July 2014


Off the beaten track at Thangamale Bird Sanctuary
July 2014




The rock cliffs of Thanga: Looking down at the world of beauty

When it came to hanging out in a secluded wild park strictly for the birds, I knew what I had to do to stay clear of any trouble. I would stick to the beaten track, stay on the straight and narrow and never stray from the chartered course I had carefully mapped long before I arrived in Haputale to trek the Thangamale Bird Sanctuary.


Words And Photography Manu Gunasena


The sanctuary is set in Thangamale, the ‘Golden Mountain' and is part of the Glennanore Tea Estate. It comprises of 131 hectares and was declared a protected area in 1938. It is approximately two kilometres away from Haputale town, which is 175 kilometres from Colombo and 4,695 feet above sea level. And there are two ways to access the reserve.


One way is to walk, motor or take a tuk to Adisham, the well known retreat of St. Benedictine monks two kilometres away. Start the hike down a foot path that is on the left of Adisham, walk five or six kilometres until you reach the Idalgashinna railway station. But since there are no regular trains from Idalgashinna to Haputale and no motorable road, you may have to walk all the way back to Haputale. The other way is to take a scheduled train from Haputale to Idalgashinna, start the walk from there to Haputale. This route serves to save a double excursion.


My plan was to enter the sanctuary either way depending on train availability. Get on the path. Enjoy the scenery. Keep an eye open for birds. Be overawed by the panoramic view offered and keep a close watch out 
for leeches that may, unbeknown, 
be sucking me dry. In fact I had taken 
a bar of soap to rub on my skin as a leech repellent, and, if that failed, to do the trick, a bottle of salt water to make the blood suckers let go my veins and drop their vicious hold on the dermis like a hot potato. Thankfully, as I found later, the ground was not damp and there were no attacks from the little vampires on the ground. I could concentrate on the sunny prospects around me without having to do regular clinical checks on my legs.


As luck would have it a train was to leave the Haputale station in thirty minutes time to Colombo with Idalgashinna as the first stop and I rushed to catch it. The decision was made for me. I would do the walk in reverse.


The train ride was swift and during the short ride I got the first glimpse of the beauty that awaited me. Suddenly enveloped by nature's canvass of landscape art, the strains and weariness of the journey to reach here that had engulfed me seemed to vanish. Here I could be as free as the birds, wander amongst the clouds and dance with the daffodils.


At Idalgashinna, I disembarked and spoke with the station master who was smartly attired in a starched, pristine white colonial uniform with rounded white hat wearing a dark blue tie, same attire as the station master at Haputale and similarly polite. For a moment I wondered whether news that Sri Lanka had received independence sixty six years ago had still not reached the hills and at what time Tiffin and cucumber sandwiches would be served on the rail buffet. But the quaint kit was impressive and served to remind that it was due to the British presence in the island at one point in the nation's history that had made the tea gardens of Sri Lanka possible. And the British colonial uniform designed for the tropics added to the scenery and atmosphere and was as natural as the surrounding tea trees the British had planted.

Greenery was all around me, glistening under a tent of blue
The station master gave me the necessary directions, as clear as the sky above was, without a cloud in sight. 
"Walk on the rail track towards Haputale. Go through the tunnel through which the train that brought me to the station had passed. There will be a sign board. Near it will be a path to the right. Go down that path and follow its course and it will lead you to the exit point which is Adisham." I followed the instructions to the letter and, as directed, passed through the tunnel and walked on. 
But the problem with directions is the same as Haputale's funny weather, which has a naughty reputation for changing from sunshine to rain and rain to sunshine, from sun to gloom and gloomy to sunny in a matter of minutes and the directions which had been clear to me as the cloudless sky a few minutes before now appeared lost in a mist of misunderstandings.


The weather held well. The sun was out but its light was mild. The air was cool and invigorating. Greenery was all around me, glistening under a tent of blue. And I began enjoying the walk. Along the way a group of foreign trekkers, on the home lap to the Idalgashinna station passed me by. I should have asked them for directions but somehow I didn't and carried on. And then I saw a path to the right.. Though there was no board, I decided to go down the track but after a few yards it came to a dead end of tea bushes. There was a narrow opening to the left but it seemed dense and I thought that too would lead to a dead end. Thus I turned back and that turned out to be the turning point that changed the course of my history.


I returned to the rail track and resumed walking the plank, my eyes searching desperately for the signboard the station master had said I would see. There was no one in sight to ask the way and I could do naught else but walk on regardless. After some time I spotted a shed and when I came upon it, found a man who said he was the rail patrol man, the one responsible for ensuring the track is safe and free from obstacles. He said he was new to the area himself but there was a sign board a few yards away and volunteered to accompany me. With him as my guide, I continued walking but his few yards became twenty, then fifty then a hundred and more and I almost gave up hoping to get on the right track.


As recompense to my physical efforts my eyes were however treated to an aesthetically pleasant feast. On my left was the Uva Basin and before me spread the valley of Diyatalawa and the beautiful view was bordered at the end with the mountain ranges of Thotupola, Hakgala, Piduruthalagala, St. Catherine's, Dambetenna and Namunukula, the source of many southern rivers. On my right rose the Thangamale Mountain, steep, tall and verdant. This, I knew, was the Thangamale reserve and I had to find the path that would take me over the mountain to glean the view with the appreciation it deserved.


Finally we saw the sign. But where was the path? Above and around the sign towered the hill with Turpentine trees soaring to the sky. But no track. 
I had already spent forty minutes walking to this spot. I realised then there was no option but to go back to the path I had with disdain dismissed as being a dead end. It would mean a waste of time and another senseless slog on the railway planks. But I had no option but to do so.


But I had not even proceeded for a good five minutes when the patrol man, who obviously sympathised with my plight and felt remorse, I am sure, for leading me up the railway path, suddenly pointed to a spot in the mountain and said that it might be a possible path. True enough there was a small cleaving about ten inches wide with a rock here and there that seemed to go up the mountain. It may have been a path used by the mountain climbing villagers as a short walk to cut across 
the mountain to the other side. The fact of the matter with any sanctuary was that it had no fixed and marked exits 
and entrances. Any point would do, 
if one was prepared to overcome natural barriers. The path of entry staring at me was one bounded with obvious obstacles which may not have presented any challenge to an experienced mountaineer. To me, however, it looked impossible.


But there is no limit to what necessity and encouraging words can do to wrest miracles from adversity. And morale boosting words from the patrol man 
had their effect and made me bold enough to dare the challenge. It may have been one small step for a mountaineer but it was a giant leap up for me. With my bag pack cradled on my back, my camera dangling from my neck and my hands reaching out and grabbing the small clusters of tall grass and my knees trembling, I placed the first brave leg up and forced myself to make the other follow suit, while my new found cheer leader stood safe on the railway track bellowing inspiration.


Somehow I made the grade. Sometimes crawling on all fours, sometimes half bent, sometimes faltering until finally I had cleared 
the hurdle and found myself on a clearing on the slopes of the mountain. The ground was full of dried leaves; 
and tall turpentine trees looked askance, ignoring my condition. I looked below and realised I had reached an elevation of about two hundred feet from the railway track. I looked back, upward and found I had another steep incline to overcome. Now I was on my own and an unknown territory with no map or compass or guide, in the midst of a mountainous forest, with not even a bird in sight.


But somewhere over the mountain I knew was the golden rainbow view I had come in search of and I quickly resolved to perform the task that lay before me. Step by step and breath 
by breath I climbed the incline until 
I reached it and, lo and behold, the vista before my eagle eyes upon a peak in Haputale was one of pure serene beauty. It was an endless scene painted in pastels, of vast lakes that looked like mud puddles surrounded by great tracts of paddy fields and forests, of tall mountains in the distance, rising and falling in many shapes and heights, 
of pale blue skies with drifting clouds 
of grayish white, a many coloured mosaic of a many splendoured land.


This was the Southern Plains. Stretching out as far as the eye could see. I knew it contained the Lunugamvehera, Handapanagala, Hambegamuwa, Udawalawe and Samanala Wewa reservoirs but which was which, to be honest, I could not identify. And since 
I was not a land surveyor I suppose it did not matter for my purpose held to savour the scene and imbibe the wondrous vista, to drink the beauty for beauty's sake. 
To see the tanks, the grassy lands, the fertile fields, all woven and threaded together to produce a breathtaking design on nature's tapestry was all that mattered at that moment in time when I stood enthralled on celestial heights and held the glorious creation of a divine force as my own demesne on earth where I was master of all I surveyed.


On a clear day, depending on the amount of dust particles in the air and the sun's position in the sky, even the coast line is said to be visible but it was not my day in that respect. Or in another respect too, to be sure, for when I looked closer down I saw to my dismay that the normal path, which trekkers take at Thangamale was below me-over a hundred metres and more below and there was no path through which I could step onto it. 
I was at the top of the mountain, perched precariously on the brink of a precipice taking the rarely trodden rocky track only the brave or the foolish would dare to take. The only way, I realised, was to go round the mountain, following its contours with the ever constant abyss beckoning me, and hope the track will gradually descend and join the usual low level safe path, which now seemed almost pedestrian.

I could see the main road winding its way like a snake and a few cars, like dinky toys on it
Far below me in the outer fields 
I could see the railway line and watched a train take a bend and disappear. It looked even smaller than the toy trains I have played with. Towards the western side of the mountain I could see the main road winding its way like a snake and a few cars, like dinky toys on it. On opposite hills were areas of land with pine trees planted for soil erosion. In some areas 
I could see terraced paddy fields some of them surrounded by forests. At certain places whiffs of white smoke rose to join the clouds. There were a few birds flying but they were too far in the distance to identify. Once as I passed a bush I heard the sweet chirping of a small bird within it but it vanished the moment I paused to peer.


I also passed several places where wild boars had been digging for worms in the dark of night. The ground was dug and roughed up badly and the boars had even managed to dislodge rocks to get at their tiny prey. By the size of the area messed up, I guessed that it must have been not a solitary boar but a whole host of them. In a cave on one of the massive rocks from which water seeped out like tears continuously down its face, I noticed a large wasps nest, It had the shape of a large ladle and was white in appearance and orange within. This was a hive the wasps had built, used and abandoned. Then I noticed that next to it hung another hive similar in shape but not in colour. It was black. This was a live hive 
full of wasps and their trove of honey, 
and I passed it by without making a sound lest I disturbed them and never lived to tell the tale thereafter. In the event of an attack, had it been flat land I would have had a sporting chance to escape but here on the rocks I was a sitting duck for them to cast their deadly sting.


Behind me rose the last lengths of the rocky mountain. At one point the rock took a idiosyncratic shape of its own and the more I looked the more it appeared to resemble the Egyptian Sphinx. It even had eyes cut into the rock and thin lips etched. On the side of the face, which silently stared into the plains below there appeared to be some etchings, as it was some ancient script engraved. The rock was unique and I was glad that circumstances had forced me to take this treacherous route for else 
I may not have come face to face with the Thangamale Sphinx of Sri Lanka.


As I made a gradual but painful descent-for I had to cling to stems and shrubs full of nettles to steady myself and prevent slipping and my hands were scratched and bleeding-the vegetation became replaced with the familiar tea bushes. Soon I came across a few tea pluckers who showed me the directions to descend even further and after hours on the mountain rock I was finally on the well beaten path which now seemed like a zebra crossing on an urban road.


Alas, no birds. Where had all the birds flown, I wondered as I made my final descent to reach the exit point at Adisham. But the breathtaking beauty of the views I had beheld braving the rocky pitfalls and daring the yawns to swallow me more than compensated; and I felt a certain exhilaration run through me thinking of the adventure I had just experienced due to missing the orthodox path. As a result I had accidentally stumbled upon a different track, taken the high road and seen the other side of the Gold Mount and, in the process, had discovered serendipity in my quest for birds at Thangamale.

 

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    Rail transport: The train to Idalgashinna arrives at the station

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    Tunnel vision: The tunnel No 36 on the track

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    Tourist trekkers: Hiking group on the last lap head to Idalgashinna for return train to Haputale

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    Cool, clear water: Gushing from the mountain peak, water at its purest best

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    The Uva Basin: The Namunukula Mountain Range, the source of many rivers

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    On the rocks: The terrain hundreds of metres below from rocky edge of mount

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    The heightened sensation: The dizzy view of the land below

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    The face of the Sphinx: Two eyes cut into the rock and thin lips engraved are clearly visible up close

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    Life below: The Colombo Haputale main road as it winds through the town

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    The crying rock: Water seeps continuously from within and pours down its face like tears

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    Welcome relief: Tea pluckers greet with a smile as I return from great heights

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