Knuckles, Sri Lanka
The Sri Lankian highlands beckoned, and we heeded. Hiking gear at the ready, we spent 2.5 days in the mountain range known as The Knuckles hiking and glamping*.
After the literal ups-and-downs of Sigiriya, we boarded the bus to take us to the central highlands. We got dropped off and got ready for what should have been a reasonably easy stroll in the woods: 9.5 kilometres, mostly downhill, on dirt roads and paths, and not very undulating. But we don’t live in Shouldland, do we?
We were each issued so called leech socks. Yes, in Sri Lanka, tiny leeches inhabit the wet grass and bushes, eager to latch on to the feet and calves of unsuspecting hikers, walking around like Happy Meals with legs. The thick canvas and tarpy socks are stern enough to withstand the tiny bites from reaching the skin, but the slimy buggers have no problem sticking to the socks and starting their ascent to the exposed skin by the knee, or the descent to the hope of likewise by the foot.**
Not long after setting foot, the first of the bloodsuckers appeared. We all had to have intermittent stops getting rid of them, using little balls of salt, wrapped in damp cloth. Surprisingly effective, though the ones that had crawled into the shoes were tricky to swipe left and had to be killed by salt before releasing.
The leeches took away a bit of the focus of the immensely beautiful landscape. It was overcast, but no rain, and the high altitude and lower humidity inland made for a reasonably cool walk, temperature-wise. All in all, without the leeches, this would have been an amazing afternoon hike. With them, it was simply great. And in fairness, leeches aren’t all that bad. You don’t feel them when they crawl, and as soon as they bite they inject a small dose of anaesthesia, so you don’t feel the bite. They add antibiotics, so the wound won’t get infected as long as they’re around, and once they’re full, they simply drop off. As long as you can get the blood to clot again (which you can, if you have a prepared nurse travelling with you), it’s really no big deal. It’s just, you know…. icky.
An hour or so before sunset we reached our base camp. The tents were raised on little elevated platforms, there were water closets and a common area under a sail roof, where an eskie waited with soft drinks and beer.
All the facilities of a hotel (including kitchen staff; the locals cooked us mouth-watering Sinhalese meals each day), except for a shower. Or was there? Located by a creek, it was but a short walk from camp to a couple of natural pools, complete with waterfalls and whirlpools, making for a rejuvenating natural shower after a long day of walking.
The next day was more challenging, hike-wise. Roughly 15 km, with an elevation gain of some 800 metres, in rough terrain and at places extremely steep. But on the plus-side, almost completely leechless.
The hike took us across the rice paddies in the valley, through the lush forest of the slopes, and to the bushy grasslands of the top plateaues. Our climbing efforts were rewarded by stunning views of the valley below and the mountain range across. Eventually we reached Tusker’s head, the very highest point of the trek, and started our descent.
Going down is as strenuous as going up, when the slope is steep and the stone is slippery, so the following 5 km were not a walk in the park either, but we eventually made it down to somewhat flatter ground, and the small village below. One of the houses belonged to our local hike guide Gamine, and we were kindly invited for tea and biscuits. His 6-year old son, whose favourite school subject is dance, performed his monkey dance, and his 80-ish frail father joined us for tea. In these parts, tradition has it that the youngest son takes over the house, as they are most likely to care for their parents the longest.
The valley smelled like a spice rack. Cardemum had historically been grown here, and there was a nice scent of cinnamon and cloves in the air. No word on whether there was arrak as well, but our fearless leader provided a bottle of the sweet liquor after dinner. Along with the Austrian schnapps and the local beer, we had quite the little party going. The crew sang a local song, and as arrak liquor is basically punsch, Caroline and I sang a traditional punschvisa (drinking song, for when drinking arrak).
Next morning we said goodbye to our glamp site and set off through the rice fields and the villages towards Pitawala Pathana National Park, for a stunning view from what is known as Mini World’s End. One would think that the world would have but two ends, both equal in size, but I guess not.
Picking up the litter left by previous tourists, we left The Knuckles and headed towards Sri Lanka’s second largest town, Kandy.
Leeches, oh the leeches. After a, comparatively, not so early morning we got on the bus to the Knuckles mountain range. We were met, high up on a mountain range, by Gamine and his crew. Lunch in the lush green. And boy oh boy did they feed us: Daal, curries, fried little fishes, papadums and veg. So good and so tasty.
I really feel that my vulva should remain a leech free zone.
When they had finished stuffing us full with delish food, they started to gear us up for our first hike. A 9,5 k into the wilds. Well not so wild, one would describe it more accurately as a venture into the land of the leeches. We got to carry little wet salt bundles and special knee high booties which would give us some protection.
Innocently we started our hike into the Sri Lankan high lands. Not aware of the incredible amount of leeches, we thought it would be an easy stroll into the woods but soon we realised that the leeches outnumbered us humans by 9 – a quadrillion. We had to stop every one hundred metres or so to brush ’em off and to press the salt bags over the leeches that had found their way in under our clothing.
At first it was awful and I screamed on the inside, but after the first 5 or 6 removals I stopped caring and focused on the nature. Our fearless guide Matesh told us that if we had to go, we had to find a nice bush. Alas, my new truce with the dangly, bloodsucking, two mouthed little suckers, did not mean that I would like to offer up my private parts to them. I had to draw the line somewhere and I really feel that my vulva should remain a leech free zone.
The hike was worth the suck though. And our campsite was more of the glamping kind of campsite. An absolute delight.
The ladies were squealing from joy when we saw the water closet. Yes. In the middle of the campsite, in the middle of farmland, in the middle of nowhere, they had build flushing wc’s. Oh joy. The truest of true joys.
The same kind of squealing could be heard from the males when they discovered the ice chest filled with cool beer.
After a fantastic brekkie we went for a nice 15k hike. Only a few leeches latched on to our bodies. And they only hung on for the first couple of k’s. Phew.
We climbed up and up and and up and up, until we reached a plateau. Just like the one sir Arthur Conan Doyle described in his book “the lost world”. Well, minus the lost civilisation and the people. But with the breathtaking views.
Our fantastic guide Gamini had a surprise for us at the end of the trek. A tea pause at his house. We got to meet his elderly father and his children. In Sri Lanka the youngest son stays at home as the caretaker of his parents. So we quickly deduced that our fine guide were the youngest son. Gamini proudly showed us the 200 year old house and his rice fields. We were served very tasty Sri Lankan filled pancakes, coconut cake and an awesome cup of tea. In the good china. The very finest and delicate china. There we sat, a muddy, sweaty, slightly bloody (the leech experience) and rather raggedy looking bunch of hobos, being looked after like long lost relatives. Clasping the delicate cups with sunscreeny, sweaty hands. The generosity made me really humble.
As we camped close to a river we got to wash our bodies and gear in crystal clear water. I had my first fish pedicure. Yes. In the nature. And the fishies did it voluntarily. Both evenings we got to swim in cool, flowing clean water. Very lovely. Very refreshing. A great hike despite the two mouthed little bloodsuckers.
*) A portmanteau of glamourous camping
**) In vain, though: the feet were also covered in the stern stockings
***) Not even literally, as this was no National Park, just regular ol’ wilderness
****) So, basically, glögg
*****) FestU:s punschvisa, natch