Oh my, what fun life can throw at you sometimes. I am now sat, comfy, clean, warm and expectantly hungry for the imminent feast that I’m about to have laid out in front of me. We are sat in a very misty (and, consequently, mysterious) town called Ella, several rattley stops down from Haputale, Pattipola and Ohiya, our late train having managed to turn itself into a very early train indeed.
It turned out to be rather problematic catching a dark, rural train with no station listings and no particular indication of which stop is which. Our conversations usually consisted of a hefty language barrier or involved trying to make sense of what the friendly but drunk passengers are trying to tell us. No more informed than when we had got on the train as to where were meant to disembark, we were on the verge of cutting our losses and taking a leap of faith at the next time our train slowed to a halt. We were keen not to overshoot our stop, you see, and we didn’t appear to be stopping at any train stations, but rather pausing outside small houses surrounded by bushes and misty forests in the dark. It later turned out that Ohiya, our second stop, had already came and went looking like a load of bushes. So we got off at a chilly, cloudy and deserted village called Pattipola.
Deserted that is, except for two station attendants that very accommodatingly told us that we couldn’t sleep in their waiting room until the first train at half four for security reasons. Thanks mate (!) However, just I was thinking what an uptight twat he was, and wondering who the hell would turf a pair of weary travelers out into the damp, misty night, he offered to organize some accommodation here for us, and send someone over to pick us up when the first train was due. I’m glad my mouth isn’t as quick as my brain.
The accommodation was conveniently across the track; they had phoned ahead for us. Feeling genuinely humbled, we made our way over to the basic guards quarters. An off-duty employee had made his home in this fly-ridden, chilly, damp concrete box, with a curtain draped across the door to the other room- his one. This was the closest we had come to roughing it, and we would have got much closer had we not been ejected from the station. But it was fine by me though. It had a certain ultra-minimalist character to it. There was a small division the size of a large cupboard next to the toilet which was crammed full of pineapples, stacked up in a nice little pyramid against the wall. We ate one of these small, delicious pineapples as we watched a few minutes of a Bollywood film with him on a tiny, portable, black and white television. It was a dirty little place though, it really was. Not filthy, but just really, really unappealing. Poor guy, he lived in Colombo, so didn’t see his family for five days straight, while attracting flies in this bare-walled box; a tough deal. We were grateful for his hospitality.
We bedded down on a damp, smelly, two-inch thick slab of stained yellow foam on the floor. I didn’t want to come in too close to the mankey, stained foam, but at the same time, I was reluctant to leave my tasty little face exposed to all the friendly flies and mosquitoes. Between a rock and a hard place for sure.
At four AM we awoke and were ready to leave at the first sound of an approaching train – we were then faced with the cruel task of having to stay awake in our cold, sleep-deprived state, whilst having to stay quiet for the train. It wasn’t easy. I was relieved to see that the rancid smell that I kept getting a whiff of during the night wasn’t someone having wiped their arse on the bit of mattress next to my face, but an overly ripe jackfruit in the corner. True to his word, the guard really did come to pick us up just as the train was arriving. What a shitty overnight shift.
We finally got to Ohiya shortly before five, and just as the eastern horizon was beginning to blue, where we headed to another very inviting Muslim café. Inside, we sat amongst the smoky fire in the corner, heavily distorted AM-wave broadcasted call to prayer cranked right up, and the friendly bustling of the attentive owner. We had a very stodgy-sweet breakfast of fresh rolls and milky sweet tea; a noisy, bleary-eyed and strangely surreal experience, intensified by the flickering radio signal, which – already loud – occasionally broke into distorting and interference, dropping an irregular, dirty, stabbing bass-line on top of the frantic Islamic wailings. The station then briefly fuzzed and crackled with the encroaching and well-timed chimes of Big Ben on the BBC world service.
Outside, the sun was rising.
Sharing our cab up to Horton’s Plains, and joining us for the first sunrise photo-op of the day was Moses, an intelligent, friendly and well-spoken Sri Lankan guy who shared Alec’s penchant for high-performance photography and my intrigue in the historic and philosophical questions one finds themselves full of on some days. On the way up, we were treated to the most beautiful sunrise I have ever seen, or am likely to ever see, given my fondness for lie-ins. It was like the most rich and colorful of sunsets, but with that special edge because of the feeling you got from it, being fresh and full of energy in the cool, crisp morning air. It was the first time I’d ever seen something like that.
At the gate, Moses was charged 200 rupee, we were charged 2000. Each. There was no bashfulness on their part whatsoever. It’s meant to be the most visited park in Sri Lanka. They must make a sickening profit. Okay, there is some minimal park upkeep, but that’s no excuse. It angered me.
Once I had calmed down and Moses (and Alec) had explained to me the very obvious economic adjustments that have been made between clientele I felt slightly less cheated.
After appreciating the beauty of the park, I calmed down (and then became a little ashamed at my selfish behavior). The park’s open, savannah-like rolling plains brought to mind somewhere in Africa, but with the herds of Deer wandering around and the warm, strong sun, cold wind and deep blue sky, it sometimes felt a bit more like Wales. The park used to be full of Elephants, but the good old Brits with their hunting parties saw to that, shooting every last one to extinction. One toffee-nosed old Lord that used to reside up here in the summer months away from the heat of Colombo supposedly boasted to have killed over 200 of these elephants.
The trail across was a round nine kilometers, although in the sun and the altitude, not to mention the uneven ground made it feel like much more than that. The highlight was, of course, World’s End, which we reached at about nine. It really was as the guide had described it- a near vertical cliff drop looking out over the tumbling hills that rolled off central Sri Lanka and down to the coastal plains, with a sweeping birds-eye view of the villages and tea-fields a thousand meters below. We had caught it in time, too. Any later than around 10am and the clouds that trundled past us thicken up into total cover, concealing the view completely.
During the hike across the strange, straw-colored plains, Moses filled us in on the sect of Christianity that he used to be a priest to. The March of the Jesus Christ believed in Jesus’ ideas, his teachings and his character, but that he was no more holy than you or I; he was merely a social reformer whose reputation and story has been grossly adapted, overblown and sexed up. His elaborations struck me as a very fresh and pragmatic alternative to the stubborn dogma that Christianity has become known for, and I found it compellingly close to my own beliefs surrounding the origins of the religion. It also managed to incorporate some elements of Buddhism, such as belief in the self that also push the right buttons for me. During a conversation about history and its players, I made a comparison of Robin Hood to Jesus, which he enthusiastically endorsed. Yes, I said, I do believe that Robin Hood is real, but in the sense that he was a real man whose actions and personality inspired the legends.
He was a fascinating bloke, whose rich and passionate knowledge of world history amazed me; if I can just bring myself to ignore the slightly more whacky stuff he was laying on me, such as Hitler’s elaborate plans for making Norway the crèche of the third Reich, he will be remembered as a very curious and forward-thinking insight into the way that Sri Lankan minds can sometimes work and the eclectic influences that one can allow themselves to be subjected to. Plus he was a talented photographer.
Feeling rather more penniless than yesterday, we opted out of a taxi back down to the train station at Pattipola. Pot luck, we figured, would get us down one way or another. Just as the road back down to the real world was getting steep, we manage to thumb a lift with a minivan full of Harvard post-grads all here on a honeymoon, having just hiked the same loop as us and on their way back down to- that’s right- Pattipola!
The village actually looked thoroughly picturesque and quaint in the daylight, and a damn sight more inviting than the night before. The little station building was lined with the canopy awnings that you would see skirting that of an old seaside village station in Dorset and was surrounded by carefully manicured, multi-colored flower beds that spread out towards the edge of the small cottage-like shacks and deep green grass paddies of the village itself. Slightly more mangy dogs than the south coast, though. Even the same train guy that came to wake us up in the small hours of the previous night was there in his huge, multi-colored knitted jumper. Like I said, a bad shift to be working.
We parted with Moses and hopped onto the train to Ella, a beautiful, green, hour train ride away. This small, misty, wooded hilltop town was quiet to say the least, but, my god, it was nice sleeping in a proper bed with no jackfruits in sight.