• Robbie Curtis

#10 - Elephant Rock and the Kingdom of the Lion

Updated: Mar 23, 2020

I woke up on the morning of the 29th with my adrenaline hat on, or rather helmet. For today I was to make an epic cross-country visit to the least conspicuous but perhaps most valuable of all eight of Sri Lanka’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites: Sinharaja Forest Reserve. Translating as ‘Kingdom of the Lion’ – and once thought to play host to the mighty cats – Sinharaja is Sri Lanka’s largest remaining rainforest.

I had only considered going just days before, and the idea to hire a scooter was even more spontaneous. I was of course apprehensive considering I had never ridden one before and had only just passed my driving test, with the situation not helped by the fact that a girl from the hostel had both crashed her bike and had a run-in with the police earlier in the day. Still, her Pennsylvanian-flavoured advice was ‘just do it’, and so I did.

I woke up at half six in the morning in an effort to beat the early traffic, and proceeded to sit motionless for over an hour as the hostel workers faffed about trying to sort me a bike. Eventually – and slightly hesitantly at first – I was off.

Hiring a scooter in undoubtedly the best way to explore a small island like Sri Lanka, and soon enough as my confidence grew I was ticking off the distance at up to 80kmph (sorry mum – cleverly I only told her after the day was done), overtaking trucks and racing past tuk tuks. The roads in Sri Lanka are very much an organised chaos, and as long as you remember the two golden rules: beep at all times and avoid buses at all costs, you have a strong chance of making it out in one piece. And so I ploughed on, sweeping through the south coast as far as Matara before heading north into the hills.

The further I got, the quieter the roads became, and before long I seemingly had half the country to myself as I navigated the winding route upwards, meandering my way through a stunning jungle landscape. By the final 12km, I was virtually on dirt tracks as I inched towards the park entrance; and finally, after nearly four hours on the road, I arrived.

Right: One of the many moments when Sri Lanka took my breath away

I was the only tourist in sight upon arrival and was greeted by local guide Danushka. After devouring a make-shift lunch of three spring rolls and two muffins I was ready to go, and so together we began our hike. It took less than a minute before the incredibly keen-eyed Danushka spotted our first animal: a sleeping python only inches from the trail. To say it caught me off guard would be an understatement, serving as an early reminder to keep my eyes peeled at all times. Sure enough, Sinharaja’s biodiversity came at us thick and fast from then on, and by the time the four-hour trek was up I had seen the endemic hump-nose lizard, black squirrels, skinks, a cobra, purple-faced monkeys and the beautiful bird of paradise. Midway through we stopped at an idyllic waterfall, with Danushka taking the opportunity to snooze as I received a foot spa from a pond-full of nibbling black fish. It was everything I wanted from a habitat I have obsessed over since I was a child; indeed, I could’ve set up camp by that waterfall for days on end. As the afternoon dragged on however I became increasingly aware of the fading light, and spent much of the walk back counselling my guide over his failed relationship fifteen years ago.

I completely failed in my own mission to beat the darkness, so before long my relaxing introduction into the moped-world had turned into a struggle through traffic-ridden towns in the pitch black. I even managed to floor by bike at one point as I consulted google maps, which is much of the reason that as soon as I made it back to the hostel I packed my bags and fled to Galle for the night, before any potential damages were spotted (I don’t think there were any in the end). Still though – what an adventure and what a day. I had well and truly caught the bug.

Four days later I was back on the saddle, plucking out a last-minute destination for my final day in Sri Lanka in the form of Elephant Rock, Kurunegala. This 120km round-trip was flatter and faster, taking me just a half day on the B-roads. The destination felt almost untouched by tourism and as such the views from the top of the rock were even more rewarding. I had accumulated a lot of dirt from the roads and even more sweat from the walk, but, as I posed for a picture on the summit with two local Buddhist monks, I felt on top of the world. My sense of attachment to Sri Lanka and all its treasures reached its pinnacle as I sat and marvelled under the imposing 22-metre Athugala Temple (right).

For such a small island, Sri Lanka delights on a mammoth scale: it is at once the home of ancient and imposing Buddhist architecture; the hunting ground of the mighty blue whale, and the homeland of thousands of elephants. The country has certainly left a giant impression on me, and I will look back fondly on every day of my time here.

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