Originally posted on April 9, 2020 @ 10:07 am
This is part two of my one-week backpacking trip to visit some old friends and also exciting sights. Around the Sinhalese-Tamil New Year, I hope that the audience learns something about the Hill region and specifically this season there. You can read part one here.
The part up to Ella, ending on the 14th of April, was described in the other travelogue. Hence April 15th I walked to Ella station for my train ride to Nanu Oya; with a pre-booked seat through my travel agent. Ella station has excellent signs on the platform indicating which carriage of the Blue Train halts where hence finding my SCR (Second Class Reserved) Carriage was a breeze. And this, plus all unreservable carriages, were quite packed; therefore, the reservation paid off.
Later in the morning, the train rolled in Nanu Oya station. Where, three-times-is-a-charm, unlike the meetings elsewhere earlier this week, the local friend Mr. S waited patiently, and we could spend the time that we planned together. Almost a full day in his case. Guessing what we already had seen around Eliya, he introduced me to two lesser-known sites. The first one is Seetha Amman temple, which is on the A5 road from Eliya to the south. Though near Lake Gregory, we had more massive traffic than usual, I did not notice anything extreme. That evening and the next morning proved me totally wrong there. The temple is a kovil with beautiful architecture, and of importance for Hindus due to its place in the Ramayana stories; many Sinhalese Buddhist devotees were also seen. From a tourist perspective, the large troupe of monkeys might be most interesting.
Afterward, we visited the family of his nearby. We picked up a few young family members that also wanted to spend some touring time. And together we visited the Kande Ela reservoir in the same area. The lake is as big as Lake Gregory, and I saw some rowing boats on it, but I was most impressed by the pine forest. It really felt and looked the Mediterranean, and walking there was total without the a-bit-icy winds which were present on the Eliya plains and the lake area. As a consequence, it felt very Mediterranean in climate too, with the sun heating it to above 25’ despite the high (and usually cold) altitude. We visited a small forest vihara with friends of my friends living there. Still, for the general audience attending the area for a forest walk and/or lake, boating is really one of the mountains’ hidden gems!
After tea time, clouds started to roll in, so we decided to drop the youngsters back to their place and then drive to Eliya town. On the way back, I treated my friend and myself to one of Eliya’s delights: locally grown strawberries at Adma Agro, a farm-annex-café on the main road. Quality was good (though for the ice creams not at Jaffna level), with prices as expected very high for Lankan standards; one really does this ‘for the un-tropical experience’ and not as a routine roadside stop. [Photo4]
Luckily my travel agent has a year-round fixed price for Galway Heights hotel and booked it 6 months ahead; for people booking closer to April and/or through other channels, the price around Avurudu can be up to triple the average level! For the around USD 80 price I paid, it was great; colonial charm in a refurbished old building, grand fireplace, live music, and nice buffet dinner and breakfast. On the way to the hotel, we passed Lake Gregory again, and I closed the car window quickly as some live concerts were going on to the west of the lake with quite loud music. The heavy rains that soon started did not deter the artists and audience; the platforms were covered, and the audience grabbed their raincoats and umbrellas. Luckily Galway lay on the other side of the pine-filled hill (and excellent small nature reserve) and was spared most of this sleep-disturbing noise. I only heard short waves of the sound being blown by the wind over the hill all evening.
My friend had offered to pick me up at Galway again and bring to Nanu Oya station, but to my surprise, the weather had flipped 180’ back for the second time in 12 hours. And with a ray of brilliant, blazing sunshine going on foot, with my trolley rolling or carried, in Eliya was not a bad idea. From Galway Heights to Lake Gregory was about 15 minutes, and there I turned right towards the town center to gaze at the happenings (and maybe visit a shop). What were usually lush meadows and racecourse grounds west of the lake were totally crammed with not only the performance platforms but also lots of cars, food stalls, lottery sellers, kids luna park gear, and all that one can see on a busy day in Colombo Galle Face Green. And would not expect in relaxed Eliya 😉 But during these annual Avurudu festival days, almost half of the Colombo population seems to move to the cool Eliya hills, and bring the Colombo noise with them.
Also, all roads between Lake Gregory and half a mile west of the Golf Course were mayhem. Filled with food stalls and other booths, slowly walking families and the odd car/truck that tried to sneak through the chaos but crawled at snail’s speed. But the atmosphere was relaxed and festive, people clearly felt happy to be able to participate. So I walked along the lake and Victoria Park and found purchase for my needs in a small booth and in the Winter market near the Post Office. But I had to drop my plan to have Mr. S pick me up there, due to the traffic jam. So, in the end, with all luggage and shopping bags, I walked back to the junction near the Race Course and Lake Gregory, the first place where cars could safely come. And from there got transferred, just in time, to Nanu Oya station.
Hill train towards Colombo
Again the train seat was prebooked 2nd class, and yet that was quite helpful to avoid standing. I shared the space with a friendly local family for most of the ride, and was even offered some snacks and drinks by them; the open windows allowed for good pictures without having to walk to the doorways. My first point of interest was the Kotmale-St Clair’s area, as the new reservoir, there was supposed to harm the touristy character of the waterfall. The reservoir is a beautiful scenic addition, and well visible from the train. St Clair’s Falls still had a good water volume, probably due to the compromise that 8 hours per day the main water flow is diverted to its old route instead of filling the reservoir and bypassing the Falls. If it stays this way, both touristy and local economic needs might be balanced well.
The second point of interest was the beautiful part between Peradeniya and Rambukkana; the railway here lies more than 100 m above the (also scenic) Kadugannawa road pass. The weather had become cloudy but still offered some views in the distance to Bible Rock.
However, it was disappointing, from the tourist point of view, that the local jungle had grown much higher than 10-15 years back and blocked a lot of the vistas downhill. Hence since this trip, my top rankings for scenic train rides have changed. It used to be 1) Ohiya-Ella-Badulla 2) Rambukkana-Peradeniya and 3) Kandy-Nawalapitiya-Hatton-Nanu Oya. But now it’s more than 2) and 3) have a shared second place, especially Nawalapitiya. In essence, NO has some segments with unobstructed mountain views, which are now better than Kadugannawa.
As planned, I left the train at Rambukkana; after that point, the scenery is dull. Our driver was waiting there for me and brought me to the Colombo house in order to start the Jaffna trip (see another travelogue) the next day.
I hope that from this story, you learn something about Avurudu and how it impacts Lankan society and hill tourism. Plus in between also about the scenic train rides. And maybe add a few things to your bucket list? 😉
Information on Avurudu and other public holidays
Report on Sri Lanka public transport
Information on the inland towns visited
About the authors
Sandya & Erik are travel nerds. A mixed European-Lankan couple, they split their time unsurprisingly between bases near Colombo and in Europe. And have traveled throughout the lovely island numerous times. Google, if you have a strong urge to find a way to contact them directly.