In thrall to lion’s kingdom
On the final section of a 24-kilometer trek in the Sinharaja rainforest, I saw a fresh leopard print in the mud. A tiny chill ran up my spine. The paw prints were big and dug deep into the sandy muck of the riverbank. I didn’t remember seeing those prints on our way up the mountain.
“It’s ok,” said the hiking guide, Lakmal. “Leopards sleep during the day.”
Even so, for the rest of the hike I kept looking over my shoulder.
The Sinharaja Rainforest covers a narrow strip of mountains and valleys in southwestern Sri Lanka, and it’s the last unbroken patch of lowland rainforest in the country.
More than 60 per cent of its trees are endemic – meaning native to Sri Lanka – and it is home to about half of the island’s native mammals and butterflies. Because of its unique make-up, it was recognized by UNESCO World Heritage in 1978.
But that doesn’t mean it is easy to get to. I left Colombo for Sinharaja at 2 pm on a Friday afternoon, on the only direct bus to Deniyaya. It took almost six hours to get there, navigating through grinding city traffic and winding mountain roads.
From Deniyaya, and after a quick stop for kotthu, it’s another 15 km up unpaved roads in a tuk-tuk to reach the edge of the park.
The next day, I opted to take an all-day trek up to the lion rock, a bare outcropping 1,000 meters above the forest canopy. It would be 12 km up the mountain, and 12 km back down. It is not recommended to go without a guide. The trails aren’t marked, and the leeches are ravenous.
I met my guide Lakmal at 6 am and we started walking the misty dirt road from the guest house to the edge of the jungle.
Soon, the surrounding tea fields gave way to thick forest, and the air filled with the sounds of calling birds and hooting monkeys. I watched a purple-faced Langur eat a breakfast of leaves on a nearby branch.
“This is Sinharaja,” said Lakmal as we walked. “Sinha means lion,” he said.
He paused, and contemplated my American-ness. I know that raja means king, but instead he told me: “raja is like, president.” It was a bad analogy. I don’t like thinking about my president.
As the jungle got thicker leeches started crawling off the damp leaves of the forest floor and onto our boots. Lakmal pulled out a bag of table salt and covered our shoes with it. The salt kept the leeches at bay for a little bit, but they still found ways to attach themselves to our feet.
Because it was the dry season, crossing the many rivers that ran down from the mountain-tops was easy. They dryness was deceptive: over the course of the year, Sinharaja can get over 5,000 mm of rain.
But now many of the streams had slowed into small pools of crystal clear water, almost like small aquariums. Sitting on a rock, I watched schools of endemic comb tails, their fins flashing red, dart and play in the still water.
Even though I’d brought a few litres of water, I was sweating faster than I could rehydrate. The air was hot and thick with humidity, and there was no way to cool off.
Soon the gently rolling trail began to climb. A serpent eagle crossed our path, navigating over tree roots, looking for its lunch in the crowded undergrowth. As the path got steeper I grabbed small trees and liana vines for balance, fearing everything I touched would turn out to be a python or pit viper.
Lakmal said that certain types of liana were used as medicine in his village: boiling the woody vines for about 30 minutes made a good headache cure.
“Like a jungle paracetamol,” he said.
After a final push straight uphill, we reached the lion rock. Standing on the bare outcrop, the view was of unbroken rainforest as far as the eye could see. I heard Langurs howling, their calls echoing off the mountain slopes. Lakmal said the day before he heard an elephant pushing over a tree in a valley somewhere on the Ratnapura side of the park.
I stopped to eat a lunch pack of rice and curry while looking out at the view. Lakmal smoked a cigarette. Lakmal’s wife does not know he smokes cigarettes when he’s out guiding tours. He told me he chews leaves before going home to cover the smell. Otherwise, he said, the situation gets like that of the giant wood spiders we saw on the way up. Female wood spiders are known to eat their male mates. Out of respect for Lakmal’s domestic life, I’m not using his real name.
The way down was almost as hard as the way up. If the hike up the mountain tore up my quads, the walk down destroyed my knees. Lakmal makes this hike often, and I struggled to keep up with him. When we spotted the leopard tracks in the mud, I sped up.
At the end of 24 km, my legs were like jelly and I was covered in sweat. We cut off the trail through a tea field, and then scrambled down a slope to the Kakuna Ella waterfall. It was the perfect place to strip down and swim. Finally, after a day full of heat and leeches, the water was cool and refreshing.
I bid Lakmal goodbye at the end of the trail. I was going to sleep early and take the bus back to Colombo at 4 a.m. the next morning. Colombo is its own kind of jungle. But I’m happy to know that in this small patch of mountains a real jungle, a rainforest, still thrives. (Walter Wuthmann)