It’s dawn. Freezing rains are howling across the sub-alpine grasses; we struggle from being blown off the rough path. Suddenly, we burst through a wall of mist to a platform. A sign announces “World’s End”, warning of a sheer 800m drop. We are hiking the 10km Horton Plains circuit to Baker’s Falls and World’s End, in the 2000m-high central mountains of Sri Lanka. This is not a common image of tropical Sri Lanka, that Tasmania-sized teardrop island that seems to dangle from India’s tip.After the cessation of 30 years of civil war, Sri Lanka is definitely open for visitors. Most tourist fly into Colombo’s Bandaranaike International Airport and either head for the beach resorts on the south-west coast or follow a well- travelled circuit through the north and hilly central area. We were keen to see the exotic island at our leisure, so hired a driver/guide. Our starting point is Negombo, a dusty seaside resort 20km north of the capital. Think modest hotels spilling on to the beach, fleets of fishing boats sailing out of an orange sunset and mobs of friendly kids.
Heading north through small towns and lush vegetation, the first stop is the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage reserve. It’s a good spot to get up close to cute pachyderms as they frolic in the river. Then, a long drive north through increasingly dry and arid terrain takes us to the cultural triangle of 2000-year-old World Heritage sites.
Continue north; you come to Jaffna and the shattered Tamil territory. The Buddhist monastic complex of Anuradhapura sits on a dusty plain, our eyes drawn to towering brick stupas, temple walls, pools and sacred shrines. At the Maha Vihara temple, white- robed devotees sit around the bodhi tree, grown from the tree where Buddha gained enlightenment.
Several hours drive away, surrounded by a huge man-made lake, Polonnaruwa was the site of 1000-year-old Sinhalese and Indian kingdoms. The excellent museum and guide help to make sense of the remains of the seven-storey Royal Palace, surrounded by gardens and pools, and the Quadrangle, filled with temples and carved statures of Buddha. Sigiriya a fifth century royal fortress built on top of a 300m-high rock, sticks out of the flat countryside like a sore thumb. The two-hour hike to the top, past exquisitely laid out gardens and ponds and vibrant frescoes, is very demanding but the panoramic view at the top is worth it. With your head buzzing with history, turn south into those green hills.
The winding road cuts through lush jungle. Signs warn of elephants crossing, while troops of monkeys bursting through the trees remind you it is still wilderness. Not all of it – it’s also a major spice growing area. Exuberant plantations beckon the visitor to see how pepper, cloves, turmeric, nutmeg, cinnamon and cardamom are grown. We are lured into buying packets of fresh spices to enhance our curries and some herbal oils to ease our aches and pains.
Kandy sits around a large lake, surrounded by high hills, in the centre of Sri Lanka. It was the capital of the last Sinhalese kingdom until the British realised the cool air would make a great escape from Colombo’s heat and captured it in 1815. It’s still very popular with local tourists. Our five-star Cinnamon Citadel Hotel has stunning views over the hills and Mahaweli River, a tasteful bedroom and a breakfast buffet to die for.
The Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic is a huge white complex built on the lake, which houses Buddha’s Tooth in a golden casket. Long lines of the faithful shuffled past just for a glimpse of it, the halls buzzing with their prayers. In July, the tooth is honoured by the 10-day long Esala Perahera; processions of elephants and Kandyan dancers. And don’t miss those Kandy Dancers, exotic tumblers, wild dancers and thrilling drummers who perform at several venues in Kandy.
South of Kandy, the misty hill-station of Nuwara Eliya is set in a sea of tea plantations, with British names such as Glenloch and Mackwoods. The town used to be the watering hole for tea planters. You can almost hear the tinkle of gin and tonic as chaps in white wield the willow. Now, their gabled cottages and clubs have been turned into classy hotels and guesthouses. Our St Andrew’s hotel boasts rooms with high ceilings, fireplaces and creaking teak floors, a smoking room with billiard table and a large gloomy dining room. It’s a good base for many interesting hikes, including Horton Plains National Park, an hour away.
At 2243m, Adam’s Peak is Sri Lanka’s highest, best accessed by car. Be prepared for a 2am start, hundreds of steps and hordes of pilgrims; the view from the top will take what’s left of your breath away. For a relaxing three-hour trip through hilly tea plantations, take the train to Ella, another fabulous hill town. Our Zion View Guest House clings to a ridge overlooking Ella Gap and blue-tinged hills; a great place to enjoy home-cooked chicken curry and an invigorating Ayurveda massage. Nearby, Little Adam’s Peak is an easy three-hour ramble, as well as many other hikes. The little town is a backpacker haven, offering coffee, cakes, muesli, wraps, smoothies, curd and kotthu rotti (grilled chopped vegies) and hoppers (a thin stuffed pancake)
It’s a 1000m drop from the cool of Ella to the hot, dry plains and Sri Lanka’s other big drawcards – the Udawalawe and Yala national parks – reputed to be teeming with animals. As our four-wheel- drive bounces us around the dusty tracks, we see plenty of wild elephant, buffalo and deer but the star attractions, leopard and sloth bear, must be having the day off.
It’s a half-day’s drive from Yala along the south coast to Galle. Walled Galle is a tiny gem perched on the island’s tip; centuries of Portuguese, Dutch, British and Sri Lankan history crammed into a half a square kilometre, with churches, mosques, quaint stone houses, colonial buildings and boutique hotels all clustered along the narrow, cobbled streets.
Our stylish hotel, Coco Bay Resort, is nearby at Unawatuna, Sri Lanka’s latest sun-lovers’ beach destination. Not ours – we are put off by dubious plastic floating in the sea. This doesn’t spoil our tastebuds from being tantalised by fresh fish grilled under rustling coconut trees and an orange sunset.
Colombo is 1 1/2 hours away by the new motorway or half a day by the old coast road via the old hippy beach hangouts of Bentota and Hikkaduwa. They’re a bit run-down now. The whole of Sri Lanka’s south coast bore the full impact of the devastating tsunami in 2004, with a loss of 30,000 lives. Vine-covered ruined houses, flattened coconut plantations and clusters of graves with photos of loved ones are a heart-rending reminder.
Approaching the capital’s urban sprawl, eyes are drawn to the usual trappings of big Asian cities; frantic tuktuk drivers risking life in the chaotic traffic, skyscrapers and shiny hotels poking their heads up among run-down houses and shops and a kaleidoscope of women in brightly coloured saris, men wearing white dhotis and veiled Muslim women. Galle Street runs from the old Fort, near the old areas of Pettah and Slave Island, past white-painted government buildings and spruced-up museums in leafy parks. Colombo deserves several days to explore; a fitting place to end your tour of Sri Lanka.
There are no direct flights from Perth to Sri Lanka, but you can connect through Singapore or Kuala Lumpur.
Group tour companies operate, but hiring a car with driver/guide is a good option. We chose exoticlankaholidays.com.au.
Visit central/southern beaches from December to March and the north/east in May to September to avoid monsoons. Accommodation ranges from backpacker ($30) to mid-range ($50) and top-end ($120+), with tasty, spicy food ranging from $10-$30 meal