Off the map in central Sri Lanka, BBC Travel
It was six o’clock in the morning and there was not another person in sight. The first dawn rays from the east split the thin vapour of clouds and I could see all of Sri Lanka light up before my eyes.
At first the pink sky sunrise illuminated the beaches and jungles to the south, then the towns of Hatton and Kandy in the distance to the north, before resting on the ghostly-shaped peak where I stood. I was at the top of Sri Pada, a 2,243m tall conical peak, regarded as the holiest mountain on this tear-shaped island – it was the perfect place to begin a thrill-seeking Ceylonese adventure.
It had been a tough climb. I had started in complete darkness three hours earlier in the one-street village of Nallathanni. Only a few days before, I had never heard of the place, but that was where the train conductor advised me to spend the previous night. With the help of a $2 torch bought at the Slightly Chilled guesthouse, I had picked my way through thick jungle foliage, inhabited by elephants, wild boar and leopards – as well as leeches and other nasties – before passing beneath the arches of temples over-run by creepers and making the long ascent up the countless knee-shaking steps hewn out of the rock. It all seemed very Indiana Jones-like – especially as the only human footfall had been mine. It couldn’t have been farther from the hullaballoo of Colombo.
In Sri Lanka, the lack of thrill-seekers and adrenalin junkies should come as no surprise. Over the past few decades, the country has been held in the grip of a brutal civil war between the Tamil Tigers and government military forces, meaning that the country’s hinterland – a patchwork of waterfalls, craggy peaks, deep ravines, scared mountains and humid tropical jungles – has remained underdeveloped, withstanding the rampant tourism that has over-run south Asia’s other great adventure capitals like Pokhara, Kathmandu and Leh in Ladakh. Thankfully, peace has prevailed for the time being and things are beginning to take a very different direction.
The proximity of the mountains to the capital Colombo, a glorious twisty-turny, uppy-downy train ride through tea plantations and hill stations, has given rise to a nascent adventure sports industry, and while only a handful of travellers make it to Sri Pada, and the neighbouring town of Dalhousie outside the Buddhist pilgrimage season in April, there are plenty of other adrenalin activities to try.
The best place to get wet and wild is 50km away in Kitulgala. With two monsoon seasons, the town is perfectly suited for all manner of water sports and with three river playgrounds to choose from – the Mahaweli, Kalu and Kelani (where the Academy-Award-winning film The Bridge over the River Kwai was filmed), it is ideal for beginner and expert rafters, kayakers and canoeists.
Tour operator Kitulgala Adventures knows the rivers better than anyone and can organise anything from one-day canyoning excursions and waterfall abseiling to three-day rafting trips that pass through inaccessible tracts of jungle. In the heat of the day, I couldn’t resist the temptation to cool down on one of its trips by throwing myself into the rock pools at the bottom of one of the area’s fiercest waterfalls. The best place to dry off afterwards is Rafters Retreat, a guesthouse that offers guided nature tours and caving, should you want any further thrills.
Even though the surrounding jungle habitat is home to a number of elephant corridors and river crossings, it’s still possible to explore the terrain by other means. Rough, unmaintained trails criss-cross the forests and the ideal way to get off the beaten track is by mountain bike. While guided day tours are available, it’s more of a challenge to head out on the bracing 85km route to Nuwara Eliya, capital of the Central Highlands and famous for its Scottish-style golf courses, lake fishing, and British colonial lodgings. In particular the St Andrews’ Hotel, a Tudor-style country retreat with its own wetland to explore, is well worth dropping in to, if only to catch your breath over some freshly-brewed tea.
For more extreme riding, grab a map, key-in your GPS, and follow the road out to the village of Ambewela, no more than a scattering of huts and planter’s bungalows in a steep valley, dissected by narrow ribbons of landscaped tea bushes. The tricky descent finishes up at the beautiful Warwick Gardens, a former plantation manager’s cottage that overlooks the 32sqkm Horton Plains National Park where your next trekking or biking adventure awaits.
Exploring the centre of the island, with its quiet rivers and untouched trails and peaks, it’s easy to understand why adventure seekers are now coming to the island. Can Sri Lanka’s Central Highlands be described as the new adrenalin capital of south Asia? Perhaps, but what is certain is that five years from now, the secret will be out. And it’ll be no longer possible to come alone.