The weather had been less than splendid during my first three days in Sri Lanka’s Knuckles Mountains. Would my fourth and final day see some improvement? It did. The sun made a welcome appearance. This was fortuitous because this morning was the first time I started trekking in clothes and boots still damp from the day before. Only three guests had stayed at the campsite the previous night, the staff hadn’t bothered to light a fire and I hadn’t had any way of drying them out. But dry out they did in the morning sunshine, after I’d trudged uncomfortably in them for a short time.
My guide, Asela, kept apologising about the bad weather we’d put up with during this trek. He maintained that the conditions a month earlier, before the rainy season started, had been brilliant. Unfortunately, back then, Sri Lanka’s tourism industry was still reeling from the impact of the Easter Sunday bombings and there’d hardly been any visitors to go trekking.
First, we went through the nearer of the two tea-plantation villages in the vicinity. Rather than continue along the path to the second village, however, we took a sudden turning that led into the tea plantation itself. At one point, we went up behind some sort of plantation-related building with a big, steep-sided roof, which resembled a Victorian warehouse and was presumably another lingering trace of British rule. Later, crossing a plantation slope, we passed a half-dozen white goats as they roamed amid the shrubbery. Goats are allowed to wander there, Asela explained, because they don’t care for the taste of the valuable tea-plants.
Then we traversed a forest. Asela sometimes takes tourists on birdwatching tours and often during our trek he spotted distant specimens of wildlife that otherwise I’d have walked past without seeing. He was also extremely knowledgeable when he talked about them. In the forest’s undergrowth he pointed out a horned (male) ‘barking deer’, named because of the noise it makes when something frightens it. He also showed me an example of Sri Lanka’s indigenous brown squirrels. These are very different from the grey palm squirrels that are ubiquitous in the cities and towns and, indeed, in any place inhabited by humans – I’d seen several of them scuttling around the campsites in recent days, but they shun the unpopulated forests.
We emerged into an area by a river where attempts had been made to build another accommodation / recreational complex. Some fancy timber holiday cabins stood up on a bank, while nearby an empty concrete water-slide ran down a slope and ended at the bottom with a worryingly small and shallow-looking concrete pool. (Surely, I thought, you could bash your head in or break a leg if you went whizzing into that pool too fast?) From there we walked for a time alongside the river, which was actually down in a small gorge, its course clogged with boulders.
As we walked in the direction of Kandy and out of the Knuckles Mountains, our path gradually descended. This made for a fairly easy trek and it felt like compensation for the previous day, which had contained some stretches that I’d found hardcore.
Surrounded by tall, deciduous forest, we saw more wildlife. At one spot, the path passed between two trees where two varieties of stinging insects lived as neighbours. One tree had a big hornets’ nest, shaped like a rugby ball, suspended from a branch while the other was home to a sagging, faintly V-shaped wasps’ nest. We spotted another barking deer, this time a non-horned female. And Asela identified a bird called a ‘hanging parrot’. As if to meet our expectations, the hanging parrot promptly hung itself upside-down from its tree-branch so that it could peck at a dangling blossom. The hanging parrot, incidentally, is the green-winged, orange-headed bird that’s pictured on the Sri Lankan 1000 rupee note.
The path took us past the site of what had been a former coffee – as opposed to tea – plantation. It also took us to the scene of a recent landslide, where the way was blocked by the mingled wreckage of two trees that’d toppled off the slope above. One tree lay on top of the other and we had to climb over them. The upper tree-trunk seesawed alarmingly when I put my weight on it. Meanwhile, a gorgeous view gradually unfolded ahead. Our route wound down between spurs of steep, wooded mountainside and the sky was, for the first time in four days, a clear, almost cloudless blue.
We stopped for a breather on top of a giant boulder overlooking the ever-descending path. In the foliage surrounding the boulder, we saw a water buffalo, which Asela said was a ‘wild’ one – I’m not sure if it was deemed ‘wild’ because there are herds of untamed water buffalo roaming loose in the Knuckles Mountains or because it just happened to be untethered. Meanwhile, as we sat there, two different trekking parties came up the path, in the opposite direction that we were heading, and joined us for a few minutes. We’d already encountered a party before the giant boulder and would meet another one a short way after it. The route, apparently, is commonly used for one-day treks. The trekkers are driven out of Kandy, get dropped off at a place ahead that’d be our eventual destination today, hike up the path, and are picked up again at the site of the holiday cabins and concrete water-slide.
The final trekking party we met were a five-strong French family and their guide. All the French people wore anti-leech socks, tightly fastened, encasing their legs up past their knees. (They reminded me a little of King George IV during his famous visit to Scotland in 1822, wherein the obese monarch wore a kilt, but with grotesque flesh-coloured tights covering his legs under it.) I was tempted to play devil’s advocate and ask, as Asela had asked three days before, what they would do when the leeches climbed to the top of their socks and then moved onto their thighs. But, diplomatically, I kept my mouth shut.
Then we came to a bridge across a gorge, consisting of three steel girders spanning the chasm and a layer of wooden planks placed across the girders. Asela warned me to walk only on the parts of the planks that had solid steel underneath them. This was wise – as I crossed the bridge, I realised how flimsy those planks looked and wondered if they’d have supported my weight by themselves. After the bridge, the landscape became more domesticated and we walked past rice-paddy terraces and small farming settlements. For a time, a labyrinth of paths – some earthen, some concreted over – and stone steps took along the backs and down the sides of people’s houses. We also went down flights of concrete steps next to a terraced slope where some of the terraces hadn’t been planted on and had been left fallow, due to the wretchedness of the recent weather.
Finally, we arrived at a villa with a pleasantly shady veranda – the sun was quite strong now – where we ate a mid-afternoon lunch. The villa was also the end-point for my four days of Knuckles Mountains trekking. Parked nearby was a pick-up, ready to shuttle me back to Kandy. The driver was none other than Ravi, one of the leading lights in the Sri Lanka Trekking company with whom I’d booked this expedition.
When we got back to the hotel in Kandy where I’d spend the next night, I settled my bill with Ravi and made sure Asela was tipped for his excellent work as my guide – as well as being observant and knowledgeable, he’d been a very affable companion during those four days. “Here’s some hanging parrots,” I said as I passed him the money.
I realise that in my blog posts about this trip, I’ve written a lot about the inclement rainy-season weather and about how some parts of the treks were tough going. But overall, I finished those four days feeling invigorated and inspired. I’d been able to do something that I really enjoy, hiking, that unfortunately I don’t have much opportunity to do nowadays. I’d also been able to see a part of Sri Lanka, the wild, natural part of it, that I also don’t have much opportunity to see – having got into the habit of going to historical attractions and beaches that are usually swarming with visitors. So, if you’re in Sri Lanka and you fancy exploring its remote mountains, why not drop Sri Lanka Trekking a line? They provide an excellent service, and with the Easter Sunday bombings still sending a chill through the local tourism industry, I’m sure they’d be grateful for your custom.
And while we’re on the topic of recommendations, I suppose I should give a shout-out to the Dettol company, whose disinfectant I applied to my feet and legs before setting off every morning in an effort to make my flesh unpalatable to the Knuckles Mountains’ leech population. While other trekkers I met were having a terrible time with the little bastards, I remained unmolested by them. Dettol may not make everyone’s skin leech-proof, but it certainly seemed to do the trick for mine.