Tuesday, October 27, 2015

In Search of Greater Challenge - Great Western

Trip Name : Hiking Great Western Mountain and Camping at the summit.

Year & Month : September 2014

Crew : 4 plus two guides (Danushka, Harsha, Samith, Sandun)

Accommodation : Camping on the top of Great Western summit.

Transport : Colombo - Badulla Nightmail, Tuktuk, Bus

Activities : Hiking, Camping, Sightseeing

Itinerary : Hiking Great Western Mountain

Opening Hours: n/a

Tickets : n/a

Weather : Rainy, Cold, Misty

Trail/Road Info : This is a strenuous hike. There is no visible trail.

Special Remarks
  • Getting a local guide is recommended.
  • There are several local guides, Our guide, Morgan (077 0791002) was a friendly guy who new the trail very well. I highly recommend him.
  • Call your guide in advance to check on weather. You should avoid hiking if its raining as the trail becomes extremely hard to tackle. (slippery, muddy and soggy)
  • Best way to travel to Great Western is by train. From the railway station its just a 1.5km rail hike to the trail head.
  • In the middle section of the trail you will constantly have to tackle 60 - 30 degree climb with on and off short flat stretches. At some points climb is almost vertical. Climbing ropes and sticks will come in handy.
  • Keep a decent space between yourself and the hiker before you. This will reduce the chance of getting whacked by branches or fellow hikers slipping and landing on you or worse.
  • Keep an eye on fellow hikers as this is a strenuous hike. There is not much mental stress involved, but it will definitely test your endurance and strength.
  • There is a water source just 500m before the camping site. It's better to refill your canisters here and continue, rather than double back to get water.
  • Camping ground on top of the mountain can accommodate 5-6 person tent and a 3-4 person tent. But you cannot pitch one large, say 10 person tent due to uneven ground.
  • Wind can become quite harsh and always expect rain. Therefore PROPERLY sealed rain fly is a must.
  • Cold is not that  big a deal. But the rain can cause condensation inside the tent. One way to avoid this is by keeping wet cloths, socks/shoes outside and opening rear tent window and main door covers(but keep the mesh cover closed). This will ensure proper ventilation inside the tent. Its better to sleep inside a cold tent rather than in a puddle.
  • Do not wander off from the camping ground as it is close to the rocky edge of the mountain. Wet moss makes it worse.
  • Remember to bring a first-aid kit.
  • There was remnants of camp fire but I do not recommend it. 
  • Morgan can provide meals for you. But you are going to have to inform him in advance. He even can arrange transportation to the nearest town. (tuktuks)
  • We found several plastic bags/wraps and a polythene cover at the top of the mountain. Probably locals or hikers left those. Respect the nature leave only footprints.
Our team got the idea of climbing this during our return trip from Thotupala hike. But we were bit hesitant toward doing it as many veteran hikers mentioned this as a strenuous hike and the perilous condition of the trail. Plus we wanted to push the current limit further by camping on the top. At the time of planning there were handful of travelogues on the Internet but none of the authors had camped on the top. Being kind of the group we are we decided to take the challenge head on and camp on the top.

Picture from Thotupala hike, Great Western Railway Station

Majestic she stood

There were two main problems we came across. First one was weather. Great western usually has a dry sunny season starting from December to April. But the area still gets drizzle and limited rain. Rain makes this trail extremely slippery and hard to tackle. But that time period was not suitable for everybody in our group. Therefore we decided to do this in November and kept in touch with Morgan to inform us on a suitable date.

Picture from Thotupala hike, We will be back for you....
The second problem was water. There is only a small single water spring on top of the mountain and we were not sure that it would suffice. Therefore we decided to take 4 litters of water per person and refill bottles at the aforementioned water source and continue the hike.

We took the Colombo - Badulla Night mail train and arrived at Great Western around 3.00 am. Heavy rain started to fall just after we arrived at the station. This set a grim feeling our minds but we kept hoping for a better weather. Station master saw us and showed us the railway rest room where we stayed until the sun came up. After sun came up we had our breakfast and went outside to enjoy the view. There was nothing much of a view to enjoy as majority of the area was covered in a thick mist. But it started to clear up with the rising sun.

View from the station platform

1464 above mean sea level

covered in a thick mist

Not the view we were hoping for

To Watagoda

Harsha trying to boost the moral of the team

It was still drizzling when Morgan and his friend came to meet us. He was partially reluctant to take us on the journey because of the rain. He told us that the area would get more rain in the coming night. But after a brief chat with us and seeing that we came ready for the challenge he said he would take us.

Results of heavy downpour
Mist clearing up

Getting ready
Great Western Railway Station
It took us half an hour to reach trail head. We hiked along the railway line toward Badulla and reached a small iron bridge. Just before this bridge, on the left side of the railway line there are steps  leading to a Kovil. Hiking trail starts from this point.

Udarata Manike

Click Click

Passing us

Sandun keeping up

Steps leading to the Kovila
Morgan and his friend performed his rituals and took the lead.
Morgan and his friend performing rituals
Morgan performing rituals
First part of the trail was basically a mild ascend on a mountain side. There were small flat sections on where our group took several quick breaks. Usually this part is not a hard section to hike but according to Morgan rain makes this section very slippery, which made it rather dangerous for us.

Lets take a break here

Mountain range

Train bound for Colombo

View from the resting point

Few more minutes dude!!

Entering the forest
Almost after one hour tackling slippery mountain side we came across the entrance to the forest. Feeling we got here was surreal. For a moment we were hiking on a grassy mountain side with sun shining from above and all of a sudden we were inside a forest filled with mist and no trail.

Branches touching above as we walk below them


From here onward we solely relied on Morgan to show us the trail. It was one of a kind experience. At first it was just flat stretches and mild ascends. But soon this changed in to a continues ascend. At some points we had to take off our backpacks and pass it on to the person before us to get through the thick undergrowth. Flat stretches completely diapered. We had to to take breaks while hanging on to branches.

Morgan helping us climb

As we climbed up thickness of the forest started to decline. But undergrowth insisted on challenging us. At some points we had to walk over bushes. There was no ground for us to set our foot so we had to clear and climb on to bush branches and then hoist ourselves up only to set foot on another shrub. These bushes were so strong that even with our weight on they didn't touch the ground.

Harsha pulling himself up

No trail

Morgan finding the path on near vertical climb


After almost two hours we came across a huge vertical rock where we had to climb sideways while hanging on to the rock surface and vines.

Sandun taking a break while hanging on to a tree trunk

Vertical rock

From there onwards it was a moderate climb to the first view point.We spent some 30 minutes here enjoying the scenery. According to Morgan you could see several mountain ranges from this point. But thick mist kept blocking our view on that day.

View from the first viewing point

Bathing in mist

Then we came across another viewing point (after about some 40 minute hike) but we didn't linger there for much longer as the rock surface which we had to be on to get a proper view of the area had much of it covered in moss and wet grass. If my memory serves right there was a small shrine dedicated to a Hindu god.

Second viewing point
After another 20 minutes slow paced hike we came across the water source I previously mentioned. Here, Morgan had our water bottles filled for us. In case you want to camp at the top you must refill as this is the only water source on the top of the mountain and I wouldn't recommend doubling back all the way from camping ground to just get water.

From that point onward it was a fairly easy hike until the camp ground. We arrived at the camping ground around 1.30 PM marking approximately 4 and half hours for our entire journey.

Since we wanted an isolated camping experience with only our group we bid farewell to Morgan and his friend. At that point I had a good memory of the trail except for some parts. Therefore I asked him to be ready to hike up guide us if we find it difficult to navigate way down through the jungle.We told him that we would call him if we need assistance. (You can never be too cautious with an activity like this)

It took us some 15 minutes to set up our camp site. Soon after camp ground was all done, we went to the main viewing deck. But we couldn't even see few meters ahead due to thick mist. Therefor we headed back to camping ground just in time before the downpour.

Our tent
Path leading to the main viewing deck

Even though we still had several hours of good daylight, rain kept insisting that we stay inside our tent. Many campers tell that rain would hinder an entire camping experience by limiting activities or completely ruin it by making you and all your gear wet . But this was not the case for us. Yes, we had to spend the evening mostly inside the tent but it too was a unique experience. We prepared ourselves coffee (had to use several covers to guard the flame from wind and rain) and sipped few cups while listing to the soothing sound made by raindrops pouring on to the tent rain fly.

Harsha imbued by the mystique weather, started telling cheesy ghost stories. Even though we knew non of those to be true, combined effect of the weather, surrounding and the sound of the rain made those stories more vivid in our minds. After Harsha's half successful attempt and another hour or two of chatting and going through our old hiking journey photos, we prepared dinner. By that time rain had stopped and we were able to light the stove without any problem. We had sausages and noodles for dinner.

Last photo of the day
We got up around 7.00 AM and had breakfast. Then we went to the main viewing deck but view was covered by the thick mist. Just like last evening we couldn't see beyond few meters. Then after returning to camp ground we packed up and started our journey down.


Going to the main viewing point

 Not much of a view

Lone flower
Packed up and cleaned

Way we have to go

On the second viewing deck

Edge of the mountain
We filled our water bottles again at the water source.

Descend was harder than the ascend. Rain last night had made the trail muddy and slippery. We constantly had to support and guide each other.

Me, Climbing down the vertical rock

This was not easy as it looks

I was able to perfectly track right trail until we came across the part of the forest where descend starts to get more harder and short flat stretches become less frequent. Even though I knew that I could get our team for anther 500m or so without loosing the right trail I called Morgan and asked him to come up.

Then I continued guiding our team carefully until we reached a point where the trail ended at a sudden 45 degree descend. Reluctant to take everybody and risk of loosing the right trail I asked Harsha to join me to find the right trail while other two stay behind. After some 10 minutes we were able to identify the right trail by recalling earlier memories and continued our hike.

Trail ended here
Now we were inside the thick forest seeing so many deviating trails from our original trail. (I think most of those were probably made by animals). We continued on at a very slow pace closely looking for signs made by us on the trail on our way up. This is when we heard somebody approaching us from the far edge of the forest. Morgan emerged with a smile across his face.

Sandun climbing down while holding on to plants

It was easier this way
Morgan emerged
Quick break

Another quick break
far right side of the mountain

From there onward Morgan showed us the way and we started to hike down quickly.

We reached the Kovila around 1.00 pm. and reached great western railway station around 1.45 pm

Water source near the Kovila


We asked Morgan whether there is a stream we could have a proper bath and he showed us a brook fixed with iron gutter. This place is situated some few hundred meters right to the Great Western railway station.


Good Bye
Then we went to Morgan's house and had lunch. (He only charge 100lkr per person) After that He arranged us a tuktuk for our way back home. (Hatton and then Colombo via bus)


  1. Wonderful trip report. This reminds my visit to GW too. Morgan is the friendliest guide I have ever met.
    Yes.... my next dream is spending a night on the top of the mountain.