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.
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.
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!
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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
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