Along the sand cliff trail by the Gal Oya river are these mounds of sand that lie camouflaged among the boulders
Along winding jungle corridors, at times you are immersed in thick lush forest, at other times the tracks fall across tall grass plains with scattered trees. However, it is on foot across unseen paths, amidst the quiet wilderness that this unusual mix of savanna and dry evergreen forest lends itself generously.
Words: Prasadini Nanayakkara | Photography: Menaka Aravinda and Indika De Silva
Approximately 20km along the Nilgala Road is the Bulupitiya junction from where another 10km venture inwards leads to the official entrance and office. Journeying along these routes unfolds the charmed livelihoods of the villagers of Nilgala with their houses closeted in the closely grown forest. The greenery here held a distinct difference, in that it had a restful and quiet beauty. Narrow roads painting dreamy landscapes at each turn. At the Nilgala forest office we gained both a guide and a friendly canine.
The general face of the forest landscape, a total of 25,900 ha, is also marked with many mountainous outcrops including the Nilgala range that often appears in the backdrop. Comprising of three peaks legend has it that upon the middle peak lies a pond with a blue gem beneath its waters. This would explain the christening of the mountain and the region Nilgala, which translates to blue rock. Another is the Andagala or bed rock where it is believed a king's bedstead had been fixed centuries ago. Judging by the great height of the mountain one could imagine that the King certainly indulged in an envious view of the river and the wilderness as he reclined. In fact the forest has many hidden archaeological treasures and caves including remnants of palaces that are linked to King Buddhadasa. Many of these however are little known and remain doused in an air of mystery. With an abundance of medicinal plants throughout the vast plains and thickets a 12,000 ha of the forest is also identified as a medicinal garden and one that once belonged to the king. Another distinct ‘high-rise' is the Ul Hela Kanda, aptly named as it is distinctively pointed and can easily be discerned.
However, our trails fell towards the Senanayake Samudraya and eventually the Gal Oya River along which we were to discover an ever changing terrain. The first point of interest was the Bowella Oya the first of many cool streams that stem from the Gal Oya River and offer pitstops to soak in the pristine atmosphere. Between these intervals tall willowy grass identified as iluk grew abundantly across the land expanse among shrub jungle and a variety of trees sometimes in colonies of each. Aralu, Bulu, Nelli, Gammalu and Madu trees of unusual height comprised its rich flora and are encountered frequently.
Narrow roads wound amidst a quiet and restful beauty painting dreamy landscapes at each turn.
The Nilgala forest grounds situated in the Uva Province of the Island, is an extension of the Gal Oya National Park towards the west. Bibile, the nearest town to the reserve can be reached by the Kandy Road from where a turn off to Nilgala Road or B572 leads all the way to Ampara, in the east. The road also leads to Inginiyagala that takes a route around the northern end to the east of the Gal Oya National park, where the main entrance is situated. From there, a two hour boat ride across the vast man-made tank Senanayake Samudraya is required to enter the park premises. Nilgala however lies at the opposite end of the tank and offered a lesser known venture into the forest and the Gal Oya River, the park’s namesake.
Along the way we made a stop to enter a thick forest area, which was known to host the Annasigala or pineapple rock.
As curious as this may be it is exactly what its name indicates. A rock face with an abundance of pineapple growing upon it! In an area, which seemed spilled over with boulders, to get a good look at Annasigala required a precarious climb over rocks.
At its top we were indeed surprised to see what appeared no less a field of pineapple. Below was a cave and one could only guess that maybe its past inhabitants planted them there.
Back on the trail our journey on four wheels - tailed relentlessly by our happy scamperer - soon came to an end as it no longer lay visible in any direction. Although herds of elephants, deer, wild boar and leopards inhabit the forest, Nilgala insisted we set forth on foot as with many of its trails including to camp sites. Though not arduous, this was no walk in the park as it required clambering over rocks and squeezing through tight crevices.
where are they?
Approximately home to 130 elephants we bore witness to... none. Sadly, several tireless walks along the savanna woods yielded no sightings. We could only guess that the recent rainfalls provided ample water and food to the large mammals in their hideouts circumventing the need to venture out to the open areas where they are often spotted. These expeditions across the willowy grasslands however serve as an experience in itself. Expansive open plains offered a vastly different ‘walk in the park’ experience, though the occasional loud flutter of a bird may startle your reverie...
At the onset of the journey the many streams and rivulets that we waded across had all stemmed from the Gal Oya River and now we were headed to the source. Once again we found ourselves on foot and the forest gradually grew more sparse with shrubs and bushes with the increasingly loosened soil. The silence of the wild that we had become accustomed to was suddenly disturbed with gurgling waters. Across scratchy shrubs we reached a sloping embankment and the gushing river that bubbled over to minor falls at one end. At the other it disappeared out of sight where it flows from the Andagala mountain. Across the minor waterfalls was yet another sight of interest, however the footing across a rocky path proved challenging. It led to rock formations across the river path where curious perforations had formed due to the spiralling movement of water. Here was the ultimate pit stop amidst the Gal Oya River where the water sped spiritedly on either side and the still woods surrounded beyond...
Back on the embankment another trail headed a little inland through a rugged terrain to return to the water's edge once more. Suddenly we were upon the very edge of the river waters. However this was no ordinary embankment, instead the forest ended abruptly into a sandy cliff. Within the river, mounds of sand emerged from the low levels of water and even mimicked the surrounding rocks. We cautiously edged our way as we were now stepping on a sand trail with its edge collapsing into the water. Our four legged friend, appeared at our heels, no matter where we cast ourselves to. This time it was to see the "makara".
the many streams and rivulets that we waded across had all stemmed from the Gal Oya River where we were headed.
Makara refers to a phenomenon where it is believed that the river water enters the tank through a tunnel beneath the surface. The waters here are said to be inhabited by crocodiles, however gazing over the placid waters there appeared no hint of their presence. At the end of this trail lay a plateau of sand where we could finally ease down and enjoy a pleasing view.
There are many points of interest off the main trails in Nilgala and one such can be discovered on foot that reaches the dense forest of tall trees. A high rise of rocks, shelters a cave said to have been the hermitage of a monk during recent history. However, stone inscriptions and a hewn drip-ledge date it back to far older times surmised to be during the reign of King Buddhadasa (~ 350 AD)
In the distance the waters merged. It is where the river ends and the man-made tank begins. Here was the lifeblood of everything that flourished and we were surrounded by its curious terrain. Sealed within, we were but captives of a secret enchantment.