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.
Whether it’s because of some unsatisfied childhood longing for a treehouse like Bart Simpson’s, or a deep-rooted evolutionary hangover from the days of our chimp forebears, 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 potential problem threatening to rain on our proverbial parade: the storms.
Back of Beyond: Seven acres of eco-friendly not-quite-wilderness
Reaching Dehigaha Ela meant a long, bumpy drive along an earthen road that took us quite literally off the beaten track. We passed tiny villages, farmers working their land, and a local kindergarten with only a few pupils. At times the jungle came right up to the car windows, and a family of curious water buffaloes passed by, 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. Amidst 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 constructed using traditional building practices, local materials and rope fixtures rather than nails. It had the kind of look Pinterest would probably call ‘safari chic’, but here it was less a statement of style and more a reflection of local tradition.
Kasun offered us a refreshing cool drink of either fresh lime juice or water that had been filtered and treated on site. (You know a hotel takes environmental sustainability seriously, as opposed to a mere marketing ploy, 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 thick forest, and the nearby abandoned paddy field come illuk grassland together compelled Back of Beyond to set up one of its wilderness retreats here. And so Dehigaha Ela was built, incorporating the company’s philosophy of benefiting the local community and leaving as gentle a trace as possible on the environment.
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 encountered. 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 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’. 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. As you do.
Give me a room among the Damba trees
Our tour complete, we followed a dirt path 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 whose 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, just in case sitting back and putting your feet up gets too tiring, there was also a raised platform where a double mattress lay directly on the floor, flanked by sturdy tree trunks.
With no walls, doors or windows getting in the way, views of much of the property spread before us. Tiny birds and not-so-tiny butterflies flit about our room now and then. A lizard dropped by to rest on the tree trunk near our bed. To this day I’ve never been to nor imagined 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, yet simultaneously chilling in bed in the cool shade. Bliss.
Gradually the sun set, the sky darkened and the noises of frogs and geckos 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. It transformed our beloved treehouse from idyllic to… well, less than ideal.
The downstairs living area was muddy and the semi-outdoors bathroom, which had seemed such a wonderful novelty in the daytime, was half soaked from the rain. Red ants determinedly congregated around the toilet.
A few inches away 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 realised it was in fact the most ginormous spider I’d ever seen. I 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. And there I was, 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 insect specks. Lovely.
I was frustrated and, to be honest, a little scared. Of the tiny, harmless bugs, 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. And, of course, rabies-infested monkeys and wild rats with a track record of scavenging in guests’ bags. Plus, my inner-worrywart-on-overdrive added, there was the utter lack of protection in case of a (highly improbable) mugging or, you know, serial killer… Never mind of course that statistically speaking I was probably safer there seemingly in the middle of nowhere than back home in suburban Sydney.
The very reasons I’d been so excited to stay in a treehouse — the immersion in nature, even the location among the treetops — fuelled the irrational, frantic worries that coursed through my brain. But perhaps the worst part of all was the realisation that I was way 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 in a treehouse in the jungle. I mean, shocking, right? (Get a grip, past self, come on man.)
A jungle sunrise from bed
Fears and bugs aside, 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. 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 opposite 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 veranda mere metres in front of us. Next, a chipmunk — or, rather, a rapid blur we took to be a chipmunk — whizzed its way 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 surprisingly fast-running current. It could not have been more relaxing.
Later, as night fell, another massive storm decided to strike. It completely drenched the lower storey of our treehouse, causing the nearby pond to flood 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, now you mention it).
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.