“The lake is only a short hike into the forest, I can show you!” the ranger said. And so we went from the little town of Deniyaya to the edge of the Sinharaja rainforest, a World Heritage Site for its amazing variety of life. I put liquid soap on my shoes to deter the leeches [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka


Austrian Alexander Tinti relives a terrifying two-day ordeal in the depths of Sinharaja earlier this month

“The lake is only a short hike into the forest, I can show you!” the ranger said. And so we went from the little town of Deniyaya to the edge of the Sinharaja rainforest, a World Heritage Site for its amazing variety of life.

I put liquid soap on my shoes to deter the leeches and with a machete, the ranger cuts a path through the dense undergrowth. I wonder how in this environment anyone can find his way. Here and there a fallen tree, mud and puddles, bathing grounds for sambhur, a peacock, leopard tracks, gigantic trees, lianas and ferns. It’s awe-inspiring but there’s no trace of any lake. “Never mind, let’s go back!” I say to Aruna, one of our party. The ranger suggests crossing one more hill, there for sure, would be the lake! We cross, we wander, but there is even not a puddle near and far, and slowly it dawns on us that our ranger has lost his way…

We start calling. Frantically. “Where are you?” is the stereotype question that everyone asks. My friend Lalinda in Colombo, an experienced hiker, suggests the only sensible thing, that I should download GPS. “Ok, will do! Call you later!” I hang up and discover I have only 1% battery left! ‘Mayday’ to my children? No, it’s too early for that and anyway it will be fine! Also, someone has already alerted the Austrian Embassy in India, so, in the worst scenario they will get the news.

My phone is dead by now. And step by step, no phone is working anymore. So here we are, cut off from everything with no idea of our whereabouts.

Waiting in hope: Aruna and Alexander on the sandbank

We are four: the Ranger, in his 30s, nice but clueless. Aruna, my guide, also in his 30s, strong and capable but unfamiliar with the forest, his friend Lakshman, older than them, and myself, a grandfather of four.

The last message to Aruna was: six people are on the way to search for us. Comforting. But within more than 100km2 of dense thickets, hardly knowing where to search…? So we just keep walking, hoping for the sun to show which direction we are heading to. In vain. And these damn trees they all look the same! We hear a stream. Good! All streams flow down and sooner or later it will lead us from the forest. We follow the sound.

The leeches are unbearable. They crawl into my shoes and I almost wish I could go barefoot or in slippers as everybody else. It’s pouring now. The forest floor is steep with dense undergrowth to grab and hold, sometimes though with unexpected thorns. Down the abyss – finally we spot the river. But it’s so steep and slippery that safe steps are only possible against the trunks of smaller trees. I don’t know why my broken cross-ligaments

Snakes alive: A green pit viper gets too close for comfort

don’t bother me, I guess it’s the adrenaline.

Down, down, down, but at the last third there is a rock we cannot pass. “Here! A tunnel!” Aruna says and disappears in a hole followed by the Ranger and Lakshman. I’m badly claustrophobic, and this hole is no wider than myself! Anything, but please not this! The others are calling already from the other side! Paralyzed I stare at it, and crawl in. “Close your eyes!” I hear Aruna from the exit. Don’t think, don’t think, just trust… and he drags me through the tunnel.

Down in the riverbed, finally no leeches. Just pouring rain. We walk and walk, hoping we are walking towards south or north, the narrow sides of the forest that stretch from our eastern entry point towards the west. Early evening, the rain stops. The sky clears and the sun sets right in front of us! For the past nine hours we have been walking towards the west, the centre of the Sinharaja…

Rapidly it’s getting dark and we need a place to sleep. The jungle is not an option because of the leeches, centipedes and other creeping creatures, eating us alive. Of leopards I am less afraid. But where? On the rock there in the river? Or maybe on the sand bank over here? We decide on the sand bank and become aware how soaked we are.

Into a black hole: Aruna disappearing into the tunnel

The sun is down and we are sitting in our bloody, torn rags, on the wet sand, freezing, shaking, and knowing this will not change for ten more hours until dawn… The temperature falls further. I can’t control my shaking anymore and neither can Aruna, the Ranger and Lakshman. It had never occurred to me it would be possible to freeze to death in a forest in the tropics.
Lakshman sits to my left, Aruna to my right. “Closer!” I urge and we close ranks, the Ranger back to back with me. The minutes are creeping by at snail’s pace. Unthinkable to shiver like this throughout the night. The sky clears. Millions of stars appear in the aisle between the tree canopy. Equal numbers of fireflies are rising from the forest floor, drowning out the stars. Huddled together we lie down. Nothing matters any more, everyone is just fighting for an inch of skin for warmth to stay alive. Lakshman starts vomiting.

Suddenly the fireflies are gone. Somewhere there’s lightning. Then rolling thunder and again it starts to pour. We stand up, for less exposure to the onslaught of the rain, glued together, shaking. Lakshman, shorter than the rest of us, somewhere between us on the ground. We envy him, it must be so much warmer there! But then we hear him gag and a nano-second later he throws up on our feet! It is so terrible we go into convulsive laughter… The rain stops and the stars are back, the fireflies as well. We lie down, it rains, we rise, the fireflies, lie down, it rains, we rise… and so it goes on until the early morning. Finally the tree line is separating from the sky and it is dawn.

And now? What difference does it make? Well, yes, at least by moving we can fight the cold. Back on the riverbed, we continue walking. Meditation keeps me sane, and sometimes the faint hope that the river finally would make a bend to the south or north. It doesn’t. It only gets deeper, faster, wilder. And the canyon by now is so steep and high that we cannot leave it anymore. We are fighting the currents it looks like soon we’ll have to swim. But there! there is a waterfall! Aruna looks up the canyon: “Come…!” I think he’s joking. “Follow me!” He climbs. I follow him. Each step and every grab, he waits until I follow. “Don’t look down! for god’s sake, don’t look down!!’ I resist the urge, staring only at his heels in front of me, inching step by step, I strangely feel with each step my soles and palms are glued to the rock. Higher, higher… we finally are up. Clasping a tree I look down. Before I faint I look away.

We continue our journey into nowhere, along the river in the forest. Leeches, leeches, leeches. I’m getting used to them, and even to the fact that meanwhile they have found their way up my pant legs, clinging to my body like vines of grapes in purple black. The canyon gets lower, the river’s widening and calmer. Ok, let’s try! And again we are back in the riverbed, stepping from one mossy rock to other ones. “Be careful!!” Aruna shouts. A green pit viper rears her head against my foot. Slowly I retreat. Fortunately I love the snakes.

Poor Lakshman is throwing up again. This time it’s blood. He climbs a rock in the middle of the stream, lies flat and stops responding. He seems to have given up. Thank god the sun is out. The Ranger suggests we go back. It’s pointless, as all else we could think about. We gather around Lakshman. Aruna stares like a hawk at the mountain top up north. Something’s brewing in his mind. Suddenly he turns to me:

“Where is north?”
I point to where he stared.
“Give me your shoes!”
I turn pale. “You… you won’t leave me back here with your dying friend? Aruna!!”
“Trust me, I will be back!”
“Yeah right!”
“Trust me!! It’s our last chance!!!” he screams.
I look away.
“Well, how could you” I hear him murmuring. “You don’t know me!”’
I don’t say anything, give him my shoes and with the Ranger he disappears into the undergrowth.
It’s clear, they won’t come back.

I climb a rock close to Lakshman’s and look around. Everything feels different even though it is the same. The river. The trees. The rock with the motionless Lakshman. Only a strange silence emanates from every tree and stone and everything around. Even the word ‘waiting’ loses its meaning. Some thoughts return. Should I nurse a fruitless hope driving me insane whenever I become aware that no one comes? Or should I just try to accept the End? I am opting for the latter. But how does one do this when one is not sick, not even weak and nothing hurts? Thoughts about my children keep me going for a while.
How would it actually then be…? The sun will set. It will get dark and cold, like yesterday. The stars and fireflies; then pouring rain. It will get even colder and I will be shaking uncontrollably, but this time just with a dying body next to me. And in the early morning at the coldest hour, with a big and final shake my body will shut down…However it will come as it will come.
I look at Lakshman. From the surrounding waters, crowds of black and bright red-patterned crabs emerge, crawling towards him and eat his vomit. I take my gaze away. Thick fog hovers now above the stream. I stare into the mist. Its emptiness feels good. Now I’m also motionless. Only silence, silence… … … … … … …

But there! Something’s moving in the mist! They’re coming back!!! Aruna and the Ranger, hands thrown in the air victoriously! “We saw a house! three mountain ranges over there! we get a helicopter!!’ Breaking into tears I hug him. “You have a friend forever,” I can hardly say, ashamed of my mistrust.

Hours later and at dusk, five, ten men, no, the whole village keeps pouring from the thicket! They have come across the leech infested mountains, bringing tea and biscuits! And we become aware we haven’t eaten for two days… But it is late. One of them throws Lakshman over his shoulder and in the middle of the night we reach the village.

How can I possibly not love this country!

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