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Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka
Tuesday, 12 February 2019

My driver arrived fifteen minutes early at a quarter to five in the morning while I was still getting dressed. This surprised me in a country not exactly renowned for its Swiss-style punctuality. The driver rattled the gate and knocked on it but as I was still in the middle of putting clothes on I couldn't respond.

The hotel manager woke up and showed the driver in and I raced out of my room to apologise. I greeted Raja, my trusty driver for the day, and we promptly took off to my next UNESCO World Heritage Site in the pre-dawn gloom.

We left Nuwara Eliya on pleasantly quiet and empty streets, went a short way on the A7 towards Nanu Oya and turned left. The A-roads in Sri Lanka, the country's principal highways, are rather good. They are narrow, they are congested, and they often lack shoulders and guard rails, but they are smoothly surfaced, crisply lined and clearly signed. In terms of road surface quality they are on average far superior to Australian highways.

When you turn off the A-roads onto the B-roads or the locally maintained roads, it's a different story. We turned onto the B512, a narrow, bumpy, insane little road barely wide enough for one car. Raja's car was an Indian-made Suzuki Alto. I am certain that Model T Fords had more advanced suspension and passenger comfort. The little hatchback bumped and jolted over every single bump, pothole, washaway and corrugation.

The little underpowered car soon started climbing up hairpin bends and steep inclines. As we increased our elevation, the car was enveloped in a thick milky fog. I couldn't see a thing in front of us but Raja negotiated every bend with expert aplomb. I am guessing that he has driven this road many times before and he was navigating by muscle memory.

We passed through the little town of Ambewela with its huge, brightly illuminated milk factory - this cold part of Sri Lanka is the only region suitable for the rearing of dairy cattle - and after one hour and thirty-one kilometres we reached the entrance to Horton Plains National Park.

There were plenty of other cars, tour buses and even tuk-tuks up there. The ticket office opens at six o'clock sharp. I waited in the long line with all the other prospective visitors. Next to me was an Englishman about my age called Adam. I had met him the night before while having a very ordinary dinner in a very ordinary restaurant in Nuwara Eliya. Like me, he was also a solo traveller. While we were in the restaurant he was constantly complaining about the cost of things in Sri Lanka and how everything was a rip-off and how he was trying to travel on a budget of eighty-seven pee a day. I told him to go to Iceland if he wanted to see what a real rip-off is. This is the thing I find about solo travellers - they are either the most interesting, most courageous, most independent, most ingenious, most admirable people you will ever meet; or they are the most tiresome, the most annoying, the most pedantic, the most judgmental, the most penny-pinching people you will ever meet. Adam was definitely the latter. Natalie was definitely the former. Please, please, pretty please tell me that I am the former.

Everyone in line shivered in the cold. I estimate that the temperature was about 5 °C. As Adam stood next to me, he lamented that he had taken a tuk-tuk from Nuwara Eliya to Horton Plains. I managed to suppress my Schadenfreude laughter. Adam complained that he was freezing in the tuk-tuk and that the road was so bumpy and that the tuk-tuk cabim filled with diesel fumes as it spluttered and stalled up the steep grades all the way to the national park entrance, but he chose a tuk-tuk rather than a car because he wanted to save money.

"Oh well, serves you right," I said. Actually I didn't say that. I only thought it.

The ticket window opened at six. I paid about Rs. 4,900 for entry for me and my driver. Foreigners pay around Rs. 4,800, locals only Rs. 60. A lot of travellers complain about this, some claim it is some sort of Soak Whitey tax, but I am cool with these inflated foreigner's fees you see at every park, museum and historic site. Sri Lankans pay for these cultural facilities through their taxes. Travellers do not pay local taxes. I think it is only fair that foreign visitors pay for the maintenance and improvement of facilities that they use without contributing taxes to their upkeep.

I encountered that lovely Sri Lankan bureaucracy again. It is not sufficient to just buy a ticket. Once you receive your ticket, you take it to a nearby office where another national park bureaucrat inspects the ticket, checks it off against a giant ledger, and then stamps your ticket. You and your driver then drive another five kilometres into the park where there is a very large car park at the trailhead. You then take your ticket to another office there to get another stamp. Only then are you free to enter the park. Oh well. I guess all this bureaucracy keeps the unemployment rate low, I guess.

(As a side note, the final bureaucratic step is a bag search. You place your backpacks on a counter and park rangers go through them with a fine tooth comb. They are searching for plastic. They are ruthless. They took my bags of chilli cashews and put them in a paper bag, they took my plastic punnet of strawberries and put them in a paper bag, they got rid of the supermarket plastic fruit bag my apple was in, they even cut the plastic labels and shrink-wrapped bottle cap seals from my bottles of water with a sharp paring knife. No airport security check is as thorough. Of course the strawberries got squashed, the paper bags got wet and burst open from the moist squashed strawberries, and that compartment of my daypack became a mushy mixture of strawberry jam and chilli cashews. Yummy.)

I said goodbye to Raja for a little while and eagerly skipped into Horton Plains National Park. The park is part of the Central Highlands of Sri Lanka UNESCO World Heritage Site and is a unique place. The Horton Plains is a plateau, about two thousand metres above sea level, consisting mostly of gently undulating boggy soil. The plains are perched on the very southern edge of the Hill Country and comsequently get very high winds all year round. A combination of high altitude, poorly drained soil, ferocious winds and topographical isolation have all combined to produce a truly remarkable ecological community - an area of alpine grassland only seven degrees north of the Equator.

The tracks were packed with tourists as I began my nine kilometre hike at half past six. The sun rose over the boggy moors. We all found ourselves in a moody landscape of bogs, grasses, alpine streams with freezing, crystal clear water and the occasional stunted shrub. This was not Sri Lanka. This was Iceland or Scotland or Tasmania or New Zealand. But it couldn't possibly be Sri Lanka. The only hint that this was Sri Lanka was the Sinhala and Tamil script on all the park information signs.

The nine kilometre walk was on a loop track. I took the clockwise route and turned left at the first junction. Soon the undulating moors became more hilly terrain. The tops of the hills were covered in short forests while the lower elevations were open grasslands. This is the reverse of what you usually find in high altitude areas where trees only grow beneath the tree line. There is an explanation for this - the upper, steeper elevations are better drained and consequently trees can gain a more secure foothold than on marshy bogs.

The track headed through the forests as we approached the edge of the precipice. The southeastern edge of the Horton Plains drops away into a wide V-shaped gorge nearly a kilometre deep. There are two lookouts on the trail along this precipice - Mini World's End and World's End, separated by about a kilometre.

The views from both are fantastic. The elevation from the World's End lookout to the river at the bottom of the gorge is 870 metres. To the north the gorge narrows and gets higher and roiling, spiralling clouds were gathering in that corner. Across to the east was the jagged mountain range of Balathuduwa Peak silhouetted against the morning sun. To the south the gorge opened up revealing the coastal plains, a serpentine lake called Samanalawewa Reservoir, and in the far distance the broad estuary-like reservoir in Udu Walawe National Park. Along the western side of the gorge vertical cliffs, some several hundred metres high, dropped off the edge of the Horton Plains.

At World's End the track turns northwest and heads back onto the grassy moors. I loved these alpine peatlands. The weather was moody. One minute there was bright sunlight, fifteen seconds later it was raining, fifteen seconds later it was foggy, fifteen seconds later there was a howling gale and fifteen seconds later it was sunny again. I felt like I had been teleported to Iceland. It's the kind of weather that brings me joy.

The track crossed the moor then entered a stand of cloud forest. This is forest that derives its water from the ever-present cloud that clings to the high-altitude plateau. The ground had no grass cover, it was just slippery mud and a spider's web of tangled roots protruding from the ground. It was a very steep climb over the mud and the tangled roots. My asthmatic lungs were barely coping with the thin mountain air two kilometres above sea level. I have not been at such a high altitude since I climbed Mount Kosciuszko in 1995.

My efforts were handsomely rewarded by the sight of Baker's Falls in the forest. This is an unusual waterfall. It's not particularly tall or wide or powerful but it has an interesting beehive-like shape as the water fans out over the curved rockface. I stayed there for a while sitting on a concrete bench listening to the water and catching my breath.

It was a straightforward walk back to the park entrance. I soon left the forest and was once again in the grassland. Much of the grassland was studded with these tiny little trees with fans of broad dark leaves and wind-gnarled branches. They looked like nothing so much as dwarf frangipanis or bonsai magnolias. I would love to know what these plants are.

There was a little artificial weir and a broad shallow pond called Chimney Pool. After four hours and fifteen minutes I returned to the car park and got back into Raja's Suzuki Alto.

On the way back to my hotel I told Raja that I was interested in going to the top of Pidurutalagala, the highest mountain in Sri Lanka that towers over the town of Nuwara Eliya. Raja called his boss and was told, sure, for another Rs. 2,500. Deal.

I was not expecting to be let up there. At the top of Pidurutalagala is a military radar base of the Sri Lanka Armed Forces. My Lonely Planet was quite clear that the summit is off limits. Wikipedia said the same thing. But I have seen YouTube videos of foreign travellers visiting the peak, and I have seen other travel blogs saying that in true Sri Lankan fashion sometimes they let people in, sometimes they turn people away, and sometimes people are told to wait. I decided to give it a try.

We drove through suburban Nuwara Eliya and turned up a narrow mountain road. We passed the Police Inspectors' Holiday Resort. I guess that constables, sergeants, superintendents and commissioners can just go somewhere else.

A few hundred metres up the road there was a ticket booth. I paid Rs. 250 for a ticket and then a few hundred metres later we reached a military sentry gate. Stern-looking armed soldiers motioned for us to stop. My driver had to fill out his personal details on a slip of paper and I had to write my name and passport number. Raja handed the slip to the sentry guard and we were waved through.

The road became a wide, cracked yet sturdy concrete road, presumably built for heavy military equipment. The vegetation got sparser and more wind-gnarled. The weather was cloudy in Nuwara Eliya and soon enough we were driving through the clouds up the steep concrete road. Sri Lanka went through a desperate three-decade civil war that only ended in 2009 and heavy-handed security legislation is still in place. Raja told me it was not a good idea to take photographs. A pity because the vegetation was really interesting.

We got to the base at the top, a collection of austere military buildings and barbed wire fences and security gates. A soldier signalled us towards a car park. Raja parked the car and told me to go walk to the top while he stayed with the car.

To say that I was nervous would be quite accurate. Here I was, a foreigner walking utterly alone through a high-security military base, with no idea where to find the peak. I saw the highest post box in Sri Lanka, but nothing that pointed the way to the summit. I found a driveway that went up. I climbed the short but steep driveway - very hard work at over two and a half kilometres above sea level, the highest I have ever been - which led up to a padlocked gate topped with sharp spikes. Behind the gate was a high tower festooned with radar dishes. Signs were dotted around the place forbidding photography, forbidding this, forbidding that. The place was forbidding, full stop.

It didn't look like I was able to get past the gate and up to the highest point. Dejected, I started walking back down the driveway when five young air force officers were coming the other way laughing and gossiping with each other.

"Hello," I called out to them.

"Oh, hello!" one of them said in a friendly manner. They seemed quite rightfully surprised by my presence.

"Am I allowed to go to the highest point in Sri Lanka?"

"Oh, of course! Follow us." They led me up a narrow dirt path to the side that I did not see. The dirt path went past the radar tower and looped around it, following the fence surrounding the tower. The path went past a Buddhist dagoba, the highest place of worship in Sri Lanka, then looped around a bit more down a narrow path between high fences, and there it was - a small round stone table with a compass rose on the top. I did it! I reached the highest point of Sri Lanka at 2,524 metres above sea level. The sixth country whose highest point I had climbed after Australia, Singapore, the Netherlands, Belgium and Denmark.

Next to the stone compass rose was a small war memorial with a statue of a soldier, this was some sort of war memorial. Pidurutalagala was completely ensconced within cloud so I couldn't see a thing. After having my photo taken and after the officers had taken a few selfies with me, there was nothing else to do so the officers showed me the way out. They explained that they were medical officers in the Sri Lanka Air Force stationed at Pidurutalagala. They showed me where I wasn't allowed to go and showed me the way back to the car park. I shook hands with each of them, they truly were officers and gentlemen.

I got back into Raja's car and we drove back down the mountain into town. He dropped me off at my guest house and I spent a few hours resting in my room.

In the late afternoon I walked to the post office, a magnificent little mock-Tudor building with steeples and dormer windows and red tiles. I was intending to send souvenirs by post to Australia to save myself the hassle of lugging them around. I love visiting post offices when I go overseas. You can tell a lot about a country by looking at their post offices.

Australia, being an English-speaking country, is one of the countries where the disease of neoliberalism, started by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, has taken the worst hold. All government departments have either been privatised, corporatised or forced to act as if they were commercial businesses. Australia Post used to be the pride of the nation, a much-valued service connecting Australians with each other and the world, and many schoolchildren learned about the exploits of our postal workers delivering the weekly mail to remote rural communities by light aircraft or by boat. Those days are gone. Australia Post has been turned from a service serving citizens into a corporation serving stakeholders that is required to return a profit to the government. In a bid to increase profits, post offices have been moved from beautiful heritage buildings on high streets into soulless shopping centres on the edge of town. These cramped little shoeboxes have been stuffed chock-a-block with useless things nobody really wants from a post office. The ever-growing queues find themselves hemmed in by shelves selling Michael Bublé CDs, Smiggle stationery, iTunes gift cards and inkjet printers. I don't know about you but if I wanted to buy an inkjet printer, Australia Post would not be the first retailer to come to mind. Come to think of it - has anyone, anyone, ever seen a customer at Australia Post ever buying this useless junk? All the people in the queues I have seen are only there to pay their bills, apply for passports, buy stamps or pick up parcels.

Post offices in Singapore are gleaming white and clinically efficient. Post offices in Malaysia might look like the ones in Singapore, you can see that they so desperately want to be like Singapore, but the service is so slow and inefficient that I once had a German traveller give me money to buy a stamp for her postcard and asked me to post it because she was sick of waiting. Post offices in Iceland have what seems like grumpy service but when I had trouble with a SIM card I bought from them, they were incredibly helpful and even called the telephone company to fix my problem. Post offices in Belgium are grey and generic, apt considering it is the most generic European country, while the minimalist Dutch have inventively decided to get rid of post offices altogether so if you want to access postal services you have to go to a convenience store or a supermarket service counter.

I was curious as to what Sri Lankan post offices were like. It was quite late but it was still open. There were various counters - stamps, parcels, registered mail, et cetera - but only the stamps counter was attended. There was nobody in front of me in a queue. The lady behind the counter was busy doing paperwork, or maybe it was a crossword in the daily newspaper. I am not sure, the antique timber counter was quite high.

Finally she beckoned me to the counter. I explained that I wanted to send a parcel to Australia but I didn't have a box. She told me she couldn't help me, I was at the wrong counter, I would need to go to the parcels counter.

"But there's nobody at the counter," I said.

"I know. But you still need to go there."

I explained that I didn't have the goods I wanted to send with me, I just wanted to know if I could buy a box at the post office. She indifferently pointed at a shop in a side room that offered photocopying and scanning services and the like. "You can buy a box in there," she said as she returned to her paperwork. I decided that I was better off carrying my souvenirs around and posting them to relatives from Sydney. As appalling as Australia Post has become, I know that they will reach their destination within six months.

Posted by urbanreverie 21:46 Archived in Sri Lanka Tagged national_park sri_lanka post_office nuwara_eliya horton_plains worlds_end pidurutalagala

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