The day started with a curiously British breakfast of toast and jam, powdered scrambled egg, yoghurt and fruit before Bandulla, our hired jungle-guide arrived. Bandulla drove us in his little Nissan through some rutted dirt-track paddy-fields, up some narrow hillside lanes and through a small stream before we got out and found our path. Bandulla’s English was excellent and the he knew the forest like the back of his hand, which is always an asset. He also had a laugh that rang out from deep within. With him leading the way, we had a very magical day ahead of us.
I took about four hundred pictures today on my compact camera today; it barely left my hand. It was the most beautiful scenery I have ever walked through. The first part took us through some classic Apocalypse Now territory; orangey-brown pathways running along raised banks above the muddy, stork-strewn paddies sectioned off into jagged squares; islands of forest standing alone above the flat, still swamps; fading green shapes of rolling hills, obscured and contrasted by the low-flying clouds. No Charlie here, though.
Eventually the path took us up and around the side of the tumbling green hills to the forest reserve itself. It cooled as soon as we entered into the shady, damp-smelling rainforest canopy, and we took a break to salt our socks in anticipation of leech-shaped visitors. The track we followed wound through the forest, accompanied by the sounds of an unseen stream that would occasionally develop into a rushing ambience beyond the slope of the hillside we were following.
With Bandulla having initially identified a whole host of flora, we quickly managed to discover what was on the menu for the day, including the likes of the tree-lizard (tricky to photograph), fat, shiny, juicy centipedes (actual name), giant, spindly hand-sized spiders (whom we were assured weren’t poisonous, but being all over the place, pretty fucking big and just a bit brightly-colored, I think this was just a strategic lie on Bandulla’s part), the odd, elusive monitor lizard swimming around our feet and, of course, leeches! There was no messing around, this was proper rainforest. He reeled off a healthy list of snakes that were, though rare, resident to these particular parts, plenty of which I remember from being a kid and studying my ‘Badass Killer Reptile’ edition of Top Trumps.
I felt like I needed eyes on the back of my head as well as watching my feet. The irregular, smoothly-worn roots seemed to stick out of the ground exactly when there seemed to be most around you and muddy, earthy European-looking woodland seemed to mould seamlessly into steamy, banana-leaved jungle, complete with poisonous-looking red flowers and vine-strangled buttress roots.
As the thunder rolled in and the rising crescendo of rain started, you really felt like you were in that magic, clichéd jungle-zone that you see on nature programmes and in cheesy gap-year travel guides. To complete the image was to use the ‘bridge’ to cross the river to the rangers’ lodge- an oil drum raft, pulled across by hand by Bandullas’ friend on the other side who, summoned by a yodel across the river valley, conspicuously bobbed his way down the path towards us with his multi-colored umbrella over his shoulder.
The impressive wooden lodge (no windows, no doors) was available to sleep in, provided you had permission from the appropriate authority in Colombo or Matara- a wicked idea, had we been more planned. The break gave us time to de-Leech ourselves. Alec had to pull a fattened-up stonker off his right ankle, leaving a generous trickle of blood and a messy floor for the rangers to deal with.
Meanwhile, I had a try of the Betel leaf, the leaf-and-nut combo that I had mistaken for blood swilling around so many Sri Lankan mouths. It was now clear why I thought I’d seen so many splodges of blood all over the pavements of various towns, and why those exceptions to the beautiful, white teeth that Sri Lankans tended to have all seemed to be the same ruined, black-lined types of deep-red teeth: Betel-nut chewing isn’t particularly good for them. It also doesn’t do too much. I was expecting some sort of crystal-clean, freshly harvested jungle-narcotic experience, but instead it just tasted of soil and slightly tingled my gums. Bitter soil. And not even in a pleasant way, just like shit.
No, I’m okay thanks, no more. Thanks, though.
As soon as the rain stopped, we got out feel wet slopping up to an impressive waterfall and during a refreshingly cool swim with some of Bandulla’s mates that were hanging around there. We also both had a first try of Arrack, a type of local, home-brewed Coconut liquor- it’s basically to Malibu what Special Brew is to a Kronenberg Blanc. It sorts you out though, if you can hack the burn. Back on the trail, we soon wound up to a hilltop path and then back down through a tea plantation and back towards our transport, where Alec was attacked by a spider and we finished with some banana pancakes and sweet tea in a random shop.
It was an incredible day- the best so far by a mile. Bandulla’s tour, 2000 Rupee a-piece, was informative, memorable and delivered with a humorous charm that just gave it that unique edge. We were walking all day, I certainly got my money’s worth and I slept well that night.