I brace myself against the side of the car as we rattle and bounce down the remote red dirt track that leads to The Mudhouse. Our wheels scrabble for purchase and the driver slows to a crawl. A herd of buffalo – with a dozen egrets along for the ride on their backs – create a traffic jam; a land monitor dallies in the centre of the road, its thick lizard tail dragging in the dust. We come finally to an archway of wood, beyond which narrow roads branch throughout a thickly wooded property.
Close to 3 hours away from Colombo, the Mudhouse is our first stop on a six-day journey that will take us into the heart of Sri Lanka, beginning near the coast, then to the central plains and finally up into the hills. We travel by car, but also by boat and bicycle, abandoning the crowded highways for the B roads that wind through villages and run alongside reservoirs. Where the road stops, our feet carry us further, deeper into the woods, higher up into the hills. With every step, Sri Lanka reveals itself.
Sri Lanka has grand ambitions for 2020, which include earning $7bn from tourism – up from $4.4bn in 2018 – and employing 600,000 Sri Lankans in the sector. Eco-tourism is the current buzz word: the country’s new President embraced ‘Sustainable environmental management’ as one of his 10 key policies and in 2019, the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA) began recognizing hotels under a National Sustainable Tourism Certification (NSTC).
And when it comes to drawing visitors to these shores, it’s clear that sustainable food, eco-tourism and wildlife conservation are a winning trifecta. Add to this the gentler pace of slow travel, and you have something quite magical.
“We are increasingly finding that clients are really thinking about why they are travelling and making each travel experience really count,” says Sam Clark, managing director of the Experience Travel Group, which has helped clients design slow travel holidays in Sri Lanka. The appeal is in embracing a meandering approach that exchanges a frenetic mass tour for the serendipity of local experiences, idyllic locations and conversations with the communities that call these places home.
In Sri Lanka, this seems less like a trend, and more like a way of life. Certainly, Ranjit Kumaratunge, who co-owns the Mudhouse, was living like this long before anyone told him it was fashionable. Tonight we’re staying in the original mud house, the one that Kumaratunge – known as Kumar to all – first constructed for himself back in 2003.
The 45-year-old flashes his infectious smile as he tells me how he grew up right here in Anamaduwa. He wound up instead buying a piece of land close to home in 2002. It occupied less than quarter of a hectare and had been denuded by slash-and-burn cultivation. Still, it had potential and even overlooked a lake. He began a serious reforestation effort and chose to build his home in the way locals had always done in this area: using mud straight from the earth, clay from the termite mounds, dung from the cows, thatch from trees and grass from the surrounding the fields. It took them a few months, but by 2003 Kumar had a hut to call his own.
Kumar met his co-founder, Tom Armstrong when the latter came to Sri Lanka as a volunteer teacher. They became fast friends and by 2005 the two were in business. Though they had briefly considered setting up shop along the coast, the 2004 tsunami and its aftermath changed their mind. Kumar simply wasn’t interested in fighting off competitors in an already crowded space. Instead, he wanted people to see his home. He and Tom began buying up their neighbor’s lands – a process still ongoing. From that point, The Mudhouse evolved very organically, made possible by the speed with which they could erect a new building, taking on average a month if all the raw materials were in order.
The Mudhouse currently offers five clusters – each capable of holding several guests. Some are designed for family living, and include multiple beds under one large roof. Others are more intimate, offering a retreat for couples.
Kumar has since bought more land from his neighbours, and employs about 40 villagers at the property. They come to cook and clean, but also to grow produce in the Mudhouse’s organic farm, build furniture in its workshops, and lead expeditions to local sites. Everything here is done by hand as none of these spaces are connected to the grid and only limited solar power is available outside the main house. In the laundry, the heavy, ancient iron is heated in the traditional way by burning coconut shells, and in the kitchen your food is prepared over a row of warm wood fires.
They’re happy with the facilities they have now, and plan simply to keep expanding their property, and with it the forest cover. Kumar encourages all his guests to plant trees to help offset their carbon footprint. As I take my turn, settling a young kumbuk sapling in to a fresh hole in the ground, Kumar takes a picture for a database.
By planting some 1000 new trees since 2003 on his 24.2-hectare property, and allowing the ones already there to thrive, Kumar has created a sanctuary for wildlife. A scurry of giant squirrels moved in, and can be seen chasing each other across the clearings. Mouse deer, timid and solitary, wander the grounds at night, their eyes reflecting in the torch light. There are slender grey loris, fishing cats and toque monkeys; there are peacocks and star tortoises in the fields, snakes in the termite mounds, land monitors on the pathways. It is a veritable Eden.
Even a three-year drought wasn’t enough to derail Kumar’s vision – for a while the lake bed became a cricket field for guests and staff, but the indigenous Mee trees he had planted survived the heat. And the rains did come back, refilling the lake in an epic 24-hour downpour. Today, lotus flowers bloom in these waters, and the skies above are thick with birds.
Mahesh Weeraman (32), the resident naturalist, has spent the last few months trying to identify the number of birds you can see here – for now his estimate is close to 100 different species. Working with conservationists, they are also setting camera traps to help them identify the animals roaming the grounds.
From Anamaduwa, we make our way toward the heart of Sri Lanka’s cultural triangle, where tangled forests spill over the green hills of the Minneriya Giritale Sanctuary reserve. The road to Wild Haven by Back of Beyond in Dehigaha Ela is enough to intimidate many drivers: deep ruts and a rough road leave smaller vehicles rattling, and after 5:30pm, you have a good chance of finding an elephant blocking your path. For Yohan Weerasuriya, the founder of Back of Beyond, it’s all part of the charm.
Reserved but direct, Weerasuriya gives the impression of a man who doesn’t miss much. He divides his time between the eight properties Back of Beyond manages across the island, can often be found wandering around in flip-flops and comfortable shirts. A pioneer of sustainable eco-tourism in Sri Lanka, he built some of the first treehouses on the island for tourists – having played for hours in one as a child, he was determined to recreate that magic when Back of Beyond first opened in 2007.
Today, more than one property features treehouses, but perhaps none as beautiful as the ones that stand in a small clearing in Dehigaha Ela; overlooking a clearing surrounded by tall illuk grass, and filled with the sound of running water from the nearby stream.
This place’s existence is evidence that Weerasuriya is a practical man. Though eco-tourism is a buzzword, he says many tourist outfits don’t really walk the talk – a thatched roof does not a sustainable hotel make. A truly sustainable approach is challenging and complex, requiring companies pay attention to materials used in construction, careful water management and how large a carbon footprint the property creates in its day to day running, among many other considerations.
And it can be challenging to get communities on board. In fact, just outside the borders of this property, villagers have cleared and farmed protected forest lands and the camera traps set on this property to capture images of animals on the prowl have sometimes presented evidence of poachers instead. Meanwhile, the authorities can lack the resources and will to enforce the rules.
Yet Weerasuriya has persevered. Not only does he continue to buy private forested lands around the country, he is hoping he can create a network of like-minded folks willing to invest in reforestation and through build a network of forested corridors that connect critical wildlife spaces across the island.
His is a vision for reforestation on a scale that goes beyond the individual. Instead, he wants to demonstrate a working conservation model that can pay for itself. The answer? Combining responsible tourism, environmental conservation and community engagement. He adds to this mix sustainable agriculture – their sprawling farms close to Dehigaha Ela boast a profusion of native fruit and vegetables. Weerasuriya is particularly interested in reintroducing indigenous and heirloom varieties of Sri Lankan fruits and vegetables that have long since disappeared from local markets.
A “farm to table” philosophy brings this abundance to our table. For all its simplicity, our first meal at Back of Beyond, at a secluded table for two beside a burbling stream, is nothing less than a banquet. Set beside our plates is a sheaf of fresh vegetables to serve both as a lush decoration and an educational tool, revealing to us exactly what we are eating.
The chefs draw on local and regional cuisines within the already wonderfully varied tradition of the Sri Lankan rice and curry meal. It is all about contrasting flavours, textures and colours served on a bed of rice: Lasia stalk, known locally as kohila, is cut into thick wedges, batter fried and immersed in a subtle yellow curry; slivers of beetroot simmered in coconut milk are a vibrant red; the green, crunchy wingbeans pop with freshness; soft and yielding, sweet eggplant curls around caramelized onions; the dhal is a rich yellow in contrast to the deep, hot red of the chicken curry.
Very quickly, meals become a highlight at this place. The next morning, after a tour of the organic farm, we sit down to a lavish breakfast under a guava tree, its branches full of ripe fruit, which when split open reveal a red heart beneath a green skin. We drink herbal tea with a complex, savoury note made from plants growing within reach, the coconut rotis come hot from the wood-fired hearth and for dessert there is papaya, fresh from the tree.
Between such epic meals, we rediscover an iconic landscape. This is the home of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Sigiriya. One of the most popular sites in Sri Lanka, visitors come here to conquer the lion rock, scaling the 200m-high palace-fortress in three hours.
Weerasuriya wants us to linger instead. Over the course of the many hours the 54-year-old has dedicated to driving around the region, he found a reservoir that combines an unbeatable view of Sigiriya and the nearby Piduragala rock with a water safari that introduces you to the area’s stunning array of birdlife. Working with the local fisherman’s cooperative, he created a sunset boat-ride specially for guests, which we were happy to experience. As dusk falls and the wind sets the lotus leaves rippling, Weerasuriya tells me how Sri Lanka has so much to untapped potential. In fact, his father, one of Sri Lanka’s most famous wildlife photographers, was always reluctant to step on a plane. “He never wanted to travel overseas, because he said it would take five lifetimes to cover this country.”
Back of Beyond’s in-house naturalist, Sajith Buddhika Withanage Don, also along for the ride, points out raptors, kingfishers, peacocks, egrets and a dozen other birds. One of very few professionally qualified safari guides in the country, the 38-year-old leads nature walks during the day, Loris walks in the night and can identify every bird around here by its call alone. Withanage says he decided to work with Back of Beyond because of their extraordinary vision and commitment to conservation.
In Sri Lanka, elephants and farmers have long been locked in conflict: Chena cultivators, who liberally deploy slash and burn techniques, have been eating away at protected lands. Elephants, understandably, do not recognize boundaries set by humans. The island needs to do more to protect these shrinking habitats, and engineer solutions that would allow humans and elepants to co-exist. In a year where Sri Lanka lost a record number of elephants to the human-elephant conflict, and where tensions between villagers and their mammoth neighbours are at a peak, Back of Beyond’s Nature Conservancy project envisions ways in which eco-tourism, conservation and agriculture can go hand in hand.
The first of its kind in Sri Lanka, the project is designed to improve forest cover on Back of Beyond’s property as well as land leased from the Forest Department through strategic tree planting as well as ‘assisted natural re-generation’ (ANR). Guests contribute simply by staying at these locations, but can also participate in reforestation and volunteer their time and expertise where relevant.
After a few hours traipsing through the woods around this property – fording streams, pausing to crush and inhale the scent of wild basil and curry leaf, ducking under the electric fencing that keeps the elephants at bay, and even braving a small cave filled with sleepy bats – Weerasuriya tells me simply: “These are the luxuries we offer here: peace, solitude, proximity to nature.”
I can’t help but agree. Later, standing on a balcony adorned with living creepers, I watch the fireflies drift up out of the grass, and into the trees, until finally their twinkling blurs into the canopy of stars.
The next day dawns bright and our final leg of travel takes us far from the heat of these central plains, and up into the hills where tea covers the rolling slopes like a carpet of green. Waiting here, nestled in the green hills is the stunning Castlereagh Reservoir. Surrounded by hills which offer panoramic views of the valley, the five bungalows that make up Ceylon Tea Trails are scattered like a necklace around its emerald waters.
Part of the Resplendent Ceylon “best of Sri Lanka” circuit, created by the family-owned Dilmah Tea Company, each bungalow is a little gem. Over the next few days, we are immersed in a world synonymous with old Ceylon. We cycle between these bungalows on roads that offer stunning views of the reservoir and wind their way through working tea plantations. Apart from long bike rides and delicious tea-based cuisine, there are also opportunities to learn about the tea cultivation process at the 150-year-old Dilmah tea factory at Dunkeld.
As we step out of the factory, the resident naturalist Rohan Gunasekara points to a ridge covered in patch forest. The 18km-long ridge is part of a stretch spanning the entire Bogawanthalawa valley which is home to an estimated 29 leopards. Pointing out that the sanctuary at Horton Plains has some 13 leopards per 100 sq km, Gunasekara notes that this is a genuinely impressive number for an area that is not a protected forest. The big cats sleep the day away and come out only at night, often walking the same paths that the plantation workers tread in the day.
The centre was founded after several leopards were snared and killed by locals, prompting Dilmah to partner with The Wilderness and Wildlife Conservation Trust (WWCT) created by zoologist Dr. Andrew Kittle and ecologist Anjali Watson to look for solutions.
Gunasekera explains that though it might look small, this patch forest forms an important corridor between two sections of the Peak Wilderness National Park, and Dilmah hopes that by supporting reforestation here, they could create a viable haven for the wildlife in this area. Watson of WWCT adds that these patch forests can extend protected areas and act as buffers and stepping stones for wildlife trying to navigate the terrain.
As humans encroach more and more into once-pristine forests and wildlands – WWCT researchers note that the last 80 years have seen Sri Lanka’s primary rainforest shrink dramatically from roughly around 80 percent to 20 percent – the potential for human-animal conflict across Sri Lanka grows. As an umbrella species, protecting the leopard indirectly protects the many other species that occupy the same habitat.
The research here can answer important questions about how leopards and humans can peacefully co-exist. Now, Watson tells me the importance of the ridge here is that it is home to female leopards and their cubs in this area, providing a vital refuge.
Such insights can help responsible operators take constructive steps toward protecting wildlife that will only continue to draw tourists, says Watson, adding that researchers have in turn benefited from the operators providing logistical support for research and conservation in kind or via much-required funds. Everybody wins as our understanding of these wild spaces grows, and Sri Lankans become better stewards of their environment. “These have all proved positive ways in which the tourism industry have been allies for conservation,” says Watson.
As part of their efforts, Dilmah plans to invest in reforestation, planting indigenous trees that once grew here. The work WWTC is doing here connects back to Sigiriya, where the two Back of Beyond properties at Dehigaha ela and Pidurangala join this one in the central highlands as part of WWCT’s Patch Forest Project and serve as critical research sites. It’s evident, that the future holds more trees for the Mudhouse, Back of Beyond and Ceylon Tea Trails, as they invest in reforestation, conservation and realising their unique vision for Sri Lankan tourism.
In the end, it’s the memories of these forests I take away with me, the sunlight filtering through the trees, the chorus of birdsong and the animals unseen that pad through the undergrowth. I find here echoes of the past, of the rich primitive jungles that once dominated this landscape, and glimpses of a brighter, more environmentally-conscious future.
First published in the March 2020 issue of SilkWinds. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pix by Sudakaran Shanmugaraja.