thomas m wilson

The man in the hills.

February 21st, 2014


Ella is a small village, mainly catering to the tourist trade these days. It is in the high country but not as high or bleak at Nurwa Eliya. The landscape is green and fecund here, and the pace of life is slow. We’re staying in a family homestay place, upstairs in a clean and well lit building, looking over a deep valley full of trees to Ella Rock, a tall hill that looks like a ridge from the lower Alps. Life here is perfect – I walk everywhere or run. The countryside, like most of Sri Lanka, is full of people, many of them walking like myself. The air is cool and sunny, unlike the hot and humid plains below. I eat some of the best meals of my life at Waterfall View just down the track from here. This guest house is run by Martin and Karen Robertson.

It turns out that just before I left for Sri Lanka my dad told me that I had a cousin in Sri Lanka and I should go and visit him. That’s Martin, and he, it turns out, runs what is arguably the nicest guesthouse in all of Sri Lanka.


The other evening I was looking at some of their family photos on the wall, and found an old black and white photo of my great-grandmother. It is, I think you’ll agree, an odd sensation to be in the middle of the jungle on a tropical island and find a photo of your great-grandmother on the wall.

Martin and Karen have built a beautiful house over looking a waterfall across the valley, in the midst of tall trees. The furnishings inside the house are artistic and well chosen and being there feels like a very welcome sanctuary in the middle of a country where guesthouses are usually furnished with less than sophisticated taste.


The civil war really got going in the early 80s and only finished in 2009. While places like Vietnam and Thailand were steadily adapting and evolving their range of cafes, resteraunts, hotels and guesthouses to suit the demands of Western travellers wanting options that are a little bit charming or funky, rather than large, anonymous and glitzy, Sri Lanka’s tourism industry was more or less in stasis. Now things have kicked off again and places like Waterfall View that really get it exactly right are very few and far between. Travellers used to the well priced and stylish places that you can easily bump into wandering around Thailand or Vietnam, will find that Sri Lanka operates differently. Thus the value of knowing about places like Waterfall View and Amba Estate.


This is a waterfall around the corner from where I’ve been staying.

From my journal the other day: I’ve just had a massage at Waterfall View. Its the middle of the day. The massage table room looks out over the wooded valley, and as you lie on the table you can hear birds calling, and the stream at the bottom of the valley splashing. As my body was wrung and pressed, I could feel something inside letting go. Afterwards I came upstairs and lay in the colourful hammock under the verandah. I closed my eyes. I could hear the soft coo of doves, and the calls of other birds, sometimes the voice of a child playing, the sough of the soft wind high above in the tree tops, a cow mooing from far away, the distant fall of the water at the waterfall, I could smell occaisional woodsmoke. The air is a perfect temperature, neither too cool nor too hot. No engines are to be heard. Laying here in this gently rocking hammock, with my eyes greeted by far views through lush trees, and my senses stroked by soft, rural life, I realized why I come to south and south-east Asia. It’s to escape rich westerners roaring about in their machines, closeted off from one another in their large houses, far from natural ecosystems. It’s to turn back the clock to when people walked, to when they were in easy relation with nonhuman nature, it is to be lying in hammocks, or on massage tables with the gentle sensorium of country life encircling me. Something inside me stops holding on in these places, something lets go.

There are other reasons as well of course. I also come to be sitting around convivial dinner tables at the end of the days with delicious food and new faces, as I’ve been doing at my cousins’ place Waterfall View in Ella, where the food is some of the most delicious I’ve eaten anywhere in the world, and it stays at that standard every night.  It helps to make good food if you start with good produce…


This is the market where Kamal, the chef, buys his fruits and vegetables.


I couldn’t help throwing a couple of photos in from the Bandawella markets, not far from Ella.  If only I could shop like this in Australia.

But back to Ella… What is more there is something special for me here in that Martin is actually both my cousin, and a really nice guy.

What else have I enjoyed about life in the hills?  I love running barefoot up mountains trails here, unmolested by health and safety paraphenalia. I would say that some good advice would be: go to a new country, get out into the countryside where people still live, and where nature still thrives, put some deep house on your headphones, take off your shoes, a start running. That’s what I’ve been doing here and it is more exhilerating than driving a scooter which I used to also enjoy in Asia. It makes one feel more intimate in the place, more firmly in place. It is also liberating as you feel like you can move through another part of the planet quickly and with nothing more than your own body.

I’ve also been enjoying walking on the railway track. The train track, here as in much of Sri Lanka, is the boulevard of village life. People walk on it to go to school, to go home, to go to work, or just to sit on a rail and chat. Dogs pass. The day goes on. The old iron rails wind through the lush green landscape, and the tracks provide a conduit for the people of Sri Lanka in a way that the British may never have foreseen when they designed them.

In summary, Ella is a good place to be. I return to Australia soon.  The hammock waits for others, swinging gently in the breeze.