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 Post subject: Beautiful, bountiful Sinharaja
 Post Posted: Sun Oct 23, 2005 1:40 pm 
Beautiful, bountiful Sinharaja

by Vimukthi Fernando
@ Sunday Oberver / 23Oct 2005


I stand alone in the balcony, enveloped in quietude. All around me stretches darkness, save the dim light of a candle creeping between the closed window and pane.

Suddenly, a sight to behold. Memory racing back through years of such a sight - a star bespeckled sky, at Mandressa. I re-live the moment, every aspect of it burned indelibly into my memory. But, I'm miles away from Mandressa in Batticaloa.

I am in the southern foothills, on the edge of Sinharaja, the heart of Sri Lanka's biodiversity. Before me stretches one of the most beautiful aspects of Sinharaja nights - the dance of fireflies - swarming and flickering in their thousands through the forest canopy. I watch mesmerised, while my colleague from a sister paper paces back and forth, to the room from the balcony noting down her thoughts in the flickering candle light.

The trek

We are at the Pitadeniya 'camp' - the visitors' lodge of the Forest Department - after a long day. Furnished with basic necessities, it is an ideal place to rest our tired selves.

Though it is time to rest, I find myself lying awake contemplating the sights, sounds and smells of the day; the three kilometres trek from Mederipitiya along the banks of Gin Ganga; the golden paddy fields; the different hues of the forest undergrowth where patches of light play hide and seek; the cooing of the pigeons silhouetted against the receding rays of the sun; the little wooden raft which brought us across Gin Ganga... and the trek that awaits us tomorrow... until the babble of Gin Ganga and the rattle of the tree frogs lulls me to sleep.

Awakening to a Sinharaja dawn is not difficult. A cool breeze and the sunlight from an open window wakes me early... Perhaps it is the excitement. I have been waiting many weeks for this adventure.

The party comprising Prasanjith Caldera of 'Walk with Jith' our leader and instructor, Asoka Jayarathna his assistant, Thanuja Dharmapala and Prasanna Fonseka, colleagues from sister papers and our shutterbug Thilak Perera is ready by eight o'clock.

Advised to take only the essential items for the journey - a rain coat, a bottle of water and a torch goes into my backpack along with a packet of sumptuous lunch of boiled manioc and sambol. At breakfast we are introduced to our able trackers, the Chaminda duo - W. Chaminda and U.G. Chaminda. And, we bid adieu to the camp site.

Donned in 'forest gear', the special 'leech stockings' we are ready to conquer the forest. Our destination - climbing Sinhagala and reaching Kudawa nature trail. We trek along the foot path, passing the Wathugala suspension bridge.

It is a hilly terrain sporting tea and vegetable crops, with each and every household having their own plot of tea in the form of a home-garden. It seems as if the sun had decided to burden us with its harsh rays, today.

Strange site

Leaving the village behind we acquire another companion, 'Kalu' the canine who tags behind undeterred by the shouts and threats of beating by the Chaminda duo. A strange site greets our eyes - tea bushes grown to heights of four to five meters.

The plots were abandoned years ago, explains Prasanjith drawing our attention to the bird calls. We keep mum and are drawn automatically to the sound of water. A little stream lies ahead in our path, its water cool and clear.

And suddenly we are greeted by a pair of Common Birdwing, one of the largest butterflies seen in Sri Lanka. Though Common in name, they are not a common sight, being confined to forest patches of Sinharaja and the Peak Wilderness. The golden eyes in their velvet black wings glistening in the sun, they fly high, rising and falling in unison.

We stroll at a leisurely pace. We are in the high forest now. With the dearth of sunlight falling on the ground there is hardly any undergrowth. However, it is teeming with life and represents a battlefield. Seeds and young plants vying with each other for survival.

The seemingly fragile vines enveloping woody giants in an effort to enlarge their territories, the giant wood spider with her web of stealth, the Hump-nosed lizard shying away from strangers, the Kangaroo lizard posing for the camera with his high jumps. The world of algae, lichens and moss allow us to glimpse its shapes and hues.

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty - that is all" I recall Keats. The essence of which is glimpsed under a fallen giant of the woods as you creep underneath to get back to the path, hanging silently from the high branches of the canopy spreading colour and lovely fragrances, in swarms of multicolored native freshwater fish basking in the sun in shallow and silent streams, in the white foam of the torrents as they meet the strength of rocks and stones restraining their path, in dead trees which time and elements have sculpted into spectacular shapes, in entwined roots giving life to the giant Navada and Kumbuk, on the wings of a Blue-oakleaf who basks in the morning sun. Beauty lay everywhere. It is a feast for the eye and our shutter bug Thilak enjoys the treat.

No wonder we are far behind schedule. Urging us to hasten our pace from time to time, Prasanjith shares from his wealth of knowledge pointing the specialities of Sinharaja. The path becomes steep, hewn with rocks and roots. Finding the path itself is a wonder.

Though not the highest or the most difficult, at 2735 meters, situated in the middle of Sinharaja forest, it is the least visited. A different view and different images of the forest canopy... atop Sinhagala I wonder at Sinharaja's various facets, which never fail to inspire or revitalise me time and again.

Specialities

We rest a while at Sinhagala for a lunch break and to get rid of those slimy creatures - leeches, crawling up our feet. Kalu, the faithful canine joins us wagging her tail and sharing a portion of food from each and every one of us.

Reminded of the distance to the Kudawa nature trail, and heeding the warnings of the cloudy sky, we hurry down a ravine. A slight drizzle, significant to Sinharaja greets us as we descend. The footpath stretches on, sometimes it is hard to find a path at all.

Hours pass, though we do not feel the time, and bring us on to a level path which would have been a motorable road years ago. But now, it is overgrown. Prasanna is nowhere to be seen and the Chaminda duo take the lead. We walk in the fading light. The path is strewn with fallen trees and the road disappears from time to time under mounds of earth caused by landslides - a result of the floods in 2003.

The Chaminda duo stop every now and then to warn us of the dangers and difficulties ahead. At some places, the path is only about two feet wide with steep slopes on either side.

With the last rays of the sun behind us, we prepare our torches. But, that does not seem necessary, twilight, a very special glowing prevails in the forest. "We are very close to the Sinharaja research centre, from where a motorable road extends," says Prasanjith drawing our attention to the growing sounds of the forest.

A symphony begins, with crickets starting on an airy note and toads and frogs following on. Night jar, owls and owlets pitch in. Prasanjith enjoys explaining the nuances of the different species. We switch off our torches and listen in silence for a few moments enjoying Sinharaja's etherial beauty.

Soon after, we reach our destination with aching feet. And as we dine at 'Disithuru' or Martin's lodge as it is commonly known, I'm reminded of the words of Kahil Gibran, though said in a different context. "Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing. And when you have reached the mountain top, then you shall begin to climb. And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance."

Oh, beautiful and bountiful Sinharaja, my heart truly sings and dances!


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