Five hornets' nests hung down from the cliff. As we reached the plat-eau below, one of the nests began to swarm; a black, irate column buzzing from cliff to ground, a little too close for comfort. "It's OK," my guide reassured me. "We can wait until they've calmed down."
We didn't have to wait long. The hornets returned to their cliffside home and we climbed the final steps to the top of Sigiriya, the fifth-century rock fortress in Sri Lanka's Matale district. The views made the climb – and the close encounter – worthwhile. The green forests and grasslands here host the Sirigiya Sanctuary and Minneriya National Park, providing visitors with abundant opportunities to observe Sri Lanka's wide variety of wildlife.
Eco-tourism is being seen as a way forward for Sri Lanka's tourist industry, post tsunami. Renton de Alwis, chairman of the country's tourism bureau, announced Sri Lanka's environmental ambitions at the United Nations World Tourism Organisation conference last October, pledging to balance financial growth with ecological accountability by making the country a carbon-neutral destination. Further details on are due to be released at a meeting of the Pacific Asia Travel Association this weekend in Bangkok. A 10-year plan to transform Sri Lanka into an "Earth Lung" began shortly after the conference, with a tree-planting initiative that saw enough trees put in the ground to offset the greenhouse gases produced by last autumn's England cricket tour.
I got a taste of the eco-conscious tourism that could be Sri Lanka's future at the Vil Uyana, an "eco-luxury" hotel about five kilometres from Sigiriya, where my room was a two-storey villa with a private plunge pool. This hotel's attraction lies not just in the level of luxury it offers but in its eco-credentials. Five years ago, Vil Uyana was an abandoned agricultural site, before being developed with the aid of, among others, naturalists from the London Wetland Centre. Its aim to conserve the local environment isn't confined to asking guests to desist from too many towel changes; visitors are expected to separate wet and dry rubbish in bins in the bedrooms and the hotel has a recycling plant for water and sewage.
Guests at Vil Uyana also benefit from the talents of the hotel's resident naturalist, Nadeera, who I joined on a bird-watching walk around a nearby lake. As we strolled together, grey parakeets flew overhead while we watched coots and moorhens pick their way around the lotus flowers floating on the water.
On another afternoon, Nadeera and I took a bumpy 30-minute jeep drive to Kaudulla National Park for a spot of elephant-watching. We had only been in the park for a short time when we came across our first sighting: a mother with two calves. All three were unbothered by our presence. Not so the lone juvenile male we came across, which indulged in a little chest-beating.
But I didn't even have to leave the hotel to enjoy the wildlife. From my private pool, I could admire a whole host of birdlife amid the paddy fields and reed ponds. (There is also a crocodile that visits the restaurant pool.) And three of the trees in the grounds are home to thousands of fruit bats.
Peter Bishop of Tourism Concern, a UK-based charity, believes Sri Lanka's ambitions for carbon neutrality might be achieved, but he thinks the responsibility, ultimately, remains with the individual tourist. "As tourists, we should question whether we are choosing hotels with environmental credentials that benefit local communities, and assess our carbon footprint while in Sri Lanka," he says.
Destinations such as Vil Uyana can help us make that choice.
How to get there
Sri Lankan Airlines (020-8538 2001; srilankan.aero) flies from Heathrow to Colombo from £618.
The Vil Uyana (00 94 112 345700; jetwinghotels.com) offers room-only from £200 a night.
Sri Lankan Tourist Board (0845 880 6333); 'Sri Lanka', by Royston Ellis, £13.99, and 'Sri Lankan Wildlife', by Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne, £15.99, are available from Bradt Travel Guides (bradt-travelguides.com).
GOT A TALE TO TELL? ENTER OUR TRAVEL-WRITING COMPETITION
Louise Heal's story, above, was commissioned as part of her prize for winning the 2007 'Independent on Sunday'/Bradt Travel-Writing Competition. Will you be our 2008 winner?
First prize this year is a holiday for two to Kyrgyzstan, and the winning story will also be published in The Compact Traveller section of 'The Independent on Sunday'. The winner will also earn a commission from the newspaper based on the prize holiday.
To offer this opportunity, we have again teamed up with Bradt Travel Guides (bradtguides.com), publisher of pioneering guides to off-beat destinations and guides with unique perspectives on more popular places.
The competition is open to all writers, published or unpublished. The theme this year is "The Heart of the City" and entries must contain a strong travel element. Maximum length is 800 words. The competition also includes a prize for unpublished writers.
Flights have been donated by bmi (flybmi .com), while Regent Holidays (regent-holidays .co.uk) is arranging a fabulous itinerary.
The prize in the unpublished writers' category is a place on a travel-writing course in Granada, Spain, which has been kindly provided by Travellers' Tales (travellerstales.org).
The judges will be the editorial staff of Bradt Travel Guides, Jonathan Lorie of Travellers' Tales and Kate Simon, travel editor of 'The Independent on Sunday'. The final winners will be selected by Douglas Schatz, managing director of the UK's leading travel bookshop, Stanfords. The closing date is noon on Friday 16 May 2008. for competition rules, go to independent.co.uk/travel.