17th January 1999
They were hot and sweaty. The suggestion of a cool stream bath was most welcome and no one hesitated. "We will be back for lunch," the children had said, waving 'bye to their mothers who had decided to stay back in the bungalow. And they set off. Little did the group of nine- six adults and three children- know what lay ahead. Little did the three mothers who had settled down for a comfortable chat at the bungalow know that it would be another day and a half before they would see their families again.
It had started out as a simple pleasure trip. Three families (three sisters, their husbands and children) travelled towards the Rakwana area looking for rest, relaxation and escape from the drudgery of Colombo life. None were overly adventurous. They had booked into a bungalow in Suriyakanda and had a restful first day. Then fate intervened. One young adult in the party, newly married came down with slight fever and the group set out in search of a doctor. It was the doctor who suggested a visit to the Sinharaja Forest. It is, after all, a World Heritage Site and a very good experience for any Sri Lankan.
The doctor found a guide for them and directed the man to take them to a particular spot from where a trek begins to the Duvili Ella, so called because of its misty spray, which resembles a cloud of dust.
But the guide somehow missed the correct track and the group, in their van, came up to the Forest Department lodge at the edge of the jungle. They disembarked there and were joined by another man from the locality. The trek to the waterfall, they said, was not far. Just keep to the stream and do not venture into the forest proper, the bungalow keeper warned. And they set off, hoping to be back after a bath, in time to head off to Suriyakanda for lunch.
The forest was beautiful. Every possible shade of green and the most unusual flowers and ferns. The water was cool as they waded through the ankle-deep stream further and further away from the bungalow. Although leeches were aplenty, the beauty of the jungle more than compensated. They never felt the time go by.
Soon they had walked for more than three hours but no waterfall was in sight. What now, they asked the men. Just a few yards more, the guides assured.
Still wading through the stream they came across a group of young nature lovers, old boys of Ananda College. They were heading back to their own lodgings as it was getting close to sundown. But when the boys, full of youthful enthusiasm, heard that this group was in search of Duvili Ella they changed their minds. They wanted to see the fall too.
One of the guides then had a bright idea. There is a short cut through the forest, he said. Let's take that and we can return soon, he said. Throwing caution to the air, and disregarding the bungalow keeper's advice, they all entered the forest.
And then they were lost. There was no path. They had to beat a path with a singe axe and their hands. Nighttime came early to the depths of the forest and soon darkness descended. But not even the youngest in the group, 13-year-old Varuni, felt nervous or scared. Strength in numbers possibly.
It was a full moon night and the forest was flooded with silvery moonlight. They ploughed on, in the dark and suddenly came across another stream. "We decided to follow the stream- it had to lead somewhere," Gamage, one of the older men said. But that stream in fact led to a sheer cliff. They all decided that it was not worth risking climbing down the cliff at that hour. And at that moment, Gamage stubbed his toe and the nail broke. The entire group- of around 14- settle down on a rock the size of a small table for the night.
Meanwhile at the Forest Department bungalow, the three mothers were frantic with worry. They scanned the vast jungle and called out their husbands' and children's names. But night fell and there was no sign of the crowd that had left in such high spirits promising to back for lunch. "We were out of our minds with worry. There was no way to notify the police because none of us could drive."
In the jungle, the night was cold. The lost group huddled together- some only in bathing trunks- for warmth. With a cigarette lighter they managed to ignite some dried twigs into a fire. But even that fizzled off in the damp rain forest. In the morning when they awakened from an uneasy sleep, the two men who served as guides were gone. The group then clambered down the cliff and continued to walk. By now there were so tired and hungry that the persistent leeches were but minor irritations.
At around one o'clock that afternoon the group, totally weary and miserable now, met with one of the guides who had left them at night. The men had trekked to a tiny village at the edge of the forest. He was back with six pieces of maiyokka in a bag for the starved group. When they finally arrived at the village they were greeted with such hospitality as they had never experienced in their lives. Hot tea and dried biscuits came first. Then the villagers -there were only three tiny houses surrounded by rice fields and banana cultivation- cooked them a meal of rice and sambol, which the tired group devoured with relish. One villager even presented his only white sarong to the stranger from Colombo who was only wearing a pair of swimming trunks.
"Their hospitality was more than we could understand," Gamage said. The children said that the hot cooked village meal was the best they had ever tasted.
From that village it was eight more kilometres along a tiny jungle path to the nearest road. At four oclock the second day, when the group was reunited with the three near-hysterical mothers, they looked like modern day Robinson Crusoes, in dirty tattered clothing, matted hair and legs covered with leech bites.
As for the group, they still cannot believe what happened in the forest. How quickly they lost track of time and lost themselves in the wilds of Sri Lanka's only rain forest. Now at his Park Road residence, Gamage cannot believe that they managed to come out of the forest with only a broken toenail to speak of. He also marvels how they never panicked, how the children never cried and how they managed without food for over a day without a whimper.