Oh heck, let’s trek

I could feel my heart beating in my neck, each breath sending cold air down my dry throat. Looking up into the darkness, all I could make out was a twinkling trail of lights that led up into the clouds above. Around me, locals climbed in nothing other than thongs, children sleeping in their arms.

“You can do it,” he gently encouraged.

My legs ached with every step, my cheeks stinging from the cold wind. Fifty steps and then a break. Fifty steps and then a break. Oh another tea stall, let’s take another break.

Adam’s Peak rests at 2224m above sea level, and with almost twenty thousand steps done before 8am, we climbed it for sunrise. Setting out shortly after two in the morning, I must admit, it was a challenge for me. I blame all the curry. But then again, he managed much better than me and he’s had just as much curry.

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Deciding to put the camera down and just enjoy the sunrise, it was a pretty special moment. And then we had to go down. With the sun up though, the view of the rolling hills below us was enough to distract me from my shaking knees. If you are thinking of hiking Adam’s Peak, bring a pole. Processed with VSCO with f2 preset

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We were welcomed back into town like war heroes. It was eggs or eggs for breakfast, as my body was in need of some radical refueling. Packed and pumped for some time sitting in the car, we set off for Ella, with a few detours of course.

Lunch in Nuwara Eliya, affectionately known as Little England, due to the English-style architecture that is spotted among the tea plantations. We opted against rice and curry for lunch, in order to follow suit of course. Not a whole lot to do there, or at least we didn’t do it, but some very pretty buildings, particularly the Post Office. If you can’t decide on whether to visit Sri Lanka or England, go there.

Next stop was at Pedro Estate Tea Plantation, just out of Nuwara Eliya. For a staggering R200 (less than two bucks), we were taken around the tea processing factory, which has been in operation since the nineteenth century. Each day, eight tonnes of fresh tea is picked and processed in the factory, producing two tonnes of the dried leaves we love.  We know which leaves to pick for black tea, green tea and white tea, and all about fermentation. And finally, we saw how the tea is packed up and sent off to auctions, where the brands we know and love battle over the best brew to put their name and special twist on. Next time you sit down with a cup of the good ol’ green stuff, raise it to those who pull off back-breaking work day in, day out, to get it to you. Absolutely amazing. Processed with VSCO with f2 preset

After some long and winding roads, we ended up in Ella. A buzzing little town, packed with pubs and restaurants, fairy lights and tourist-friendly signs, things were looking good. Exhausted from the climb that felt like an eternity ago, our driver, probably after seeing me fall out of the car too many times, unable to walk, booked us a treatment at a local ayurvedic spa. After checking into our beautiful room at Hotel Mountain Heavens, with sweeping views across the valley to Little Adam’s Peak (bleh, easy!), we headed to Suwamadura Spa. For an hour and a half we, side by side, were lathered from top to toe in ayurvedic oils. I almost felt sorry for making the lovely masseuse touch my feet, but after the herbal sauna and a steam bath, all worries had simply dripped out of me. Literally.

Unfortunately, not getting to spend much time in Ella, we woke early the next morning and headed for the station. Two hours on a train, this time in second-class meaning I could get a “totally candid” photo hanging out the door of the train, and we ended up in Ohiya, the start of our six hour hike to Bambarakanda Falls, the tallest in Sri Lanka. Yep, the day after we hiked up Adam’s Peak, we walked for another six hours through paddy fields, up tea plantations, in and out of thick fog, via local villages, and down to a waterfall. We’re mad, but it was pretty mad too. Mad in a good way. Plus, he only needed to tell me to stop whining about my legs six or seven times. Not bad for me.

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That night, still unable to walk quite right, we stayed at Sri Lanka’s Eco Team Campsite in Beilhuloya. And when I say campsite, I mean glampsite. There were proper beds, pillows, doonas, and some delightful chairs out the front. The bathrooms were all modern concrete and timber, and we were served a four course meal under the light of the flame torches that surrounded us. It was like a scene from Survivor, but with more food. And much much more comfort.

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Earlier in the afternoon, we’d figured it would be a good opportunity to fly the drone he gifted me for Christmas, and after asking permission, we stood in a clearing metres from our tent, with most of the staff looking eagerly over our shoulders, and sent it up. Filming over the tents, trees and down to the glistening lake surrounded by folding mountains, it was breathtaking. The best part, without a doubt though, was that one young staff member was so taken aback by the footage we showed him later, that he asked us to send it to him. He explained, in broken English, that he had lived in the area since he was a small boy. He had hiked all over it, and seen it from every angle. But never from on top.

The standard of service at the camp was absolutely without fault, and so there was no hesitation from us that we would get him the footage. And we did. Watching him stop in his tracks as he walked back to the kitchen, fingers clutching his phone, eyes glued to the screen, was a small but pretty touching moment.

E x

Archiving the Ancient Cities

A day exploring the ruins of the ancient cities of Sri Lanka will surely not ruin your day. Okay, now I’ve got that out of my system, I’ll continue.

The history of Sri Lanka is long and winding. With each site we visit, we learn of a new king, a new invasion by South Indians, the Dutch, the Portuguese, the British, each meaning a new city, capital, temple or palace. The last few days have been a jungle of information, steep steps, breathtaking buildings and sweat.

Instead of attempting to explain the serpentine story of the two hundred and sixty-something kings and five ancient cities of Sri Lanka, as guide books tend to do a much better job at that than I ever could here, I’ve decided instead to archive some of the most bloggable* facts that lingered with me at the end of each day.

*I’ve also learned that bloggable is actually a word. And I’m lovin’ it.

Anuradhapura
The fortunate thing about having a car for this trip is that we’ve had the opportunity to visit places off the beaten track that many tourist don’t know about or can’t be bothered to journey out to.

Our first stop was to the ancient Buddhist library building in Padeniya Temple; a beautiful wooden temple encased in intricate carvings, from the lion heads guarding the walls to the swirling patterns scored into the doors of the temple. A small complex used by the King when he needed to escape the capital, it was definitely off the tourist-map. Processed with VSCO with f2 presetNext, we ventured on to Yapahuwa. All that remains now is a stairway so steep you have to crawl, that rises out above the clouds and is guarded by monkeys. While seemingly small, this rock fortress became the capital of Sri Lanka for eighteen years from 1272.Processed with VSCO with f2 presetFinally we reached the ancient city of Anuradhapura, the first capital of Sri Lanka and home to the oldest tree on record – the Sacred Bo Tree. Along with our guide, Channa, we bought the most beautiful lotus flowers from the stall surrounding the temple as offerings. Channa explained that the reason we offer flowers is reflective of Buddha’s teachings about life – as the flowers that we offer today will be dead tomorrow, reminding us that we should live in the present and not the past or future.Processed with VSCO with f2 presetProcessed with VSCO with f2 presetNext we moved on to Jethawanarama, or the brown stupa, believed to be the largest brick monument in the world following the pyramids in Egypt. Channa explained that using the ninety-three millions bricks that make up the stupa, you could build eight thousand and four houses. The whopping structure took forty-five years to build, but only seconds to take your breath away.Processed with VSCO with f2 presetThroughout the day we visited the ruins of architecturally astounding ponds used for water meditation (some could remain under water for up to two hours meditating), hospitals, kitchens and toilets, all of which demonstrated an incredible level of irrigation for the fifth century. Even I was impressed. About drains. Yeah.

There were stupas everywhere, some still remained submerged in soil yet to be rediscovered, all with unique quirks and designs. We had king coconuts and roti for lunch, and found many the stray furry friend along the way. One of my highlights, however, was a special place Channa took us, where no tourists go. It was a functioning monastery that had a tree which had built a cathedral with its roots. Pictures cannot do it justice.Processed with VSCO with f2 presetProcessed with VSCO with f2 preset
We ended the day at Mihintale – a hilltop complex heralded as the place where  Buddhism was first introduced into Sri Lanka, plopped atop one thousand, eight hundred and forty-three steps. At the very top you can pull yourself up a sun-drenched rock to an incredible view across the hills and valleys, even making out some of temples we’d seen previously. As the sun began to set, it all felt very Lion King-esque.Processed with VSCO with f2 presetPolonnaruwa
In the eleventh century, Polonnaruwa rose as the capital after many an invasion at Anuradhapura. Apparently, there were also less mosquitoes. Bonus.

After driving through leafy national parks, we met our guide, Rahul, who took us through our paces. The Royal Palace, where the King lived with his five wives…and five hundred concubines. The Quadrangle, where each King built a new temple to house the tooth of Buddha. The lake, which is surrounded by electric fences because on occasion  the water drops low enough for the elephants way across the bay to walk on over. And the Gal Vihara, the most impressive monument we’ve seen yet. Across one granite stone, standing seven metres high and over twenty metres long, four different sculptures of Buddha have been carved. Immense, inspiring, inconceivable. Processed with VSCO with f2 presetProcessed with VSCO with f2 presetProcessed with VSCO with f2 presetSigiriya
Woah, you really don’t realise how much you can achieve in a day until you try to write it down.

That afternoon, we headed for Sigirya. The giant rock that someone once upon a time had the splendid idea of building a kingdom on top of. Surrounded by the ruins of what sounded like an opulent ‘pleasure’ garden with ponds, pools and fountains (‘like a nightclub’ our guide told us), Sigirya was once the epicentre of the kingdom of Kassapa. We climbed rickety staircases that gripped casually to the side of the rock, passed by frescos painted god only knows how, and finally reached the summit. And what a view.Processed with VSCO with f2 presetProcessed with VSCO with f2 presetProcessed with VSCO with f2 preset

My legs may be aching but my smile is wide.

E x

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Barcelona Baby

After a long, bumpy and uncomfortable journey home, I am finally attempting to break my habit of always forgetting to write the last blog post of my holidays. I think it is a psychological thing of not wanting to accept the holiday is over. Or just me being lazy. Probably that, actually. But Barcelona was too wonderful to not write about. So here goes.

We spent the most time in Barcelona than anywhere else on the trip, which turned out to be a lucky thing as we ended up wasting essentially an entire day. That’s bound to happen by the end of a holiday though. So instead of writing what I did each day, I am going to simplify it and just talk about the highlights and must-dos of Barcelona.

La Boqueria Food Market
Staying at St Christopher’s Inn near La Ramblas we were super close to one of the largest and undoubtedly most spectacular food markets in Europe. Hands down one of the most GoPro-able experiences of the trip, I could easily spend hours in this place. Delicious fresh fruit juices of all different colours and flavours for just 1, cups of fresh mango for 2, sweet and savoury pasty for 2.5, seafood, meats, cheese, lollies, and everything and anything else your heart could imagine. So cheap, so fresh, so fun, and a definite must-do in Barcelona. I would argue this one experience alone is worthy of a trip to Spain. And if you are a foodie like me, I recommend you bring a paper bag because you will hyperventilate.

10612863_10153574226714497_7364783973829025241_n 11169168_10153574226399497_3963870979135436531_n 11745787_10153574226244497_5629461805687555044_nBrunch
We discovered a street filled with the most adorable and hipster ‘brunch’ cafes that reminded me of home. We settled on one called Brunch & Cake and were not disappointed. In retrospect I’m glad we had to wait for ten minutes to be seated because it took me about that long to decide what I wanted on the very attractive menu. And of course we had to finish up with cake because the name of the place is Brunch & Cake after all. Find it here: http://www.tripadvisor.com.au/Restaurant_Review-g187497-d3163747-Reviews-Brunch_Cake-Barcelona_Catalonia.html

11750643_10153574224849497_667266251151645362_nSagrada Família
Hands down one of my favourite cathedrals of the trip and we didn’t even go inside because we are stingy backpackers. This incredible church designed by Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí looks like something out of a Dr Seuss novel. Although it remains to this day unfinished, the exterior is an absolute spectacle and arguably advocates for the use of hallucinogenic substances. There are also a few other Gaudí buildings in Barcelona that are worth checking out. We went to visit Casa Batlló which was awesome, as well as La Pedrera. Park Güell is also one of the most famous of Gaudí’s work in Barcelona and after trekking there one morning we worked out that you need to buy a ticket and they sell out fast so we missed out. Learn from my mistakes and save yourself disappointment and buy a ticket – definitely worth it. If I had just one more day in Barcelona I would have gone back. But at least now I know for sure that I will be returning to Barcelona in my lifetime to see it as well as some of Gaudí’s other work: http://www.globotreks.com/destinations/10-gaudi-buildings-barcelona/
11745821_10153574225094497_6937562951992903035_n11800325_10153574224939497_5781834071195007610_nBarceloneta Beach
Coming from Australia, I have a high standard of beaches and I honestly would not rate Barceloneta Beach high on my list. Regardless of there being absolutely no space on the “sand” even at 8pm at night, and the water being filthy it is still a must-do European experience. Embrace the lack of personal space, the incredibly tanned Europeans that make you feel like a vampire, and the hundreds of people treading on you as they try and sell you something useless. 11754878_10153574227029497_7440106860701977246_oMonjuïc Cable Car
There are two cable cars in Barcelona: one that goes across the port, and the other that goes up the mountain to Montjuïc Castle. We did the Montjuïc one, and pre-booked tickets at our hostel after the previous disappointment at Park Güell. You access it from the Montjuïc funicular (tell me that doesn’t sound fun!) which takes you halfway up the mountain. From there you jump on the cable car and get incredible views of the city on the seven-minute journey to top of the hill. Relaxing, fun, and beautiful.

Piscina Municipal de Montjuïc
Across the road from the cable car station is the Piscina Municipal de Montjuïc, a pool originally constructed for the 1992 summer Olympics diving and waterpolo events but now open to the public. We found out about this from two girls staying in our hostel room and once we got there discovered it was something of a hidden gem, only known about by locals. But may I just say, OH MY GOD. The pool is stunning and has the most magnificent panoramic view out across the city. Screw the beach, here you’ve got plenty of space, crystal clear water, and stunning views out to the city. Plus as it is not a tourist attraction as such, you can feel much more comfortable leaving your bags and going swimming together (something that is an absolute NO NO at the beach). Less than 5 to get in, it closes at 6.30pm but they don’t let anyone in after 5.30pm, so don’t miss out! It’s in my top three experiences of my whole trip. Best afternoon and the perfect compliment to climbing the hill on the cable car. Find it here: http://www.timeout.es/barcelona/es/espacios-deportivos/piscina-municipal-de-montjuic 11224573_10153574224714497_2198913154788289075_n 11698688_10153574224624497_8782864824491427411_n11705530_10153574229134497_1029367634419693921_oOther than that we did another free walking tour, the perfect way to introduce yourself to the history and sights of any city, and as a result I think I will be moving to Barcelona at some point in my life in order to explore all the incredible back alleys, food haunts, and churches (which FYI most of are free after 5pm but cost money during the day).

Jemima joined us for our last few days in Barcelona and finally Sarah got the mad clubbing experience she had been dying for. Can’t thank the girls enough for their awesome company on another fantastic adventure. Time to start planning the next trip!

Until next time, folks!

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