This is an excerpt from the memoir “Kokopelli in Paradise, available as an e-book on Amazon/Kindle
Randeniya, Sri Lanka, July, 2002: From the view on high from Kalugalla Temple, across the Valley of the Elephant Bath, stands a monolith of black basaltic rock that dominates the valley like Shaq in the paint, and I was fascinated with it. I was a wilderness traveler in my younger days, spent a solo summer on the Appalachian Trail, and had done a lot of backpacking in the western mountains as well. I had to climb it, even though the locals rarely ascended the thing. It was the kind of thing teenaged boys did on a dare. Teenaged boys and crazy old white men. I had to do it.
The best wilderness guide in the region was my friend Senarath, who worked at the Elephant Bath—the guy who knew how to fix wasp stings with flowers, a man who survived a cobra bite. He’s a wiry little guy about five-foot-six with facial features that strike me as more Italian than the usual soft faces of the Sri Lankans. Senarath knows all about the jungle. He took me to the top of the Black Rock. It wasn’t easy. I am no teenager.
Gonzo Gav the Australian mahout came along too. It was a guy trip. As instructed, I wore hiking boots and long pants; in retrospect I could have used a long-sleeved shirt, too, though I didn’t bring one with me to Sri Lanka. The base of the rock was only about a two-mile walk from the Elephant Bath. We arrived at the base in the early afternoon, after crossing the paddy dikes, waving to people I recognized. The first wave I offered to a family group about a hundred meters away, distracted me and I lost my footing and almost fell off the dike into the rice paddy. My audience thought that was hilarious.
No road and no trail, Senarath had informed me earlier: to get to the top of Kalugalla Rock you climbed straight up through the jungle.
We began to ascend through an old rubber plantation. Raw white latex oozed and ran along scars in the tree, dripping its gooey substance into little coconut shell collectors, shaped like inverted yarmulkes, affixed to the trunk of each tree. From the beginning the ascent was steep—steep or steeper than anything I ever did in thirty years of hiking and backpacking. No trail. Straight up through the jungle, climbing through loose rock, loose dirt, and jungle-floor litter so thick I sometimes sank through it to mid-calf. We climbed like this for a half-hour. Very hard work for the old fat American guruvasiak. Very hard work indeed. It would have been nice to enjoy the vegetation, even the stuff that was slashing great scratches in my bare arms, but all I could do was to watch my footing, where I placed each step to insure the solidity of where each boot trod. I slipped plenty of times. Any cobra could have nailed me at his leisure, because all I watched was my feet.
Three-quarters of the way up the mountain it started to get hard.
We stopped to rest (or, rather, let me rest) where I could look down the slope I’d ascended and through the trees to the valley floor, carpeted with brilliant green paddy, several hundred meters straight down. That kind of stuff usually freaked me out, but if I were to fall and begin tumbling, there was plenty of thick jungle vegetation to arrest any unplanned descent. I had no idea how much farther it was to the exposed rock itself, but what lay ahead was the steepest country I had ever undertaken, in some places more like climbing a ladder than a mountain.
Senarath had cut me a stout hiking staff that had a bit of thick branch at its end, angled 45 degrees, to use to hook the trunks of trees ahead of me to help pull myself up. In a number of places, he went ahead of me seven or eight feet (nearly straight up), grabbed a tree trunk with one hand, and extended his staff to me, which I would grab hold of and pull myself up, with him pulling too, and sometimes Gavin pushing from behind as well. Without those frequent jungle belays there would have been no way I could have made it to the top. And as I ascended through this impossible terrain, I began to tell myself: I am no teenaged boy—I am an old fat guy, but I am going to make it all the way up.
And I did, of course.
Another half-hour of that and we rested again. “Only about a half mile more,” Senarath said, and smiled. I squinted into the jungle. “Look,” Gav said, pointing off about two o’clock high. “What?” I said, trying to blink the sweat from my burning eyes, focusing on the vegetation ten meters in that direction, wondering if he were pointing out a big black cobra. I’d been looking at my feet way too long, and it took me five seconds to focus on what was past the tangle of vines—the base of the big black rock itself. We’d arrived, sort of. Now we had to get to the summit.
It was more of the same, loose dirt, loose rock, and jungle litter—vines, roots, leaves, husks, sticks, only thicker now because it was at the foot of the rock. More jungle belays, more slipping and falling. I was drenched in sweat and covered with dirt, black gritty dirt that clung to my arms and neck. Sometimes the rock itself, as we ascended it was to our right, offered handholds. Nearing the top now, we found a big fissure in the rock, a crack leading into a cave. Although the face of the fissure was nearly vertical, Senarath climbed up it with the skill of anyone I’d ever seen at my daughter’s rock climbing club, then grabbed a convenient vine and disappeared. Just before seeing the last of him a bat swooped in to the cave. He was gone about five minutes, then down he came again.
We continued onward and upward, until at last we passed through a low tunnel of thick vines, at the top of which was the base of a huge fallen tree, which formed a little alcove. A right turn there, through a crack that afforded some good handholds, and then we were in the sunlight, at the top of the rock itself. And before me was an uninterrupted arc of vista 180 degrees wide. It was the most incredible view of the countryside I’d seen in Sri Lanka, in all its sun-baked glory, hills leading off into higher hills leading off into the mountains toward Kandy, and directly below, the paddies we’d crossed an hour and a half earlier. The wind was blowing and the sun was strong. My legs were trembling and my head was spinning from the exertion. I sat down to rest and to take in the wonderment of the view.
We spent an hour up there, smoking cheap one-rupee cigars and a joint Gavin brought along, eating chocolate cookies I’d brought, and talking. Senarath made a bow and arrow out of vines and limbs. We tried to launch an arrow out past the sheer cliff before us, but the bow was too wimpy and the arrow didn’t make it past a cluster of bushes. He told us of the ancient kings of Ceylon who always lived in very high places, which they would defend with strategically-placed piles of boulders that could turn into deadly rock slides if their positions were attacked. It made me think of that old Disney movie, The Swiss Family Robinson, in which they fended off marauding pirates in a similar fashion with coconut logs.
At the base of the hill Senarath had collected a pile of the seeds from a long-rotted away jackfruit—a huge, sweet, slimy fruit the size of a watermelon. We descended to the dark vine tunnel with the dead tree alcove, where Senarath buried the nuts and built a little fire over them. In awhile we were eating roasted jack nuts, and they were delicious. They had the texture of cashews and a taste much like potato.
We began our descent at six so that we would be across the paddy by dark. It gets dark early in equatorial regions—12 hours of daylight, twelve hours of darkness. With my little short legs I admit that I did much descending, in the really steep places, on my butt. At one spot, though, there was a long slope of loose red dirt, and I had to show off my old cross-country skiing skills with a nicely controlled angled slide on the uphill edges of my hiking boots. Gav was impressed. Telemarking in the tropics.
We made it down and I didn’t break any bones or re-destroy my knee. It was almost sunset when we again crossed the paddy dikes to the road. I was about a hundred and fifty meters across when I heard a din from the base of the mountain. It was the little family I’d seen earlier, hollering and waving at me.
Gav and Senarath had already made the tree line, and I was alone on the dike. I waved, and then it suddenly hit me what I’d accomplished that afternoon. I was filled with the kind of pride and self worth a fat old man feels when he’s done something he knew would have been difficult for him a quarter-century and fifty pounds ago, and I was overwhelmed with emotion. I pointed wildly to the top of the black rock, banged my chest with my open hand and shouted “mama,” which means “me” in Sinhalese, threw my arms up into the air in a huge V for Victory, and, like Adrian Quinn did at the end of the movie Platoon, I beat my chest with the fist still holding the stout hiking stick and uttered a guttural roar at the top of my parched, scratchy voice. I did it!
I chuckled all the way home in the dark, breaking into unsuppressible grins and uttering “heh-heh-heh-heh-heh…” Exhausted, filthy, limping and light-headed, my feeling of alive-ness, and that endorphin high that comes from straining every muscle in my body for hours, made me feel so buoyant I may as well have been drunk. I was drunk on life in a way I could not remember feeling for a long, long time.