October 2018


Flirting with the Seven Virgins: A short detour down the Maskeliya Oya
October 2018




The Seven Virgin Hills amidst the lush greenery

Above the rolling hills of implausibly green tea, the Seven Virgins rise with increasing steepness to a height of over 1,300m, and what isn't vertical cliff is covered with dense montane and sub-montane forest. The terrain is quite spectacular and provides a variety of distractions that will cater to the dedicated outdoorsman or outdoorswoman, the inexperienced but adventurous soul, and even those looking for nothing more daring than an afternoon stroll or a refreshing dip in a mountain stream.


Words and Photography: David Blacker


"All under the leaves and the leaves of life I met with virgins seven," begins the old Apocryphal English Passion carol, The Seven Virgins. First recorded in an early 19th century carol book, it remains unclear if these lyrics inspired some unknown British explorer to project a feminine countenance to the craggy mountain peaks close to Maskeliya, in the Central Highlands of Sri Lanka. Regardless, it could well be a fitting title, for the Seven Virgins are surrounded on all sides by tea, the undisputed leaves of life.


The ridgeline of which the Seven Virgins are a part runs southeast from Kitulgala to the Maussakele Reservoir, flanked for its entirety, by the Maskeliya Oya on its eastern side. The Seven Virgins themselves make up the southern end of this ridge. For travellers wishing to get to grips with the Virgins, Kitulgala in the north, Norton Bridge midway along, and Maskeliya in the south, provide the only motorable roads to the foot of the ridge.

The ridgeline of which the Seven Virgins are a part runs southeast from Kitulgala to the Maussakele Reservoir, flanked for its entirety, by the Maskeliya Oya on its eastern side.


Of these, the B149 from Maskeliya is the best road, taking Adam's Peak pilgrims to Dalhousie and Nallathanni, and passing the southern end of the Seven Virgins ridge. The latter are, however, at their tallest and most-steep at this point, and very near impossible to scale for anyone but an experienced mountaineer. The tea estates below the cliffs do offer some pleasant walking routes, with the occasional small waterfall and panoramic views of the Maussakele Reservoir.


Sheer cliffs characterise six of the seven Virgins, and it is only the lowest and most northern peak that is assailable, and that too requires considerable skill and stamina. Once this peak has been reached, however, it is possible to hike south along the ridgeline, over the other six peaks. Any such exploration of the Virgins will require an excursion of more than a day and must, of necessity, mean at least one night of camping on a mountaintop.


The best access to the ridgeline is from the Koththelena Tea Estate, where several footpaths head off from the plantation into the thick jungle of the northernmost Virgin. Estate workers and the residents from the locality make excellent guides, and it is advisable to hire one of them to lead the way. Beyond the tea bushes the terrain is mostly uncharted and navigation may be difficult for the inexperienced. One should not try this hike alone.


Incredibly, in addition to the usual fauna of Sri Lankan forests, such as wild boar and leopard, elephant too have been spotted high in the Seven Virgins, and therefore it is best to take the precaution of only moving in daylight to avoid accidentally coming nose to trunk with Jumbo on a narrow jungle trail.


For the sensible explorer, however, the montane forests of the Seven Virgins provide an amazing experience of hiking, jungle navigation, and camping, together with some truly breathtaking views of the hills and lakes below, and of Adam's Peak to the south.


To reach Koththelena Tea Estate, visitors may take B-roads from either Kitulgala or Norton Bridge, but these only go as far as the eastern side of the Maskeliya Oya Valley, and once the river has been crossed, the minor roads are impassable to anything but a 4x4 truck or an indestructible tuk-tuk. A minor road does run the length of the valley's west bank, but it too deteriorates short of Koththelena.

The best access to the ridgeline is from the Koththelena Tea Estate, where several footpaths head off from the plantation into the thick jungle of the northernmost Virgin. .


For those interested in less strenuous activities, Koththelena, the Berton Estate, and other plantations along the Maskeliya Oya Valley present some of the prettiest swathes of highland tea country. The sub-montane forest that breaks up the carpets of tea is itself dotted with brilliant red-topped flame-of-the-forest trees that provide broad patches of shade for the walker looking for a place to sit and contemplate the valley and its glorious mountain backdrop.


Nearby, the Maskeliya Oya plummets over Laxapana Falls, immortalized on Sri Lanka's 100-rupee note and, at 126m, the eighth-highest waterfall in the country. Closer to Norton Bridge, on the Kehelgamu Oya, is Aberdeen Falls, not as tall as Laxapana, but arguably much more picturesque with its multiple levels and calm pools. Both rivers offer many opportunities for a dip, but check with locals for the best spots, especially during the monsoons when heavy rains upstream can change what is a meandering stream into a raging torrent.


The Seven Virgins can be reached in three and a half hours of driving from Colombo, and in considerably less from Kandy. For those traveling between Colombo and Nuwara Eliya, Koththelena is just an hour south of the A7 highway.

  • image01
    image01

    Koththelena Tea Estate, below the Seven Virgins offers panaromic views of the surrounding environs

    Prev Next
  • image01
    image01

    Easily navigable trails through the tea estates of Koththelena give way to the sheer cliffs of the Seven Virgins

    Prev Next
  • image01
    image01

    The beautiful Aberdeen Falls

    Prev Next