I tried a new Highland hiking trail in Sri Lanka – here’s why you should follow me

“Right here?” The tuktuk driver seems suspicious.

Why were these two foreigners abandoning their vehicle on the corner of a sharp single-track road next to the rusty hulk of an abandoned tea factory?

We pay the agreed price to take us from Ohiya station down a mostly broken road and say goodbye. He sputters off, clearly thinking we are mad.

But we are, according to the map we downloaded, exactly where we want to be: at the starting point of stage 12 of the Pekoe Trail. And there is no one else here.

After a week on the conveyor belt of tourist spots in Sri Lanka, we stepped out, walking up to the scruffy hilltop town of Haputale with the tantalizing prospect of some of the Sri Lanka’s first long walking trail.

Haputale, the small town where Kate stayed before starting the Pekoe trail

Haputale, the small town where Kate stayed before starting the Pekoe trail – Alamy

The Pekoe Trail began as a hobby for Miguel Cuñat, a Spanish resident of Sri Lanka for over two decades. Between putting together high-end itineraries and guiding wealthy clients to the most exclusive parts of the island, he loved nothing more than escaping to the cooler highlands and seeking out places to hike.

It is the highlands of Sri Lanka where, at the end of the 19th century, enterprising Englishmen with names like Taylor and Lipton took over the disadvantaged coffee farmers who had lost everything to a coffee blight and started growing tea instead. Tea is still the biggest crop in this region: low bushes, tightly planted, transforming the steep and rugged landscapes into a rolling sea of ​​pillowy green.

The plantations, Cuñat understood, provided a network of already established routes, connecting the harvested crop to roads and railways. What if they could be linked together, creating one long track? The area is already famous for the stunningly beautiful railway journey that connects Kandy to Ella and the “little England” of Nuwara Eliya, but instead of watching this enchanting landscape slide past a train window, would people take the opportunity to experience get it in one go. a slower, more immersive way if they could?

It was a thought that if he went too far, he probably wouldn’t go any further. The obstacles were many. Numerous landowners, both government and private, had to agree on an official path to cut their land.

Sri Lanka has frequent rains between May and September and again in December, heavy enough to cause landslides that wash away large swaths of hills, and always encourage wild growth in the existing vegetation. own. Who would be responsible for ongoing maintenance of the route?

And even if the owners of the estates allowed the use of the tracks that passed through their plantations, there were still large areas that needed to be explored and possibly cleared to fulfill Miguel’s vision of one end of the highlands. to connect with the other.

But the idea had taken hold, and with the often tireless help of many local guides and expert machete-wielders, the trail began to emerge, bit by bit. He walked his way from the slopes south of Kandy, through the land of Indiana Jones (Temple of Doom featuring scenes filmed against the dramatic backdrop of the earliest part of the trail), following sandy tracks that run through small communities, linking market towns, bus routes and train stations.

The trail offers spectacular views over peaks and valleysThe trail offers spectacular views over peaks and valleys

The track offers spectacular views over peaks and valleys – Alamy

He climbed to amazing vistas, cut through forests, past shrines and temples, village cricket pitches, rice paddies, vegetable gardens and farms. As the 185 mile (300km) route progressed, Miguel realized that what was being created was more than a walk. It was a way to give opportunities and economic benefit to people who were being passed over by tourism.

We follow our map back up the road, with vivid spikes of purple flowers, stone walls and wide blue-green views over peaks and valleys. We pass the figures of the tea harvesters, bags hanging down their backs from their foreheads, quick-fingered and sharp-eyed, moving methodically between the waist-high bushes.

A narrow path from the road leads us deeper into the countryside and from here we enter the fragrant, rusting shade of a eucalyptus plantation.

We follow the contour of the hill around the ruins of an abandoned village, falling into the shadow cast by a tall pine, which, like the eucalyptus, has been planted to support the tea factories. A scramble over fallen logs brings us to the edge of the plantation and below us the curve of the railway line we took earlier.

A series of whistles announce the train’s imminent arrival and we wait to see it appear, whizzing sweetly below us, its rust-red carriages sweeping around the curve of the hill and away.

Railway tracks double as footpaths in rural Sri LankaRailway tracks double as footpaths in rural Sri Lanka

Double rail tracks as rural footpaths in Sri Lanka – Ludo Graham

Shortly afterwards we are on that same railway track, laughing as we struggle to match our progress with the distance between the sleepers, feeling like naughty children doing what we were firmly told not to do. But railway tracks double as footpaths throughout the Sri Lankan countryside, which is why trains signal their approach so far in advance.

We meet the locals walking from the station along the tracks towards their homes. A group of relaxed men are clearing vegetation along the line with long scythes making sure it’s okay to walk through the tunnel ahead. Since a few of them are carelessly turning off a roti while squatting in the middle of the track, we take their word for it.

The second part of the walk follows paths through tea estates. A hillside tamed and layered and equally green, it was like watching an installation by artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude, who covered landscapes and landmark buildings in fabric. We walk alongside women coming out of the fields with bulbous bags on their backs to the weight stations.

Writer Kate with tea plantation workersWriter Kate with tea plantation workers

Kate writer with tea plantation workers – Ludo Graham

At just over 13 miles (21.5 km) this section of the trail is one of the longest. “I wanted it to be possible for people to complete each part in the morning, before it gets really hot,” explained Miguel. “And also to have time to do other things in the day, not only do you have to walk. But of course it is possible to walk more than one part a day, if you wish.”

The next day we walk from our guest house to the forest on the edge of Haputale, and steadily climb through wide panoramas, soaring eagles and troops of macaques, to the village of St. Catherine’s tea workers, announced by a hand-painted sign declaring. “The Best View Comes After the Hardest Climb”. We climb further by going on to Lipton’s Seat where Glasgow, whose name is synonymous with tea to this day, would sit surveying his empire.

The statue of Sir Thomas Lipton at Lipton's Seat, an observation point in the Sri Lankan highlandsThe statue of Sir Thomas Lipton at Lipton's Seat, an observation point in the Sri Lankan highlands

The statue of Sir Thomas Lipton at Lipton’s Seat, an observation point in the Sri Lankan highlands – alamy

A Tuktuk takes us back down the long road to Haputale. Sri Lanka’s ubiquitous three wheels make it very easy for Pekoe Trail walkers to base themselves in one place for a few days to walk several sections, without the need to carry luggage or move accommodation every day. Trains and Tuktuks and the helpful guidance of our guesthouse owner allow us to walk sections 12-15 – two short sections we combined – from Haputale. Part 15 takes us, via the iconic Ella Rock down to Ella, our new base, and our luggage travels by Tuktuk and meets us there.

Miguel hopes that the trail could open up opportunities and bring prosperity to communities along it, even in these very early days, in its realization. And it comes at a crucial time for Sri Lanka. Beneath the thin veneer of warm smiles and welcome drinks lies a country struggling to raise itself.

Tourism, which had risen steadily until 2018, crashed after the terrorist attacks on Easter 2019, and the pandemic further reduced it afterwards. The EU and USAID recognized the potential of the Pekoe Trail and, as part of a tourism resilience program, helped finance the administrative process to make the trail official, guide training and start-ups such as lodges . Sections 1 and 2 are officially marked and open, but marked or not, the trail is there, a testament to one man’s brave and beautiful vision, his love for his adopted country and his people.

It is hoped that the beauty of the Pekoe track will help to regenerate tourism in Sri LankaIt is hoped that the beauty of the Pekoe track will help to regenerate tourism in Sri Lanka

The beauty of the Pekoe track is expected to help regenerate tourism in Sri Lanka – Alamy

We walked 9 of the 22 sections on the trip. Each of them had their own character, their own charm and challenges. We had days of sunny sunshine, followed by days of gusty winds and low cloud and drizzle not unlike the Brea Beacons (with added leeches). We saw a barking deer frolicking in the shade, heard shy hellos from children and fed ourselves on coconuts, egg roti and sweet stumpy bananas.

The walk was a mosaic of colour, sound and beauty. This is Sri Lanka as seen on foot – off the beaten track but on a trail of wonder.


Kate Humble traveled as a guest of Wild Frontiers, which offers a 15-day itinerary including walking sections of the Pekoe Trail from £2,559 per person, including transfers, some meals and accommodation, but excluding international flights.

The best time to walk the Pekoe Trail is between January and April and September to November. The terrain is varied and good walking shoes or boots are recommended. Hikers should carry sunscreen, insect repellent, water and a hat. A light waterproof jacket may be advisable, as the weather can change. Vegetation can be overgrown in some parts of the trail and you may encounter leeches, especially when the trail is wet.

Marking the trail is a work in progress. At the time of writing only the first two sections were marked. Trail routes are available on the Wikiloc App, but approved guides are also listed on the Pekoe Trail website, along with practical information and accommodation recommendations.

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