A meditative trek by Sri Lanka’s central highlands

A meditative trek through Sri Lanka's central highlands

A distinctly Sri Lankan soundtrack echoes throughout the valley.

From one facet, the chanting of monks from Kandy’s latest temple, Sandagiri Maha Seya, its gleaming white dome performing as a beacon amid the dense vegetation of the hills of Hanthana. On the opposite, the distorted notes of Beethoven’s Fur Elise, lowered to a jingle and adopted because the theme music of “choon paans” – jaunty tuk-tuks promoting baked items – in each nook of the nation.

I’m in Sri Lanka’s central highlands, amid the jagged mountains that encircle Kandy. These towering ranges had been instrumental in defending Sri Lanka’s final kingdom in opposition to colonial invaders for greater than two centuries – till the British settled right here within the early 1800s. Of their wake, these new rulers introduced tea, and historic plantations nonetheless blanket the hilltops round me.

Tea will likely be a relentless companion on my two-day hike throughout this verdant space of Sri Lanka. I see wizened girls, sacks strung throughout their backs, teasing younger leaves from hardy vegetation. I comply with barely-there tracks as soon as utilized by the British to move “Ceylon’s best” to Colombo. I cross tea factories which have fallen into disrepair; the steel stays of historical pulley methods; and the skeletons of 18th-century line homes, as soon as inhabited by the communities working the plantations, now all however reclaimed by nature.

I’m on the Pekoe Path, a newly opened, 300km community of strolling routes that snakes its method by Sri Lanka’s highlands. The identify is a reference to a selected kind of high-grade black tea comprised of younger leaves, a speciality in these components.

Base camp for me is W15 Hanthana, a former colonial dwelling that has been artfully reworked right into a boutique, ten-room resort. A 3-hour drive in a luxurious van organised by Sri Lankan vacation specialist Expertise Journey Group took me from the crowded streets of Colombo, previous processions of white-clad Buddhist worshippers celebrating a full moon, alongside the winding, mountain-hugging roads round Kandy, to the secluded surrounds of the Hanthana tea property.

A brief stroll all the way down to the gates of the W15 deposits me and my guides instantly on to the primary portion of the path, the place a cannonball tree laden with palm-sized pink-tipped flowers serves as an auspicious start line. Buddha is believed to have been born within the shade of such a tree, so the species is taken into account sacred in Sri Lanka.

Funded by the EU, with help from the US Company for Worldwide Improvement, the Pekoe Path was first mapped out by sustainability professional Miguel Cunat, who was impressed by the multi-day Camino de Santiago in his native Spain. The Sri Lankan path has been divided into 22 levels, from Hanthana to Nuwara Eliya through Tawalantenna, the Bogawantalawa Valley, Haputale, Ella, Ettampitiya, Pussellawa and Kandapola, chopping throughout tea estates, nationwide parks, forest trails and about 80 villages and small cities.

Solely the primary stage has been correctly signposted, with QR codes that enable guests to be taught extra about the place they’re. However my companion for the day, Expertise Journey’s Thushni de Silva, is a much more expansive supply. She factors out African tulips, utilized by plantation house owners as markers in an in any other case countless sea of inexperienced; eucalyptus bushes that had been introduced in to make the panorama really feel extra acquainted to its colonial settlers; and rubber vegetation, their roots sturdy sufficient to tunnel by the large boulders they dwell on.

Bee eaters and black rollers flit from tree to tree, whereas a crested serpent eagle attracts languid circles within the sky. Main the cost, Anuruddha, our quiet however fixed information, sees an elusive barking deer, and we veer astray to catch a glimpse of the famously shy mammal slinking off into the overgrowth.

The path leads us across the blade-like fringe of the rocky Urugala mountains, the place components of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom had been filmed, and right into a Tamil village. A gaggle of younger boys are enjoying cricket and packs of sleepy canine – the hybrid strays affectionately referred to by locals as “rice hounds” – congregate in entrance of homes painted in vibrant hues of pink, yellow and blue.

This primary stage of the path is a mild introduction to Sri Lanka’s tea nation, following vast roads and paths, with minimal inclines. I embark on the second stage the next morning – and it’s a wildly completely different proposition.

The story of tea in Sri Lanka really begins with espresso, my information for the day, Ramli, tells me once we meet, vivid and early, on the streets of Galaha city. When the Dutch arrived within the nation, espresso was their most well-liked industrial crop, and was promptly adopted by the British. However when a worldwide blight within the 1860s destroyed crops, tea was deemed an investment-worthy different.

Pioneering this transition was a younger Scotsman known as James Taylor. Arriving in Sri Lanka in 1852 on the age of 17, he was billeted to the 7.6-hectare Loolecondera Property in Galaha, which turned the nation’s first official tea property – and is the ultimate vacation spot of my second day’s hike.

A rocky plateau surrounded by a hoop of deep, lush inexperienced, perched excessive within the mountains, this ethereal end-point drifts out and in of view over the course of my 16km trek. It feels unreachable, virtually unreal. And, draped in a fantastic mountain mist, drenched in inexperienced, dotted with otherworldly rock formations and blanketed in silence, it does show to have virtually mystical qualities as soon as we do lastly get there.

Our journey takes us previous neatly tiered rice paddies and thru tiny settlements engulfed in cotton, banana, jack fruit and pepper bushes. Vibrant Hindu and Buddhist temples serve up shocks of color, whereas the sound of the azan drifts out of tiny cities. We take a detour to drink tea from a Thermos on the banks of a waterfall, earlier than dipping our faces in its mineral-rich waters. In Deltota city, we cease at a market to purchase contemporary coconuts, which Anuruddha slices open with a machete to be drunk straight from supply.

From right here, a steep ascent takes us by a dense eucalyptus forest – bushes tower as much as 30 metres tall and filter dappled mild on to the spongy, pine needle-covered forest ground. Anuruddha’s machete turns into a daily function as he hacks a path for us by more and more overgrown mountain passes. I discover myself scrambling up crags on my arms and knees, rugged tea vegetation serving as a much-needed handhold. Close by tea pickers cease and stare, perplexed, maybe, at my gormless dealing with of their pure habitat.

Finally, we’re again on a correct path, which evens out to supply chook’s-eye views of the encompassing peaks and valleys beneath. We cross over the official boundary between the Hanthana Property and Taylor’s Loolecondera and, on a single mountain amid the plantations, there’s an indication of what these hilltops would have seemed like earlier than tea took over the Sri Lankan highlands.

Irregular overgrowth in a spectrum of greens is interspersed with wild orchids and heady blossoms of pink, pink and yellow. There’s a welcome wildness that has been muted elsewhere and, in line with Ramli, that mountain alone is dwelling to not less than 30 plant species with confirmed medicinal properties.

You possibly can solely think about Taylor staring out over these wilds all these years in the past, lording over his area. A stone throne that he erected on the fringe of his property appears out over Loolecondera and the encompassing hills, from the rolling tea plantations, to a stark, rocky promontory excessive above, the place leopards are reported to nonetheless roam.

The Pekoe Path provides a possibility to pattern Sri Lanka’s uncooked pure magnificence, colonial historical past and wealthy tradition at floor degree. And it nonetheless seems like a secret – an intimate, meditative exploration of the nation’s internal coronary heart.

Hours can cross with out encountering one other soul, after which some vibrant character will seem across the nook – like an outdated man, miles from civilisation, who seems as if by magic, clutching a bag of Pedigree Chum. He’s headed to a close-by temple to feed the resident rice hounds, he tells us, earlier than gathering up his sarong and persevering with on his method, leaving us to deal with the Pekoe Path in isolation as soon as extra.

Up to date: April 20, 2023, 7:35 AM

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