Illustrated Travel Diary: Hill Country

That drastic temperature and environment change driving from where we live to the hill country. The roads grow steeper, taking a curve makes your heart race as you see the massive drop from the path you’re on into the oblivion below. The way the tall forests lining the road seem to reach up to the sky. The rolling expanses of the tea country, terraced hills covered in the stout little bushes as the mist begins to roll in, hugging the edge of the hill and making the rest of the world disappear.


I know we’re equally famed for our beaches as we are for our fields of green [tea] but I feel like we don’t get adequately excited about our hill country. When the road suddenly turns into a bridge, to make way for a mighty river cutting through the mountain. When the light falling on different parts of the mountain creates a gradient and shadows that look like a watercolour painting. When the light descends over a mountain range and the peaks silhouette and hide in the distance, a darkening and fading horizon lined with giants of the earth.
These treacherous paths up and through the hills prove to be a good hiding place for some very big problems. On this trip, I was able to visit many estates and speak to the people directly about their lives and daily struggles, which has been such a rewarding experience. Like a monster that lurks in the shadows, the giant that is the Sri Lankan tea industry keeps them in darkness.
[I created a photo-story on this issue some time ago for my workplace – you can take a look at it here.]

Kandy

The children are decked in colourful clothes, specks of colour on an otherwise wholly-green landscape. I’m sitting on a rock as the talk commences and, naturally curious as kids are, they’re inching closer. One photo turns into another and before I know it, they’re dragging their friends-sisters-brothers-baby siblings before me to have their photos taken. Something about seeing them smile the way they do, even if they’ve so little to live with everyday, is wonderful. Their mothers are shyer, smiling from afar, just having come home from a long day’s work in the hills.

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There are parts of Kandy that a lot of us won’t know, identifying the city by the standard landmark spots in the city. The hills rise higher in Gampola, and the children on the mountain are reduced to ants.

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In the true spirit of Sri Lankan generosity, we’ve been given refreshments at every home we’ve visited. Tea, Coca Cola, and now Fanta with a side of biscuits and bananas. We’re full, obviously, but it would upset them should we refuse.

Matale

The town centre is hot, so I run across the road to the shelter afforded by the looming structures of the Sri Muthu Mariamman Temple. There is no one else there save for a few caretakers and praying believers. The inside, as any kovil, is ornate and embellished with colourful detail. I can wander about in silence until a group of tourists walk in, loud in their exclamations, so I run out.

The drive morphs the landscape from one of small shops and homes to mountains for miles. Fields that have just been harvested by old men close to 75 years old. Old friends, walking along the bunds that separate blocks of the field, walking stick in hand yet probably fitter than most of us.

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Prayers ring out from a mosque nearby and the men who stream out from it afterwards call to us to show us something that has been bothering them for a long time. Suspended over a rushing river, with a cinematic picturesque feel in all its ruin, is a rusting half of a bridge. After a flood destroyed it years ago, it has remained it its original position, growing old with the passage of time and the jungle growing wild around it.

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What used to be the crossing path for many children coming to school on this side of the river has become a dilapidated ruin. What remains for the purpose is a rope strung across 2 trees on either sides of the river – hold onto it and hold on tight. The rushing currents and heavy flow of water have worried one parent too many and so, they’ve rather their children live than risk injury in this treacherous crossing and have pulled them out of school.

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Hairpin bends. Swirling roads that spin upwards in the darkening evening. We’re driving for miles along the precarious sides of a steep mountain, passed terraced fields of paddy and tea, someone’s washing flying in the wind, a little girl running through the green growth.

After a point, the vehicle can’t pull further up so we continue on foot, past a small shrine tucked away in the mountains that little ones have brought flowers to. From below, we hear a shout and a volley of cheers follow. On the next level of the mountain, a small field somehow sitting on the face of the peak, there are a group of boys playing cricket, some 6000 meters above sea level. Another stands at an outcrop of the next elevation, presumably for when his comrades hit a fantastic six and he has to make sure they get their game ball back.
We’re completing the journey by tuk, the only vehicle hardy enough to get you to the top of the mountain. Even with the height we stand at now, the gathering clouds area blocking any epic sunset view that we might have had. The road crests to a bend where the view however, is pretty stunning – the grey puffs suspended over miles of green, an almost purple tinge in the sky below, the sun descending in a single red ball through the madness.

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Light disappears slowly and the cold winds bite when we reach the top of the mountain. We’ve felt the distance of the journey, just how long the road is from the town, and when the people begin to tell us of all the hardships they’ve faced, it makes the journey seem longer. The bright lights of Kandy and Hantana light up around the mountain, so high up they seem to ring the peak, yet those living so close to the summit have a different kind of story to tell.
The cold and the distance from the village might make places like this seem like perfect idylls for any of us who is not from an estate communities. Their small homes, lack of access to facilities such as education and health coupled with the denial of ownership to the soil they inhabit comes together to create a life that is far from magical. If the cold is making us feel chill, I can’t imagine the multiplied effect of that bite that these people have to deal with on a daily basis.

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The drive down is long, and with more food for thought, the winding mountain drive seems twice as long in the dark.

Hatton

We know the Hatton/Nuwara Eliya scene too well for the strawberries, Grand Hotel and it being a base for most Horton Plains treks. Oh, and of course the tea estate drives and factory tours most people choose to take.

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A quick hop across the rail tracks from where we were working took me to the Christ Church, perched on a hill above the city. Streams of school kids, just having been released on holiday, ran past me and the church compound was empty. The view from the banister along the edge of the hill is spectacular – the train runs through a town of generally small structures and these patches are surrounded for miles by green.
The drive towards Maskeliya is a road winding through tall plantations, the treetops invisible. Inbetween these giants are snatches of a glint of water, visible only in bursts till the forest clears and the Castlereigh reservoir comes into view. Green and peaceful, nestled in the hillside minding its own business, it’s beautiful.

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It’s only on the way back that I have the courage to ask the driver to stop at the Christ Church, Warleigh – a small stone structure perched on a hill overlooking the water that we had whizzed past earlier.

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The church is small, smaller than most chapels too, yet the cool of the rock and the age in its structure is a warm embrace in the chill of the hills. The sweet aunty who was supposed to be the guide was as upset as I was that I had to rush off and told me that I had to return, as the uncle was calling out that he had to lock the gate. I lingered to make sure I remembered what the reservoir looked like, being gazed down on from such a great height, and then ran.

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Inbetween

The drives to and around the hill country are some of the most beautiful the country has to offer. I know mountains are the standard for solid but the scenery is thrillingly unpredictable in the way that the peaks suddenly give way to lakes and rivers, the way a plateau can suddenly hurtle down in a 90-degree drop.

Such was the drive to Badulla, when you’ve only just stopped to observe a line of peaks that shade a dried-up river that you see a patch of blue amidst all the green in a colour juxtaposition that, although it may look like it, has not been edited.

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As always, good things come to those who wait so after a few minutes of cutting through paddy fields, we finally arrive upon that view that had took our breaths away from afar a few minutes ago. The Victoria Dam, largest in the country, magnificent in the midday light – clouds and surrounding forest reflected in her glassy waters. Man-made, yes, but mesmerising nevertheless. Tuks line the barrier and people munch on corn while watching the water down below.

Badulla

We spend only a meal at a hotel before rushing off, to take an exploration walk that sounds intriguing. Leaving the vehicle near a small tea kadey, we walk on, first through mud and rock onto paths that look like some other-worldly creature has dragged its nails along the mountain side.

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The view on the other side is glorious – a waterfall breaking through fields of green as mountains shadow the distance.

This is landslide danger zone, not far from Koslanda and Meeriyabadda where the most recent tragedies occurred. This tendency matched with unusually high rainfall this year meant that the damage was twice as powerful. What was once a mountain stream has burst forth with such pressure that the water rushed down the side, across the road meant for travelling and continued down at a raging speed.
Our destination, the Bogoda bridge, is the oldest-standing bridge in history, or so it goes. Below it, the water rages down rocks and the sky begins to darken, predicting rain. The hike back begins.

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We return back to the vehicle to find the storm has calmed down and we’re going to have tea. Sipping the warm liquid, I hear a rushing around the corner. Following the little road brings me to a concrete bridge that spans over the mouth of the river, where it runs from steady stream to raging rush through rocks and into the fields below. Two children are skipping rocks into the water, giggling gleefully at the splashes, the day at a close yet their happiness on a consistent high.

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We’re awake the next morning before most of the hotel staff, before the sun, to make friends with the mist. It has settled into the cracks of the town, low enough to obscure the trains running from the station, its old façade blending perfectly into the surroundings, quieter that most transport hubs yet as important.

The first estate visit goes on for longer than we expect, and while my colleagues are busy brushing over technicalities, I take a walk. Stepping down a steep staircase, I chance across a single tea plucker going about her daily work.

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I ask her if I can take a picture and she says yes. When I say we’re from Colombo, she tells me her son works there, a tailor who makes uniforms for police officers. He and the rest of her children do come home for the Sinhala and Tamil New Year celebration  She points to her small home across the hill, where they all gather during the holiday as a family, where she is happiest.
Having called a meeting of all the workers of one estate, we hear stories that really question our faith in elected leaders. Little to no job opportunities, no access to furthering education, yet the hearts on these people are as warm as every other Sri Lankan in other parts of the country, as they welcome us into their tiny homes to make their cases. Having walked through tea trails across mountains to come home, women return in the fading light to their children and families, bags of green shoots slung across their tired backs. Supporting a nation in their aching fingers and feet.

The light is changing, and somehow Badulla’s placement means the setting sun and the brewing storm overlap to create the most breathtaking scenery – shadowy mountains lit by streaks of sunlight, dark clouds against the bright greens of the tea bushes. We’re staring in awe until the first raindrops fall.

Ella

Driving into Ella in the night meant it was only when we woke that we grasped the gravity of the place we were standing in. Landscapes unlike any other, mountain views among the most magical I have seen to date and the mist, like an old friend, sheltering it all.
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The half walk-half drive down to Ravana Falls twists and turns, bends and drops off the mountain face in sly threat. The early hours of the morning mean that crowds are yet to descend to the site, where legend meets Mother Nature’s magic to create a Rivendell-ish cascade.

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On the way back, we stop at a break in the range, where two mountains are placed such that they look like a pass that give way to more valleys in the distance. The famed Ella Gap? It must be so.
The long drive home begins, winding down the mountain and passing quiet towns moving at a slower pace in the cold. Bandarawela, where a sweeping view from a wide bend shows a mountain covered in white specks – the sacks of tea on a plucker’s back denoting their size in contrast to the endless fields of green.
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Haputale, where the fog has crept so far into the mountain that the people seem to be walking in the sky.
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The final stop is for a cup of tea, set across the road from oblivion – walking to and peering over the edge into the abyss, it’s as if the world has just been erased.
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We fall asleep on the winding road down.

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