In this series of fortnightly trips starting today, Juliet Coombe not only discovers spectacular views, but also an excellent guide on all fours
We arrive on a starry night and, seeing the ‘Amba’ sign, we know we have finally reached this beautiful, cradled highland artisan tea estate near Ella in Bandarawela District, Uva Province. Also a self-sufficient sustainable farm, it has a Jungle Book mountain guide: Baloo – a huge and extremely friendly Belgian shepherd who sleeps like the bear in Jungle Book, or helps Mowgli – in this case Simon Bell – one of four Les Amba Estate’s social enterprise sponsors entertain, protect and guide their guests.
When we open the car doors, Baloo greets us with authority, and within seconds we are surrounded by smiles and the option of a refreshing cup of Amba tea or immediate dinner.
Baloo is clearly thrilled to have new playmates and hopefully serious mountain hikers whom he can guide on spectacular hikes with stunning views of Ella Rock, Lipton’s Seat, Eagle Rock and Little Adam’s Peak. Here you will discover tea stairs that disappear into the clouds, ancient stone outcropping viewing platforms, mini waterfalls, wildlife, prehistoric caves, the superheroes of the sky – the bats. mice and an orchestra of birdsong.
Seeing my youngest son Amzar, Baloo, recognizing a true animal lover, nudges him in the direction of a ball that has been left in the open living room of Clove Cottage. The spicy smells of the kitchen waft through the garden, taking over the hungriest members of the group, who make their way to the pavilion’s open dining room, with a single plank of a massive wooden tree trunk table. tree, which can easily accommodate 20 people.
We start with wade and homemade chilli tomato sauce, followed by a vegetarian rice and curry feast of organic farm foods, including mouth-watering dhal, banana flower, green mango curry, eggplant fried in cream of mustard and soy sauce, and beans, ending with the ‘piece de resistance’, the Amba cheesecake, sitting on a base of crushed ginger biscuits with chilled curd on top, tossed with juice lime and lemon zest. As we eat, we find out from the two girls who write an Amba cookbook, that the name of the place means ‘mango’ and the noise on the roof above us is that of cheeky monkeys feasting or the occasional avocado falling from the trees. Whether it’s a troop of monkeys passing by, Shere Khan the resident cat or Bagheera, Tigger, another of the farm dogs, or Mouse also joining us; there is never a shortage of wildlife here.
Determined to do the Eagle Rock walk which promises spectacular sunrise views from the top of Eagle Rock, we go to bed early and get up at 5:30 a.m. as recommended on one of the seven laminated information cards of the Amba walks provided in each of the bedrooms. This walk begins with Baloo collecting us at Clove Cottage and taking us to the Amba Farm cafe, shop and queue rooms. It’s also nice to explore another popular part of the estate where groups of up to 30 people can stay and you can also take the tea tour every day at 11am except Sundays or Poya days.
From there, Baloo will walk you back across the roadway to the main concrete track. Keep following him because no one knows these hills better than him. From there you walk for a few minutes until Baloo turns right past a metal gate with a hand painted wooden sign saying Eagle Rock Estate. Continue along an elegant stone walkway past Eagle Rock House and its lawn, the owner of which has kindly allowed Amba’s guests to pass on their 45-minute circular hike.
Even if you stop to take photos, Baloo waits patiently before continuing along a path that crosses the tea trees climbing ever higher. The morning I went there, a female Toque Macaque monkey and her calf appeared in the trees, making warning sounds when they saw Baloo below. Baloo wags his tail and it’s clear, as they disappear into the safety of the tree canopy, that he’s king of the hills. He is also a lover of botany and stops to lick or sniff the flowers in which he happily rolls around.
Nothing, it seems, stops Baloo from jumping over even a difficult stone wall. I knew that Belgian Sheepdogs could herd sheep and indeed when he discovered about twenty village cows happily munching on the flowers and lawns of the bungalow garden, he skillfully rounded them up and led them out the door in 20 seconds! Amba’s own herd of rescue cows meanwhile live in their own lavish barn, doing what they know best: producing the organic compost needed on the farm! Their manure is fed into a biodigester, which also produces methane gas for cooking – a doubly important task in these times of fuel shortages!
Just before reaching the top of the hill and the fantastic mountain views with the sea in the distance, Baloo disappears, as he longs to see the magnificent views, where he sits like the Lion King, observing his domain below. below. He knows that if you arrive too late in the day, the epic scenes quickly disappear under rolling clouds and mountain mists. I join him at the first peak, which is a great lookout for deer, especially mouse deer, monitor lizards, twirling eagles, and a chance for Baloo to get forty winks.
Then it’s off again, along the rocky path to the second peak and another viewpoint, a superb place to contemplate life, while looking towards Ella Rock, Mini Adam’s Peak and the valley of ‘Amba, of whom Baloo reminds me, as he joins me in contemplation, that life is really about looking for the bare necessities, the simple necessities and, as you are on vacation, some extras too, to forget your worries and your quarrels!
Returning by a faster but steeper path, descending the second hill, Baloo, still stopping to check that we are all ok with him, turns right next to a pile of stones, for a shorter return the along a ravine that must look like a rocky water cascade during the rainy season. From there, Baloo heads home, only stopping to sniff the flowers on the lawn of Eagle Rock House. Here, I am offered water by the lovely staff who call out to me on the way and ask me if Baloo, who has found his own bar, is with me. “You better believe it!” I answer. He is my trekking guide in the region and as if Baloo understood, he starts barking; time to go enjoy egg hoppers and seeni sambol for breakfast.
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