A lighthouse without a light

The drive up to Kadugannawa is easily my favourite part of the road trip to Kandy. Hugging the side of a steep mountain, the ribbon-strip of road winds upwards treating wayfarers to a magnificent view of the valley below and shadowy outlines of mountain ranges beyond. We were in the heart of the country with no ocean for miles around, so it was bizarre to come upon what looked like a lighthouse by the roadside. When we stepped out to investigate, we thought we’d take all of ten minutes to have a look around and then be back on our way. We never expected the adventure that lay ahead of us.

Opposite the tower the highway and the railway line run parallel to each other

A lane that runs alongside the tower

Standing at the base of the towering white structure, we craned our necks and squinted in the afternoon sunlight to try and catch a glimpse of the pinnacle of the ivory-white lighthouse. For all our squinting, it was impossible to see the dome-shaped top because of the square platform built for people to stand on and survey the surrounding hills and valleys. Although in design, the building looks like a lighthouse, it actually isn’t. It was built in 1832 as a memorial to W. E. Dawson, Commanding Royal Engineer of Ceylon, who had planned the Colombo-Kandy highway.

A commemorative inscription

Chatting with some locals we learned that we could climb to the top of the tower if we wanted to. Now, that made things a whole lot more interesting. We were shown a narrow doorway that led into the dark tower. All that was visible were the first few wooden steps. They disappeared behind a solid wooden pillar and continued to spiral around into the darkness. I stepped up to the bottom of the stairway cautiously; I knew they led to the top of the tower but I had no idea what lay within the pitch black in between.

An anxious glance from the foot of the steps

There was only just enough room for a single person on the stairway so we had to walk in single file. The higher we climbed, the more impenetrable the darkness became. Small-made as I am, I felt hemmed in within the limited space and not being able to see what was around me heightened the sensation. I found myself wondering what the climb must be like for the average sized human being. If I had let myself, it would have been easy to become irrationally panicked. Mental pictures of creepy-crawlies that probably lived in this dark place made me even more uneasy. Perhaps we did come across a few of the inhabitants, but the light of the tiny torch that illuminated our way, thankfully, didn’t fall on any of them. Imagine a stampede in that cramped space!

The dark, cramped space of the stairway

Around the middle of the tower, square holes had been made in the walls. At first, I thought that these were to provide light, but hardly any light came in through the holes. So they were probably made to allow fresh air in. Interestingly, there were collections of twigs arranged inside the holes. Had mice or birds decided to make the holes comfortable enough for living in? Further up, my torch revealed brown stains trailing down along the white walls from the square openings. Was that a putrid smell that was filling our nostrils? Oh, the unspeakable horror! We avoided touching or leaning against the walls after that.

One of the twig-filled openings on the wall of the tower

When we started to wonder how much longer the steps would go on for, we were relieved to see daylight streaming in from above. Soon, we were able to see the dome-shaped roof of the tower, deep green moss making a brickwork pattern on the surface of the white paint. My friend was the first one out and immediately I heard him exclaim, “Woah!” There must be a really nice view out there, I thought and stayed a little while longer to gaze down into the shaft of the stairway we had just come up.

Moss creates a brickwork pattern at the top of the tower

The shaft of the stairway from the top

When I stepped out onto the platform, strangely enough I found myself exclaiming in exactly the same way my friend had. I had to grab onto the black metal railing that surrounded the tower. The wind was quite strong up there and took you unawares as soon as you stepped out. It was crisp and refreshing, though. Now this is what you call fresh air, I thought.

We were high up above the road and surrounded by mountains and valleys. The highway seemed to emerge from a meeting point between two mountains, its vehicles and pedestrians taking on the air of Toyland. By its side a railway line ran past a station and into a green forest. Delicate silhouettes of far away mountain ranges appeared on the mist covered horizon. Spotting a white Buddha statue on the peak of one of the mountains, I knew the city of Kandy was just beyond. Forest covered mountainsides further away seemed to me like the woodland regions on a Tolkien map – the trees, probably pines, had the same triangular shape.

The highway emerges seemingly from between the mountains

Mountains make hazy shadows on the horizon


A train disappears into a lush green jungle

Enjoying the view and the nippy breeze

When we had arrived at the tower, we were exhausted from the journey and had even considered giving the tower a pass. But in the end we were happy we’d decided to stop – and even walk through rat pooh – because the enchanting view and chilly wind proved to be the perfect journey’s break. Soon, we had to reluctantly leave the top of the tower and climb back down the dark, winding stairway. This time around we heard a series of unmistakable squeaks somewhere inside the woodwork and we rushed down as fast as we could. In my hurry to get out of the tower, I tumbled really, rather than walked out, into the sunlight.

© The Magic-Bean Trippers
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