Like marshmallows we squash into the sea of people on the train from Aluthgama to Colombo, finding space in the cracks that seem impossible to fit a whole human. But the Sri Lankans are experts at this and we gradually learn the tricks of the trade. At each stop we’re jostled out of the way when we think it couldn’t get any fuller, more people get on, so we are eventually eye to eye, arm to arm, butt to butt with our fellow travellers. We smile grimly then find a place in the corner of the jammed door, sitting on top of my suitacase in relative comfort. Finally we can enjoy the vistas of the sea, shore and village life that roll past the train’s open doors.
Madulkelle is a 1.5 hour drive from Kandy but may as well be a million years and miles away. It’s the ultimate end of journey reward, after our sweaty train trip. At least from Colombo to Kandy we managed a spot on the air-conditioned Rajadhani Express, which transitions us from hot, stifling Colombo to the lush mountain countryside that surrounds Kandy. Before we reach Madulkelle though we must encounter in the dark a series of hairpin turns. The shrinking villages and cooler air come as a surprise.
The main house and luxury tent at the Madulkelle Tea and Eco Lodge are warm and inviting in the crisp mountain air, but it is only in the morning, after hearing every sound of the night through our flapping tent walls, that we can truly appreciate where we are. In the morning that we discover our tent (well, it is a tent, but has wooden floors and a well equipped bathroom) is perched on a sheer drop atop the looming valley below, all the other tents around us positioned like sugar crystals on the rim of a margarita glass. The valley itself seems endless, a vertiginous journey down, filled with lush green tea fields and their signature leaf shapes pointing up to the sky like graceful ballerina arms.
The fields are criss-crossed by dirt roads that looks breadcrumb trails spreading through villages that look like doll houses from where we are. The hills across look like sleepy hedge hogs, or like resting sea turtles, covered in a furry green blanket. The brightly coloured tea pickers, hard at work, resemble pomegranates in a green salad, while close up, they laugh at us with gap toothed leathery grins for not having umbrellas in the pouring rain, which springs life into an impromptu waterfall right outside our tent window, making us feel like part of the landscape ourselves. We are both on top of the world and at the end of it. There’s no pressure to do anything except enjoy the moment, interrupted only by leisurely meals in the main house and an ensuing pool tournament between husband and wife, or if you feel like it, a walk or tuk-tuk ride to nearby waterfalls (beware the leeches – we ended up covered in them!).
After three blissful days, our tuk-tuk ride down the mountain reveals what we missed on the way up. As we wind down the mountain as we are on a fairground ride, the view is heart breakingly, brain imprintingly stunning, nothing even a postcard could capture. We stop to take pictures of a local Independence Day mountain cricket game.
All too quickly the air heats up again and the vegetation changes, traffic speeds up, more people emerge, litter begins to reappear, and all of a sudden we are back in Kandy, back in civilisation, a million miles away again from our sleeping hedgehog mountains, our window side waterfall and ballerina tea leaves.