After a long relationship with blogger I have launched a new website, streamlined two blogs into one and will now share photos, stories and inspiration for an authentic free-range life from this platform.
We hadn't planned to visit the national parks of the south as the cost for us on our own was prohibitive, however the opportunity came up to share with two Frenchies staying at the same guesthouse in Ella. We could leave from the door in an air-conditioned car, travel slowly, slowly down the treacherous mountain road (as opposed to the death wobble in a public bus), and share the cost of the compulsory jeep into the park. We chose the Udawalawe park over the more visited Yala Park to the east.
As with the other major attractions in Sri Lanka, the foreigners price is far greater than the local rate - more than 30 times more - which is a bit hard to swallow. Where these "generous donations" go I am not sure, but it is not toward services such as toilets, information signs, or brochures.
Still, how often does one get to see an elephant's butt up close? I admit that I was as excited as a child at my first close encounter in the wild. Lots of inner squealing and bouncing on my bucket seat. Elephant sounds even more delightful in French, so we adopted our travel buddie's' language for the animals we saw on our two hour cruise through the savannah. I am certain the word for peacock will come in very handy when I go to Paris. Un latte et un paon s'il vous plait.
Lonely Planet describes Ella as "everyone's favourite hill-country village." This is both enticing and detracting, for the LP has a way of letting little secrets slip and a mudslide of backpacks soon follows. For now Ella is just clinging to its charm, but go now, for the concrete tumours of unregulated development are spreading at an alarming rate. Almost all of the guesthouses, hotels and cafes have been built in the last five years, since the end of the civil war reopened the country to independent travel. The train journey through the hills is Sri Lanka's most scenic, and the tiny station at Ella came into focus as travellers stopped off for a few hours in the cool air before catching the return train to more developed centres such as Nuwara Eliya or Kandy. Some decided to stay over, and a thriving travellers town, reminiscent of the lowlands of the Himalaya, has sprouted forth. The first sign that this is something different from a provincial Sri Lanka village is our first sighting of a laundry service, and cafes offering espresso, burgers and pizza beside cheap curry and roti.
We stayed in a fantastic guesthouse with ringside views of Ella Peak, Little Adam's Peak and the hairpin bends descending to the coast. Watching the buses and trucks negotiate the turns below while drinking local pekoe leaf tea was captivating entertainment. Ella is walking country and we made the most of the cool, fresh air to test our flat-country legs; between plucked tea hedges, through eucalyptus forests reminiscent of home, down rainforest tracks hungry with leeches, and along the railway line with staccato steps. Anywhere but the road, for even here the buses and trucks thunder past belching black smoke and stressing the eardrums.
I must admit my tea snobbery here and say that Lipton teabags provide the most pathetic dirty dish water brew on the market. Having seen that they literally shovel the dust off the floor for teabags I am not surprised. Why taint perfectly good water with such substandard tannins, when hand picked orange pekoe leaves are available? Plus with leaf tea you have the joy of pouring from a pot and extending the fine hour of little finger raising. You can't tell me Sir Lipton resorted to jiggling dust from a string.
To really get amongst the camellia bushes we hired a scooter for the morning and rode the steep and curly back roads to the lookout at Lipton's seat. Plantations flank the roadsides and are interspersed with eucalyptus, introduced by early British planters who had links with Australia. The predominantly Tamil tea-pluckers live in small communities clumped around each tea processing factory, and they commute on foot to work each day for a minimal wage. The less photogenic nylon sack is now more common than the romantic image of a rattan basket slung off the forehead.
The air was brisk at the summit, and a hot brew with fresh vegetable samosas taken in the morning sunshine was just what Lipton would have wanted; although he would have probably expected scones and jam.
We joined a short informative tour of the Dambatenne tea factory, built in 1890 by Tommy Lipton and one of the largest producers of black tea in Sri Lanka. The processed tea is transported to Colombo and sold at a weekly auction to buyers representing tea retailers around the world. Your next cup of Dilmah may have been rolled, dried and shovelled in this very factory.
We had underestimated the petrol guzzled by our scooter to climb the hill and conked out near the factory. The closest fuel station was miles away, so we convinced a tuk-tuk driver to syphon half a litre from his tank to send us on our way. A tea powered motorbike is what the planet needs.
The various religions of the world can't seem to agree on exactly who stamped their footprint on the summit of Sri Pada, but Adam seems to be winning the naming game. Pilgrims of Hindu, Islamic, Buddhist and backpacking traditions flock to the summit for sunrise, a steady three-to-four hour climb illuminated with street lamps during the drier months. Many locals sleep rough in concrete shelters on the way up, while the tourists leave their guesthouses around 2 am to join the parade. Barely twenty metres goes by without a crude tea and snack aid station, and a rest half way for sweet tea and fresh roti bread is an essential element of the journey. Despite being a UNESCO site, the waste management practices are appalling, and the stench of raw sewerage and the cascade of rubbish beside the path raises the question of who is responsible for maintaining and preserving the holy mountain.
Close to the summit the pace slows, as a human traffic jam ascends the final steps to the paved lookout and ugly silver painted concrete temple housing the holy "footprint". Huddled against the dawn cold, hundreds of cameras and iPhones snap the first rays of the sun, then the crowd rushes to the west to witness the shadow of the peak cast on the surrounding landscape. The descent is fast and punishing on the legs, and three days later our muscles were still moaning.
How wrong we were to think we would avoid the crowds with a 6am visit to the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic. Granted, we were the first foreign tourists for the day, however hundreds of Sunday morning pilgrims filed in for the dawn ritual. The procession is marched barefoot into the main shrine and shuffled forward by security, past the chamber that holds the gilded casket and alleged tooth relic of Buddha. Tom had his floss ready, hoping to give it a bit of a spruce up, but we barely glimpsed a look before being pushed along in the crush. Certainly not enough time to become enlightened.
The ancient cave monastery complex of The Golden Temple of Dambulla was our next UNESCO World Heritage monument, and a quieter reflection of Buddhist murals and statuary.
We are on the road for a month in Sri Lanka. I have been uploading photos from the iPhone to my Instagram feed (sallymaymills), but have also been lugging my steel mammoth SLR for the joy of a real shutter click. I won't mumble on with a travelogue of our first two weeks, suffice to say the photos can tell the story. A story of trains, tea, curry, tuk-tuks and buddhas.
If you've ever had the dream of renovating an old Queenslander in a small hinterland town, with the bush in your backyard, chooks and three kids running free, then you are envisaging the life of the husband and wife team behind children's wear label Udder. Throw in a busy schedule that boggles my mind, boundless creativity, a honed eye for style, and a wicked sense of humour, and you're getting to know Fliss and Hal.
We shared a beautiful lunch on their deck while on the Sunshine Coast, drank too much coffee, and sadly had to leave too soon. I wish they lived around the corner.
Check out their range online here. Coming soon is their winter collection, shot by yours truly in a secret location in Noosa.