East from sacred Katharagama the road disintegrates into a sand track. As the presence of humans diminishes, the unkempt realm of nature takes hold. Solitary army outposts of corrugated iron have rusted and sprouted foliage. Even these occasional indicators of man are slowly being reclaimed by Sri Lanka’s ferocious and ravenous wild.
Around a bend and surrounded by walls of rustling green we stop for a passing mongoose. With the engine cut the noise and colour of the wilderness is full and explosive. Glimpses of movement and patches of light in the shadows left by fluttering leaves. The presence of an absence; the promise of many beasts lurking within.
We reach the mythic and ancient temples at Situlpawwa, deep in the jungle. Thousands of years ago pilgrims found sanctuary from the wild here. Today the gleaming white stuppas still stand sentry on their mountainous boulders. From the top a breath taking panorama unfolds as the carpet of thick green spreads to the horizon in all directions.
The wind picks up heralding a storm approaching from the north-east. Half an hour later the ridges that line the horizon have been consumed. The thunder clouds of the tropics are their own unique tone of dark: sinister, impenetrable, sublime. And with the golden hour light of the afternoon sun from the west illuminating the surrounding jungle and highlighting the contrast of light and dark, the scene is magical.
How many have stood here and contemplated this view? Past, present and future merge and are irrelevant. The rational constraints of time collapse.
Twilight, driving through the jungle avoiding ruts, potholes and trees that split the dusty track into an eye like oval. A shadow ahead, we cut the engine and coast slowly around a bend. Before us, five metres away, stands an adult leopard. Time immaterial. He stares an unflinching stare befitting his confidence, beauty and poise. Majestic and regal, later we call him Oberon.