The instructions seemed pretty clear on paper: follow the railway track, turn left at the bridge, head up. But we were stuck at the first hurdle. Assuming following the railway track meant we had to go to the train station we were a little bit stumped to be met with a locked gate when we got there. Looking around and seeing no other way in we climbed up and jumped over it.
“Madam, stop!” From nowhere, station security arrived and fixed us with a disapproving stare.
“What are you doing?”
“Trying to climb Ella Rock,” I explained, waving my crude instructions in his face,” It says to follow the railway track for 2.5 kilometres.”
“Yes, but there is a road,” he sighed.
Competent hikers we were not.
We followed the road we should have been on until it abruptly stopped and then hopped up onto the wooden sleepers, as the rest of the village seemed to be doing. Ladies in lemon saris danced along the track, men in long skirts marched past carrying heavy sacks. Every single one of them bid us hello.
The track curved around the edge of the valley, farms and tea plantations spread diagonally either side. As the morning sun burnt away the lingering mist a jagged peak appeared in front of us.
“We’re climbing that?”
About a kilometre into the first flat stretch I picked up a shadow. A man had sprung from the bushes and was walking a few steps behind me. He suddenly took over and awarded me a smile. Then,
“Where are you going Miss?”
I told him.
“And you have map?”
I showed him.
He nodded and went back into the bushes. Finally we came to the black bridge on our map and stopped to reread the instructions. Turn left it said, then right, then follow the path. Except there were two paths and what appeared to be a cabbage patch before them. Were we allowed on the land? Is this the bridge the map mentioned?
Suddenly our friend from earlier reappeared. “Come, come,” he said, “I show you the way.”
He guided us for the next three hours.
Kumar, as our guide turned out to be named, chose the route he thought we would be most suited to. It was longer but not as steep (he had assessed my fitness levels and lack of appropriate footwear well). There are many routes to the top of Ella Rock but none are signposted or clearly marked. We were glad to have gained a guide.
After that initial cabbage patch we were to pass more farms. We came through people’s homes, past waterfalls and around barking dogs. The terrain changed from wide jungle bush to tall forest trees. The last 20 minutes were a steep, crumbly climb, made harder by the high altitude and my pink sneakers constantly losing grip. Then finally the trees came to an end and there was nothing in front of us but an abrupt drop and a staggering view of the Ella Gap. Kumar, in his 40s but looking 30, stopped for a rest and, grateful for the break, we sat down too.
Kumar led us back down a different way than we came come up, stopping to show us honey bees and a temple in the early stages of construction. Once back on the railway track that took us into town, I had a rush of childlike excitement when the rails began to shake. Coming round the hill was a magnificent blue engine, chuttering and spluttering its way towards us. Just like the train we had come in on this one had people hanging from doors and windows making use of the natural air con. They all waved enthusiastically as we pressed our bodies against the bushes in order to let it pass.
Kumar’s English was little but towards the end of our hike he managed to convey a sweet offer,
“Come to my house for tea?”
Kumar is not a guide but a local farmer, he explained, and he wanted to show us his land and introduce us to his wife. His home turned out to be a humble building by the side of the railway, his land on the other side of the track below. When we arrived at his house he called for his wife, she shook our hands and immediately set off to plug in the kettle – she did this by unplugging the TV. Kumar said something we could not understand and set off down the hill at a rapid jogging pace. He appeared 10 minutes later with sweat on his brow and a shopping bag on his arm. He had been out to buy bananas and biscuits to go with our tea.
We couldn’t stay long but as Kumar and his wife waved us off from the doorway of their home we couldn’t have been more grateful for their hospitality and help. In this case being an incompetent hiker had definitely had its perks.
Ella Rock takes approximately 4 hours to hike from Ella town. It is best to set off early in the morning as mist tends to roll in during the afternoon and hiking during the middle of the day can be incredibly hot. You can hire a guide to show you the way for approx. 2-3000 rupees. If you want to go alone most guesthouses will provide you with a map and if you get lost you can always pick up a local guide along the way as we did. We paid Kumar 2000 rupees to thank him for his time.
Ella has a range of guesthouses to choose from and it looks like they are in the process of building a swanky hotel too. We stayed at Ella Rock House, a new guesthouse close to the centre of town. Rooms are spacious and modern and have an outside terrace where breakfast is served as they complete the building work on the restaurant. A double room with breakfast and AC costs $35 per night. Management will pick you up from the train station for free and are super helpful with booking drivers and tours. I also loved the way they lit the house up like Christmas so you can easily find it at night! You can book directly with them via email.
We took the train to Ella from Kandy. It was the most beautiful train journey of my life and costs less than £1.80. More details on train journeys in Sri Lanka will be coming up next.