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A new dawn


Sri Lanka has faced some intense challenges but is now opening up previously inaccessible areas to visitors. Anna Nicholas goes exploring

As droplets of warm rain kissed my face, the tuk tuk driver tutted and with a blast of the horn whizzed his three-wheeled red demon through the jumble of passengers and vehicles to the front of Colombo's Fort Station. The sudden tropical shower didn't bother me because all I could feel was palpable freedom. Having visited Sri Lanka several times before, often to assist a Colombo orphanage in the wake of the devastating tsunami that struck in 2004, I was now seeing it in a new era and in the aftermath of two decades or more of savage civil war.

On previous trips, I'd dutifully schlepped around Kandy's Temple of the Tooth, cooed over the cuddly inmates of the Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage, marvelled at the Buddhist cave temples of Dambulla and made the vertiginous climb up to the historic rocky citadel of Sigiriya. The beaches on the fashionable west coast around Bentota and the beautifully preserved Dutch colonial town of Galle hadn't disappointed. Yet all the same, I'd yearned to travel deep into the heart of the hill country and to the northeast coast, previously deemed too precarious to visit due to sporadic outbreaks of fighting.

hill country

Now, in a newly integrated, war-free Sri Lanka, it seemed fun to let the train take the strain. Alighting at Galle station, I went by road to Yala National Park on the island's southernmost tip, home to 50 of the island's 200 leopard population. Once ravaged by the tsunami and also, in harder times, subject to a heavy military presence, Yala had made a remarkable recovery. Arriving at the crack of dawn by jeep, I had perfect sightings of wild elephant herds, leopards, sloth bears, packs of jackal and wild boar and many of the park's 130 bird species. Travelling north towards Kandy, essentially the hub from which visitors can travel the island in all directions, I passed through Nuwara Eliya in the hill country, once a jungly playground for pachyderms before early British colonialists manicured it into submission. I popped by the Hill Club. Established in 1876 by British coffee planters, this delightful anachronism, with its fusty wooden library, insists on formal attire in its restaurant and puts hot water bottles in guests' beds. Nuwara Eliya isn't known as 'Little England' for nothing.

Early morning in the now driving rain, my guide, Eddie, and I set off through lush tea plantations, waterfalls and pure cool air to Horton Plains, another national park, this time in the centre of the island. At the main entrance, a gallant worker offered me piping hot roti straight from the oven. After a bracing three-hour walk through cloud forest, the sky brightened, just as we reached the spectacular World's End, where cliffs plunge 3,000 feet to the plains below. Soon after, as I enjoyed a close encounter with a purple-faced langur, Eddie showed me the delicate blue - yet potent - Nelu flower that when nibbled, renders elephants drunk. I tried to dismiss the image of tipsy trumpeting Babars teetering on the edge of World's End.

pick your own tea

The next morning, back in Kandy, I roamed the Peradeniya Botanical Gardens, a 150-acre aromatic pleasure dome established for Kandyian nobility in the 18th century. At the nearby Mahaiyawa cemetery, I visited the gravestone of James Taylor, father of the island's tea industry. You can join the locals picking tea if you wish; I had a go at the swish Labookelie tea factory, working alongside local Tamil workers picking leaves on a verdant plantation.

For my visit into the hill country, I had arranged to meet intrepid veteran guide Sumane Illangantilake, Sri Lanka's answer to Indiana Jones and a walking encyclopedia of the country's wildlife, folklore, history and traditions. Together, we drove past the vast Victoria Reservoir to the rugged Dumbara Hills - or 'Knuckles Range', because of their resemblance to a clenched fist - where we hiked for hours under a gentle sun without another soul in sight, lunched with local cardamom burners and tracked the prints of elephants, leopards and polecats.

Coursing along winding mountain roads, we drove on to wild and woolly Dambana, where scantily clad Veddah tribesmen, whose lineage dates back to 16,000BC, escorted us to their simple jungle encampment. The indefatigable Sumane, wearing his trademark Stetson, presented the Veddah with betel nuts and tobacco leaves which when chewed, turned the tribesmen's mouths bright red so that they resembled grinning vampires. Here, to an orchestra of melodious crickets, they sang, demonstrated traditional dances, showed me how to shoot an arrow and make a fire with flint. It was a big change from previous visits, when local villagers had expressed surprise and concern that I had ventured so far east. Now there was a more relaxed atmosphere altogether, smiling faces and a sense of lives being rebuilt.

Back in Kandy after this adventure, I soothed my muscles with a relaxing massage at Samadhi's Ayurvedic Centre and in Matale, stocked up on vanilla and herbs at a spice garden. Further north, I explored the magnificent and tourist-free ancient remains of the medieval citadel of Polonnaruwa with its endearing colony of soft grey langurs, then headed for historic Trincomalee, formerly a strategic naval base, with one of the largest natural harbours in Asia. Once a haven for Tamil refugees fleeing from the war zone further north, Trinco seemed to be enjoying a rebirth with new construction, highways and a restored railway connection to Colombo. At the atmospheric colonial Fort Frederick, I toured the Koneswaram Kovil temple on the site of a 2,500 year-old shrine, and looked out to sea from nearby Lover's Leap and Swarmi Rock.

So much to do, so little time. Exhausted but exhilarated, I caught the night sleeper back to Colombo. Sri Lanka may still have issues to resolve but is experiencing a new dawn. One thing's certain: I'll be back.


Cox & Kings

Tel. 0845 564 8267 /

Offers a two-week luxury tour of Sri Lanka, staying in boutique hotels and including visits to temples and a lesson in the art of tea blending.

Peregrine Reserve

Tel. 0845 863 9604 /

features a 12-day luxury tour taking in, among other places, Anuradhapura, Kandy, Yala National Park, Nuwara Eliya and Galle.

Experience Travel

Tel. 020 3627 6319 /

Offers everything from family holidays to touring, in-depth Sri Lanka, cycling holidays, wildlife tours and two-centre Sri Lanka and Maldives holidays.

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