A Walk in the Woods

On Thursday soon after work – I finish at 11:30 on Thu! – it was onto a bus and into town to start my journey to Deniyaya. As Wednesday had been a fasting day, I planned to get something to eat before boarding the bus but, as it turned out I only had five minutes, I had to fall back on my pack of peanuts and leapt onto the bus to Akuressa. The relatively short 50Km or less took about 90minutes and, once again, the next bus left almost immediately so it was back to a handful of peanuts: this wasn’t really a hardship as Akuressa seemed to have little to offer in terms of stop-over attractions. The last part of the journey to Deniyaya – just a bit longer than the first leg – took another hour and a half or so. On the whole, both journeys were relatively comfortable, with me getting a seat and not having to stand. Nevertheless, on the first bus I was on the aisle side of a three seater row and for some reason my seat seemed loosely – if at all – attached to both the floor and the seat on my right, so I found myself balancing on every change of direction, speed adjustment and overtaking manoeuvre. It must have been good for my core strength and balance.

I had a vague memory – which turned out to be right – of the location of the Sinharaha Rest, where I had booked, and five minutes’ walk took me to the door. The day was wearing on into mid / late afternoon when I arrived and I was glad to be greeted and expected at this small, rather shabby, hotel. Those of you who have travelled in foreign parts will know that the word “hotel” covers a multitude of varieties of accommodation: we used to laugh that the PIA training centre in Bakau, The Gambia called itself a “motel” and I’m sure there are thousands of other interpretations of the word around the globe. However, I had a room – with hot shower – a bed and a mosquito net so I was reasonably happy: the evening meal was rice and curry – hardly a shock – and I enjoyed talking to an English couple (Charles & Kathy) and their daughter (Hannah), a Swiss-German backpacker (Leo) and two Swedes (Ulf and his wife) as well as Palith, owner and main guide for the next day.

I saw my first elephant of this trip in Deniyaya, where it seemed to be taking part in the town’s poya day celebrations at the temple. Elephants abound, both as working animals and also in the semi-wild, but there are few in the Galle area.

There was, however, a problem in that whilst I thought I’d booked for two nights, they only had me booked in for one and were full for the next couple of days: something would be arranged, I wouldn’t have to worry… A good night’s sleep ensued, though for the first time in this trip I felt rather cool – temperature-wise! – in bed and at some point a fearsome noise – later identified as polecats on the roof causing the dogs to bark raucously – startled me awake. I should add that we were now about 400m above sea level: not high by any means, but enough to make the nights cooler, and we were into the low level tea plantations.

Another problem manifested itself in that we were recommended to wear proper walking shoes – which I had with me – and long trousers. The latter caused the problem. When packing the previous night I’d included the zip-off bottoms of a pair of trousers but had neglected to include the top half, so it would be shorts for me! Another consideration was that the Sinharaja Rest – identified by Sonia – which was quoted in the Rough Guide as charging LKR2000 per night was actually 4500 (with evening meal extra): not a lot in the grand scheme of things, but a significant increase nevertheless. To be fair, I should have picked this up when I booked: not that there were many other options in Deniyaya!

Friday breakfast was almost European in content: “toast” (bread briefly dried under a slow grill), marmalade, curd and honey, coffee and tea and then the adventure started.

The seven visitors in the group and two guides mounted a tuk-tuk and a jeepy sort of a thing and we headed off to the jungle. I was rather chuffed to be in the jeep: not only did we get a better view, but we also had Palith the main guide with us, so even the drive was instructive. The pattern for the day was also established: lots of stops, plenty – perhaps too much – information but most of all the benefit of a pair of eyes that could spot a camouflaged lizard at a hundred paces. We careered, when the brakes weren’t being slammed on, through a tea estate; over bridges never designed for vehicular traffic, with underfed water monitors lurking below; past paddy fields; through small hamlets, dusty, sleepy and rather dirty-looking; round the run-of-the-mill bends with inevitable vehicles coming the other way on “our” side of the road; past small temples and even dustier and more run down looking shops and eventually we pulled up and all dismounted.

Palith really was a mine of information. I had been intrigued by the up-ended palm-branches stuck into the ground in the rice fields: were they boundary markers or what? Imagine pulling a stem off a plant: the break would show on the detached stem as a curved saddle-shaped end (there must be a technical name for this bit) and these, sometimes half-a-dozen to a paddy field, had been stuck into the ground with the “saddle” about a metre above the rice. Palith explained their purpose: the paddy fields need irrigation channels, but the local freshwater crabs do a lot of damage to the embankments. The crabs aren’t edible by humans, but there are birds that can think of nothing better than a tasty freshwater paddy crab: they need a vantage point to watch for their prey, so the farmers stick these freely-available stalks in the ground for the birds to do sentry duty. Sure enough, now knowing what to look for, lots of these comfily-seated look out posts had a resident bird with crab on its mind. This was a great example of an ecologically viable pest control system.

Friday was a Poya day (full moon Buddhist festival):  Palith had warned us there would be more people about than usual and he was right. The National Park is fairly large: thirty kilometres long and maybe 10 at its widest point. Local locals – if you get my drift – are allowed free passage from one village to the next, but I don’t think they’re supposed to use motorbikes: the large numbers of less-local locals who had descended for the day certainly aren’t. But that didn’t stop them and I lost count of the number of times we had to step off the path to let a motorbike loaded with mum, dad and two kids bump, skid and clatter past us over tree roots, rough ground and occasional rivulets. Local locals are allowed to cross the rainforest free of charge, but our fee was included in the LKR5000 we had paid for the privilege: coming from Scotland, it seemed a bit odd to have to buy a ticket to enter a National Park, but if it works who am I to object. Us far-from-locals are not allowed in at all without a ticket: I suppose it’s fair enough and supports the conservation work.

I will not bore you with a long list of the flora and fauna pointed out to us, mostly because it went in one ear, passed unnoticed through my aged brain and seeped out the other ear. Phrases like “atrocarpus nobilis” and “blue-faced macaque” were constantly on Palith’s (and Dilshan’s) lips: both the 40-something Palith and his 20-something assistant had excellent English, a sense of humour and a deep knowledge of the area. Dilshan is an accredited bus-tour guide for the whole of Sri Lanka and just does these Sinharajah tours as a hobby: one that means he walked our walk (and talked our talk) 100 times last year!

Despite promising not to bore you with lists, I should mention we saw macaques, kangaroo lizards, hump-nosed lizards, giant squirrels, birds of all descriptions and plants in abundance. We were introduced to wild versions of many of the spices we are familiar with: ginger, cumin and pepper amongst others. Some of the party were delighted not to see cobras, though I had rather wanted to – at a safe distance.

Round about lunch time – we had been walking rather more slowly than I would have liked, but at least it allowed time for explanations – we reached a waterfall with a sizeable pool at the bottom. We dived into the water – well, I waded in slowly – and swam up to and round the falls much to the interest of large numbers of locals who enjoyed watching us take off our clothes: I swam in “me undies” as I couldn’t be bothered changing and also getting dry wouldn’t be a problem. We had been told that this pool in the river – Gin Ganga (Fire River) named for its fast rising in times of rain – sometimes yielded up tiny rubies if you sifted the sand and I spent a while trying to find a Valentine’s prezzie for Sonia, but with no success. Here we had our picnic lunch: rice and curry with a hard-boiled egg. The two elderly Swedes also decided to call it a day and Palith took them back whilst Dilshan took us spring chickens upwards and onwards.

The next stop was also by the river, but Dilshan advertised it as a “spa”, which turned out to be two or three nice small pools with running water. Some of the pools also had whatever sort of fish it is that enjoys nibbling the dead skin on people’s feet, so we had a pedicure while we lounged about and dangled our feet in the water. After that it was basically back down by a variant route, with Dilshan telling us, very interestingly, about the history of Buddhism and SL, whilst also pointing out natural features, flora, fauna etc.

I have had more dramatic days, more animal-filled days, more adrenalin-inducing experiences and ones with more of a wow factor but, taken all in all, this was a fascinating walk with well-informed guides and pleasant companions. I recommend it if you’re over this way.

Back at the hotel, my accommodation problem was solved, then de-solved(?) and resolved: I was now staying at Palith’s brother’s Eco Villa in the same grounds as the first night. The room was in fact a teeny bit more upmarket but lacked hot water for the shower, still not a problem at this increased height.

Just after my cold water shower, I noticed blood oozing from my ankle and immediately spotted leech damage. The sock from my right foot was soaked in blood and I suspect I inadvertently removed the little sucker when I undressed for my ablutions: with any luck it was washed down the plughole, but I ditched my socks anyway as one now had a leech-sized hole in it. As leech attacks go, this hardly registered on the scale and there are much worse areas to find a leech than the right ankle!

The evening meal was rice and curry for a change and we sat around drinking beer and chatting to the new arrivals, including an unnecessarily attractive Swiss-German girl and her brother, which brightened up Leo’s day by several notches. Mine perked up slightly as well, not that I’d been needing such a fillip.

Back at the Eco Villa for the night, Palith’s brother was heavily into the arrack as part of his holiday and it was all I could do to make my excuses and go to bed.

Today I returned to Galle by the same route as the outward journey and reached Sera’s about midday. I had been invited to join Rick and Kris – along with fellow-teacher Nadia and her SL boyfriend – for an early afternoon meal. Remembering my problems getting to the address a week or two back, I took the precaution of getting Poornima to write “51 New Lane, Madawalamulla Road” in Sinhala script so I’d have no problem explaining my destination and that worked very well. Kris had prepared cucumber and tomato salad, meat of some sort, potato salad and various other goodies. She produced  homemade Sangria (white wine, local spirit, fruit etc.) and Rick brought out a bottle of Singleton whisky, so a good time was had by all. I was mildly concerned when it transpired that Nadia and her chap had arrived – and were returning – by motorbike.

As I sat outside Sera’s and looked at the full moon – had the experts got the Poya day wrong? – a group of young English folk arrived and spent several minutes arguing with their tuk-tuk drivers about the fare. It’s a bit dispiriting to see Westerners bickering as to whether the fare should be LKR250 or LKR300, a difference of about 25p: no-one wants to be “done”, but it hardly seems worth having an international incident over such a trivial amount.

I have got quite a few photos that may be of interest but the Internet connection is so slow I don’t even know if I’ll be able to post this text, let alone any pictures: I’ll have to have another go at Sera about this. I’m in a fairly strong position as I’ve still to post my review of Sera Villa on Booking.com.

Those of you concerned about my health will be glad to know that my leg anomaly seems to be slowly on the mend and the leech damage is also healing nicely.

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