Jenny Han­d­ley vis­ited the teardrop is­land, for­merly Cey­lon, and ex­pe­ri­enced the di­verse de­lights of sa­fari and sea, lo­cal life and lux­ury

South African Garden and Home - - Contents -

Jenny Han­d­ley ex­plores this In­dian Ocean jewel

Climb­ing into our air­port shut­tle, my friend asked the driver, “Do driv­ers use their hoot­ers much here?” Sec­onds later her an­swer was a ca­coph­ony of hoot­ing as we wound our way through the crowded streets of Colombo, cap­i­tal of Sri Lanka. We quickly re­alised that a drive anywhere can take hours as the sin­gle roads (no free­ways), are fre­quented by buses, taxis, bikes and tuk-tuks car­ry­ing cargo that ranges from chick­ens to chil­dren.

For­merly Cey­lon, Sri Lanka, with a pop­u­la­tion of 21,2 mil­lion, is si­t­u­ated in the In­dian Ocean south-east of India. It gained in­de­pen­dence from Bri­tain in 1948, chang­ing its name when it be­came a repub­lic in 1972.

After a chaotic af­ter­noon in bustling Pet­tah Mar­ket where the lo­cals shop, we re­laxed with sun­down­ers at the

Galle Face Ho­tel, over­look­ing the In­dian Ocean. We then en­joyed the first of many spicy, lo­cal meals, crab curry, at a restau­rant in the re­stored Dutch Hospi­tal.

The next morn­ing, we took a sea­plane trip to Weer­aw­ila – three stops with breath­tak­ing views that in­cluded tea plan­ta­tions and towns, coast and cot­ton wool clouds, and a sign of im­mi­nent change – a high­way un­der con­struc­tion.

Our sa­fari at the unique Wild

Coast Tented Lodge, one of three

Re­lais & Châteaux prop­er­ties on the is­land, started with a wel­come from the mon­keys, who fol­lowed us to our exquisitel­y ap­pointed tent, com­plete with cop­per bath. Set on the rugged coastline ad­ja­cent to Yala Na­tional

Park, it’s the per­fect place to en­joy both beach and bundu. Af­ter­noon game drives re­vealed pro­lific birdlife and sight­ings of leop­ard and ele­phant, for which the park is known. It was sur­real to see wa­ter buf­falo graz­ing against the back­drop of the ocean.

After a five-star din­ner of de­li­cious lo­cal cur­ries, we were urged to re­quest an es­cort to see us safely back to our tent. We woke to the sounds of early morn­ing bird calls, fol­lowed by a tra­di­tional break­fast of egg hop­pers (fer­mented rice and co­conut f lour pan­cakes) be­fore a three-hour drive to be­gin our sea ad­ven­ture.

Surfers were wax­ing their boards as the sun came up at Weligama Bay Re­sort re­mind­ing us that this is rated one of the top surf­ing des­ti­na­tions. Here, fish­ing boats were hauled in by loudly chant­ing fish­er­men, who sell their catch at a small mar­ket nearby.

We in­dulged in a tra­di­tional Ayurvedic mas­sage be­fore tuk-tukking up the hill to Cape Weligama Re­sort for a cook­ery course. Charis­matic sous chef Vin­nol Wick­ra­mas­inghe showed us how to make lo­cal cur­ries that cleared our si­nuses.

After sun­down­ers over­look­ing the bay, we dined at Ocean Ter­race, where the chef ’s sig­na­ture dish, bar­ra­mundi, was all we could man­age.

A visit to the colo­nial city of

Galle took more than the promised 45 min­utes in a tuk-tuk as we stopped along the way to pho­to­graph stilt fish­er­men. Galle is made up of the old Dutch quar­ter in the 18th-cen­tury fort, a UNESCO World Her­itage site, and a new town built after the 2004 tsunami.

Ex­plor­ing the ram­parts where lo­cals stroll and f ly kites was ex­haust­ing in the midday heat, so we took refuge in some of the de­light­ful cafés and restau­rants. Light­house Street, which has a per­fect view of the Point Utrecht Bas­tion Light­house, is filled with bou­tiques, gal­leries and restau­rants.

Our tuk-tuk driver in­sisted on driv­ing us past the Galle In­ter­na­tional Cricket Sta­dium while reel­ing off a list of our fa­mous crick­eters, past and present. Men­tion cricket to most male Sri Lankans, and their eyes light up!

We ven­tured into the lo­cal mar­ket

to stock up on spices, tea and spoons crafted out of co­conuts. At din­ner on the cliffs at Chef Akkila’s Kitchen, we feasted on in­dige­nous dishes such as mas­saman curry and spicy prawns.

No sooner had we re­laxed into the coastal at­mos­phere, it was time to ven­ture north to the tea town of Ella in the hills. Most of the ac­com­mo­da­tion here is rus­tic. Home stays are the norm – many of­fer­ing spec­tac­u­lar moun­tain views. From ours, we could see two fa­mous sites, Lit­tle Adam’s Peak and

Ella Rock.

Each foray into the town in­volved a short yet steep 10-minute walk. Ella is best ex­plored on foot and in tuk-tuks. We took a ride to Nine Arches Bridge, an en­gi­neer­ing marvel built nearly

100 years ago and where the last part of the jour­ney is a walk through cool, dense jun­gle. By chance we were there for the 3.30pm train sight­ing. Tak­ing our place along­side many oth­ers hold­ing their phones and cam­eras, we clicked fu­ri­ously when the train shot past.

We grabbed a tuk-tuk to trans­port us to Lit­tle Adam’s Peak, 1 041m above sea level. It was worth the hour-long walk to the top, where the views of green­ery formed by tea plan­ta­tions and jun­gle are spec­tac­u­lar.

We got up early to ex­pe­ri­ence the sun­rise be­hind Ella Rock then headed into town for the Ella gar­den spice tour. After a re­fresh­ing cup of Dilmah gin­ger, lemon and honey tea, we re­turned to the moun­tains to visit a tea plan­ta­tion.

Tea is har­vested all year, and mainly picked by women, leav­ing men to do the back-break­ing tasks. Only the top leaves pro­vide qual­ity, and the slen­der, mid­dle bud be­tween the top two leaves makes the highly de­sired white tea, also known as sil­ver or gold tea be­cause of its value.

Then it was time for a fi­nal break­fast of egg hop­pers to pro­vide stamina for the hike up to Ella Rock along train tracks, past sim­ple houses in the vil­lage, to the wa­ter­fall for the last rocky climb to the top. We en­joyed stu­pen­dous views of the moun­tains and plan­ta­tions be­fore a horn-toot­ing six-hour drive back to the air­port.

Nine Arches Bridge

Fruit for sale on a cor­ner in Ella.

Ella Rock

Tuk-tuks in the cap­i­tal, Colombo.

Fish­ing boats at Weligama.

Choose a fresh fish and have it cooked for you.

Co­coon at the Wild Coast Tented Lodge.

The ram­parts and light­house at Galle.

Bar­ra­mundi at the Wild Coast Tented Lodge.

Yala Na­tional Park

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