Erskine Point: Almost a point of no return

Marlon Saldin ventures high up into the Knuckles in search of an inscription

Erskine Point would have remained in quiet solitude, if not for an estate worker who took me into his confidence. His great grandfather had worked on the estate of the British planters, of which one had ventured high into the clouds and onto a fearsome ridge. It was also said that at the end of the ridge was an inscription.

We ventured out to see it for ourselves on a clear early dawn, though the worker got lost in the forest many a time before we finally came to this magnificent place.

View from the top: A carpet of green

Erskine Point is the Knuckles’ range’s tallest northernmost point and has the luxury of getting the best of both monsoons. Contrary to local belief that some treasure was buried here, Erskine and party had made a rocky inscription of their visit here. They would also have had the pleasure in all probability of witnessing the arch of the island from Negombo to Batticaloa, as even now, on occasions one can get a glimpse of the glittering coast from these heights. Closer up though you see carpets of green suspended in rolling mountains with distant mountain landmarks. This vantage point also opens up hidden valleys that cannot be seen from anywhere else.

A few months later, a friend seeing the pictures wanted to visit this point along with four others, including two girls who had just arrived from the US.

We commenced the climb at around 11 a.m. reaching the secondary forest by 1.30 p.m. Around this time the clear sky was replaced by mist and a steady drizzle. Slowly we made our way onto the ridge and its ledge. After unveiling the rock with the inscription, for it was covered by scrub, we had a hasty lunch as the mist and wind-driven drizzle was anything but pleasant at over 5000 ft.

Around 3 p.m. came the important question of descent. We could leave the way we came and go around a ridge of lesser height into the valley below, reaching around midnight or simply descend down a little ledge, that I had seen the last time around. This was unchartered terrain, though if all went well, we would be home and dry by around 7 p.m. the latest.

Everyone agreed. I had brought with me a couple of men who were quite used to the conditions as well as our guide who had brought me up here the last time.

The drizzle had turned our route into muddy ground with a blinding mist and a near vertical gradient. With three torches, the group was divided into three, although that did not stop the slip-sliding of one and all. We made steady progress downwards until one last obstacle – a rocky cliff!

Making things worse was the thick mist. The water was now running down like a miniature stream.
With no safe passage available, we moved further down the cliff or rather more diagonally as the thinning of trees and slippery conditions were making our footholds risky.

The inscription

More painful was the fact that the ledge was getting wider with every passing minute leaving us no option but to find another alternative. The alternative came from the ‘guide’ who said there was a path to an adjacent village. Everyone tramped after him happily for about 10 minutes until we got lost again.

It was here that I woke up to the reality that we were now heading to a carpet of green leaving us no grain of hope of reaching civilization for a few days, if lucky. We decided to backtrack all the way out.

At around midnight, we were back on his ledge intact or almost as the anti-leech medicine on the leech socks had got washed away and the leeches had had a field day. Everybody had a few clusters of leeches on them. Again, because of the mist we had to backtrack a few times and finally reached the village around 11 a.m., making it a near 24-hour saga.

The importance of Knuckles

The Knuckles Mountain Range that extends over parts of the districts of Kandy and Matale gets its name from its shape, that of a clenched fist. The highest point on the range is Gombaniya (1906m), followed by Knuckles (1864m) and others like Kirigalpotta (1648m), Dotugala (1575m) and Kobonilgala (1555m).
Knuckles is considered important for its biodiversity and wealth of plant and animal life, with several species of mammals, birds, insects and reptiles being endemic to the area. It is also one of the important watershed areas in the country with three important rivers the Hulu Ganga, the Heen Ganga and the Kalu Ganga beginning from it.

It also has historical significance because of an ancient Yaksha settlement believed to have been in the area. In ancient times it was referred to as ‘Giri Divaina’ and as ‘Malaya Rata’.

Wikipedia provides this description: Whilst this name was assigned by early British surveyors, the Sinhalese residents have traditionally referred to the area as Dumbara Kanduvetiya meaning mist-laden mountain range (Cooray, 1984). The entire area is characterised by its striking landscapes often robed in thick layers of cloud but in addition to its aesthetic value the range is of great scientific interest. It is a climatic microcosm of the rest of Sri Lanka. The conditions of all the climatic zones in the country are exhibited in the massif.

At higher elevations there is a series of isolated cloud forests, harbouring a variety of flora and fauna, some of which cannot be found anywhere else in the world. Although the range constitutes about 0.03% of the island’s total area it is home to a significantly higher proportion of the country’s biodiversity.

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