The last bus turned away from the coast, leaving behind the bright white light. The windows became greener and greener and plastic flowers swung above the windscreen as it flew along the turning roads. After several hours it stopped at the bottom of a long steep track and I got off and walked up slowly, past wary eyed dogs sleeping in patches of shade on the path.
I was shown to a dormitory building near to the reserve’s office, and Mr Chitra Sekara arrived shortly after. We didn’t have a big introduction – he just nodded and gestured towards the forest. I put my bags down, put on my boots and we left immediately.
We walked through the dense green almost in silence, with Chitra stopping continually to point out plants, usually calling them by their Latin names as well as Sinhalese. He picked up leaves to put in my book, which became quickly covered in notes and markers so I could find the locations of the plants again. We saw many lizards and a large scorpion, and crushed and smelled the leaves of Cinnamon Zelanicum and Aristolochia Indica – a vine containing aristolochic acid, critical to the survival of some Birdwing butterflies. At some point he turned abruptly and we headed back, and I remembered how quickly the light falls in the forest.
Later, I walked round the edges of the forest close to the dormitory, and sat to draw Osbeckia octandra, a purple-flowered shrub used in the treatment of liver disorders. I stayed there to work for a while but at some point, looked down to see that the tops of my trousers and the ground surrounding me was soaked through with sticky dark blood. I realised that leeches must have gotten inside, and ran back to the dormitory and find the salt that my friends had packed into a paper triangle from the breakfast table that morning.
The dogs here have their own realities. All day they sleep in their shady hiding places, and only in the hours before sunset do they start to appear. As the light faded I washed my clothes clean and they emerged on all sides and took their places on the path towards the forest – stretched out, heads up, relaxed, considering. They leapt up at intervals and begin to fight, all joining in and then settling down again.
Everyone left to bathe before sunset, washing in the river that runs through the forest. The water was clean and we drank from it too. A brother and sister were swimming and washing and as I walked by they saw me and started a diving competition. Flipflops were left on the river bank and on the rocks a collection of belongings: A plate with five small piles of red spice, a plastic bag filled with banana skins, a pair of white trainers with Velcro, a white bucket with a bar of soap beside it on a dip in the rock. I heard a kitten behind a wall and as I peered over to see it a man pointed into the trees and I saw a small black bird with a red beak crying instead.
The sky between the trees turned pink then black like shutters closing. After dark dogs ran laps around and around, panting heavily, sniffing the ground and growling. I fell asleep under a pink mosquito net and they fought through the night.
Each time I entered the forest with Chitra, I found that the mental markers I had constructed were almost entirely useless. The landscape I am familiar with is based on rocks and hills and solitary trees and the density of the forest made it impossible to find such points. Instead I looked at the sky and tried to memorise the patterns that the leaves made against areas of lightness.
First, Elytraria acaulis – small, dark, bluish leaves growing close to the ground. Then we walked further inside the forest, moving slowly and placing our feet carefully, and found Anoectochilus setaceus – an endemic ground orchid with finely veined velvety red leaves, traditionally used to treat snakebites. Chitra placed a protective border of leaves around each plant we found before we left.
Into another valley we were surrounded with Mandura, the pitcher plant Nepenthes distillatoria. It flowered above us – tall stalks of greenish pale flowers, with the huge pitchers beneath, tangling all the way to the ground in various stages of growth and decay. The ground was covered with leeches that make their way up my boots with each step. We both said its name like a mantra as we walked, “mandura, mandura, mandura”.
The light had already dropped on the way out, and as I walked I felt a little curl against my foot. I half turned back and just see a flash of an outline – a tiny snake with its blunt little head raised up. I stopped Chitra and he tutted and pulled me back. Hypnale Hypnale, hump nosed pit viper, it’s colouring was so perfect, that even as I looked directly at it, it seemed to disappear into the path. With its head still reared, Chitra hooked a stick under it, body twisting, and threw it far into the trees and we heard the sound of its body fall in the leaves.
The animals preparing for sunset marked our route out; hornbills and purple faced leaf monkeys and an intensely loud sound of cicadas, like motorbike engines revving in the trees. We saw the marks of a wild boar on the path.
Outside the dormitory after dark I sat with my headtorch and read with the insects and bats swooping at me. Mongooses slept in the roof. The dogs ran, the monkeys were asleep and the sky was filled with green fireflies.
Finally, with some persuasion, I was allowed to go into the forest by myself. But not further than the second Weniwel tree. I found a small stream next to a big mahogany tree that was always filled with the leaf monkeys, and drew the damp earth covered with Acranthera ceylanica and fallen leaves. The day passed with only the monkeys and birds. When the cicadas began I knew it was nearly time to leave.
For several days there were rainstorms in the afternoon, which often stopped work. Once a monkey warned me first, by pissing on me and very nearly on my drawing. When I looked up it was staring down at me. At that moment the sky broke open with a rainstorm and I slid down the paths out of the forest, passing Sunil on a motorbike going up the main path back into the forest to gather leeches – the yellow skinned ones for medicine.
In the early evenings I sat with sugary Nescafe and watched the birds. They appeared during the pauses in the rain, metallic blue flashes against the grey sky and dark trees. Black and yellow beaks, red beaks, a bird of paradise with a long black and white tail – I had no knowledge of the species so everything was reduced to movement and colours. Once the director of the reserve came with his family, and we played badminton at sunset as it rained down until we couldn’t see the shuttlecock in the air anymore.
After dark at night, we went back into the forest again. Chitra, Sunil, myself and another forester who wanted to find snakes. The shadows of the trees were lit only by fireflies and we moved very quietly using red light head torches. Chitra stopped us, pointing to small set of red spots shining back from the trees. As we walked, the trees revealed many more small shadows. Sometimes we shone our torches on full beam and saw huge round eyes illuminated. It was the endemic slender loris (Loris tardigradus), tiny and exquisitely beautiful, clinging to the trees and turning their heads to stare at us. A small owl sat close to us for a long time – the rare endemic Serendib Scops owl, Otus thilohoffmanni.
On the leaves of the trees sleeping kangaroo lizards, Otocryptis wiegmanni, hung suspended. They held on tightly with their hands, with their white bellies exposed and legs and tails gently swinging below. I kept shining my torch in the ditches to look for frogs and insects. We found another snake, pale orange and shining, too fast to catch but we watched it climb far into the trees above our heads, then walked slowly out, with our torches off then because our eyes had adjusted to the light.