We arrive on a starlit night and, seeing the ‘Amba’ sign, we know we have finally reached this stunning artisan tea estate cradled by the highlands near Ella in the 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 [...]


On a tea country trail with Baloo

In this fortnightly travel series starting today, Juliet Coombe discovers not just spectacular views but also an excellent four-legged guide

How green is my valley: Baloo taking in the view with a guest

We arrive on a starlit night and, seeing the ‘Amba’ sign, we know we have finally reached this stunning artisan tea estate cradled by the highlands near Ella in the 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 is either sleeping like the bear in Jungle Book, or helping Mowgli  –  in this case Simon Bell – one of the four social enterprise sponsors of Amba Estate entertain, protect and guide their guests.

As we open the car doors, Baloo gives an authoritative woof welcome, and within seconds we are surrounded by smiles and the option of either having a refreshing cup of Amba tea or dinner straight away.

Baloo is clearly thrilled to have some new playmates and hopefully some serious mountain walkers whom he can guide on spectacular treks which have stunning views of Ella Rock, Lipton’s Seat, Eagle Rock and Little Adam’s Peak. Here, you will discover staircases of tea that vanish into the clouds, ancient stone outcrop viewing platforms, mini waterfalls, wildlife, prehistoric caves, the superheroes of the skies –  bats and an orchestra of bird song.

Seeing my youngest son Amzar, Baloo, recognising a true animal lover, nuzzles him in the direction of a ball that has been left out in Clove Cottage’s open sitting room. Spicy smells from the kitchen waft across the garden, getting the better of the hungrier members of the group, who head for the open planned pavilion dining room, with a single plank of a massive tree trunk wooden table, that could easily seat 20.

We start off with wade and homemade chilli tomato sauce, followed by a rice and curry vegetarian feast of food from the organic farm, including mouthwatering dhal, banana flower, green mango curry, aubergine deep fried in mustard cream and soya sauce, and beans, ending with the ‘pièce de résistance’, the Amba cheesecake, sitting on a base of crushed ginger biscuits with chilled curd on top, mixed with lime juice and lemon zest. As we eat, we discover from the two girls writing an Amba cook book, that the name of the place means ‘mango’ and the noise on the roof above us is cheeky monkeys feasting on them or the occasional avocado falling from the trees. Whether it is a passing troop of monkeys, Shere Khan the resident cat or Bagheera, Tigger, another of the farm dogs, or Mouse who also join us; there is never a shortage of wildlife here.

Showing the way: Baloo and Amzar

Determined to do the Eagle Rock walk which promises spectacular sunrise views from Eagle Rock summit, we retire to bed early and are up at 5.30 a.m., as recommended on one of the seven Amba walks’ laminated information cards provided in each of the rooms. This walk starts with Baloo rounding us up at Clove Cottage and leading us to the Amba farmhouse café, shop and line rooms. It is also lovely to explore another popular part of the estate where groups of up to 30 people can stay and you can also do the 11 a.m. daily tea tour except on Sundays or Poya days.

From here, Baloo will escort you back across the causeway to the main concrete track. Just keep following him as no one knows these hills better than he does. From here, you walk for a couple of minutes until Baloo takes a right, past a metal gate with a wooden handpainted sign saying Eagle Rock Estate. Continue along an elegant stone driveway past Eagle Rock House and lawn, whose owner has kindly given permission for guests from Amba to pass by on their 45 minute circular trek.

Even if you stop to take photos, Baloo waits patiently before continuing along a path that passes through tea bushes as it climbs ever upwards. The morning I went, a female Toque Macaque monkey and her little one appeared in the trees, making warning sounds as they saw Baloo below. Baloo wags his tail  and it is clear, as they vanish back into the safety of the tree canopy, that he is the king of the hills. He is also a botanical lover and stops to lick or sniff the flowers which he happily rolls in.

Nothing it seems, stops Baloo jumping over even a difficult stone wall. I knew Belgian Shepherd dogs could herd sheep and indeed when as a puppy he discovered some 20 village cows happily munching on the flowers and lawns of the bungalow garden, he skilfully rounded them up and herded them out of the gate in 20 seconds flat! Amba’s own herd of rescue cows meanwhile live in their own palatial cow-shed, doing what they know best – producing the organic compost needed for 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!

Cool and inviting: Amba rock pools

Just before we reach the top of the hill and the fantastic mountain views with sea in the distance, Baloo disappears, as he can’t wait to see the magnificent vistas, where he sits like the Lion King, observing his domain below. He knows if you are too late in the day, the epic scenes quickly vanish altogether under rolling clouds and mountain mists. I join him on the first summit, which is an excellent lookout point for deer, in particular mouse deer, monitor lizards, circling eagles and a chance for Baloo to have forty winks.

Then, it is off again, along the rocky path to the second peak and another viewing point, a superb spot where you can contemplate life, while looking across to Ella Rock, Mini Adam’s Peak and Amba valley, of which Baloo reminds me, as he joins me in contemplation, that life is really all about looking for the bare necessities, the simple bare necessities and, as you are on holiday, a few extras too, so you can forget about your worries and your strife!

Returning along a quicker but steeper pathway, descending from the second hill, Baloo, always stopping to check we are all still with him, turns right beside a pile of stones, for a shorter journey back along a gully that must be like a rocky water cascade in the rainy season. From here, Baloo bounds homewards, only stopping for a sniff of the flowers on the lawn of Eagle Rock House. Here, I am offered water by the lovely staff who call out to me as I pass them by and ask whether Baloo, who has found  his own drinking spot, is with me.  “You better believe it!” I respond. He is my trekking guide to the area and as if Baloo understands, he starts to bark; it’s time to go and enjoy some egg hoppers and seeni sambol for breakfast.


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