Article and photos by Tony Mangia
Sri Lanka just might be one of the most colorful and interesting places in the world for travelers searching for a 180-degree change of pace — all in one country and all in a single day. From the ancient temples at Polonnawura through the tea plantations of the Hill Country and the aqua blue water surfing in Arugam Bay, the country offers visitors a wide array of activities and sights — all at a spectacularly cheap price. And even if you find those places just a little too congested with civilization, a mountain hike or hill walk might be the perfect cure.
Transversing the water drop-shaped Sri Lanka is a little trickier than most places and even the most experienced adventurers might tire traveling the narrow, bumpy and traffic-clogged roadways via bus or rail. But if you like to hike, the rugged paths of the Lakegala Mountain trek — more commonly known as Knuckles Mountain — are well worth at least one visit and less crowded and touristy than the over-rated Adam’s Peak stair climb that is nearby.
Situated about 25 kilometers (15 miles) northeast of the dusty, tuk-tuk congested streets of Kandy, Knuckles Mountain is as breathtaking a sight for eyes that one could find in the green and biodiverse Central Highlands of this scenic country. The Ceylon British came up with the name which is derived from the rounded, knuckled ridge resembling a giant clenched fist punching its way out of the earth.
Popular Knuckles Mountain hiking trails include the mini world’s end from Deanston, a trail to Dothalugala from Deanston, a trail to Nitro Caves from Corbett’s Gap, a trail to Augallena cave via Thangappuwa from Corbett’s Gap and the trail to Kalupahana from “Meemure” village.
I was in Sri Lanka to do some volunteer work and a little scuba diving but, after hiking the Inca Trail last spring, it has become part of my travel routine to hike at least one or two trails where and whenever I can. And while the one-day Knuckles Mountain trek I chose is not as daunting as the seemingly endless trails in Peru, there are some multi day and night treks you can do at Knuckles as well. And the one-day hike has a challenge — namely one word that put more fear into my heart than any five day trek anywhere — leeches. Yup. Leeches. And not the kind who hog all the water and trail mix on a hike.
It seems the first thing anyone says when you mention Knuckles Mountain are the blood-sucking, worm-like parasites who attach themselves to your ankles and make their way up your leg before securing themselves to your body for a snack. And in the damp, leafy trails of Knuckles, they are reportedly as abundant as the foliage itself. I hoped the Buddhist blessing I received the day before would protect me from the unpleasant little creatures if the application of a soap and salt liquid on my legs didn’t keep them sliding off.
After some relief hearing that I might get about only half a dozen of the wormy hitchhikers and that some sort of medicinal benefits would surely outweigh the gross factor, I came to grips that I would be latched onto and it was part of the Knuckles Mountain initiation. So off my hiking buddy Jamie and I went.
Most locals recommend entering the trail on he Thangappuwa side of the range about five miles from the mountain peak and to get a guide. The Knuckles Mountain trek could be described as an intermediate hike filled with plenty of clearly-marked, flat rock trails but also has detours going through and up huge boulders, rugged stone stairs and up and down slippery bamboo and jungle-lined tunnels. The steep mountain terrain at the summit of the main Knuckles peak (the sixth highest in Sri Lanka) including a rare dwarf cloud forest. Guides are essential and it would be quite easy to get thrown off course and miss specific wildlife, plants and breathtaking points of interest if you tried it alone. You can hire one by contacting the Forestry Department in advance. We arranged our hike through the volunteer group we were working with but travelers can get more information and book a guide through srilankatrekking.com.