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.
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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.