Special Feature — The Devil’s Staircase: Travels on the Kalupahana-Ohiya Road

To call the route connecting Kalupahana to Ohiya a road is quite generous. What it is, is an adventure. Whether you are tough enough to walk its length or mad enough to drive it, this is a journey every adventurer should take.”

Sometimes the Devil’s Staircase feels like the edge of Heaven.

Search for the Devil’s Staircase on Google Maps and you will be presented with what seems like a harmless, if rather twisty, course just over 16km in length, connecting the town of Kalupahana in the Central Highlands to the Ohiya-Horton Plains Road. A closer examination of the map, however, will tell you that those seemingly innocuous 16km are belied by a climb of 1,250m. This is no walk in the park.

There are several ways to tackle the Devil’s Staircase, and any combination will be determined by both how much time you have to spare, and the pace you are able to maintain. The hardcore way to do it is to climb its length. This can take anything between 4-8 hours of walking, depending on how fit you are, and how much you’re carrying, and is nothing to be undertaken lightly. Alternatively, you could walk down it, which will take roughly 3-5 hours. If, however, you prefer adrenalin over sheer brawn, you could drive, or ride, the Devil’s Staircase, which shouldn’t take more than a couple of hours, whichever direction you’re going. A combination of two of these method’s – drive up and walk down – is probably the best way to experience everything the trail has to offer.


The Devil’s Staircase takes the traveller up the northern side of the Kuda Oya Valley in a steep climb through a mix of tea plantations and highland forest, with the towering heights of the Horton Plains plateau on one side, and steep jungle-shrouded depths on the other; through the V-Cut Pass and into the Ohiya Gap, and then up the southern face of the Haputale Mountain Range to Ohiya.

The scenery is even more spectacular as you cross the Ohiya Gap, with stunning views to the southwest over the lowland plains of Sri Lanka. The Haputale Range is on the southern edge of the Central Highlands, and the slopes drop thousands of metres down to the Udawalawe Basin, stretching away to the southern coast. On clear days, you can catch the glint of the sea, and if you’re lucky enough to be camping up here on a clear night, watch for the flash of the lighthouse at Dondra Head, the southernmost point of South Asia.

Over 2,000m high, Gommoli Kanda, the 13th-highest mountain in Sri Lanka, towers over the Kuda Oya Valley at the southern end of the trail, hinting at things to come.
In the morning light, dense stands of evergreen and montane forest are broken by steep slopes of tough highland grass.
The Bambarakanda Falls, as seen from the Staircase; at 263m, the tallest in Sri Lanka, its flow reduced to a trickle by the long dry months of 2016-17.
The plains of the Udawalawe from the Ohiya Gap.

Driving a 4×4 up the Devil’s Staircase is also a fun way to travel this trail, especially if you fancy an adventurous shortcut to Horton Plains or Haputale. The track has some hair-raising switchbacks and traverses, and the last stretch, up the Haputale Ridge requires steady nerves and a reliable truck.

If this last bit seems too steep a climb, either on foot or in a vehicle, a second track runs around the side of the ridge and makes a slightly more gentle ascent. This route too boasts some fantastic views, and many hikers prefer to take this route on the way up and the steeper track when descending. This alternative route will also take you through the tiny hamlet of Udaweriya, which is one of the highest permanent settlements in Sri Lanka.

Water isn’t common along the trail in the dry season, and mountain streams such as the Nagadowa Ela restrict camping to a few sites.
The Devil’s Staircase winds ever upward, out of the Kuda Oya Valley, and towards the Ohiya Gap.
A 4×4 truck negotiates the famous V-Cut, a pass that leads from the Kuda Oya Valley into the Ohiya Gap.
The steepest part of the Devil’s Staircase, a 120m vertical climb up the Haputale Ridge, along a series of hairpin bends that give the route its famous name; lung-bursting on foot and nerve-wracking to drive.
Against all odds, a few battered vehicles still carry vegetables and other goods to and from the tiny settlements on the Devil’s Staircase. This rusty Delica is negotiating a bend below Udaweriya. In the distance are the southern plains of Sri Lanka.


The Combo-Package: Base yourself in Belihuloya. Hire a 4×4 and an experienced off-road driver to take you up the trail. Leave after an early breakfast, or pack a picnic. Take a break in Ohiya, or even visit Horton Plains. Get dropped off at the trailhead on the Ohiya-Horton Plains Road, and walk down to Kalupahana from where you could take a bus or trishaw back to your hotel.

The Hardcore Package: Base yourself in Belihuloya, start off from Kalupahana, and hike up the Devil’s Staircase. You can do this in a full day of walking, taking regular breaks and picnicking along the way, or you could even do it in two, camping for a night on the trail. Stay a night in Ohiya and walk back down.

The Budget Package: Take the night mail train from Colombo to Ohiya, arriving there at dawn. Have a breakfast of egg rotti and tea outside the railway station. Walk up to the trailhead and descend the Devil’s Stairs to Kalupahana from where you can catch a bus back to Colombo. Very little sleep, but very little expense too.

Little settlements of just a few houses cling to the steep sides of the Kuda Oya Valley, reminiscent of hill villages in the Himalayan foothills, built in protective squares.
The Devil’s Cricket Team took a break to pose for a photo.
Two residents of Udaweriya cross the Ohiya Gap.
Young girl from Udaweriya.


If you’re walking, make sure you’re fit enough, and that you have sturdy, comfortable shoes. Take enough water and food, and a first aid kit. The weather can be unpredictable, so take a rain jacket. If you’re camping, take warm clothes; between December and February the temperature can drop close to freezing.

If you’re driving the Devil’s Staircase, a 4×4 jeep or truck is recommended. Make sure you have a spare tire, even two, because a breakdown means you might have to abandon your transport and walk. If you’re riding the Staircase on motorcycles or mountain bicycles, helmets and other protective gear would be only common sense. Take a basic repair kit and an air pump for flats.

The Devil’s Staircase isn’t a well-travelled road, and phone connectivity is spotty at best. Any rescue is going to take hours to get to you.

A 4×4 on one of the steeper sections of the Devil’s Staircase, below the Ohiya Ridge.
Hikers take a break below the Ohiya Ridge.
A campsite close to a tributary of the Kuda Oya, on the edge of a tea plantation. When the rains come, this part of the Devil’s Staircase will be covered by a swift-moving stream.
A view of lush montane forest cloaking the nearly vertical sides of the Kuda Oya Valley made the cover of Serendib’s March 2017 issue.

If hiking is your thing, the Devil’s Staircase is probably the most enjoyable, if challenging, road hike in Sri Lanka. For 4×4 enthusiasts, mountain bikers, or off-road motorcyclists, this is a trail worthy of any bucket list.

A version of this article ran in the March 2017 issue of Serendib, the inflight magazine of Sri Lankan Airlines. Since that long-running magazine’s website has ceased to function, I will, in an effort to keep accessible the pieces I wrote for it, be posting versions of them here on this blog. The photos have not been re-edited, and continue to display whatever skills I had at the time.


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