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.”
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.
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.
HOW TO DO IT
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.
WHAT TO TAKE
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.
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.