The southern hill country is the highest, wildest and in many ways the most beautiful part of Sri Lanka. Although the area was an integral part of the Kandyan Kingdom, little physical or cultural evidence survives from that period, and most of what you now see is the creation of the British colonial period, when the introduction of tea here changed the economic face of Sri Lanka forever. The region’s attractions are self-explanatory: a whimsical mixture of ruggedly beautiful scenery and olde-worlde colonial style, with sheer green mountainsides, plunging waterfalls and mist-shrouded tea plantations enlivened by quaint British memorabilia – clunking railways, half-timbered guesthouses, Gothic churches and English vegetables – while a further, unexpected twist is added by the colourful Hindu temples and saris of the so-called “Plantation Tamils”, who have been working the tea estates since colonial times.
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South from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya
South from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya
The journey south from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya is spectacular both by train and by bus. The bus is far more direct and significantly quicker, cutting up through the hills and swinging round endless hairpins, passing the magnificent waterfalls at the village of RAMBODA en route, which plunge over the cliffs in two adjacent 100m cataracts. From Ramboda, it’s a short drive on to Labookelie Tea Factory and Nuwara Eliya.
The train is significantly slower, but makes for a quintessentially Sri Lankan experience, as the carriages bump and grind their way painfully up the interminable gradients towards Nuwara Eliya (and occasionally lose traction and slither a yard or so back downhill again). The track climbs slowly through pine and eucalyptus forest into a stylized landscape of immaculately manicured tea plantations which periodically open up to reveal heart-stopping views through the hills, nowhere more so than above the village of Dimbula, at the centre of a famous tea-growing area, where the line passes high above a grand, canyon-like valley between towering cliffs.
- Nuwara Eliya
Horton Plains National Park and World’s End
Horton Plains National Park and World’s EndPerched on the very edge of the hill country midway between Nuwara Eliya and Haputale, Horton Plains National Park covers a wild stretch of bleak, high-altitude grassland bounded at its southern edge by the dramatically plunging cliffs that mark the edge of the hill country, including the famous World’s End, where the escarpment falls sheer for the best part of a kilometre to the lowlands below. Set at an elevation of over two thousand metres, Horton Plains are a world apart from the rest of Sri Lanka, a misty and rainswept landscape whose cool, wet climate has fostered the growth of a unique but fragile ecosystem. Large parts of the Plains are still covered in beautiful and pristine stands of cloudforest, with their distinctive umbrella-shaped keena trees, covered in a fine cobweb of old man’s beard, whose leaves turn from green to red to orange as the seasons progress. The Plains are also one of the island’s most important watersheds and the source of the Mahaweli, Kelani and Walawe rivers, three of the island’s largest.
The park’s wildlife attractions are relatively modest. The herds of elephants which formerly roamed the Plains were all despatched long ago by colonial hunters, while you’ll have to be incredibly lucky to spot one of the 45-odd leopards which are thought to still live in the area. The park’s most visible residents are its herds of sambar deer, while you might see rare bear-faced (also known as purple-faced) monkeys. The park is also one of the best places in the island for birdwatching, and an excellent place to see montane endemics such as the dull-blue flycatcher, Sri Lanka bush warbler, Sri Lanka whistling thrush and the pretty yellow-eared bulbul. You’ll probably also see beautiful lizards, some of them boasting outlandishly fluorescent green scales, though their numbers are declining as the result of depredations by crows, attracted to the park (as to so many other parts of the island) by the piles of litter dumped by less environmentally aware visitors.
Midway between Ella and Haputale, the scruffy little town of BANDARAWELA lacks either the rural charm of the first or the dramatic setting of the latter. The only real reason to stay here is to spend a night at the time-warped Bandarawela Hotel, although you might well find yourself changing buses (or money) here en route to somewhere else.
- Haputale and around
- Adam’s Peak
Uda Walawe National Park
Uda Walawe National ParkSprawling across the lowlands due south of the towering cliff faces of Horton Plains, Uda Walawe has developed into one of Sri Lanka’s most popular national parks mainly thanks to its large and easily spotted population of elephants – it’s the best place in the island to see pachyderms in the wild, although in other respects it doesn’t have the range of fauna and habitats of Yala or Bundala. The park is beautifully situated just south of the hill country, whose grand escarpment provides a memorable backdrop, while at its centre lies the Uda Walawe Reservoir, whose catchment area it was originally established to protect. Most of Uda Walawe lies within the dry zone, and its terrain is flat and denuded, with extensive areas of grassland and low scrub (the result of earlier slash-and-burn farming) dotted with the skeletal outlines of expired trees, scratched to death by the resident elephants. The actual landscape of the park is rather monotonous during dry periods, although the lack of forest cover makes it easier to spot wildlife than in any other Sri Lankan park and the whole place transforms magically after rain, when temporary lagoons form around the reservoir, drowning trees and turning the floodplains an intense, fecund green.
The principal attraction is, of course, elephants, of which there are usually around six hundred in the park; animals are free to migrate along an elephant corridor between here and Lunugamvehera National Park, though most stay here. There are also hundreds of buffaloes, plus macaque and langur monkeys, spotted and sambhur deer and crocodiles, while other rarely sighted residents include leopards, giant flying squirrels, jungle cats, sloth bears and porcupines. Uda Walawe is also good for birds, including a number of endemics and some birds of prey, while the reservoir also attracts a wide range of aquatic birds including the unmistakable Lesser Adjutant, Sri Lanka’s largest – and ugliest – bird, standing at well over a metre tall.
Elephant transit home
About 5km west of the park entrance on the main road is the engaging Elephant Transit Home – usually referred to as the “Elephant Orphanage”. Founded in 1995, the orphanage is home to around 25 baby elephants rescued from the wild after the loss of their parents. As at the better-known orphanage at Pinnewala, elephants here are bottlefed milk until the age of 3½, after which they’re given a diet of grass. At the age of 5, most are released into the national park (around thirty so far); a few have been donated to important temples. You can’t get quite as close to the elephants as at Pinnewala; outside feeding times the elephants are allowed to wander, so there’s usually nothing to see.