While in Sri Lanka we organised a three day hiking trip to the Knuckles National Park (two hours north east of Kandy) with a guide called Gamini, whose name I remembered by thinking of a gammy knee. On the first day, we walked 20km through low bush and scrub with spectacular mountains in the distance. It was an ideal walking day – bright and sunny with not a cloud in sight, yet not too hot.
When we stopped for lunch near a rocky outcrop, Gamini told us that leopards tend to hang around these areas. Numerous leopard droppings confirmed this. Leopards obviously have a very efficient digestive system as all that is left of their prey in their poo is hair and small bones.
We climbed up to a viewpoint where we could see for miles and our only company were a couple of serpent eagles, then we retraced our tracks and walked on a few more kilometres to a permanent camp site for trekking parties. The camp site had a flush toilet, hot showers, a kitchen, an undercover dining / bonfire area, and the tents were pitched under wooden shelters. It was after 6pm and dusk by the time we got there. The rain started shortly after we arrived, softly at first.
There were ten of us at the campsite that night – apart from our contingent of four (our driver joined us), there was a camp master and assistant, and two young guides from another company who were accompanying two Australian university students (who sounded American).
Gamini had told us he was meeting his girlfriend at the camp, and he kept up the pretence until it was time to introduce her to us. His curvaceous girlfriend turned out to be … a bottle of Arak! We’d brought a bottle of wine and between us all we polished the alcohol off during the pre-dinner revelry. The camp master lit a bonfire and the Sri Lankans put on displays of drumming, singing and dancing. Then it was our turn to sing songs from our country. I found it difficult to remember any Australian songs but between the four of us we managed.
After dinner (delicious curries with rice) we went to bed exhausted, but a storm ravaged our tent all night and kept waking us up. I was very grateful the tent was pitched under a shelter as I’m sure it would have blown away if it was in the open. It was still raining heavily in the morning so we didn’t rush to get up.
By the time we’d finished breakfast the rain had eased and Gamini decided to go ahead with the day’s hike, although he had to change the route as the river was too high to cross safely. We only had 12km to walk and most of it was downhill through tea plantations and rice paddies. We passed a few small villages with temples and little shops. On the wildlife side, we spotted a small barking deer and a giant squirrel. We also saw more leopard poo and no stray dogs, giving weight to the theory that leopards are venturing out of the jungle and supplementing their diet with dogs (see my last blog, ‘There be leopards’).
Mid-afternoon our driver met us at a little road side stall and drove us for a couple of hours to a lake. The camp master rowed us across the lake to our next campsite where our tents were set up on flat boats. A water monitor noseying around the boats seemed unperturbed by our presence. This campsite was not as flash as the other one. The drop toilet was situated away from the campsite and there were no showers, but we had a dip in the lake to compensate.
Overnight there was another storm which rocked the boat and blew the tent around, but I was so tired that I slept through it. The next morning we went on an early boat tour around the lake and spotted some night herons. After breakfast we were rowed back across the lake to the car.
It was still raining heavily and too wet to hike so Gamini took us to an Aboriginal village, where an Aboriginal man showed us how to light fires without matches, sang us a traditional lullaby and gave an archery display using handmade bows and arrows. We visited one of the Aboriginal houses which was tiny, very basic and housed six people. Gamini told us that there are a lot of disabilities among the Aboriginal people because of inbreeding, and that three of our host’s six children were disabled.
Our driver drove us back to Kandy in the pouring rain. Several times he had to swerve to avoid heaps of dirt where soil had washed down from above the road. By that evening we were at our guest house in Kandy. It wasn’t flash but had the things we needed most after a few days in the bush – a hot shower, a comfortable bed and a laundry service!