“Hanging by my fingers and toes, looking for purchase on a near vertical surface of rock. Jerry is behind me, KP below him, then Indi and a fall of a few thousand feet after that” Probably would be a good tweet to describe this moment, if i’m in a position to tweet, which i’m not.
Lakegala is in the depths of Deaneston, in the South Knuckles area. It is famous for its rumored place in Ravanic legends. At this very moment however, Ravanic thoughts are not on my mind. Because at this very moment I’m grappling with the ultimate understanding of the cliched phrase ‘don’t look down’. I’m pep talking my mind, telling it to be strong, while simultaneously trying to get comfortable with the immediacy of my own death. Wondering if Allah will disapprove that it came about as a result of purely recreational pursuits.
Punchi Banda from Meemure is our guide. He is now a few feet above me in the narrow crevice in the rock face that we are climbing. We soon realize that our preparations for this climb are woefully inadequate. We have only thirty feet of rope, while we actually need like, two hundred. We were supposed to do religious rituals to appease the mountain gods (and i think, our guide). The guide is supposed to be a master climber. He is supposed to negotiate some three hundred feet of precarious free climbing to get to the top and send us down a rope.
But after having scaled the mountain some three times in his life, Punchi Banda has only deep respect mixed with fear for it. He had promised himself to never climb it again before we came along. And now he’s kind of freaking out. Mostly because he thinks that we can’t make it there and back alive.
The balance tips when we have to stop, and wait till a bunch of university students about twenty feet ahead of us send us down a bit of their rope. Waiting is slow torture. The rock is sharp and unforgiving, it is hard to stand comfortably for extended periods of time. We slowly begin to feel more and more fatigue and the hot midday sun isn’t helping.
After asking us what religions we belonged to, and making us panic, Punchi Banda decides to take this moment to start chanting pirith. This is a Very Bad Idea. The lilting tones of mournful Pali verse only succeed in driving home the cold reality of our situation. We are stuck thousands of feet in the air, in a narrow crevice in a vertical rock face. this is not a casual weekend adventure. Mortality stares me in the face, a small slip on the rock, an unsteady toehold and we’re all crashing down to the fishes. I glance down at KP, I can see him thinking about his family. Jerry’s face is impassive, but i can tell he’s under quite a bit of strain. Indi is below us, apparently comfortably wedged between rock taking pictures, assures me later that he was only fervently thinking about his mother.
We would have still gone on. But when the students above us announced that they were giving up and were coming back down, we had no choice but to turn back; only a hundred feet from that taunting peak that has been on my mind ever since we first stepped into the beautiful, unforgiving landscape of Deanston. I think we were all secretly relieved. in the words of KP; ‘there is a very narrow line between being courageous and being stupid’ and i think we almost crossed that line on this rock. Below is a pic from that trip, from the Sinhalaya Travels post. Lakegala is the triangular peak at the top left, in case you missed it.
The rock was a monster, and i can see why King Ravana would choose it as his love nest/ palace/ garage (depending on which version of the legend you believe). One version of the story says that his private jet is still hidden somewhere up there in the mountain. The retired postmaster whose hospitality we enjoyed told us that there is a cave on the other face, virtually inaccessible, that seemingly has some mysterious signs of Ravana’s existence, but he has only heard it from people who claim to have stumbled upon it.
The villagers are uniquely protective of the mountain. They strongly discourage people from going up there. They lie about the conditions (too slippery, too hot) and withhold guides if they can. They claim that is is because its too dangerous. Yet, once, practically the whole village went up there for an overnight pirith session (a Bhuddist religious service). It must have been quite the venture, priests, disciples, mothers, kids, grandparents and even electric power generators making that grueling trek and climbing that rock face to spend the night up there. Its obvious that they consider the rock to be sacred for some reason. Its not something that even the village boys climb for fun (our guide didn’t climb the peak until he was in his late thirties, despite having spent his whole life there). The thought of legions of outsiders making their way up Lakegala just for kicks is probably repulsive to them.
Not that its easy to get there, oh no. To get to the rock you must first get to Meemure, a village at the very bottom of the basin of Deanston. Most cabs won’t go there if they know the quality of the roads. The driver that took us ended up demanding much more than the agreed price to make up for vehicular damage. the journey takes all of three hours and involves a lot of cussing, mostly from the driver.
And if you thought getting to Meemure was a challenge, wait until you start the trek up to the rock. After a little while, we literally had to cut our way through the scrubby, thorny jungle. The ground is very steep and covered in loose rock. Any paths that exist have been created by buffalo roaming in search of grass. On the way down its even harder, we got disoriented and lost. Lucky thing we had a guide. The whole place is smothered in a deadly, wild beauty. Nature here has not been tamed, and you put a foot wrong and there’s no one to help you, then you’re in trouble.
Meemure itself is idyllic. A small village of a hundred families, time passes at a different pace. Apparently the village was founded because a princess belonging to one of the Rajasinghe kings was brought here to be hidden, some two hundred years ago. This makes sense, as Meemure doesn’t seem like a place people would just stumble upon and decide to stay in. Don’t go here looking for creature comforts; they have no hotels or rest houses here. But ultimately we didn’t do to badly. We got a temple floor to sleep on, a nice rivers and water pools to bathe in and wonderful home cooked rice and curry to eat. Here in this place in the depths of a mountain range, original Sri Lankan hospitality still survives.
The nearest town to Meemure is Hunnasgiriya and the only way back there is in either a rickety van or truck, we took the latter. It bounced along and they kept packing people in, and we kept finding room for them. At tough uphill bends, of which there were many, we had to get down to allow the truck to be able to negotiate the turns. We then had to cut across the road through leech infested jungle paths to catch up with it as it sped ahead. The whole journey takes about three hours.
All in all it was a wonderful experience, barring the fail at the top of the rock. All the more reason to go back (insha Allah).