Rising above the historical city of Kandy in central Sri Lanka is a hill that’s home to the Udawattakele Sanctuary. This was once a reserve established by Sri Lanka’s old colonial rulers, the British. Nowadays, it’s a couple of square kilometres of forested parkland that allow walkers and nature-lovers to escape the noise and bustle of the city below. The sanctuary’s two main pathways still hark back to the days of British rule, one being called Lady Horton’s Drive and the other called Lady Gordon’s Road – both ladies were wives of long-ago British governors.
To get access to the sanctuary, you need to head up the Kandy-Jaffna Highway on the north side of Kandy Lake and to the west of the Temple of the Tooth complex. After passing the post office there, you turn left onto Sri Dalada Thapowana Vihara Road and climb that as far as Thapowanaya Temple, where there’s an entrance and a track leading to a murky-looking pond. By the pond’s edge, the lower of the main pathways, Lady Horton’s Drive, sprouts off to the left.
On foot, making your way up to the entrance is something of a hike. But the sense of seclusion, of being removed from the city, which comes when you pass through into the forest makes the effort feel worthwhile. Mind you, for me, that feeling was short-lived. As soon as I started up the steep and remote-seeming Lady Horton’s Drive, I was startled to hear the buzz of an engine ahead of me. Then a Sri Lankan three-wheeler appeared above and came rattling down towards me, swaying precariously from side to side as it navigated the path’s many bumps. I knew those little vehicles were ubiquitous in Sri Lanka, but I hadn’t expected to see one up here.
However, after that, I saw no more vehicles and very few other human beings and I spent my time tramping along the sanctuary’s sandy, leaf-strewn pathways in solitude. Though not in silence. Occasionally, from the forest around me, I heard crackling and rustling noises that suggested old rotten twigs, pieces of branch and clumps of leaves breaking off and falling slowly and softly through the canopy to the ground. A less spooky sound – and a reminder that I still wasn’t far from civilisation – was the sporadic crack of a firework from the city below, where people were celebrating the advent of the Buddhist New Year.
Also, at times, the cicadas were noisy. There was one spot, the junction of Lady Horton’s Drive and Lady Gordon’s Road, where their sound was piercingly shrill. It suggested the screech of an old bus applying its worn-out brakes, but amplified a hundred times.
Green, dense and still damp from the previous day’s rain, the forest looked gorgeous. Though it looked slightly sinister too, thanks to a profusion of weird, corkscrewing woody vines. Frequently, these stretched between the trees on either side of the path and enclosed them in a giant, gnarly truss.
There was a brief downpour near the end of my walk. This didn’t bother me, but I was apprehensive because I’d read in a guidebook that following rain in the sanctuary leeches would emerge in Biblical-plague numbers. Thus, while I made my way back down to the pond, I stopped to inspect myself every other minute in case leeches had suddenly attached themselves to me. I didn’t find anything, though, and I began to suspect the guidebook writer had been exaggerating.
As soon as I returned to the pond, I experienced a phenomenon that I’ve come to think of as a ‘monkey army’. First, a couple of adult monkeys skulked along silently but purposely, like advance scouts. Then a whole clan appeared – more adults, some mothers with monkey-babies, kids, monkey-toddlers. They seemed to emerge out of nowhere, surreptitiously lowering themselves from branches and easing themselves out of the foliage, and suddenly a whole nomadic, simian tribe was on the move around me. A minute later, however, they’d all melted back into the landscape and were out of sight again. I have to say that seeing a monkey army in motion in a Sri Lankan forest is less freaky than having one pass you by on a street in a busy Indian city, which had happened to me in Delhi the previous year.
Once the monkeys were gone, still near the pond, I bumped into a group of people whom I knew from Colombo and who were having a few days’ break in Kandy too. While I was talking to one of them, she stopped in mid-sentence, pointed down and said, “I think there’s a big black beetle sitting on your ankle.” I bent down and discovered that it was actually a leech – a plump one that’d attached itself to the front of my sock, just above the tongue of my shoe. Worse, a second, equally-big leech was fastened in a similar position to the other sock on my other foot. Presumably, the vampiric beasties had got onto me while I was distracted by the spectacle of the monkey army.
Not heeding the old warning that if you pull off a leech you risk breaking it and leaving its head and feeding apparatus embedded in your flesh, I prised away the pair of them. And immediately I saw two red patches spread through the fabric of the socks where those leeches had been clinging. They’d already made contact with my skin and started drinking, and now those drinking-spots were bleeding.
The punctures left by the leeches bled for hours afterwards and I ended up taping swabs of cotton wool over them to try to staunch them. And even two weeks later, I could still see the small, scabbed points where the things had had their hooks in me.