The SLA & LSR Adventure; Day 7, 8 & 9, Gampola through Kitulgala to Adam’s Peak

During 2014 the Trek and Run team joined others to cycle and trek over 650kms, coast to coast across Sri Lanka. We were supported on our journey by the following companies, who provided the resources we needed to make the best of our time there.

Our tour had been arranged so that no matter how physically tired we became, we had options. If we were only capable of a couple of hours cycling one day, no problem, we’d load our bike into the team van and ride in air conditioned comfort the rest of the distance. Even if we woke up feeling that we didn’t want to do anything, that was possible too, we’d just ride in the van all day. Nobody had taken that option by Day 7, but it was there all the same.

But despite this, as I took an early morning stroll and looked over the amazing scenery that surrounded the Bom Vino Hotel…

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…I felt that I so needed the rest period that we were due on Day 8. I wasn’t exhausted from the cycling, just tired of the other members of the group constantly wittering on about the armies of leeches we were sure to face on our forthcoming climb up Adam’s Peak, and other aspects of our journey that they found a challenge. I’m not an intolerant person but I found talk like this infuriating. If you come to Sri Lanka on an adventure tour that involves jungle trekking and then complain about the possibility of leeches surely that’s as insane as taking a job on Wall Street and then moaning that all your workmates are money-crazed lunatics? To complain of leeches, of having no wi-fi, of that the hotels or meal aren’t the same as at home, well, the next step is surely to want a McDonalds on every street corner? Don’t misunderstand me, I don’t relish the thought of leeches. It’s just that encountering them is all part of the experience and plus, given the choice between leeches and McDonalds, it’s leeches all the way for me…

I tried not to dwell on all this though, as we sat down for breakfast before our ride. I told myself that it’s only natural that any group would have trouble getting on when they’re living in such close proximity as we were; there was going to be a clash of personalities. Many English people are like some of our group – always smiling whilst spewing out endless negativity, talking the sort of trash that’s not based on any truth but instead on stereotypes that are expected from a ‘kind’ westerner visiting a developing world country – and if I was going to get upset every time I came across them, I’d be living a very solitary life indeed. Yet still…

“It’s a lovely place, and the people are always smiley and happy, and they live in huts but they still manage to get their clothes all white and clean, amazing, and I even ate the salad there! But oh, those leeches, and the heat…”

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“We owe these people more than our inexperience and fear,” I thought as we began our ride, “they’re invited us over to their country and have opened up their world, if there’s any decency in any one of us we’ll give everything we’ve got in our efforts to understand and experience life to the full here.” I pulled over after a few minutes, pretended I was adjusting my head camera; this ride was too beautiful, there was no way I wanted to ruin it with listening to this mundane, idiotic western chatter, which hadn’t stopped since breakfast although now it had moved onto talking about everywhere else other than where we were, which is also a favourite occupation of tourists. The Louvre is packed with people banging on about Rome, and in New York the talk is all about the West Coast…

Far better to fall behind and cycle alone for a while, I thought, perhaps that’ll make it clear to the others that I’m just not into this overpriveliged westerner type talk and they’ll come round to behaving themselves.

We stopped after an hour for a roadside snack. Ladies were selling jackfruit, a huge fruit that can grow up to 20kg.

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Here’s the fruit quartered and on sale.

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You don’t eat the seeds at first, just the sweet flesh around them, but if you dry the seeds out they make a wonderful curry.

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The rest of the morning’s ride was beautiful, as usual. I don’t think Sri Lanka does ‘ugly’ very often. Everywhere you go in the country there’s great natural beauty everywhere. Here are some images showing something of the pre-lunch scenery.

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Lunch was taken in a roadside buffet. It was an extensive vegetarian spread with a great range of textures and flavours.

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And the manager, a kind chap, offered us a thick, extra sweet forest honey for dessert, a delicious treat that you don’t find often in the modern world…

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The afternoon ride was every bit as scenic as the mornings. The road’s were largely clear of traffic so we could get some nice, freewheeling speed up as we cruised down the hills past tremendous views, tea estates and monkeys scrambling through the branches of roadside trees.

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At a bend in the road that we suddenly saw Adam’s Peak for the first time, the holy mountain that we’d be climbing in three days. In the photo below it’s the highest one on the horizon, on the left, shaped like an inverted triangle.

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Some travel days are just immense and this was turning out to be one of them. First the magnificent cycling, then the satisfying lunch, then the big, easy downhills and the sighting of Adam’s Peak which stirred an excitement within me for the days of adventure to come, and finally we arrived at Kitulgala Resthouse where the cast of the film ‘Bridge over the River Kwai’ stayed when filming the jungle portions of the film. The first thing I did on arrival after checking in was go to the bar that Alec Guinness, William Holden and Jack Hawkins had enjoyed on many occasions…

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…then I said hello to the manager, who’d come to the reception area to welcome us all…

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…and then as dusk descended we all followed the local’s example and jumped into the river, which is right next to the hotel, for a cool down.

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The hotel has simple but very comfortable rooms…

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…but the highlight of the Kitulgala Rest House, for me, is the meal-time experience. Such a panorama can be had from the table, it’s incredible to eat as well as you can here whilst looking out at such a vibrant green scene.

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The food was first class, served with a gentle, timeless style.

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Day 8 was a rest day so after breakfast Lamia and I relaxed outside our room, soaking up the atmosphere and taking photos of the wildlife…

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…whilst Hannah and Jane decided to spend the morning rafting.

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I was supposed to wait for them on a bridge and take photos as they passed under but just as they appeared in the distance two chameleons started fighting at my feet, which made for a fascinating show…

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So I missed the raft passing. However, two other rafts swiftly followed so I got a few shots to show how lively the water gets at times.

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I skipped lunch – Sri Lanka breakfasts and dinners were generally so filling that I rarely felt hungry during the day even though I often ate lunch as it seemed rude not to (so it was great to have a day off and be able to build up a real appetite for dinner) – and relaxed before the afternoon’s activities. Considering this was a rest day, there was still a lot planned. Nothing was compulsory, of course, but who’d want to miss out on a guided forest walk, or a trek to a cave where evidence of human habitation have been discovered dating back over 40,000 years…

We took a dugout canoe across the river, past groups of bathing pilgrims – recently returned from Adam’s Peak and now enjoying a few well earned snacks and drinks – to the village on the riverbank opposite the rest house.

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Within a few minutes of walking we were in a verdant landscape where, it seems, everything grows with the utmost ease.

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Our guide, LH, explained a little about tea as we passed a little plantation, which you can see a freshly plucked sprig of here…

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…and then we met a lad who’d just found a jungle fowl chick in the undergrowth. Jungle fowl are the Sri Lankan national animal. He’d tried to locate it’s mother, he said, but she was nowhere around – they’re known to be very shy creatures – so he was taking the chick home to try to raise it as a pet.

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A little further on we came to a village where a cricket practice session was in full swing. We joined in for a while…

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…before heading on, along forest tracks and across suspension bridges spanning the churning river…

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…and then on, upwards, to the cave at Beli Lena.

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Recent excavations at Beli Lena Cave have found prehistoric evidence that suggest early humans developed quicker in Sri Lanka than in Europe, perhaps up to 19,000 years quicker. Also found there were types of tools, previously thought to have been invented in Europe in 12,000 BC, that date to 31,000 BC, suggesting that perhaps the only reason European history is thought of as being so important to the world is that Europe has had the money, the leisure time and the scientific capability to investigate it.

The final approach to the cave, which is about 2,000 feet above sea level, is through humid, lush jungle.

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The steps last just five to ten minutes and then you’re at the cave system where you’re greeted by a stone entrance arch, erected by a Buddhist monk who’d lived here for many years until relatively recently.

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Just above and to the right of this first cave is another, easily reached by passing the cave caretakers house and then up a muddy slope that takes you under the thinnest of waterfalls to the cave mouth, from where we got a view of one of those soft sunsets that tropical jungle regions do so well.

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The Beli Lena cave system can be explored further, much further, with use of ropes and headtorches, but that’s an adventure waiting for our return as the afternoon’s walk was enough for all of us. The sky was darkening, we had a couple of kms to walk back to the van and a candlelit dinner was waiting for back on the open veranda of the Kitulgala Rest House.

Day 9 was to take us to the base of Adam’s Peak, where we’d stay the night at a local home in the village of Maliboda. We began it by saying goodbye to our new friends from the Rest House…

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…and then cycling along an easy going tar road with the river below on our left and the mountains all around.

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The route soon got tough though. For five km we pushed on through a rubber plantation where the tracks were often heavily rutted. Here you can see the easier sections.

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As usual we had numerous opportunities to get good people photographs. No need to snap away from a distance like in many countries; in Sri Lanka you just have to ask people if you can take a photo. They’re very calm about such things, and always genuinely welcoming and friendly.

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The lady above is pouring liquid rubber into a bucket. Below you can see the plastic bags wrapped around the rubber trees protecting the collecting cups from the frequent outbreaks of rain (the monsoon season was brewing and getting stronger day by day).

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We passed a small house where a couple were processing the liquid rubber into sheets ready for transportation.

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“You are welcome,” said the man, “we’ve never seen tourists here before.” This was one of the major benefits of this tour, we were passing areas of the real Sri Lanka rather than looking at places inhabited by people hardened by years of having to deal with Lonely Planet and Rough Guide wielding tourists. The man finished stirring the rubber liquid in the trays, loaded them into a smoking room and then waved us off.

“We’re honoured to have had your visit,” he smiled, “please, come again.”

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After the rubber plantation we had fifteen kms more on tarmac to cover before lunch. It was a busy road mainly through towns where the highlight was a small store with soya meat on offer as standard. In the west we have such a hard time convincing otherwise decent people to stop contributing to the animal abuse that comes hand in hand with eating regular meat that it’s such a relief to see a nation doing the right thing animal-rights wise. Sure, the farming of soya has it’s issues that have to be addressed, and soon, but it was great to be among people who don’t see animal persecution as an unavoidable fact of everyday life.

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Lunch was had at a Hindu restaurant in Deraniyagala; a great spread of rice, beetroot curry, dhal, coconut sambol and poppadam.

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The monsoon really chit us hard as we cycled on; we inched uphill for an hour but then had to take shelter under a shop overhang opposite a monastery; it was hard to progress as the road was broken up and so slippery that our tyres just couldn’t get the grip they needed on the steeper climbs. The rain eased and we moved on through peaks coated in huge waterfalls that just an hour earlier hadn’t been there. We rose above the mist and then our host for the evening pulled up beside us in his Tuk Tuk and we followed him the final couple of kms to his home, a rambling place built from brieze blocks, corrugated iron, wattle and daub.

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Now, ours was a huge journey with so many memorable happenings over it’s course, but I know that for Lamia and I one of the things we recall most, now we’re home in the west, is the welcome we received from our friends in Maliboda. You’re going to have to trust I’m not rolling out the stereotypes myself now, you know, the ones about the poor people who live simply but happily. I’m not saying that living and staying there was paradise, for them or for us, but there was a genuine, uneffected joy in the way they offered us a place in their lives and by which we were allowed to be truly ourselves which I’ve rarely experienced in over 20 years of travel through 70 countries.

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I also love showering outdoors, especially in fresh mountain water after a relatively tough bike ride!

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After dark grandma and the children said prayers and did schoolwork in the family bedroom…

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…and we settled down to a few board games, snacks and a magnificent meal.

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The TV played classical music until about 9pm, I fed the family dogs a few chips, a frog hopped around the board-game area until it was caught in a half-coconut shell and taken outside into the bushes (I love this attitude in Sri Lanka; in the west when most people see a small wild animal in their house their default setting is ‘Kill it!’ whilst in Sri Lanka the people are that bit more human and settle for relocation) and the girls discussed their concerns about the leeches with L.H. and our new guides, who had been drafted in to help ensure we all made it to the summit of Adam’s Peak.

“There are four routes to the summit of Adam’s Peak,” explained L.H. “the main one is the Hatton Road route which is seven km long and rises 900 metres in all. Second easiest is the Ratnapura route which is eleven km long and rises 2,100 metres. The third, which is the one Lamia and Hannah will take, is the Iratna route, which rises 2,100 metres over fourteen km, whilst the hardest of the four is the jungle route, starting here in Maliboda. No tourists have ever taken that route before, so Dave and Jane will be the first. It’s only a climb of 1,900 metres but it’s seveteen km long and all of the first 1,000 metres of ascent is through thick jungle.”

The leeches on the Iratna route, he said, would be minimal, which pleased the two girls taking it, whilst those on the Maliboda route would be a different story. We should expect to encounter them, frequently, along with other small and not so small animals…

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…but we’d deal with ways of possible prevention in the morning. Now wasn’t an evening to be filled with worry, now was a time to have a couple of arak’s (coconut spirit drink), enjoy the conversation and then get an early night. The morning would bring a stiff test, for all of us.

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If you’d like to know more about LSR, please visit www.lsr-srilanka.com

If you’d like to discover more about the service offered by Sri Lankan Airlines - www.srilankan.com

And if you’d like to view the film of our entire adventure across Sri Lanka, here it is.

This is the edited, half hour long version…

…and this is the hour long version.

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