In the heart of the old country

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By 2017-04-11

By CATHERINE BUSH

In the central highlands of Sri Lanka, my driver makes a turn on to a small dirt road. Minutes later, he turns again at an unmarked opening in the trees. Moments after that, we find ourselves in a small forest clearing. I've arrived at Pidurangala, an ecolodge named for the giant rock that towers somewhere above us, the dense leaf cover rendering it invisible.

My lodgings for the next three nights will be a tree house – not a platform in the trees but a traditional, thatched-roof structure built out of slim trunks and open to the jungle. Huge boulders clasped by gnarled roots surround my airy two-storey abode.

Monkeys hoot as they leap between branches. I'm told an elephant ambled past a day or so ago. I'm here to take in some of Sri Lanka's rich archaeological heritage, which also means being prepared to do some climbing.

Not far off lies Sigiriya, the ruins of a palace and monastic complex, a UNESCO World Heritage site, atop an even more imposing rock than Pidurangala. Mist still clings to this extraordinary bulge in the landscape as we begin our approach just after dawn the next morning. At a distance, it's hard to imagine how we'll ever reach the flat summit.

Geologically speaking, Sigiriya is what is known as a monadnock: a volcanic protruberance harder than the surrounding rock that eroded over eons, leaving this peculiar upthrust. We cross a moat and pass through what were once elaborate water gardens, constructed by a pleasure-seeking, usurping king in the fifth-century AD. To either side of us rise gargantuan boulders: The caves formed beneath them were used by Buddhist monks from as early as the third-century BC. Their drip ledges, a line carved in the rock to stop water dripping underneath, are still visible today.

Climbing Sigiriya is done in stages, which makes it more easily surmountable. My only moment of vertigo came as I climbed a circular metal staircase, exposed to the air, to view the remarkably detailed fifth-century frescos of female figures painted on the rock itself. From there we make our way past what's called the Mirror Wall, scribbled with ancient graffiti, and pause on the Lion's Paw Terrace, facing a huge pair of carved lion's paws, the remnants of what was once an entire carved creature, before tackling the steep, zigzagging metal staircase of the final ascent. Afterward, in the site's museum, my companion and I stare in dismay at the rickety wooden flight of stairs employed by the intrepid 19th-century archaeologists who rediscovered Sigiriya, abandoned to the jungle for centuries.

The ruins, while low to the ground, give a sense of the long-ago palace's elaborate structure. Deep cisterns, carved into the rock, stored water, including one still filled with sky-reflecting blue. I spy a couple who've brought their breakfast to the top, picnicking under a solo tree while the rest of us traipse about and stare out over the mist-covered countryside from a height surely imposing enough to deter ancient enemies.

Some say the first thing in the morning is the best hour to ascend Sigiriya, before the crowds and heat arrive; others insist the end of the afternoon is the time to go, in order to arrive at the top just before sunset.

I opt for a late-afternoon climb of Pidurangala, a short stroll down the road from my lodge; one of the reasons to scale Pidurangala is for the remarkable views of Sigiriya looming a few kilometres distant.

My hike begins within the grounds of a modern Buddhist temple to which you pay a donation upon entering before proceeding to a steep stone staircase. This leads to a path curling up through forest.

When King Kasyapa built the Sigiriya hilltop citadel, he moved the monks then living at the summit to a monastery near Pidurangala. The top of Pidurangala rock proved unsuitable for extensive building, however. Halfway up the wooded climb, a 12-metre-long reclining Buddha muses over the surrounding landscape. Beyond this, the hike becomes more strenuous and I feel lucky to be trailing two women with a local guide who holds out a helping hand to each of us as we scramble up and over boulders to reach the summit. At this hour, there are few people about: Swallows twitter as they dart past and wild peacocks screech from the misty forest below.

Back at the ecolodge, I relax in my leafy eyrie, before tucking into a meal of curry and rice in the open-air dining area, followed by the yummy Sri Lankan dessert of curd and treacle: buffalo-milk yogurt drizzled with honey made of sap from the flower of the kithul tree.

After dinner, I head out with fellow guests for a night walk with the resident naturalist, who tells me that he climbs Pidurangala rock every other afternoon for exercise. Equipped with flashlights and head-mounted red lamps, we set off in the dark along a forest path. Moonlight seeps through the canopy overhead. We're looking for a loris, a small, nocturnal, tree-clinging primate.

They're not easy to find but after some searching, we gather in excitement around our guide. Caught by the lamp's red beam, two large eyes atop a furry body stare curiously down at us.

The restful Pidurangala property, which virtually disappears among the trees as soon as you step away from it, is one of several owned by Back of Beyond, a Sri Lankan company dedicated to small-scale, environmentally responsible tourism. It's a good base from which to foray farther afield: to the Dambulla cave temples tucked beneath cliffs atop another imposing outcrop, or the ruined medieval city of Polonnaruwa, Pompeii-like in its expansiveness.

(THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

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