To the south of Dambulla – and to the north-east of Kandy – is one of Sri Lanka’s least-visited areas, the highlands area called the Dumbara Hills or, more exactly in Sinhala, Dumbara Kanduvetiya which translates as “The Misty Mountains”. The name is appropriate given the cloud cover often found at the 1000 meter plus sections of the range. The British would give it yet another name, referring to it as the Knuckles Range because from the Kandy area the appearance of the dominant peaks brought to mind the knuckles of a clenched fist!
Our visit to the Knuckles Range had three main objectives:
- a hike up to the Manigala ridge above Pitawala and Etanwala
- a walk from Ranamuregama to Meemure
- a jeep ride from Meemure to Corbett’s Gap
Day One: The Manigala Hike
We left Dambulla before 8:00 a.m. stopping on the way to pick up fresh fruit and some nibbles and juices for the morning ride. There were ten of us and our guide, as well as the bus driver and his helper on the journey. We were on the first leg of a tour put together by the U.K. adventure travel company Exodus (see here for the brochure.) It would be about 11:30 by the time we got out of our tour bus. Lunch was waiting for us at a Pitawala home and we would spend an hour there before setting out.
Here is a satellite overview of the area with the lush fields of the Pitawala valley framed by low hills on either side. The ten-kilometer hike would take us from the valley (about 600 meters a.s.l.) up the slopes of Manigala Hill (1100 m) and back down to Illukkumbura on the right-hand side. The sketch is a very rough approximation of our walk!
Note: The above image was generated by a free satellite service available from Google. You do need to install the Google Earth app to access it. You will find it worth the effort!
In the photo below – taken from Manigala later on that afternoon – our starting point would almost in the dead center of the image. We would walk to the left side of the photo following a rough village trail before gaining some 500 meters in altitude.
Guiding us for the day was a villager who, in contrast to the visiting hikers with their hiking boots and trekking poles, did the walk in flip-flops! Luckily for all of us, the ground was dry and that the forest cover meant we were rarely without shade in the afternoon sun. There our guide sits in the photo below!
As we made our way up the valley there was lots of evidence of irrigation works to harness the water of the Thelgamu Oya (River).
In the photo below the Thelgamu Oya tumbles down through rocks while a local woman does some washing.
Eventually, we came to a point where we crossed the river and started our gradual ascent on age-old village paths. Some stretches of the path were made with concrete or stone blocks as in the image below. On a couple of occasions, the path would come to a fork and we would take one and wonder where the other led. The most likely answer – to another village! These are clearly paths with a purpose and not wilderness trails.
Here is a Google Earth view of the bump that is Manigala Hill or Mountain. We came up to it from the right-hand side and would spend an hour walking the length of the ridge to the left.
Thanks to the five hundred meter height gain we had views like the one you see in the photo below. At the start of the plateau, I put the camera into panorama mode so that I could capture more of the scene before us. Down below is the valley which we had walked; on the far side is another mountain spine. Visible on the ridge is the Riverstone SLT telecommunications tower!
Not a lot of shade up on top of the ridge so the breeze was appreciated! We walked along the ridge, took lots of breaks to sip on water and enjoy the views – it was about 3:30 and we had spent about two and a half not too strenuous hours getting up there.
Trip reports on the Manigala hike sometimes have images of tents inserted right about here. It seems that some groups spend the night up there before heading back down on the other side the next morning. I did see some evidence of tent spots not far from where our villager/guide is standing in the photo below.
We would stay well hydrated and make our way down to the Illikumbura side later that afternoon. On our way back down we would pass through areas that had been cultivated and/or turned into grazing grounds.
For some reason, I did not take any photos of our descent to the Illikumbura Forest Office. I do recall that the trail back down was much rougher than the path up to the ridge from the other side. Parts were quite steep with occasionally challenging footing. I made major use of my trekking poles – now a dozen centimetres longer – for the descent. Some without poles had trouble negotiating the path and every once in a while those in front would wait until the rest caught up. Making things easier was a dry as opposed to a wet and muddy path.
After an hour of down the other side of the hill, we finished the day with a short walk to our home for the night – a safari-style camp set up on the banks of the Thelgamu Oya with a bungalow above serving as the kitchen and accommodation for the staff. In front of the bungalow was a covered porch which would become the dining area the next morning.
In the photo below you can see a couple of the tents as well as a shower and a toilet tent that have been set up. The river is to the left; the bungalow is on a flat area above.
When we got to the camp it was already getting late – about 6 p.m. Some of us went down to the river to wash away the day’s sweat. It looked quite idyllic in the setting sun and I told myself that I’d have to get up early the next morning to get some dawn shots of the Thelgamu.
The tent itself – with room for two on separate camp beds – was a few notches above the kind of camping I am used to – it was definitely quite plush! It would definitely qualify as a level of camping referred to as glamping!
I will admit to not being a big fan of bugs and insects, especially ones I have never seen before. Black flies and mosquitos I know and can deal with. I picked up the insect below from my roommate’s bed cover and put him outside the tent. I also made sure that the bug net hanging over the bed was all tucked in before I fell asleep.
Without a doubt, the Knuckles Range provides those who take the time to visit with many unforgettable walks through verdant forests with scenic hilltop views. Unlike other places (like Nepal, let’s say) where a generation or two of hikers has helped the locals develop a trekking infrastructure, things in Sri Lanka are in their very infancy. A visit to the Range is best done through a hiking/trekking agency which knows the terrain and has the know-how and the contacts to make it all happen – from transportation to routes to accommodation to food to guides.
See the next post for some pix of the Thelgamu Oya at dawn, as well as other highlights like the pyramid-shaped Lakegala peak above the fields of Meemure and the view from Corbett’s Gap.
A 2012 trip report by a local group from Colombo describes a hike which started with a walk to the top of the hill on one side of the valley – the one with the communications tower. Then they walked back down and followed the village trail up to the Manigala ridge where they camped for the night before walking back down on the Illukkumbura side – see here for the write-up and pix.