From the Hills of Ella to the Southern Coast of Sri Lanka, with a Stop for Safari

We spent three memorable days in Ella and Mirissa during our travels in Sri Lanka in 2017.  We arrived in Ella around 6:30 PM by taking the scenic train from Kandy – Peradeniya area.  After spending the night in Ella, we were ready for more sightseeing in the morning.  We hired a van with a driver and explored the areas around Ella, including a tea factory and a water fall, before descending from the hills towards the Southern coast.  On the way we stopped for a safari in the Uda Walawe National Park.

Mirissa is a popular tourist beach town.  Mirissa used to be a sleepy fishing village not too long ago though.  The beach and the Mirissa rock are beautiful.  We also visited the city of Galle and its historic fort by the Indian ocean.  We took the coastal line train and returned to Colombo after a great time, ending our second part of the Sri Lanka trip that started from Colombo to Kandy first, took us to Ella via the scenic hill country train route, and then to the Southern beach town of Mirissa.

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Map showing Ella, Uda Walawe National Park, Mirissa, Galle, and route back to Colombo (source: http://sakarahousesrilanka.com/villa/surfing-in-sri-lanka/)

Out itinerary for this leg of the tour was:

  • Days 17: Visit Ella attractions, travel to Mirissa (hired van) via Uda Walawe National Park (safari).
  • Day 18: Mirissa beach and Galle Fort from our Mirissa hotel.
  • Day 19: Mirissa beach in the morning and take coastal train from Welegama to Colombo in the afternoon.

Ella

Ella is a hill country village/town, which is very popular in recent years with tourists looking to spend few days relaxing.  It also has several attractions such as the nine arches railway bridge and hikes to Ella Rock and Little Adams Peak. Ella is at at an elevation of 1,041 meters (3,415 ft) above sea level.  It is located on the eastern slopes of the central hills, and therefore is not wet like several of the other hill country towns like Nuwara Eliya that are located on the western ranges.

We came to Ella because we wanted to take the scenic train.  I wrote about the train journey in a different blog post.  Our plan was to stop at Ella briefly and proceed to the Southern coastal town of Mirissa to spend couple of days at the beach.  Therefore, we did not get to enjoy all that Ella has on offer.

The train arrived at the Ella railway station around 6:30 PM.  It was already dark.  We had dinner in the town and proceeded to our homestay which is in walking distance from the town.  The owner’s house was in the lower part of the hill, and we had to climb up on a wooden ladder to reach the guest house on the higher part of the hill.

It appears most of the home owners are adding guest houses and expansions to cater to the increased demand from tourists.  It was nice to sit down on the varanda (or porch) and stare at the night sky.  Occasional barking of the dogs broke the silence of the night.

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Ella town

We walked around in the Ella town in the morning, looking at souvenir shops.  We ate breakfast at a street side restaurant.  They served both traditional and western food.

Our homestay owner helped us to hire a van with a driver for our trip to Mirissa.  Ella to Mirissa is a popular tourist route served by vans.  Our driver was returning home to Galle from Ella, after driving tourists from there to Ella.

There are no direct train routes between these two towns, unless someone is willing to take the long journey back to Colombo and then take the coastal train.  Buses are available, but will need to change buses in the middle to reach Mirissa.

Ella to Mirissa is about 4 hours drive, but we spent time visiting the attractions in Ella and stopped for a safari at the Uda Walawe National Park.  I believe we started on Ella attractions in the van around 10 AM and by the time we reached Mirissa it was past 9 PM. Cost for the van hire was Rs 13,500 (US $85).

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View from the Halpe Tea Factory near Ella

Our first stop in Ella was at the Halpe tea factory.  The view of the surrounding hills from the tea factory was beautiful.  We took the tour of the tea factory.  Our tour guide was very passionate about tea making and explained the different grades of tea made in the factory.   Tea grades include: Whole leaf grades (e.g. Orange Pekoe), Broken leaf grades (e.g. Broken Orange Pekoe or BOP), Fannings grades, and Dust grades.

Our tour guide also explained the different tea growing areas in Sri Lanka and the distinct flavors produced by each area due to the differences in climate, soil, rain fall, and growing season.  Tea from Nuwara Eliya, Dimbula, Uva and Uda Pussallawa are from the high grown area; tea from Kandy is from the mid or intermediate country; and tea from Ruhuna and Sambaragamuwa are from the low country area of Sri Lanka.  Halpe tea factory is in Uva.  At the end of the tour, we were able taste different tea flavors and buy some to take back with us.  We spent about 1.5 hours at the tea factory.

Tea plantations were started in Sri Lanka’s hill country by the British in the second half of the 19th century after the coffee plantations they started first were destroyed during the coffee blight.  Tea remained the number one export for Sri Lanka for a long time since then.  British expanded the railways to the hill country to bring the tea to the Colombo port for export.  They also brought workers from India and settled them in the plantations.

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Ravana Ella Falls

Ravana Ella falls is located along the highway to the South near Ella.  The waterfall measures approximately 25 m (82 ft) in height and cascades down the rocky hills.  It is one of the widest falls in Sri Lanka.

It is believed that Indian princes Sita from the Hindu epic Ramayana was kept hidden in the caves behind the falls by Sri Lankan king Ravana, before Sita’s husband Rama built a bridge to Sri Lanka, killed Ravana after several days of battle, and rescued Sita.  Note that this area is different from the Sita Amman temple near Nuwara Eliya where Sita was also thought to have been kept as a prisoner near a creek.  These are some of the many places in Sri Lanka claimed to be the places in the epic Ramayana.

We stopped at the road side and walked near the falls to enjoy the beauty.  Several visitors were taking a bath in the fresh cold water from the falls.  We did not have time for that this time.  We bought boiled corn from the road side and proceeded to drive south towards the coast.

Uda Walawe National Park

As I worked to put together an itinerary for our Sri Lanka trip, I tried hard to fit in a safari at a national park.  The Yala National Park is the most famous one in Sri Lanka.  However, due to the need to fit in various priories, we decided to leave the safari and national park visit to a future trip to Sri Lanka.

Well, that is until our van driver woke me up as we were driving to ask if we would be interested to stop at the Uda Walawe National park for a safari.  The time was around 2:30 PM.  He made few calls, and said he can take us to a tour operator and our family of four can do the safari lasting about 2 to 2.5 hours for a very reasonable price.  Now, that is hard to refuse even though we had to deal with couple of sleepy kids who did not want to be woken up to change vehicles.

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Park entrance

The Uda Walawe National Park was established in 1972 to provide a sanctuary for the wild animals displaced by the construction of the Uda Walawe reservoir on the Walawe river and also protect the watershed catchment area.  It covers an approximate area of about 120 square miles.  The landscape is mostly grasslands and bush forests, with occasional tributaries of the Walawe river and distant mountain ranges.  Before the park designation, this area was used by farmers for shifting (chena) cultivation.  Uda Walawe National park is famous for its wild elephants.

Our tour guide had a pickup truck, retrofitted with elevated seats on the back.  His English knowledge was limited, and our Sinhala knowledge is not much better either.  However, we managed to communicate and he took us on a very good safari.

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Herd of bulls and buffalo

There were herds of bulls and buffalo.   We saw deer at a distance.  The first sighting of wild elephants was very exciting, but as we drove to different points in the park, we saw a large number of wild elephants.

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Elephant walking near a safari jeep

The area was experiencing a drought, which has dried up most of the creeks.  Our safari jeep was crossing the dry sandy creek beds.  I have seen photos of these crossings when the creeks were full of water, with water splashing.  Not this time.  National parks in Sri Lanka can be closed due to severe drought, so it is important to check prior to planning a visit.

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Elephants looking for water in the drought

We saw several jeeps suddenly assembling near an area.  There were a herd of elephants, just 20 yards from the jeeps.  They were using their legs to dig holes in the loose dry silty sandy soil.  When the holes filled up with water, they used their trunks to first take in and spray out the muddy water.  Filtration.  Once cleaner water is reached, they started to drink.  It was amazing to watch this from such close quarters.  I did wonder what will happen if one of the elephants starts chasing our jeep.

The ideal times for going on safaris is either early mornings or late evenings, when the animals and birds can be sighted near the water bodies.   Our timing in the afternoon was not ideal, but still we saw a wide variety of animals and birds.  No leopards though.

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Bulls, buffalo, and elephants coexist

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Uda Walawe reseroir

We approached a section of what I believe is the Uda Walawe reservoir.  We saw water birds….and yes crocodiles.  Scenery resembled the African savanna.

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Crocodile

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Overall, it was a great safari.  Our tour guide dropped us off near our van.  We proceeded south west, passing the dam of the Uda Walawa reservoir as the sun was setting.

We stopped for a quick dinner at a road side local restaurant.  We had skipped lunch and were hungry.  We were sleepy as well.

I grew up in Sri Lanka and used to the driving style, but having lived out of the country for more than 20 years, I was nervous siting in the front seat each time our van was traveling in the opposite lane to overtake vehicles.  I woke up several times as the driver stepped on the brake a little too hard.

On the more interesting side,  our driver would stop at several places to buy the specialty vegetables from that area to take home.  He would explain the specialties of each vegetable and why its good for you.  We reached Mirissa around 9:30 PM, sleepy and tired, but happy that we were able to see Ella and enjoy the safari at Uda Walawe.

Mirissa

Mirissa is a small town by the beach along the Galle – Matara main road.  It is popular with tourists for beautiful beaches and night clubs.  Whale and dolphin watching is also popular here.  Mirissa used to be a small fishing village before booming into a tourist village/town.  It was affected badly by the 2004 Indian ocean tsunami and rebuilt.

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Mirissa beach near the Mirissa rock (and our hotel)

Most of the beach is sandy and free of rocks.  However, there are spots with rocks, especially near the beautiful mirissa rock.   We visited the beach in early August, still off season time.  The beach was not crowded.  There was good surf, and our kids had a great time as we spent two mornings at the beach.

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Coconut palm tress line the coastline along the Mirissa beach
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Mirissa rock

I have seen photos of people walking on the Mirissa rock.  We waded in neck deep water, with waves breaking and pushing us, along a rocky stretch of the beach, and reached the base of the Mirissa rock.  However, we were not brave enough to walk across a thin ledge to climb the Mirissa rock.

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View from our hotel swimming pool

It was great to be able to switch between the swimming pool and ocean.  There were facilities to shower by the pool.

Even small street side hut restaurants in Mirissa were offering both western and local menus.  The nicer restaurants had shrimp cocktails and similar menu items and served them on the beach.  For those not traveling with kids, partying can go late into the night in Mirissa.

Galle

Galle is located in the south western tip of Sri Lanka and has a natural harbor.  It has one of the largest colonial era forts in Asia.  The fort has a small city inside.  The fort was initially built by the Portuguese in 1588, and extensively fortified by the Dutch in the 17th century.  It is a UNESCO world heritage site.

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Galle town clock tower

We took a bus from Mirissa to Galle one afternoon.  We walked from the bus station to Galle Fort.  After having lunch at a restaurant inside the fort, we walked around the fort enjoying the majestic views.   Indian ocean, harbor, international cricket stadium, and the town center can be viewed from different points.  The main attractions in Galle, including the train and bus stations, are within walking distance or short tuk-tuk drive (source: http://www.cartographic.org.uk/Cartographic/GalleFort.html).

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Galle fort and Indian ocean
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Galle International Cricket Stadium viewed from the Galle fort

Galle international cricket ground is one of the most picturesque cricket grounds in the world.  The view of the fort and the Indian ocean are often pictured when cricket matches are covered in television.  It is also one of the happy hunting grounds for the home team.  The fort and the ground area were severely damaged by the 2004 Indian ocean tsunami and restored subsequently.

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Galle fort and Indian ocean

The Galle lighthouse is located within the fort and was built in 1848 by the British.  This is believed to be the oldest lighthouse in Sri Lanka.  The original lighthouse was destroyed by fire, and the current one built 330 feet away from the original site in 1939.  The current lighthouse is 87 feet tall, 7 feet taller than the original.  It is located in the harbor side (eastern side) of the fort.

The fort is a popular area to view the sunset.  A tropical storm was approaching during the sunset.  It gave us a unique experience as the scenery was changing ever minute as the dark clouds and the sun were engaged in a hide and seek.  Finally the downpour arrived, and we ran to seek shelter along with a group of visitors under a narrow awning of a shop.

We took a tuk-tuk to the train station and inquired about trains to Mirrisa at that time, around 6:30 PM.  There were none.  So we walked to the nearby bus station and got in a bus and reached Mirissa, just in time to meet one of my old school friends from decades ago to go out for dinner.

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Sunset over the Indian ocean viewed from the Galle fort as a tropical storm was approaching

After enjoying the beach on the second morning, we took a tuk-tuk to the Weligama train station and got on the 1 PM train to Colombo from Matara.  We did not have reserved seats, but were able to find seats without much trouble.

The train ride was scenic as the train mostly was hugging the coastline.  It is tragic that a train traveling in the opposite direction from Colombo to Matara along this scenic route received a direct hit by the 2004 Indian ocean tsunami, leading to one of the worst train disasters in history.

Since the Galle station is located on a spur of the rail line, the locomotive had to be changed to the other end of the rail cars to change directions to proceed North to Colombo.   As the train approached Colombo, it was getting crowded  with students and office workers.  I believe we reached Mt. Lavinia around 5:30 PM, where we got off.

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View from the coastal Matara to Colombo train

Useful Links:

  1. Ella:  https://globalhelpswap.com/things-to-do-in-ella-sri-lanka
  2. Halpe Tea Factory:  http://www.halpetea.com/
  3. Sri Lanka or Ceylon Tea: http://www.ceylonteamuseum.com/
  4. Uda Walawe National Park: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Udawalawe_National_Park
  5. Mirissa: http://www.mirissa.com/index.htm
  6. Galle: http://gallefortguide.com/
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