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Journey Through Sri Lanka’s Cloud Forests: Nuwara Eliya to Ella

The train rattled into Nuwara Eliya station. The breaks gripped the iron wheels and there was the squealing of metal against metal as the train jerked begrudgingly to a halt. At once the whole carriage erupted into a flurry of movement. The people opposite us, behind us, in front us us, everyone appeared to be leaving. At that moment I felt a little bit like, what are we missing out on here? I mean, the train literally emptied before our eyes leaving just myself and Lewis and one other couple left in the entire carriage.

The Nuwara Eliya stop was roughly 5 hours into our lengthy journey. We still had what we believed to be 2 hours (which in reality was more like 3) left of our journey to Ella town. In hindsight, it may have been wise to break up the journey, including a night at Nuwara Eliya. But then that would mean 3 consecutive days on a train. Options, options. Planning could really be taxing at times! But then, you should know by now how absolutely ridiculous my planning skills are.

Nuwara Eliya is a town whose name literally translates to ‘city on the plain’. It is a town where British settlers built their holiday homes (hence why the town is often referred to as ‘Little England’) and so there is a lot of British architecture in the area. The area was previously used by the British for hunting, polo, golf and cricket. Lying 1890 metres above sea level, Nuwara Eliya is the highest town in Sri Lanka.

The train creaked and hissed before lurching forwards, continuing its immense journey down the tracks. The man who had been overseeing the open door of the train made his way down the carriage towards us. Unfortunately I never got his name so for the sake of this text I will call him ‘The Door Guardian’. The Door Guardian smiled at us before advising us that we may want to move to the left-hand-side of the carriage as the views on that side would be the best from this point onwards. I was very grateful for his advice.

We’d been extremely fortunate to have been sitting on the right-hand-side of the train on our way from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya. This side had yielded some stunning views. In contrast, the left had mostly been witnessing high walls of grass and I did at times pity them. Now, just as their side was going to display some beautiful landscapes, the occupants had left. A loss for them is a gain for us as now we were getting a chance to witness the best of both sides.

As well as watching over the open door, The Door Guardian had been adamant that all passengers in the carriage made the most of the journey. There was one point was we were drawing close to Nuwara Eliya where he exclaimed that a beautiful waterfall would appear shortly on the left and opened up the locked door just in front of us. He then ushered everyone forward so that we could all witness the falls. I had stayed at the back of the crowd by the newly-opened door but my nice zoom lens still managed to get a lovely video of the falls.

I didn’t realise this but apparently the woman opposite us didn’t think I’d managed to get the photo and was getting upset for me. I would have shown her the photo if I’d have realised this. The thought makes me feel happy inside that she cared so much. The people we meet on our journeys are often wonderful people.

The Door Guardian then sat opposite us as the train started to trudge towards the highest point of the journey. We began talking to him. He told us about his extensive working hours, how he started work on the trains at 6am every day until late at night. He said it was tiring but he needed to earn enough money to take care of his family. He showed us photographs of his three daughters, one of which had recently had a son. They were all very beautiful and we were sure to praise his wonderful family whom he seemed very proud of.

As we were discussing this work on the train, he mentioned how he sometimes received tips. I felt awkward that I hadn’t suggested this first. We were sure to tip him a few hundred rupees, for his knowledge and kindness had been a valuable part of our journey.

But his job was not done yet. As the train made its way higher into the mountains, being pelted by rain and concealed by cloud, The Door Guardian suggested he opened up another door on the left-hand-side and I could lean out for photos as we passed what he considered to be the most beautiful part of the journey. I smiled excitedly at the suggestion. He was going to open this door just for me! There would be no crowds behind me, making me feel pressure to grab the shot and run. I could barely contain my happiness!

We had entered ‘Horton Plains National Park’, sometimes referred to as the Cloud Forest of Sri Lanka. Horton Plains is a huge plateau found at altitude of 2,100 meters above sea level. The cloud forest that covers this plateau is home to the sources of 3 of Sri Lanka’s major rivers: Mahaweli Ganga, the longest river in Sri Lanka which is also the river that we stayed on in KandyWalawe River, which originates in the famed ‘Adam’s Peak’ and Kelani River which flows through the capital of Colombo.

Horton Plains is a very important part of Sri Lanka in terms of flora and fauna. It is home to a unique array of vegetation and 21 endemic species of birds including the Lanka Superfowl and Sri Lanka Junglefowl. It is also home to 24 species of mammal including samba deer, the elusive leopard and one of the world’s most endangered primates, the Red slender loris. Unfortunately, Horton Plains is no longer home to elephants. Elephants were wiped out from the area by Sir Robert Wilmot-Horton, whom which the area is named after.

As we chugged through the area of cloud forest, we soaked up the lush landscape, mostly concealed by a thick white blanket of cloud. The wind blowing through the open window was growing ever colder as our altitude increased. The rain was picking up speed, pelted down through the window and soaking any of us who dared peak out of it.

“We’re approaching.” The Door Guardian announced.

He got up and began to march purposefully up the carriage without waiting for me. I passed the camera to Lewis and made my way up the carriage to the newly-opened door. I glanced out at the tracks blurring before my eyes and my ears soaked up the thunderous roaring of the chugging locomotive. Without another moment to spare, I stood at the edge of the moving train and leaned out.

The rain lashed relentlessly at my face, the wind blowing my hair furiously. I spied Lewis peeping out of the train further down and beyond him more and more people. Although our carriage may have cleared, the train still looked full further down. I didn’t care that the weather was bad. Leaning my body out of the moving vehicle and into the fresh forest air felt liberating. I inhaled the icy air, so pure and cleansing to my lungs. I tried to lean out further and further until one leg was hanging out over the passing vegetation and I raised a hand to the sky joyfully before breaking in to dance. You know what they say, when it rains, dance!

In a blur of rain and motion from my dancing, I witnessed the ‘Summit of the Sri Lankan Railway’ sign pass just inches away from me. The sign sits at 1,898.1 metres (6,227 ft) above sea level and is the highest point of the railway in Sri Lanka, though I’m sure you already gathered that by its name!

Being the highest point, this section of the railway yields incredible views. Unfortunately, due to the thick cloud surrounding us, I wasn’t quite able to witness it. But I still had a blast! After a good few minutes, I retreated to my seat, looking a tad bedraggled from the experience.

The end of the Horton Plains plateau is known as ‘World’s End’. Here the plateau comes to an abrupt end before plunging 880 metres. Of course, our train wouldn’t be able to handle that as it didn’t come with the magical abilities of that from the Polar Express which was able to tackle vertical drops. Instead we took a windy descent, hugging the side of Thotupola Mountain, the third highest mountain in Sri Lanka.

As we descended, the thick cloud cover began to disperse, revealing a beautiful view of tea plantations and villages.

This is the point when my camera sadly died. The battery was completely depleted and although I had a spare battery somewhere in my rucksack, I just couldn’t face changing it. Exhaustion was starting to settle in. Instead I resulted to tacking the odd snap on my trusty iPhone. However, looking back on it, I wished I had gone that extra mile as the last 2 hours of the train ride proved to be just as beautiful.

Our train wound round the mountains, snaking through tunnel after tunnel. I lost count of the endless tunnels we encountered! Gaping black mouths would suddenly open up ahead of us and swallow the train whole, and plunging us into darkness. Our eardrums trembled as the rumble of the locomotive echoed through the empty blackness, crashing and whistling. I couldn’t quite understand it but within every tunnel we went through an earsplitting screech would start up. Perhaps it was the sound of the train rattling along its track just amplified in the tight space.

As well as frequent flirtations with tunnels, we grew accustomed to crossing wooden bridges which stood atop rushing streams, full with the fresh rainfall. The water gushed beneath our tracks before tumbling down the steep drop to our left and disappearing from sight.

Our travelling time was getting on for 8 hours now and I felt I could fall asleep on the spot. My eyes began to droop and I hate to think of the marvellous sights that I missed due to my tiredness! We were informed by The Door Guardian that the train was later than usual today as a result of heavy rainfall. The train had to travel slower than usual as a precaution and I was aware of several stops we had to do which took roughly 30 minutes each time. Perhaps they were gaps as the tracks were cleared from rivers of mud which had apparently been in abundance that day.

I could tell the journey was drawing to a close. A huge waterfall had appeared on the right of us, just beside the train. It tumbled over the edge in a roaring white current, interlaced with streaks of mud from the recent rain. Its majestic presence which it carried was rather different from the numerous streams we had passed. I just had a feeling that this must be ‘Ravana’ waterfall, the large waterfall that sits atop Ella town, close to Ella rock.

The train made a mighty whistle, clearly announcing its presence to Ella town.

We said our farewells to The Door Guardian who had been very curious about our nationalities. As soon as we told him we were from England, we was keen to see our local currency as he had never seen it before. In amazement he fumbled over the £5 note we presented to him.

“I like to collect notes from each currency but I don’t have a pound note yet.” He remarked.

“You can keep it.” Lewis smiled.

The Door Guardian looked at us surprised, “I can’t. Is it a lot of money?” He started nudging it back to us.

We insisted he kept it and the smile he gave us in return is something I will never forget. He told us to be careful at Ella station as there had been some recent muggings of tourists there.

With that the train grumbled to a halt one final time and we gathered our bags and left.

Ella was only a small station in comparison to the ones at Kandy and Colombo. We navigated our way out easily and were greeted by a bustle of people, asking if we wanted taxis or tuk-tuks. I was quite keen to try out a tuk-tuk as we were still yet to go in one but weariness made Lewis lean more towards a taxi. We began haggling with one and I regret trying to push him too far on his price. I had read online about guide prices for taxis and tuk-tuks and may have been expecting to get too low a price based on what I’d read. Ultimately, it felt wrong. The people here didn’t have as much money as we did back home and I felt ashamed for doing so and regret it to this day. I learnt my lesson that day. Although it’s good to negotiate so you are not ripped off, saving pennies here or there generally is not a good feeling.

The taxi driver seemed to have no hard feelings and took us to our homestay. It was only a few minutes out of Ella town, up a very steep road. I’m not quite sure how he managed to navigate it with such ease. I held my breath as we passed another vehicle and had to drive as close to the edge of the road as possible. Beside us was perilous drop. I gulped but somehow we survived. Onwards we went, past the railway line which carved its way through the long green grass beside us. It was strange to think that we’d been on that railway only a few moments ago.

We were driving behind another car up the rugged slope who was driving at a ridiculously slow pace. Suddenly, he just stopped in the middle of the road. Now, I’ve mentioned previously that Sri Lankan drivers love to honk. They honk all the time for any reason possible. They honk to let you know they’re there, they honk if they overtake, they honk if they undertake, they honk just because they feel like it. I’d learnt to appreciate that a honk is literally just a honk and not an act of aggression or warning, like it is back in UK. However, this honk was different. Our driver pushed his hand on the horn and let it rest there for about 30 seconds. The minivan we were in let out an earsplitting bellow. Surprisingly, it didn’t have its desired effect and the car in front was still hogging the centre of the road. One long honk was followed by another. Eventually our driver had to get out the taxi and talk to the non-moving vehicle. Finally, he pulled out of the middle of the road so that we could pass.

The road – I keep calling it road but it was more like a track. It certainly wasn’t tarred – led us through thick swathes of trees, taking us ever higher into the hills. Then I spotted our home for the next two night, Chamodya Homestay.

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