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Hiking in Central Sri Lanka: Guided expedition close to Kandy

By: Shamus Sillar (words and photos)

A holiday spent flopped on a sun-lounger beside a pool or ocean, getting to know the characters in a good book (and the items on a cocktail menu) is, to me, a thing of greatness. But sometimes I crave a different kind of travel experience. Enter Moonstone Expeditions, and its guided trips to the Knuckles Mountain Range near the Sri Lankan city of Kandy. I’ve recently returned from their five-day expedition, which involved staying in a local home, camping in the jungle, swimming at waterfalls, steering clear of a leopard, and trying to outwit a leech – plus four fantastic hikes, each with its own particular focus.

Click through the gallery above for heaps of photos from the trip

Hike 1 – Temples


The first of the hikes begins on the second morning and is a relatively easy ramble of 10km – a perfect warm-up for the mountains ahead. The trailhead is a short tuk-tuk ride from Pilmathalawa,

a town on the outskirts of Kandy, and also the location of my charming overnight homestay (see “Accommodation”, below).

The route takes us (me and guide Amal) through low-lying rice farms and to a series of three significant yet off-the-beaten-track temples, each one built in the 14th century on a separate rock plateau, with great views of the steamy countryside.

Buddhist Sunday School is in session when we reach Gadaladeniya Temple, and the kids are sitting attentively outside the main shrine, chanting scriptures in the Pali language. For one reason or another, it’s mostly girls, each with an identical hairstyle of two long plaits and a stark-white uniform offset by the vermillion robes of the monk instructor.

Further hiking through local farms follows, before a visit to Lankathilaka Temple, reached by dual staircases hewn out of a rock mountain; one of the staircases dates to 1344, the other to 1913.

The last of the three temples is called Embekka, and it includes a notable Drummers’ Hall whose timber pillars have survived 700 years with their ornate woodcarvings intact. There’s nobody about, but that doesn’t stop two elderly local gents from doing the name of the hall justice by beating a rhythm on a pair of ornate drums. It feels like it needs some vocal accompaniment, but I’m hardly going to inflict my singing on a mellow farming community of Sri Lanka.

Our walk is done in time for a late lunch – a Chinese-style stir-fry at a roadside eatery on the way back to Kandy.

There’s a footnote to the religious tone of the day: a visit to the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic in Kandy. This one is very much on the beaten track, with a queue, a metal detector, and a stern official berating tourists for showing too much flesh. (Bring a sarong.) Inside, you’ll struggle to get a glimpse of the namesake tooth, but there’s still plenty at which to marvel.

The balcony at my homestay, west of Kandy
The balcony at my homestay, west of Kandy

 

Accommodation, part 1

The first two nights of the trip are spent in an atmospheric homestay west of Kandy, and it’s a refreshing change from a hotel. A lovely retired couple runs the show, and I also meet their cricket-obsessed son and chat with him about the Indian Premier League. Almost all meals are included on Moonstone trips, including the ones at the homestay; they’re as delicious as they are enormous – dinner on the first night, for me alone, is a bucket-load of rice served with three curries, two salads, papadums and fresh fruit. The next morning at the breakfast table I’m given six slices of toast and six parathas, together with a range of homemade pickles, preserves and chutneys. Oh, and an omelette, a plate of bananas (two varieties), three wedges of papaya with lime squeezed on top, a pot of tea and a fresh avocado juice. I make a pretty decent dent in all of this, yet the mother seems genuinely concerned that I’m not eating enough.

Hike 2 – Tea

Sri Lanka isn’t a huge place – about the same size as Tasmania or Ireland – yet it’s the world’s fourth-largest tea producer. This means you’re never too far from a plantation, especially in the middle of the country.

Our second walk begins after a 90-minute drive east of Kandy to the Rangala tea-growing region (spelt “Rangalla” on some of the old estate signs). It’s a sparkling morning, and the journey is a scenic joy.

The van lets us off, and with daypacks on our backs (the Moonstone guys conveniently transport your main luggage onward each day), we begin a gentle ascent of a tea-laden hill.

There are more temples, only this time they’re small Hindu buildings set up by the Tamil tea-pickers, or even smaller shrines dotted among the plots. I’m thankful for the quick visit we made to a tea factory yesterday, on the drive between Colombo Airport and Kandy; it gives me a better idea of what’s going on.

Despite a few steep-ish climbs, the 15km hike isn’t too taxing. As we amble along in the sunshine, Amal imparts some of his encyclopaedic knowledge of Sri Lanka’s flora and fauna. At one point, he picks some free-growing cardamom and hands me the fresh pods to sample. Later, he plucks a different plant from the ground, then breaks the stem and blows on the oozing sap; it creates perfect soapy bubbles, like from a plastic toy. Of the country’s 98 varieties of snake (eight venomous) we see only one, but it’s a biggun – a 10-foot yellow rat snake that slithers away from the path as we approach.

Lunch is a picnic (unbeknownst to me, Amal has been lugging our food in his pack) next to a sacred Bodhi tree that has Buddhist paraphernalia deposited around its base. We eat rice, curries and dahl, and coconut biscuits to finish.

Our pace quickens in the afternoon, not from the sugar in the biscuits but from the quickly darkening sky. Amal counts down the kilometres to our overnight camp, but we don’t quite make it in time. I don a plastic poncho for the last half hour as the thunder roars around us and the heavens open.

Nights three and four are spent in this tented mountain camp
Nights three and four are spent in this tented mountain camp

Accommodation, part 2

Nights three and four of the trip are spent in an excellent tented camp on the southern slopes of the Knuckles Mountain Range. I wouldn’t call it luxury, but the tents are all housed under timber A-frames so they’re protected from the elements. A couple of “camp masters” are on hand to whip up cups of tea, meals and bonfires. The camp is perfectly located for making hiking forays into the rugged but beautiful Knuckles range.

One of the three waterfalls
One of the three waterfalls

 

Hike 3 – Waterfalls


“Today we’re walking to some waterfalls”, says Amal, cunningly omitting one important detail; we’re actually walking to the top of some waterfalls. So, while much of the 20km we cover for the day is still relatively easy, a few sections are close to vertical.

As if to confirm there is a greater challenge in store, we’re joined by a second guide, Raja, a rake-thin, moustachioed fellow from a nearby village. He’s carrying a spray-bottle of antiseptic, which from time to time he squirts onto my boots. This is to stave off the many leeches that have made their home in Knuckles. I’ve also been advised to wear a double layer of socks. The precautions mostly do the job, though one clever wriggler does find his way onto the back of my leg, drinking his fill before I realise what’s happening. Leeches have 32 brains, by the way, which is presumably why I’ve been outsmarted.

The aforementioned waterfalls are a series of three separate cascades, each one reached by a muddy scramble and ending in a swimmable waterhole. I wait until we’re at the last and highest of them before ditching my clothes and diving in. (Those photos are staying safely on my hard drive.)

We eat lunch while we’re there – a sardine curry, among other things – and thanks to the noise of pounding water and the stunning views of central Sri Lanka, it’s a memorable moment.

Equally memorable is what awaits once we climb up and above the final waterfall. We’re now on a high, flat rock shelf known as a “cloud forest” – and we are quite literally walking through a cloud. Eerie and exhilarating.

With clouds, of course, come rain, and if yesterday’s afternoon downpour measured a 6 on a scale of intensity, today’s is a 9. It absolutely hammers down, and by the time we get back to camp, my boots are a pair of miniature swimming pools. But I’m having the time of my life.

Hike 4 – SUMMIT


Tonight I’ll be flying from Colombo back to Singapore, but if that implies the trip will be winding down with a final-day whimper rather than a bang, I’m mistaken – there’s the little matter of a mountain summit to conquer.

Amal, Raja and I set out after a 7.30am breakfast, and retrace part of our route from yesterday before branching off in a different direction. Soon our peak looms into view. It’s no Everest – snow wouldn’t last 10 seconds in this humidity, for one thing – but it looks like a reasonable challenge.

And so it transpires. We climb sharply for several hours on a path that’s shrouded by vegetation. The trees and shrubs come in useful, offering hand- and footholds, with vines as makeshift ropes to help get up some of the steeper sections.

At one point, Raja stops me in my tracks and points at what look like dog droppings on the path in front of me. I thank him for the heads-up, but he’s not actually concerned about me treading in the stuff. “Leopard,” he says, before taking a closer look at the pile. “Fresh,” he adds. It’s just the news I need to climb that little bit faster. (Fifty metres later we pass the deep, large footprints of a wild boar and my pace quickens again.)

After a final bit of breathless scrambling, we’re at the top. Raja celebrates the lung-busting ascent by smoking a hand-rolled beedi cigarette. I take photos and look around for the cable car to take me back down. There isn’t one, of course; just 360 degrees of picturesque greenery. We drink it in for 15 minutes before beginning our descent.

Cable cars, postcard sellers and other trappings of tourism will come to Sri Lanka soon enough. As a holiday destination, it’s very much on an upward trajectory. WIth this in mind, my advice would be to go soon, if you can, before all its secrets are discovered.

And if you love a holiday that involves culture, nature and some rigorous exploration of the great outdoors, this five-day traipse around Kandy and the Knuckles Mountain Range is a brilliant place to start.

Raja in the Cloud Forest (with his bottle of leech spray)
Raja in the Cloud Forest (with his bottle of leech spray)

Getting There

Moonstone Expeditions is an independent UK travel company specialising in unique adventure trips to Sri Lanka. Aside from trekking in the Knuckles (prices start from £399 per person, including guides, accommodation, airport transfers, most meals and more), it offers cycling holidays, and any number of tailor-made trips, whether it’s surfing, canoeing or something else that takes your fancy. Contact info@moonstone-expeditions.com.

Trips are available year-round, and there is no minimum group size or specific starting date, so all you need to do is get in touch (details below) and line up a time.

Flying to Colombo is a cinch from Singapore; various airlines ply the 3.5-hour route. I took the 9.55am SriLankan Airlines flight, which got me in at midday. A Moonstone representative was waiting in the arrival area with a sign and a van for the drive to the homestay at Kandy. Hike 1 began the next morning (after six parathas and 11 pieces of fruit).

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