I first heard of the caves at Demaliya Galge during my work in the Tanamalwila area, Kirindi Oya basin, which I wrote about in the Sunday Times Plus of October 17.
During the 2 ½ years at Tissamaharama, January 1953 to mid-1955, I visited the Yala National Park either alone or with folk from Colombo including my two older brothers, school and university friends. One result of those visits was befriending the staff of the Wild Life Department, mainly the "Game Rangers". Other staff included game guards and watchers.
My Bug Fiat station wagon was an ideal vehicle to view wild life. Visitors from Colombo generally reserved either the Yala or Buttawa bungalow for a night and when I went alone my host was a Ranger whose quarters was at Palatupana, the park entrance. In mid-1955 I was transferred to the Irrigation Engineer's office Galle, then situated in the Fort, in an old Dutch building with a typically tall, colonnaded verandah. My area of responsibility was the Matara District including the Nilwala Ganga Flood Protection Scheme. A suitable building in the residential area of Walpola was rented to serve both as office and living quarters.
During that time I came across an old issue of the "LORIS" magazine published by the Wild Life Society that had an article written by a Mr. Costa describing a visit, in the 1940's to the Demaliya Galge caves, the last known habitat of vampire bats, by then extinct in Ceylon.
A couple of friends, one a Veterinary Surgeon (UP) and the other an Inspector of Labour (VJ) wanted to join. It was their first jungle jaunt. A friendly Game Ranger (TKH) stationed at Wirawila agreed to help. In fact, he had visited the caves some years previously and very much liked the idea of revisiting.
The party consisted of the Ranger (TKH), UP, VJ, and a game guard, a game watcher and myself. TKH with his previous experience advised we should enter the forest after dark. Leaving Matara after lunch in UP's Ford Prefect, we met with TKH and others at Wirawila and proceeded to Tanamalwila Rest House before 6 p.m. TKH had brought the necessary food and utensils as well as a 0.22 rifle and 16 bore shot gun to ensure our well being and safety! Baggage was kept at the Rest House and we set off with only the essentials. The right bank of the Kirindi Oya was about a half mile walk. As planned it was now about 7 p.m. The river water level was low and we crossed at knee depth. We had to walk through the abandoned paddy fields of Ambagahawewa village, which too had been uninhabited for many years. There were no homesteads, just the abandoned tank and fields below it. According to TKH there was a large outcrop of rock immediately after the paddy fields about three quarter mile from the river.
We had three torches. The abandoned fields were completely overgrown by a plant known locally as "Eth Thora" about 10 to 12 feet tall. It was dark. The game guard and watcher who led the way lost their bearings. We called to each other to keep together. Even after about two hours we were yet in the "Eth Thora" maze.
It was close to midnight when at last the rock outcrop was reached. The rock was flat-topped about 30 feet in diameter and sloped gently on all sides to the forest floor. Camp fires were soon burning bright all around. Dinner was bread with hot dhal curry cooked on the kerosene stove, followed by tea with kitul jaggery.
We slept in a row with the two newcomers in the middle, flanked by TKH with the rifle on one side and myself with the shot gun on the other. The guard and watcher slept separately within a few feet of us. The sky was clear and starry. We were covered from top to toe and were soon asleep. Before that, I got up to place my boots between ourselves and the forest edge, in the hope that if a bear intruded, it would accidentally step into them, fall down, giving the alarm and us the chance to get up and shoot it!
The talk at dinner had been bear, bear and more bear that were abundant in this forest. In fact, Mr.Costa had, in his Loris article, reported seeing over 40 of them drink at the rock pool. At daybreak we set off for the caves. Early morning in typical dry zone forest of short trees, scrub and open glades, with a variety of bird song is wonderful. Occasionally, there were Palu and Weera. Bear are very fond of ripe Palu berries. It is said that they consume so much of it and get intoxicated. We did not, however, see any drunken dancing bear. Villagers use the overripe berries to distill liquor.
A most unforgettable sight was a spider web spanning over 10 feet or so across and about the same height from the ground at the centre, cleverly anchored to trees on either side about 5 feet and 15 feet about the ground.
An elephant could pass underneathwithout damage! The dew on the web lit by the early morning sun sparkled like little jewels. The jungle fowl were crowing. Two were felled with a single shot, sufficient for lunch. No meat from a fridge or cold room can compare with fresh fowl curried by an expert cook.
The rock itself stood about 30 feet above the ground, not very large perhaps 60 or 70 feet long and about 40 feet across at the base. It was somewhat conically shaped. There were two caves with the mouth 15 feet wide 10 feet high and 12 to 15 feet deep.
There were no inscriptions as far as I remember. Skeletons of animals that sheltered here and fell victim to the vampire bats were more likely. Most amazing was the rock pond (gal kema) about 15 feet in diameter. It was approached through a fissure in the rock about four feet wide forming a narrow passage with high rock sides.
The author of the article in the Loris spent a night or two on a "messa" or tree house, which gave him a good view of the passage in the rock and the activities that took place. He saw over 40 bears standing in line without bickering, awaiting their chance to drink and make way for the next. More orderly and disciplined than people waiting in a bus queue! The returning bears formed a parallel line to those waiting to drink. At the time of our visit the water level in the pond was about three feet below the ledge. Bear or any other animal except the elephant would have to kneel or even lie down to reach the water. Elephants that drank here had to reverse as the passage was too narrow for them to turn around!
We were not fortunate to spend a night there and could only imagine and discuss the activities described. Lunch was curry of wild fowl and rice. Some spotted deer were seen, not plentiful as at Yala or Wilpattu. It was necessary to get back to Tanamalwila before dark so we rested a while and trekked back in daylight without losing our way in the tall "eth thora" of Ambagahawewa. A dip in the cool clear water of the Kirindi Oya was most refreshing before a typical rice and curry dinner followed by curd and treacle. We slept soundly undisturbed by thoughts of vampire bats, visions of queuing bear and reversing elephants.
Next morning it was back to work. Personally, I was very pleased to have visited where vampire bats last lived. To introduce friends to the joys of the jungle was a pleasure!
One can only hope that those now responsible for developing our country would be endowed with wisdom to preserve places such as Demaliya Galge and its surrounds without destroying the natural heritage of our motherland. Future generations of Sri Lankans have a right to inherit these glorious places as we did in our youth. In a way, our British colonial rulers inspite of being condemned as plunderers, did much for the preservation of places of natural and historical interest for posterity.