A 4x4 on the Devil's Staircase
The route connecting Kalupahana to Ohiya cannot be really called a road. 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.
Words and Photography: David Blacker
Search for the Devil's Staircase on Google Maps and you will be presented with what seems like a harmless, if rather twisty, road just over 16km in length, connecting the town of Kalupahana in the Central Highlands to the Ohiya-Horton Plains Road. But a closer examination of the map will tell you that those seemingly innocuous 16km are belied by a climb of 1,200m. This is no walk in the park.
There are several ways to take on the Devil's Staircase, and any combination will be determined by both time and how fit you are. The more hardcore way to do it is to climb its length. This can take a strenuous 6-8 hours, and is definitely nothing to be undertaken lightly. Alternatively, you could walk down it, which will take roughly 4-5 hours. If, however, you prefer adrenaline over sheer brawn, you could drive 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, through and into the Ohiya Gap, and then up the southern face of the Haputale Mountain Range to Ohiya.
The scenery is spectacular, 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 vast 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 Sri Lanka.
Driving a 4x4 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 hiking is your thing, the Devil’s Staircase is probably the most enjoyable and possibly the most challenging, road hike in Sri Lanka. For 4x4 enthusiasts, mountain bikers, or off-road motorcyclists, this is a trail worthy of any bucket list.
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 also boasts some fantastic views, and many avid 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 Udaveriya, which is considered one of the highest permanent settlements in Sri Lanka.
If hiking is your thing, the exciting Devil's Staircase is probably the most enjoyable and possibly the most challenging, road hike in Sri Lanka. For 4x4 enthusiasts, mountain bikers, or off-road motorcyclists, this is a trail worthy of any bucket list.
Up The Stairs
Base yourself in Belihuloya. Hire a 4x4 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 (or Ohiya, if you prefer this route in reverse). 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 on the way, or you could even do it in two, camping for a night on the trail. Stay the night in Ohiya and walk back.
The Budget Package
Take the night mail train from Colombo to Ohiya, arriving there at dawn. 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.