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Travel Tales: Exploring the Knuckles Wilderness at Abode in Sri Lanka

by Harriet Reeves

In our ‘Travel Tales’ series, our Travel Consultants share their travel stories. Our Travel Consultants regularly travel to the destinations they specialise in. This is how each hotel, experience and mode of transport we recommend has been road-tested and reviewed. This ensures that our advice to you is fresh, up-to-date and first hand.

Here Harriet shares her story about a trip to Sri Lanka….

Since I started at Experience Travel, just under two years ago, I have been itching to meet the notorious ‘Sid’ and explore his Sri Lankan wilderness  ‘The Abode’. It took two years but oh my, was it worth the wait.

Sid (short for Sidhantha) is a young Sri Lankan man, originally from Kandy, who has a thirst for exploring Sri Lanka’s wild areas. He originally found out about the Abode village in an old book, and it took him a great deal of searching before he found it – even people living in the next valley didn’t know it existed! His great passion for nature and ecotourism is contagious and I don’t think I have ever seen a man more at home as he, walking barefoot through the jungle.

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Located in the Knuckles Mountain Range, just north east of Sri Lanka’s second largest city, Kandy, The Abode is among the best and most authentic ecotourism ventures in Sri Lanka today. To provide a little background, Sid’s fostered grandparents used to live at The Abode, long before it was a homestay and it was there that they raised their four children and cultivated their rice paddies. In 2008 a herd of hungry wild elephants broke through two walls of Grandma and Grandpa’s house in order to reach their rice store, and devoured the entire harvest within around 2 hours. Not only was the harvest gone, they did not even have a roof over their heads. As is the culture, Grandma and Grandpa’s friends and family took them in, giving them space in their own houses in the next village a 1.5hr walk away. However it is through the homestay projects, and some other specialist guiding that Sid carries out, that they have been able to fund and build a new home, as well as fixing up their old home, Abode.  This means that it can continue to be used by fortunate guests such as myself, whilst providing Grandpa and his friends a place to stay when their old, original rice paddies need harvesting – a great case of tourism money being used to benefit the local communities directly.

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As is the norm with our work trips, they are hectic affairs fitting far too much in to too small an amount of time. Very much a case of do as we say rather than as we do I suppose! Anyway, due to the busy nature of my trip to Sri Lanka this year, I was only able to fit in one night at The Abode, whereas clients would normally have two, or even three if they are keen to do some extra walking and exploring of the stunning area.

We arrived early at around 2pm, having stopped en-route for some ‘short eats’ (Sri Lankan samosas and fried rolls) and tea at a roadside café for lunch. As we wound down through the mountains – hairpin bend after hairpin bend – Sid pointed out the region, optimistically pointing out the one sunny patch as our destination. As we arrived in Grandma and Grandpa’s village the road to their house proved a little difficult in the wet inter-monsoonal deluge, so we parked up. Immediately a number of local friends popped their heads out to help with our bags – the Sri Lankan hospitality is ingrained into everyone here.

Grandma’s new house (which is an overnight option for those who don’t wish to walk on their first day) was to be our home for the night as we had an early start the following day. Her house is small and simple, yet perfectly formed. It has two bedrooms, a living room/rice store and a veranda, but it is really the kitchen that is the life and soul of this house.  It is also Grandma’s domain. She does all of the cooking on the simple earth floor beside her open fireplace, and will not eat her dinner until she is certain everyone else has had their fill – you end up needing to bat her spoon offering more helpings away just so you can ensure she will eat; such is her desire to feed people. Grandpa spends a fair bit of time here too, now that the rice harvest is completed, talking with friends or enjoying a cup of tea and licking the sugar out of the palm of his hand before each sip according to the quirky custom in these parts.

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After settling in to our quarters we donned our walking gear (sturdy trainers will do) and charged off after Grandpa (who goes at a speed not expected for his 75yrs).  We went through the rice paddy terraces, on up the mountain side up to Malkirigoda Gap and beyond for around an hour and a half. The walking is varied, with a few steep climbs up natural rock stairways and some gentler strolls through the unique cloud forest too. The trek has been done by children as young as six years, however this will require a slower speed and I would recommend it more for those eight years and above. Along the way we came across countless species and varieties of tree and flower, as well as the Common Forest Lizard, the Wood Spider (its brightly coloured markings belying its actually harmless nature) and leeches galore – you must be prepared for leeches if coming during the inter-monsoon or monsoonal periods! The views from across Malkirigoda Gap were phenomenal but that was nothing compared to the view from the paddy fields below The Abode.  The valley in which the homestay project is situated is horseshoe-like in shape, and the views down the valley and across The Knuckles of this aptly named mountain range need to be seen to be believed – and I was there in the rain so I cannot even imagine how good they would be with better visibility.

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The Abode is similar in many ways to Grandma and Grandpa’s current house. It has a simple kitchen area: its earthen cooking fire area in one corner and grinding stone in another, and there two bedrooms leading off a small hallway. The bathroom here is the bush and the stream, with a waterfall shower quite invigorating after a long walk in the heat. It is hoped that guests to the Abode will help with the maintenance of this isolated spot, be it giving a hand whitewashing the walls or fixing the roof, or even just sweeping the floors. Due to lack of time and diminishing daylight we just had time for a quick team effort to patch up a portion of damaged roof before we had to head back up the valley, over the Malkirigoda Gap and on to Grandma’s – where her fresh curry was awaiting us.

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The entire experience is one that I will hold dearly in my heart for many years to come. Grandma and Grandpa, and of course Sid, are such wonderful and personable people that it is really rather difficult to not enjoy yourself. Watching Grandpa snuggle up with his cat ‘Pussy’, or even hearing him recite ‘Ba Ba Black Sheep’ randomly after enjoying his rare and cherished beer, as well as seeing Grandma’s look of complete and utter shock and confusion when I asked for cold water to water down my boiling hot black tea instead of yet more hot water – I might as well have told her I came from Mars – it was the people that made this trip so special for me.

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The views were incredible and, as an ecologist travelling with my geography teacher mother, we certainly enjoyed our fair share of geeking out over the interesting fungi and plant life (and squealing at the wood spiders) but the memories of my evening sat in the kitchen, eating with my hands and chatting with our hosts (Grandma and Grandpa speak only the odd English word) will last forever. I want to thank Sid, Grandma and Grandpa for having us – I hope they don’t mind putting me up again soon as I am itching to return.

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