It was on July 31, 2010 that UNESCO inscribed The Central Highlands of Sri Lanka comprising Horton Plains, Knuckles Conservation Forest and the Peak Wilderness- Protected Area, as a World Heritage Site. In fact this site was one of the two which were classified by UNESCO as ‘Natural Sites’ the other being Sinharaja Forest Reserve(1988).
Horton Plains which is a Wonderland of Nature is undoubtedly the most popular of the three places described under the Central Highlands.
Under the shadows of Sri Lanka’s second and third highest mountains, Kirigalpoththa ( 7,854 feet ) and Thotupola ( 7,733 feet ) and at an elevation ranging from 6,900 feet to 7,500 feet lies this chilly, mist covered, 12.2 sq mile undulating plateau which was named in honor of a former colonial governor, Sir Robert Wilmot Horton (1831- 1837) A more descriptive name was given by our own people – Maha Eliya Thenna’ meaning the great open plains because here will be seen montane grasslands or high altitude grasslands and cloud forest which due to the abundant layers of mosses is also called a mossy forest.
Its awesome remoteness and varied biodiversity will make you forget the tumultuous world which you would have left behind before starting on this trip. It is a strange, silent, world that you have entered and prompts the writer to adapt a line from Gray’s Elegy, for here in the Plains you will be –
‘Far from the madding, crowd’s
ignoble strife, With only the sound of silence and
endemic life. Your plodding footsteps passing
gurgling streams And whistling winds like in your dreams’
Its high elevation, the sudden sharp showers, the incessantly blowing ice cold wind, makes it necessary that you wear woolen clothing and over this a leather jerkin with a hood /cap attached covering your ears would be the best. As you will realise it’s your ears that are most sensitive to the cold.
Of the alternate routes to the Plains the one from N’Eliya to Pattipola is the most enjoyable. Driving at a leisurely pace you can admire one of the most picturesque areas in Sri Lanka, like the sprawling Kande Eliya tank, vast meadows of shrubbery and montane forests with their characteristically conically shaped trees, the rich green pastureland of Ambewela farm and then on to Pattipola.
This little town has set a record of being the highest in the entire railway network in our island. From here to the entrance of Horton Plains will take you just a few minutes. The best time to start your exploration of the Plains is at least by 6.30 in the morning. As the sun begins to rise, a vast blanket of mist descends on the entire area, preventing you from enjoying the attractions which nature has to offer you. What is worse is that you may lose your way, walking aimlessly while stumbling over the slippery stones and precipitous pathways.
Here in the Plains are the headwaters of three main rivers which wind their way through the country and then pour out into the sea at different coastal towns. Mahaweli, which is Sri Lanka’s longest river (at Trincomalee ), Kelani ( at Colombo ) and Walawe ( at Ambalantota ) . The Plains also feed the Belihul Oya, Agra Oya, Kiriketi Oya, Uma Oya and Bogawantalawa Oya. Horton Plains it must be noted is one of the most important catchment areas in the island. Like a sponge it soaks up the water from the heavy rains which frequently fall and then from this high elevation, the water gradually seeps its way through the soil into streams, rivers and even into wells, located at lower elevations.
But it’s ‘World’s End’ which is the main attraction of Horton Plains. This is a sheer precipice. A drop of 4,000 feet, which is three quarters of a mile. As you stand at the edge of this steep massif which is in the Central Province and look right down below without getting a bout of acrophobia, you will be seeing the green foliage of trees of the Sabaragamuwa Province. Gazing a little farther you will see like tiny specks, the silvery, glinting, roof tops of plantation factories, hamlets and meadows.
And as you gaze still farther, you will be able to see 50 miles to the South, the hazy blue of the sky meet the shimmering blue of the sea. There are no protective railings at the edge of this escarpment, so forget about ‘selfies’ while standing here. In November 2018 a German tourist fell to her death while taking a selfie. It took the Sri Lanka Army, Sri Lanka Police and a group of volunteers, six hours to find her body which was in Non Pareil Estate located in the Sabaragamuwa Province. So the tragic and ironic fact is that she fell from one Province into another.
Passing on from this spectacular cliff there is another enchanting attraction. This is Baker’s Falls. Located on a tributary of the Belihul Oya it was formerly called ‘Gongala Falls.’ Here again the original Sinhala name was discarded and renamed in 1845 after Sir Samuel Baker who it has been claimed discovered it. Then, one may ask how was it that perhaps centuries before Sir Samuel Baker even stepped onto the shores of this island, our people knew about these falls and gave it its name? Also make note that this ‘eminent’ colonialist had the dubious distincti on of killing over 50 elephants right here on the Plains!
But never mind the name. It’s the sight that matters. It is 66 feet high and the icy cold water splashes in cascades at multiple levels before crashing into the 40 feet deep pool down below. Other than being the widest water falls in the country it is also claimed to be the most spectacular.
But that is certainly not all that the Plains has to offer. As you continue to plod your way, look around and observe the abundance of flora. Amongst the high altitude shrubland referred to as ‘pathana’ in Sinhala you cannot but fail to see the evergreen forests like coniferous and eucalyptus. The coniferous trees can be identified by the fact that they sprout long pointed green needles instead of leaves and cones instead of flowers. Amongst the tall trees there is Calophyllum walkeri called ‘ Kina’ in Sinhala. Its hard, durable, reddish, wood with dark streaks is used for making door frames, beams and rafters.
Another tall tree is Syzygium rotunifolium which grows to a height of over 30 feet and is commonly called ‘batapath damba.’ Amongst the smaller trees are evergreen bamboos (Indocalmus ) which grow up to about six feet. Cinnamon, Cinnamomum Zeylanicum are plentiful. Myrtaceae which belongs to the myrtle family is a shrub and one such is Syzgium aromaticum which produces cloves. Decorating the trunks of many of these trees are ferns, lichens and orchids. Sixteen of these orchids are endemic in Sri Lanka .
Here amongst the trunks of trees, you must peer closely and search for a species that looks like the tangled, unkempt beard of a lazy old man. This is Clematis Vitalba and its alternate name is ‘Old Man’s Beard’. Walking carefully by the water logged swamps and slow moving streams you will notice a variety of aquatic plants such as macrophytes which have large flowers with white petals and a yellow center. Search closely for another most interesting plant species which are the carnivorous bladderworts – Utricularia. They have a bladder– like trap which ensnares water fleas, nematodes ( tiny microscopic worms ), mosquito larvae and even tadpoles. Two renowned botanists, Peter Taylor Francis and Ernest Lloyd have stated that the vacuum driven bladders in these plants are the most sophisticated carnivorous trapping mechanisms to be found anywhere in the plant kingdom.
The fauna found here is much more fascinating. Do not be deceived by the silence for there is plenty of activity around, for you to listen and perchance to see. If you attune your ears you will be able to pick up the distant, muffled grunts and squeaks of monkeys such the as the Toque macaques, ‘Rilawa.’ In Sinhala, which has a whorl of hair on top of its head very much like a skull cap and the purple faced leaf monkey, called ‘kalu rilawa’ in Sinhala. You may even be able to hear the faint sawing of the Sri Lanka leopard which is endemic in Sri Lanka.
But if you are specially observant you might spot their faeces along the path on which you are walking. Take it as a warning that they are around. Similarly you would be able to see some freshly made patches on the ground. These have been made by wild boars when they dig the soil in search of worms and grubs. And if by chance you hear a barking noise that will be the Indian muntjacs, a species of deer which makes this peculiar noise when it is frightened specially when it sights a predator like the leopard.
Also living on the Plains is the Rusty Spotted Cat which is the smallest of the cat species, called in Sinhala ‘balal diviya.’
Then there is the Fishing Cat called the ‘kola diviya’ or ‘handun diviya’ in Sinhala which can not only swim but can even dive under water to catch fish. Looking up at the branches, it is hoped that you will be able to spot the Rhino Horned Lizard as it lies as if in deep meditation, with an occasional nodding of its head. It is a type of chameleon having a small white horn on its forehead, like the legendary Unicorn.
If you wish to see and indeed you must, a species listed as a global conservation priority and found only in Sri Lanka then endure the shivering cold of the night and be rewarded with the sight of the big eyed, shy, Red Slender Loris which sleeps
by day and ever so stealthily gets active at night. Do not be concerned about snakes. There are only two types, both being non-venomous. One is the Rough Sided Snake called ‘dalawa medilla’ in Sinhala. It burrows into the earth and its cylindrical body shape facilitates this manoeuvre ever so easily. The other type of snake is the docile rat snake, called in Sinhala ‘garendiya’.
However even if you fail to see any one of the species mentioned, it is most likely that you will see the herds of sambhur which roam about proudly displaying their large antlers which adorn their heads. They seem to be inviting you to video/ photograph them in all their majesty. So why disappoint them ?
Of bird life, it has been recorded that in Horton Plains there are 21 species, which can be found only in Sri Lanka and of these three can be found only in Horton Plains. For this reason Horton plains has been classified as an Important Bird Area ( IBA ). This classification was done by the BirdLife International which is an NGO having worldwide partnerships.
It is interesting to note that seven of these species have been honoured by being featured on postage stamps. They are the Dull Blue Flycatcher- ‘anduru nil masimara’, the Sri Lanka White Eye – ‘Lanka sithasiya, the Sri Lanka Wood Pigeon – ‘manil goya, the Sri Lanka Blue Magpie- ‘kehi bella.’ This species is quite different from the magpies you see in your home gardens. This one’s conspicuous colour is bright blue and as an added attraction has a reddish brown head. Then there is the Sri Lanka Spur Fowl – ‘haban kukula,’ the Yellow Fronted Barbet – ‘rath nalal kottoruwa’ the Orange Billed Babbler – ‘rathu demalichcha,’. But the most attractive of all the bird species found on the Plains is the Sri Lanka Jungle Fowl- ‘wali kukula’ A much deserved honour was bestowed on the Jungle Fowl when it was classified as the National Bird of Sri Lanka.
But these are not the only species of birds found in Horton Plains. There is a group of seasonal migratory birds which perform a two way marathon testing their endurance to the very maximum. Getting away from the bitterly cold winter countries of the Northern Hemisphere they arrive here to the pleasant climes of Sri Lanka in August/September and leave around May/ April. Here they find in abundance the food they require and more importantly the most suitable breeding places. It must be remembered that Sri Lanka is the farthest point away from South India with no land mass until the South Pole is reached.
Amongst these migratory birds are the Swiflets. This species make their nests entirely with saliva. Do not feel nauseated. Because these nests form the basis of that delicacy called ‘bird’s nest soup.’ Then there are the Alpine Swifts which spend as long as six months on the wing and remarkably, sleeps and – hold your breath, even mates while flying. The Mountain Hawk Eagle which is referred to as an opportunist predator, because it ambushes its prey of which it has a wide range from small birds to squirrels. Then there is the Black- Winged Kite. The male of the species has the habit of establishing ‘territories’ for themselves and defends such territories by fighting any intruder. After a noisy courtship the female obligingly enters the male’s territory. The writer wonders whether there can be a better example of female obedience!
Finally there is the Peregrine Falcon which is reckoned to be the fastest bird in the world with a speed of 240 mph as it swoops to grab it’s prey. These species are associated with falconry whereby such a bird is trained by a handler to catch and bring back small animals such as rabbits. It has been reported that Falconry (it was called a sport ) began in Mesopotamia around 2,000 BC. Fortunately, it never caught on in sports loving Sri Lanka and hopefully will never.
This being the Olympic Year or to be accurate the postponed Olympic Year, here is something to take note of. The world record for long distance flying is held by the Artic Tern which flies 12,430 miles from the Artic in the North Pole to the Antarctic in the South Pole and then back again doing another lap of 12,430 miles. Researchers have claimed that each year it sees more daylight hours than any other creature on the planet . And here is another world record for migratory birds, with a wingspan of 10 feet and a weight of 33 lbs, the Andean Condor is the largest flying bird in the world. Anyway neither of these record holders visit Horton Plains. So let’s hope that at least our athletes will break a record or two at the Tokyo Olympic Games if and when it is held.
Disclaimer: THE WORLD HERITAGE SITES OF SRI LANKA -THE CENTRAL HIGHLANDS - Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Latheefarook.com point-of-view