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…..



Sunday, 25 January 2015

The Horton Plains, Nuwara Eliya and a Cup of Tea: Part 8 of Sri Lanka, Isle of Serendip

Anywhere else in Sri Lanka the cool of the morning is the best part of the day. The air feels fresh and clean, it touches the skin with gentle warmth that may hint at the fire to come, but for that moment holds all the promise of a day new born. It is different at Nurwara Eliya. We stood outside the Hill Club in the pre-dawn darkness, clutching our packed breakfasts and huddling inside the warm clothing we had put away when we got on the plane at Heathrow.

We were not alone. A car came and took the other couple away and a few minutes later a minibus arrived. The driver got out, looked around nervously and saw no one else but us. A few minutes later he was driving us through the still dark streets of Nuwara Eliya and then out of town southwards towards the Horton Plains.

Dawn broke and away to our right we could see the conical summit of Adam's Peak. Lynne suggested we stop and take a picture. I thought it was too far away and anyway we would surely get a better view in the next few days. We took no picture and never saw it again. Adam’s Peak at 2,243m (8,281ft) is only the fourth highest mountain in Sri Lanka, but it is easily the most photogenic. The highest peak Pidurutalagala is an undistinguished lump outside Nuwara Eliya which is close to 2,000m itself.

By six thirty we had reached the park entrance and were queuing up to buy tickets. It was now fully light, but still far from warm. After a couple of days without £16 each entrance fees they were back - and with van hire on top it was not a cheap morning out.

Queueing for tickets, Horton Plains National Park

Equipped with a ticket, we drove to the visitor centre and parked. A large Sambar stag hung around the car park, apparently used to humans and relaxed in their company - I presume someone was feeding him.

Sambar stag, Horton Plains National Park
The driver ushered us out of the van. His English was limited and we had not been able to converse, but he had a little speech ready for this situation. 'Easy walk, good path, can't get lost,' he said pointing towards a hut beyond the car park.

We joined a small queue of westerners to have our tickets checked and our time of entry noted - I suppose they did not want to lose anybody.

The Horton Plains have been a National Park since 1988 but were discovered in 1834 by Lts William Fisher and Albert Watson who named it after Sir Robert Wilmot-Horton the Governor of Ceylon. Creeps. Of course they did not really discover the Horton Plains, the locals had known the area for millennia, mining it for gems and iron ore and calling it Maha Eliya Thenna (Great Open Plain). They were not just creeps, they were arrogant creeps. They discovered the Horton Plains like Columbus discovered America - but at least they knew where they were and, unlike Columbus they did not unwittingly presage a semi-intentional genocide of the indigenous inhabitants; the Sinhalese prospered before the British came and are prospering now. But the Sinhalese did not discover the Horton Plains either. The stone tools of the Balangoda people have been found here and they were probably the forebears of the Vedda, the indigenous people of Sri Lanka, of whom some 2,500 survive. They were supplanted (i.e. all but wiped out) when the Sinhalese arrived in 500BC.  I do not mention this to excuse Fisher and Watson in particular or British Imperialism in general, but merely to point out that cultural exceptionalism is almost a default position for the human race.

We crossed a stream that was stocked with rainbow trout by the British planters, civil servants and Amy officers who could not do without their angling. Nobody fishes for them now and the intrusive trout are taking their toll on the local ecosystem.
 
The Red Bridge over a trout stream Horton Plains National Park

The path was indeed clear and we soon reached a parting of the ways marked by a boulder painted with arrows and distances.  If we turned left we went to Little World's End, Great World End and the Baker Falls, if we went right we visited the same places in reverse order. Lynne’s reading of our itinerary had led her to expect a 4km walk, but the circuit was clearly 9km. She was not a happy bunny. 'Little World's End is only 2km,' I suggested meekly (and a touch disingenuously).'We could just walk there and back.'

The Horton Plains are not quite as flat as the name suggests (though flatter than the Plain of Jars in Laos) but the path was obvious and there were no serious gradients. It was eerily quiet in the morning chill, even the birds had fallen silent.

Across the misty plains, Horton Plains National Park
After a while the open plain gave way to forest. This is cloud forest, characterized by an abundance of mosses. Clouds drift in from the Indian Ocean and the first land they hit is the Horton Plains where they became stuck and give up their moisture to the vegetation.

Into the cloud forest, Horton Plains National Park
The Horton Plains are big, and although there had been many cars in the car park the crowds were easy to lose and we seemed to have the park to ourselves. That impression was shattered when we reached Little World's End where everybody pauses, so there is always a small crowd.
 
At Little World's End and not stepping backwards
Horton Plains National Park

At the edge of the plateau the land drops away into a valley far below, and then, from the valley’s mouth, right down to the coastal plain. It was too hazy to see the sea 50km away, it is rarely otherwise, but we could make out a lake on the plain some 2000m below.

Looking down from Little World's End, Horton Plains National Park
From Little World's End it is only another kilometre to Greater World's End. I was expecting a discussion (which sounds better than ‘argument’) but after we had peered into Little World's End and taken our photographs, Lynne set off for Great World's End without any prompting.

It was a similar walk, stretches of open plain alternating with cloud forest. The route mainly dropped gently and we sometimes had to clamber down over boulders making the path impassable for wheeled vehicles.

On to Great World's End, Horton Plains National Park
(occasionally the path rose gently!)
It did not take long to reach Great World's End, which looks very similar and a little bigger than its smaller cousin. [Ten days after we returned home a Dutch tourist - a man on his honeymoon - stepped backwards off the deck while taking photographs. He was stopped by a tree fifty metres below, but rescue equipment had to be brought on foot so over three hours passed before he could be restored to level ground, shaken but not too badly hurt. News reports claimed he was the first person ever to survive a fall from World’s End, which might be true but although the descent into the valley looked precipitous it was not, literally, a precipice and any faller would have a good chance of coming to rest at some point from which rescue could be effected. That is my theory - I would not wish to put it to the test.]

The view from Great World's End, Horton Plains National Park
From here it was almost as easy to go on as to go back. The next part of the walk took us across more open plain. It was much warmer now and birds flew above and around us. I wished, not for the first time, that I could name some of the more exotic. We had seen information boards (I felt sorry for the ‘dull blue flycatcher’ which is actually quite pretty) but that did not help with the birds that resembled martins or the ones with red throats and shiny dark blue wings. Above us we heard, but did not see, something that sounded like a skylark, while above that birds of prey wheeled threateningly.

We had lost height walking to the World’s Ends, and the path dropped further across the plain. I was a little concerned that we would finish with a big climb and I would have to listen to Lynne blaming me for it, as she did in Vietnam.

Across the Horton Plains
Eventually we reached the bottom of a wooded hill. The path split, one fork rising steeply up a path of baked and beaten mud veined with tree roots, the other winding round the base of the hill. Unsure which way to go, we tried the flat path which ran for fifty metres before suddenly terminating in a modern toilet block. It looked weirdly out of place hidden in the jungle, but we used it and returned to the split. Here we met the first people going the other way and after comparing times realised we were well over half way round. We cheerfully set off up the hill.
A steep path of beaten mud veined with tree roots, Horton Plains National Park
The Baker Falls were somewhat to our left, but we were not sure which of several paths leading down to the river would give the best view. We reached the top with remarkably little complaining from Lynne and here a short, steep descent was signposted to the falls. Lynne was flagging so I slithered down to take photographs for both of us. More than once I have been disappointed visiting waterfalls in the dry season, but the Baker Falls, while hardly being one of the world's biggest waterfall, did have plenty of water.

The Baker Falls, Horton Plains National Park
From the top of the falls it was a pleasant walk along almost level ground back to our starting point. Lynne had completed the whole circuit with minimum moaning and felt well pleased with herself.

Walking back from the top of the Baker Falls, Horton Plains National Park
The driver took us back to the Hill Club where Ravi was waiting, and he had to wait a little longer as we needed to shower after our exertions. The plan had been to visit a tea factory, but the writer of the itinerary had forgotten it was Sunday, and the factories were closed. Ravi took us for a drive round Nuwara Eliya to see some of the buildings that earned it the name ‘Little London’. They were not really very British, but they were more British than Sri Lankan. After finishing our walk in sunshine, Nuwara Eliya was cold and drizzly so we had no inclination to get out of the car and walk.

British style house, Nuwara Eliya

We lunched in a lakeside café. There was a mixed clientele of locals and tourists and an open kitchen so we could watch our food being prepared. Lynne enjoyed her sea food rice, but my devilled beef was tough – what did I expect, Sri Lankan beef always is. A large multi-generational group of Chinese tourist sat at a long table passing round plastic bags containing condiments, sauces, even side dishes, as they attempted to Sini-fy the Sri Lankan food.
 
We gave Ravi the afternoon off and he dropped us back at the Hill Club. When the drizzle ceased we set out on foot to explore the town. Officially Nuwara Eliya has 40,000 residents, though it feels like a big village. Half the inhabitants are Sinhalese, the other half divided almost equally between Sri Lankan Tamils - descendants of Tamil influx in the 2nd century BC - and Plantation Tamils imported from India by the British to work the tea plantations. Plantation Tamils have a reputation as market gardeners and across the road from the club a man was watering his small field/large garden, of healthy looking vegetables.

The Hill Club, Nawara Eliya
‘Little London’ or not, the town centre is standard Sri Lankan, in looks if not in weather.

Nuwara Eliya
At its heart is a busy, occasionally chaotic market.

Market, Nuwara Eliya
The lurid contents of the cake shop were particularly popular.



Outside the market I liked this line of stone elephants supporting a sort of patio.

 
Elephants holding up a patio/balcony, Nuwara Eliya
In the evening I donned the Hill Club’s jacket and tie for another of their five course table d'hôte dinners; prawn vol-au-vent, bouillabaisse, roast strip loin of beef and ice cream in puff pastry. ‘Strip loin’ was unfamiliar but is apparently an American steak cut, though this example would have benefitted from long, slow cooking. Roasted it was tougher than Jean-Claude Van Damme – we should have had the chicken!


26/01
In the morning we checked out, paid a large bill for our memorable dining experiences and, as it was now Monday, took the short but belated trip to the Pedro Tea Estate.

What the well dressed tea watcher is wearing this year
Pedro Estate, Nuwara Eliya
Properly togged up, along with several others, we entered the wilting sheds where the newly picked tea is spread out and gentle heat is applied for several hours.

Wilting room, Pedro Tea Estate, Nuwara Eliya
We moved through to the main factory where photography is strictly forbidden and watched a variety of machines, cut, roll and grade the tea.  They were fascinating to watch though it was not always quite clear what they were doing or how they were doing it. The guide proudly told us the tea goes from bush to the wholesale market in Colombo in under 24 hours, but for the workers the hot, dusty conditions were distinctly unpleasant.

We were allowed to photograph the tray of grades of tea from ‘orange pekoe’ - just the bud at the top of the plant - through ‘broken orange pekoe’ and ‘bud and two leaves’ down to ‘fannings’ (also called dust). I had thought ‘English breakfast tea’ was a brand name, but it is actually one of the lower grades of tea.
 
Graded teas, Pedro Tea Estate, Nuwara Eilya
English Breakfast Tea is second from the left bottom row
We left the factory for the tasting room, where they brewed us a cuppa – none of that messing about with ceremony you get in China. Much of the tea drunk in England is Sri Lankan so it was familiar stuff. Oddly, although the country changed its name to Sri Lanka in 1972, the tea is still sold as Ceylon Tea.

A cup of Tea, Pedro Tea Estate, Nuwara Eliya
We took a walk through the bushes so I could give my expert opinion on the state of the harvest (it looked good) and then set off down towards Ella, still in the highlands but a bit lower and, hopefully, a bit warmer than Nuwara Eliya.

Checking the vintage, Pedro Tea Estate, Nuwara Eliya
Sri Lanka, The Isle of Serendip
 


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