Until the other day Kotmale was mostly known to me as a brand of dairy products. Sure, I knew it was a place, and roughly where – off the Kandy to Nuwara Eliya road on the right. And that it had a dam and an impressive reservoir behind it (two, as it turns out, but I hadn’t known that). I’d never guessed what a fascinating place it is, for connoisseurs of off-the-beaten-track Sri Lanka which is a large part of what Jungle Tide is about.
It started with a conversation with our insurance agent Chandima who, like many professional Sri Lankans, leads a double life – suited and booted for the day job but with a completely unrelated sideline or two. He rocked up unannounced one afternoon with his cousin Kelum in a battered jeep, announcing that this cousin offers guests safari tours and Kandy city tours. There being no safari parks within a day’s ride of here, and Kandy city tours being ten a penny (and I’d personally choose either a tuk-tuk for fun or a nice comfortable car but not an ancient jeep with lousy sight lines) this wasn’t a promising start. But as he elaborated his sales pitch a couple of ideas piqued the imagination. One was an overnight camping visit to the Veddha village and reservation near Mahiyangama which sounded as though it might involve a more culturally sensitive and appropriate encounter with the Veddha people than the frankly embarrassing one we underwent three years ago. Though we’re not yet convinced.
The other was a range of day and half-day trips to see the various sights of the Kotmale area, about two hours’ drive from Jungle Tide – not far by Sri Lankan standards. The full monty day trip included hiking, mountain climbing and waterfall scrambling which we’re a bit too decrepit for, though we’d love some younger guests to test it out for us sometime. But we decided to try out the half day trip as we were especially keen to see a couple of ruined temples which emerge from the reservoir in the dry season – the last remnants of a large village which was evacuated when the dams were built in the early 1980s. If you’re from Sheffield, think Ladybower (if you’re not, ignore that last bit). The rains having just begun, this was almost the final opportunity before next February to see the temples.
On the way we were treated to a walk down to a riverside ‘bathing place’ where half a village seemed to be engaged in laundry activity, then on to see and photograph the ‘Foolish Bridge’, so called because it was assembled off site and then erected upside down by mistake, the guard rails suspended towards the river. The railway line it was supposed to carry was never built and though I’d like to think the bridge has been preserved as an allegorical monument to the folly of humankind I suspect the real reason it’s still there is that no-one could be bothered to take it down, and now it’s become a minor tourist attraction.
Further upstream there is a very scary-looking suspended rope footbridge which we gave a miss to, then the main dam. Visitors are allowed to walk on the dam and take photos but it’s still guarded like a military installation and the ticket office is a 1km there-and-back walk from the dam itself, for reasons that only a Sri Lankan could understand. Our driver went off to get our tickets, though, and through the army checkpoint we passed and on to the very impressive dam, passing a series of notices forbidding various activities on or near the dam and, as a final catch-all clause, one simply saying ‘Behave Yourself’.
The temples are reached by a longish but easy path from the road a couple of kilometres upstream, passing en route an abandoned factory in the jungle which we were assured used to manufacture false eyelashes. There are two temples, side by side – one Hindu, one Buddhist. Little remains of the Hindu temple. Whether because there was less to start with or because it has suffered worse from watering and weathering I couldn’t say. But the Buddhist temple, unremarkable from its rear wall, was astonishing from the front. One of the most haunting places I’ve been to. Chandima, who’d come along with his cousin for the ride, told me that no attempt is being made to preserve either ruin and they are both gradually disappearing. Whether this is an act of deliberate policy or simply negligence I don’t know, but a part of me quite likes the idea of not preserving everything, letting some things just go their own way as the elements do their work.
We left to the accompaniment of thunderclaps and reached the jeep as the first drops of rain began to fall. Soon the temples will be beneath the water again for another nine months. And to round the day off we impressed Chandima and Kelum by showing them a route back to Jungle Tide which was not only far more scenic but shaved twenty minutes off the journey time. When you know back routes that drivers are unaware of you begin to feel like you’re a proper local.