Walking the tracks in Sri Lanka

Over New Year’s I decided that I didn’t want to do the normal Sri Lankan tourist thing of going to Mirissa and listening to bad trance music on the beach, I’d already done
that over Christmas. With around a week to kill I decided to head to the hills
and complete part of a walk I’d heard about earlier in 2017, which was to
follow the train tracks.  The entire walk from Kandy to Badulla would take over a week which I couldn’t justify so I settled on a 120km stretch between Ella and Hatton, which is said to be the
most beautiful section of train tracks in Sri Lanka’s hills regardless. I had
no plans aside from a screenshot showing me the rough distances between each
town and a vague recollection of what I saw through the crowded train window
from my last trip in Sri Lanka.

Day one - Friendly Fellas

I set off early on the first day from Ella, Latte in hand, with a plan to make it to Haputale
before nightfall. The first kilometre or so was littered with backpackers also
walking the tracks and for a second I thought that maybe this trek had taken
off in popularity and that I really wouldn’t be alone. Turns out that most of
these people were heading up Ella rock for the spectacular views down the
valley and over the town of Ella itself. My resounding memory from the first
day was the amazement of people seeing me walk up the tracks and how friendly
everyone was in wanting to chat or invite me in to their houses for sweet tea.
Among the friendliest of the day was a Real estate agent from Colombo who moved
to the hills for a quieter life, a tea factory worker on his way to church, a
boom gate operator who just wanted his photo taken then gave me his home
address for me to send them to him as well as a man who runs a tourist
magazine. I easily made it to Haputale before sunset where I managed to find a
cheap guesthouse run by this man and his son, which happened to have one of the
best hot showers I’d had in Sri Lanka.

Day two - clouds and tunnels

Over the course of the first day somehow my phone became plugged up with fluff and I wasn’t able
to charge it, but not to worry right? I’m travelling so you can forego seeing
my instagram stories for a few days and it’s not like I could get lost walking along
a single lane track, right? As expected I was completely fine for navigation
but forgot about the long, dark, bat filled tunnels. I had been warned to bring
a head torch for this section but had to resolve myself to doing it in complete
darkness, trying to guess the gap for the railway sleepers whilst avoiding the
rancid bat shit squelching around my shoes. Somehow though I managed to make it
through them all without falling face first or being run over by a train, the
tunnels definitely don’t have room for pedestrians, I definitely recommend
having a copy of the train timetable handy so you can at least  make an educated guess as to when the trains will come. Once I’d made it through to Pattipola on the other side of Horton
Plains (worth a morning hike, arrange it at your guest house) I was confronted
with a quiet village with small houses separated by communal farms that seemed
to be tended by everyone in the village. Unfortunately my room didn’t have a view
into the valley below like some of the simple farms that would definitely be
sporting a boxy modern house anywhere in Australia.

Day three -

I woke up on January first to some sweet milky tea and some disgusting ‘milk rice’ that I bravely
shared with the owners of my guest house, then I was whisked to a free spread
of fruit, biscuits and decent coffee and the more expensive (around A$15 a night
which was too much for me) hotel next door. Throughout the most stunning day of
walk I was stopped countless times for people to shake my hand and to wish me a
happy new year (vishingyouahappynewyear as the Sri Lankans so quickly put it).

As I was passing one of the many villages surrounded by tea fields I noticed a few kids playing some
cricket, so obviously I had to join in. By the time I’d bowled one over word
had spread and the whole village had turned out to see the foreigner playing on
their pitch. Once I was handed the bat the cheers and attentions must have got
to my head and I tried to show off by hitting one of the 8 year old kids for
six. The ball ended up clearing the small hindu temple and got lost somewhere
between the village and the train tracks, even with the whole village scouring
through there was no way we were going to find it. They must have been happy
with the shot though as they rewarded me with tea and cake, one of the weirder
experiences of eating I’ve had as they sat me down on a tiny chair and
surrounded me eagerly watching to ensure that I’d enjoyed and actually finished
the tea.

Unfortunately I spent too long with my new village family that I got in to the next town after
sunset, and with no sim card I was at the mercy of some friendly locals who
pointed me vaguely in the direction of what they assured me was a guest house.
By the time I arrived it was past 8pm and I was well and truly wiped from
nearly 40km of walking, so tired that I very nearly couldn’t finish my Kotthu. 

Day four - The final push

Thankfully my legs didn’t have to recover too much as day four was the final day with a restful
stroll of around 12kms. I started it as all good days in the subcontinent
should, with a game of cricket before my teammates headed to work and I picked
up my bag and I marched towards Hatton.

There wasn’t much of note for this section, still the same picturesque tea fields and friendly
fellas trying to practise their English on me. One piece of excitement was
gingerly walking through the longest tunnel in Sri Lanka, one where I was
convinced that a train would bear down on me and squash me like a piece of
roti. Thankfully that didn’t happen and I managed to escape with around 15
minutes to spare. The dead straight track made for some really interesting
images, especially at the wide end of the zoom range and as soon as someone
else started to walk through ahead of me.

Once I safely arrived in Hatton I headed straight for a guesthouse I stayed at last time in
Sri Lanka, I remembered the owner being extremely friendly and even paid to get
the cricket on the telly for me. Amazingly as I returned to find a bed 11
months later he remembered my face and pulled up photos of us playing cricket
and sharing tea on his balcony overlooking the tea fields. To my dismay he
didn’t have a bed available for me but if I’m ever back in Hatton I’ll
definitely be going back to Niwasa house.

Hatton itself felt like a big city after a few days in tranquil villages, and set on the tea
fields it made for an exciting yet restful place to stay a night.

Day five - The Train Back

I got up early on day 5 for the return train to Ella, it was weird to see the same views that I’d
just seen a couple of days earlier through the train window. Views that I could
drink in for as long as I liked turned into a jostling match with the other tourists
as they all thrust their phones and iPads out the window hoping to snap a clear
view. As bad as I felt occupying a window seat having seen it all before, it
was mesmerizing to see the fleeting views whizz past my eyes. Most amazing
though was just three hours on the train was two whole days of walking.

Overall walking in Sri Lanka was an amazing experience and one that I will treasure dearly for a
while to come. As much as I’d like to recommend that you also do this walk
because it is stunning, I openly hope that it doesn’t become a big tourist
attraction. The look of amazement on people’s faces when they saw a white boy
walking up the track in the middle of a forest, on the edge of a tea field or
through a dark bat filled tunnel was just as incredible as the scenery I was
able to admire from those locations. It might seem counterproductive to write a
story about how good something is and then tell you not to do it but sometimes
I’d like to have my cake and eat it too.

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