Birds, Leeches and the Riverston Gap

“It’s a four kilometre hike up the mountain” Padmini warned us.


I got ready with walking boots, back pack and hiking poles. We drove downhill along the B274 to the turn off to the VHF station. There is a good road to the communications towers at the top of the Knuckles Range hill but a barrier across the road stops unauthorised vehicles using it. There is just enough room to park a car this side of the barrier and a short distance away, there is a green painted public toilet without a door.

We climbed steadily, avoiding the leech infested verges. The incline was not steep and the cool, gentle breeze was refreshing. Behind us, the mountains wore a misty veil and birds sang in the morning sun. Then I saw the Yellow-eared bulbul, one of the 26 or so endemic birds of Sri Lanka. It was joined by a Black bulbul. Enthralled, I watched them through field glasses, chirping and hoping from branch to branch.

The road twisted and turned and soon we reached the Riverston Gap through which wind can blow at fearsome speeds. Vegetation here is stunted in order to survive undamaged in the roaring wind. The ‘stunted forest’ looks velvety from above with different shades of green.

Several transmitting towers stood at the top of the mountain. Station gate was closed and there was nobody in sight. A sad looking dog walked up to the gate and watched us in silence. More Yellow-eared bulbuls frolicked in the buses and we started to walk slowly down the mountain to the waiting bus.



Despite warnings, some ventured on to the grassy verges and were rewarded with leech bites – on ankles, knees and even in the groin!

According to Dr Richard Dawood, travel medicine expert:
“Leeches – which before feeding can be tiny – lie in wait on vegetation, quickly attaching to clothing as you brush by, then on to the lower legs and ankles. They are skilled at insinuating their mouth parts through the weave of socks, and wriggling into trainers or even tough hiking boots.

They have a particular propensity for buttocks and private parts – so caution is needed when answering the call of nature. Leech bites are almost painless, and accompanied by secretion of an anticoagulant, so the first clue to their presence may be an expanding red stain in your socks or clothing, or the squelch of blood in your boots. Although they are usually just a nuisance, and don’t spread disease, you will want to avoid them.

Leech socks are made from tightly woven fabric and form an impervious barrier to bites. Online, you will find many suppliers offering them. Alternatively, you can make your own by spraying plenty of DEET (mosquito repellent) on to ordinary hiking socks. If you do find a leech attached to you, don’t pull it off, as the mouth parts can remain under your skin and leave a slowly healing granuloma, or lump. You can encourage the leech to detach on its own by heating it with a lighted cigarette; just as effectively, you can apply some DEET, alcohol or table salt. Apply antiseptic to the skin until it has healed.”

(The hike was arranged by Padmini Hussein of Flamingo Tours)

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