WE START THE FOLLOWING DAY with our guesthouse, the Freedom Guesthouse Inn, serving us some toast, fresh fruits and tea at the terrace outside our second-floor room. The server (whose name I fail to get) is a cheery fellow and very eager to please his guests. But he seems to be a one-staff-member-team, having had led us to our room last evening, brought us blankets, and served us breakfast, while attending to other guests as well.
It’s almost hard to relax while seeing him scurry from one room to another, asking guests if there’s anything we need. “No,” we say smiling. He bobbles his head, the way I believe South Asians do to say, “Okay.” Then he disappears to a room at the first floor.
A tranquil spell follows. The sun peeks through the branches and is already at a high point, but it’s not hot. The cool hill breeze blows the trees gently, and a chorus of bird calls pierces the silence.
Ella is a pretty town on the southern edge of the Hill Country, surrounded by tea plantations and forests. It has become a popular destination for travelers in the past years; establishments geared mostly for foreigners are now mushrooming across town. The town itself has nothing to offer to tourists except for a couple of short walks and treks, as well as some guesthouses, restaurants, and bars. It’s basically a base for exploring surrounding towns, but what nice base it is.
After breakfast, C and I walk a few meters east of Freedom Guesthouse to a path off the main road leading to what is locally known as the Little Adam’s Peak. It’s not to be confused with Adam’s Peak, the country’s most popular mountain and a major pilgrimage site for Sri Lankan Buddhists. This one is a relatively tiny ascent, taking around 30 minutes from the road to the summit. But the views both going up and on the top are superb, with panoramic views of the surrounding hills and the verdant tea farms that carpet their sides.
And for something that’s well-known, there aren’t many tourists – at least at this very hour, around 8:00 am. Two statues of the Buddha are on top, each perched on a table surrounded by sleeping dogs.
Just before lunch, we go to two more destinations near town. The first one is the Nine Arches Bridge, a popular structure in the neighboring town of Demodara. The 30-meter-high bridge is located at a viaduct between the Ella and Demodara train stations and is surrounded by a lush forest. The bridge itself is built using bricks, rocks, and cement, allegedly without steel. The story goes that the British commissioned the bridge, but construction halted during World War I, leaving the structure in limbo. The locals would then proceed on finishing the bridge, but without steel, the supply of which was used in Britain’s military projects.
Getting to the bridge isn’t really easy. You can either walk quite a distance along the tracks or through a steep ascent from the main road from Ella. The roads are narrow and a couple of inches are all that separate you and a descent hundreds of feet below. C wisely suggests taking on a trishaw to save time, but it still has to drive through that ascent. Nonetheless, we arrive at the first clearing for the bridge just a few minutes later, and we’re in luck; the train is set to arrive in just a few minutes.
C sets herself up on the topmost viewpoint, while I go with our trishaw driver to a few levels down for a closer shot of the passing train. I stand beside another tourist who has already camped on the spot. Below, more groups of tourists are standing on either side of the tracks with their camera phones and videos ready.
Soon we hear the choo-choo and the steady rumbling of the train, and a few minutes later, the train snakes out of the hills, slowly passing over the bridge. The passengers wave at the tourists beside the tracks, and the tourists wave back.
Our next destination is the Newburgh Green Tea Factory, further east from the road leading to the Nine Arches Bridge. The factory itself is located in a cool spot on a hillside overlooking a vast tea plantation. We actually hoped to see tea pickers in action, but we haven’t had such luck. So, instead, we settle for a tour here of how tea leaves are processed into perhaps Sri Lanka’s most famous export. The whole tour is over before we know it, and we are led upstairs to the cafeteria for a free sample of their products.
Having seen how tea is made and drinking it, too, we ride back to central town for some much deserved lunch.