Highlands and Tea Country

Ideal escape from the tropical heat of the lowlands.

When one typically thinks of Sri Lanka, the image portrayed is generally about golden beaches, turquoise blue waters amidst a tropical setting. But the country has another side, which is completely different; an area of cold misty mountains, amazing sceneries, cloud forests, highland moors, stunning waterfalls, colonial towns and carpeted green tea fields.

Located in the center of the island, the hill country is an ideal escape from the tropical heat of the lowlands. This area was for most of Sri Lanka's history inhospitable and largely impenetrable wilderness which remained only sparsely settled and cultivated. Legends of the ancient and mythical king Ravana are found in this region, with locations such as Seetha Amman Temple, Thotupola Kanda, Ravena Ella are some sites which a linked to these legends. With the arrival of the British in the 19th century it was commercially exploited. The abundant rainfall, combined with sunshine, cold nights and mists, offered the perfect formula for the production of tea and hence the world-famous industry of Ceylon Tea, which was born which can still be considered one of the mainstays of the nation's economy. Areas such as Nuwara Eliya, Hatton, Talawakele, Labookele are some of the best places to experience the tea culture of Sri Lanka. The tea is still manually plucked by laborers, mainly ladies who were brought during the colonial period from India.

The old world British colonial charm still exists in this region, in the form of railways, Geo-Gothic Churches and quaint houses as well as Western influenced vegetables and flowers. The old colonial estate mansions are decadent reminders of a lavish life of a bygone era. Some of these mansions and bungalows are functioning even today as boutique residences with all the niceties enjoyed by the colonials many years ago. The rail journey which traverses across the hill country from Kandy through to Ella is one of the main highlights for visitors to this region which should not be missed.

But the main attraction of the highlands are its spectacular natural wonders. The breathtaking scenery in certain lookout points such as Worlds End, Haputale, Corbetts Gap and Mini Worlds End are hard to describe. The view from the top of Adams Peak, the country's holiest mountain is surreal, with the triangular shadow of the mountain stretching across the forests and valleys below during sunrise. When clouds are shrouding the view, it is as if one is atop mount Olympus itself. The last remaining cloud forests are unique, in that the almost stunted and gnarly nature of the foliage and trees which are infect perfect adaptations to the climate and wind. These forests which border open glades or plains have been described as being similar to the moors of Northern England and the highlands of Scotland. These forests harbor unique life which are found only in this areas and nowhere else on earth with the animals and plants having adapted to life in these higher elevations with colder climates.

The great rivers of the island, all originate from these highlands starting as small springs which flow and create streams, which in turn will become the waterways which flow down to the lowlands and eventually into the vast expanses of the Indian ocean. During this journey, some of these streams produce stunning waterfalls which are truly a magnificent sight to behold. Diyaluma, Bambarakanda, Dunhinda, Ramboda, Bakers Falls are some of the well-known falls.

A lower regions of the highlands such as Kitulgala play host to an array of adventure activities along the Kelani River, as well as tropical rainforests with an array of species of flora and fauna. This region is a land to itself, and offers so much to the yearning traveler, from relaxation, exploration, to adventure.

Cloud Forests of Sri Lanka

Though Sri Lanka is a tropical island, the land has some of the most contrasting landscapes which can be compared to that of a much larger continent. At its centre, are the mountainous highlands rising all the way upto 2,500m above sea level. These highlands were historically known as the “Maya Rata” by the ancient Sinhalese, and was a land shrouded in clouds and forest for centuries. This was a land seldom ventured and respected by the kings as the key source of all the rivers and streams flowing through the country. The highlands was where all the wild animals such as elephants, sloth bear and leopard used to roam, before the British colonials cleared most of the forest for coffee and then tea plantations. Most of the wildlife including thousands of elephants were shot down as vermin.

What remains of these forests can be seen at Peak Wilderness Sanctuary and Horton Plains National Park as well as the Hakgala sanctuary along with certain areas of the Knuckles mountain range which is around 0.05% of the island’s land area. What is unique about these forests is the high level of endemism, as well as unique adaptations of flora and fauna to the climate and elevation. Generally a “Cloud Forest” are those found above an elevation of 1000m. The climate is clearly much cooler than the lowlands, and are often shrouded in mist. Almost 34% of the country’s endemic trees, shrubs and herbs can only be found in these forests. The mean temperature in these forests range between 15-20 Celcius. During certain months such as December to February ground frost can be seen. Rainfall is high in these forest with an average rainfall of 200-2500mm.

A key feature of these type of forests are stunted, twisted trees mainly Dipterocarpus. The leaves of these trees are small and thick. Often the trees are covered in moss, and lichens. The plains bordering these forests are often scattered with Rhododendron. The undershrub is often dominated by Strobilanthes. These cloud forests boasts even more endemic species than the lowland rainforests. Around 50% of the country’s flowering plants and 51% of endemic vertebrates are found in these forests. Some of the key endemic birds found in these forests are the Sri Lanka Bush Warbler, Sri Lanka Dull Blue Flycatcher, Yellow Eared Bulbul, Sri Lanka Wood Pidgeon, Sri Lanka Scaly Thrush, Jungle Fowl, Sri Lanka White Eye and the ever elusive Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush or Arrenga.

A unique mammal found in these forests is the montane version of the endemic Purple Faced Leaf Monkey, also known as the bear monkey due to the shaggy coat. Elephants used to be found in these forests but are now virtually extinct except for a small population in the Peak Wilderness Sancturary. Sambar the island’s largest species of deer can be found grazing in the open plans and large herds can be seen in the Horton Plains National Park. The country’s top predator, the leopard which is a master of stealth has managed to remain elusive and stay hidden from man and still survives in the central highlands in forest patches and around the vicinity of tea estates. Some of the unique reptile species found are the Rhino Horned Lizard’s and the Pigmy Lizards, both of whom are endemic. Along with these there are many species of endemic frogs, and new species being discovered every day.

Ceylon Tea

The central highlands, with its cooler climate and mountainous terrain provides a refreshing escape from the hot and humid conditions in the lowlands. The home of Ceylon Tea, the island’s most reputed and famed export product, the hills are carpeted with lush green plantations that produce some of the world’s finest tea. It was not tea, but coffee that was planted by the British as the island’s primary crop until the 1860’s. In 1869, a fungus killed the majority of the plantations and the climatic conditions and the soil in the hill country was deemed unsuitable for this cash crop.

During this period, the owners of the Loolecondera Estate were interested in replacing their crops with tea and hence James Taylor was selected to be the first person in Ceylon to sow seeds of tea in 1867 on 19 acres of land. Taylor had acquired some basic knowledge of tea cultivation from North India and has thus made some initial experiments in manufacture, by using his bungalow verandah as the factory and rolling the leaf by hand on tables. Firing of the oxidized leaf was carried out on clay stoves over charcoal fires with the leaf on wire trays. His first teas were sold locally and were declared a hit. By 1872, Taylor had a fully functioning factory, and, in 1873, his first quality teas were sold in the market for a very good price at the London auction. Through his dedication and sheer determination, Taylor was largely responsible for the early success of tea in Ceylon. Between 1873 and 1880, production rose from just 23 pounds to 81.3 tons, and by 1890, to 22,899.8 tons.

Rapid expansion of the Ceylon's tea industry in the 1870s and 1880s brought a good deal of interest from the large British companies, which took over many of the small estates. Four estates were purchased by a grocer whose name is almost a synonym for tea: Thomas J. Lipton. Lipton was a Son of poor Irish immigrants, and grew up amidst the slums of Glasgow, Scotland. He left school at the age of ten to help support his poor family and in 1865 sailed to America to work as a manual laborer and later managed a successful New York grocery store. It was here that he learned all the tricks and techniques of advertising and salesmanship that he later used to great effect when selling groceries and tea back in England and Scotland. He returned to Glasgow in 1871 and worked for a couple of years in the grocery shop run by his parents. By the age of 21, he had opened his own store, where he practiced the retailing skills he had learned in America. His creative marketing and clever publicity stunts brought his new venture rapid success. In 1890, already a successful millionaire, Lipton was in need of a holiday and booked a passage to Australia. On the way, he broke his journey in Ceylon. He had an interest in tea as a product to sell in his shops. Lipton did not trust middlemen, and wanted to explore the possibilities of growing tea and bringing it direct to Britain. Since the problems of the coffee blight, plantations in the island were going for a very cheap. He bought four plantations and could now fully control his company's quality of tea and price. Tea was an expensive commodity in Britain at that time, and was selling at a higher price than most working-class families could easily afford. Lipton's plan was to reduce its cost by cutting out the numerous middlemen, and render it affordable for the average British shopper. His other novel idea was to begin packaging it. Instead of selling it loose from the chest, as was the custom at that time, Lipton packed his tea in brightly-colored, eye-catching packets bearing the slogan "Straight from the tea gardens to the tea pot." Lipton's foray into tea was a huge success, and vastly increased his wealth. His 300 shops throughout England soon could not keep up with the growing demand for his inexpensive product, and so Lipton teas became available in other stores around Britain. The name of Lipton had migrated from a chain of grocery stores and became a trademark soon to be famous the world-over.

The 1884 and 1886 International Expositions held in London introduced the English and foreigners to teas produced in the British Empire. But it was at the 1893 World Fair in Chicago that Ceylon tea made a tremendous hit; no less than one million packets were sold. Finally at the Paris exposition of 1900, visitors to the Sri Lanka Pavilion discovered replica tea factories and the five o-clock tea that became so fashionable. The promotional policy was so effective that by the end of the 19th century, the world tea was no longer associated with China, but with Ceylon. The island's prosperity sparked covetousness on the part of British companies and London brokers, who wanted to acquire their own plantations and cut out the middlemen. This marked a turning point in the saga of tea; pioneers gave way to merchants whose name or label would soon become more important than the country in which the tea was grown.

Tea is the second most consumed beverage in the world, playing second fiddle only to water. It is in almost every culture, and there are literally thousands of varieties.

A visit to the hill country will not be complete without a visit to a tea factory and estate. There are also a few lowland tea factories near Ratnapura and off Galle in the south coast, which can also be visited. You can stroll through the beautifully manicured tea fields and thereafter head to the tea factory where the magic of converting raw leaves into black tea happens. An art developed during the British colonial period, some machines used date back over 100 years. The creation of black tea is an art form which has remained relatively unchanged for over a century. The Ceylon Tea Museum in Hantane is another interesting site to visit, which contains many artefacts of the pioneering days of Ceylon Tea, and images and books on this period.

Hiking and Trekking

Sri Lanka is a land of natural beauty and stunning landscapes. There is no better way to truly relish this than by immersing oneself in the outdoors and traversing the forest and mountain paths to reach some of the most amazing summits there is. The central highlands are the best area for hiking and trekking with many routes and peaks to explore. This experience will be carried out along with a seasoned instructor along with a medic team and a support crew who ensure safety which is of paramount importance. An off-season climb can also be extremely rewarding since you will completely be away from any civilization or human contact until you reach the peak. Select a dry month, July or August, since the trail can be extremely hazardous to pass during monsoon months. The Peak Wilderness and the Knuckles ranges offer some of the best terrains and most picturesque views for guided nature walks and trekking.

Adams Peak – The Sacred Mountain

One of the most stunning and most popular trails in climbing Adams Peak. This is especially challenging during the off season when the winds are cold and rain is inevitable. This hike travails though the lush and pristine Peak Wilderness Sanctuary, which is one of the most ecologically important sites in the country with a high level of endemic species from plants, to birds to reptiles and amphibians. The high altitude will result in some fatigue as the air is thinner higher up. The trail will entail rest stops every 1.5km and refreshments and the climb to the summit takes approximately 4 ½ hours. The trail will also include a visit to some amazing waterfalls deep in the forest. The view from the top of the peak is sure to take ones breath away. A historical and religiously significant point this sacred mountain is visited by thousands of pilgrims and foreign visitors alike, especially during the peak season. The off season is often from June to November. There are many routes one can take with the Ratnapura route being the most remote and strenuous climb. The hike will be roughly 7km up with over 5500 steps.

Kirigalpotta Mountain Trail

Kirigalpoththa is the 2nd highest Mountain of Sri Lanka after Pidurutalagala with a peak elevation of 2,388 meters above sea level. Kirigalpoththa is the highest point in the Horton Plains National Park and also the highest peak accessible to the public. This 7 kilometer trail will take around 5 1/2 hours of trekking each way. Attempting Kirigalpoththa is for the daring adventurers only as the conditions can be treacherous due to the difficulty of the terrain and weather. A slightly over grown path snakes, through grassy plains, cloud forest, peat bogs and steep rock surfaces.

Riverston Excursion

Riverston is located approximately 30 kilometers interior from the town of Matale by traveling through windy roads with quite a few hairpins turns, but at the summit during good weather conditions will offer a spectacular view of the surrounding landscape, an area which is remote and seldom traversed by the mainstream tourists. Climatic conditions here are very similar to the highland forests of Horton Plains. The region also boats of two great waterfalls “Sera Ella” and “Bambarakiri Ella”. A visit to an area known as the Pitawala Pathana offers a unique vantage point over the sheer cliff known as the Mini Worlds End. This area a biodiversity hotspot with many plants and small animals unique to this area alone.

Waterfalls of Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is a land of diversity and contrasting landscapes. The central highlands of the island are the source of all the rivers flowing through the land. These rivers need to traverse through the hills and descend down to the valleys to finally reach the ocean. This leads to some of the most spectacular phenomenons in nature- a waterfall. These beautiful cascades are found throughout the highlands as well as the midland areas of the country where rivers and streams descend down to the lowlands. There are several well-known waterfalls which are visited by many ever year, and yet there are some unseen cascades which are off the beaten track. Below are some of the best known waterfalls in the country.

Ravana Ella Falls

A well known waterfall which is steeped in history, Ravana Ella is one of the widest waterfalls in the country. While journeying to the hills of Ella one can come across this beautiful waterfall. Located off Kital Ella Sub Railway Station, this waterfall originates from the Nayabedda Mountain. The cascade is also known as Upper Ravana Ella due to the sister falls’ location below about 4km from the Ella Town towards Wellawaya.

If one is journeying by train from Nuwara Eliya or Kandy, one can get off at Kital Ella Sub Station and walk around 100m towards Ella town passing the railway bridge to get a good view the falls. The view point near the railway bridge gives the best view of the falls. The Ideal time for a visit is from December to February during the monsoon season or just after to see the falls in full flow.

Bambaragama Falls

This is also known as Ravana Lower Falls due to its location below the original Ravana Ella at Kital Ella. This is one of the most popular waterfalls in Sri Lanka. Falling well over 100 feet above between a giant rocky gap which creates many cascades along the way, is also one of the most visited falls in Sri Lanka due to its location right by the Ella-Wellawaya Main Road.

Originated from the Nayabedda Mountain, the stream feeds its sister falls the Ravana Ella in Kital Ella before creating this gorgeous cascade.

Dunhinda Falls & Mini Dunhinda Falls

Dunhinda Ella is one of the most enchanting falls in Sri Lanka and one of the most popular with foreign visitors. One needs to travel along the Badulla-Mahiyangana Road for about 6km to reach the visitor centre. There onwards one needs to walk around 1.5km through a well-maintained footpath to the falls where there will be a viewing platform.

Along the way, one will also come across the Dunhinda Mini Falls in the distance and far below the walking trail. Originated from the Badulu Oya, Dunhinda is nearly 200 feet tall and the rocky base pool creates a cloud of water vapour thus giving this breath-taking waterfall her name, Dunhinda which means “Smoke”. The ideal time to visit the falls is from Dec to Feb after the monsoon when the Badulu Oya is full.

Bomburu Falls

Bomburu Ella is one of the most beautiful and wide waterfalls in Sri Lanka. Located around 15km from Welimada which is past Nuwara Eliya along Welimada-Ambagasdowa-Perawella Road; one needs to walk about 1km along a well-paved footpath to reach this breath-taking falls. its located amid lush greenery surrounded by rocky hills creating this awe inspiring spectacle.

Falling well over 100ft with a similar width over rocky boulders making two prominent segments, the waterfall is fed by one of the tributaries of the Uma River. The villages of Uva Paranagama are heavily dependent on its waters for their farming.

The ideal time to visit this gorgeous waterfall is during the monsoon between December and February or right after. However the water levels will drop dramatically in the dry season due to the diversion of water for various hydro projects.

Bambarakanda Falls

This waterfall holds the record of the highest waterfall in Sri Lanka. With a height of well over 800ft it also ranks 299th in the world list of highest waterfalls.

Located off Kalupahana this waterfall is a good excursion from Haputale or Bandawawela.

Unfortunately, diversion of water upstream has caused the water levels to greatly reduce in the recent years. Therefore it is only during heavy rains that one can truly witness the full beauty of the falls. The falls are originating from the Kuda Oya, which one of the tributaries of Walawe River.

Diyaluma Falls

Another beautiful waterfall which can be accessed from Haputale is Diualuma. It is the 3rd highest fall in Sri Lanka. It is also known as the “Jalaja Pahana” (Water Lamp) and the “Wishmitha Ella” (Amazing Waterfall of Sri Lanka) by the locals.

Falling more than 700ft in height, it is fed by the Punagala Oya, a tributary of the Kirindi Oya.

The name Diyaluma has originated from the Sinhala words “Diya Haluma” or “Rapid Flow of Water”. As of many waterfalls in the Sabaragamuwa and Uva Provinces, it comes alive during the North-Eastern Monsoon season from December to February.

Laxapana Falls

Another beautiful waterfall which can be an excursion from Hatton it is the 5th highest waterfall in the country. It is a result of the Maskeliya Oya that joins after creating this sensual waterfall with Kehelgamu Oya to form the Kelani River, which is one of the four major rivers in Sri Lanka.

She’s situated about 16km off Maskeliya along Norton Bridge Road in a village called Kiriwan Eliya. It plunges straight down to a deep and rocky base creating a massive cloud of water drops that envelopes the whole area. Laxapana name comes from “Laxa” meaning one hundred thousand and “Pahana aka Pashana” meaning rocks. According to the folklore, The Lord Buddha stopped here to mend his saffron robe on his way to the Sri Pada Mountain or Adams Peak to preach Dhamma to God Saman. Best times to visit the falls is during the South-West Monsoon season (May-September) to see it in full flow.

Aberdeen Falls

This falls is located close to Laxapana Ella along Norton Bridge Road where one needs to travel along Kalaweldeniya Village road for about 4-5km to reach the trail head. From there onwards it’s a walk of around 1km downhill along a well-paved path to the viewing platform of the falls.

She’s been named after the third largest city of Scotland, Aberdeen due to the influence of Scottish Planters who used to plant this area during the colonial times. The Kehelgamu Oya is the contributor to create this picturesque waterfall and later joins the Kelani River. Ideal time to visit is during or just after the South-West Monsoon that’ll increase the water levels dramatically.

Bopath Falls

This might be the most visited waterfall in Sri Lanka. Bopath means Bo Leaf (Ficus Religiosa) and the shape of the falls is very much like a Bo Leaf thus giving her the name. it’s surrounded by virgin forests that runs all the way to the Adams Peak mountain range. This waterfall can be accessed from Kuruwita which is before Ratnapura. It formed by the Kuru Ganga, a tributary of K?lu Ganga.

Bakers Falls

This waterfall is located inside Horton Plains National Park. The cascade is named after the famous hunter and explorer Sir Samuel Baker who used to hunt in this region. This is fed by a tributary of the Belihul Oya, and surrounded by Rhododendron and Giant Ferns.

Ramboda Falls

On the road to Nuwara Eliya from Kandy one comes across the beautiful Ramboda Ella. This is formed by the Panna Oya which is a tributary of the Kotmale Oya. This falls can be viewed by the roadside, but to get a closer look one needs to descend down to the foot of the falls.

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