The statue of Buddha stands like a massive sentry overlooking the jagged peaks of the Knuckles range, the more remote and unchartered of the Hill Country. From the pass at Hunnasigiriya beyond the masonry Buddha stretches the eastern plains – a carpet of green broken by occasional domes of rock and the lagoons and ancient man-made tanks of the Gal and Maduru Oya reserves.
We take the road to Corbet’s Gap. It winds up through pine forests and abandoned tea plantations, clinging to rocky outcrops often barely the width of the van we travel in, deeper and deeper into the Knuckles. Wind whips up the dust into clouds, bending the trees into permanently hunched and gnarled forms.
The Knuckles range, so named by British colonialists due to the peaks’ uncanny resemblance to a clenched fist, is an inaccessible and untouched part of Sri Lanka. The mountains form a natural barrier that encloses an area within full of endemic wildlife and biodiversity. Until the mid 80s the road ended at the start of the ascent to Corbett’s Gap – the only point of entry between the massive peaks – and those intrepid enough to explore had to hike up and over the gap, and down to the land beyond. The journey would have been tough. The slopes are steep or sheer; those that can be trod are covered in thick, dense forest full of snakes, spiders, the occasional leopard and sloth bear.
The van can go no further as the road turns into a rocky track. We are travelling with our friend Nalin, an expert on biodiversity in this region. His son accompanies too, and, following in his father’s footsteps both literally and metaphorically, delights in identifying the birds from their enchanting calls, the enormous blue, yellow and black butterflies that cross our path, and the woodland spiders – the size of saucers – whose webs hang in the metres-wide spans between trees.
We walk deeper into the forest on our way to Nitre cave, high up on the slopes above the village of Kumbukgolla. Regularly we pass armies of frogs – tiny sandy-red creatures that ping away in waves, giving the impression of heavy rain bouncing off tarmac. The boy knows so much about the animals and plants here. In a natural clearing, he stops at some foliage similar to delicate fern or tall sheaths of corn. ‘Watch this’ he says, stroking the stem so that the heads bow and close. ‘This is Nidikumba or Sleeping Grass’ he explains.
The ascent steepens and the forest closes in around us. It grows dark and still. It’s the dry season and our footsteps crunch and crackle through the dead leaves and sticks that litter the slopes. This place is eerie – breathless and silent; overpowering. Ancient tree trunks several metres in circumference rise at regular intervals, waiting to succumb to their fate. Here, the trees are slowly gagged and destroyed over many decades by the Strangler Fig, that creeps around them, throttling the life from them so that, eventually, the tree is enmeshed, dies and disappears, leaving only the skeletal frame of its successor to flourish.
Finally we reach the cave, a huge semicircle in the rock face. The forest clears revealing the peaks of the Knuckles massif: Lakegala, Kalupahana, Rilagala, Selvakanda; in Sinhala the Dumbara Kanduvetiya or Misty Mountains. Nalin and his son have come here to take saltpetre from the walls of the cave. With rock hammer in hand we approach. The smell is overpowering – a stale stench that I’ve not come across before. The cave mouth looms and the ground becomes more and more loose underfoot, the texture of sandy ash. Soon we’re wading up to our knees in the stuff. Bat shit, guano deposited over years and years. Thousands of bats hang cocoon-like from the cave ceiling. Our presence is disturbing them and increasingly they awake, the screeching rises and they flutter around the roof in clouds. Unperturbed the hammering starts. I learn all about saltpetre and its explosive capabilities, the primary ingredient of gun powder before cordite became the norm. But I’ve now had enough, nauseous from the smell and taste I scramble out to the fresh air.