WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka

Horton Plains - Journey to the end of World

(@by Anu Weerasuriya)

WALK ALONE THROUGH THE SILENT plain of Horton to the end of the world. Stand 2,000 metres high, at the edge of the cold, frosted grassland and lower your eyes towards the next landmark - the tea plantations of Nagrac, some 900 metres below. Gaze onward beyond the waves of mountains, filigree waterfalls, hazy lakes and paddy fields to the pink salterns of Hambantota and the shimmering sea, in a horizonless sweep.

At Horton Plains the central mountain massif is shaved into a tabletop of rolling patna punctuated by rhododendron and bracketed by sporadic swathes of evergreen forest. Temperatures at night drop to 0C. Yet while the air and the water in the streams are bracing, the .sun is fiery. On a magnificent day the dawn is misty; noon is the time of blue skies and limitless vision; sunset is orange and burgundy; and twilight, a quiet, purple hour.

Breaking through the mist, the morning sun transforms elusive silhouettes into lichen-draped trees. A stray beam catches the velvet on an antler and soon the plains are alive with russet sambas moving into sheltered jungle copses. Vehicle headlamps at night pick out 70, 80, 200 sambas.

Wild boar churn the ground searching for yams and tubers. Darting through the scrub are barking deer and hares. These creatures, together with the bearded bear monkey and the furry giant squirrel, are the prey which sustains the dominant predator of the plains - the leopard. These upcountry leopards are lighter in colour than their dry-zone counterparts. The other feline inhabitants are the fishing cat and the rusty-spotted cat. The observant wanderer may also glimpse a pencil thin snake a mere 15cm long, a nose-horned lizard, a glow-worm hiding in the dark undergrowth, or otters delighting in the streams.

Clouds kissing earth at Horton Plains

Other than the sounds of wind and water, the only other sounds to be heard are bird calls. A much-travelled visitor was heard to exclaim, in hushed tones, that this seemed to be one of the few places left on earth where the throb of an engine does not intrude.

Feeding in gregarious gatherings are flocks of yellow-eared bulbuls, velvet-fronted nuthatches, scimitar babblers, white-eyes, pied shrikes and orange minivets. Black-winged kites nest on the fir trees. Soaring overhead are black eagles and honey buzzards. Most of the endemic avifauna is found here. The rare whistling thrush frequents the arrenga pool. Staggering around in a drunken stupor after an overdose of nilloo blossoms is the colourful jungle fowl.

The plateau, 3,150 hectares in extent, consists of wet patna grasslands and tropical montane forests with differentiations so sharp that the boundary between the two vegetation types seems to have been drawn by tacit agreement.

World's end

Every seventh to twelfth year the jungle paths become a mosaic of pink and purple and blue when the nilloo bursts into bloom in periodic splendour before it seeds and dies. Flowing streams and their rocky banks are lined with delicate ferns, while beneath the clear waters lies a fine tracery of flora which is constantly woven into an ever-changing pattern. The forest-clad escarpment of Hortons is source and watershed to Sri Lanka's two mightiest rivers - the Kelani and the Mahaweli - as well as many other streams, rivers and lakes, providing water to the western, southern and northeastern sectors of the island.

Approached from Colombo, the journey to Horton Plains is a five- or six-hour trip by road. The last lap is rather tough on low-clearance vehicles; a jeep or truck would be preferable, but it must be one with a good turning circle, for there are several hairpin bends en route.

NO INDIGENOUS POPULATION lives there. The only human occupants on a permanent basis are the staff of Farr Inn and the Wild Life Department. The history of Horton Plains is inexorably linked with the European world. Many British colonials are locally commemorated by having landmarks named after them. Captain William Fisher and Colonel Albert Watson visited the area in 1834 and named this wild region after the Governor of Ceylon at that time - Sir Robert Wilmot Horton. A Major Thomas Skinner, however, also refers to it by the more lilting name of Willmanee.

Baker's fall

By whatever name, the plains soon became a much-favoured hunting ground. Parties of gun-toting sportsmen rode up the bridle paths accompanied by the barking of dogs named Bluebeard, Lucifer and Bran to hunt sambars, boar and the occasional leopard. Sir Samuel Baker, who in later life became famous as a great Nile explorer, was best known in Sri Lanka for his hunting exploits. Earning his local fame as the second-leading killer of elephants during his time, Baker has a waterfall named after him.

Until it fell into the abyss below, affixed upon a rock on Kirigalpotte was a plaque commemorating the death of Hubert Arthur Grigg. A planter at Agrapatne, Grigg had often hunted in Hortons. One of his much-loved dogs had died in a skirmish with a leopard on this peak. It was Grigg's wish to lie with his dog.

On his death in Paris in 1931, his ashes were duly flown to Ceylon and taken to the peak by the spiritedly fortified members of the Horton Plains Hunt Club who found themselves carrying the parson as well!

ANGLING ALSO DREW MANY to the plains. The streams were stocked with trout, and solitary fisherman still spend hours by the black pool of Belihul Oya. Thomas Farr was a keen fisherman of that era and he did much to develop the plains and make them accessible. The house he built in 1901 is today the only rest house in the vicinity It is named after him, and so is a fishing pool. His ashes too were taken to the summit of Kirigalpotte and, scattered by the wind, they came to rest upon the ground he had walked and loved.

The circuit bungalow, which is now managed by the Department of Wild Life, is called Anderson Cottage after its original owner- a planter in the area. The pipe-smoking ghost of a fellow-planter is reputed to haunt the fireplace in the guest bedroom.

Horton Plains continues to belong to lovers of the outdoors. During a brief period, however, the vegetable cultivator got the upper hand. He torched the grasslands, turning them into fields of potato. The air became thick with insecticides and herbicides. Though the scars of this ugly episode still mar the landscape, the air is fresh and invigorating once more.

In 1988 Horton Plains was declared a national park, thus making the land and its creatures sacrosanct. The only exception is trout fishing, which is still allowed. It is also the only national park in which unfettered hiking is per pitted.

This declaration, however, does not mean that Hortons will remain undefiled for all time. Illegal gemming and shooting of sambars have threatened its sanctity. In the dry season the grass becomes brittle and sparks conflagrations that rage almost uncontrolled. A few fire gaps and the streams and roads that trisect the plain prevent them from spreading. The fire-resistant rhododendron survives, but the grass and a host of other plants and animals perish. The grass, however, soon regenerates. Scientists do not know whether or not such fires are actually beneficial to the ecology of the area by wiping out accumulated dead matter. Another unsolved mystery concerns the dying forests. Whole patches of jungle have become tree cemeteries. Changing weather patterns, contrasting temperatures, clearing of the forests on the lower slopes and a reduction in the water table are said to be possible causes, but nothing has been established conclusively.

IF YOU CARE TO AMBLE THE plains, then shoulder a jacket and a pair of binoculars, thrust a chocolate slab or two into a pocket, wear a pair of sturdy shoes and step into Horton country. No need to carry water for the streams spring clean and pure. Whenever it gets too hot, an icy dip is most refreshing. Of course a bottle of wine helps in getting over the chilling shock of the first plunge.

Stroll in any direction and enjoy the pleasures of salubrious climes and glorious vistas. Look out for the orange-beaked blackbird and the red helen butterfly. To see sambars you must be out by 5.45am. When stepping over a stream, tread carefully. Do not crush the little orange and black crabs that scuttle across the path. Wander in gay abandon, for in this particular wet upland there are no bloodsucking leeches.

The purposeful hiker has many alternatives. The walk to World's End is almost five kilometres along a flat path which winds through grasslands decked in pin-dot flowers and beneath vaulting spurts of jungle. Midway you will reach Little World's End, a prelude to the stupendous view and the vertical drop that will confront you at World's End. Continue onward and you can descend to Non Pareil Estate.

Those who wish to return have a choice. They can retrace their steps and take the shorter route back, or choose the more undulating path that skirts the stream most of the way and that takes them to Baker's Falls - a beautiful, resounding cascade.

The exploring type may decide to investigate the first segment of Belihul Oya. Sometimes rushing in frothy turbulence, sometimes dark and silent, and sometimes soft and tinkling, the river flows through a number of pools, cascades and waterfalls. You can encounter pools named Black Leopard, Atherton, Chimney, Figure of Eight, and Tiger; cross over Black Bridge and Red Bridge; and bypass Slab Rock, Baker's and Galagama Falls. If you venture far enough, you may discover an uncharted pool or waterfall, like a friend of mine recently did.

ACCOMPANIED BY THE STAFF of the Wild Life Department, he walked beyond the normal limits to the end of the cliff and came to a mystifying waterfall. It was not marked on the one-inch maps. No-one could enlighten him as to its name. He decided to locate it from below, and so together we went to Belihul Oya and Galagama villages. We spotted it high up in the hills dripping from the Hortons' range. We asked many villagers about it and they shrugged their shoulders. Yes, some of them had been there, but none knew its name, until we met this wizened old man. The name, he said, was Kathigana Ella.

There are many more excursions for the physically able. They can scale the second- and third-highest mountains in Sri Lanka, both of which rise from the Horton Plains.

The trek to the top of Thotupolakanda (2,360 metres) is an easy one. When I climbed it, Horton Plains was shrouded in a thick veil of mist. During a rest stop about 15 minutes before reaching the peak, the weather relented momentarily. The veil parted to show Adam's Peak rising neat and triangular, and then lifted beneath my feet to reveal the slope carpeted in inflorescence. A strong sunbeam pierced the cover and picked out Kande Ella tank gleaming in the distance.

Although I am told that conquering Kirigalpotte (2,313 metres) is also not too difficult, I found it a far more arduous exercise. My advice to you is never try it in the rainy month of October, as I did. To reach the base of the climb we had to cross a waterlogged plain. The path was awash in slush and at times became a rivulet. Suddenly a plodding foot would plunge into an unseen hole three feet deep. Shoes and jeans were heavy with mud. I heaved an enormous sigh of relief when we reached the slopes. At least we would not be walking in a drain. But the solace was short-lived. The ground was slippery and we had to double over and charge through the undergrowth almost on all fours along trails used by wild boar.

Thereafter it was a steady climb until, unexpectedly, we found ourselves tumbling downwards To ascend the peak, we had to surmount another hillock. Just before the summit was the worst stretch - the gal potte, or rock slab. One had to cross over a sheer plate of rock, all glossy with moss and moisture, which lay at a (30-degree angle dropping into a bottomless chasm. This time most of us were reduced to crawling on all fours. At the summit we collapsed on the cairn. We were, however, able to muster a stony reception to our trackers' energetic descent and strident summons to the spot where Grigg's plaque had been.

Once we got our bearings, we felt as if we were sitting on a cloud Thick, gray mist surrounded us. The view was nonexistent. As we commenced our journey downhill huge drops of rain began slicing the cloud making our return a miserable one Nevertheless, today we enjoy recounting sparkling stories about our encounter with Kirigalpotte, all discomforts transformed into adventurous moments.

Whether in misted solitude or as a lone speck in the vast space between grass and sky, whether a patient angler casting into a brook in relaxed expectation or a panting climber struggling up a mountainside in friendly comradeship, Horton Plains is an exhilarating experience. A land of many moods, it is a windswept wilderness to which one returns time and time again. (@by Anu Weerasuriya)

WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka