Saturday Magazine
'Elle Gap', a place to reconnect with nature

by Daniel R. Rauchman

Sri Lanka has truly been blessed with an amazing array of beautiful landscapes and a wide variety of climates. The hill country, and the Ella Gap in particular are no exception to this. Waking up to the heat of a Colombo morning and going to sleep in the crisp cool air of an Ella evening, is a testimony to the dizzying variations that Sri Lanka’s climate has to offer.

While sweating through the mid afternoon heat of any one of the cities found outside of the hill country, I found it extremely difficult to imagine that a tropical island the size of Sri Lanka could possibly have a region that is so brisk in the evenings that jackets and long trousers are a necessity. I quickly realised that it is possible and it is found in the hill country.

Having never heard anything about Ella, or the Ella gap area, my original plan was to hike to the World’s End in Horton Plains. Hoping to save a little money to pay the entrance fee at Horton Plains I decided to take a bus to Pattipola and hike up the mountain on foot. After about three hours of climbing straight up hill on the jungle road, I came to the realisation that it was not going to be possible to make it before dark. My only option was to take the next train out of Pattipola. My guide book had virtually nothing to say about any of the surrounding towns, but something about Ella sounded good.

The train ride was absolutely amazing. Beautiful mountain views, rivers, waterfalls, and the setting sun made the two hour train ride seem to past a little too fast. Many people have said that the Colombo to Kandy train is the best in the country, but the 1000 meter gorges and mountain passes to Haputale, Ella, and Badulla stand as a strong rival.

The minute that I stepped off of the train, I understood why Ella is infamous for her touts. I was immediately barraged with the "cheap hotel", "good restaurant", and the "best souvenir shop" speeches that the town had to offer. When I explained that I already had a guesthouse in mind they told me stories of rat and cockroach infestation, how the food was horrible, and even that the place had closed down for the season. To the unsuspecting tourist these men are quite convincing, but to anyone that has been "touted" before their approach needs a little work.

Ella offers a wide range of budget guesthouses to high end hotels. In the dark of night I was a little surprised that such a small town had so many options, but that made finding a mid range guesthouse with a clean restaurant and fair priced menu very simple. When I woke up in the morning I realised the reasons for such a large variety of tourist accommodations. The town is situated in an gorgeous landscape, the Ella Gap. With very little publicity I was a little shocked to see so many foreign tourists walking the streets and looking at the shops while enjoying the buffalo curd that is famous to the area.

Within minutes I knew that this place was something special, almost mystical. Many people would say that the view through Ella Gap is the best in Sri Lanka. The gap is a deep valley which frames a view reaching as far as Yala National Park. On a really clear day the lighthouse at Hambantota can even be seen.

In the past, there was no easy transport to the area. Because of this the Ella Gap was never completely overrun by tea estates. What you see now is an authentic pre-plantation Sri Lankan landscape of forest, paddy terraces, and vegetable patches. The area is almost an over load for the senses. The smell of flowers permeate the cool air as the lush green mountains compete with the bright blue sky for the eye’s attention.

After a brief discussion with a local man about possible hiking in the area, I decided to begin my day with a hike to the top of what has been popularly dubbed "Little Adam’s Peak." The walk was amazing. The sun shown bright and at times a little hot, but the cool mountain air made for a pleasant atmosphere. The trail itself is actually a jeep road that passes through an enormous tea estate, but it is well groomed and accessible to people of all ages. Toward the peak, the hike becomes a little more difficult as the cool shade of the trees becomes less frequent and the sun feels hotter.

An adventurous soul may decide to by pass the winding trail and attempt to climb through the thick brush and steep rocks. This is not the recommended route, as there are many types of venomous snakes in the area and it is extremely disturbing to the fragile ecosystems of the mountain top.

The view from the top of "Little Adam’s Peak" is astonishing compared to the amount of publicity that it receives. Although it is a little difficult, at times it is even possible to see the shimmering sea in the haze of the far horizon.

After descending the peak, I began a search for a light lunch. After asking many of the local restaurants to see their menus I quickly realised that Ella’s restaurants are like almost all restaurants in the small towns of Sri Lanka. The menu has a large variety of Sri Lankan and western cuisine, but they generally never have any of these things in stock. Invariably they claim that it is the off season, but they would be happy to prepare a cheese and tomato sandwich.

On the recommendations of a "tout" , I next decided to walk along the rail road tracks to see the famous nine arch bridge and the Demodera Loop. It was a nice leisure 3km walk, but unless you are a railroad enthusiast it is not all that impressive.

In an attempt to make the most of the day I decided to take the 5km bus trip to the Rawana Ella falls. The drive proved to be one of the most frightening I have experienced in all of Sri Lanka. The passes are narrow and the busses are overflowing with people. The falls are impressive, but with all of the vendors selling sweet corn, camera film, and mangoes, it seems to be more of a tourist trap than anything. It is possible to climb the slippery rocks towards the top of the falls, but a sign near the road gives the current number of people that have been killed by slippery rocks and the gushing water.

Ella, and the Ella Gap in which it is found is a must see for those who want to reconnect with nature. The cool air and the solitude are soothing to the mind and body. However, many people that I know that have lived their entire lives in Sri Lanka have yet to explore this mystical city. The same is true of many tourists who are completely unaware of the beauty that Ella has to offer.