We set out through the dark Sri Lankan jungle at 4:45 a.m. My guide, Abe, strode purposefully ahead in his sarong and flip flops, smoking a cigarette, while I gasped to keep up. We climbed hundreds of tall, uneven stairs before coming to a flat stretch of train tracks, walking tie to tie. He spoke little English. Occasionally he swung his flashlight to illuminate something in the blackness. "Cow," he'd say, and I'd realize a big-horned animal rested a metre from us.
We left the railroad tracks to follow a narrow path through head-high grass. Eventually, the sky started to lighten. Abe stopped by a giant termite mound with holes as big as my forearm and hit it with his walking stick. "Cobra home," he announced. Yep, the hooded serpents lay their eggs in termite mounds and anthills, their front doors opening onto the path we'd been treading in the dark.
Fortunately, I didn't faint right there. I made it to the top of the steep hill, unbitten. Abe had perfectly timed our hike to reach Ella Rock just as the sky was turning pink and orange. About 20 young European backpackers and five wily dogs were already at the summit. We settled in to watch the sunrise over terraced tea estates in sweeping valleys, sharing our breakfast treats with the strays.
Life at Arana
Arriving in the town of Ella on Sri Lanka's famous hill-country train, a great mob of nature-loving Europeans spilled out, drawn by dramatic scenery and relatively cool temperatures. I headed for the Arana Sri Lanka Ecolodge and Yoga Center as my home base for three nights. The helpful staff arranged most of my activities during my visit, including the sunrise hike.
The jungle retreat opened in December 2017 as a place for people to relax in nature. As German co-owner Anna Brandt describes it: "My vision was to create a place where people can relax and really meditate and find yourself or get some help to manage your life better." They offer four quiet rooms, vegetarian Sri Lankan food, local tours and private or small group yoga and meditation sessions. They plan to add a couple more rooms soon, Brandt said.
Once you descend the unreal number of stairs to the ecolodge property, you may want to stay a while. The outdoor café serves hearty local breakfasts with fruit-stuffed crepes, curry, coconut sambal, fresh fruit and string hoppers, which look like coasters made from spaghetti. They even made fresh coconut milk for my coffee.
My favourite part of staying at the Arana was sitting outside my room and watching the jungle. One afternoon, I looked up from my writing to see a pair of hornbills hanging out in a nearby tree. At night, I could see a bazillion stars shining in the jungle-dark sky.
Brandt is a yoga teacher and avid seeker, always ready to try out a new spiritual practice. Guests might hear her playing her harmonium in the afternoon or chanting in the yoga hut early in the morning. She tailors small group and private lessons to interested guests. I asked her for a yoga session to help my creativity as a writer. She put her heart into preparing a special one-on-one kundalini class for me. It wasn't easy—I'm used to hatha and some of the kundalini exercises seemed strange and challenging, if not impossible. After I muddled through the best I could, she led me in a lovely, relaxing yoga nidra meditation.
Tea Estate Tour
The Arana folks also set up a tea estate tour for me. My driver, a retired soldier, picked me up in his tuk tuk, a three-wheeled motorized taxi common in much of South and Southeast Asia. We set out through the rural areas outside Ella, taking in the views of vegetable- and tea-growing valleys far below the road. Our destination: Amba Estate, growers of organic tea, pepper, cinnamon, coffee and cloves.
I joined a tour with folks from Germany, Belgium and Slovenia. We were laughably uninformed, repeatedly failing our knowledgeable young guide's tea trivia questions. As we tromped through the terraced plantation, I saw the now familiar sight of termite hills riddled with snake-sized holes. Our guide assured me that in keeping with their organic philosophy, Amba hires a local snake whisperer to catch the cobras and release them in the forest. The tour ended with a tea tasting of Amba's finest blends.
The Arana provided me with a comfortable jungle experience that welcomed a solo traveller. As Brandt told me, "It's my wish to have a place where everyone can feel like home. And to have some connected feelings to the place." They certainly succeed.