After a 26 hour trip, my girlfriend and I arrive in Sri Lanka’s bustling capital city of Colombo. We are ravenous and completely exhausted. A tip from a local leads us to a restaurant that looks like the southeast Asian equivalent of a greasy spoon, and we eat huge plates of tasty Biryani, washed down with Lion Lager – the nation’s favourite – before heading back to our room. It feels as though my head’s been on the pillow a matter of moments before the alarm sounds on my phone, but it’s been seven hours. Time to get up. Acting on advice from a number of friends, we’d planned to leave the capital without spending much time there, so we eat a quick breakfast while we wait for our ride south, to Galle.
The road from Colombo to Galle hugs the south-western coastline of the island, and we drive south with the serene blue of the Laccadive ocean to our right. On our left we pass a handful of luxury hotels, and signs for holiday apartments, but there are ruined houses and broken buildings too; reminders of the devastation caused by the boxing day 2004 tsunami, which claimed around 30,000 lives here and displaced half a million people.
Some way down the coast, a shining white statue of Buddha stands a few hundred metres from the road, facing outward toward the sea. The statue stands near the place where the Colombo to Matara train was swept off the tracks that day, killing almost all 1800 passengers and a number of those nearby. Our driver tells us this before stopping at the roadside near the statue. He is silent for a few moments before we set off once again.
Our time in Galle is split between the lively bars, restaurants and beaches in Unawatuna, and our picturesque villa, tucked away in a lush strand of rainforest a few miles in from the Galle coast. By the beach we make more friends than we could possibly remember and eat what I’m sure is some of the best seafood I will ever find. At our villa we sit in the garden and watch big Grey Langur monkeys swing from tree to tree above our heads, or wander off into depths of the forest, where the air is thick and humid, but somehow revitalising at the same time. On our final day in the villa a 3ft monitor lizard decides to join me in the pool as I swim lengths, and my girlfriend almost dies from laughter as I exit the pool post-haste.
Our next journey takes us inland to a big, old hostel nestled in the mountainside, somewhere “near” the town of Ella. Far from the luxury of our rainforest villa, here we sleep outdoors in a tent at the peak of a huge hill, but we wake each morning to a breathtaking view that stretches for miles. The terrain all around is a patchwork of tea plantations, rice fields and thick forest, and on some mornings, mist settles halfway up the hillside, shrouding the landscape below.
In a fit of enthusiasm and misplaced confidence, we hitch on our packs early one morning and head off on foot toward Ella, the supposedly nearby town. After an hour or more of walking we seem to be no closer to our destination, when a car pulls up alongside and rolls down the passenger window.
“Are you going to Ella?” a bemused, smiling woman asks.
We nod in unison. She turns to the driver beside her and both laugh.
“It’s 14 kilometres from here friends, you’d better jump in”
Slightly embarrassed and a little confused, we accept and climb into the back. Our saviours turn around to face us with beaming smiles and introduce themselves. Roshan and Anush are a newly-married couple from Colombo, who’re honeymooning in Ella. On the drive to Ella we talk a lot, about England and our families, and about their plans together now they’re married.
They ask our permission to take a detour, to see the Ravana waterfalls, where we stop and take photos together, and share spiced mango bought from a roadside-stall. Roshan and I do that thing where you politely argue over who will pay. I insist, as he’s already refused our offer to pay for the ride, and he insists, as I am a guest in his country, and a new friend. I win out eventually, and we sit on the bumper of his car and watch the water cascade down ancient stone, before driving on to Ella. We part ways with our new friends in the town, but not before exchanging phone numbers, Facebook details and hugs.
After filling up on rotti and jam, we wander off to find the Nine Arches Bridge, which in truth, is much more impressive seen from above via drone, than it is from the ground. We potter around the shops in Ella, pick up some cute local wares and a bag full of crazy-looking fruit (Thambili, Naminam, Mangosteen and Anoda, anyone?), then head back to our mountaintop hostel, to enjoy the views one last time.
The train journey from Ella to Kandy is rightly regarded as one of the most beautifully scenic in this part of the world. It cuts a winding route through the Sri Lankan countryside for 8 hours or so, chugging along slowly and stopping many times along the way. Vendors hop on at each station with trays filled with papadums, bhajis, buttered corn, fruit and other delights. The journey is itself a worthy attraction, but word to the wise: book a 1st class carriage seat. This is the only way to ensure you actually get a seat, and this train does get extremely busy, both with tourists and locals.
The city of Kandy is much livelier than Galle or Ella, and it brims with a busy energy. We use it as a base, from which to venture out to the many cultural and historic sites that lie relatively nearby. Over a hectic last few days we visit a handful of awe-inspiring temples and religious sites, including the 2000-year old Dambulla Cave Temple and the largest standing buddha temple in the world, at Ranawana Purana Rajamaha Viharaya.
Of the many national parks in Sri Lanka, Minneriya is not among the most popular, though it is close to the cultural triangle – where many of Sri Lanka’s main attractions are found – and is known to be a great place to spot big herds of elephant. We spend our last full day in the back of a beaten-up 4x4, searching the vast fields of Minneriya for elephants, and we almost leave disappointed. We’ve been out a few hours and with light failing, our guide seems to be reluctantly accepting defeat. We drive off a large clearing, onto a narrow winding path through the trees, and as we round a corner our guide hammers on the break so sharply that I almost faceplant the back of his seat. Before I can complain, I realise why we’ve stopped.
There’s a huge elephant no more than 20-feet in front, just crossing from the forest on one side of the road to the other. It stops for a moment and turns toward us, before carrying on into the tree line.