My first two days in the Knuckles Mountains had seen much bad weather – unsurprisingly, since my visit coincided with the middle of Sri Lanka’s rainy season. However, there’d been times during both days when the sun appeared, the air warmed up, the landscape dried out and the views became crystal-clear. I had no such luck on my third day. It was wet, windy and (as my photographs will show) misty throughout.
Asela, my guide, planned to take me to the top of a local mountain. We set off at ten o’clock, walking back along the route we’d followed to the campsite the afternoon before. This meant that after ten minutes we passed through the little tea-plantation village again. Consisting of a few terraces of one-storey stone buildings, whose rusted corrugated-iron roofs often had loose sheets that were weighted down by boulders, blocks and logs, it looked pretty impoverished and represented a side of Sri Lanka that most foreign tourists, cooped up in plush seaside-resort hotels, never see.
But still, it was somebody’s home, and they made the best of it – a fact underlined by the presence of some village kids playing cricket with basic, improvised cricketing equipment in a nearby field. (By this point it was damp and misty, but not raining.)
Asela mentioned that most of the people living here were ‘Hill Tamils’, i.e. descendants of folk whom the British had moved from Tamil Nadu in South India to work in Sri Lanka’s high-altitude tea plantations. A blue-painted statue of the Hindu elephant-god Ganesha standing at the village’s entrance was evidence of this.
A little later, we entered the second – and bigger and richer – tea-plantation village in the area, where we collected packed lunches for the trek ahead. Then Asela led me on a twisting-and-turning route through the village that a couple of times involved us walking along people’s verandas and right past their front doors and windows. We left the village behind us and started up a mountainside. Along the way we passed a herd of goats that, apart from a couple of parakeets, were the only animals we sighted today.
The path we followed underwent several permutations. For a time it was a track of wet sand, pebbles and crystal-y pieces of quartz. Later we passed through a roughly triangular tunnel of bamboo. Then there was an awkward-to-walk-on course of mud, rotted leaves, slimy rocks and many twisting, intermeshing tree-roots. Finally we emerged into an open area that was shrouded with mist and where visibility lasted only a few metres. The ground was covered in sheets of exposed rock separated by seams of grass, moss and muck. I felt I’d suddenly strayed onto Dartmoor in The Hound of the Baskervilles.
As I said, the intention had been to scale one of the local mountains, but now Asela confessed that we were unlikely to see anything from its summit, given today’s weather. So he proposed a change of plans. Plan B was to cut off from this route and visit a couple of waterfalls instead. Apparently, there were four notable waterfalls in the area, which the trekking guides simply called Numbers One, Two, Three and Four. He reckoned we had time to take in two of them: Number Four first, and then Number One.
Getting to Waterfall Number Four involved descending a high, steep riverbank. We went down a helter-skelter of mud and rocks and under a claustrophobically low canopy of branches, creepers and bamboo. It was tough going. For the first time, I felt like I really was in the jungle. When we got to the river, the waterfall was veiled in mist but just about discernible. It made a ghostly but still majestic-looking sight.
We then had to go back up the steep riverbank, which proved even more gruelling than going down it. Scrabbling upwards, but having to crouch all the time so that my head and backpack wouldn’t get caught in the roof of foliage we were passing under, was murder on my knees and back.
We emerged alongside a higher stretch of the same river and walked along it, treading carefully on flat, wet stones next to the gushing water. They were treacherously slippery, but this part of the trek still felt much pleasanter than the punishing ascent we’d just made. When we got to Waterfall Number One, it also proved to be mist-shrouded and mysterious-looking, but more detail was visible than at its predecessor. Short, white, pointed rivulets that resembled shimmering icicles trailed from the cracks, ledges and fissures in the rock behind the waterfall. Meanwhile, the boulders lying below the fall had been so eroded by the constant cascade of water that they looked like a townscape of steep, sharp roofs.
We had lunch sitting on some rocks at the far end of the pool in front of the waterfall. Two other trekking parties were there tucking into lunch when we arrived. We’d already encountered another trekking party up on the misty, Hound of the Baskervilles area so, despite the weather, there was evidently heavy traffic on the trekking routes today.
The climb up the bank from Waterfall Number One was also tough, involving much scrabbling, clutching at jutting rocks and tree-trunks and hauling ourselves upwards. But again, it was preferable to the ascent from the previous waterfall, because this time there wasn’t a low canopy crushing down on us.
Later, our route from Waterfall Number One linked up with the route we’d taken from the second tea-plantation village, so we ended up going back the same way that we’d come. When we arrived in the village again, we stopped off at the big white house where we’d had lunch the day before and ordered some tea. This tea was very necessary in my case – in order to get some of my energy back, I stoked my cup with four or five teaspoons of sugar.
Just as we were about to enter the house, the grey clouds parted overhead and a shaft of brilliant sunshine pierced through. “Aha,” I said to Asela. “Decent weather at last!”
A split-second later, the clouds clamped shut again, the sunshine vanished and it never reappeared during the remainder of the day.
The campsite tonight seemed much quieter because (a) the adjacent enclosure didn’t mount a repeat of the previous night’s song-dance-and-booze party and whoever was staying there went to bed at a civilised hour; and (b) the five-strong British-Israeli family had departed, leaving just me and two other guests staying there. (The family had planned to do another day’s trekking but the two little kids, following their ordeal by leeches the previous day, understandably didn’t fancy that. So their guide got hold of a vehicle and they went off on a ‘safari’ instead. They’d dealt with the previous day’s misfortunes with admirable cheerfulness and good humour, so they deserved to have everything go well for the rest of their Sri Lankan holiday.)
The other remaining guests were a New Zealand couple whose company I really enjoyed. They’d been ravaged by Sri Lanka’s leech population as well. The previous day, when they’d arrived in the camp, the man’s arms had been weirdly covered in splotches of grey and orange. It transpired that he’d suffered a number of leech-bites and, to staunch the bleeding, their guide had tried out a couple of traditional remedies. First, he’d rubbed fragments of burnt paper into the wounds. When the paper-ash hadn’t worked, he’d then rubbed in turmeric powder.
When I say the camp was ‘quiet’, I mean in terms of human activity. However, it certainly wasn’t quiet in terms of the weather. That night the wind generated an epic amount of noise. Sometimes, it made a hurtling, booming noise, as if there was a huge express train going hell-for-leather through the middle of the campsite. At other times, it sounded like the rumble and crash of tumultuous sea-waves – so that although I was inside a tent, I felt like I was on board a little ship pitching about on those waves. Meanwhile, the metal roofs of the campsite’s huts and sheds strained and groaned and clattered so much that there might have been a giant animal scrambling on top of them.
It finally occurred to me to roll up two pieces of toilet paper and use them as earplugs. And with loo-paper inserted in my ears, I got to sleep.
To be continued…