High times in Hill Country

Adventure lovers can canoe, cycle and trek in lush Sri Lanka

Tea plantations stretch on endlessly in the Hill Country of Sri Lanka, where one can trek to little Pahanthuda Ella waterfall (above). -- PHOTO: LEE SIEW HUA
Tea plantations stretch on endlessly in the Hill Country of Sri Lanka, where one can trek to little Pahanthuda Ella waterfall (above). -- PHOTO: LEE SIEW HUA
Walk along eucalyptus railway tracks to Little Adam’s Peak. 98 Acres Resort & Spa (above) has a huge verandah where one can sit eye-to-eye with the peak. -- PHOTO: LEE SIEW HUA
Walk along eucalyptus railway tracks (above) to Little Adam’s Peak. 98 Acres Resort & Spa has a huge verandah where one can sit eye-to-eye with the peak. -- PHOTO: TAN KENG YAO
Tea plantations (above) stretch on endlessly in the Hill Country of Sri Lanka, where one can trek to little Pahanthuda Ella waterfall. -- PHOTO: LEE SIEW HUA

I wonder what lies ahead when my canoe journey on the Black River wending through Sri Lanka's gemstone zone is canned due to flooding a few days earlier.

Diverted instead to the butterfly-shaped Samanalawewa Reservoir in the highlands, I can't help thinking it may be like paddling in our own MacRitchie Reservoir - lovely yet quite possibly bland. And gone too is my chance of poking around for cerulean blue sapphires on the flood plains of the Black River.

I have embarked on six days of active travel in Sri Lanka and have planned to canoe, cycle and trek, mainly in the lush Hill Country of Sri Lanka.

But my multi-activity travel plans unspool here and there. At such times, when I travel and the scenes shift when I least expect it, serendipity shows up and I often look at places afresh.

My perspective indeed begins to shift when I canoe to a tiny windswept islet on the Samanalawewa Reservoir and discern the outline of a vanished village.

Abandoned rice terraces curve around the reservoir. And when the water is unruffled, sunken temple ruins are visible.

These are signs, nearly erased, that 300 families once lived in this pastoral corner of south-west Sri Lanka. They were relocated when the controversial dam - which sprung a leak, and was also dogged by suspicion over foreign financing - was built between 1986 and 1991 to produce hydroelectricity.

This restless modern quest for energy finds an echo in the first millennium, when wind-power technology was deployed, right here, to smelt iron.

I experience some of that raw wind power when I canoe. Reservoirs come with glass-smooth surfaces, I have always thought. But here, I encounter patches of rough waves and, with the wind against us, I have to use lots of paddle power.

The situation reverses on the way back. With the wind now at our backs, there is little need to paddle and it is a moment of repose in our hour-long trip. I hear birdsong and look out for wild buffalo, but they prefer a morning outing rather than the somnolent mid-afternoon.

Sri Lanka, a compact island with more than 100 rivers, plus swamps, lagoons, interconnected canals, reservoirs and, of course, curving coastlines, seems perfect for water adventure.

"This place makes me feel alive," my paddling partner, Mr Anuradha Nilanga, 26, remarks. "It's close to nature, with no mechanical sounds. It's just me and the jungle and the animals."

The safety and adventure executive at Eco Team (www.srilankaecotourism.com), which arranges this water-sport segment of my trip in June, adds: "I think of the past, how the village is now in ruins and its culture gone. But as a country, we have to make choices."

The place seems redolent with the stories of unseen people. But there is an intriguing figure at a tiny waterfall. We canoe closer and realise we are looking at a disabled young man who is using his arms to drag himself across the terrain.

He is clutching freshly caught fish which are still squirming. It is very easy to fish here, he says in Sinhalese, indicating that the water teems with life.

I admire his independence, and think about how this quiet site is a repository of narratives of rustic life and ancient technology.

And when I return to shore, I have a glimpse of one more story.

A sign reads: "Trespassers will be shot without warning." It is an ominous relic of Sri Lanka's 26-year civil war, which ended in 2009 when the military defeated the insurgent Tamil Tigers.

Besides ditching the Black River, my cycling trip also sputters in Belihuloya, a hillside hamlet. Here, I find that the Hill Country is too steep and scary for my novice cycling ability.

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My local guide from the Water Garden Hotel settles on a quick change of plan. Instead of exploring on two wheels, we will first trek to a waterfall, then walk from village to village.

To reach the waterfall, we walk over smooth rocks akin to a broad, natural, sun-bleached path that skirts a stream. The rocks are in shades of grey and brown, with warm tints of red. There is nobody but us and a friendly village dog that becomes our instant best friend.

It is a less trodden path and, at times, I part the long prickly grass to find my way. I cross the stream by removing my trekking shoes to slide slowly along a partially submerged concrete wall, with the dog confidently forging ahead.

I also pop into a meditation nook sculpted into the rock face by the elements.

It is a 20-minute walk to the little Pahanthuda Ella waterfall, which looks like a curved traditional oil lamp. I love the secrecy of this spot and the cool, contemplative essence of waterfalls.

After this, we start a 5km trek that takes me to various villages over 11/2 hours. The rustic scenes change as we go and it is like clicking through a set of Instagram photos.

Hemmed in by mountains, the padi terraces are crammed into tiny spaces. The wind is exhilarating, ruffling the rice stalks and shallow water.

The sound of gushing mountain streams is everywhere - very refreshing at a hot noon hour. Nature abounds here and my guide points out a giant squirrel on a treetop. He shows me a red coffee bean, splitting it to reveal a moist, light-green bean.

Sovereign among the trees here is the national tree, the ironwood, which grows to a height of 30m. Also called the Na tree, its wood, very heavy and strong, is used for the doors and roofs of temples.

I also see kitul palm trees with hanging flowers. From their sap, villagers produce palm wine or toddy, treacle and vinegar. Few villagers are around, but we catch glimpses of their lives in their Buddhist stupas and functional vegetation.

The third slice of my trip goes according to plan. In hilly Ella, nature abounds again when I take a 3km walk along eucalyptus railway tracks to the 1,141m Little Adam's Peak.

The tracks remind me of the nature walks along Singapore's Rail Corridor, with signs of civilisation, although the discoveries in Ella are a little wilder.

I am a mosquito magnet, so I am delighted to spy citronella grass. I crush a couple of stalks and tuck the natural insect repellent into my pocket.

My local guide, Mr LH Jayasiri, a champion cylist, points out the avian life that I easily miss - kingfishers, sunbirds, black eagles and loud tailor birds that squabble under a bush.

It is fun to see neatly dressed Sri Lankans, on their way to work, using the tracks like a rustic road. A girl leading a stubborn cow on a rope and gabbing on her mobile phone catches my eye.

The tracks, where I dart between shade and light, are edged with wildflowers and webs. The trains have set schedules six times a day and Mr Jayasiri, who works at LSR Travel (www.lsr-srilanka.com), assures me he knows the timing.

We enter a cool train tunnel, home to some bats. Then we linger at Nine Arch Bridge - a nostalgic colonial-era granite bridge with nine graceful arches - which I had whooshed over on my train journey the night before.

To the right of the bridge, we begin our ascent to Little Adam's Peak, which Mr Jayasiri has climbed more than a hundred times. We are exposed to a strong wind as we walk on the trail.

We pass tea plantations, and meet two brothers who have gathered yellow blooms from a tree for their home. It is uplifting to reach the summit. Even if this is a little pinnacle, we are closer to the clouds. The wraparound view embraces lots of sky, the Ravana falls, caves and two unamed peaks tantalisingly close by that I would have liked to climb. But it is just too gusty, Mr Jayasiri says.

Yet the trek is family-friendly overall, he notes, and, right on cue, a couple with two young boys appear at the summit.

And so my gently active trip is full of surprise moments, vistas and twists that I do not seek, but relish all the more for their serendipity.


Follow Lee Siew Hua on Twitter @STsiewhua

This is the fourth instalment of a five-part series. Next week: Jungle trekking in the Philippines.

Restful moments

My active trip is also infused with restful moments in the undulating Hill Country of Sri Lanka.

A languid train journey, a visit to a tea factory and an overnight stay at the mountainside 98 Acres Resort & Spa are a calm counterpoint to the hours spent in a canoe, walking from village to village and ascending a small pinnacle.

I take a day-long train ride on the Expo Rail (www.exporail.lk; 2,400 rupees, S$50) to get from the city of Colombo to tiny Ella in the Hill Country. The Expo Rail has a private cabin with its own open-deck carriage, where the sights, sounds and sensations of rustic Sri Lanka are amplified.

After two hours, the locomotive starts climbing gently. We trundle through forests of conifers - Christmas trees are harvested here - and pass icy waterfalls on a cool June day. The manicured tea plantations on slopes are shrouded in mist and stretch endlessly.

There is a lot of time to befriend Sri Lankans as we sip hot, sweet, milky tea served by a pair of well-spoken young stewards who also whip out an iPad to let us preview the scenery.

Trains are communal and I watch as two friends pull out a pile of deep-apricot ribbons and meticulously create bows which will top 500 wedding-cake boxes for one of their children.

I offer to help and ask Mrs Corrine Bulner, a Sri Lankan retiree living in Brisbane, what goes into a traditional Sri Lankan wedding fruitcake. Fruit marinated in brandy, rose essence, almonds and mixed spices such as cloves are among the luscious elements she names.

Her husband Mike Bulner, also retired, says he left Sri Lanka in 1996 for Brisbane when he was about 20 and still makes his own salted fish to eat with rice.

"Steam engines in Sri Lanka were once so slow that villagers could hop off safely when the train approached their villages. They didn't wait to get to the station,'' he reminisces.

The whole journey, on tracks built by the British, has a whiff of nostalgia.

In Ella, I visit the Halpewatte (www.halpetea.com) tea factory, where I learn that Sri Lankan tea grows at three elevations - low, middle and high. The very dry and windy conditions from July to September in this mid-altitude zone dehydrates the tea leaves intensely and produces fine flavours.

The aromatics, caffeine, amino acids and polyphenols in the leaf are concentrated, says Mr A Sivanathan, 62, my tea tour manager, who tells the story of tea vividly.

He leads me to parts of the fragrant factory where I touch tender, freshly snipped tea leaves. I watch how tea is withered and rolled, among other intricate processes.

Then on an upper floor with a splendid view, I enjoy a tea tasting session with varieties of orange pekoe. Cuppas are made from curled buds, tender stalks and even flaky old leaves so I can appreciate the nuances.

My visit to a tea factory is as fascinating as any vineyard visit I have enjoyed.

I stay at the 98 Acres Resort & Spa (www.resort98acres.com) in Ella and it is lovely to sit on the huge verandah, eye-to-eye with Little Adam's Peak, the small mountain I climbed earlier in the day.

The eco-chic resort recycles savvily, using discarded railway sleepers for its decks and furniture. Standard rooms start at US$180 (S$225) a night.

Solitary in the muted light, I read, send my first tweets about travel, sip tea and snack on very fragrant papaya slices.

On my six-day trip, I weave through southwestern Sri Lanka, taking in sun-lit valleys, mountainscapes and small rural towns, besides the seaside town of Negombo.

My guide and chauffeur, Mr Kithsiri Bandava, is also a Kandy investigative journalist who connects the dots for me when we riff about the diverse beauty, cuisine, culture and politics of Sri Lanka.

We drink the ubiquitous Elephant Ginger Beer, which I had quaffed as a student when I spent a month here.

Mr Thilak Weerasinghe, the group chairman of the LSR travel company (www.lsr-srilanka.com), which co-designed my trip with Adventure Quests (adventure-quests.com) in Singapore, puts the adventure quotient of Sri Lanka in perspective.

"Sri Lanka has a huge diversification of different altitudes, weather, vegetation, wildlife and more. For me, that's a key factor in adventure.

"You see the biggest mammal on land and in water - the elephant and the whale. There are many experiences in one short tour on a compact island."

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