Never mind the Ikea, feel the eco
Trip Start Nov 08, 2003
74Trip End Oct 22, 2004
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Where I stayed
We left Unawatuna at 9am for a long stint inland, swapping thongs for temples and Factor 11 for elephants. As promised, our driver Lasantha was waiting, van at the ready. A five hour drive of relatively flat, straight roads would take us to our next destination, Kitulgala, 100km east of Colombo.
After, thankfully, a pretty uneventful drive, with no head-ons, no jaywalkers and only the occasional mongrel licking its privates in the middle of the road, we arrived at The Rafters Retreat and were soon met by the larger-than-life owner Chana Perrera, who was in fact larger-than-Fife
He was a 250lb lover-lover man. A long lost lovechild of Brian Blessed and Samuel L. Jackson, he wore a leather cowboy hat covering a shaven head, bead-plaited beard and old-war-wound knee support. He'd been there, seen it and killed it. In fact he had actually been to South Shields of all places, where he had perfected his English, whilst studying for an engineering degree. I expected a Geordie accent but it turned out to be nearer Kingston, Jamaica, his favourite phrase being 'no problem' followed by a laidback laugh. He was also a merchant seaman for four years and he had the tattoos to prove it.
We were led to our 'eco-lodge' overlooking the Caneli River, ours was called 'Murutha'. Inside there were no mod-cons, just floor to ceiling wood. The mattress was the only non-wood on view but after launching myself onto it in true hotel room fashion, I soon realised the springs could also have been made from wood, on closer inspection it resembled a 3-D map of the Himalayas. The bathroom floor was made of large pebbles and the shower was freezing cold, probably pumped directly from the river. It was as eco as you could get and we were soon craving for some Ikea. It was so eco, we found a frog in the bog doing the breaststroke. After trying to fish him out, we had to flush him, and I'm sorry to report, the frog may have croaked it
After an enormous eco-friendly lunch, we took a stroll around the grounds, where two horses were horsing around. Just as we were wondering what genders they were . . . it happened.
Young children should now leave the room.
The male made itself known, it was two foot long, I think you know where I'm going.
Soph, the only one not suffering from an inferiority complex, informed me and Lasantha of the situation:
"Aaaaah, he's just relaxed."
Whereupon, the stallion proceeded to mount the lady-horsey.
"Doesn't look relaxed to me" I said.
Soph let out an embarrassed squeak
Down a flight of steps to the riverbank, we found what Chana had called the natural jacuzzi. To get to it you'd need to wade against the current and perch yourself on a rock with your back to the water as it cascaded over you.
That night, after another gigantic eco-binge, we booked whitewater rafting for the following morning.
We woke the next morning weary and red-eyed after a couple of hours sleep. The inside of our lodge resembled the insect house at London Zoo, with the show-insect being a praying mantis crawling slowly across the ceiling backwards and forwards all night. He was subsequently named 'Johnny Mantis' which meant 'When a Child is Born' was embedded and hummed in my mind all night. At 3am we were woken to the sound of a large animal creeping about on our roof, and we sat up in bed with sheets clutched to our noses waiting for a bear to come crashing through the door. The corkscrew on our penknife was extracted and ready, we could take out whatever it was
At breakfast we were informed that the roof-creeping creature was probably a wild cat and I steeled myself for the forthcoming white-knuckle ride with a traditional Sri Lankan breakfast of boiled egg and milk curry, coconut sambol and string hoppers. Soph stuck to toast.
Into the back of the jeep we climbed. It was going to be a four man expedition this morning, Chana, Lasantha, Gaz & Soph. We drove 4km along the road with the raft (rubber dinghy) behind us on a trailer, with three raft-bearers sitting in it.
Down a flight steps was our start point where we were kitted up in chunky red lifejackets, cranium-crushing yellow helmets and sturdy-looking oars. Chana then gave his briefing which consisted of our seating positions, oar paddling commands and a rundown of the separate rapids we were to experience, beginning with 'The Teaser' and ending with some memorable beauties such as 'The Buttercruncher', 'The Headchopper' and 'Killer Falls'. Luckily there would be no 'Ballcrusher'.
We started steadily downstream, bushes moved, and in the distance were the sounds of duelling banjos. We successfully negotiated the first few, with Chana leading from the back. Every now and again he would boom "forward all", and each time me and Soph would steal a sneaky look at each other and giggle . . . you had to be there really. Then he'd bellow "left back" which would be mine and Lasantha's cue to back-paddle.
We then came to a calm stretch where 'The Bridge over the River Kwai' was filmed, due to the original jungle in Thailand being chopped down. At this point we were allowed to fall out of the raft of our own accord and drift down river on our backs, at one point going over a gentle rapid. While me and Soph were drifting, Chana was torpedoing along doing the 1500m butterfly, apparently his daily exercise and poor old Lasantha was stuck in the raft paddling around in circles. Lasantha couldn't swim and didn't trust his lifejacket to keep him afloat. After paddling in circles for 10 minutes, Chana had to wade back up stream to rescue him which was no mean feat against the current.
After a kilometre of bobbing along we had to climb back in the raft which is never the easiest thing and we were pulled into the dinghy sloshing around like two old trouts.
It was then back on with the cranium-crushers to tackle the big three. The Buttercruncher ended with Soph losing her oar with Chana retrieving it, the Headchopper was a nasty little beast with the added obstacle of a branch hanging horizontally across our paths and Killer Falls had, apparently, a 60% success rate of flipping over it's victims if the angle of approach wasn't spot on. We were spot on, but we felt a masochistic tinge of sadness we didn't go under.
The rafting was our new highlight of our travels so far and Soph has already planned getting her Whitewater Rafting Grade One badge when she gets home.
That evening we invited ourselves around Chana's old colonial mansion to watch 'Bridge over the River Kwai'. He had mentioned earlier that he had the video but our main goal was to be nosey and have a peek through the keyhole.
Lots of antique furniture were scattered willy-nilly on beautiful tiled floors, and a portrait of his Grandfather hung in the living room. Each doorway and window frame was decorated in what we thought was a swastika, but later found out that if you rotate it 45 degrees it becomes the peace sign in Sri Lanka. We were ushered into the TV room to the sight of six of Chana's workers huddled around the video trying to tune it in.
30 minutes later they had found the missing lead and we were ready to kick-back and watch the big film. After thinking we would be the only ones watching, most of the village hung around, grabbed the nearest antique chair they could put their hands on and joined us. Three hours later the film came to an end with the immortal words of the POW camp Doctor crying "madness, madness", again a new favourite phrase of ours and again you'd have to be there really.
We woke the morning after the film-fest at 6am, thanks to Soph asking Chana what the birdwatching was like in these parts. Chana got the wrong end of the stick and thought we were the Oddies on vacation. He had booked us in for a nice two hour wildlife and bird-watching trek.
At 7am we caught the local boat service across the Caleni River, met our guide Nimalliyanage (Nim!), undoubtedly the reigning Sri Lankan knobbly knees champion for the past 15 years. We set off immediately and within five minutes he had spotted something. It was just a crack in a tree to the untrained eye but in no time he had picked up a long twig and had begun fiddling about. He was fiddling with a sleeping female tarantula which is the last thing you want to wake up, in fact, waking any female of any species is asking for big trouble. After 49 shaky snaps from 30 foot away we moved on.
Over the next 30 minutes we only came across some squirrels the size of cats but the grand finale wasn't far off. We came to a sludgy clearing near a paddy field where there were a number of trees our guide was familiar with. We should see some real hardcore bird-on-bird action here and we weren't disappointed. Bright green parrots, Ice-Cream birds (that's what the guide called them), Humming-birds and fluorescent yellow birds imaginatively called Yellow Birds.
This was all very nice, but after 40 minutes of leaning backwards at a 45 degree angle, we were beginning to get crippling back pains.
We all leaned forward. Lasantha then started dancing and yelling wildly. That's really nice of him to do a traditional Sri Lankan dance for us, we thought, but his singing needed work. High leg kicks and ancient Sinhalese chanting of "Leeeeeeeeeeches, Leeeeeeeeeeeches".
Just when we were going to join in with clapping, it clicked. Leeches.
I looked down, was that a nice red pattern on the tongue of my trainers I'd never noticed, or . . .
. . . of all the days not to wear any socks.
Two little reddish-black leeches were biting my ankle in true Norman Hunter fashion with trickles of blood seeping into my shoes. These were peeled off and flicked into oblivion and after removing a trainer I found another baby one nibbling my little toe, how he got that far was anyone's guess. Soph, who had socks on, suffered two bites, Lasantha had one. Our guide, complete with flip-flops, was somehow immune to them as if they knew who he was and showed him respect.
After washing our feet down with water we got the trek out of there. We scurried through the jungle SAS style, stopping every five minutes for an ankle-update. Two big black millipedes obstructed our path to safety but were soon skirted as we picked up the pace.
On arrival at the boat crossing, shoes had to be removed and lo and behold, another two hitch-hikers had joined me for the trip. Two more bites. The scores on the doors were Gaz with five, Soph two and Lasantha with one. I'm quite competitive, all right, I'm very competitive, but this was one game I'd have thrown with no hesitation.
Having said this, we were now bonafide paid-up members of Trekkers International, that hardy bunch of folks who walk their way round the world through leech-infested jungles for the fun of it.
Give us a mosquito any day.
That afternoon we headed half an hour up a mountain in Lasantha's van to see some 30,000 year-old prehistoric caves called Beli Lena, shown around by a guide who looked only slightly younger than the caves themselves. After traypsing for half an hour in 95 degree heat, it was a bit of a non-event. Graffiti had outnumbered the hieroglyphics.
On arriving back at base we met the only other eco-warriors staying.
He was a dead-ringer for U2's Edge and she was the type of girl who gave Plain Janes a bad name. Soph asked where they were from.
"BUCKS" they lewdly blurted out in pseudo-cockney slang. They had their own business, as you do in Bucks, as business consultants for international IT companies. The kind of job that sounds exotic and important, but you don't quite know what it entails. They had 'shut-up-shop' for December as they normally do, can't be bad.
They noticed Soph's northern accent and enquired about it. Soph informed them it was Yorkshire. I then decided to tell them I was from London. The Edge immediately retorted "I can tell". That told me.
After 10 minutes of well rehearsed monotonous narration, taking turns to interrupt each other to add details about their trip so far, we made our fake excuses and departed. We later found out that they had left after only one night due to excessive insect bites. They had all the polari but they couldn't hack it - wusses.
That night we would tackle Adam's Peak, known by the locals as Sri Pada (Illustrious Footprint), the second highest mountain in Sri Lanka, so we grabbed a few hours sleep.
It would be suicide to take on the 7,500 feet that is Adam's Peak during daylight hours due to sunstroke. And to see the sun rising the following morning from the summit, we would be leaving at midnight for the two hour drive to base camp. We had chosen our backup team for the job in hand. Flaskman Lasantha and Torchman Usher would be joining Gary Hillary and Sherpa Sophie for the assault via the north face.
Flaskman Lasantha carried a thermos full of coffee and two packs of chocolate biscuits. Torchman Usher (named so because of his likeness to the US dance artist and his impossible to pronounce normal name), who we had hired from Chana, carried a torch in one hand and a foot long cigar in the other, he was 20 years old. Expedition leader Gary Hillary carried the main rucsac containing water and plasters. Sherpa Sophie just carried herself gracefully.
2am at the base, and we soon knew we weren't going to be the only ones attempting the climb. Barefooted Sri Lankan families kept warm by towels over their heads mingled with Westerners dressed in all the latest trekking gear.
It would be six miles of climbing. It would take anywhere between two hours for the professionals to five hours for the barefoot brigade.
We began climbing, starting at quite a brisk pace we were soon going to regret. The shallow lower section had lulled us into a false sense of security, with the Sri Lankans left floundering in our wake. They knew better.
One hour into the climb and we came to an abrupt halt. We sat at one of the many mountainside cafes and ate and drank most of our provisions. As we gained altitude the stops became longer and the climbing became more sporadic. The paths and steps were lit by fluorescent tubes for the main part and where they weren't working, Torchman Usher sprung into action, the cigar puffing having no impact on his fitness.
Two hours passed and in the distance we could see the mist shrouded strip-lighted path going on for eternity. Lasantha was now struggling and there wasn't a brandy-carrying St Bernard in sight. Torchman Usher dropped back to help him while Hillary and Sherpa plodded on. Sherpa Soph was making an art out of plodding, allowing her feet to pause for three seconds on each step before summoning all her energy to bring her trailing leg through. We were beginning to get worried we may miss the 6.30am sunrise. It was 4am.
Sri Lankan families we had left in our wake were now timing their runs to perfection and were striding by us as we drained the last water from our bottles. There was no coffee as that was 20 minutes back downhill with Lasantha.
The temperature grew colder by the minute, the air thinned and the gradient became steeper. Handrails now appeared as my mental protractor read 60 degrees. We passed camp after camp, serving fizzy drinks, bananas, corn on the cob and sweets, but we had no money, so we relentlessly dragged our exhausted bodies higher and higher. (It's not getting too melodramatic is it?)
Although it was about 40 degrees Fahrenheit, Soph was down to her vest and I was sweating buckets like I normally do.
Another hour passed, it was 5am, and there in the distance was a welcome sight. It was a foodstop called 'The Last Hotel' and out sprung a remarkably fresh looking chap informing us that we had only another 180 steps to go.
I couldn't kiss him, I didn't have the strength to pucker up.
Soph asked me to count the steps as altitude sickness had turned her brain into a fleshy pulp. 15 minutes later and the countdown had ended, we had made it in a time of 3 hours 15 minutes.
The summit was how I would imagine Hell. There was a force 6 gale and a pea-souper, the likes of which old London town hasn't seen since Dickensian times. People huddled in groups trying to keep sheltered from the elements with distraught expressions. A few stray dogs, probably the Hounds of the Baskervilles, curled themselves in balls and visibly shook themselves to sleep. An entrance led to a Buddhist shrine, with a sign saying 'Please remove headwear and footwear before entering'. Not on your nelly. We gave it a miss. A local sat behind a window with the words 'Donations' written on it. I went over and asked for one and was answered with a disgusted stare. Well, they should pay you to do this. Madness.
We joined the other Children of Hell and huddled together on some steps, waiting for the rest of our team to join us. Our perspiration started turning cold and we were soon shivering our merry way to hyperthermia. A hot-dog stand would have made a killing, but again the Sri Lankan tourism infrastructure had let us down.
Thirty minutes passed and we were boosted by the sight of the Flaskman being dragged the final few foot by the Torchman. Flaskman Lasantha let out his now legendary giggle that tapers off forlornly whenever he's had a tough time of it.
Lasantha, who had climbed Adam's Peak before, knew of a room where we could go and wait for sunrise. We were led to what can only be described as Hell's Waiting Room, a nuclear bunker-cum-gas chamber. It was full of lost souls with furrowed brows. Clearly insane, they looked at each other with exasperated looks of despair, desperately looking for a glimmer of hope. Thankfully, there were still two cups worth of coffee left and they were soon drained into our mouths, caveman-style. This didn't go unnoticed amongst the baying masses who stared at us ravenously like dieting cannibals.
Another hour passed, although it seemed a lot longer.
Word was out that the sun was going to rear it's head.
Word was also out that we wouldn't see anything because of the mist.
Nevertheless, we hurried out, and took up a ringside seat facing west. 6.30 came and passed, nothing. 6.45, nothing. 7am, as if a mini-firework had been let off, a barely audible 'oooooooh' swept through the ranks of the Westerners and immediately a hundred expensive digital cameras were being clicked away to within an inch of their lives. The sun had put his hat on. It was like a scene from 'The Tokyo Digital Camera Expo 2003'. The camera-less Sri Lankans looked on in amused disbelief, their reason for climbing was for pilgrimage reasons only.
After a five minute digital-frenzy it was time for the descent.
On taking our first downward steps, we immediately knew this was going to be no cakewalk. Our legs were tubes of jelly.
Our concerted efforts climbing had left us with the limbs of Douglas Bader. Clever climbers who had took five or six hours to reach the summit were now bounding down past us, fresh as daisies, with some young Australian couples annoyingly combining it with a game of Kiss-Chase.
An hour and a half later we were back at the van. Last ones back were cissies and it was us.
Lasantha then somehow drove the two hours back to Rafter's Retreat while the rest of us rocked side to side semi-conscious like rag dolls.
Guess what we did for the rest of the day?
a) went for a jog, did a spot of sightseeing followed by four hours body-popping down the disco; or
No prizes for the correct answer.
In retrospect, it was one of our most fulfilling experiences, and it was another box ticked in "Things to do before you die", although we wouldn't do it again. Our legs ached for days after. We don't want to see another step again.
That evening we woke at 7pm for a barbeque, and had some of the toughest meat known to man, wild boar. This will probably next be seen in Thailand in February when it rears its turtle's head during colonic irrigation.
We'll love and leave you with that thought.
The next installment will take us further inland to Sri Lanka's 2nd city, Kandy.
Until next time . . .
Gazpacho & Koala
PS. Those of you who want to see how really, really brave/mental we were to climb Adam's Peak can get info on http://sripada.org!