It’s widely held that as far as diversity of destinations is concerned, travelling within Sri Lanka is one of the most rewarding experiences. But as we found on the road from Kandy to Mahiyanganaya, the journey can be just as thrilling, if not more so, than the destination. The winding road leading through mountains and valleys, afforded some spectacular views and interesting stops along the way.
While passing by the turnoff to the Victoria Golf Course, the Pallekele International Cricket Stadium and the largest limestone quarry in Sri Lanka was interesting, it wasn’t until we got to the Hunnasgiriya region that I really started enjoying the ride. The highway, cut into the sides of steep mountains, had that sparkling-new look and the drive was smooth and comfortable. We rolled down the windows to let in the fresh, cold air, as we passed by panoramic valleys and mountainsides covered in pine forests.
The refreshing wind in my face reminded me of the road-trips I used to take with my family as a child. It was one of the things I used to look forward to when we would decide to go away for a holiday, so much so that I would reserve the back seat of the family van, the windiest spot in the vehicle. I found a singular exhilaration in losing myself in the roar of the wind, my hair fluttering wildly around my head and the people, shops, paddy fields, tea bushes and muddy puddles hurtling by in one blurry vision after another. We rarely open the windows on road-trips now, perhaps because of the increasing pollution. So it was a pleasantly unexpected flashback to see the world whiz by, as the fresh breeze of Hunnasgiriya roared in my ears.
As impressive as the changing backdrop of peaks were, there was one that stood out conspicuously. Its olive green sides rose to form a dark knoll that was surrounded by clouds. This was Medamahanuwara, on the pinnacle of which the ruins of the Ahas Maligawa, or Sky Palace, are located. Although it is off-limits to visitors, Nishantha, our guide, related the story of the palace. Built around the 17th Century by King Senarath, it was also used as a fortress. Later on, after the British arrived, Sri Lanka’s last king Sri Wikrama Rajasinha used the palace as a hideout. It’s believed that when King Rajasinha was at the Sky Palace, the British had ridden by the mountain in search of him. But as the peak was covered by clouds they hadn’t seen the palace. When they were returning however, the clouds had cleared and they spotted the king’s hiding place, which was then named Ahas Maligawa.
When we reached Hunnasgiriya Town, we took a short detour down Loolwatta Road into a tea garden that held stunning views of the surrounding mountains, including Medamahanuwara. While we were up there marvelling at the array of peaks and valleys, a tuk-tuk drove up and a man stepped out with a massive sack. Swinging it onto his back, he hurried between the tea bushes down the steep incline, nimble-footed as a mountain goat. As I gaped at his agility, it occurred to me that his house was probably at the bottom of the hill. This was his daily commute!
Back on the highway, at regular intervals there were little shops with signs inviting travellers to a meal of freshly-made pol rotti. This was another of the joys of driving through Sri Lanka’s countryside: the opportunity to sample some of the mouth-watering local food. It appeared that in this region of Hunnasgiriya it was pol rotti with katta sambola that was popular.
At the shop where we stopped, there was a little breakfast buffet of other distinctly Sri Lankan foods like curried dhal and beans with rice, in addition to the pol rotti and katta sambola. So while we waited for the rotti to be prepared, we helped ourselves to some dhal and pol sambola. The combination was to die for. With steaming mugs of kahata the (black tea) and chunks of hakuru (jaggery) sitting by our plates and a magnificent view of a forest-covered mountain before us, we honestly felt life couldn’t get any better.
Bellies full of yummy rotti, we headed towards Madugoda and the Daha-ata Wanguwa (Eighteen hair-pin bends). The scenery soon after the first bend was like a dreamscape. From here it seemed we could see the whole of the East. Nishantha stood by and named all the places we could see from our vantage point. Pointing to a wide stretch of lime-green paddy fields, he said it was the longest uninterrupted stretch of paddy in the country; about 50 kilometres from the village of Hasalaka to Wasgamuwa National Park. We saw the Mahiyanganaya Town gleaming in the mid-morning sun. Hasalaka was much smaller in comparison. The Sorabora Weva (lake) was the largest water body in sight. Although in reality it is much larger, the Ulhitiya Weva looked smaller than the Sorabora: possibly because it was further away and much of it had dried up. It was fascinating to be able to see some of our destinations mid-journey. Nishantha also pointed out some of the jungle that we would walk through the next day to visit the Rathna Falls.
The urge to make a game of counting the bends as the Daha-ata Wanguwa took us downhill to the borders of the hill country was irresistible. Countless travellers have done it before and countless more will do it after us. By the time we reached Hasalaka, the temperature had risen, but the brilliant green of the paddy fields, blue of the sky and ivory of the clouds were breathtaking: it was the ideal of a beautiful day.
After crossing the Mahaveli River into the Badulla District, it was not long before we reached Mahiyanganaya. I was surprised by how large the town had grown. While it was a flurry of activity, it was still spacious enough to hold all of its occupants, visitors and various buildings without the air of congestion that is typical of rapidly growing towns. As we drove up to a junction complete with clock-tower, I was struck by a large white Buddha statue that entirely filled the space of my vision. While the white clouds that gave way to blue sky in patches made the perfect backdrop for the statue, it was the distinctive expression in the facial features of this Buddha that I found arresting. It was difficult to look at that face and not be moved.
Stopping by at the sprawling market of the town we bought a few things needed for a night of camping by a lake and also a gift of dried tobacco leaves, a sheaf of betel leaves, areca nut and limestone for a special person we were on our way to visit.
Discover where and whom in our next couple of posts!
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