We were understandably sceptical. It seemed hard to believe that an island of 20 million inhabitants, the size of Tasmania and with a history of colonial rule stretching back more than 450 years could still contain vestiges of its distant past.
But that was the promise of the tiny hamlet, deep in Sri Lanka’s last great alpine wilderness.
Our route, starting in the hill capital of Kandy, took us northeast, through lush green tea plantations before skirting along the edges of the Knuckles massif, named by the British for its resemblance to the knuckles of a clenched fist. There are 27 peaks over 1000m in this range, the highest rising nearly 2000m.
Stopping for lunch at the tiny village of Rathkinda where the road became impassable, we donned our hiking boots and packs, filled our water bottles and set off on foot. Three hours of walking and two mountain passes later, we reached Walpolamulla and our lodgings, a mud-brick dwelling called Abode. We were the guests of an elderly couple, affectionately referred to as the grandparents, who had lived there all their lives.
They are two of just six people in the tiny settlement. All are in the twilight of their lives, yet they are still almost totally self sufficient, making only the occasional trek out for supplies.
Abode is no luxury eco-lodge but it does give a glimpse of a way of life that will surely be lost with the passing of this generation. The hut itself has just three rooms. There is no electricity and no running water. For ablutions, it’s a short stroll to the nearby mountain stream and as for a toilet, it, too, is al fresco.
Our appetites sharpened by the cool mountain waters, we are ravenous. Squatting on a small wooden step, barely 8cm above the floor in her tiny kitchen, Grandmother is busy preparing our dinner. The contents of soot-blackened pots crackle and bubble away over the fire as Grandfather and Sid engage in animated conversation while drinking toddy, the local alcoholic brew derived from the sap of the coconut flower.
After a satisfying meal of rice, vegetable curries and rather too much toddy, we retire for the night to the only room with a bed; the grandparents sleep on the floor in the kitchen area, which is meticulously swept clean after every meal.
Sid suspects the grandparents have strong roots with the Veddahs, Sri Lanka’s aboriginal people who practised ancestor-worship and had intimate knowledge of their forest surroundings. He points to their superb hunting and trapping abilities and immense strength and notes that, unlike most Sri Lankan village folk, the grandparents do not celebrate the traditional New Year (observed by Sinhalese and Tamils alike). Perhaps most telling is their custom of including meat with their offerings during harvest, a decidedly non-Buddhist and non-Hindu practice.
Closely related to the aborigines of Sumatra and Australia, Sri Lanka’s Veddahs have been almost completely assimilated into the island’s dominant ethnic groups over the centuries. But it seemed to us that the grandparents still bore many of the hallmarks of these ancient people.
Early the next morning, following a breakfast of kiribath (milk-rice) and katta sambol (a fiery condiment made with chilli, lime, salt and dried fish), we set out on an overnight hike, carrying just the basic provisions to survive a night in the jungle. Before leaving the hamlet, Grandfather turned towards a large tree and, palms raised, muttered a prayer, before breaking off a twig and some leaves that he then touched to our heads – a ritual seeking protection and a safe journey from the forest deities.
It soon became clear this would be no casual jaunt. The terrain was seriously rough and steep and we scrambled to maintain our balance.
Ducking to avoid giant tree spiders suspended in their glistening webs, we were soon drenched in sweat, but Grandfather hardly seemed to perspire at all. Barefoot and bounding ahead of us, pouch slung around his shoulder, wooden stick in one hand and scythe in the other, he looked uncannily like a hobbit. We traipsed behind him through a dramatic landscape of vertiginous rocky escarpments, feeling as if we had been transported to the depths of Middle Earth.
We could not escape being savaged by those omnipresent pests of the tropical jungle, ticks and leeches. The latter were particularly persistent: despite our best efforts to deny them access, several found their way into our boots and up our trousers.
The mountain streams were a welcome respite: we replenished our precious water supplies and soothed our hot and aching bodies in the cool waters of pools surrounded by verdant mountain foliage. In the water, tiny fish nibbled at our feet and dragonflies in iridescent shades of green and purple flitted above our heads. I thought this must have been what the Garden of Eden resembled.
As the day progressed, we were treated to a series of ever more impressive views, but none could match the vista from the spot where we camped for the night, a rocky ledge with a natural overhang forming a cave. A waterfall plummeted from high above us and plunged down to the river far below, forming a natural shower of the most spectacular variety. We drank tea served in coconut shells, as dinner – a simple rice and coconut sambol – was cooked over an open fire.
Settling down to sleep on mats under the stars, I could not help but think about the ancients that might have slept in this very spot. I’m sure I fell asleep smiling.
For Sid, the venture at Abode represents the culmination of more than eight years of research. His primary mission is to promote an appreciation for an ancient and disappearing way of life, but he believes passionately that this type of sustainable living provides lessons for us all.
Seeking to support responsible, community-based and controlled tourism, Sid has established the Abode Trust, proceeds from which go to help the survival of Walpolamulla. The extended Abode family are all stakeholders in Sid’s venture, which is also promoted by Experience Sri Lanka, a UK-based specialist tour operator.
The simplicity of life at Abode and the resilience of its inhabitants are a humbling reminder of the follies of fast-paced modern living. But the Abode experience is not for everyone. A moderate level of fitness is required, as is a willingness to adapt to a minimal level of comfort. It is a place to come to learn and appreciate rather than to relax and be pampered – though the overall experience is sure to leave visitors feeling reinvigorated.
The Knuckles is an area of enormous biological significance – outside the Amazon, Sri Lanka is one of the world’s great biodiversity hotspots – but this is an aspect we didn’t really explore to the fullest on this occasion. Even so, we feel privileged to have witnessed a way of life that has all but disappeared from the island and thoroughly enjoyed trekking through what is perhaps the last great wilderness in Sri Lanka.
For more information about getting off the beaten track in Sri Lanka, see www.abodetours.com.