A while back, I found myself with a spare week on my hands and I made a spur-of-the-moment decision to do some hiking in Sri Lanka – or as they call it in this part of the world, ‘trekking’. I decided to get out of Colombo for a few days and explore part of the island’s famous Hill Country on foot. I’d always wanted to do this during the five years I’d lived in Sri Lanka but, somehow, had never got around to it.
Having trekked before in Thailand and Laos, I was surprised at how rarely it was offered as something for tourists to do in Sri Lanka. Most activities advertised here involved making safari-like tours of the country’s wildlife reserves or were sea-based things like surfing, snorkelling and whale-watching. But I found online half-a-dozen locally based holiday companies who offered trekking among their activities and fired off emails to them specifying what I wanted to do, where, for how long and for how much. I have to say I got some propositions back that bore no resemblance to what I’d requested. One company, obviously cutting and pasting information from an international brochure, offered me a four-day trip around central Sri Lanka’s tourist hotspots, staying in top-class hotels, with most of the travelling in between done by train or car and with barely a mention of hiking, all to the tune of 1,300 US dollars.
However, one company, Sri Lanka Trekking, suggested a four-day package in the Knuckles Mountains east of Kandy, Sri Lanka’s second city, for 70 dollars a day. This covered transport, accommodation, food and my own private trekking guide. It was exactly what I’d been looking for and I accepted and headed for Kandy.
Unfortunately, my week’s break took place during Sri Lanka’s rainy season, and it was early on a damp and grey Kandy morning that I was picked up outside my hotel by my guide from Sri Lanka Trekking. He was a young guy called Asela with a tall, lanky build and long hair tucked up in a topknot. He wore a fair amount of bling and a pair of flip-flops, which didn’t look very hiker-ly, although during the next four days he seemed to have zero problems traversing the often-awkward terrain.
We spent the next couple of hours in a yellow tuk-tuk with a Bob-Marley-themed interior (and a driver who looked slightly Rastafarian as well) heading eastwards towards the mountains, making a few stops on the way to pick up provisions like packed lunches and bottles of water. Eventually, Asela and I were dropped off at a grassy track and began walking. Ahead of us was a 12-mile trek to the spot where we’d camp for the night. Initially, the weather was wet and blowy, but after a half-hour, things calmed and the sun appeared. I entertained hopes that the rest of the day would stay pleasant. Futile hopes, as it turned out.
The trek’s first leg took us below the curved, rocky crest of a mountain where, Asela told me, a bushfire had broken out a month earlier. The cliff-face was now a smoky-grey colour while underneath a belt of trees retained their green treetops but had trunks that resembled burnt matchsticks. The ground beneath them was a scorched red-brown. We learned later that the conflagration had been caused by a small fire getting out of hand. It’d been lit by some people trying to smoke out a colony of bees so that they could take the bees’ honey.
Asela also told me that this area was currently roamed by three elephants who a while ago had accidentally ‘migrated’ from a nearby, official ‘elephant zone’. Nobody quite knew where the elephants were and they were said to emerge from the surrounding forest only at night. He showed me evidence of their presence – a wrecked jackfruit tree, whose fruit elephants are partial to, at the side of the track; and a big, flat, pale patch of old elephant poop on the ground. In addition, the farmsteads bordering the track had strands of barbed wire slung along their perimeters. Dangling at intervals from the wire were clusters of empty cans that, if the elephants brushed against them, would clang noisily and hopefully scare the giant trespassers away. The cans included some that’d contained 8.8% proof Lion Strong Beer, possibly powerful enough to stun an elephant.
Near lunchtime, the weather changed again and grey, clammy rain descended. We made our way down a slope with semi-circular terraces of rice paddies carved onto it. The tracts of water, seams of mud between them and sprouting green rice-shoots made the hillside look like an old mirror that’d been smashed and then stuck together again – the water like the slivers of glass, the mud like the lines of glue and the rice-shoots like specks of mould on the glass.
The weather became increasingly cantankerous. We struggled along muddy tracks and up and down treacherous steps, and even tightrope-walked for a while along one of the concrete ridges lining a deep manmade drain, until we finally found a place to eat lunch. This was a tiny farmer’s hut that was no more than a wooden-slatted roof held up by a few posts. The wind blew through it but nonetheless it felt cosy and welcoming after what we’d been exposed to outside.
Similarly, lunch was just a pack of fried rice and chicken but, after the past few hours’ exertions, it tasted delicious.
Afterwards, we emerged onto a stretch of winding concrete-surfaced road. Asela got talking to a girl of 12 or 13 years who was walking a few yards ahead of us and discovered that she knew a short-cut that would save us having to follow a long, monotonous loop in the road ahead. She led us up a rough, steep path to the side, which was basically a course of mud and wet, slippery, vaguely step-like rocks. Armed with an umbrella, the girl pranced in front of us as agilely and daintily as a gazelle. We reached the top of a hill where she lived with her parents in a square, bunker-like farmhouse and were passing the side of the house, about to descend the slope beyond it, when suddenly the rain and wind swelled and became a furious tempest. The girl’s father kindly allowed us to shelter under the porch outside his front door for the tempest’s duration.
Indeed, the father joined us under the porch and spent the next 20 minutes blethering with Asela, while I stared out dumbfoundedly at the storm. Nearby palm trees seemed almost to bend 90 degrees in the middle. The ground in front rapidly became a lake – a green garden-lizard started off sheltering below a bush, then had to shin up the bush to avoid being washed away. A few times the man eyed me bemusedly – by now I looked like I’d just been fished out of a river – no doubt marvelling that foreigners were willing to pay money to be subjected to this.
Finally, the storm abated and the girl offered to lead us the rest of the way along the short-cut, which involved traversing more mud and rocks. Again, she pranced effortlessly ahead with her umbrella. We reached the concreted road and after that it was simply a matter of going up, up, up – till we arrived at the place where we’d spend the night. This was an establishment known as ‘the sky-camp’ and consisted of two terraces of concrete huts with green, V-shaped aluminium roofs, along with a communal dining area, a kitchen, a storeroom and a block with toilets and a shower-room.
Actually, each hut contained a tent – so that you stayed inside a tent that was inside a hut. The huts were open at one end, positioned away from the direction that the wind usually came from, which was also where the tents’ entrance flaps were located. (Asela explained that if the tents had stood alone, they’d soon have been blown away.) The tents’ guy-lines were attached to the huts’ interiors and, with some fiddling and adjusting, could be converted into washing lines for hanging wet clothes.
Mindful that it was the rainy season, I’d made sure when I’d packed my rucksack that everything inside it was enclosed in plastic bags. When I got into the tent I’d been allocated, and unpacked, I discovered that one bag had been ‘compromised’ by the wet. Unfortunately, it was the bag holding my money. I had about forty notes of 20, 50, 100, 500, 1000 and 5000 rupees in it that were now soaking and almost completely stuck to each other. My solution was to carefully peel the notes apart; spread half of them across the bedding inside the tent; lie down on top of them, fully clothed; nap for half-an-hour; and let my body heat dry them out. Then I did the same with the other half of the notes. It worked, sort of. My money looked almost as good as new.
It’d been a day of extremes – moments when I’d felt extremely wet and tired, but other moments when I’d felt extremely happy. There were times when I wondered, “Why am I doing this to myself?”: whilst scrambling up steep, endless-seeming tracks that slithered with mud and oozed with rainwater; or straining my venerable joints as I struggled up or jolted down flights of steps that were basically haphazard arrangements of rocks. And I hated it when the rain got inside my windcheater, and in particular got inside the windcheater’s sleeves – freezing water would pour down from my elbows to wrists whenever I let my arms hang at my sides.
But what was good? Well, after spending so long in the city, it felt great to be out amid nature. When I look at the notes I wrote in my journal that day, I’m pleasantly reminded of all the animals we sighted: ‘a big snail with a pointed, shiny, red-purple shell’; ‘a golden-headed fowl, off to the side of the path among some bushes’; ‘butterflies swooping majestically about a pool’; ‘a furtive freshwater crab extending its claws from under the edge of a rock’; ‘a green tree-snake’; ‘a water buffalo, tethered halfway up a slope of terraced paddies’; ‘a bright blue kingfisher taking off from a tree’; ‘a couple of strange, black-winged storks’; and ‘a male peacock dragging his glossy plumage across the bottom of a slope’.
Also, by the time I reached the sky-camp, the weather had cleared and I was allowed a glorious view of the countryside through which and up which I’d just trekked. The camp was high on a mountainside and overlooked a mostly forested valley, whose far side rose and twisted up to brownish-green peaks. I felt so elated that my first action was to stand in front of this view and do something that I very, very rarely do, which was take a selfie.
However, drenched in sweat and plastered with Knuckles Mountains dirt and muck, I looked ghastly in the selfie, so I’ll spare you the horror and not post it here in this blog-entry. Enjoy this shot of a nice water buffalo instead.
To be continued…