Summiting Nuwaragala. Maha Oya Sri Lanka
It’s a sultry Sunday morning, and even at this early hour of the morning, the heat is rising from the parched earth. I have navigated myself from Mahiyanganaya (where I spent the night) to the Pollebadde Galaasha Road in Maha Oya, as per instructions given to me by Nayaka Aththo (Chieftain). He flags me down outside his home. As I get down from the vehicle, he hurries up to me, clasped my hands together and greets me. I reciprocate by giving him a sheaf of betel leaves.
Nayaka Aththo is going to be my guide and guardian for the next two days as he leads the way to the summit of the formidable Nuwaragala. He is one of the few remaining Veddhas from the Pollebedde indigenous clan, descendants of Danigala Mahabandarala – a different ancestry to that of the renowned Damabana clan in Mahiyanganaya. After the death of his father three months ago, he has taken on the role as head of the clan.
Ready with my backpack, topped up water bottles and sleeping bag, and he with his sack containing a few worn out pots and pans, pouch of betel firmly secured around his waist, and an axe over his shoulder, we set off on the 9km trek. It is 8 in the morning.
This is definitely no easy walk in the park. The terrain is tiring, thorny, tough and grueling.
In some places, the maana grass (cymbopogon nardus) towers over me and I have to scramble my way through the thicket, the sharp scabrid fronds leaving wields along my arms. In other places the rocks are uneven, steep and the searing heat of the sun has left them scorching to the touch and soon I am dripping with sweat and dying of thirst. I am glad to be wearing my favorite pair of Hi-Tek hiking boots, that prevents the undergrowth from tearing at my feet.
After about an hour of trekking we stop at a little stream to ease my aching shoulders, and I take the chance to remove my shoes and dip my aching feet in the cool water. Ahhh…the relief. But we have to keep moving as Nayaka Aththo needs to get to the rock as fast as possible for fear of elephants. This area has many wild herds, including bear, leopard and wild buffalo, that do not take too kindly to intruders! Nayaka Aththo keeps ahead to ensure there are no surprises around the corners. His constant chatter and singing of age-old kavi (songs) are meant to warn the pachyderm of our presence.
After about another three hours of trekking, we come to the base of the Nuwaragala. Here, Nayaka Aththo breaks off some branches and offers it as a sacrifice and says a prayer for our safety. The Veddhas believe in animism, a belief that objects, places and creatures- animals, plants, rocks, rivers, weather systems, human handiwork and perhaps even words, all possess a distinct spiritual essence. I feel comforted!
But I soon find out that the hardest part of the climb is just beginning. From here onwards, the slope is steep, the rocks are uneven and craggy, the grass is even taller and there is no turning back for me. I crawl, stumble, claw and fall several times, while valiantly trying to keep up with my nimble footed guide.
Six hours later, we come to the cave overlooking the mountain’s cliff. This drip-ledged cave is stark now but would have had brick partitioning, plastered walls and wall paintings in the ages past. Today, it is barren with lots of unwanted graffiti spoiling the cave. (Visitors, please don’t deface the walls and ceilings. Just don’t do it).
After unpacking my backpack, and catching my breath, it is time to venture out again, through more thicket to the famous pool carved into the rock. And here, I relate from R L Spittle’s book, Savage Sanctuary, an anthropological story of Tissahamy, a Veddha outlaw and his bride, Valli.
“During the days that followed, Tissahamy and Valli roamed from cave to cave – Alu galge, Galthale galge, and the rest of them, for all these wild hostelries have their names.
“They came at the end of a week to the great rock Nuwaragala, the fortress of a Sinhalese king of old time, now engulfed in the jungle. Making a detour of the base, they struck the spot where the ancient paved pathway began its ascent. This was discernible by the hewn stones which lay tumbled about.
“They had hardly begun to climb when they came upon the very wreck of a jak tree, wizened with age, that leant as if for support against a hump of rock. Clinging to its caverned trunk were a few tender fruits, the stunted off-spring of its decrepitude. ….
“Keeping to the scarcely distinguishable track, beset as it was by dense scrub they neared the top of the rock after an hour and half’s stiff climbing. A refreshing breeze greeted them, and, through an opening in the trees, they glimpsed a fine panorama of hill-studded wilderness. By an easier gradient through the thinning trees, they arrived at the summit, to see displayed before them as refreshing a sight as ever fell to the lot of weary travelers in a grueling noon-a cistern of limpid water cut out of a living rock, open to the sky.”
R L Spittle, who researched the Veddhas as way back as 1913, describes the pool exactly as it is today. Nothing has changed over the years. The limpid pool, some 70’ x 50’ is a man-made feat. There is fresh elephant dung around the pool, which means they frequent this area.
I cannot resist the temptation to wash off the grime and sweat and so, take a quick bath, scaring the heck out of the frogs, and knowing that if an elephant happened to come by, I would be joining the frogs inside the pool!
Nayaka Aththo sits by, chewing his wad of betel, and regaling me with stories of his father and grandfather before him.
According to Nayaka Aththo, Saddhatissa (137-119 AD) hid in this rock until the death of his brother, King Dutugemunu. He had built the path leading to the rock with gullies cut into the rock for water flow, steps for easier climbing and even an impressive rampart.
As the sun sets over the gorge below, Nayaka Aththo builds a small fire and prepares a very basic dinner for me. We sit around the fire, eating off makeshift plates and he talks about his life, and his ancestors before him.
Before I settle in to my sleeping bag for the night, he says a mantra and sprinkles sand around me to protect me from serpents that could crawl from under the rock’s ledge! I fall into a fitful sleep waking up sometime later to watch the full moon shine its ethereal light over the valley below.
The next morning I am back at the pool to watch the sunrise, before decamping and making my way back down.
The entire trek is exhausting, exhilarating and energizing. I would rate it as a hard climb and recommend good fitness levels. I also hope visitors after me will remember to respect this land and keep it clean and take back your litter. For this Veddha community, their ancient means of hunter/gathering subsistence is no longer possible so apart from the small plots of farming, Nayaka Aththo depends on tourism to earn a few extra rupees to survive.
Check out some bits and bobs of the trek.
Do not attempt this trek by yourself. Here are his details in case you want to visit:
(Gunawardena) Nayaka Aththo – 63 561 0074
What to wear/take: good ankle boots, long-sleeved shirt, long pants, lots of water, hat/cap, and sunblock. A sleeping bag and basic food stuff for dinner/breakfast.
Respect nature while trekking. Do not litter. Do not disturb the landscape. Be mindful of the danger around you at all times.