Day 10, Friday 13 March
Sleeping without air-conditioning and with a duvet feels quite strange but I’m generally happy with the room although the bathroom is a bit small and the internet signal poor.
This evening the tour I booked at the airport would come to an end if I had not cancelled it early. However, there remains one destination that would have been included on the tour, then by evening, the possibility of a drop-off on the southern coast.
Well, as we’re on our own now, a decision has to be made whether to stay an extra night in Nuwara Eliya for another night, making a day trip to that missing destination.
Aware that this could be a long day, we take breakfast early: We need to take a trip of about 10 kms to the railway station at Nana Oya. Arriving by tuk tuk we have plenty of time which is added to by the announcement of a 45-minute delay in the service to Ella. Of course, I’m looking forward to that glorious train journey through the mountains that appears on almost everyone’s itinerary. I’m hoping for a really enjoyable day but once again my luck is out. Just a minute before the train arrives, Katoon decides to go to the toilet. What! By the time she returns many of the queuing passengers are onboard. There is now only standing room only and I don’t want to stand for over two hours with not the slightest chance of catching the magnificent views which are the hallmark of this journey. Disembarking, I consider my options. One, of course, is to leave it another day but I choose instead to head back to Nuwara Eliya and take a bus instead. I’m hoping this will work but I’ve wasted so much time.
At the bus station I discover there is no direct service to Ella and in the confusion hop on a bus to Bandulla to the east where there’s bound to be a connecting bus to Ella but this means more delay. By the time we arrive in Bandulla, it’s well into the afternoon. From Bandulla there is a bus for the short trip to Ella but the boneshaking bus trip through the Central Highlands means there will be limited time available in Ella.
Ella us a small town in the mountains unlike anywhere I’ve visited previously on this tour. It’s packed with restaurants, bars and hotels. If it weren't for the tourists, there would be hardly anything here except for activity in the tea plantations. I ask myself, ‘should I have spent a night here?’. The first thing we need to do is check at the station but there’s no service back to Nuwara Eliya until 7pm. We aim to leave earlier than that by taking a bus. It’s time for lunch in the town after the demands of our journey.
Nine Arch Bridge……..
Undoubtedly there is much to do in Ella but it’s more for the adventurous. Well, we can’t have come all this way to do nothing. There is one iconic attraction, however that we can reach, being the one that Katoon has selected with her heart set on it. The Nine Arch Bridge built by the British is not far away from Ella but requires a walk from the main road down a steep bank. That option doesn’t seem possible for me. Another option is to take a tuk tuk but to my surprise, the going rate is 1,200 rupees. Running out of time, it’s the only realistic option. Heading away from the town, I soon see that they use the back roads which are hilly and reduced to tracks due to lack of maintenance. Arriving at the bridge, we’re free to wander around, mixing with other tourists who seem happy to ignore signs regarding trespass on the railway. However, the bridge is iconic, supporting the railway over a steep gorge lined with precariously perched tea trees. The round trip takes about 1 hour but we must head back and start our return journey to Nuwara Eliya. We’re dropped off on the roadside outside the town where a bus will pick up passengers for Bandarawela.
Return to Nuwara Eliya……..
I begin to realise that heading for Bandarawela, is a more direct route than the one to took coming to Ella but we will still have to change busses. A bus soon arrives and we're on our way to Bandarawela arriving at dusk. Here we hit a snag; there are no through busses to Nuwara Eliya. The only option, the last service of the day, only goes as far as Welimada. The service is packed but we have no option. By now it’s dark and we are hurled around corners, typical of this mountainous region. Finally, we get a seat when the number of bodies begin to thin out through drop offs. At around 7.45pm we reach Welimada but by now all the local busses are out of service. Just one option remains. It’s the overnight service to Colombo but it doesn't leave until 8.30pm. I begin to regret I didn't take the train from Ella. Hanging around like this is frustrating. Finally, we depart but the better standard of transport does not mean an improvement in the rate of progress. In fact it’s worse. What should take 20 minutes on normal roads, takes a good hour. Arriving at 9.30pm means the overall journey has taken thee and a half hour’s so giving us no advantage.
Arriving in Nuwara Eliya we pick up some provisions and take a tuk tuk back to Royal Mount about thirteen and a half hours after we left in the morning. I can only sit and reflect on what went wrong today. Was what I intended a bridge to far anyway? Well, I can't blame the tour company now. The fact is that yes, if we'd have departed on the train as intended, we could have returned on the evening train. It's not clear what we would have done with the extra time but it certainly would have been a far more relaxing day. The truth is that there were multiple issues connected with route selection which put a strain on the day. However, I must set the experience aside since what I learnt today is unlikely to be of use in the future.
Another Flight Change……..
Before the day ends there is one further issue I need to attend to. An email from the booking agent for our flight to Colombo states that the afternoon flight we were booked on the 18th has been cancelled leaving only an early morning flight available that day. I guess that was bound to happen as Sri Lankan Airline consolidates its schedule owing to the coronovirus pandemic. The new flight time is just after midnight on the 18th. That does seem to be a significant inconvenience but it does have the effect of removing the cost of one night's stay in Sri Lanka. Luckily, no accommodation has been booked for the 17th so we can now use that day to travel straight to the airport in the evening.