(In)dependent trekking in Sri Lanka’s hill country

Sri Lanka’s hill country is impressive. It’s also seriously underrated. The travel industry likes to portray Sri Lanka as an idyllic island paradise complete with white sand beaches and palm trees, but this doesn’t do any justice to the mountains beyond the coast. Sri Lanka’s Central Province is a rugged tableau of sub-tropical forest spiked with 2000m-plus peaks. The highest mountain, Pidurutalagala, is 2524 metres tall. And the plateau which forms Horton Plains National Park is an extended stretch of eucalyptus-studded grassland 2100m in elevation.

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Horton Plains – montane grassland and cloud forest

With this kind of topography, trekking in Sri Lanka clearly offers a lot of potential. But how practical is independent trekking? Well, the answer is that whilst trekking is entirely possible, going it alone is tricky. I’m half Sri Lankan and I’ve been trekking in the country a number of times. And there are two obstacles to truly independent trekking.

First off, there are no dedicated trekking maps. They simply aren’t made for the mass market. Although I’ve heard that detailed maps have been printed by the governmental Department of Survey, information on these is pretty scarce. They’re most definitely not available in the shops. The only maps you can buy are large-scale (1:500,000) touring maps. Fine if you don’t want to miss the turn-off on the drive back to Colombo; not so helpful if you find yourself lost in a cloud forest!

Second, with the notable exception of Horton Plains National Park, trekking with guides is sometimes compulsory in the highlands of Sri Lanka. This isn’t something I’m necessarily opposed to; it provides an income to Sri Lankans working in the tourism industry, prevents DIY adventurers getting lost and (in theory) helps safeguard the environment. The Knuckles Range for example, an hour’s drive north of Kandy, is named after five of its peaks which together resemble a clenched fist. As well as being a national Forest Reserve, it’s also one of the three designated areas making up Sri Lanka’s Central Highlands UNESCO natural World Heritage Site. Hardly surprising, therefore, that a guide and permit are required to go trekking there.

But whether you’re for or against going with a guide, these two factors mean that independent trekking in Sri Lanka is either difficult or downright impossible.

Sri Lanka’s trekking industry is still nascent. There’s no coordination, and no qualifications or oversight when it comes to the skills of trekking guides. Although the Sri Lanka Tourist Authority does license general tourist guides, this is an option and not a requirement; things just aren’t that rigorous! Guides are usually knowledgeable locals; often hotel/guesthouse owners offering day treks on the side. And many are better geared to casual one-day hikes than to anything more serious. Which is fine for the average tourist, but not if you’re looking for serious trekking.

To be fair, a more limited number of trekking operators are much better organised and have a good deal of experience. I got in touch with Ravi Desappriya of www.srilankatrekking.com for a day trek in the Knuckles Range with two others. The late monsoon season this year and lots of low cloud meant a lower-level walk from Ududumbara to Kobonilla – only about 5km, but the leeches and wildlife made for a slow pace. The last section to Kobonilla was a steep uphill in heavy rain and cloud, strangely reminiscent of Scotland! Although it wasn’t the high level trek I’d been hoping for, it was well worth the price and was a means to get out into unfamiliar territory.

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Terraced fields on the way to Kobonilla

So – trekking in Sri Lanka? It’s recommended and the landscapes are impressive, but adjust your expectations and don’t expect to have the trail all to yourself. After all, you’ll probably have to rely on a human compass instead of your own.