Ella and the Phony Farmer

Today I headed off to the “Hill Country” – the mountains that cover the centre of Sri Lanka. The road wound steadily upwards, and after a few kilometres I saw the first of Sri Lanka’s famous tea plantations. It was a very scenic route, with distant mountains looking over rows and rows of bright green tea plants, and lots of waterfalls.

Tea plantations and mountains on the road from Kandy

Of course I stopped at one of the plantations to learn how tea is made and the differences between white, black and green tea……and to try some of the finished product for myself.

Trying the local products

The road led on to Nuwara Eliya, nicknamed “Little England” because of its old colonial buildings. It was a popular destination for the colonial British to escape the heat of the coast. Since I was going to return here to stay for a couple of nights I only stopped to take a couple of photos.

Could be England….

We continued to my final destination, the small town of Ella. Driving on the narrow windy roads, with the local buses, motorcycles and animals was slow, and I got a little bored. We stopped for fuel at a town near Ella. This stop proved more difficult than the earlier ones, and the police gave our guide a long interrogation before asking us to park our van and wait. The guide sent the driver off to get a document that had been requested in order to get some diesel and explained to me that the police here were particularly careful. Nearby Ella was a rare town with a lot of foreign tourists, and local drivers had been paying backpackers to sit in their car so that they could claim they were a tourist vehicle. This had made other local people understandably angry.  We waited ten minutes before we were allowed to drive up to the pump to get our ration of 20 litres.

The fuel shortages seemed to be more acute in this town

The driver, the guide and I were all glad when we finally reached Ella in the early evening. I had booked a guest house which was on a hill a little outside the town, and which was supposed to have an amazing view over the mountains. However, the afternoon had seen thick clouds return and for the moment nothing was visible.  At least it hadn’t rained.

When I woke up the next morning, the clouds had mostly gone, and I enjoyed one of the best ever views I have had from a hotel room.

The best ever view from a hotel room?

I had breakfast and set off on a short walk up to Ella Rock,  which promised an even better view of the surrounding area. The guest house owner gave me very detailed instructions, which included sending me twenty photos of the route on WhatsApp.  Finally he advised me to refuse the services of guides loitering on the route, but that if I got lost I could ask local farmers and they would point me in the right direction.

The path followed a railway line. At times, I had to walk on the track itself and was a little worried that a train would arrive suddenly. But I had no other choice, and anyway lots of local people seemed to be walking on the line quite happily.  When a train did arrive, I could see why walking on the track wasn’t dangerous – it could be heard from a long way off, went very slowly, and sounded a warning horn at all bends.  

Walking along – and on – the railway line

My WhatsApp photos told me to leave the railway and head along a path through fields. I stopped again to check the way, and immediately a small wiry man, who I thought might have been following me for a while, offered to show me the way. I hesitated, and he said “I no guide, I farmer”. I should have said no, but instead I followed him up the path. Rather than just tell me the way, he insisted on accompanying me.  The route he took suddenly became flat and I scratched my head – the guest house owner’s directions described a continuous steep slope.  Seeing me stop, the “farmer” said “I know way” and when I continued to look doubtful, “I not guide, I farmer”. He produced an identity card very similar to the one I had seen my guide use to obtain petrol. Under his photo, it said “FARMER”. Hmmm. In English, with no Sinhalese. I smelt a rat and told the “farmer” I would find my own way. With remarkable speed, he straightened his back and held out his arm flat with his palm upturned – the position of someone expecting to receive money.  I gave him a 500 rupee (1.5$) note to get rid of him and ignoring his protestations (“Not enough! One more! Rude bear!”) continued along the path he had been following. Sure enough, it led to a dead end, and I had to retrace my steps to find an alternative way up.  I reached the top, where I found the true path with a steady stream of (mostly Sri Lankan) visitors going up or down – my “farmer” had taken me on a detour, presumably to make his services harder to reject.

At the top, there were a couple of drinks stalls (someone had the energy to carry drinks all the way up) and a spectacular view, enhanced by wisps of cloud that occasionally blew in from the lower down in the valley. It was well worth my slightly extended walk.

Worth the walk – the view from Ella Rock

I felt the weather changing, so I headed back.  Just as I got to the guest house, yet another storm broke and I sat watching torrential rain for the rest of the afternoon. When it finally stopped, I grabbed a tuk-tuk to head into the small town of Ella. It was a pleasant and lively place, similar to many other popular traveller destinations I had visited in the past. Its one main road was flanked by a series of guest houses, bars, restaurants and spas. I offered myself a massage before having dinner and a beer in the appropriately named Chill bar.

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