#6 - Valentine's in Ella - the day I found myself?
Updated: Mar 23, 2020
Leaving behind Adam’s Peak after a much relished one-hour nap, I was to head through the heart of Sri Lanka’s hill country on the infamous Kandy-Ella train. I hadn’t even set foot on the carriage before I saw the Aussie lads from Jungle Vista hostel in Sigiriya, and together we spent the full six hour journey lost in total awe and admiration as the landscape unfurled around us. Never before has public transport felt quite so life-affirming as this; rooting myself to the open doorway in second-class, and nibbling away at some on-board vegetable samosa snacks, I did not want the ride to end.
Jun – one of the Aussie boys – perhaps did not share the same sentiment. He was sporting scratches from a punch up with his mate Luke the previous night (none of them could remember how it started) and was looking far from his best after being dared to eat a chilli. But even he left the train in higher spirits.
Having become an adopted Aussie, I shared a taxi with them to Tomorrowland hostel, 20 minutes outside of Ella. We arrived to what looked like a degenerative hippie-fest, and the boys were delighted. This was a hostel with its own DJ booth, blaring out techno beats until past two in the morning. Nightly. The ‘master’ of the building and his supporting staff challenged guests fervently to games of Carrom – Sri Lanka’s snooker-esque tabletop game of Indian origin – and the in-house bar offered everything from Lion lager to arrack attacks (arrack with ginger beer). Not uncoincidentally, I chose to make this my first 4-night stop-off.
Shaking off a first night of moderate-to-heavy drinking, I woke up early for a morning in the caves. I had little idea what to expect – indeed the only reason I was there was because I’d met female Robbi – my Dutch namesake – the previous night and she had suggested it. Five of us took the plunge, and we ended up climbing down for hundreds of metres, fending off bats and dung on our way to the pool at the bottom, with only our head torches and a couple of guides to save us. It was quite the morning considering I thought the cave would be a few steps below ground level, and kicked off my time in Ella with a bang.
Speaking of bangs, it was the 14th February and after a short tuk-tuk into Ella, I enjoyed a leisurely Valentine’s Day stroll through the town-centre with female Robbi. Ella itself was quite literally one street, lit up from top to bottom with bars at night as it transformed into a Las Vegas strip. At this point though, we were only interested in acquiring two design-your-own tops and putting each other’s names on them. Unfortunately, the shop was closed, and with that my Valentine’s was on the ropes.
It is at this juncture that I will try and recall what may remain the craziest and most surreal night of my life. Robbi had found an advertisement for a party that same night – called Extatic and to be held in a secret jungle location. As legit as this seemed, we came to the conclusion that this event was most probably quite dodgy, and decided against it. Unfortunately, we had seemingly bought the last two bottles of arrack in the whole of town, and after an extremely rowdy pres back at the hostel, I found myself sat around a dozen strangers in the back of a truck by half 11, bumping along at speed towards this secret location.
Whilst my memory is pretty hazy from this point forth, we eventually arrived at a large gravelled plateau high up in the hill, equipped with speakers, disco lights and bonfire. The party was far from busy – just our hostel in fact – but strangely vibrant. I later discovered a single video on my phone: one guy shouts ‘Robbie, we need some food, some food please Robbie’. I then walk through the shot, looking overcome with joy with my arms in the air, just before another girl grabs a microphone and exclaims to the rest of the party; ‘we need some foooooooooooood’, as they sway to the music like Janis Joplin backup dancers. For any Peep Show fans reading this, this scene was very much rainbow rhythms. As the morning drew in we all hurried to chase the sunrise further up the hill, and sat looking onto a misty mountain vista between a sea of trees. I was engrossed and confused in equal measure, having lost all concept of time and place. For a few hours that morning, I had not a care in the world. The group had succumbed to laughter and the bond between us could not have been stronger – make no mistake, this was a thoroughly spiritual experience.
Left: I passed up my Valentine's opportunity with female Robbi for a night of deep introspection. Instead of finding love, I found myself.
I had just about managed to avoid passing out on the bus back to the hostel, and the remainder of the next day was a thorough write-off. I spent half of it recovering in a hammock and the other half watching Youtube videos inside as a tried to piece together the events of the last few hours.
With most of Ella’s offerings accomplished already, for the final day I set my sights on Ella Rock. I initially set off with a polish guy called Bartosz, but at the foot of the hostel we found Eliad from Israel – who was only after some toothpaste and shampoo from town – and just like that, the squad for the day was assembled. We managed to hitch a lift initially in the back of truck (making a habit of it now), and the walk up to Ella Rock began with a light 3km jaunt along the railway tracks. It was a morning that epitomised Sri Lanka’s attitude to health and safety, and it could not have been more refreshing. Despite a couple of coconut stops and a few wrong turnings into private gardens, we made the top of the Rock in good time, with resident photographer Eliad there to capture all my good angles. The summit was shared with a host of monkeys and two much-appreciated juice bars, and the views across Ella were stunning.
Not content yet, however, we pushed onwards towards what has been dubbed the ‘secret waterfall’. As the name would suggest, it proved an absolute mission to get there, turning a four hour round trip into a full-day hike of over 26km and well over 30,000 steps. On our way back we feared we had strayed so far from the beaten track that there would be no transport, and for several miles we were chaperoned by four very friendly dogs. George Harrison, Steve Lennon, Elvis McCartney and Presley Star may well have been using us in their pursuit of new territory – starting raucous barking matches with fellow dogs every few hundred feet – but they were endearing nonetheless. Indeed, we were on the road for so long that we named nearly every country and type of car on the planet during intensive category games, but it’s these adventurous moments that I’ll remember most.
We celebrated our achievement by rinsing happy hour for all it was worth in Ceylon Bar upon our return to town, going so gung-ho that we all had to sacrifice our final pints as we succumbed to bloating. After struggling through the final few sips I took them both to One Love Bar to meet up with Rachael and Sarah, who you may remember from the elephant safari. Here we caught up over a cocktail and even a cheeky little watermelon shisha, and made plans to meet again further down south.
As the days go on, the connections are growing, both to the people and the place. I’m forming a deep love with Sri Lanka, and Ella is right up there with the best it has to offer. Just like my cringe-worthy Instagram caption rightly states, Ella rocks.