Thursday, February 27, 2014

Leech Zone, No Stopping!

Greetings All,
From Kandy we headed north to the Knuckles Range now part of a conservation area.  It had been dry prior to our arrival but the night before it rained.  Asanga our guide warned us the rain may have brought out leeches.  I hate leeches!  They crawl into your boots and inject an anesthetic before they bite so you don't know they're there.  They then inject an anticoagulant so that once bitten you continue to bleed for hours.  I wasn't too excited about the day's hike and sprayed my boots and socks with DEET to ward off the blood-sucking creatures.  After one last leech check we headed out.

Checking for Leeches

Most of the high mountain tops were obscured by clouds but we did get good views of the terraced rice paddies in the lower valleys.

Knuckles Mountain Range

At one point Asanga announces " We are entering a leech zone (a phrase I coined), do not stop.  If you stop to remove one leech, 3-4 more will attack you!".  I hightailed it through the leech zone and made it back to the village where our van was waiting.  When we arrived at camp we removed our boots and socks to assess the damage.  Marc had 5 bites on his ankle and one on his wrist (yes, they do climb up on your trek poles).

Marc Displays his Leech Bites

Stewart won the competition with 38 leech bites!  I tentatively removed my boots and socks.  Yippee, no bites!  Saturating my boots and socks with DEET worked.

The next morning we woke to clear skies and beautiful views of the Knuckles so named by the British as they resemble a clenched fist.

Knuckles Mountain Range

Everyone now sprayed their boots with DEET before our next hike.  Not long after heading out we encountered a troop of Purple-faced Leaf Monkeys in the treetops.  Endemic to Sri Lanka, these Old World Monkeys are wary of humans and it was difficult to get a good photo.  Marc managed to photograph a mother and baby when they paused in an opening in the forest canopy.

Purple-faced Leaf Monkeys

We also spotted Grizzled Giant Squirrels feeding in the canopy.  They appeared darker than their lowland cousins seen in Yala National Park.

Grizzed Giant Squirrel

We hiked down to the river which we crossed on a cement bridge and passed some village homes. The people living here are subsistence farmers growing rice, cardamon and other crops.  We stopped at a waterfall for lunch before returning to camp.  When we removed our boots and socks, we found no leech bites.  The others in our group sustained only a few bites.  DEET really works.

I'm sure some of you are wondering what does a leech look like and how big are they?  Asanga was brave enough to pick one up and hold it for me to photograph. 

Blood Sucking Creature

We left the Knuckles Range and drove to the village of Maskeliya at the base of Adam's Peak, our next hiking objective.  On the way we encountered more and more vans and buses along the narrow winding road.  At one point there was a standoff between us and a big red bus.  
Bus Standoff
The red bus won and we had to reverse to let it pass. "Where are all these people going", I asked Asanga. "To climb Adam's Peak" he replied.  I knew that the peak is held sacred by 4 religions and that many pilgrims make the climb but I wasn't prepared for this. From our hotel room we could see a mass of buses in the parking lot below.  
Bus Parking lot in Maskeliya
Asanga informed us that we would start our hike at 12:30 AM in order to beat the rush to the top for sunrise.  As we headed out we could see the trail and the temple on the top illuminated by lights.

Trail to the Summit of Adam's Peak

The route is lined by vendors selling everything from stuffed animals, silk flowers and food.

Vendor Stalls along the trail to Adam's Peak
We entered through a gate and continued up a series of steps.

Gate Leading to Adam's Peak

So far we managed to keep ahead of the crowd or so we thought.  As we climbed higher, we encountered more and more people.  Everyone was making the pilgrimage, old men and women, mothers and fathers carrying babies or leading toddlers by the hand, teenagers and of course us tourists.  About 300 vertical feet from the summit, we hit a wall of people.  It stretched as far as we could see into the darkness.

Throng on their way up Adam's Peak

The summit had reached capacity and now the trail had become backed up with thousands of pilgrims waiting to get to the top.  It had taken us one hour to climb 100 feet so we estimated that it would take us another 3 hours to reach the summit, well after sunrise.  We had no choice but to retreat as it would take hours to climb back down through the throng still on their way up.  We arrived back at our hotel at 6:00 AM.  We had to settle for a view of Adam's Peak at sunrise from our hotel room.

View of Adam's Peak at Sunrise

It was disappointing for us but more so for the locals that were also forced to turn back.  For us climbing Adam's Peak was a novelty but for the locals it is a true pilgrimage.  Buddhists believe that the footprint of Buddha is near the summit while the Hindus believe that it is the footprint of Shiva.  The Christians and Muslims believe that it is the footprint of Adam left when first setting foot on Earth after being cast out of the Garden of Eden, hence the name Adam's Peak.  Asanga estimated over 200,000 people attempted to climb the peak along with us.  

We left Maskeliya and drove to Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka's highest town where we spent the night.  The next morning we did a hike in Horton Plains National Park.  We stopped near the entrance to have our packed breakfasts.  There were a few Sambar stags hanging around waiting for a handout.  I refused to give over my breakfast and one of the stags stuck his tongue out at me.

Sambar Stag

Horton Plains National Park contains a mix of montaine grasslands and cloud forest.  The plateau is at an altitude of 6900 to 7500 feet and contains many species of endemic plants and animals.

Horton Plains National Park

As we entered the forest I could hear rustling in the trees.  A troop of endangered Purple-faced leaf Monkeys were feeding in the tree tops.  This is a different subspecies than the ones we saw in the Knuckles Range.  Here they are Trachypithecus vetulus monticola or Bear Monkey.  They have thicker coats and are missing the white patch on the rump of the lowland species. 

Bear Monkey

Our hike took us to two viewpoints along the edge of the plateau and to Bakers Falls.  As we were leaving the falls, a guide from another group pointed out a rare Rhino-horned lizard (Ceratophora stoddartii).  The males have a strange long, sharp horn composed of a single conical scale on the tip of their snouts.  Their horns are used to establish territory and in courtship.

Rhino-horned Lizard

We'll do a few more hikes in the highlands before heading to the beach for a little rest and relaxation.

We hope all is well back home.
Peggy and Marc

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