A journey through the “Lungs of Sri Lanka”

The Ceylon Blue Magpie, an endemic beauty found in the Sinharaja Rainforest

Lion’s Rock, Sinharaja Rain Forest…

Rain kept hammering away on the thatched roof of our tree house throughout the night, keeping me in a daze. I was deprived of numerous attempts to dive into a deep sleep, for no particular reason. Maybe it was because I was hyper excited about my first-ever encounter with the Sinharaja Rain Forest, or maybe because the first-ever experience of staying in a tree house was a little too much to handle for a novice like me.

The Sinharaja Rain Forest, designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988, functions as the “lungs” of Sri Lanka, just like the Amazon does for the World. Out of the three access points, I chose the most demanding and lengthiest, the Kudawa Entrance, to pay my inaugural visit to this virgin beauty. It’s no secret that she’s one of the hottest bio-diversity spots on earth and attracts many visitors  from all over the world throughout the year.

&#8220 Sinharaja, which can be translated to “The Kingdom of The Lion”, boasts 211 woody trees and lianas (identified so far), 139 of which are endemic to Sri Lanka.&#8221

Sinharaja, which can be translated to “The Kingdom of The Lion”, boasts 211 woody trees and lianas (identified so far), 139 of which are endemic to Sri Lanka. In terms of fauna, a handful of elephants and leopards are believed to be there but are very rarely seen. The Badger Mongoose, the Golden Palm Civet and Purple-faced Leaf Monkeys are occasionally sighted. Forty-eight species of Foraging Bird Flocks have made Sinharaja their home and 12 of them can only be seen in Sri Lanka. The Red-faced Malkoha, the Sri Lankan Blue Magpie and the Ashy-headed Babbler are very rare endemic birds that can also be seen here.

Waking up early in the morning is always a challenge for me, and it’s intensified when you factor in the rain. Rain is no stranger to these parts of the country and has no particular pattern. Even seasoned hikers, villagers and forest officials in the area have no way of foreseeing what the weather would be like. It’s nearly impossible to predict what the day will have in store for you.

However, my excitement got the better of me and I was up and about, even though it was still drizzling. My two companions came around too, complaining, with all the energy they could muster. We climbed down the tree-house ladder on all fours so as not to fall head first in our sleepwalk. After the morning rituals we sat for a hearty breakfast and stuffed as much as we could without bursting our tummies. Our host, Nimal, kept loading us with information and advice that we must adhere to at all times inside the forest.

The stretch from our hotel to the entrance was about 1.5km and we decided to walk this bit in order to loosen our stiff muscles. However, little did we know that we would regret this decision at the end of the day. The sun had finally won the battle against the rain, and was bathing the water-drenched trees and the ground with golden brown rays. We inhaled the aroma of the wet earth in the morning wind, and I was surprised by the soothing effect it had.

We had no umbrellas or raincoats and this turned out to be yet another costly mistake. The stroll was refreshing through the wooded road, and at some places the wind managed to rustle the leaves, sprinkling hundreds of water droplets on us in a rather mocking way. It was still fairly early by the local tourists’ standards when we reached the entrance and met our guide, Ajith, who was waiting patiently for our arrival. I surveyed the built-in map while the rest of the crew got busy buying the tickets and permits for our trail.

We had planned to do the longest and the toughest trail inside Sinharaja, the Lion’s Rock Trail. According to the signage, it was 14km (I had had no idea if it was one-way or both up and down) and Ajith very quietly whispered the distance was only one-way, making us flinch. To make things more interesting, he further added that we should keep track of the distance to see if it really was 14km. We had our lunch (Roti & Lunu-Miris) packed with us, and a couple of water bottles. Ajith said that we would have no problem finding water inside the forest as there are many crystal-clear streams flowing from all directions.

Armed with a bottle of Dettol to be used against the blood-sucking leeches that can be the biggest nuisance inside the jungle, we set off pretty confidently as the sun continued to defy the thick cloud cover. Unfortunately apart from Ajith, none of us had the luxury of leech-socks, a specially made pair of socks of pure cotton, which are highly effective against leeches. We set off with an air of confidence and soon were enveloped by the virgin forest all around except for the 5 ft wide footpath.

&#8220 All of a sudden I stepped on something that cracked with a sickening sound, and I was aghast and stopped dead in my tracks. Did I break my ankle in my hurry to reach our goal? &#8221

Everything around us appeared some shade of green, from ultra-light to the extreme-dark, and it was soothing for our eyes. It’s such a unique experience to walk through a jungle because it makes one feel very relaxed as if one’s floating in the air; all your sorrows vanish into thin air and you feel invigorated. Have you ever heard trees talk, smile or cry? Well, let me tell you that they do just that. It’s such a grand experience to be among these wonderful creatures of Mother Nature.

Walking through the world of green we arrived at a clearing to find that a few leeches had already hitched a ride with us, hanging onto our pants, socks and even our shoelaces. They reminded me of surveyors because of the way they move. They take the whole of their backend off the ground and twist it right to the front, and then extend the front a full body length. This “walking” process repeats until they hop onto a prey. It looks very much like they’re trying to measure a distance, thus reminding me of surveying.

I saw some beautiful black and white dotted butterflies hovering nearby and simply forgot all about the leeches. Taking out the camera, I started shooting away, when suddenly it got pretty gloomy, signalling to us that the dreaded rains were on their way. With no cover for the rain other than a tiny umbrella our guide carried, we were in a dilemma whether to push on or turn around and call it quits, even before we started the real hike.

None of us wanted to turn around and have to come back again. After some reassurance from our guide that the rains in Sinharaja don’t usually last that long, we finally made up our minds to keep pushing forward and loaded our guide with all our phones and cameras for protection under his umbrella. All of a sudden the wide and open footpath became so narrow and it was impossible to find the trail. According to Ajith, none had ventured in this trail for the past few weeks, allowing the undergrowth to practically covered any signs of the footpath, and infesting whole area with what seemed like many millions of leeches!

Led by our guide, we on kept moving forward in a combination of walking and running, an attempt to minimize the attacks from leeches, with very little success. We’d go on for about 100m, find a rock or some open space, bend over, and pluck (no mistake here) as many leeches as we could in as short a time as possible, and keep on moving. The whole journey right throughout was the same process over and over again. The leeches “stung” (actually, they bite) so precisely that we could easily have used them at hospitals for giving injections, as most of the time nurses find it difficult to get to the vein at first go. So fix a leech to the end of the needle and you have a fool-proof way of getting to the vein!

After what felt like ages, we reached a stream with a derelict wooden bridge over it. To make matters worse, we saw that one of the few elephants roaming in the forest had used this bridge to cross over, breaking it right in the middle. In apprehension, we stepped cautiously on what’s left of the bridge, a mere heap of wooden planks, and walked balancing ourselves like Olympic Gymnasts on cross bars. I reached the middle and saw no way to cross over but to jump into water and wade through, which was something I couldn’t bring myself to do. However, trying to manoeuvre around the broken bit, I lost my footing and fell into the water. Fortunately, I managed to minimize the damage by balancing on my right foot, but not before it was soaked up to knee. Mud and leaves got stuck inside my shoe but I couldn’t possibly stop to clean it, as it’d have attracted more leeches, so I decided that walking in a mud-soaked shoes were better than anything to do with leeches.

“Is it far?”
“Is it any near?”
“Haven’t we come long enough now?”
“How long is 20km actually?”

I kept firing these questions one after the other at our hapless guide, who probably found me to be yet another impatient yet determined hiker. I had to restrain myself from looking down at my legs, because there were a dozen or more leeches happily hanging on, no matter what you poured over them. None of the leech repellent seemed to be working, so we tried to get used to walking with them sucking our precious blood at a rate you simply wouldn’t imagine. Once contented they simply dropped off, having filled themselves to the brim and leaving a bleeding wound – thus making us even more vulnerable to their colleagues. The socks and hem of my shorts were soaked not only with mud and water but also with freshly drawn blood. I could feel it seep through to the bottom of the shoe, making it slippery. It was a real salad of feelings: of joy, smell, pain, agony and exhaustion.

All of a sudden I stepped on something that cracked with a sickening sound, and I was aghast and stopped dead in my tracks. Did I break my ankle in my hurry to reach our goal? I felt sickened to the bone and slowly felt over my left ankle. Surprise! No pain. Still, being sceptical, I slowly got up and lifted my left foot; still no pain and it seemed to be functioning nicely. “What on earth broke then?” I started to wonder. My friends got together and along with our guide exclaimed “bones!” Looking around I noticed the scattered bones of a wild boar; I had accidentally stepped on one of the bones, cracking it. We could clearly see the pointed skull of the remains of its snout. “A leopard’s been here very recently”, informed Ajith, confirming all our untold suspicions as to the cause of the boar’s demise.

&#8220 Don’t panic, if you come across the leopard, just follow me no matter where I go, it’s very unlikely it will attack us if we stay together. This last bit of advice from Ajith left me in a stark fear.&#8221

“Don’t panic, if you come across the leopard, just follow me no matter where I go, it’s very unlikely it will attack us if we stay together”. This last bit of advice from Ajith left me in a stark fear. It was scary even to think about what happened to the wild boar that had apparently been too busy digging a root or looking for something to chew, when the leopard pounced on it. It surely would’ve been a protracted struggle as wild boars are extremely tough creatures. Usually even the strongest leopards don’t dare attack them from the front, fearing their menacing tusks on either side of their snout (actually two continuously growing teeth that protrude from the mouth).

We had no time for a burial ceremony as it was the way in the jungle; the mighty takes on the less powerful. Thorny creepers and bushes bordering the path had scraped our unprotected arms, drawing more blood. They tore into our clothes, slowing us even further. Amid all these difficulties, we eventually reached what it looked like the base of a rocky hill, and Ajith triumphantly announced that the Lion’s Rock was on the top. For the first time during the day I felt overjoyed. We didn’t waste any more time pondering, because the rains kept pounding us at intervals and it was nearly noon. I didn’t even want to contemplate the idea of us getting stranded in this jungle after dark.

I had estimated half hour to do the climb, but it turned out to be more challenging that I thought. The climbing was so steep at some places, that we had to shift into “4-wheel drive”, i.e. holding onto slippery rocks by our arms and legs. The result; leeches started crawling up our arms! It was horrifying but we had no choice because we weren’t going to turn back now, no matter what happened. After a laborious climb, we finally got to the top, which turned out to be a tiny flat area of about 15-20 sq ft, bordered by rocky boulders. There was mist all around reducing our visibility. We managed to see the path of the other trail that comes from Pitadeniya, down south.

Apparently nobody knows the exact legend behind Lion’s Rock. The most famous and version is that there was once a huge lion roaming this area in the ancient times, making these rocky caves his home. The folks from villages along the border of the forest, especially Veddhagala, Lankagama, Pitadeniya and Suriyakanda, used to cross the forest along footpaths to reach one another. The lion was a great threat to them, making it extremely dangerous for them to use these jungle paths. After a lot deliberation, the villagers got together and found a very strong person (a giant) who was willing to kill the lion. They all collected huge rocks and piled them along the border of lion’s domain, and the giant threw stones at it and killed it, much to the relief of villagers. Ever since then, this has been called Lion’s Rock, and the forest, “Sinharaja” which means “the Kingdom of the Lion”.

&#8220 In-between swallowing our morsels we had to pluck the ones clinging to us and throw them as far as we could, so that they won’t attack us again. &#8221

We devoured our lunch of Roti and Lunu-Miris, in the spirit of refugees. However, getting adequate rest was out of the question as leeches were in abundance even at this height. In-between swallowing our morsels we had to pluck the ones clinging to us and throw them as far as we could, so that they won’t attack us again. Nevertheless, our spirits were lifted because it was the toughest hike inside Sinharaja and we managed to finish it amid so many hardships. Nothing was in our favour except our sheer determination. We didn’t forget to take pictures at the break, and as the rains grew more intense we decided to bid our farewell to Lion’s Rock.

We were elated after our achievement and no amount of rain could dishearten us anymore. We kept slipping and rolling all the way to the bottom at a rapid rate. Having caught our breath, we kept on going this time with no care in the world. I think we enjoyed the return journey a lot more, as we had a sense of where we were going and a clear idea about the distance. The journey we felt was definitely more than 14km, but worth every moment of it. It’d have been grander had we been blessed with better weather, but that’s just wishful thinking. We’d got our expedition timing wrong, as it was July, usually the most active period of South-West Monsoon. According to Ajith, January to April would be the ideal time to visit this marvel of Mother Nature in Sri Lanka.

There was a small diversion that we took on the way back; to visit a cave complex called “Gallenyaya” (“complex of caves”) about 1km off the main path. There were even more leeches than the main track, and understandably so because it had hardly ever been used. However, nothing seemed to bother us anymore and we reached the destination in record time. It really was a larger collection of caves and we explored it cautiously as it appeared to be an ideal location for a leopard’s den. Getting a breather on top of a rocky surface, I took out over two-dozen leeches off me, and got ready for the hammering out the rest of the return journey.

We got back on the main path and after what seemed like eternity, we reached the wide-open main path, where the leech attacks were minimal. We stopped by one of the summer huts by the path and did some ‘spring-cleaning’ of our selves, removing our shoes and searching for any hidden blood-suckers. Everyone, save for the guide, looked as if they were shot with a machine gun, as we were covered in red spots, most of us still “bleeding” and making tiny puddles around our feet. We noticed one of the most beautiful creatures inside the forest, a family of Jungle Fowls (the National Bird of Sri Lanka) roaming leisurely along the path looking out for worms.

We tried not to disturb their stroll and walked away, and all of a sudden one of my friends screamed and jumped to the side of the path. To our horror, we saw a gigantic blue-coloured scorpion with its tail up in attack mode. Had it stung, we would’ve had it, for it looked huge and was no doubt highly poisonous. What a narrow escape it turned out to be! We were lucky to have been out in the clear and wide path, and I cant’ even imagine what would’ve happened if it were hiding along the narrow footpath underneath those brushes.

&#8220 all I wanted was a long cold shower, and a steaming cup of coffee to be sipped while tucked up in a warm bed, reflecting on the day’s events. &#8221

Finally, we came across a few other visitors who were carrying big cameras looking like artillery pieces, probably hoping to catch one of those very rare bird species found in Sinharaja, such as the Blue Magpie (captured here for The Pearl by Dhanushka Senadheera). They got into conversation with us and were really surprised to hear that we’d gone to and got back from Lion’s Rock. I thought our bodies spoke themselves about the horror-stricken journey we’d been through. We were anyway not in a very chatty mood; all I wanted was a long cold shower, and a steaming cup of coffee to be sipped while tucked up in a warm bed, reflecting on the day’s events.

Eventually, the entrance to the reserve came into view and I couldn’t help laughing like a mad-man. All my friends joined in and we laughed all the way to the gate. Even Ajith was surprised at our achievement and kept complementing us over and over again. Having said good-bye to him, he was ont only very friendly towards us, but was also patient and knowledgeable. We managed to hitch a hike, for the 1.5km journey back to our hotel.

I felt 10-feet tall as we reached our hotel, and found our host awaiting our arrival armed with steaming cups of coffee. Being a hiker himself, he was pleased with our success and encouraged us to continue the tradition for years to come. One of the old workers at the hotel crushed some traditional medicinal plants and applied the past on our wounds. I felt at ease and had one of the longest showers in my life, and dived straight into a long dreamless sleep.

Story | Sri Abeywickrema
Photography | Danushka Senadheera

4 Replies to “A journey through the “Lungs of Sri Lanka””

  1. Hi Sri,
    Excellent and very informative article about Sinharaja forest and your way of story telling was something special may be its unique to you. As we know you are one of the extreme hikers in Sri Lanka we would be waiting to read many more interesting stories from you and not forgetting the photos of hard working, nature loving photographer Dhanushka(trust me.. one of the best knowledgeable person on birds).

    1. Hi Tony
      Thanks a lot buddy for the lovely comments and glad you like the article….
      Of course there’ll be many more in future…

  2. Hi, Sri it is very interesting and informative article from the start to end with beautiful photographs of Dhanushka.I know both of you have common interesting on waterfalls. It will be grateful if you can share about your journey of waterfall hunting due to lack of published data of them. Waiting for more articles……Thilini

    1. Hi Thilini
      Thanks for the feedback and yeah, we have a lot of common ground and will soon be doing some stories about waterfalls….
      I see Dhanushka has already beaten me to it though…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

7 − six =