October 21, 2013

The Hike of My Life - 4 Days in the Knuckles Range(Part 1)

(From Bambarella through Kalupahana along Kalu-ganga to Rambukoluwa and Pallegama)

“The hike of my life” as the title says, this was an experience of a lifetime for me and four of my friends which pushed us to our limits for four days in the wilderness in the Knuckles Range.

Day 1

July 17th, 2013, it was 7.30 am when Wattegama-Bambarella bus reached its last stop-Bambarella, 38km away from Kandy. After getting some misleading directions, finally found entrance to Lebanon State and along the Lebanon state vehicle track we headed for Rathnagiriya Estate.
Lebonon estate vehicle track
Lebonon estate

On the way we met ‘Maniraj’, a farmer living in that area who used to work in a cardamom estate in Kalupahana 15 years ago. He showed us great hospitality by inviting us to his house and also contacted us another person named ‘Kobbekaduwa’ who have been to Kalupahana few months ago.

"Kalupahana is located amidst Knuckles conservation forest. This area was used for cultivation of cardamom and more than a thousand people had worked in those cardamom estates. Cultivation of cardamom covering about 2700 hectares including more than 80 barns which are used to dry cardamom seeds, locally known as ‘Vadi’ in the forest reserve is one of the major contributors for the degradation of forest habitats in the Knuckles range which leads to destruction of forest undergrowth. Even though department of Forest Conservation has burnt and destroyed most of the cardamom estates and banned growing cardamom there are still active small scale cardamom estates run behind the curtains."

At the entrance to Rathnagiriya estate
They were going through hard times as cardamom estates are not active now, both of them have lost their jobs and now they engage in cattle farming and growing crops. As they say, even their crops are eaten and destroyed by sambhar stags which have increased in large numbers over the past decade. Apparently after the department of forest banned cardamom estates as an incidental result poaching may also have been decreased.

According to them the trail to Kalupahana doesn’t exist now, it’s covered by the undergrowth and you have to have a machete like knife to clear the path. They accompanied with us half way through Ratnagiriya estate passing line rooms, a bridge with a waterfall- the entrance to Rathnagiriya estate and where there was a landslide recently. The jeep track is supposed to end at a place called ‘Dalumaduwa’ where tea leaves from Rathnagiriya estate are collected, instead now it’s been blocked by a landslide. Just after passing where the landslide occurred we said farewell to Kobbekaduwa and Maniraj and continued our journey.
Landslide in the vehicle track between Dalumaduwa & entrance to Rathnagiriya
We arrived at ‘Dalumaduwa’ within no time. The upper part of Ratnagiriya estate, called ‘Ratnagiriya-kanda’ was clearly visible covered with grass (pathana).To enter the jungle, we had to get to the top of it. It was very windy, at the top. We could clearly hear the sound of Sambhar stags. Through the jungle our first destination was a cardamom barn called ‘KMP vadiya’ which was at the direction of North East as our 1:10000 map indicated, we found no trail leading to that direction, but a lone mountain covered with thick jungle, the top covered with clouds which we assumed to be ‘Selva-kanda’(Later found it wasn’t). After a difficult decent from the pathana (Rathnagiriya-kanda) came across a stream, it had carved steps like rocks which made us even believe that we were on the right track.

Nature forced us to get a rest there after discovering the tons of leeches that had just begun to trouble, only to know that the precautions, mainly salt powder was not effective in these kinds of montane rain forests besides these were not the typical leeches found elsewhere, they were poisonous.

After the little rest, the journey continued, entering the dense forest patch, going up streams, it was a continuous steep climb through wet, slippery conditions. Once in every few minutes we had to check for leeches. As we climb up it was getting colder with the mist. After a while we passed a small open area which I thought our camping tent could fit, I marked the place in my mind just in case. The ascent was getting steeper. It was about 3 pm when we had lunch on a rock boulder we found which was interfered with a drizzle. It took another one hour climb to make us realize that we couldn't go any further because a giant cliff was standing in our way. It was getting darker. We made a quick decision to get back to the small open area and set up the camp and go around the mountain in the next day morning.

Setting up the fire
No, it was impossible, even with kerosene....
Setting up the camp was nearly impossible due to strong winds and of course setting up a fire was completely impossible. With the howling winds and cold, the dark night was very much frightening and even the leeches didn't like to be the second in troubling us.

continued on next post - The Hike of My Life - 4 Days in the Knuckles Range(Part 2)


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