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.

Discover more property articles at Homes and Property
Suggested Topics
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Life and Style
A nurse tends to a recovering patient on a general ward at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham
health
News
science
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
News
Chuck Norris pictured in 1996
people
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Lucas, I SCREAM DADDIO, Installation View, British Pavilion 2015
artWhy Sarah Lucas is the perfect choice to represent British art at the Venice Biennale
News
A voter placing a ballot paper in the box at a polling station
i100
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Sport
football
Property search
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin

£13676.46 - £16411.61 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment Cons...

Ashdown Group: Marketing or Business Graduate Opportunity - Norwich - £22,000

£18000 - £22000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Business and Marketing Gr...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Are you great at building rela...

Ashdown Group: Database Analyst - Birmingham - £22,000 plus benefits

£20000 - £22000 per annum + excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Application Sup...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power