Nuwara Eliya needs no introduction. It’s where you run to when Colombo gets too hot and sticky. It’s where you go to, to pretend that you have no urgent deadlines, that global warming is far in the future, and that the sweater you bought on sale a year ago but never really wore, was justified. It’s where you can sit back, stretch your legs, drink strawberry tea you’re not sure you like, eat over-priced strawberry crepes and stare out at the rolling hills. And if you are feeling really adventurous, you may walk around Gregory’s Lake for the umpteenth time and eat ice cream (also strawberry).
Though most of us have wrung Nuwara Eliya out of every bit of novelty it has, there are still a few things you may not have seen among these hills. If you want to get off the beaten path and escape the sound of traffic for a while, there are two places just waiting to be explored, not too far from the city centre ‒ Galway’s Land National Park, and the breathtaking ‘Moon Plains’.
Galway’s Park ‒ A Getaway In The Heart Of The City
Galway’s Land National Park is a small forest reserve just North of Gregory’s Lake. You can get to it through Havelock Road, which is much easier than Upper Lake Road.
There’s about 22 acres of land covered in trees and light brush. The canopy can be a bit heavy depending on the season, so you have this shady, secluded, quiet atmosphere especially in the evenings. There’s a paved path through the forest which runs for about 2 km through the reserve and might take you half an hour if you are just ambling along and not stopping to bird watch. It’s not much, but is nice for a short, quiet walk away from everything. There are sign boards with pictures of animals you may see there.
Apparently the fauna are not easy to see, which may explain why the guy at the counter warned us not to expect too much. They probably get quite a few complaints from disappointed visitors. There are some visitors who claim to have seen deer and buffalo, but all we saw were jungle fowl, lizards, and mushrooms. It was rainy at that time, so that could be a reason for the few animal sightings. It would probably be a good idea not to make too much noise as you walk the paths, since it scares all the wildlife away. Gag your noisier friends and try to go in the morning, you might have better luck, especially since we heard a variety of birds during our walk.
The Galway Park isn’t the biggest reserve around, nor the most exciting, but it really makes for a lovely walk, especially since it is so close to the city and empty most of the time. It is relatively unknown, and doesn’t draw much visitors, since it costs $10 for foreigners – which is Galway robbery. It costs about Rs. 40 for a local. This price difference is pretty typical when it comes to Sri Lanka’s tourist spots. But it really makes no sense for what amounts to a stroll in the park.
Moon Plains ‒ A Little Bit of Heaven
Moon Plains is another lesser known attraction that you might want to check out the next time you’re holidaying in the hills. When you think Nuwara Eliya, you think rolling hills covered in tea bushes, or maybe strawberries. Perhaps you’d think only of tea and strawberries. But do you ever think potatoes? No? Maybe you should.
Two years ago, in March of 2014, Moon Plains (Sandatanne in Sinhalese) was opened to the public. We don’t know why it is called that. It’s neither moony, nor very flat, but rather a rolling stretch of beautiful grass-covered hills. But before it was opened to the public, the area near the plains was used as a dump. It was later converted to a landfill, classified as an Agricultural and Environmental Zone by the Municipality of Nuwara Eliya, and opened to the public. It is a shame that the land was not utilised properly earlier, because the plains are really very beautiful.
Moon Plains is a couple of kilometres away from Nuwara Eliya town and you can get there by going past the lake, through Mahagasthota, and then north towards the Agriculture Department and the Government Potato Seed Farm (hence the potatoes). It may be a bit difficult to find, but you can ask for directions if you get lost. Once you get on the smaller roads, you have a few hard-to-see boards pointing to Moon Plains.
At the end of the road, you come to an enclosure, a set of buildings, and a bunch of jeeps. Initially, we hoped that we’d get to walk up the plains, but unfortunately, we were not allowed. You have to buy tickets, which cost Rs. 50 for a local and Rs. 250 for a foreigner, which is not terrible despite the discrimination. But what is really annoying is that you have to hire one of those jeeps for Rs. 2,000 for what amounts to a few kilometres of travel. There is a clear, (though bumpy) path that heads up to the top of the hill. You can’t take your car up there because the road is pretty bad, and even the jeep manages only about 20 kmph up the path. We don’t understand the need to force everyone to take the jeep though: you could walk it. But hey, there’s a lot about tourism in Sri Lanka we don’t understand.
Despite the annoyance, the ride up the plains is really, really beautiful. The air is crystal clear, the wind is crisp, and the grass is very green. You’d pass farmers tilling the ground or sitting by the side of the road having their lunch. There are cows chilling on the hills, munching on grass, and quite a few birds of prey circling above or perched on clods of soil watching you pass, in case you look appetising or are hiding a rodent in your pocket.
When you get right to the top, you see why this place is so special. You literally have a 360 degree, unobstructed view for miles in every direction, of the tallest peaks in the region. You could see Kirigalpoththa, Thotupola, and Hakgala, and that is just in one direction. You can also see Piduruthalagala, Namunukula and Kikiliyamana if you turn around. It is amazing.
There’s a viewing platform right at the top, where you can take selfies and panoramas to your heart’s content.
Underneath the platform, you will find signs pointing to each of the mountains you can see from here. We had breakfast in the shade of the platform, spent some time looking over the edges, and got buzzed by a cloud of bees, which are apparently common around there and were not really trying to kill us, though we still have our doubts.
It was a breathtaking sight, and completely worth the trip up there. Since it hasn’t been open to the public very long, it was not very crowded. When we were there, there were just two Arabs in suits who did not look very impressed. But you can never tell with suits ‒ they were probably jumping in glee on the inside. The Plains open at 7 a.m. and close at 5 p.m., so you are not going to get any sunrises or sunsets, but do go check it out. Going in a group will help split the jeep costs, and carry identification in case they think you are a foreigner. Unless you are a foreigner, in which case you should be carrying identification anyway.
The next time you are in Nuwara Eliya and tired to your teeth of going through the motions, stop by Galway’s Park for a quiet stroll or take the trip to Moon Plains to check out the view. It’s a pretty good way to escape the bustle that has become Nuwara Eliya; leave the traffic and overpriced strawberries behind, and enjoy some peace and quiet among the birds and the trees.