrise. The best thing about sunrise was seeing the view for the first time on decent, absolutely breathtaking.
At the top of Adam’s Peak don’t forget to ring the bell. One ring = one ascent. I could go on, so if you’re going to do it have a look at my post on ‘Climbing Adam’s Peak’.
Visit Nuwara Elyiafor the tea factories, plantations and Horton Plains. You only need a short stay here but have a look at my guide for an idea of an itinerary.
Arrive early, 6am to Horton Plains to avoid queues and to avoid the ‘white wall’
Catch the train from Kandy or Nanu Oya to Ella.
As mentioned in my ‘Essential Guide to Travelling Sri Lanka’, book a seat if you want to sit down.
In Ella make sure you do my top 5!
Don’t miss out on a safari.
We chose Yala as it is one of the best and there is a higher chance of seeing leopards (we were lucky enough to see one, although too far away for a photo).
People say it isn’t as good if you’ve been on safari in Africa but I would disagree, as it is a totally different experience. It’s true, it can’t compare to the open plains of the Maasai Mara but it is still incredible. The wildlife is native to Asia and I even saw a hornbill which I spent my entire trip around Borneo looking for, but was unable to find, so I was buzzing!
Tangalle, on the coast, is beautiful. It’s slightly less touristic than others and an absolute paradise.
If you are visiting then try and get to a secluded place called Think Club in Goyambokka for sunset. We caught it just as dusk was passing and it would have been sensational. I’m not even sure how we came to find it we just jumped in a tuk-tuk who took us there and it was completely deserted. Be warned it is pricey but would be worth it for a romantic meal; or if like us you’re travelling on a bit more of a budget, you can have a few beers and head back towards Medaketiya beach for dinner.
Go blue whale and dolphin spotting in Mirissa.
Visit ‘secret beach’. To find it, walk through Mirissa harbour (you need to pay a small fee for this) and up the hill. You should pass a resort and keep going until you see signs for a ‘secret beach’ (obviously not so secret!) but definitely worth visiting. It’s a small beach nestled in behind the rocks and far nicer than Mirissa beach itself.
On our way we even stopped for a spot of cricket. England vs. Sri Lanka.
Visit Unawatuna for the beautiful beaches and take a cooking course at Happy Spice.
Take a day trip to Galle from Unawatuna by bus, tuk-tuk or moped. It gets very hot so avoid the midday sun.
Visit Dalawella beach and see what paradise looks like.
If you want Sapphires (this was believe it or not the only part of my entire trip that I looked at in advance – this will not surprise my friends in the slightest) then go to a reputable seller. Ensure you get a certificate and have it validated, there are lots of blogs on this so have a look. After reading a few I went to Salie’s in Colombo which was amazing and I would definitely recommend them. Sri Lankan sapphires are world famous and they were stunning! My new favourite is the peach sapphire, WOW!
Most importantly, eat as much food and drink as much tea as possible!
These tips are a combination of recommendations, what we loved and what we learnt the hard way. Sri Lanka is the most incredible country so enjoy it!