Tea break: Discover vertical rock climbs and giant Buddhas in a Sri Lankan idyll

 

Going to Sri Lanka for the first time gave us an excuse to buy some new maps. That's how our journeys always start. The journey we worked out took us straight from Colombo on the west coast up to the ancient sites of Dambulla and Polonnaruwa, in the centre of the island.

I'm a bad sight-seer – I find it too difficult to set what I'm seeing in any meaningful context. But we climbed the vertical face of the Lion Rock at Sigiriya. (Don't ask how many steps there are before you start, or else you'll never do it – it's 200m high and there's only one way to go. Straight up.)

We wandered through the ruins of the old royal capital at Polonnaruwa. But the sight I'm gladdest to have seen is Gal Vihara, where four monumental Buddhas (the biggest is 14m tall) are carved from a single rockface.

You don't need to know 'when' or 'how' or 'why' to respond to these figures. In some part of your brain you appreciate the technical complexity of what you are looking at – the different coloured strata of the rock rippling smoothly through the faces and hands and robes of the Buddhas before morphing again into the jagged face of the cliff.

But technique isn't the point. The serene calmness of the figures is what you remember, the smoothly rounded simplicity of their lines, their stillness and their ability to still those who stand in front of them.

We stitched in all the should-do stuff at the beginning of our journey. And then we started walking. Our first base was Rangala House, in the Knuckles Range east of Kandy, where Anthony Newman, who came to Kandy to head up a school, has settled for the duration. From the narrow road, you emerge through his house onto a verandah with a view that shimmers southwards seemingly forever. "Happiness is five horizons," says an old Chinese proverb. Here, there were at least eight, with the waters of the Victoria Reservoir sparkling in the mid-ground.

There are just three rooms to let at Rangala House, where Newman's Sri Lankan cook, Sebastian, gave us the best food we ate on our entire trip. Newman even had details of a good walk all written out, which is handy in a place where you can't get hold of maps as detailed as our Ordnance Surveys. This is tea territory, of course, and his walk mostly took us through the sculpted, shining rows of tea bushes that swoop like contour lines round the slopes of the hills.

On the high ground, tea gives way to big forest trees, underplanted with sheaves of cardamom. The tea-pickers are mostly Tamils – Hindu rather than Buddhist – and during our walks over the next couple of weeks, we often passed their shrines, made by a spring or alongside a particularly old and splendid tree.

On this walk, there was a memorable one beneath a huge, buttressed Terminalia bellirica, three pointed stones, shawled in orange gauze under a shelter in the middle of nowhere. But the shrine was set high on a ridge, just at the point where you leave the views of one valley and embrace the vast panorama laid out before you in the next. The track eventually leads back down to the narrow road and a tea factory where a big, square pond is crammed with lotus and blue waterlilies.

When we left Rangala, we doubled back to Kandy where we picked up a train at Peradeniya station. We rode this all the way to Talawakelle, the first of three train rides that gradually shifted us south and east towards Badulla where the line finishes. It's best towards the end, where the tea country runs out and the train moves through spectacularly wild country, with tree ferns erupting between huge mounds of a red-flowered rhododendron.

When we went into tunnels, all the children on the train whooped and hollered and the noise ricocheted through the blackness: wawawawawawa. The stations are terrific. On the platform outside the District Engineer's Upper Office at Nanu Oya is an enchanting balustraded garden with HT roses, asters and a pair of white plaster swans in a pool of water lilies.

Perhaps our best walk was from a bungalow at Bogawantalawa near Hatton. It started as an amble and turned into a magnificent five-hour climb, which, once again, ended at a Hindu shrine above a remote settlement of huts surrounded by immaculate vegetable gardens. Leeks, carrots, beetroot, cabbages and cauliflowers were all being grown in raised beds, knocked up on narrow terraces stolen from the hill.

First we crossed the river below the bungalow where, beyond the bridge, the road turns left for the Kirkoswald tea estate, right for Theresia. Then, keeping the distant settlement as our goal, we just followed tracks through the Theresia estate, past waterfalls and washing pools, past kingfishers and buzzards, past tea pickers and wood gatherers, past noisy packs of dogs and waving children. Huge African tulip trees (Spathodea campanulata) in vivid red bloom marked the rigid hierarchies of the imperial age: three trees in the garden of the manager's bungalow, two for a superintendent, one for an assistant.

During our travels we stayed at seven different places. Our favourites were Lunuganga (which I wrote about just before Christmas), Rangala House, 92b Bobebilla Road, Makuldeniya, Nr Teldeniya, Central Province, rangalahouse.com, and Aerie Cottage, one of three bungalows to rent on the Kelburne Mountain View Estate, nr Haputale, kelburnemountainview.com. This estate is right at the southern edge of the hill country and has spectacular views down to the coast at Hambantota. Having made a plan, we handed the details to Red Dot Tours (reddottours.com) who booked everything (flights, accommodation, etc) and did a superb job.

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