Bhanuka Ahaspokuna Hits: 382
By Ahaspokuna guest Talia Fahmy.
In an isolated part of the forest whilst being hunted by a leopard, we found ourselves on foot and miles away from civilisation. No jeep, no weapons, and it was getting dark with storm clouds gathering.
“Travelling to Ahaspokuna somewhat feels like the ‘Wrong Turn’ don’t you think?” Sirraj quipped as we parked in the middle of nowhere. The eeriness was simply inspired by the very real isolation of the place, and also because we caught the movie on Netflix a few days ago – a decision that was poorly timed. We got out of the car and – more or less – entered acres of untamed wilderness. We were then promptly greeted by our naturalist cum elephant whisperer, Avinka, who informed us that we needed to prep for a 20 minute hike through the forest to reach the campsite. My precariously inclined treadmill workout prepared me for this, however my usual exercise routine failed to cover other aspects of the hike. This included crossing a river, climbing over boulders, navigating narrow pathways with a 100m drop etc. Nevertheless, the experience was just the start to what would soon become an unforgettable experience.
Pubudu, who introduced himself as our bushman, carried our luggage with the help of another staff member. Sirraj, who, I presume, formed a strong emotional bond with his backpack, declined the help. I would chalk it up to fantastic hospitality that this made the porter a little upset and perhaps even unfulfilled that he only got to carry a mini tripod – the latter was confirmed as he lucklessly tried on several occasions to relieve Sirraj of his backpack.
Once we reached the campsite and settled into our fairytale-like suite-tent, we enjoyed a memorable lunch and geared up for our rainy bushwalk following a trail forged by wild elephants! We were told that the rain was a blessing that marked the end of the dry season, which was great for the barbecued grass and dried up watering hole, but no so much for my hope that I could complete a hike without a fall. Ironically I was a more a danger to myself than the leopard watching us from the trees.
The bushwalk was something out of a film noir; desolate landscape, gloomy skies, rain as thin as mist, and everyone wearing black ominous raincoats like we walked off a scene from Assassin's Creed. As we traversed the mountain ahead, we passed through miles of destruction created by an old forest fire still soaked in that wet and burnt fragrance. The walking safari was about 6km with insane descents and ascents. However, a lot of the danger was kept from me; I’m quite clueless to my surroundings when trying to get the perfect panoramic shot, and I needed at least 3 with the way the waterfall seeped into the yawn of the hills. Thus, little did I know that everyone else was in a state of quiet panic. I was so oblivious to the group’s worry-riddled faces, I inadvertently walked slower to take in the scenery and delayed the hike till it got dark.
Sirraj, who had earlier spotted a few people digging around a riverbank, thought we had stumbled on illegal sand mining, and connected it to the worried look on our guides’ faces. So he told me the same and we hurried along. It almost seems like farce that Sirraj and I were looking for non-existent river sand poachers, and the bushmen were looking for the very real leopard.
However, once we were informed that a leopard may be on our trail, we unanimously decided to look for the same thing. When crossing a stream about 500m back, the bushman and tracker heard the panicked call of the giant squirrel. This was quite a sobering life lesson about being aware of your surroundings, as my response to the giant squirrel’s alarm call then was met with a casual happiness at being in the wilderness, but had I paid attention, it should have been met with oh shit.
After 15 minutes of adrenaline-fuelled walking down the trekking trail and tripping over loose rock and / or nothing, we got to a small clearing. There was a wild buffalo calf eating grass on a curved path, we steered clear of it as they can be quite dangerous, and we’ve already reached our quota for potential danger. Suddenly the buffalo stopped chewing the cud and charged without warning. There were no trees for cover, we were all on foot, and this wild buffalo calf was about the size of a cow.
I was ready to put the Assassin’s Creed getup into action when the tracker grabbed my arm and told me not to move. The buffalo skidded around the curve of the grassy path and hightailed it in the opposite direction. My relief was unfortunately short-lived when I caught a glimpse of the bushman’s contorted face, as if he saw a ghost. The trees in the distance shook and what seemed like hundreds of terrified monkey calls filled our ears.
Avinka hurriedly informed us that the giant squirrel's alarm call was because of a predator being in close proximity, but the danger simply followed us down the trail as the buffalo caught the predator’s scent and fled. Additionally, the monkeys in the trees were screaming distress calls because the predator was hunting in them. Of course by ‘predator’ he meant ‘possibly hungry Sri Lankan Leopard’. My face contortion soon caught up to the group. It was dark, I had only a walking stick and eye drops with me, and there was nowhere to run. We were also miles from any village or potential river sand poachers to seek help from.
Avinka signalled that we should wait here and he sent the bushman ahead for a little leopard recon. We needed to proceed back to camp post-haste as it was about to be pitch black and even the elephants would be out soon for a drink from the river we were near, heightening the danger of being stationary. He whispered that the leopard was most likely hunting the buffalo calf, and we just happened to cross paths. This is probably the most exciting difference between a jeep safari and walking safari; you’re on foot, and so are the animals. And in the wild, they're unpredictable.
The bushman came back and told us the leopard is moving, but further away from us. Although we believed him, we hurriedly trekked back to camp like we didn’t. About 10 minutes later we heard it. The baby buffalo's cry. It was a long and sad moan that cut through the air. It was calling for his mother in sorrowful wails. We then realised the baby was being hunted and isolated from its mother. Suddenly we heard rustling in the distance, and as frightened birds somersaulted off of trees the wailing stopped abruptly. It was a real rollercoaster of emotions.
The more real danger we currently facing however was the night. It was pitch black and we were 1km from camp. Armed with phone lights and a head torches, we groped our way back up the mountain to the campsite. The route back was a more treacherous path in the dark, and with the rain elevating it to a slippery death slide, we promptly forgot about the leopard.
I aimed my head torch directly onto the narrow mountain ledge and not the deadly drop, so that, frankly, I wouldn’t have an ill-timed panic attack. At this point the leeches came out of the woodwork and the cold set in. As we were already wet from the rainy hike, the gathering cold seemed to stall my muscles for a moment. I felt my legs lock and almost went full Assassin's Creed over the mountain.
Luckily Sirraj grabbed me by my raincoat and told me to catch my breath and concentrate. The 4 hours of mountain trekking and adrenaline depletion was taking a toll. I could see my panting swirl out of my mouth and become mist caught in the light of my head torch. The cold seemed to cling to my head like – for the lack of a better phrase – unwashable menthol conditioner.
Luck really did seem to be the theme of this adventure, as it turned out to be a full moon night, thus the sky wasn't as dark as usual, and this helped us navigate the mountain better. Alas, we finally saw the campsite lights in the distance. I had lived to tell this story over a blog post and at dinner parties. Of course, when I look back at the whole experience, I realised that the only thing I was attacked by was not a buffalo or leopard. It was, funnily enough, my fitness level and a little forest tick.
Extreme outdoor adventure tip: Pick the slasher movie over a romcom hours before exploring isolated wilderness. You’ll definitely enjoy the regret.