The next day I was walking down an altogether different processional route. Small white flags lined the sandy track and every so often I passed a small poster glued to a tree trunk showing a grainy photo of an old man who had died. The funeral party had long since passed by, but there was still a sense of peace and contemplation in the air as the evening sun cast long shadows across the valley floor.
I was in the up-and-down landscape 6f the Knuckles Range , a clenched-fist crumple of hazy blue mountains to the east of Kandy . It's the hill country's last great wilderness - Unesco has designated the areas above 1,000m a Conservation Area in a bid to save them from deforestation. Apart from the occasional village, the Knuckles is an untouched tangle of trees - this is the only place in Sri Lanka where you can see every different type of forest, from the dry zone slopes through montane areas to the waterfalls and lush dripping foliage of cloud forest. Unsurprisingly, the variety of wildlife1 in the area is just as impressive.
"I have seen 40 species of birds before, just walking along that short path," said my guide, Dami, pointing towards a shady track as we gazed out from our campsite that evening. The sky was glowing a gentle pink and heavy mist was pouring down the valley like dry ice in an 80s pop video.
"This is one of my favorite places in Sri Lanka ,"Dami continued. "It might not have the big game of Yala National Park - but then it doesn't have the tourists, either."
He was right. Since leaving Kandy , we'd seen only local villagers. With its rugged hills and rediscovered beauty, the Knuckles is a trekker's delight although, with scant infrastructure, it's not the easiest place to explore.
This became clear the next morning when we found ourselves thrashing through 2m-tall grass. For the fifth time that day, the path had petered out into nothing and we were relying on Dami's sense of direction. Ironically, the creation of the Knuckles Conservation Area has meant that the tracks once used repeatedly by the locals who harvested the cardamom here have quickly become overgrown, and exploring the region is trickier than it was before. In time, Dami felt sure that a proper network of trails would be maintained. In the meantime, you need a guide.
And so, with my human compass leading the way, I strode past rippling fields of silvery lemongrass and showy flame trees as Dami introduced me to a never-ending list of the local inhabitants - paddy field pippets, greater coucals, tree nymphs, ablack eagle, hill-mynas and white-eyes.
Our route took us through all of the forest zones, each one so clearly defined that it was like walking through the different domes of the Eden Project. We applied sunscreen, pulled on waterproofs, took them off again, put up an umbrella - first to protect from the rain, then from the beating sun - all in a matter of minutes.
We sheltered from the third sudden downpour in the courtyard of an old, abandoned cardamom estate where the air was still heavy with the sweet spice.
"This was one of the most famous estates," said Dami."The whole region was a huge producer of cardamom, but the forest environment suffered hugely as a result."
He explained how cardamom is planted on the forest floor. When it's harvested, everything is cleared not just the cardamom itself, but the entire undergrowth of the forest, drastically affecting regeneration in the process. Cardamom cultivation and slash-and-burn agriculture is now banned in the Conservation Area. Providing alternatives to the locals who relied upon the estates for work has been a key priority for the Forestry Department, which now controls this area.
The rain passed, and Dami nodded up the steep hillside behind us where the old cardamom plants were flourishing untended. He looked doubtful for a moment: "I don't suppose you've got any leech socks in that rucksack of yours?"he asked. Not a little smugly, I whipped some out and spent the next ten minutes rolling down sleeves, pulling up socks and tucking in trousers. I was going to be a tough customer for these leeches.
But hell, they tried their best. I must have been the first trekker they'd seen for a long time - these were some seriously determined parasites. For the next two hours I marched as quickly as I could through the undergrowth, large, wet cardamom leaves slapping my face and thorns snagging my clothes, hungry leeches flipping through the air like pole-vaulters in my wake.
Back at camp, I picked the last shrivelled stragglers from my boots as Dami and the crew fired up the large barbecue. As darkness fell over the ethereal Knuckles, small beacons started to be lit around the valley. Dami hurried past with a lantern on a pole and planted it firmly outside my tent.
"Elephants,"he muttered."There's a herd around tonight. The villagers have warned us."
I lay in my tent that night, ears peeled for ripping branches and trampling undergrowth. But the only ripping sound 1 heard was the sound of my flysheet being torn to shreds in an unseasonably strong gale