I began my second day in Sri Lanka’s Knuckles Mountains early. I’d been told that the ‘sky camp’ – where I’d spent my first night in the mountains – was an excellent spot for observing the sunrise. So I and three other guests staying there (an Englishman and two Australian women who were making a separate, two-day trek) emerged from our tents at about 5.30 AM, a quarter-hour before the sun was supposed to come up. Already the night had given way to an eerie early-morning twilight. The mountaintops directly across the valley were still black silhouettes. However, further along and presumably due east, distant peaks were visible in a haze of grey. Higher up, the greyness segued into a glimmering strip of pink and then into pale, barely blue sky.
We went a little way down the road from the camp to a place where a new hotel was under construction. This had been recommended to us as the best vantage point and there was even a concrete platform in front of the hotel buildings that seemed to have been designed for this purpose. Gradually, the eastern sky became brighter, revealing patterns of streaky clouds. The grey haze underneath lightened to show more mountaintops, covered in a fur of trees, and even the glint of a distant lake. Then a wan red bead rose into view out of the haze – the sun, not quite appearing from behind the horizon but suddenly materialising over it. At the same moment, the area of sky above the sun suddenly resembled a pool of fiery lava. Thus, the day had an inspirational start.
When I got up, my boots, shorts and other gear were still damp from the previous day’s wet weather, but they dried out in the early-morning sunshine and I was ready to leave the sky camp at 9.30 AM. Asela, my trekking guide, and I soon encountered an abandoned tea plantation that’d been installed long ago by the British. Some tea-plants remained, growing wild. Later, we came across a ruined stone bungalow that’d been the home of the plantation’s superintendent.
At another point in the morning, our path took us to a pool below a slope, fed by a boulder-choked stream. Here, we met the Englishman and Australian women – who’d left the sky camp a short time before us – and their guide. They were under attack from leeches. The pool-area was hoaching with the creatures and the Westerners were busy picking them off each other. Already, one of the ladies’ woollen socks were polka-dotted with blood.
To digress a little… A few years ago, I went walking in the Udawattakele Sanctuary above Kandy, where my ankles became the site of a major leech pile-on. Their bites bled for hours afterwards. Not wanting to undergo that again, before leaving Colombo for the Knuckles Mountains, I’d gone to a camping shop on Galle Road and invested in a pair of ‘anti-leech’ socks. These were big tubes of canvas-like material that you put over your feet and roll up your legs to your knees, fastening them at various points with lengths of cord. However, before the start of our trek the previous day, Asela had pointed out that the leeches would simply climb up my boots, then climb up the anti-leech socks, and then climb onto my exposed thighs and start feeding.
“Wouldn’t the leeches,” I asked hopefully, “be too tired to bite after they’d climbed all that way?”
“No,” he said.
Instead, Asela advised me to rub Dettol into my feet and legs before we set out each morning. Leeches aren’t hot on the taste of Dettol, apparently. And that seemed to do the trick because I wasn’t much bothered by the little bastards during our four days’ trekking. Incidentally, I continued to wear the anti-leech socks – over my feet and socks, under my boots, and rolled down above my boots – as a way of keeping my feet dry.
This Knuckles Mountains expedition was the first time I really noticed leeches in their skinnier, non-blood-swollen form. Everywhere on the ground, it seemed, they squiggled out from under fallen leaves, like animated slivers of evil; and then probed insatiably upwards, desperate to clamber onto your boots and onto your flesh.
Anyway, after trudging upwards for a time, we came to a pine forest – presumably also the handiwork of the British. The forest looked aesthetically pleasing as we approached it but, once we entered, we saw how the forest floor was carpeted with dried brown pine-twigs and almost devoid of life. The only vegetation was an occasional clump of broad-bladed grass. By way of contrast, when there was an interruption by indigenous trees among the pines, there was also a great eruption of green foliage underneath them.
After leaving the pine forest, we crossed a ridge and came within sight of a valley on the other side. This was possibly the most spectacular view I’ve seen in Sri Lanka. Various mountains stood in towering rows, which receded and became blurred, misty and ephemeral. Everything in the valley beneath them – roads, dwellings, fields – was insignificant and puny-looking.
Then we ended up on a path whose surface was a mixture of broken asphalt, stones, pebbles, occasional smooth rocks, sand, grit, puddles and, for one stretch, a shallow stream. A forest of low indigenous trees grew around the path and a froth of grass, weeds, ferns and creepers crowded against its sides. So far today the weather had been reasonable but there came a point, while we were making our way around a bend, when the air suddenly turned cold. Thereafter, the weather alternated between mist, drizzle and relentless, miserable rain.
It was on this path that we discovered a centipede that was a good seven or eight inches long. It had a black body, dozens of pairs of yellow legs and two longer red antennae at the end that served as its head. It was the strangest specimen of wildlife that we saw today. The wildlife also included a big green chameleon perched on top of a fencepost, a couple of woodpeckers, more freshwater crabs and several monkeys.
The path finally took us to a village inhabited by tea-plantation workers. Our lunch – though we didn’t eat it until the mid-afternoon – was served up in the biggest and fanciest house in the village, a white, two-storey block with a balcony that was decorated with stone doves and bas-reliefs showing ancient chariots. The house’s owner ran his own trekking company, apparently, but also supplied other companies’ customers and guides with refreshments and food when they passed through. I suppose the meal I received there was standard Sri Lankan fare but, with my appetite whetted by hours of trekking, it seemed absolutely delicious.
Because the electrical sockets in the sky camp hadn’t been compatible with our chargers, neither Asela nor I had powered up our phones the night before. We were able to do this in the white house, although it meant hanging around for a while. In the meantime, rain began to bucket down outside. I was at the front doorway, gazing out at the downpour, when suddenly a tuk-tuk came barrelling into the front yard. A diminutive Sri Lankan guy clambered out of the front of the tuk-tuk – not, it transpired, the driver, but another guide. Then the driver got out too. They lifted one of the side-flaps that’d been fastened down against the pounding rain and five Westerners struggled out of the back: a father, mother, teenaged daughter and little boy and girl. So that tuk-tuk had arrived with seven people on board.
Everyone was bedraggled, but especially the two young kids. They were whisked into the house, dried with towels and plied with hot tea. The family were British-Israelis who’d been visiting a waterfall when it started to rain torrentially. They’d been stranded there for a time, until their guide managed to phone and summon an emergency tuk-tuk. They said they were staying tonight in a local campsite, which sounded similar to the one Asela had described to me as our next port-of-call.
The rain finally relented and the family and their guide set off on foot for their campsite. Asela and I departed from the house a quarter-hour later. We followed a path out of the village that took us alongside a river and then through another tea-plantation village – a smaller and decidedly poorer-looking village than the one we’d recently left. By now the rain had resumed and was almost as severe as before. As we tramped past a little shop in the middle of the second village, we glanced through its doorway and saw the British-Israeli family huddled inside, in front of the counter. They looked utterly bedraggled again.
About ten minutes after the second village, we arrived at our campsite. It was part of a conglomeration of recreational facilities in the middle of the mountains – we’d just walked past some fancy wooden chalets and an enclosure with holiday-huts and a garden. Our place consisted of a central dining area, under a big V-shaped roof held up by eight wooden columns embedded in a concrete wall about three feet high – above that wall, there was nothing to block out the wind; a nearby cabin where the campsite staff and guides could prepare food; two family-sized tents contained in big, garden-shed-like huts overlooking a greenish pond that was stocked with carp; and, up a slope, a terrace of four concrete-walled, iron-roofed huts containing four tents that was similar to the arrangement in the sky camp. There was no wi-fi or telephone signal and the only electricity was provided by a generator each evening until about 9.30.
Shortly after we arrived there, while I sat in the dining area with a much-needed cup of hot tea, the British-Israeli family came charging in out of the rain. Their guide ran in with the little girl perched on his shoulders. Their walk from the white house to here had gone badly. The little boy and girl had fallen prey to leeches and when Asela and I had seen them in the village shop, their parents had been buying disinfectant and plasters to apply to their bites. Thank God, I thought, for Dettol.
Later, one of the campsite staff lit a fire in a big brazier at the end of the dining area, just under the edge of the roof so that it wouldn’t be doused by the still-falling rain. I placed my sodden boots and hung my sodden clothes near to it and by the next morning they’d dried out – just about.
That evening, I suffered the only real annoyance of my four days in the Knuckles Mountains – by annoyance, I mean an avoidable, human one, not an unpreventable fact-of-life like bad weather. On the other side of the carp pond was the enclosure with the holiday huts that I mentioned earlier. It was under different ownership from the campsite. Early in the evening, a group of people, mostly men, started playing music loudly over a sound system – warbly, sometimes dance-y Sri Lankan popular songs, latterly accompanied by drunken live singing. It was fully audible in the campsite and was going strong when I ate dinner. It was still going strong at about 10.00, when I decided to call it a night. And it was still thumping away an hour later when I was lying in my tent.
Finally, I checked the time, saw that it was 10.55 and resolved that, if the music continued after 11.00, I would go to that enclosure myself to tell them to shut the f*** up. At 11.01, yes, it was still playing and so I got up, dressed and left the tent. I was halfway across the campsite when I encountered a guide – not Asela, but one who’d accompanied a couple of other tourists staying there – and he tried to talk me out of breenging across and making a scene. “They’re local people,” he explained, “but I am sure they will stop soon.” I pointed out that I, and the campsite’s other guests, had paid good money to have a peaceful sojourn out in Sri Lanka’s remote countryside. Spending the night next door to a disco-from-hell was the last thing we wanted.
In the middle of our discussion, the music cut out. This was probably connected with the approach of a minibus on the road, presumably hired to ferry the revellers home. (The following day was one of Sri Lanka’s monthly, alcohol-free Poya Days, and I wondered if the noise was being made by some arseholes having a blow-out prior to 24 hours of enforced sobriety.) The music didn’t resume after that and so I returned to my tent – my complaint and a potential scene unmade.
The next day, Asela told me that he’d gone across to the enclosure that evening and asked the revellers to turn the music down for the sake of the folk on our campsite. His request wasn’t well received. He was abused for being an upstart ‘Kandy boy’ and one drunkard even challenged him to step outside for a fight. I suddenly felt relieved that I hadn’t breenged across there. Getting involved in a bare-knuckles brawl in the Knuckles Mountains? That wouldn’t have impressed my employers. Nor, indeed, the Sri Lankan police force.
To be continued…