Where fancy comes alive

“Hello?” said the dignified voice of a lady, and immediately I had a strong hunch that Helga De Silva Blow Perera herself was on the other end of the phone.

“Hi! I was just wondering if you could tell me how to get to Helga’s Folly. I’m driving by the Kandy Lake right now,” I said.

“Oh, keep driving until you pass by the Maha Maya School and then take a right turn down Maha Maya road. You’ll soon come to a sign that will point you in the right direction.” I couldn’t help noting the exalted tone of voice, the perfectly articulated syllables and the slightly lopsided pronunciation of ‘Maha Maya’.

“Thanks very much. We’re just on our way to visit the hotel,” I said.

“And will you be staying with us?” That immaculately vocalized Queen’s English again, which I was really beginning to admire.

“No, we hoped we could have an early dinner and then look around the hotel. May I know who I’m speaking with?” I asked, so that I could finally put my suspicions to rest.

“This is Helga,” she said, “I think your call may have been transferred to me by accident.” She was right. I had asked the man who answered the phone for directions to the hotel and he promptly put me through to Helga, possibly because he misunderstood me. I was surprised to be put through to her with such alacrity, but this is the sort of place that Helga’s Folly is. The ‘anti-hotel’, as Helga likes to call it, is unlike any traditional stopover for holiday-makers. From the outrageous character of the building and the delectable food, right down to the warmth and graciousness of its proprietor, I think it’s safe to say there is no other place on earth like Helga’s Folly. The lady could have easily asked someone else to give me the information I wanted, which is why I was touched that she chose to talk to me herself.

Before ringing off she said, “I do hope you enjoy the house,” and I thanked her for sharing her home with us because essentially, this is what Helga does. And it seems she’s not only offered her home to visitors, but also her empathy. Several heartfelt notes and drawings left in the hotel’s hefty guestbooks bear evidence of this.

The reception – the walls here are covered with news clippings about Helga, her extraordinary family and her home

Simply to enter Helga’s Folly is an experience on its own. It’s the kind of place that you either love or hate. There isn’t a possibility here for a lukewarm response. The bold colours and psychedelic murals on the walls can seem either creative or kitschy. The jagged strands of paralyzed wax dripping from the candelabra and the shadowy corners caused by muted lighting can be either intriguing or alarming. Various styles of antique furniture, low hanging chandeliers, porcelain urns, wooden busts, ornately framed mirrors and countless other objects can make you feel either hemmed in by paraphernalia or embraced by entities with stories to tell. We thought it was creative, we were intrigued and we were certainly enchanted by the stories. We loved it.

A mirror magnifies the spirit of the hotel

One of the sitting rooms

I think my favourite quality about Helga’s Folly is that it is highly conducive to escapist fancies and ridiculous imaginings. If you’ve got the tiniest smattering of whimsy about you, you’ll catch yourself indulging in wild fantasies and daydreams, if not out loud then at least in the secrecy of your mind. We found we couldn’t help picturing ourselves in the most eccentric circumstances – eccentric, but still with a sense of childlike fun. Sipping deliciously aromatic cardamom tea, poured out of an antique teapot, I felt like a Mughal princess being waited on hand and foot.

Fragrant cardamom tea served out of an antique teapot. Guestbooks spilling over with notes and drawings sit in the background.

We dined on the balcony on spaghetti drenched with masses of soft, chewy cheese and zesty garlic, ginger and chilli. With my golden (okay, it was brass) cutlery and silver (come on, let me have just this one) goblet, I was a queen surveying my vast and prosperous domain. Mind you, that included the Kandy Lake and the Temple of the Tooth. Dining beside me, my friend was indulging in his own, more sinister fabrications. Silver goblet in hand, he had morphed into the Sheriff of Nottingham and was plotting his most devious scheme yet to ensnare the ever-elusive Robin Hood. Ardent fan of Robin Hood, his band of outlaws and their daring escapades as I am, I just wasn’t feeling any Maid Marion vibes.

Our thoughts did converge on one far-fetched delusion, though. As darkness fell and ancient chandeliers threw crooked shadows across walls brought to life by colonies of bats, we couldn’t help thinking what a fitting abode this would be for elements of the undead. It would have made perfect sense to run into a vampire or two, complete with Dracula-esque opera capes and high collars. By this time our enjoyment of the hotel had hit delirious levels and I was giggling unabashedly when I said, “Good thing there was a bit of garlic in our dinner!”

Bats!

From the top of the staircase

The muted lighting creates fanciful shadows after dusk

As fun and playful as our experience at Helga’s Folly was, many other guests have been moved by the hotel in a far more profound manner. Several of the murals adorning the walls and ceilings are the work of guests themselves. Undergoing various hardships in their lives, the artistic expression had a healing effect on them. Helga herself began decorating the house to recover from a painful divorce. It is this therapeutic effect of painting that she extends to guests when she suggests they put brush to the walls of her home.

An emerald green room fit for an enchantress

Light and colour distort in a mirror

Until I had spoken to Helga and experienced her graciousness, I must say I was somewhat daunted by the photographs I’d seen of her. Her rather exceptional sense of style – a quixotic headpiece featuring a large black feather, a batwing shaped high collar on a jacket coupled with a saree, heavily framed spectacles and statement jewellery – made me feel it would be difficult to relate to her. But her courteousness immediately put me at ease and our brief conversation was effortless. I suppose in a sense she’s a lot like the house she designed – once you get over the initial shock, you start feeling right at home.

© The Magic-Bean Trippers
Prior written consent of the authors must be obtained to reproduce, copy, modify or adapt any part of this blog or any of its contents.
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Batik chic

Bold prints, elegant colours and trendy designs worthy of appearing on high fashion runways were hardly what we expected when we first heard of Chinthaka Rathnayake and his little batik workshop and store. That’s exactly what we found though at Kandurata Batiks, tucked away in a quiet suburb on the outskirts of Kandy. While it was a relief to get away from the tightly packed flurry that is the Kandy city, Chinthaka’s friendly welcome that included milk toffee and tea was cheering. Laid-back and relaxed, we found he was easy to talk to, as he good-naturedly poked fun at us for going round in circles before finally arriving at his store (Kandy has a knack for doing this to us!).

The display area of Kandurata Batiks is a riot of colours and designs and I found the urge to launch myself into the tangle of colours irresistible. As I browsed through the shelves and clothes-hangers neatly arranged with an array of garments including shawls, dresses, tops, t-shirts, bandanas, beach wraps and sarongs, I had to keep reigning in my shopaholic tendencies by reminding myself that I am currently trying to travel the whole country on a shoe-string budget. So attractive was the batik on each of the pieces.

Tangles of colours and designs at Kandurata Batiks

What I found most captivating is that Chinthaka and his team had managed to infuse a modern, youthful energy into the age-old art of batik. While some of the designs on bed spreads, bed runners, pillow cases and cushion covers were certainly traditional, new designs had been created to adorn garments like beach wraps and bandanas. A group of turtles stared out of a beach wrap and a fiery sun shone forth from a yellow bandana. In other instances, designs with a traditional feel had been applied to contemporary outfits like dresses and t-shirts. One of the dresses that caught my eye was a pale pink with a little batik motif by the hem; it struck me as almost Boho-chic.

Beach wraps adorned with contemporary, sometimes whimsical, designs

A collection of bandanas create a riot of colour

A bedspread with more traditional designs

In addition to the casual outfits, there were also several formal pieces. The satin and silk fabrics used for a collection of blouses and kurthas gave the batik designs a grand lustre. Even chiffon shawls and pashminas had been brightened up with batik. In fact, there seemed to be no fabric that Chinthaka had not adorned with batik; a couple of earth-toned shawls were – I was surprised to find – woven out of pineapple fibre.

Cheery chiffon shawls

Even Pashmina shawls sport batik

A shawl spun out of pineapple fibre. Beneath it is a roll of the same type of fabric before being embellished with batik.

Having begun his career as a model working in Qatar and Malaysia, Chinthaka has always had a passion for art and design. This is what led him to study Designing with Natural Dyes in Hyderabad and soon after, he came back home to set up Kandurata Batiks. It has only been six years since its inception, but the store houses a wide range of painstakingly made batik products, for which Chinthaka has already won acclaim. In 2011 he secured first place at the Kuala Lumpur International Batik Convention and was awarded as the Best Entrepreneur of the Central Province of Sri Lanka the same year. More recently, Chinthaka won Gold and Silver for two of his creations at Shilpa 2012.

Each design at the store is one-of-a-kind and hand made with only natural dyes – as we found in Chinthika’s workshop. Always open for curious customers to take a peek, the workshop had a distinctly waxy smell about it. When we entered, two ladies were using melted wax to paint floral designs on cotton fabric. Their dextrous strokes conveyed the meticulous nature of the work they were doing. They never used blocks, meaning every design is hand-painted and unique. Draped on chairs, tables, racks and basically every available surface were garments and fabrics, stiff with wax and ready to be immersed in dye.

Intricate work

Each of the pieces is entirely hand-made

After the wax is painstakingly applied, the garments are ready to be dipped in natural dye

The brownish areas of the fabric have been coated with wax

Wax is one of the fundamental elements that go into the creation of beautiful batik designs. Melted wax – Chinthaka uses a mixture of mostly paraffin wax with a small quantity of bee’s wax – is applied to the area of the design that must be left colourless. Once it has dried, it is immersed in a natural dye bath, which stains the exposed area of the fabric. It is the cracks in the wax that allow bits of dye to seep in and create the intricate lines that I love about batik. Thereafter, more colours can be added to create more complex designs by waxing and dying as many times as required. After the fabric has absorbed the dye, the wax is removed by heating the wax and scraping or sponging it off. Finally, the fabric with the completed design is treated with a mordant, which intensifies the stains caused by the natural dyes.

A mixture of white paraffin wax and golden bee’s wax is used to seal off the area of the design that must be left colourless. The wax is often reused, which is why the chunk of wax on the left has taken on a brownish colour.

The dyes used to create the batik designs

Creating the designs is a collaborative effort between Chinthaka and an artist, employed especially for this task. Chinthaka finds inspiration for his creations in objects as diverse as Palampore – an ancient variety of Indian bedspread created for royalty during the 18th century – and the diamond shaped mould used to make aluwa, a traditional Sri Lankan sweet. Chinthaka had created his own batik version of the Palampore for the World Batik Council show in Kuala Lumpur in December 2011. Flipping through photographs of models wearing his designs at the Kuala Lumpur International Batik Convention, I was surprised by the contemporary vibe radiating from the dress sporting the designs sparked by a humble aluwa mould.

A painting of the Kandy Perahera by Chinthaka’s talented artist

One of the designs inspired by an aluwa mould

Chinthaka’s travels through South Asia, the cradle of the art of batik, also bring him into contact with many a muse. In Laos he found an elaborately designed antique piece of cloth, which he was able to acquire. Much of the fabric and other raw materials are sourced during his travels to this part of the world, especially Malaysia, Thailand, India, Singapore and Laos. The material woven out of pineapple fibre is from the Philippines.

The elaborately designed antique

Just as we were leaving, Uncle Tony, who manages the store for Chinthaka, pulled out an inconspicuous wrap, hidden away in a corner among several flamboyantly patterned pieces. “I have to especially show you this one,” he said. “It was entirely designed and created by Chinthaka.”

Designed and created entirely by Chinthaka

A closer look of the beach wrap designed and created entirely by Chinthaka

Taking a closer look at the pretty wrap, I found the colours chosen were simple and unassuming; the wrap was an understated beige with slightly darker brown patterns adorning it. At the same time the turtle designs lent it a trendy and artistic tone, the sort of work executed by someone with impeccable taste. The wrap reminded me of the dynamic, young proprietor of Kandurata Batiks; it seemed a reflection of the personality of its maker.

You can visit Chinthaka’s store and workshop at 17/30, New Housing Scheme, Thiwanka Bodhi Mawatha, Kandy, Sri Lanka. Or call him on + 94 812 234 140 or +94 773 286 402

© The Magic-Bean Trippers
Prior written consent of the authors must be obtained to reproduce, copy, modify or adapt any part of this blog or any of its contents.

Of lotuses, elephants and dragonflies

Energized and elated by our brilliant experience on the Sorabora Lake, we piled into the car eagerly anticipating our next escapade. Our destination was the little village of Hasalaka, from where we would trek to Rathna Falls, one of the widest waterfalls in Sri Lanka. As our route took us through Mahiyanganaya however, we decided to make a stop at the Mahiyanganaya Rajamaha Viharaya, revered as the location of the Buddha’s first visit to Sri Lanka and also the site of the first dagoba ever to be built in the country.

As we bought two bunches of soft pink lotuses at the entrance to the Buddhist Temple, I drank in their subtle scent, which always reminds me of a large, serene body of water. It was almost as if the flowers held strong memories of their place of origin, and whenever I inhaled their fragrance they would tell me a wordless tale of their home. So evocative is their story, that an irrational desire grips me; the desire to drop everything at hand and go and see their place of birth. Unfortunately, I’ve been able to subdue the desire each time it has arisen.

Long-stemmed lotuses in hand, we passed by an adolescent elephant (he was 17) who seemed quite the rambunctious sort. Drawn to young Isuru by his playfulness, we decided to pay him a visit before we left.

A crowd of white-clad devotees had gathered around one of the little buildings of the temple. They thronged the stairway that led into the main chamber. We had arrived only ten minutes before the morning pooja (similar to a service) ended. The chamber is only open when a pooja is in progress, so we were fortunate enough to enter and see the golden casket that held several sacred relics of the Buddha. We placed a few of the lotuses by the casket, which is much like the one holding the Tooth Relic of the Buddha at the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy.

Devotees leave after the pooja

At the Image House of the temple, a statue of the meditating Buddha was placed before a table of lotuses and water lilies left in offering. I laid down a few more of my pink, fragrant friends and took a step back to gaze at the paintings on the walls. They depicted the story of the Buddha’s visit to Mahiyanganaya and the events that followed. I was able to get an inkling of the story, but as the narration under the murals was in very formal Sinhala, I didn’t understand all of it.

Finally, we made our way to the historic dagoba. Bathed in mid-morning sunlight, its brilliant-white exterior and perfectly symmetrical, bell-shaped form was an impressive sight. This was believed to be the site of the Buddha’s visit nine months after he had attained Enlightenment more than 2500 years ago. This dagoba is believed to have been built by God Saman, one of the four guardian deities of the country, and enshrined in it are two sacred relics of the Buddha: strands of his hair and his clavicle.

The brilliant white dagoba, thought to be the site of the Buddha’s first visit to Sri Lanka and the site of the first dagoba in the country

When we had offered up the last of our lotuses at a small statue of the Buddha placed by the dagoba, we still didn’t have all the pieces of the history of this special place. So we started to seek out someone who could fill up the gaps in the tale. When it comes to history and folklore it’s probably best to approach the elderly and that’s exactly what we did. He was a friendly old man with hardly any teeth. Although it was difficult to understand him, we were able to gather together the fragments of the story once we had politely asked him to repeat several times over.

Foreseeing that Sri Lanka would be a land where Buddhism would thrive for centuries, the Buddha had decided to visit Mahiyanganaya and convey a sermon to the four indigenous tribes living on the island. Saman, a chieftain of one of the tribes, was so inspired by what he had heard that he attained a higher state of spiritual being called Sovan. Later on, he came to be known as God Saman. Granting the request of Saman, the Buddha offered some strands of his hair, which Saman enshrined in a ten-foot tall dagoba built in the very location that the present day dagoba stands. While this was the first dagoba in Sri Lanka, it was built during the lifetime of the Buddha. Forty five years later, upon the death of the Buddha in India in 543 BC, Arahat Sarabhu Maha Thera retrieved the left clavicle of the Buddha and brought it to Mahiyanganaya, where it was also enshrined in the dagoba that Saman had built. In the years to come, several kings, including King Dutugemunu, renovated and enlarged the original dagoba and now it stands more than a hundred feet tall.

On our way out of the temple, we saw Isuru by the Saman Devale (a shrine dedicated to God Saman). He was still impatiently swaying and his naughty antics had drawn a crowd of enchanted children and amused adults. All Isuru could think about, it appeared, was food. Already several people had fed him little snacks of bananas, pineapples and other fruits. But the insatiable Isuru kept reaching out and searching people with his trunk.

I took a seat on a little log by him so that I could watch his childlike mischief. One of my friends suggested we buy him some annasi, or pineapple, and at the mention of the word Isuru turned around, started to lean towards us and reach out with his trunk. Someone once told me that teenage boys are just gigantic appetites with skin wrapped around them; Isuru certainly seemed to fit the bill! I laughed at his eagerness and reached out to him with my hand, which he held in his trunk only for a split second. As soon as he realized there was no food there, he let go and went searching elsewhere. He must’ve had a cold, because he left my hand wet with snot!

Snotty-nosed Isuru

For all his impishness, Isuru was actually a good elephant. As soon as his mahout gave him the order, he stood absolutely still. A mother had handed over her baby to the mahout, who – with the baby in his arms – began walking under Isuru’s great belly a few times. There is a belief that the cure for being startled awake by nightmares is to walk under an elephant. Wrapped up in her soft quilt and sleeping soundly, it looked like the walk under Isuru’s belly had already started working its magic for the baby. So if you ever meet Isuru, don’t take his ridiculous behaviour at face value; he’s got some serious powers.

The drive to Hasalaka took us through lime-green paddy fields and the rising temperature lulled us almost into a happy stupor. That is, until it was time to get out of the comfy car and trek through the humid jungle! The little village was charming with its narrow lanes, stretches of paddy and surrounding forest.

By this time I had started to feel the exhaustion from a sleepless night inside a lurching tent catching up with me. Fortunately, the walk to the falls, although long, was easy. There was a bit of an uphill climb in the beginning, during which we passed by rice fields set out in steps on the side of the hill. Some were green with tender rice shoots and others were still messy with mud. A totally nonchalant herd of tame buffalo sat in one of the muddy sections, chewing absently and persistently staring at us as we passed by, which was a little disconcerting for us.

At the end of the relatively steep climb we were met by a narrow canal that channelled water from the river that the Rathna Falls flowed into. Its shallow bed was pebble strewn and its clear ripples exuded a promise of refreshing coolness. For the remainder of our walk we followed the little canal along a trail that led gently uphill, which meant there were many times when I was tempted to step into the little stream to continue my walk; so sultry was the afternoon. But I managed to resist and stay on the narrow concrete ledge that rimmed the canal.

The rim of the canal sometimes led us over large boulders like this one

The walk was fabulously laid-back. We kept up an easy pace so the climb was almost effortless. To our right the canal gurgled at the foot of a steep hill and on our left the jungle-clad incline continued downhill. Soon enough there was a clearing in the thick forest that looked down into a valley of rice fields, and beyond, cascading down coal grey rocks, was a glimpse of the Rathna Falls. Even at this distance the falls appeared striking as it spilled down in frothy layers and disappeared behind a field of rice.

A view of Rathna Falls from a distance

The falls disappears behind lime-green paddy fields

A short walk after our brief sight of the falls brought us to the bank of the river. Following some embarrassingly klutzy acrobatics that got us from the edge of the canal to the rocky bank of the river, we stopped a while to take in our surroundings. The jungle was thick on either side of the river and much of the rocky riverbed was exposed due to the delayed monsoon. Having had an endless stream of water slide over it for millennia, the rock had been indented with large grooves and crevices. Wherever there was enough water flowing, the gaps and crannies filled up to make shallow pools of invigorating, cold water. As tempting as it was to immerse ourselves in one of the pools we decided to continue to the waterfall and then give ourselves the reward.

The walk to the falls from this point was a little challenging. Given the thick forest on the banks of the river, the best way to proceed was along the middle of the river. The trick was to negotiate a path through the labyrinth of boulders and pools of water along the way. I had to use my hands, my feet, my knees and my bum to make any kind of progress through that boulder-strewn riverbed. By this time I had changed into swimmies and shorts because an ill-placed foot could easily have landed me in one of the pools. Needless to say, grace had completely abandoned me. But hey, I scored high on perseverance.

The boulder-strewn riverbed

Figuring out my way past a pool of water

The clear, fresh water spills over rocks on its way downstream

A knarled old tree trunk seems to fuse with one of the boulders

After scrambling up a particularly hefty rock, we found a large, calm pool of water into which the Rathna Falls poured. Thankfully, from this point onwards there was a bit of riverbank to walk on; the pool was much too deep for inept swimmers like myself. My feet sank a little in the spongey-soft soil as I waded in, all ready to sit inert and neck-deep in water for the next hour or so. But no, my trigger-happy photographer friend wanted to climb up the vertical cliff down which the falls tumbled, to get the best pictures possible.

The Rathna Falls: this was the view I was treated to when I could finally sit still in the water

So for the next 20 minutes or so I did a bit of unskilled, although very cautious, rock climbing. We found ourselves right next to a gushing torrent of water that fell over the rocks below and ended up in the round pool. It was exhilarating to be so close to the surging water. But this wasn’t the summit of the waterfall and there was no approach we could see that would lead us there from where we were. We climbed back down so my friend could find another way up. I decided to wallow in the shallow water until he came back.

My view after I’d done a bit of rock climbing

Little rivulets of water surge out to create the wide Rathna Falls

What my friend saw when he went climbing up the hill

So mad at myself that I didn’t go with him!

Jealous!

He had a spectacular view down river

I found the perfect spot, where I could rest my head on a conveniently placed rock and gaze up at the falls. It seemed the water had the same relaxing effect on the fish. Tiny schools of them appeared to sit almost perfectly still next to me; they looked as lazy as I felt. Sunning herself on the rock by me was a pretty, brown dragonfly. I sat with my newfound friends and we all watched the incessantly falling water in front of us. A little while later I started to feel cold so I hopped up onto the rock next to the dragonfly. As I folded my legs under me, I was afraid I would scare the dainty creature, now so close to me. But I was happily surprised to find she didn’t flutter a wing. So I settled down to enjoy the sun and admire the dragonfly’s delicate beauty. Occasionally, I would see the miniature figure of my human friend on the hill before me, sometimes making his way up the rock and disappearing behind trees, sometimes waving down at me.

My dainty little friend

As fast-paced and hectic as this journey has been for us, it has also paved the way to the rarest of nature’s treasures that inspire wonder and peace. Rathna Falls was one of those special places; a little bit of a challenge to reach, but once there we felt entirely enveloped by the magic of being alone with nature. So when it was time to leave I went with the happy anticipation of more rare experiences ahead of me.

© The Magic-Bean Trippers
Prior written consent of the authors must be obtained to reproduce, copy, modify or adapt any part of this blog or any of its contents.

Shifting Shades on the Sorabora

I woke up with a jolt. The surface of my little tent was thrashing against me, entirely at the mercy of the bellowing wind. Outside, I could hear the trees being buffeted and the saucepans from our campsite dinner being hurled around and lashed against the rocky ground. The tent was fluttering around me so violently that there were moments I felt certain it would be blown away. In fact, Nishantha, our guide, and Pokutu Aiya, who ran the campsite, came rushing up to the water’s edge several times during the night to make sure everything (tents and rafts) was still tethered securely to the bank.

When I first learned it was possible to spend a night in a tent hitched up on a raft gently bobbing by the shore of the Sorabora Weva (Lake), about 2 kilometres from Mahiyanganaya, the last thing I had imagined was a sleepless night inside a delicate tent that the wind had set its mind on hurling this way and that. Instead, I pictured gentle breezes across the moonlit surface of the water and the raft softly rocking us to sleep in the tent. And, from the time we got to the Weva until we were snuggled up in our tents for the night, there was never a reason to think otherwise.

It was late afternoon when we arrived at the Weva. The sun was still warm on my skin, the sky a fine blue and the clouds were billowy white puffs. Passing by the hefty stone sluice gate of the Weva, it was plain to see that an awesome effort had been put into the creation of this reservoir. Great chunks of solid rock had been hewn asunder to create both sluice-gates. I could understand why it is believed that a giant had crafted the lake; it seemed beyond the capabilities of ordinary human beings.

I was familiar with the story of how Bulatha, the giant, had constructed the lake during the reign of King Dutugemunu in 162 BC. The giant’s duty was to ensure the king had a regular supply of bulath, or betel leaves; hence, his name. Bulatha made frequent walks past a river that he saw was not being made any use of. That was when he decided to harness the water to create a lake. Once complete, he presented the lake to King Dutugemunu, who was very happy with the giant’s work.

That’s why I was surprised when I heard Pokutu Aiya’s version of how the lake had got its name. Apparently, instead of being happy, the king was resentful of Bulatha’s great accomplishment, beheaded him and disposed of his body in the very lake that he had built. The deed was done in secrecy, the Sinhala word for which is hora; and the blood of Bulatha was believed to have turned the water murky, or bora. So the lake came to be known as Horabora and over time it changed to Sorabora, said Pokutu Aiya. As grim and full of intrigue as this variation of the tale was, we were a rapt audience as he related the story.

Evening was closing in by the time we stepped aboard the raft that would take us to the other side of the Weva, where our campsite had been set up by Pokutu Aiya. It was a lovely time to be on the water. Twilight cast a mellow glow over the fishing boats, the glassy water and the hills surrounding the lake. We dipped our feet in the cool water as the boat glided over to the far bank.

The sights that surrounded us as we rowed over the lake. Twilight had begun to incessantly change the colours of the sky.

Our campsite was basic but wonderfully cosy. Mats had been spread out on an elevated rock floor. On one side a campfire was set up, on the other the jungle loomed and before us was the Weva, darkening under a colour-changing sky. We stepped into the lake for a bath at precisely this time and were treated to a rapidly shifting series of works of art on the canvas of the sky. Soon it grew dark and the display was over. Hurriedly finishing our bathing, we went back to the campsite where a raging fire was going and a few fiery torches surrounded the space.

The view from our campsite

Our bathing spot

The evening stretched out lazily ahead of us and we didn’t do much other than chat, laugh a lot, eat a load of barbecued fish, caught fresh from the lake, and lie around gazing at the star-filled sky. After we had stuffed ourselves close to bursting with fish, Pokutu Aiya let us know that this was just a snack; our proper dinner was on the way. Then he continued to barbecue more fish! Needless to say, after a delicious dinner of rice, chicken curry, boiled manioc and dhal on top of all the fish – oh, and vela (ripe jackfruit) for dessert – we were happy as clams and were content to do more lying around and staring at the sky.

Fiery torches light up the campsite

Pokutu Aiya by the campfire

Enjoying doing nothing

Campfire

Lake fish being barbecued

Trying to illuminate our food!

As soon as the tents were painstakingly set up by Pokutu Aiya and his son, we were more than happy to turn in. All that eating had tired us out. Besides, to catch the sunrise, which is supposed to be a magnificent spectacle over the lake, we would have to be up by 5.30 at least. Little did we know that we wouldn’t get much sleep that night. Stepping on the raft and crawling into our tents, we found the inside was a happy surprise. It was soft and snug with mattresses, pillows and blankets. But as the night was warm, we decided to leave the flaps open to let in the cool, gentle breeze.

I lay down, perfectly comfortable, and stayed awake for a little while, enjoying the gentle rocking of the boat and the silvery light of a starry sky streaming into the tent through the little net-covered square in the roof. Lower in the sky, through the flimsy material of the tent, I could make out a grey-blue splodge of light. I knew this was the half-moon, slowly rising in the sky.

I may have fallen asleep then, because the next thing I remember was being jolted awake by the fiercely swaying tent and the roaring of the wind. From that point onwards I remember hoping we would get through the night safely. I remember spending most of the night trying to sleep. I remember being startled awake several times over until, close to morning, I gave up trying to sleep. Oh well, at least the mini hurricane had kept the mosquitoes away.

Around 4 o’clock, the moon – a perfect half – had risen right above the square in the roof of the tent. It was difficult not to admire its soft, lustrous beauty, despite the raging wind outside. Then I noticed a point of light low in the east, again through the thin fabric of the tent. What, other than the moon, could emit a glow brilliant enough to pierce through the tent? Was it Venus?

The half moon in its mellow, understated beauty

When I finally decided to get out of bed and off the boat, it was around 4.30. I was tired of trying to sleep and getting none. Besides, my bladder desperately needed relieving by this time. So off to the bush I went. It’s strange to be awed by how fantastically beautiful your surroundings are while you’re peeing, but that’s exactly what I was! The wind was hurtling wisps of cloud across a steel-grey sky; the heavens were crowded with stars; the extensive face of the lake was only a few shades of grey darker than the sky; and the little peaks and valleys bordering the other side of the lake were so dark, they were almost pitch black. Business done, I grabbed a blanket from the tent, wrapped it around myself and made my way to the front of the raft, where I sat with an unobstructed view of the expanse of the lake and the eastern sky.

Everything appeared metallic silver in the light of the moon, most of all the water. It glistened and lit up wherever the moon touched it. Dark knots of vegetation atop hills on the far bank took on a feathery texture as light and shadow played. As it had done all night, the gale kept picking up and dying down. Winged silhouettes occasionally soared in the sky or dove close to shore, accompanied by the unmistakeable call of the Red-wattled Lapwing.

The sun’s long rays had already reached the eastern horizon. It was a pale shade of blue. Still, it was dark enough for Orion, just above the sphere of the world, to twinkle distinctly. And yes, a little way up the sky, only second to the moon in brilliance, was Venus. High above me, I could see the Pleiades. Sitting there, seemingly all alone in the midst of such splendour, absolute contentment with undertones of pure wonder was what I felt.

Our shelter for the night; and in the background the approaching dawn on a star-sprinkled horizon

Approaching voices told me that I wouldn’t be alone for much longer though. “Ah, she’s already awake,” someone said. Nishantha and Pokutu Aiya had come to row us out to the middle of the lake, where there was a better view of the sunrise. We all piled into one raft, and discussed the happenings of the night as we silently floated across the dark waters. This was the first time that he had experienced such extreme weather in all the years he had been bringing people camping by the Sorabora Lake, said Pokutu Aiya. I guess we’re special somehow 🙂

As dawn began to seep across the sky, the stars slowly faded. The lake’s vibrant birdlife soon surrounded us; kites wheeled above emitting their strange cries and swooping down for fish; storks stood on bits of wood that stuck out of the water; kingfishers created lightning streaks of bright greens and blues; and woodpeckers laughing derisively in the trees beckoned us for a closer look.

By now, warm orange and red shades had appeared in the east. We kept a close watch for the sun to burst forth, but a thin strip of cloud was delaying its arrival. As we waited, we chatted about the birds and the other animals that frequent the lake. On some mornings herds of wild elephants would swim across the Sorabora Lake, said Nishantha. What an impressive sight that would be, I thought. It wasn’t to be for us that day though. We didn’t see any elephants. But a spectacular sunrise more than made up for it.

We kept a close watch for the sun to burst forth

We had taken our eyes off the eastern horizon and become engrossed in a search for a woodpecker, when I happened to turn around and was staggered by a pale blue sky dappled with bits of salmon pink cloud. Exclamations ensued as eyes and cameras focussed on the dazzling sunrise that had begun to unfold.

We were on tenterhooks by this time!

All it took was a chink of the fiery disk to reveal itself from behind the cloud, for all the colours in the sky to change again. The lake rippled golden as if to match the loveliness above it. The sun continued to hold the sky in an enchantment and transformed it completely every time it moved so much as an inch. And we in turn were spellbound.

The sun finally peeks out

Distant hills are transformed into silhouettes of varying shades of grey

In the west the mountains of the central hills were clear against a blue sky. The Knuckles rose and fell and invisible windscreens reflected flashes of light from the faraway Daha-ata Wanguwa snaking down the mountain. It was only the day before that we had zigzagged our way through that road. Brilliant blue sky and puffy white clouds were mirrored in the lake. The entire scene brought to my mind images of Alpine landscapes. How perfectly surreal!

The western skyline resembling an Alpine landscape

The Knuckles mountain range looms large on the west

As the sun broke free of the horizon and the fiery shades it had projected into the sky mellowed into yellow daylight, a satisfied glow settled around us. That was probably the most resplendent daybreak we’d ever witnessed.

Pokutu Aiya and Nishantha row us around the lake as Sylvia, our friend, looks through her photos

We would have sat there in the raft for much longer had it not been for the blazing heat of the sun. When we got back to shore, we were surprised to find it was only around 7.30. So after a refreshing bath in the lake and a hearty breakfast of kiribath (milk rice) and katta sambola (a fiery onion salad), we were on our way to yet another watery adventure!

Thanks to Pokutu Aiya who did all the hard work so that we could relax and enjoy ourselves. Although his real name is Harry Dias, his nickname – stemming from the dreadlocks he had as a child – has stuck. His house is close to the campsite, so his entire family is involved in the smooth running of the camp. It was amusing to listen to Pokutu Aiya at the campsite shouting out instructions and continuing loud conversations with his family at home. The exchanges included “We’re out of sugar. Will you bring me some from the house?”, “Dad, I’m off to school!” and “Have a good day, son!” yelled across the lake. When the three kids aren’t in school they help make tea for guests or set up the tents on the rafts. Pokutu Aiya’s wife cooked all our delicious meals in her home and brought them to the camp. He is a persistent entrepreneur in his own right. In addition to the camp, he also grows spices, vegetables and rice and on occasion sets up orange juice stands in collaboration with his kids. All his efforts are for the benefit of his children, he said. “My greatest aspiration is that my kids receive the best education and are able to secure high places in life for themselves. What I have for myself is enough. I don’t want more money, land or a bigger house. All my hard work is to ensure my children get the best opportunities possible,” he said. His contentment with his own life is a refreshing trait to come by. If you want Pokutu Aiya to arrange a comfortable campsite for you, you can call him on +94 721 153 409

© The Magic-Bean Trippers
Prior written consent of the authors must be obtained to reproduce, copy, modify or adapt any part of this blog or any of its contents.

Echoes from an ancient existence

Uru warige Wanniya was surrounded by some of his tribesmen when we arrived at his wattle and daub hut in Dambana. As the chief of the Wannila-aththo or Veddhas, the indigenous people of Sri Lanka, his wisdom and counsel are constantly sought after. His serious eyes held a welcoming glow as I offered him a sheaf of betel leaves and then placed both my hands in his in the way of the traditional greeting of the Wannila-aththo. “Hondamai,” we said to each other, meaning “all is well”. But like many of the phrases and words in the Veddha language, the connotation of the expression changes along with the situation at hand.

Uru warige Wanniya in conversation with us

I stood by and watched as my friend, took her turn to greet the Nayaka Aththo (Chief of the Wannila-aththo) and presented him with our gift of dried tobacco leaves, areca nut and limestone. As he sat cross-legged on a reed mat strewn on a ledge and spoke about the ways of his people, I noticed that only his snowy beard and salt-and-pepper hair pulled into a casual knot gave us an inkling of his age. His body looked strong and remarkably wrinkle-free, although his oldest son, next in line to lead the Wannila-aththo, is about 42 years old.

Throughout most of our conversation and even during our greetings I found that the ready smile of the average Sri Lankan person was missing in the faces of the Wannila-aththo gathered in the little hut. Although their expressions weren’t quite what you’d call stern, they were serious with a gentle, knowing undertone. This was apparently the way of these people, we later learned from Nishantha, our guide; they hardly displayed their emotions. There was scarcely any crying at the funeral ceremonies of the Wannila-aththo, said Nishantha. Perhaps, living as one with nature for centuries had familiarized them with the cycle of life to such an extent, that life as a whole had become something to accept calmly. The word Wannila-aththo itself means ‘forest beings’.

Our discussion with the Nayaka Aththo was in part quite sobering. With laws banning hunting, their children beginning to attend mainstream schools, increasing numbers of Veddhas venturing out into cities in search of jobs and modernisation inching its way towards their settlements, their traditional way of life has long since begun to erode. Acutely aware of this fact, the Nayaka Aththo said, “There is next to nothing that can be done about it.” The tiredness in his eyes reflected the grave responsibility of the herculean task he had come to inherit.

Still, he does everything in his power to ensure that the ways of his people are preserved. Evidence of this was by his side: an assortment of bottles containing various hued liquids. This was the Nayaka Aththo’s collection of herbal medicines and oils prepared according to the age-old knowledge of his people, handed down from generation to generation through centuries. This was different to Ayurvedic medicine practised in the rest of the country, he said. It was his manner to speak only the language of his tribe although he understood us when we spoke to him in Sinhala.

We are led into the jungle

Soon after our chat with the Nayaka Aththo we followed four of the Wannila-aththo into the jungle where we enjoyed the most unforgettable treat: honey made by wild bees. They were quite docile really, for wild bees 🙂 Only one of the Wannila-aththo got stung; but he had his hand deep inside the burrow in the tree, where the bees had built their nest. It was a bit difficult to imagine that the white honey-comb he pulled out of the tree was something natural; the hexagonal wax cells were formed so perfectly that it seemed more likely that humans had made it and put it there.

A beehive is found!

Reaching into the burrow for the honeycombs

Bee-sting!

The honeycomb in offering to the Yakshas

Before sharing the honeycomb, an offering was made to the Yakshas, the ancestors of the Wannila-aththo, so that they would ensure that each time a visit was made into the jungle there would be an abundance of honey. Each bite into the wax would spill drops of the yummiest honey I’d ever tasted. I’m not generally fond of bee’s honey, but this was slightly more syrupy than the bottled stuff I was used to. And it was sweet, but not cloyingly so. It dribbled out of the waxy cells and down my hand. It was the most delicious, glutinous mess. Of course, you have to watch out for the larvae 😀 But one thing is for sure: hereafter my mouth will water every time I see a creamy white honeycomb.

Honey drips out of the waxy cells

Dancing and singing is the most preferred way for the Wannila-aththo to celebrate – this time it is caused by the discovery of honey

A display of archery followed, which unexpectedly gave up the hiding place of a Star Tortoise. The bows and arrows are all hand-made by the Wannila-aththo themselves, and after one of us unwittingly detached the point of an arrow while pulling it out of a tree it had wedged itself in, we watched as it was carefully mended.

The traditional hunting method of the Wannila-aththo

The broken arrow is mended

Forest-being

Not only do the Wannila-aththo feel most at-home in the jungle, but the jungle too seems to embrace them as its own

On our way out we re-entered the Nayaka Aththo’s home to buy some of the mouth-watering bee’s honey. I took the opportunity to ask a question that I had forgotten earlier: are the Wannila-aththo really the descendants of the children of Kuveni and King Vijaya, an Indian prince believed to be the father of the Sinhala race?

“That is not true,” said the Nayaka Aththo. “Kuveni was of the Yaksha tribe, one of the tribes living on the island when Prince Vijaya arrived on its shores. We are descendants of the Yaksha tribe too. So while Kuveni is of our tribe, we didn’t descend from her. Our history dates back centuries before Kuveni and Vijaya. Our people have been living in this country for more than 125,000 years.”

The Nayaka Aththo is a mine of folklore and wisdom

We were silent as we digested this information. A flurry of new questions flooded my mind, making it impossible for me to voice any of them. Nishantha, ever the dependable one, must have had his eye on the time, because he said that if we had finished with our questions we should probably leave soon.

“We have questions enough to fill up a whole day!” exclaimed my friend, which brought a twinkle to the eye of the Nayaka Aththo. He smiled; I think he may have even laughed quietly. Maybe at sometime we will come back, just so we can talk for days.

© The Magic-Bean Trippers
Prior written consent of the authors must be obtained to reproduce, copy, modify or adapt any part of this blog or any of its contents.

Sometimes it’s about the Journey, not the Destination

It’s widely held that as far as diversity of destinations is concerned, travelling within Sri Lanka is one of the most rewarding experiences. But as we found on the road from Kandy to Mahiyanganaya, the journey can be just as thrilling, if not more so, than the destination. The winding road leading through mountains and valleys, afforded some spectacular views and interesting stops along the way.

While passing by the turnoff to the Victoria Golf Course, the Pallekele International Cricket Stadium and the largest limestone quarry in Sri Lanka was interesting, it wasn’t until we got to the Hunnasgiriya region that I really started enjoying the ride. The highway, cut into the sides of steep mountains, had that sparkling-new look and the drive was smooth and comfortable. We rolled down the windows to let in the fresh, cold air, as we passed by panoramic valleys and mountainsides covered in pine forests.

The refreshing wind in my face reminded me of the road-trips I used to take with my family as a child. It was one of the things I used to look forward to when we would decide to go away for a holiday, so much so that I would reserve the back seat of the family van, the windiest spot in the vehicle. I found a singular exhilaration in losing myself in the roar of the wind, my hair fluttering wildly around my head and the people, shops, paddy fields, tea bushes and muddy puddles hurtling by in one blurry vision after another. We rarely open the windows on road-trips now, perhaps because of the increasing pollution. So it was a pleasantly unexpected flashback to see the world whiz by, as the fresh breeze of Hunnasgiriya roared in my ears.

As impressive as the changing backdrop of peaks were, there was one that stood out conspicuously. Its olive green sides rose to form a dark knoll that was surrounded by clouds. This was Medamahanuwara, on the pinnacle of which the ruins of the Ahas Maligawa, or Sky Palace, are located. Although it is off-limits to visitors, Nishantha, our guide, related the story of the palace. Built around the 17th Century by King Senarath, it was also used as a fortress. Later on, after the British arrived, Sri Lanka’s last king Sri Wikrama Rajasinha used the palace as a hideout. It’s believed that when King Rajasinha was at the Sky Palace, the British had ridden by the mountain in search of him. But as the peak was covered by clouds they hadn’t seen the palace. When they were returning however, the clouds had cleared and they spotted the king’s hiding place, which was then named Ahas Maligawa.

The peak of Medamahanuwara, where the Sky Palace used to be

It’s easy to see why those Brits rode right past! The white Buddha statue on the left is located in Hunnasgiriya town.

When we reached Hunnasgiriya Town, we took a short detour down Loolwatta Road into a tea garden that held stunning views of the surrounding mountains, including Medamahanuwara. While we were up there marvelling at the array of peaks and valleys, a tuk-tuk drove up and a man stepped out with a massive sack. Swinging it onto his back, he hurried between the tea bushes down the steep incline, nimble-footed as a mountain goat. As I gaped at his agility, it occurred to me that his house was probably at the bottom of the hill. This was his daily commute!

The tea garden overlooks a pine forest and purple hills in the distance. The highway winds its way around hills on the right.

More of the spectacular views

We were surrounded by the most breathtaking scenery

Back on the highway, at regular intervals there were little shops with signs inviting travellers to a meal of freshly-made pol rotti. This was another of the joys of driving through Sri Lanka’s countryside: the opportunity to sample some of the mouth-watering local food. It appeared that in this region of Hunnasgiriya it was pol rotti with katta sambola that was popular.

At the shop where we stopped, there was a little breakfast buffet of other distinctly Sri Lankan foods like curried dhal and beans with rice, in addition to the pol rotti and katta sambola. So while we waited for the rotti to be prepared, we helped ourselves to some dhal and pol sambola. The combination was to die for. With steaming mugs of kahata the (black tea) and chunks of hakuru (jaggery) sitting by our plates and a magnificent view of a forest-covered mountain before us, we honestly felt life couldn’t get any better.

Pol rotti and katta sambola

Bellies full of yummy rotti, we headed towards Madugoda and the Daha-ata Wanguwa (Eighteen hair-pin bends). The scenery soon after the first bend was like a dreamscape. From here it seemed we could see the whole of the East. Nishantha stood by and named all the places we could see from our vantage point. Pointing to a wide stretch of lime-green paddy fields, he said it was the longest uninterrupted stretch of paddy in the country; about 50 kilometres from the village of Hasalaka to Wasgamuwa National Park. We saw the Mahiyanganaya Town gleaming in the mid-morning sun. Hasalaka was much smaller in comparison. The Sorabora Weva (lake) was the largest water body in sight. Although in reality it is much larger, the Ulhitiya Weva looked smaller than the Sorabora: possibly because it was further away and much of it had dried up. It was fascinating to be able to see some of our destinations mid-journey. Nishantha also pointed out some of the jungle that we would walk through the next day to visit the Rathna Falls.

The Sorabora Weva is nestled in the heart of the panorama while the clouds and mountains seem to merge on the horizon

A myriad shades of green give way to browns, greys and blues

More greens and blues

A Grey Langur

Can you see us passing by the 18th hair-pin bend?

The urge to make a game of counting the bends as the Daha-ata Wanguwa took us downhill to the borders of the hill country was irresistible. Countless travellers have done it before and countless more will do it after us. By the time we reached Hasalaka, the temperature had risen, but the brilliant green of the paddy fields, blue of the sky and ivory of the clouds were breathtaking: it was the ideal of a beautiful day.

After crossing the Mahaveli River into the Badulla District, it was not long before we reached Mahiyanganaya. I was surprised by how large the town had grown. While it was a flurry of activity, it was still spacious enough to hold all of its occupants, visitors and various buildings without the air of congestion that is typical of rapidly growing towns. As we drove up to a junction complete with clock-tower, I was struck by a large white Buddha statue that entirely filled the space of my vision. While the white clouds that gave way to blue sky in patches made the perfect backdrop for the statue, it was the distinctive expression in the facial features of this Buddha that I found arresting. It was difficult to look at that face and not be moved.

The captivating Buddha statue in Mahiyanganaya Town

Stopping by at the sprawling market of the town we bought a few things needed for a night of camping by a lake and also a gift of dried tobacco leaves, a sheaf of betel leaves, areca nut and limestone for a special person we were on our way to visit.

Discover where and whom in our next couple of posts!

© The Magic-Bean Trippers
Prior written consent of the authors must be obtained to reproduce, copy, modify or adapt any part of this blog or any of its contents.

The rain can’t keep us down!

Finally, we were going to do some mountain trekking! We had wanted to for weeks but each time we organized a hike the weather gods would rain on our carefully laid out plans. Now, following a couple of days of sunshine, the day dawned on which we would trek up Knuckles – and it turned out to be overcast. As we stepped outside at about 6.30am to wait for our ride, I looked up at the clouds and feebly joked, “They like messing with us, up there, don’t they?”

During the one-and-a-half-hour drive from Kandy through Theldeniya and on to Kotaganga, the weather kept playing tricks on us, sporadic sunshine raising our hopes and gloomy cloud cover and short drizzles dashing them soon after. We managed to keep our spirits high though, with Nishantha, our guide, seeing to our every need and Sylvia, a fellow traveller, putting her unique sense of humour to good use. Although we stopped in Digana at the forest office in charge of the Knuckles Nature Reserve to buy our tickets, no one was around and the gates were locked. Time was precious, so we decided to head to Knuckles and pay our way in there.

Stopping at Theldeniya to pick up our lunch gave us the chance to see the dried out bed of the reservoir. A bridge, a dome shaped shrine and paddy fields that were submerged after the Victoria Dam was built were now exposed as a result of the long drought. It seemed that the surrounding mountains and boulders reduced the bridge and the shrine to mere playthings. But the longer I gazed at the structures, the more impressed I was by the way they echoed an existence now lost in time. In fact, the entire scene seemed to hold a mystical aura.

The bridge and the shrine seem diminutive in the striking landscape

A Crested Serpent Eagle in Kotaganga

Before beginning our trek in Kotaganga, we prepared by making sure our backpacks were as light as possible. We started off up a relatively easy incline. The sun was shining down from a cloudy sky at this point and we were enjoying the green mountains around us, a rocky stream that bubbled by us and purple-grey hills in the distance. A brilliant white spot on the top of one of the faraway hills was the famous Buddha statue on Bahirawakanda, said Nishantha. We were amazed that we could see as far off as Kandy from where we were.

The rocky stream we passed along the way

The enchanting path up the mountain

Eventually though, we saw we were being followed by one of the locals. He’d been sent by the park warden to find out why we didn’t have tickets. Our account of the closed park office and offer to immediately buy tickets seemed to fall on deaf ears. Several calls were made by Nishantha to the park warden and many other people. The negotiations took a good hour and a half during which we snapped photos, absorbed the beauty that surrounded us, kept glancing anxiously up at the heavy clouds in the distance and Sylvia made silly faces towards the general direction from which the park warden was supposedly “watching us”. In the end the park warden said we would have to buy the tickets before we could go any further. Errm… wasn’t that exactly what we’d suggested in the very beginning? You gotta love Sri Lankan bureaucracy!

The magnificent view we had while the negotiations went on. I guess we couldn’t really complain.

So after the very long delay, we resumed our hike up the mountain. It became steeper as we climbed and while Nishantha bounded ahead – laden with the heaviest bags – like an antelope, we laboured up the mountain breathless, sweaty and red-faced. Soon we came to a point along the trail that offered a clear view of a wispy white waterfall further up the mountain. They were actually a series of seven cascades that created one long, combined waterfall. The plan was to visit each of the falls and then make our way to the peak of the mountain.

Soon, the path led into the jungle. Thick vegetation enveloped the trail, which became harder to follow owing to the low branches, the bed of dead leaves and the sharper angle of the ground. We were forced to slow down as we deliberated every step and hand hold. Still, there were sections that I felt were impassable if Nishantha hadn’t pulled me up. At a particularly steep bit, I found myself sprawled out on the ground, chest down, clinging to a root on one side and a branch on the other side of the path – and giggling hysterically. I heard alarmed gasps behind me that immediately turned into guffaws and teehees. Had the mountain air rendered us incapable of perceiving the gravity (no pun intended) of tumbling down a mountain?

Labouring up the mountain along a barely visible trail – it was loadsa fun!

Sylvia is helped up by Nishantha

It was nice to be able hang onto branches and roots and hoist myself up along the trail. At one point along the walk the muddy ground beneath me was so steep that I was part walking, part climbing the trees that grew alongside the path. I grabbed onto a tree trunk and pulled myself a couple of steps up the mountain. I imagined the scene I was making and said, “I must look like a monkey!” Peals of laughter and a response of “You said it!” followed. At that very moment, I felt my feet slide out from underneath me – so steep was the ground – and the only way I could keep myself from tumbling down that mountain was to wrap my arms and legs around that tree trunk. “See what I mean!” I gasped. Cue for more helpless laughter. It must be the mountain air.

Monkey me!

By now we had encountered a horde of leeches at various points along the path. The shiny, elastic-ky, black worms looked skinny and starved, and it was not long before we found they were famished. Every so often someone would call out “Leech attack!”, and stop to extricate the wriggly creatures worm-walking their way up shoes, jeans and bare skin. Leeches are one of the most relentless life-forms I’ve ever come across. They will not stop until they have tasted blood. I found one just above the waist-band of my jeans, on my stomach!

At a barely discernible fork in the path, we took a right and headed towards the first water fall. We heard it before we saw it. When I stepped out of the jungle and onto the rock along which the fall slid towards the next tier, I was surprised by how cold and strong the wind was. The glistening water took on the colour of the golden-brown rock it was flowing along and, when I took my shoes off to cross the little stream, I found it was as icy as it looked. Here was one of the most enchanting places that Nature had tucked deep inside a jungle. A feathery white waterfall cascaded behind me, flowed over a rock and fell over a precipice in front of me to form another fall. A beautiful valley was laid out before me. And the tops of the mountains beyond were immersed in mist.

We took a well-earned break by the first waterfall

The crystal water tumbles off the rock to form another waterfall below

Mist covered hills surround the valley

The wispy white cascade

There is something inexplicably revitalizing about fresh mountain spring water. Splashed across my face, arms and legs, I found it worked like a soothing balm for my tired muscles. And more amazingly it lifted my spirits until I felt I was soaring. After gulping down mouthfuls of the pristine water, we were revived for the rest of our climb. Just as we were leaving, it started to rain.

Although gloomy under cloudy skies, the valley was a breathtaking sight

It was a relief to go back into the jungle because the trees sheltered us from the cold wind and rain. Before long, we came to the second waterfall. This time there was a heavy mist that made it impossible to see the valley. Veiled in thick haze, the waterfall seemed ethereal. Although it was wet and cold, we couldn’t help but be awed by the scene that was at once enthralling and eerie.

Sylvia and Nishantha appear ghostly in a veil of mist

We continued through the jungle until suddenly I found my head poking up out of the tops of the trees. The whispering sounds of the trees quietened and a white mist surrounded us. We had reached the Knuckles plateau. Unfortunately, the breathtaking view from up there was obstructed and we couldn’t see more than a few feet ahead of us in the mist.

I’ll never forget the lunch we shared on the plateau of Knuckles. Our dining experience was unparalleled. Makeshift stools were created by piling up slabs of rock and we literally froze our asses off sitting on them. We enjoyed the tasty fried rice, fish and vegetables all the more for the ambience. We were encircled by a thick mist and shivered in the wind that blew grains of rice off our spoons as we raised them to our mouths. Nature herself put on a little show for us as we dined; she sent us into a tizzy of excitement when, momentarily, she blew away a thick slice of mist to expose a bit of the jungle surrounding the plateau. Sporadically, she would send down shafts of sunlight through the haze and we almost applauded the fleeting warmth.

After our extraordinary meal we started our walking again; this time downhill because we decided to cut short our trek due to the weather. On our way, we passed through an enchanting stream straight out of a fantasy. Sunlight filtering through the thinning mist gave the jungle an otherworldly appearance.

Dusky light passes through the vapoury mist

A fairy or two sitting on the rocks probably wouldn’t look out of place here

Sylvia and Nishantha wait for us

At a little hut overlooking a valley of tea gardens, we stopped to admire the landscape and enjoy a well-earned break. It turned out to be a little more exciting than expected when we found leeches had somehow found their way into our socks. After removing them, we continued down through the tea bushes until we reached the end of the trail in Thangappuwa.

The view from Leech Hut

The tea gardens that we passed through

Tender tea leaves covered in evening dew

Morning Glories are such happy flowers

He was happy about the rain

The end of the trail

The Knuckles mountain range experiences very high amounts of rainfall and the life-sustaining water flows down to the rest of the country. Some of the rivers that begin on the range include the Kalu Ganga, Heen Ganga and Hulu Ganga, and the mountains also enrich several tributaries of the Mahaveli River. So while we weren’t able to visit all of the seven waterfalls or climb to the peak of the mountain, I felt privileged to have experienced the weather conditions that make it possible for the Knuckles range to play such a pivotal role in nurturing the rivers, lakes, jungles, fields and thereby the very existence of the Sri Lankan people. Can you tell I’m an eternal optimist? 🙂

Thanks to Nishantha for staying sensible while the rest of us were rolling on the floor laughing; for making the right decisions; and for doing everything possible to make sure we were safe and comfortable at all times. If you want Nishantha to help plan your own outdoor adventure, you can call him on +94 779 188 292

Thanks to Sylvia for the laughter and good times

© The Magic-Bean Trippers
Prior written consent of the authors must be obtained to reproduce, copy, modify or adapt any part of this blog or any of its contents.