Ian Lockwood

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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

Sri Lanka Mountain Traverse (Part IV)

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The Knuckles Range, also known as the Dumbara Hills, as seen from the east with the South West monsoon billowing up over the edges.

The Knuckles Range, also known as the Dumbara Hills, are a relative enigmatic area that was the last point on our Sri Lankan three-mountain-range traverse. Lenny and I had been on the Riverston side in October of last year with the whole family (see blogpost) but we wanted to go back with a focus on amphibians. This time, with the goal of visiting the last of the three major mountain ranges of Sri Lanka on a single journey, we planned a route that would take us to the Knuckles on a new approach.

Leaving Nuwara Eliya on a crisp morning, we drove out on the north-eastern side of Pidurutalagala, Sri Lanka’s highest peak (2,524m). Other than a crown of cloud forest, this side of the Central Highlands is heavily cultivated and populated. The road (B332) passes through Kandapola and Walapne before descending into the Mahaweli valley through the Victoria Randenigala Rantembe Sanctuary. The Randenigala dam, controlling the outflow of Sri Lanka’s longest river is a major landmark in the dry forested landscape. W the southern Mahaweli  flood plains we passed through Mahiyanganaya on posun poya and the road was crowded with families out for dansal. The surrounding area has relatively low rainfall but enjoys the fruits of the massive Mahaweli Valley irrigation system. The landscape seems to be perpetually green and gold with paddy being grown and harvested throughout the year. Driving along the plains to the east of the Knuckles, we observed dramatic activity of the south west monsoon over the hills (see B&W)cover pictures and panorama).

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Dramatic activity of the south west monsoon over the Knuckles range north of Mahiyanganaya

The recently filled Kalu Ganga dam on the Hettipola-Rattota road.

Looking south on the steep drive up to the Pitawala Pantana and Riverston on the Hettipola-Rattota road.

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Northern valleys of the Knuckles range as seen from the road north of Riverston.

The drive up to Riverston from Hettipola took a route around the recently flooded Kalu Ganga reservoir-Sri Lanka’s newest large hydroelectric project. The town of Pallegama, that we had driven through in October 2018, is now fully submerged. When we passed through, families were removing their last door frames, roofs and materials in anticipation of the flooding. Conditions in the exquisite dry and semi evergreen forest on the ascent were parched-the area is clearly in the rain shadow of the  Knuckles.

Once again, we enjoyed the comforts and hospitality of Sir John’s Bungalow, the small boutique hotel located just below Riverston. This was low season and, generally speaking, tourists numbers in Sri Lanka were thin as a result of the Easter Sunday bombings. But we didn’t complain about being the only guests. Nadeera Weerasinghe, the manager and super naturalist at Sir John’s, warmly welcomed us and we immediately started to plan amphibian outings.

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Lenny searching (in vain) for the rare point endemic marbled streamlined frog (Nannophrys marmorata) in the Knuckles range. Conditions were simply too dry and we could not find any sign of them on this trip.

The cloud forest at Riverston provides a rich area for amphibians and reptiles. The area receives significant of rain from the South West Monsoon and is located above 1,400 meters. Riverston is named for the peak with TV transmission towers on the Ratotta-Hettipola road (B274). The saddle or ‘gap’ where the road crosses a high point is quickly becoming a local tourist point of interest and now has several temporary shops selling carbonated drinks and hot snacks. Visitors come to walk up to the towers and a few come for the biodiversity. However, the area lacks any formal conservation management and the usual issues of solid waste, noise and carelessness are growing into alarming threats to the area’s serenity. During our full day we went with Nadeera up to Riverston to look for lizards. Lenny and I were able to find several fine examples of the endemic Leaf Nosed Lizard (Ceratophora tennentii) and Nadeera tracked down a single but rather shy and difficult to photograph Knuckles Pygmy Lizard (Caphotis dumbara).

Our search for amphibians was quite successful in spite of the dry conditions. We did look for Nannophrys marmorata but their stream habitat on Pitawala Panthana was almost completely dried up (a normal situation given that this was the direst time of the year at these natural grasslands). Further down the hill, Nadeera took us on a productive night outing in the dry evergreen forest with his naturalist friend Kais (KC). Notably we found two different female Hump Nosed Lizards (Lyriocephalus scutatus) and an array of intermediate zone frogs. During our 2nd and last night I went with Nadeera up to Riverston, where the forest is of course wetter and has different species. In about 90 minutes of looking we came across almost a dozen Pseudophilautus individuals including the green P. stuarti. At the time of writing I am still working on identifying the species from both of these walks.

Pseudophilautus_sp_green_Riverston_1a(MR)(06_19)

Most likely Pseudophilautus stuartii at Riverston, Knuckles.

On June 18th after ten days in the field, Lenny and I bade goodbye to the Knuckles and headed back to Colombo. Our final leg took us down the steep Ratotta valley into Matale and then over the low hills to Kurunegala. We knew that we would have to return to find our reticent Nannophrys marmorata that had kick started the search but we felt accomplished in all that we had seen, experienced and photographed.

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Dawn panorama above the panthana on the road to Riverston.

REFERENCES (KNUCKLES)

Amphibian Survival Alliance. Web.

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

De Silva, Anslem. Amphibians of Sri Lanka: A Photographic Guide to Common Frogs, Toads Caecilians. Published by author, 2009. 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.

De Silva, Anslem and Kanishka Ukuwela. A Naturalist’s Guide to the Reptiles of Sri Lanka. Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publishing, 2017. Print.

Handunnetti, Dilrukshi. “How India’s shrub frogs crossed a bridge to Sri Lanka – and changed forever.” Mongabay. 1 May 2019. Web.

Kotagama, Sarath and Gamini Ratnavira. An Illustrated Guide to the Birds of Sri Lanka. Colombo: FOGSL, 2010. Print.

Meegaskumbura, Madhava et al. “Conservation and biogeography of threatened Amphibians of Eastern Sinharaja.” Froglog. Issue 100. January 2012. Web.

Meegaskumbura, Madhava et al. “Diversification of shrub frogs (Rhacophoridae, Pseudophilautus) in Sri Lanka-Timing and geographic context.” Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution. 2019. Web.

Protected Planet. Sri Lanka PA Boundaries. August 2019.

Singhalage Darshani, Nadeera Weerasinghe and Gehan de Silva Wijeratne. A Naturalist’s Guide to the Flowers of Sri Lanka. Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2018. Print.

Somaweera, Ruchira and Nilusha Somaweera. Lizards of Sri Lanka. A Colour Guide with Field Keys. Frankfurt: Edition Chimaira, 2009. Print.

Knuckles Explorations

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High peaks of the Knuckles and Meemure valley from Corbet’s Gap. (April 2007)

The Knuckles or Dumbara Kanduvetiya mountain range is a vital refuge for Sri Lankan biodiversity. Cloaked in mist, both literally and figuratively, they sit at the center of the island but are one of the least-understood natural landscapes in Sri Lanka. In 2010 UNESCO recognized the Knuckles conservation area as part of the Sri Lankan Central Highlands World Heritage Site  (UNESCO). That helped draw positive attention to the area. Located north-east of Kandy, the range is spread over about 210 square kilometers and includes a collection of rugged peaks just under 2,000 meters. I’ve been interested in the Knuckles for some time, especially since there is a strong ecological and geological affinity with the Southern Western Ghats. Last term’s school break and a family road trip gave me a chance to continue my explorations that first started in 2005.

It is difficult to move through the Knuckles area, a landscape dominated by steep escarpments, craggy peaks and isolated valleys. Dense forest makes movement difficult. I have thus far visited the two different corners on four separate family trips and I feel like we are just starting to scratch the surface of getting to know the area. When we first arrived in Sri Lanka in 2005 our family took two short visits to the Corbet’s Gap side of the Knuckles range. Now, in the last two years, we have been to the Riverston area twice. I was particularly interested to observe and document parallels in the landscape and ecology of the Knuckles with the southernmost Western Ghats. I had heard anecdotal  reports that the Agasthyamalai range, one of the richest biological zones in the Western Ghats, shares affinity with the Knuckles area. Thus, I was interested to see the pantanas and see to what extent they mirrored patterns of mid-elevation grasslands in the southern Western Ghats. These links continue to drive my ongoing interest in the Knuckles.

 

The Knuckles or Dumbara range, as seen from the summit of Sri Pada on a crisp December morning in 2013.

 

On our recent visit we took an afternoon to visit the Pitawala pantana, an area of mid elevation grasslands that is home to several rare species. Most notable is the presence of a population of the rare Kirtisinghe’s rock frog or marbled streamlined frog (Nannophrys marmorata). We found tadpoles on the stream surface but did not actually see an adult. That was disappointing but it gives us a reason to revisit the area in the next year. We were give excellent guidance by Nadeera Weerasinghe the manager of Sir John’s Bungalow, the fine accommodation that we stayed at for two nights. He also helped us identify the large Knuckles Bent Toed Geckos (Crytodactylus soba) that frequented the bungalow at night. The best shot, however was found while walking with the kids on the Riverston road at night

There are several species of reptiles and amphibians that are closely associated with the Knuckles area and are, in fact, endemic to the range. The Leaf Nosed Lizard (Ceratophora tennentii) and Knuckles Pygmy Lizard (Caphotis dumbara) were on my list and with advice from Nadeera we found several individuals on the Riverston pass. In the coming months we plan to return to learn more about this fascinating corner of Sri Lanka.

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The endemic and rare Knuckles Pygmy Lizard (Cophotis dumbara) photographed at Riverston. November 2018

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Crestless lizard juvenile (Calotes liocephalus) at Riverston.

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Shades of the shola/grasslands mosaic? These are mid-elevation pantanas (@700-1200 m) with coarse grasses on the Riverston road.

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Morning view looking north from the Riverston road. The foreground is dominated by the pantanas- native grasslands at a mid-elevation (@700-1200 m) with coarse grasses.

knuckles range elevation 2019 (mr)

Author’s map of the Knuckles region (updated version)

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The broad sweep of the Knuckles range seen from the border of Wasguma National Park looking due south. October 2016.

REFERENCES & PUBLICITY

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

De Silva, Anslem. Amphibians of Sri Lanka: A Photographic Guide to Common Frogs, Toad Caecilians. Published by author, 2009. 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.

De Silva, Anslem and Kanishka Ukuwela. A Naturalist’s Guide to the Reptiles of Sri Lanka. Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publishing, 2017. Print.

Ekanayake, Sarath and Channa Bambaradeniya. Trekking in the Knuckles Forest: A Trekking Guide to Alugallena, Dekinda and Nitre Cave Nature Trails. Colombo: IUCN. 2003. Print.

Lakdasun Trips. “Knuckles.” ND. Web.

Lindström, Sara.  Eskil Mattsson and S.P.Nissanka. “Forest cover change in Sri Lanka: The role of small scale farmers.” Applied Geography. May 2012. Web.

Meegaskumbura, Madhava et al.  “Amphibian Research in Sri Lanka.” Froglog. (via ResearchGate). January 2014. Web.

Somaweera, Ruchira and Nilusha Somaweera. Lizards of Sri Lanka. A Colour Guide with Field Keys. Frankfurt: Edition Chimaira, 2009. Print.

Weerawardhena, Senarathge R. and Anthony P. Russell.  “Historical land-use patterns in relation to conservation strategies for the Riverstone area, the Knuckles massif, Sri Lanka: insights gained from the recovery of anuran communities.” Taprobanica. October 2012. Web.

 

Written by ianlockwood

2019-01-12 at 9:14 pm

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