We planned to climb to the top of Ella Rock and so on our second day we set to ticking this task off of Róisín's bucket list. We took a tuk tuk down to the town to search for a good breakfast to sustain us on our way. We had a long leisurely breakfast in Café Chill who claimed to sell western style breakfast and actually did! They even managed to serve really good coffee and a bacon roll to accompany the fruit platter and pancakes. Breakfasts in Sri Lanka are usually excellent except for the very weak tea and dreadful instant coffee. Having finished our breakfast our first task was to pre-book train tickets for the onward journey to Kandy the following days. So with that intention we made our way to the train station to pre-book our seats. We were advised by the ticket office that only 3rd class tickets could be pre-booked, telling us that 1st and 2nd class tickets could only be purchased on the morning of travel. A bit odd that 3rd class tickets have a convenience despite 2nd and 3rd class being more expensive but who are we to argue. I have come to realise that Ella residence just like to mess with tourists and think we are fair game and its all games. Ergo, we were told to be at the station for 6:00 am for a 6:30 ish train as it tended to be packed. That’s a 5:00 am rise and we all know how I relish them. On the up side we would get to see the sunrise before leaving this beautiful valley.
The Beginning of the Trail to Ella Rock
Armed with the necessary information for our departure the next day we walked back toward the town to start the ascent to Ella Rock which was a three and a half mile hike there and back and supposed to take just two hours. Róisín’s had thoroughly research the route and had downloaded the map. She had also learned that it is best not to listen to locals who’s main motivation is to send you astray so that they can rescue you for a fee. We had barely left the station when we were stopped by a very friendly guy sweeping the pavement outside a shop. He asked us where we were from and where we were going, the usual small talk. When I told him we were heading for the path to start the trek to Ella rock he told us we were going in the wrong direction and needed to head back to the station and start from there. The shop owner came out and although I have no idea what he said to the road sweeper he did appeared to be giving out to him. The shopkeeper told us to continue on the way we were going and pointed at the pathway which would bring us to the first leg of the journey and along the train tracks. We took his advice and Róisín’s map and continued on along the road. We followed a few other tourists up along the path and confirmed with them that we were going in the right direction and they concurred. I did realise the irony of asking travelers just like ourselves to confirm directions in this foreign land rather than ask a local. I don’t believe these misdirection’s were done with malice rather, I would say it was done with a sense of entrepreneurial endeavor. We followed up the path and came to a gap in the hedge through which we climbed to emerge onto the train track, not beside it but onto it. I don’t mind a bit of train spotting but I usually try to do that while not actually in the path of one. I wanted to turn back but Róisín gave me every argument not to, “We have traveled so far to do this” (from Ireland not the hotel), “You’ll regret it if you don’t” , “This is what people come to Ella to do”. She wore me down and I was aware that these were the type of statements I would have used when she was growing up to convince her and her sisters to venture where they did not want to go. Oh how the tables had turned.
So there I was stepping from sleeper to sleeper. I was terrified walking along that track as I was concerned a train might appear at any minute and we would be compelled to jump into the long undergrowth at either side of the track as there was no place else to go. My head was in overdrive wondering if there might be deadly snakes, spiders, or rats. Several times I said to Róisín I wanted to turn back, I was not very comfortable with track walking, fair to say I was scared witless. We meet a work crew on the track so I figured they would know before we did if a train was coming and they seemed happy enough working. We also met a couple heading in the same direction so I felt a bit more confident that we were heading the right way. There were quite a few tourists who had started early in the morning and were now heading back to town so we would usually confirm with them the route ahead. We were approached a few times along this track by the locals and they told us we were going the wrong way and that these helpful strangers would be delighted to show us the correct way. But we ignored all and carried on despite the regular interference. We came to very high bridge over a river. If a train did come along at this point there would be little choice but to jump from the bridge. I delved into the recesses of my mind and recalled from my childhood the cowboy and India movies showing the gang planning to rob the train always put their ear to the track to get an indication as to how far away the train was. I asked Róisín to implement the technique but she refused swearing I was making this up. I argued that it would be easier for her than me considering my advanced years. I pointed out that getting down wouldn’t be the problem it was the getting up that might prove challenging. No amount of argument would move her. So I had to hunker down myself which was very undignified for a woman of my age but there was no way I was risking getting caught midway on that bridge. As we stood figuring out our next move a local approached and again started with the small talk and handed me a stick to aid in the walk. I guessed he must have seen me doing the track listening thing and just assumed I was on my knees from weakness. He did ask me how old I was but it was only later that I made the connection between track listening and sticks. We chatted some more and he seemed to be stalling. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to offer something for the stick or ask for his assistance as our guide. Either way I didn't want to be fumbling with a wallet in this isolated location. After a few minutes we ran out of small talk. Before we went on our way he told us the train wasn’t due for an hour before disappearing down a side path back into the jungle. The bridge wasn’t very long so on a quick assessment we made a dash for it and got to the other side. We only had a short distance left to track walk before we came to a path to the left concealed discreetly in the bushes. If you didn't know what you were looking for you would easily walk by.
Trekking our way through the Jungle
What a relief to be off that track and I dreaded the thought of having to make a return journey. We went down the little track and came to a small bridge over a small waterfall. We could see people swimming further down river and despite my fears I didn't fail to see the beauty of it all. Took a little breather under a shady tree before following the path up through a tea plantation. It was really getting hot now but I figured I may as well keep moving forward rather than go back as the alternative was the track and I was happy to put that off for as long as possible. Up we went through the tea plantation and then the incline became steeper. I was glad of that stick. There was a little rest area a local had set up to refresh the weary traveler. It was no more than a lean-to but it was out of the sun selling fruit juice or water to the fish emerging from that barrel. There were a few traveler there taking advantage of the opportunity but after a hello and a wave we kept going. We were now in thick of the forest and the climb was getting more difficult. We come to the first plateau where we took a little breather. People who had passed us earlier were coming back down and when asked if the worst was over they would give a rye smile and say it will be worth it. I’m thinking well the worst is over, oh so wrong. Heading toward the next tree line I can see the ascent is nearly vertical. But as people are coming down I ask them how much further it is and all are very encouraging saying we were nearly at the top. With the aid of my stick and Róisín ahead offering me a hand to steady me on the deeper steps we make our very slow progress. I fix on a tree and say okay we are going to get to there, it might only be a few feet but slow and steady does it. As people are coming down they can see I’m struggling so they keep offering more encouragement. One group who had passed us on the assent stopped to assure me it wasn’t far and pointed to where it leveled out just a little above. They also assured us that there was a place to rest at the top with a little coffee shop and even toilets. I confessed my fear now was getting back down that mountain. But the young lady reassured me that there was a road at the top that lead off in the opposite direction but perhaps it might be possible to call a tuk tuk. Oh happy me I was tuk tuking off this mountain. If there is a road there is a tuk tuk. So the endgame was at hand so we pushed on through. Róisín is pulling me up over boulders. People going up and coming down are giving us encouragement and looks of concern. My legs are like jelly and the climb is proving more demanding. I said to Róisín “people are looking at you dragging your poor mother up the side of a mountain, literally dragging and saying to themselves what an evil kid you are!” to which she replied “No they are not, they think I’m helping you fulfill a lifetime dream of yours”. Oh my god so she knew what she was doing. “So I suppose that’s what your going to tell the authorities when they find my dead body, expired from exhaustion at the top. “Exactly” says she, the cheeky mare. We finally make it the last few feet motivated entirely by the thought that I would not be making the return trip on foot.
The View at Ella Rock
We came out of the clearing at the very top to a most spectacular view. Was it worth it? Well I’m not good with heights so this would never have been on any bucket list of mine. I am incapable of taking those insta pictures balancing on the edge of the abyss embracing the world so I sat way way back from the edge nearer the coffee shop than the precipice. Just watching Róisín was more than my nerves would take. I shall let the pictures speak for themselves. I was very impressed with myself and despite all my moaning and complaining I’m glad I did it and that is entirely down to Róisín. Having ticked Róisín’s bucket list we took in the view and a bit of a rest with a coffee like beverage. Before leaving we asked the attendant if we could get a tuk tuk down the mountain but they didn't seem to understand what we were saying. So forgetting the number of times I found myself lost in Donadea forest (just five minutes from my home) we bravely set forth. There had been a motorbike parked at the cafe so we figured the road must have some traffic. Admittedly the track we were following had ruts you would see left from agricultural machinery. But I stuffed those annoying thoughts way down because going down the mountain the way we had come would definitely have killed me. Off we went skipping our way like we were members of the 7 dwarfs, happy, dopey, and sleepy all would apply. We walked and walked and I honestly was getting worried but so was Róisín so I kept saying that of course we would bump into civilization, “It's a road for gods sake some one made it and some one uses it”. We walked for miles and it seemed the road was going in the opposite direction to the way we had arrived. We had no phone signal so we were totally on our own but worrying about that wasn't going to get us off this mountain. On and on we went through thick forest. But for the birds there was total silence. We came upon an old camp site leading me to believe that we were now deep in the wilderness. I was really starting to worry as we had about 3 hours of daylight and being up here at night was not on anyone’s bucket list. Plod plod plod, uphill, round ends and then like magic we found ourselves outside the entrance to a monastery. It was a Buddhist monastery and there were signs everywhere telling us that this was a silent order. Laugh of laughs there were also signs with mobile phones and big xs through them. I think the silent order being so isolated didn't realise that you need a signal for a mobile phone otherwise you only have a lump of plastic. So we are women and the monks are not allowed to talk to us even if they were not already a silent order. So we walked on but with confidence as we knew this road did eventually end somewhere. We walked on another mile and saw a sign in english saying to enter this space was illegal and carried a fine but that didn't apply to us as we had come from the other direction and only saw the sign as we were leaving. Honestly I would have paid the fine to get off the bloody mountain. We meet so merry wood cutters who were quite surprised seeing us coming from the direction of the monastery, clearly we were out of place and with a hello from me and a polite nod from them on they went. We didn't ask for directions I hear your brains saying but remember we cant trust locals even in these extreme circumstances. So on we bravely go and abject terror is now replaced with just nervousness so we can enjoy our surroundings. On the bright side we are discovering areas in Ella that few tourists had ever discovered except perhaps for the sarong donning, flip flop wearing, disillusioned westerners looking to join the monastery for a week or two then realising they cant live without their phones. Ah I’m being hard on the poor lads, sorry middle aged men who wish they were lads. We pass some ladies who have been to the school to collect their children all with the look of "what the fiddle sticks are they doing here?". Ever sociable it's hello and a nod and a smile from them in return.
Panoramic View of Ella Rock
Eureka! We see a village in the clearing well not a clearing more like a less tree populated area. Róisín has her google map working so we make our way toward the settlement and are making our way out the other side, when who should approach us but one of the householders. He was curious to know where we were going and we explained that we were heading back to Ella. So he asked if we wanted a tuk tuk and of course I said yes please. He called his friend who arrived in seconds and quoted an outrageous price. I think it was his son but in an instant I forgot our position and started to haggle. But the gentleman was not for moving and so in an instant we lost our tuk tuk. We continued up the path but the friendly neighbour told us we had taken the wrong path. So we thanked him and did a reverse, and yes Róisín objected but followed me any way. Down the path we went and god was it steep. Turned a corner where two dogs came at us but my screaming attracted the owner who called them off and dragged them inside. On we went to the end of the road which was clearly the end indicated by the wall and the river. Oh but now I’m mad and this rage fueled me. “Come on Róisín put a smile on that face don’t let him see it's getting to you”. We headed back up the hill past the crazy dogs which where now locked in their garden and past the pick in the garden who was looking out for us and laughing. I shouted up to him “Wow, thank you so much if you hadn’t misdirected us we never would have seen the beautiful river at the bottom. I'll be sure to write about it so other tourists will be able to find it. Open a coffee shop because this time next year this little road outside your house will be a highway for backpackers”. His face was like thunder. Laughing, waving and skipping we went. Clearly, he had contacted his neighbors who at some point stepped from their homes to watch us. Houses above us and below people were stepping out to see us. Perhaps this is what it was like for the first western explorers but there were plenty of chalkies around now so it wasn’t our complexions making the news. Children started to follow us I felt like the pied piper. Parents standing at doorways. Children following, smiling and laughing. “Róisín pretend we are having a ball of a time like this is the best happy accident we ever experienced”. We nodded and smiled at the children and kept a cheery step is the only way to describe it. Róisín couldn't understand where my energy came from, “you were dying a minute ago. I thought I'd have to carry you down the mountain” she said. I reply “Rage Róisín utter rage, I can't believe it myself but its worked wonders. I should really go back and thank the man. So stick a smile on it and up your step” I said. Róisín’s reply was “I’m exhausted I’m struggling”. Says I “you dragged me up a mountain let that achievement fuel you because I dammed if I am going to give that arsehole a win”. So on we went out of the village. The audience became bored and went back inside. Even the children stopped following us as we were a distance from their homes. At last we came to a road with tar and at that cross road was a Buddha shrine. “Róisín stop there we will rest here for a bit and for anyone watching we’re here for Buddha. It might make them feel bad and remind them that Buddha wouldn’t have done this to strangers”. We couldn’t wait long as it would be dark soon. Twists and turns again and our lovely road turned into a wooden bridge guarded by two bloody dogs. On the opposite side were two guys washing their tuk tuk and laughing at my terror. But nothing was going to stop me getting across that bridge. They continued washing their vehicle looking up occasionally and laughing. Enough, I found a stick and some stones and started pelting them at the dogs saying in the best Kildare farmer accent “get out of it, go on move” in a growling roar. I think I frightened the guys washing the tuk tuk because they immediately called the dogs in and never made eye contact after. I was glad I didn't have to use the stones on the dogs but was glad of the stick. I now have my hat tied on my head with a scarf to protect me from the sun I imagined I looked like some old English vicars wife going in search of converts. My stick was as tall as staff Saint Patrick would have been proud of and off I went striding up the hill with Róisín beside me. “Keep up dear, come along”. I was fully immersed in this roll. We were joined by a group of young lads about 12 or 14 years. I guessed the word was out and clearly we were out of place. The lads said hello and in my most congenial voice I said “How ye lads”. They started to laugh and asked where we were from and I told them Ireland which seemed to surprise and impress them in equal measure. “Do you know Connor MacGregor? Connor McGregor, sure he’s my neighbour I meet him regularly when he’s walking his dog. He live in my area. His partner is a lovely lady and they have the cutest little lad, he must be 3 now”. They whispered among themselves for a minute and finished with “have an nice day mam”. “You too lads nice meeting ye”. At the top of the road we found a real road. I mean with traffic not that it became any more substantial than the one we were leaving. Róisín says “How are you still going? My legs are numb”. “Rage Róisín, pure rage, I’m even surprised myself but I cant stand anyone getting the better of me but its like rocket fuel. That’s saying scary things about my personality. Do you think I should have that checked out? Ah! only messing with ye but for that guy we would still be lost in the jungle". So as we walked the busy road we hailed every tuk tuk that passed but most had passengers. But persistence is the name of the game and one stopped. “Ella town Sir”.
On arrival I replayed the closing scene from ‘A town called Alice’ for those who know that was the coolest loveliest beer I have ever had and for those who don’t, look it up its a classic. But for you young ones who will have difficulty getting over the coda chrome you will never know what you’ve missed. Next week my friends its the train to Ella. Love you all and let me know your thoughts!
Róisín as we try find our way back to civilisation
Hi, I'm Olive and I am the writer of this blog. I am traveling the world with my 22 year old daughter, Róisín, who has just graduated University. I wanted to document this journey because it is unusual for a woman of 58 years old to go on adventure that most students do on a gap year. I will try to share my insights into this epic journey with you along the way and maybe inspire more people my age to go on these crazy adventures too.