Tag Archives: Sri Lanka

The Hill Club, Nuwara Eliya

Yesterday I visited Nuwara Eliya’s venerable Hill Club. It’s exactly the kind of place I’d never be allowed into back home, so I thought I’d take a look around.

Founded in 1876 by the usual colonialist suspects, the club is now frequented mainly by pukka Sri Lankans including – shock horror – women. Or ‘ladies’ as they are respectfully known.

Nuwara Eliya is another one of these hill stations set up by the British so that they could feel at home despite being thousands of miles away from good old Blighty. Since the Hill Club is over the road from the race track and next door to the golf course, they clearly went for it all the way. At 2000 metres above sea level, the weather really was quite British: misty and rather cold. ‘Bracing’, I suppose you could call it. Still, the views were spectacular and I helped myself to plenty of fresh air.

As for the Hill Club, I paid my Rs100 temporary joining fee, settled into the Reading Room (pictured) and ordered myself a scotch. Well you’ve got to sometimes, haven’t you? I had a snoop round the premises – there’s a Men’s Bar, a mixed bar, a billiards room, gym and a very well set out dining hall. These days, a portrait of the Sri Lankan President has taken Queen Elizabeth’s place above the fireplace, but she’s still up on the wall, with Prince Phillip to keep her company.

The reading room
The reading room

I had to push off at 7 o’clock, because that’s when the dress code kicks in. Sadly I didn’t pack my smoking jacket when I left the UK – I’ll know better for next time.

The jaw drops

I fell in love yesterday.

It’s been a real pleasure getting to know Sri Lanka, little by little, one step at a time. But yesterday, I fell head-over-heels for the place.

That’s three clichés in one paragraph. Sorry.

What did it? It wasn’t cycling around the spectacular stupas and ruins of Anuradhapura, Mahintale and Polonnaruwa, enjoyable as that was.

It wasn’t sitting on the first floor veranda at Kandy’s wonderful Olde Empire Hotel, nursing a cold beer and reading Kipling’s Kim – how colonial can you get? – or early morning walks around the lake.

It wasn’t even the cave temples at Dambulla, or the 45 minutes I spent all alone atop Sigiriya – the imposing ‘Lion Rock’.

So what finally tipped me over the edge? The train journey from Kandy to Ella. For less than a single on the London Underground, I got to experience one of the world’s classic train journeys.

I love to travel by train these days, leaning out of the doorway, feeling the breeze and enjoying the scenery. It’s such a far cry from Connex South Central. But this journey was something else. Snaking up into the hill country, the train crosses several viaducts, passing through many rock-cut tunnels and running alongside pine forests, farms and tea plantations. Every now and again, when you think you might be tiring of the sheer drops and lush vegetation, you turn a sharp corner to pass by a waterfall, or a bridge, or a village. It’s brilliant. After six or seven wonderful hours, I arrived into Ella and quickly found a decent bite to eat and a friendly guesthouse to stay in. Perfect.

I slept ever so well. It’s all this fresh air, I’m sure of it. After a royal breakfast, Sri Lankan style – hoppers, rotties and dhal, washed down with some delicious locally produced coffee – I went for a nice long walk up to Ella Gala Rock via the Rawana Falls. For the first twenty minutes or so, I followed the railway tracks, tiptoeing over the wooden sleepers. Then, crossing the iron bridge, I bumped into a very helpful local farmer, Mr Jinadasa. He showed me the correct path – I would have missed it – and we chatted for a while by the gentle falls. He gave me one of his tomatoes (I had it later with my packed lunch, delicious) and then guided me through the plantations and up the track to the viewpoint. Like any self-respecting up-country man, Mr Jinadasa races up steep slopes in his flip-flops, spots venomous snakes half a mile off and lights his bedi cigarettes using a match flicked against the nearest tree. It was a tiring climb, but – naturally – was worth the effort. I’ll post some photos when I can, but they won’t tell the whole story. Basically you’ll have to widescreen, Dolby, and THX surround-sound the snaps to get the full effect.

After getting back to town, I had a siesta before striking out for Bambaragala Falls, 6km from Ella down the winding road to Wellawaya, which hugs the hills and delivers cracking views all the way. As for the falls themselves, maybe they weren’t so much roaring as purring, and the torrents were arguably more miffed than raging. There was however, a plunge pool, and after fannying about for a bit, I stripped off for a wonderfully refreshing dip.

Of course, a delightful 6km stroll downhill is an endless trudge heading back up. Being the pragmatic type, I caught the bus.

British Garrison Cemetery

Today I went for a walk around Kandy, and found myself strolling up to the British Garrison Cemetery. Now I don’t normally tend to lurk around graveyards, but since the National Museum was closed I thought I’d take a look. It was actually very interesting. As I wandered around the well-kept grounds, I met the afable caretaker, Mr Charles Carmichael, who took time to explain many of the stories behind the inscriptions.

Mr Carmichael
Mr Carmichael

For example, take Captain James McGlashan (1791-1817), who fought with distinction at Basaco, Albuera and Waterloo before turning up in Ceylon. A confident fellow, he made the mistake of walking to Kandy from Trincomalee through the jungle, getting repeatedly soaked in the process and ignoring advice to take shelter from the mosquitoes. As the register states, “He was seized with violent fever and accepted his end with manly fortitude.”

Another is A. McGill (1837-1873) who died in Ambegamuwa from sunstroke. This was unusual since Ambegamuwa is in the hill country; according to Charles, the poor chap ran for seven hours to escape a wild elephant, before dropping dead from exhaustion.

What of young William Mackwood, who died in an accident in 1867, aged just 20? He was supervising the clearing of trees when he leapt from his horse to avoid a falling branch, only to impale himself on a stake left in the ground as a marker.

One thing very noticable about the cemetery is how young most of the people were when they died. Many were in their early twenties, succumbing to malaria, cholera, diarrhoea or jungle fever. I’m glad I’ve had my jabs and that I’ve got access to clean drinking water.

Continuing the slightly maudlin theme, I saw a sign today in the window of the ‘Wine City’ bottle shop, which also – fabulously – trades as ‘Kandy Medical’:


Interesting philosophy.

Sri Lankan snaps

Pablo looks thoughtful
Pablo looks thoughtful

Me looking thoughtful. I’m actually cooling off in the ruins of an ancient bath in Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka. Sadly there’s no water there anymore.

Stupa at Mihintale
Stupa at Mihintale, near Anuradhapura

Stupa at Mihintale, near Anuradhapura. The pictured monk was a serious-looking fellow.

5th century urinal stone
Fifth century urinal stone

Fifth century urinal stone from a monastery in Anuradhapura. The monks carved the image of another monastery on it, which – they felt – housed fun-loving monks who lived it up a bit too much.

Moonstone, Anuradhapura
Moonstone, Anuradhapura

Spectacular example of a moonstone in Anuradhapura. Amazingly, these beautifully carved stones were doormats upon which the monks wiped their feet before entering the temple.