Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Sri Lanka's Knuckles Mountain is a worthy trek...with or without the leeches

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.

Our guide was a slight, flip-flop wearing local named Rajah. He spoke little English but, there was little difficulty communicating with Rajah through a few words and hand signs . And all of Rajah’s experience and knowledge — stored from his from his baseball cap down to his leathery feet — cost us a measly 2,000 rupees ($14US) without the tip.

After a two-and-a-half hour ride through small villages, spice farms and tea plantations via transit car from Kandy, Jamie and I ended near a schoolhouse near Thangappuwa at about 9 a.m where we met Rajah. There was some confusion about securing a climbing permit for the hike (the permit office was closed?) but luckily Rajah made a phone call and said he would pay the 1000 rupees entry fee ($7US) tomorrow. Fine with me as long as we hiked.

We set out on a dirt road from Rangala House almost immediately after settling the entry fee conundrum under the dry, blazing blue skies. The base of the mountain trail was about a 30 minute walk away. There had been no rain for the past three days and Rajah reassured me that the chance of leeches was now almost zero. They were wet weather pests he added.  That was a relief but I still checked my legs and arms every minute or so as a new habit — even while we were still in wide open terrain!

The weather in the Knuckles mountain range is unpredictable and could change within few minutes depending on the season. Thick mists could cover a mountain in a matter of minutes and rain could fall at almost any time. So bring a poncho.

December to May is a good period to enjoy trekking at Knuckles with the possibility of rain being moderate but June to September being the best opportunity to hike with with the lowest possibility of rain. Temperatures can range from 45-90 degrees F depending on the season and time of day so take it into consideration during preparation.

Knuckles range is home to various wildlife such as wild boar, spotted deer, wild goats, giant squirrels, barking deer, purple faced leaf monkey, mongoose, porcupine and also many varieties of lizards. Black eagles soar above and the colorful  Ceylon Junglefowl — the Sri Lankan national bird — can sometimes be spotted in the brush. And, oh yeah, did I mention the leeches?

As the three of us made our way through the tea plantation fields dotted with women hunched over and filling burlap sacks with the fragrant green leaves. The hoots and hollers of monkeys become a familiar soundtrack on the empty trail. Outside of the women laboring under the hot sun there was not another soul to be seen. It was hard to imagine the absence of hikers in such a divine spot happening anywhere else in the world. And that solitude couldn't have been more welcome.

Rajah was well acquainted with the terrain and was quite excited to point out rhino-nosed lizards and the black eagles soaring overhead. We stopped every once in a while when he found some tasty wild strawberries or baby guavas to snack on and he even chopped down some bamboo for us to use as walking sticks. They would come in handy when we climbed some of the more slippery hills and rocky steps.

After numerous stops to take photos of the spectacular countryside or small streams and about three hours into our trek, we crawled up a steep bank of bamboo to make our way to the mountain peak at 3664 meters (12000 feet) and had the first sighting of Garandi Falls. Not only were we treated to what is know as “Little World’s End’ — a spectacular cliff with a jaw-dropping view of the Knuckles Mountain range and valley below — the cascading waterfalls falling over it was nature at its finest. Crystal clear water fell over the black rocks into a tempting pool below. After a quick dip in the shallow pool — followed by another paranoid leech check — we commenced with more rock climbing and yet another wonder — a second waterfalls ( the Upper-Grandi Falls) above.

It was a photographer’s dream and well worth the effort to see them both.

We ate the lunches we packed while surveying the valley and wondering why the whole world couldn’t be this wonderful before reluctantly heading back down the mountain. And the descent was just as peaceful — if less strenuous — as the way up. And, yes, still without other hikers  — although we did run into some free-range goats and caught a glimpse of the elusive jungle fowl hopping through the trees.

Six hours after our start we finished the hike and headed by car back to the putter of tuk-tuks and roar of buses in Kandy — a bit hungry and little dirtier — but full of good memories and, surprisingly, leech-free.

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