It’s early when we start our drive north from Beruwala. We pass rubber plantations, palm trees, mangroves and rice paddies – this is a lush, green country. An enormous monitor lizard, around a metre and a half in length, appears at the side of the road, plodding into the undergrowth as we pass. The smell of green vegetation and the gentle morning sun reminds me of my early childhood in Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa, itself a former British colony.
We leave the bicycles and tuk tuks of the country road and turn onto a highway, freshly built and slicing through the green country – though it’s by far the quietest highway I’ve been on. It’s strange, but somehow fitting. No-one here is in a hurry. Buddhist stupas and statues of Hindu deities whizz past us as we travel onward to Colombo.
We turn off about 100 meters before the highway ends abruptly in dirt. We’re in Colombo, with its brightly decorated trucks, busses, warehouses, and little shops opening onto the street. An entire family rides a single motorcycle, the youngest child sitting right in front of dad on the fuel tank, holding tight to the handlebars. Tuk tuks are everywhere. Children wave and laugh as we drive.
The buzzing city gives way to a single-lane road winding into the hills. It begins to curve upward, little streams trickling down beside the road, the vegetation getting thicker as we go. We stop to admire the view beside the fast-flowing Kelani River – it surges past, full and strong and brown. Brightly coloured wooden ferries row the locals from one side to the other.
The Raj era lives on here in a slightly absurd way, with beautiful heritage hotels reminiscent of a long lost colony. The old administrative buildings have been converted into guesthouses now, serving an entirely new purpose. No doubt there’s still a lot of tea consumed here though.
We begin to wind our way through rolling tea plantations: green and expertly trimmed. It took the colonists many months to trek here through the thick Sri Lankan jungle, and when they got here they promptly named the land with Scottish names like Hellbodde Estate, Edinburgh and Aberdeen. Many other farms in this area were formerly owned by the Rothschild banking dynasty. There’s still a sense of distinction here, and fittingly so. After all, this is where tea comes from – that comforting tonic that is such a staple of daily British life.
It’s the tail-end of monsoon season, and when the rain comes it’s steady and persistent, sweeping with vigour across the landscape. The earth soaks it up gladly, giant raindrops plopping from the leaves and into the moist earth. Brightly blooming flowers line the road. Gloriously high trees tower above us on the near side as we drive, tumbling away into the undergrowth to my right. It rains with purpose here, but only for a few hours. Streams of water gush down every gully, and the mist rolls gently over the hills as the light begins to fade.
We stop to eat at Blue Field Tea Garden, and eat a generous helping of curry (chased by tea, of course) before exploring the plantation. The factory is warm and dry, and smells incredible – the result of a hundred years of tea making. The floors are stained a rich brown. The rain continues outside.
We arrive in Nuwara Eliya after nightfall. I catch a tuk tuk into town and stop at the town’s pub, aptly named ‘The Pub’. This is where the locals meet to round off the week. But it isn’t long before the hum of conversation and the sound of soft rain on the roof turns my eyelids heavy. And with that, it’s off to bed. Tomorrow we explore temples.