Staying in a semi-open treehouse surrounded by the Sri Lankan jungle and touted as a ‘nature lover’s dream’ sounded idyllic. At least until the storms hit.
There’s something special about a treehouse. Deep in the forest, neighboured only by birds, the humble treehouse has a special, woodsy appeal — an anti-glamour — all of its own. The more rustic and tree-shrouded, the better.
I’ve always had a fascination for these little structures set amidst the foliage.* And so, on a trip to Sri Lanka, I jumped at the opportunity to stay in a treehouse at the eco-friendly Dehigaha Ela property, near Sigiriya.
What ensued were two magical nights spent huddled in our surprisingly spacious timber treehouse, watching an array of native birds, a chipmunk or two, butterflies, fireflies and the sunrise — all from the comfort of bed. It felt somehow adventurous to sleep and wake among the treetops, in a structure with just one solid wall.
There was just one thing threatening to rain on our proverbial parade: the (not-so-proverbial) storms.
Back of Beyond: Seven acres of eco-friendly sort-of-wilderness
Reaching Dehigaha Ela meant a long, bumpy drive along a dirt road that took us quite literally off the beaten track. We passed tiny villages, farmers working their land, and a local kindergarten with a handful of pupils. At times the jungle came right up to the car windows. A family of curious water buffaloes passed by close enough to touch, peering warily at us. Being Sri Lanka, there were also multiple street dogs reclining in the middle of the road.
At long last, we reached a clearing. Among a cluster of trees, we spotted the treehouse that would become our home for the next two nights. We’d made it.
With a warm welcome, property manager Kasun greeted us and led us to the open-air communal living and dining areas. Large, open spaces surrounded by trees, these wall-free structures were built using traditional techniques, local materials and rope fixtures rather than nails. Pinterest would probably call the resulting look ‘safari chic’.
Kasun offered us a refreshing cool drink of either fresh lime juice or filtered water that had been and treated on site. (You know a hotel takes environmental sustainability seriously, as opposed to a mere marketing ploy or box-ticking exercise, when its staff refuse to serve plastic bottles on the premises.**) As we sat back and enjoyed our drinks, Kasun told us more about the place.
The aptly named Back of Beyond — a fully Sri Lankan owned and operated company — runs the property.
In Sinhalese, Kasun explained, Dehigaha Ela means ‘lime tree stream’. This stream, the surrounding forest, and the nearby abandoned paddy field come illuk grassland struck Back of Beyond as the perfect spot for one of its wilderness retreats. And so Dehigaha Ela was built. Like all their properties, it was designed to leave as gentle a trace as possible on the environment while benefiting the local community, employing rural craftsmen and builders.
And it’s not just talk, either. Back of Beyond aims to leave the surroundings of its properties as ‘natural’ as possible, or better yet restored, with a low density policy of less than one room built per acre. The result? Land clearing is kept to the bare minimum:
We leave a major proportion of the land untouched or rejuvenate it as a wild habitat where needed. This orientation has become even more important than we expected, as are discovering how critical these ‘wild pockets’ are as a refuge for wildlife as man takes control of more and more of the natural landscape even in the most remote areas.***
A lilypad pond and lime tree stream
Leading us on a leisurely walk around the grounds, Kasun recounted the landscaping work that had gone into rejuvenating the site. In its centre sat a large artificial pond, complete with lily pads and pink water lotuses.
As we wandered through the nearby forest, Kasun shared his in-depth botanical knowledge with us, pointing out the native trees we passed. My favourite was the mimosa, which responded to even the slightest touch by shrivelling up, closing its tiny branches and hiding from the world like a hug-avoidant little introvert in plant form. Same, mimosa, same.
Last but not least was the eponymous stream — or, as Kasun phrased it, the ‘natural swimming pool’. A pristine, shady waterway of dappled sunlight filtering through the trees. This was the only stream in the area, he explained, and once attracted a herd of elephants who decided to take a casual shortcut through the property at 2am. I mean, if there’s any way to be woken up at 2am…
Give me a room among the Damba trees
Our tour complete, we followed a dirt path that led between the pond and some tall grasses to where our new pad beckoned. Suspended on stilts crafted from branches, this two-storey treehouse was built around a living Damba tree. Its branches protruded through the thatched roof. Downstairs was a living area as well as the semi-open bathroom, complete with an open-air shower and, handily, the only solid wall of the structure.
Upstairs was prime relaxation zone: another no-frills living area overlooked the grounds. And in case sitting back and putting your feet up wasn’t relaxing enough? They got you: just a few steps away, up on a raised platform, lay the bed. A double mattress flanked by sturdy tree trunks. So you could nature-watch in bed.
With no walls, doors or windows getting in the way, views of much of the property spread around us. Tiny birds and not-so-tiny butterflies flit about our room now and then. A lizard dropped by at one point to rest on the tree trunk near our bed.
To this day I’ve never been to and could not imagine a more perfect place to chill, read (Kasun kindly lent me some books on Sri Lanka), and while away the day. It felt like we were outside and in view of the thick of it, all while chilling in the cool shade in bed. Absolute. Friggen. Bliss.
Gradually the sun set, the sky darkened and the noises of frogs resounded among the birdcalls. Night-time claimed the jungle around us.
Over at the open-air dining hall, we enjoyed a delicious curry cooked by the on-site chef and served in traditional tableware, down to clay cups. As we ate in the torchlight, the rains began — the perfect ambient sounds for a relaxing meal.
Stormy nights, mystery spiders
But when it was time to go back to our room, accompanied by a staff member bearing a torch, the storm really hit. Just like that, our beloved treehouse was transformed from utterly idyllic to wet, windy and… well, less than ideal. Somehow in the excitement of my little treehouse fantasy the possibility of bad weather had never cropped up.
The downstairs living area was muddy and the semi-outdoors bathroom — such a wonderful novelty in the daytime — was half soaked from the rain. Red ants congregated around the toilet, presumably seeking shelter.
A few inches away from me, a strange shape bigger than my hand protruded from the wall. A wall fixture of some kind, I reasoned: purpose unknown. The next day, when this mysterious wall fixture HAD MOVED TO ANOTHER WALL OF ITS OWN ACCORD, I was forced to accept it was in fact the most ginormous spider I’d ever seen.**** I am both Australian and grew up with a bush reserve for a backyard, so I’m not usually particularly squeamish about spiders (leeches, however…). But this thing was HUGE. A terrifying monstrosity. And there was I, oblivious, seated mere inches from it.
Still in ignorant bliss, heading upstairs to the bedroom, I sprang into action positioning our luggage at the foot of the bed to keep it dry just in case the rain ventured further than the edges of the room. Then, diving under the mosquito net, we encountered a problem. Or, rather, dozens and dozens of problems: though the net kept the mosquitoes out, it was no match for smaller bugs. Thanks to the rain, we now had a whole bunch of unwelcome bedfellows in the form of little insects. Delightful.
I was frustrated.
And, to be honest, a little scared.
I was afraid of the tiny, harmless bugs (for some reason), of the storm which felt all the more intense in a space without four solid walls… of being in an unlocked – nay, un-doored! — room without a key, exposed to the elements. Rabies-infested monkeys and wild rats with a track record of scavenging in guests’ bags were also sudden, urgent concerns. Of course.
Plus, my inner-worrywart-on-overdrive added, we were utterly unprotected in the (highly improbable) event of a mugging or, you know, *whispers* serial killer… Never mind that statistically speaking I was approximately 1000% safer from crime there in the middle of nowhere than back home in suburban Sydney. What if?!?!
The very reasons I’d been so excited to stay in a treehouse — the immersion in nature, the setting among the treetops — fuelled the irrational, frantic worries that coursed through my brain.
But maybe the worst part of all was the realisation that I was wayyy more sheltered than I thought I was. All those childhood camping trips for nothing; I was just your average, soft suburbanite, scared and — for some reason? — surprised by the presence of bugs and rain in a treehouse in the jungle. (I mean, bugs? In a jungle? Who would have thought?!?!?1)
A jungle sunrise from bed
Fears and bugs and anxiety attacks aside, in time the sounds of the stream and the heavy rain outside served as a soothing lullaby. It even managed to shut up my neurotic pessimism-on-steroids — no mean feat, I assure you. The rhythm of the raindrops on the leaves made me feel like I was like dozing off to sleep in a real-life nature soundscape.***** What followed was the deepest, most refreshing sleep of my life.
Best part, though, was the view when we woke up. The sun was just starting to climb the canopy of the jungle facing our treehouse. Still cosy in bed, we watched its rays of light draw closer. Somehow the sunshine lighting up the semi-wilderness around us seemed to expose my paranoia from the night before for the stupidity it was.
A tiny black bird with a strange call****** skipped along the railing of our verandah mere metres in front of us. Next, a chipmunk — or, rather, a rapid blur with a tail we took to be a chipmunk — darted across our room and dived into a neighbouring tree. Look, I’m no zoologist, but I’m pretty sure if I’d been blonder, slimmer and a better whistler all the woodland creatures and birds would have flocked to me like in Disney princess movies. It was that kind of place.
That afternoon, we wandered across to the stream for a swim and/or fish pedicure. But, thanks to the rain, it was a tad murky for my liking. So instead, seated on the ledge of the rocks, we dipped our toes in the cool water and raced leaves downstream in the fast-running current. It could not have been more relaxing.
The rest of the day was a hazy, nature-filled dream.
Later, as night fell, another massive storm decided to strike. It completely drenched the lower storey of our treehouse, and caused the nearby pond to overflow, flooding the adjacent track.
As we passed it on our way to dinner, I slipped and went for a bit of a swim, finding the lower half of my body submerged in a surprisingly deep puddle — aka the overflowing pond itself. The shoes I was wearing never really recovered (nor did my dignity, since you ask).
Tucked up in bed later that night, cocooned once more in our mosquito net, we again fell asleep to the sound of the rain hitting the leaves of the jungle. Thunder rumbled occasionally and the stream cascaded in the distance. The storm was no less wild than its forerunner of the previous night. But this time it somehow wasn’t scary; just natural. Kind of reinvigorating, even.
There in the darkness, snug and warm and dry among the treetops and the rain, we drifted off to sleep in the company of a firefly or two flickering about our mosquito-net cocoon.
Yeah. There’s something special about a treehouse — in blue skies or grey.
*I blame an unsatisfied childhood longing for a treehouse and/or Bart Simpson.
**And this was back in 2013, beedubs. This place was wayyyy ahead of much of the Australian eco-tourism sector.
***Plus, the property is totally solar-powered, uses zero air-conditioning, collects rainwater and uses sustainable building materials. Tick, tick, tick.
****Fun fact: a few months after we got back, we saw news headlines hailing the discovery of a new species of tarantula ‘about the size of your face’ in Sri Lanka (albeit further north than where we were).
*****Which, now that I think about it, was literally exactly what it was. That is what happened.
******Re-reading and updating this for 2020, this bit makes me want to yell at my past self even more than the embarrassing paranoia bit. F*ckssake. Some 505 birds have been recorded in this country; I need DETAILS, you d*ckhead. WHAT kind of black bird. WHAT kind of call. Not going to lie, I just spent 15 minutes browsing the entire Wikipedia list of birds in Sri Lanka in the vain hope of an ID seven years later (I may have a problem).