Ian Lockwood

MUSINGS, TRIP ACCOUNTS AND IMAGES FROM SOUTH ASIA

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In Rāvana’s Throne Room: A Journey into the Knuckles Range

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Dumbara Falls, a stunning site located deep in the Knuckles Range that was our home for two nights.

In the great Hindu epic the Ramayana the principle antagonist is Rāvana, king of Lanka. He is an intelligent and sophisticated deity who, through complicated circumstances involving key siblings, is cast in opposition to the hero Rama. I first encountered and read the Ramayana in Sally Noorullah’s South Asian Studies class at AIS/Dhaka. It was a bold move to incorporate an Indian epic in its entirety at a school that was otherwise quite American. At the time, we used a dense translation of Valmiki’s work that was challenging to get through (luckily the library had the visually-rich Amar Chitra Katha comic version to support our understanding). Ms. Noorullah, who later mentored me in my first year of teaching at AIS/D, brought passion and insight to the way she taught the themes of good/evil, dharma and the hero’s adventure. We capped off the learning with a week-long field trip to Calcutta (now Kolkata) where the class looked for evidence of the epic in museums, on the streets, at various temples, on the Hooghly river and in the delicious food of a myriad restaurants. The sections of the epic involving Lanka, the monkey king Hanuman and the penultimate battle were fixtures in my imagination. Now, many years later, I find myself living in Sri Lanka, a place where Ramayana tourism is developing into a niche market alongside beach, tea and heritage tourism. At the same time, there has been a revival of interest in Rāvana’s legacy and rethinking his traditional role as the villain of the story.

Stories of this mythic king filtered through my thoughts and dreams as a small group of us  trekked deep into a wilderness that is closely associated with the legend of Rāvana. In August my family and I had just returned to Colombo from a restful summer holiday in the Pacific Northwest. All of us had been vaccinated and there was a window of time before OSC started the new school year. We didn’t know it then but Sri Lanka was on the verge of entering another prolonged lockdown. With help from Nadeera Weerasinghe at Sir John’s Bungalow I was able to plan and set up a three day backpacking trek that would take us deeper and further into the heart of the Knuckles (Dumbara) Range than any previous trip. I recruited veterans from last year’s Sinhagala trek including my son Lenny, former student Rashmi Bopitiya and colleague Andry Dejong. Crucially we were able to get the expert services of KC, the talented guide and herpetologist that has assisted my field visits to the Knuckles on previous visits.

Our destination was Duwili Eli (Falls), a location that is spoken of in whispers amongst hiking fraternities but is rarely visited by others because of the difficult and tiring access. Andry had visited the area soon after she arrived in Sri Lanka and our friend Mangala Karunaratne had camped at several locations near the falls. The series of falls that is associated with Duwili Eli and the idea of a long trek in a primeval forest in the Western Ghats/Sri Lanka Biodiversity Hotspots were enticing. In February on a long weekend visit to Sir John’s, KC had taken a different group of us towards the abandoned agricultural settlement of Walpolamulla, a stop about 4 km from the road head on the way to Duwili Eli. It was evident from that hike that this part of the Knuckles offered rich opportunities to experience forest wilderness and biodiversity. It was just a matter of having enough time and in August 2021 all the pieces came together serendipitously.

Beginning parts of the trail to Walpolamulla and beyond. The Forest Department maintains the trail.

Hikers in the Knuckles: (from left) Rashmi, Andry, KC and Lenny

Strava heat maps from our three days of hiking in the Dumbara Falls and Duwili Ella/Eli area.

Day 1

With the goal of reaching Duwili Eli, it works to plan a multi-day hike with different stages and a base camp. KC had done the hike numerous times and we followed his guidance. Our group took a prep day to drive from Colombo to Riverston and Sir John’s bungalow. That gave us a chance to start our first full day of hiking refreshed.

We did the 13 km hike to Dumbara Falls on the first leg of our trek . The path starts out at Pitawala and crosses the Telgamu Oya  before climbing up to the Manigala ridge. I had first been here with a group of OSC WWW students but torrential rains had forced us to retreat. The weather this time was relatively cool with a breeze and overcast skies-perfect for hiking. The path was surprising free of other trekkers-a consequence of the COVID situation and looming lock down. In the end, over the whole three day period we would meet only two other people on the trail.

At Walpolamulla we paused at the old terraced fields to take in a panoramic view of our paths ahead. The building at the former village have mostly been abandoned and it site now mainly used for grazing and a trekking campsite. From the terraces you get fine view over the Kalu Ganga valley towards Duwili Eli. On the opposite (eastern) slope several slivers of water in the forest were visible to the naked eye. The waterfalls were enclosed in dense forest and seemed rather far away. Above them loomed the distinctivly shaped Thunhisgala. This three summited mountain (1627 m) is also named Kalupahana for its tallest point. It is visible in the Meemure valley, especially on the route to the Nitrox Cave (see my Duke of Edinburgh blog post from last year).

View eastwards across the valley from Walpolamulla’s terraced slopes. Dumbara Falls, Duwili Eli and Thunhisgala/Kalupahana peak are all visible. Note the clearing in the, otherwise dense, forest-a patch of grassland that may have been a chena (slash & burn) plot in years past.

The path descends into the valley on a forested path that is still used by buffalo herders during the wet season. The area is very wild but every once in a while we would see piles of stones and tile chards that indicated a human presence at some point in the past. At one stream, a slab of lichen-covered granite once must have served as an altar (there was no evidence of modern iconography and I wondered if it was pre-Buddhist). We had timed our trek during a relatively dry spell. The South Western monsoon was hammering the windward side of the Knuckles and the summits were usually incased in mist, as the name Dumbara (misty mountains) hints at. There were few leeches on the trail but we did discover ticks and chiggers later. For the rest of the hike there were few opportunities to see where we were and the trail was entirely under the forest canopy.

In the late afternoon the path wound through a gallery of tall trees and enormous boulders before taking us to Dumbara Falls, the site of our basecamp. Here, the water from upper tributaries break through ramparts of a granite canyon to cascade 20 or so meters into a dark, elliptical pool. Over millions of years the force of the water has ripped away chunks of rock in large, slab fragments. Several of those slabs provide ideal camping spots-above the torrent of water at a level gradient with a sweet view of the thundering falls.

Forest vignettes from the trail to Duwili Eli featuring a mix of native, cultivated and invasive species.

Day 2

After a camp breakfast we zipped up our tents, put away food and left our campsite on the 2nd day to explore upstream to Duwili Eli with light packs. It is a steep but relatively short 4-7 kilometers of walking (my Strava heat does not seem to be accurate because of the tree cover). The highlight this day was the exquisite forest and different streams. I was curious to explore out to a patch of pantana (grasslands) on the edge of the forest. It seems to have been a chena (slash & burn) plot from some time ago but KC was unsure of its origin. The grass was so high that I was not able to get my bearings or a decent picture of the surrounding hills.

Duwili Eli is the top-most in the series of waterfalls. It includes a cave that is part of a ledge that the water falls over. A Ficus tree has colonized the face and its roots provide a natural protective grate. We reached the area just as a midday shower blew down across the high Knuckles ridge. When it cleared, we took in the views back towards Walpolamulla and Riverston. The cave is a popular camping spot and there is ample dry space. There was a small inscription in a script that was not obvious and it looked as if the cave had been visited for many years. I wondered about it and what links to Rāvana’s legend it might hold.

The view looking westwards back to Walpolamulla from the ledge at Duwili Eli. On the opposite side of the valley (on the center left) is the small terraced clearing at Walpolamulla. The Manigala ridge is on the top right and Pitawala Pantana is a hazy line on the horizon. Dumbara Falls is located deep in the forested valley below.

I was prepared for macro photography on this trip but I found that much my energy was expended on just getting around and I came back with few exiting images. Rashmi was using her new pair of binoculars and we were on the lookout for birds on all days. On the path returning to camp I caught a glimpse of a female Malabar trogon and then a pair of Sri Lankan Grey Hornbills. The drone of the Yellow Fronted Barbet was our constant companion when we were away from the thunder of the stream. When we got back to camp we swam in the pool below Dumbara Falls-a great way to wash away the sweat and strain of the day.

Campsite at Dumbara Falls.

Day 3

For a 2nd morning in a row we awoke to the thunder of the falls and beams of sunlight streaming through the high forested ridge. KC’s cooking did wonders for our morale and Lenny and I certainly needed it. Though Dumbara Falls offers one the finest campsites that we have been in, our tent was pitched on bare rock and we had neglected to bring sleeping mats! KC cooked up fried eggs on a well-used frying pan and added them to our vat of Maggie noodles for our nightly meals. For breakfast we had cereal and hot chocolate -the simple things always make such a difference in the wilderness.

The trail back followed the same route.The major stream crossing at the Kalu Ganga gave us a chance to refreshed and rehydrated and to look for creatures. There were dozens of emerald winged dragonflies-most likely Shining Gossamerwings (Euphaea splendens) – filtering above the water. Moving away from the stream, KC found a Brown Vine Snake (Ahaetulla pulverulenta) consuming a (still alive) Dry Zone Lowland Kangaroo Lizard (Otocryptis nigristigma). Both of these are not commonly seen. The toughest part was climbing back up to Walpolamulla in the middle (and heat) of the day. Crossing the saddle near Manigala we encountered a brief, rather refreshing rain shower. We were back at the trailhead at Pitawala around 2:00. After dropping off KC our group of four returned to Sir John’s to have a night of rest before returning to Colombo. All of us were a bit sore from carrying the packs but when the lockdown set in 24 hours after returning we realized that we had been very fortunate to get away. As for Rāvana’s secrets, we need a few more lifetimes to explore the Dumbara Hills…

Life on the forest floor and in the canopy.

A mosaic of diversity from the Knuckles take on the August trek and February 2021 visit. From the top to bottom: Male Nosed Lizard (Ceratophora tennentii), Knuckles Pygmy Lizard (Caphotis dumbara), Frog (not yet identified), Chalky Percher(Diplacodes trivialis),  Spotted Locust (Aularches miliaris), Female Leaf Nosed Lizard (Ceratophora tennentii).

 

REFERENCES

Bambaradeniya Channa and S P Ekanayake. A Guide to the Biodiversity of the Knuckles Forest Range. Colombo: IUCN. 2003. Print.

De Silva, Anslem, Ed.  The Diversity of the Dumbara Mountains. (Lyriocephalus Special Issue). November 2005. Amphibia and Reptile Research Organization of Sri Lanka. Print.

Harinda. “Knuckles Duwili Eli through Walpolamulla – The Most Wanted trip of the year.”  Lakdasun Trips. April 24.  Web.

Lockwood, Ian. “Knuckles Explorations.” Ian Lockwood Blog. January 2019. Web.

Lockwood, Ian. “Qualifying in the Time of the Pandemic: A DofE QAJ in Meemure.” CAS Pathways. 12 May 2020. Web.

Jayewardene, Sunela. The Line of Lanka: Myths & Memoires of an Island. Colombo: Sail Fish, 2017. Print.

Sanmugeswaran, Pathmanesan. “Reclaiming Ravana in Sri Lanka: Ravana’s Sinhala Buddhist Apotheosis and Tamil Responses.” South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies. 2019. Web.

A panorama of the Knuckles Range looking south from Riverston. Thunhisgala/Kalupahana peak is visible in the far right. Sri Pada can be seen on the horizon to the right of the center. Panoramic image from February 2021 visit.

Written by ianlockwood

2021-11-06 at 10:40 pm

Thattekad Winter 2019 Visit

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A kaleidoscope of Thattekad’s birds from the December trip. Clockwise from upper left: Gray Jungle Fowl (Gallus sonneratii), Sri Lanka Frogmouth (Batrachostomus moniliger), Fairy Bluebird (Irena puella), Greater Racket-Tailed Drongo (Dicrurus paradiseus), White Bellied Blue Flycatcher (female) Flycatcher (Cyronis pallipes), Mottled Wood Owl (Strix ocellata), Slaty-legged Crake (Rallina eurizonoides), Streak-throated Woodpecker (Picus xanthopygaeus), birding group in action, Forest Eagle-owl (Bubo nipalensis), Flame-throated Bulbul (Pycnonotus gularis), Indian Pitta (Pitta brachyura), Orange-headed Thrush (Geokichla citrina), Jerdon’s Nightjar (Caprimulgus atripennis), Malabar Trogon (Harpactes fasciatus).

A highlight of the winter holidays was spending time in Thattekad with Lenny looking for and photographing the key endemic bird species of the Western Ghats/Sri Lanka biodiversity hotspot. My time staying with KV Eldhose at Thattekad last June (as documented in an earlier post) was quiet but rewarding. The December visit was during  peak season and Eldhose’s place was full up and rocking. Our four days and three nights were a fast-paced series of birding encounters with many highlights that have taken me months (and an unplanned curfew/lock down thanks to COVID-19) to process and appreciate. Unlike my normally solitary bird forays, the December outings in Thattekad were accomplished as part of a group(s). Lenny and I were there with guided teams of photographers from Pune and Chennai and then independent birders from the US and UK. As usual, either Eldhose or his trusty lieutenants Adjomon and Vimal accompanied the groups out.

In mid-December Lenny and I took a scenic drive from Kodai down to Bodi, over the Ghats and through the Cardamom Hills to reach Thattekad (about six hours of driving). We had an auspicious start when our arrival coincided with the pursuit of one of the most difficult birds to see in the Western Ghats/Sri Lanka biodiversity hotspot. A pair of Sri Lanka Bay Owls (Phodilus assimilis) was roosting in the primary forest and we were invited to take a peak. After a short 20 minute drive up the road Vimal guided us into a thick tangle of canes, dense shrubbery and towering rainforest trees. My 600 mm lens was still cold from having been up in Kodai and it fogged up when I took it out of the pelican case. It took nearly an hour to acclimatize so the shots of the Bay owl were taken with the 200-500 mm lens that Lenny used on the trip (we had taken it out to photograph Euphorbia trees for Bruce Dejong on the Bodi ghat).

SrI Lanka or Ceylon Bay Owls (Phodilus assimilis) at Thattekad primary forest. Guiding courtesy of KV Eldhose & Vimal Niravathu.

Thattekad primary forest area in winter light.

All of Eldhose’s cottages were full and we stayed in the main house. He was busy running his operation with key support provided by his wife Amy and daughter Ashy. The groups from Chennai and Pune were friendly and during the brief moments where we weren’t out finding birds we shared stories and images. The Chennai group was composed of middle aged and older men from the Photographic Society of Madras and was led by Saravanan Janakarajan. We spent time with them in the hides, in the primary forest and in the evening looking for owls. Lenny and I also got to know Jim and Maggie, a friendly couple from Seattle.

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A SUPERB DAILY ROUTINE

Our pattern was to visit a hide visit close to Eldhose’s home at first light. That offered a chance to photograph the reclusive Slaty-breasted Rail (Gallirallus striatus) and then the more reliable starlings, trees pies, woodpeckers and drongos. The hide is close to the house and cottages but it is tiny and we had to take turns. My photographs were taken on the 2nd last morning. Rather than have breakfast at home, all the groups headed out to the primary forest 7:30 and ate breakfast on the way at Kuttampuzha. A simple road side café overlooking a tributary of the Periyar river offered classic Kerala breakfast fare (appam, puttu, paratha, beef curry, chickpeas etc.)

The primary forest, where most of the key birding is accomplished, is actually not a large forest area like Parambikulam, Periyar or Vazhachal. It isn’t even technically part of the Salim Ali Sanctuary, the protected area that Thattekad is associated with. But there is enough habitat diversity and remnant lowlands tropical rainforest to offer opportunities to see all sorts of key Western Ghats birds. It’s not the sort of place that you can wander around on your own and we were accompanied by Adjomon and Vimal. They had their hands full and it would have been better to be in a smaller group but we did fine. The habitat is ideal for Malabar Trogons (Harpactes fasciatus), which I never tire of photographing. They are shy but will sit still in a shaded area if you are fortunate. We saw Sri Lankan Frogmouths (Batrachostomus moniliger) on three different occasions and the guides have several spots that they check reliably.

Our birding mornings typically stretched on to about 1:00-2:00 PM and then we headed back to Eldhose’s to eat, rest briefly and get ready for the afternoon programs. There was a rotation of hides to visit and the groups took turns visiting them. Just behind his newly constructed rooms, a rare Slaty-legged Crake (Rallina eurizonoides) appeared like clockwork every afternoon at the edge of the wetland to look for mealworms. The other two hides are the “Treepie” and “Flycatcher hides.” Both of these are located on privately owned land that adjoins forest patches. They offer unparalleled opportunities to see and photograph key species up close and personal. White-bellied Treepie (Dendrocitta leucogastra), Chestnut-tailed Starling (Sturnia malabarica), Red Spurfowl (Galloperdix spadicea) and Fairy Bluebird (Irena puella) were my personal favorites at the Treepie hide. Lenny and I spent a wonderful afternoon-almost three hours- at the Flycatcher hide with Jim and Maggie. The diversity of flycatchers and other birds was truly dazzling and it was difficult to keep track of the different species as they came in for an afternoon bath and feed. The key flycatchers included the Blue-throated flycatcher (Cyornis rubeculoides), White-bellied Blue Flycatcher (Cyronis pallipes), Rusty-tailed Flycatcher (Muscicapa ruficauda) and Indian paradise flycatcher (Terpsiphone paradisi). We were also treated to exquisite views of an Indian Pitta (Pitta brachyura), Orange-headed Thrush (Geokichla citrina) and Malabar Whistling-thrush (Myophonus horsfieldii).

Evenings at Eldhose’s always started with an effort to see the Mottled Wood Owl (Strix ocellata) at twilight. This experience had been a highlight of the June trip and sure enough an individual of this rare endemic species came back this time. All of us photographers, armed with tripods and lenses (see images), were lined up and seated for the show. We had one excellent sighting and then two nights where it decided not to visit. Before dinner we had the opportunity to go out looking for rare night birds in the nearby secondary forest. Here the rarities included the Great Eared-nightjar (Lyncornis macrotis) and Forest Eagle-owl (Bubo nipalensis). The nightjar sat in the same place very evening while the Forest Eagle-owl was shy and hard to see. I did manage a blurry image on the 2nd evening.

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Indian Pitta (Pitta brachyura) bear Thattekad. Hide courtesy of KV Eldhose.

Thatekkad_hilltop_birding_3a(MR)(12_19) copy

Hilltop birding inside the primary forest. The open rock faces provide good views of the canopy. There are remnants of ancient humans living here in disused grinding stones and what might be collapsed dolmans. A family of adivasis was camped at the spot and had permission to collect minor forest products.

On our last morning before Lenny and I returned to Kodai we had a chance to photograph the Grey Jungle Fowl (Gallus sonneratii). This is a bird that I have been listening to for much of my life and I’ve frequently seen it on hikes in the Palani Hills. But the sighting near Eldhose’s gave me a whole new appreciation for its beauty (especially in the male individuals). Soon after we packed up, said goodbye to Eldhose, Amy and Ashy and headed back to Kodai to be there in time for a Christmas in the hills. The sightings of birds and experiences in Thattekad left us with an overwhelming sense of awe and appreciation for the diversity of winged life forms in the southern Western Ghats.

Thattekad_birding_gear_iP_1(MR)(12_19)

Bird watching and photography gear at KV Eldhose’s on a brief break from the action.

FURTHER READING & REFERENCES

Ali, Salim. Birds of Kerala, 3rd Edition. Kerala Forest & Wildlife Department. Thiruvananthapuram, 1999.Print.

Birding South India. (Eldhose’s website). Web.

Grimmett, Richard Carol Inskipp and Tim Inskipp. Birds of the Indian Subcontinent, Second Edition. London: Helms Field Guide/Oxford University Press, 2011. Print.

Kazmierczak, Krys. and Raj Singh. A Birdwatcher’ Guide to India. Devon, UK: Prion,1998. Print.

Rasmussen, Pamela C. and John Anderson. Birds of South Asia: The Ripley Guide. Volumes 1 &2, Second Edition. Washington DC: Smithsonian, 2012. Print.

Sreenivasan, Ramki. “Thattekad Check List and Trip Report.” Birds of India. ND.  Web.

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