The Back Road to World’s End

Marco Polo called it “The finest island to sail on any sea” and, hundreds of years before him, the Chinese had called it “The Land Without Sorrow”. Today, we call it Sri Lanka.

This 41,000 square mile island located off the southern coast of India is truly beautiful beyond comparison. It’s also home to over 14 million people, and, or a month or so, it was home to my wife and I.  We explored the island in the best way possible for a young couple – by motorcycle.

So it was that, with my feet propped up on a white wicker chair and my tired body slumped in another, I was enjoying a quiet evening on the lawn of a vintage hotel in the heart of this tropical paradise, perusing a map and deciding where we should go next.

Thea and I were here aboard a rented 250cc Honda for a second look at the island. Three years earlier, we had toured Sri Lanka on another Honda, an ancient-but-reliable 185 twin and we’d returned to see if the best ride of our lives could be bettered. In fact, Sri Lanka was even better than we remembered.

Ceylon Map

As I pondered our options from the security of the garden, the chorus of sounds from the valley below the hotel and the smells of curry from the kitchen window nearby made it hard to concentrate on my map. The close warmth of the evening and the effects of my third cold beer were making me drowsy. I was examining a remote portion of central Sri Lanka known as Horton Plains, considering our options when my senses snapped back to full alert. Aha! There was tomorrow’s destination. Here in the middle of an empty space on the map was a spot labeled “World’s End”. Now, who could resist visiting a place with a name as tempting as that?

“How about we go to World’s End tomorrow?”, I called to Thea in the next room.

“Where’s World’s End?” came the vague reply. She was suffering from a case of The Bike Stupids, a temporary mental deficiency caused by too many miles on a too-small motorcycle.

“It’s only a few kilometers away”, I promised, knowing that another long ride tomorrow wouldn’t be approved. “Besides”, I continued, “There’s an old hotel there called ‘Farr Inn”.

“Far out”, she replied. (this was the late seventies) It was exactly the answer I was looking for, so I began choosing a route. But I soon discovered that even though Horton Plains was just a few kilometers away, it just wasn’t possible to ride from our hotel in Haputale to World’s End and back in a day. The mountain terrain of central Sri Lanka is so complex, two places just a short distance apart as the crow flies may be several hours apart by road.

According to my map, Farr Inn can only be reached by turning hard-left at a place called Agrapatna. But before you do that, you have to find Bandarawela, Nanu Oya and Pattipola, and maybe even Nuwara Eliya (the map folded just there and it was difficult to read). Even assuming we found all these places and managed to locate Agrapatna, our best possible ETA at World’s End would be long after lunch, and it wouldn’t be good to reach World’s End on an empty stomach. Besides, there was no guarantee the Farr Inn would be open, much less ready to accommodate foreign motorcyclists, so it was important that we be able to return to our hotel in Haputale before nightfall.

Enter the Aussies. Jack and Sandra were well acquainted with the district, having explored it for months in their Land Rover. After dinner, I explained our problem to them over yet another bottle or two of Swan Lager.

It’s a piece of cake, mate”, said Jack. “There’s a beaut road to World’s End from a place called Ohiya, and that’s just a few miles from here. Once you’re up on the plains, it’s just a few minutes ride to Farr Inn. You can easily make it there and back in a day. ‘Especially on a motorcycle.”

A tiny alarm sounded in the back of my mind as I recalled that their vehicle was a four-wheel-drive and I wondered why it was that people always assumed that motorcycles travel over impossible terrain at just under the speed of light. But Jack was a sensible sort and he did seem to know the area well, so I put aside my doubts and decided to try his route.

Later, Thea and I examined the map carefully and found the tiny dot on the map labeled Ohiya. No roads joined the village to the rest of the world. Ohiya was a railway station.
“Yes, well it is a rail line, mate”, said Jack when I asked for more details. Just look for the Ohiya road near the military base at Diyatalawa. Once you make the train station, you’re fine, ‘cause there’s a bloody great sign on the platform. ‘Farr Inn 3 Miles’, it says”, said Jack. “You can’t miss it.”

Of course we could. And we did, several times. In fact it took us until nearly noon before we found Ohiya. And that was because we kept making wrong turns at the naval base. We never did find out why there was a Sri Lankan Navy base in the jungle at 4300 feet elevation, but we did eventually find the road to Ohiya. But not until we’d visited the terminus of several long and winding dead-ends and surprised the populace of several villages not found on any map did we find the sleepy railway station and the sign.

A decaying piece of board nailed to a convenient tree just off the station platform promised in faded letters “Farr Inn 6 Miles”. A narrow thread of road disappeared into the jungle. At last! We’d found the back road to World’s End.

We had little time to waste. We bought some fruit from a vendor whose premises happened to be the shade of a large tree, made a quick check of the luggage-securing bungee cords and plunged in to the blessed cool of the forest.

From Ohiya, the road got steadily worse. What had been a pleasant country road, twisting and winding its way through the hills and rice paddies, now turned straight up a sheer mountain face. Instead of gently winding, the road began to zig-zag wildly in an endless series of hairpin turns as it struggled to gain altitude.

As the civilized world receded quickly below us, the forest began to change. Dense groves of leafy trees, huge ferns and thickets of bamboo soon gave way to sweet-smelling gum trees, stands of dwarf conifers and gnarled rhododendron bushes 30 feet high. Cool mists swirled around us, great clumps of moss covered the ground and exotic orchids grew in the tree limbs. We had entered an eerie fairytale world where the only sound was the steady beat of the little Honda, battling its way in second gear to the very top of this tropical world.

The road surface gradually became more and more broken and the narrow track of pavement finally gave way altogether. Now, we labored up a narrow dirt track littered with rocks and gravel, cut every few yards by dry stream beds. Our rented motorcycle, overloaded with two westerners, their baggage and lunch was beginning to feel the effects of Altitude Sickness.

Times like this are a challenge to both man and machine. No, wait. Make that man, woman and machine. With the steep grade, heavy load, hairpin corners, poor traction, and no power to spare, momentum becomes a precious resource to be hoarded like gold. Once lost, forward speed becomes nearly impossible to regain and, when we finally wound down to the nadir of wide open throttle in first gear, the bike had simply run out of steam.  It became necessary to lighten the load. The exigencies of the situation were clear.  The first thing to go was the passenger. Thea would have to hike this steep, rough section.

As I watched her tiny image diminish mirrors as she trudged up the road in my dusty wake, it occurred to me that 6000 feet up a mountain in tropical Asia was as good a place as any to leave one’s wife. But my smugness was short-lived, for soon I was walking, too. The road had become so steep and rough that I had no choice but to run alongside the bike, keeping the power on and the machine aimed in the general direction of uphill.

The region’s monsoons had bested the jungle in the perpetual struggle to reclaim this road and as the battle progressed, the road had become a watercourse paved with loose gravel and strewn with rocks the size of footballs. Soon, it became just too much work to carry on.

Leaving the Honda to cool for a bit, I walked ahead a few corners, just to see if it could possibly get any worse. Picking my way through the boulder field, I was amazed to see the route begin to level off and the familiar two ruts of civilization emerge once more. Other vehicles had passed this way, and so would we! I returned to the bike, where Thea was busy devouring a piece of fruit and announced my firm resolve to push on.

Ten minutes later, we were riding across the moors of northern Scotland, or so it appeared. We had arrived at Horton Plains. Wide vistas of grey-brown hills strewn with clumps of low, scrubby trees opened up around us. The air had become cold and the sky had turned a dark shade of blue. Low, fast-moving clouds hid the sun and we were soon chilled by a biting wind. As we fumbled to pull on our sweaters, it seemed impossible that just an hour ago, we were sweltering in our tee shirts.

Peter Horton Plains Honda

We soon located Farr Inn. It wasn’t too difficult a task, since it’s the only building on Horton Plains. To our amazement we found a rambling white structure with leaded glass windows, heavy oak doors, high-beamed ceilings and a perfect English country garden. It seemed strange, to say the least to find this 19th Century manor house on a remote mountain plateau in the midst of a tropical jungle, but we learned that it had been built more than a century earlier by English tea estate owners who found that the landscape reminded them of their distant home.

Far-Inn-1900

Like most hotels run by the Ceylon Tourist Board, Farr Inn offers excellent value in both room and board. The staff graciously accommodated our late arrival by serving us a delicious lunch, taking little notice of our bedraggled appearance.

As we feared, the hotel was fully booked, so we had only a quick peek at a couple of the five rooms, but it was obvious that the original owners had spared no expense in re-creating their little bit of England. The rooms were spacious, immaculately kept and, at $12 per night including breakfast, a real bargain.

To complete the Olde England image, the hotel was located at the intersection of four tiny roads, attended by a stone signpost straight out of a Dickens novel. Two of the roads led to villages in the outside world and were so marked on the stone cairn. The third side, indicating the road on which we’d arrived, was simply blank. But the fourth side said “WORLD’S END 2Km”. We were nearly there.

Actually, we found that there are two World’s Ends. There are both a Big World’s End and a Little World’s End, each of them steep escarpments where the plateau drops off suddenly to the coastal plain thousands of feet below. But the reality of standing there defies a simple geographic description. There are no signs, no safety barriers, no warnings, no hawkers selling programs, no other people. There’s just a gentle grassy meadow that ends abruptly with a thousand foot cliff and a spectacular view of hundreds of square miles of paradise.

World’s End is, suitably, a quiet place. It’s so quiet that, struggling to hear the sounds of the jungle far below, you find yourself listening to the sound of your own pulse, it’s so quiet that you can hear the individual wing beats of birds flying overhead.

We lingered there for half an hour or so, reluctant to leave this peaceful scene for the realities of the long ride home, but the afternoon shadows were lengthening and the sun sets abruptly near 6 PM at these latitudes. It was time to head for home.

As I turned and began to walk back to the motorcycle, Thea called me back to the edge of the precipice for one last look. From this strategic position, a large part of the southern island is visible, with dozens of villages strewn across the map-like view. She’d found Belihul Oya, one of many tiny dots on the map where, several days before, we’d spent the night. In the early morning, we’d stood in the hotel garden, staring at the cliffs high above that village, wondering what it would be like if we were to climb them, just to see the view. Now, we knew.

The ride back to Haputale was short and uneventful. We took the well-marked main road off the plateau, back down through the perpetual springtime of the mid elevations and were soon back in the white wicker chairs sipping beers with Jack and Sandra.

“You know”, mused Jack, as we gazed out over the lush valley. “There’s a beaut Buddhist temple ruin off to the south a piece. Couple of thousand years old, at least. Not exactly sure of the road, mind, but it should be easy enough for you two. Especially on a motorcycle.”

“Hmm. Tempting”. I said. “Now, pass me another beer, will you? Where’s that map?”

This article appeared in Cycle World Magazine in August, 1991. Conditions in Sri Lanka were very difficult later in the decade during the civil war.  A relatively peaceful period ensued, broken by church bombings and the death of hundreds of worshipers in 2019. I really do wonder about the future of  The Land Without Sorrow.

By Peter McLennan. Illustrations by Leo Bestgen

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