“This is the worst time to drive!” Sali, our driver, says. Generally a jovial fellow, he’s been trying to escape the winding chaos of Kandy for half an hour now and it’s playing on his nerves. He’s right though – it’s 13:30 and schools have just been dismissed. There’s a blizzard of activity on the street as children in neat white uniforms make their way home or wait outside to be picked up. The colonial buildings that line the road are in disrepair, blackened, with tiles slipping from the roofs as if melting in the heat. Local shops have taken hold inside – some crammed with phones, calculators and headphones, others floor-to-ceiling displays of flip flops and leather shoes.
Eventually we break from the traffic and the city makes way for ramshackle roadside shacks, coarse brick shopfronts and washing drying on countryside lines.
We’re eight days into a three week tour of Sri Lanka. After a healthy dose of Buddhist temples and ancient capitals in Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, it’s time to see some European heritage. We’re heading south to Nuwara Eliya, a hill-station ringed by tea plantations. “It’s so British, you’ll instantly feel at home,” Sali promises.
As the road begins to rise, the weather closes in, and pretty soon, we’re driving in the clouds. The trees around us stand as limp tropical silhouettes in the mist. Sali steers the van nimbly along steep double-back roads, pointing out a waterfall engulfing the pockmarked cliff which seems to start straight from the clouds. On the other side of the road it’s a sheer drop into milky nothingness. Occasionally, boys wrapped in woolly hats and makeshift waterproofs appear on hairpin bends, optimistically waving bunches of flowers – fireworks of colour in a world otherwise entirely green and white. Elsewhere, rickety shacks cling to the side of the road, overflowing with fresh carrots, cabbages and avocados. We pass abandoned houses, their walls never finished, left to the mist and stray dogs.
We rise above the clouds as the climb continues and a sea of tea plantations emerges, stretching round the hills in neat waves. At Mackwoods Tea Estate, colourful pickers punctuate the landscape, bags strapped to the back of their heads to carry the leaves they’ve picked, backs bent double under their loads.
We reach 1893m, the highest point of the road, and start to drop again. Soon we’re in the town, with brightly coloured advertising, traffic and chaos. Mansions like Lochside and Spencer House stand regally on manicured lawns, their green-tiled roofs matching their balconies and balustrades as if lifted straight from a fairytale. The golf course stretches into the distance, the clubhouse fresh white against the lush fairways. A row of horses stand tied up outside the racecourse. Even the British rain had followed us here. As I climb out of the van and pull my coat closer around me, I start to wonder where Sri Lanka has gone.