by Kalpana Sunder
Time and distance seem to have no meaning in this part of the world. Only when guide Nisaka says “only one hour left,” we think of time. We have heard that several times on our drive from Kandy, the cultural capital of Sri Lanka to Nuwara Eliya, the spectacular tea country, stopping several times to either sip some divine tea at a tea-factory or gorge on the luscious piles of Ramboutan and Mangusteen on the roadsides.
Manors and castles, gingerbread houses and elite clubs, golf course, strawberries and cream…. Nuwara Eliya (often shortened to Nurelia and meaning city of lights), is Sri Lanka’s main hill resort perched at over 6000 feet in the shadow of the country’s highest mountain Piduruthalagala (fondly dubbed Pedro by the British!) and is more British than Britain! This town was discovered in 1826 by some Europeans on an elephant-hunt and Sir Edward Barnes, the then Governor, developed the town and encouraged Scottish and British planters to settle here, and grow the famous Orange Pekoe tea.
We see the quaint red-bricked Post-office, the 18-hole golf course and a bizarre mix of modern concrete and Georgian bungalows, arriving at the Grand Hotel for a very late lunch. This was built in 1891 and has a Tudor façade, gardens spilling with petunias, colonial kitsch, and polished wooden floors which transport you to the sahib era. Our rooms are replete with sepia photos of a bygone time and real fire-places. We feel like regal squires awaiting Jeeves in a P G Wodehouse novel!
As the mist rolls in, we pull on our woollies hurriedly and attempt to make the best of our short time here. The town seems to encourage a sluggish pace, and we sense a time-warp here. There is the centuries old Victoria Park filled with Bougainvilleas and begonias framing gabled roofs and an undulating sea of green. We amble through a market flooded with woollens and jackets in latest European fashions at outrageously low prices.
Retail therapy done, we walk past the glistening Lake Gregory with its backdrop of mist-shrouded mountains and vistas of emerald green tea-slopes dotted with tea-pickers straight out of an Air Lanka Poster! There are well-tended gardens and fields covered with ‘English’ vegetables like cabbage, leeks, cauliflower and potatoes. We pass the elite Hill Club originally a club started in 1858 for the ‘sahibs’ but today converted into a hotel. Our guide tells us about the strict dress-code prevalent here even today — gentlemen must wear suits and ties! We hear about the cross- country motor races and the dirt bike races here in the month of April which makes it a ‘hot’ destination then.
For a dose of mythological history, we drive to Sita Eliya, where the demon Ravana is supposed to have imprisoned Sita. This is a temple built in the typical South Indian style, with stucco images of the Puranas and scenes from the Ramayana. A Tamil-speaking priest interacts with us, and shows us the three idols discovered here a century ago, one of them being that of Sita. We see the sanctum for Hanuman, the monkey God who vowed to return Sita to Lord Rama. Lending credibility to this lore is a giant footprint of Hanuman, near the rocky stream below. Nisanka tells us that there are specialised Ramayana Trail tours offered by different companies to visit the innumerable sites in this country linked to this epic and we put it on our wishlist!
The next day after a hearty Sri Lankan breakfast of hoppers, sambol and curry, we drive out of the town to see some splendid waterfalls. The geographical feature of Sri Lanka where there are numerous rivers radiating from a central highland, has created more than one hundred
waterfalls. We see the famous Devon falls named after a pioneer coffee planter, rising up to more than 95 km and falling in two cascades. We hear that it is threatened by a proposed hydro-electric scheme and see bathers access it through a green footpath way below! Next on our list is the St Clair’s Waterfalls, which is grandeur, personified with three cascades. Opposite this is a modern tea-centre with some great tea and jams on offer. We see swarms of camera-totting students and teachers enjoying the pristine views! The Ramboda falls is spectacular, roaring angrily down black rock and creating a rainbow spectrum in the mild drizzle. We rue the fact that we don’t have the time to see it up-close.
Our quest for adventure leads us to Kitulgala, on the highway from Nuwara Eliya to Colombo. The name Kitulgala is derived from the vast number of ‘Kitul’ trees which abound here. Kitulgala’s claim to fame is the filming of portions of David Lean’s Oscar winning epic Bridge on the river Kwai on a make-shift bridge on the Kelani River. The rock-strewn Kelani River has a stretch of rapids surrounded by high banks of bamboo and is ideal for white-water rafting. We strap on our life-jackets and helmets with some misgivings and words of reassurance from Nisanka, who assures us that it will be ‘thrilling’! Life-threatening experiences bring out the best in us, they say, and this is no exception. Fording the foaming waters with our guides from an adventure sports company, along a five kilometre stretch, we emerge victorious and exhilarated. This has been a truly fitting finale to our sojourn in this green paradise.