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Walking Through Horton Plains

Am Ende der Welt
Worlds End. Ceylon - Ernst Haeckels Wanderbilder

Ernst Haeckel, the famous German biologist and philosopher, trekked through Horton Plains during many months of research in the island in 1881. He describes the stunning patana and forest scenery to be seen while trekking on the Horton Plains in A Visit to Ceylon (1882): “The lonely path, rarely trodden, along which we marched, cut sometimes through the primaeval forest and sometimes across the wide open patanas. These are sharply distinct. The tall, dry red-like grasses, which are the principal growth on the patanas, grow so close together, that they defy all the giants of the forest in the struggle for existence. The dense forest which breaks these patanas, forming, as it were, large irregular islands in the vast sea of grass - as in the prairies of North America - have the gloomy and sinister aspect which characterises all mountain forests.”

From Belihul Oya to World’s End

The small town of Belihul Oya, accessible from Colombo on the A4 route, provides the starting point for a classic, though moderately hard trek, to possibly the most stunning natural phenomenon to be seen in Sri Lanka, World’s End. Belihul Oya, meaning the “sacrificial torch river,” derives its name from the delightful mountain torrent that flows through it. This 11km 5-hour trek begins by taking the side road that rises steeply towards the mountains just beyond the gates of the Belihul Oya resthouse. Follow this road for about two kilometres before turning right onto a trail that leads across paddy fields. You pass a temple, cross over the irrigation canal that runs along the foot of the mountain and take the old horse trail that leads up the mountain. On the way you will come across the Nagrak Estate, one of the most remote in Sri Lanka, with its breathtaking views.

Sri Lankan author Christine Wilson writes of this estate with the mysterious-sounding name: “For a brief, unforgettable moment in time, I lived on Nagrak It was unreal with its winds that blew a man off a path while I was there; where the mist would come creeping like a frail, forever-searching ghost in the morning. And at night the wind would keen. And the trees would thrash and writhe. But everything would grow there from the large white opium poppies one previous nostalgic planter had imported from whatever homeland he came, to the green-grey Spanish moss that swung from the twisted trees.”

When you pass the Nagrak Estate Manger’s Bungalow the trail proceeds towards the north-east and takes you through beautiful montane forest to the spectacular World’s End, “Where,” as Haeckel writes, “the southern edge of the tableland is cut off in a perpendicular wall 5,000 feet high. The stupendous effect of this sudden fall is all the more startling, because the wanderer comes upon it after walking for a couple of hours through the forest, emerging immediately at the top of the yawning gulf at his feet. The rivers far below wind like silver threads through the velvet verdure of the plain, and here and there, by the aid of a telescope, a bungalow can be discovered in its plantation.”

From Horton Plains to Haputale
This is a 29km 7-hour trek that will take you along a much less-travelled route from Horton Plains to Haputale. First you have to descend the road from Horton Plains towards Ohiya. Take the trail that turns off to the left across the plains, several hundred metres past the bridge over the Belihul Oya. This trail drops down to the east end of the summit tunnel on the Colombo-Badulla railway line. Walk several hundred metres down the track towards Ohiya before joining the Haputale trail, which branches off the road between Ohiya and Kalupahana at the 170km post. At this point the trail is actually a logging road leading through eucalyptus forest that runs parallel to the railway line. One stretch of this trail goes through dense natural forest.

The trail exits from this stretch of forest onto another well maintained and more travelled trail that leads down to the town of Idalgashinna, named after the nearby mountain. There is a fine gap here, which rivals the one at Haputale for awesome beauty. As Roland Raven-Hart describes it in Ceylon History in Stone (1964): “At Idalgashinna you need a spare pair of eyes; many railway stations have a superb view - this has two, to the north and to the south. I don’t think a train has ever fallen off one of these precipices or been swept off by a landslide; but look down on those inhospitable rocks, as spiky as Cologne cathedral, and agree with Pedersen that ‘no death could be as painful as to fall on to natural Gothic.’”

From Idalgashinna, follow the railway line for several hundred metres east and you will see a footpath leading up to the trail just before you get to the first tunnel. For the next kilometre the trail meanders over the ridge before entering the little-known Tangamalai Forest Reserve, situated at an elevation of 5,600 feet. This reserve is only five miles long and half a mile wide, yet it contains two peaks (Batgodde (5,422 ft) and Berragala North (5,832 ft). The railway track from Idalgashinna to Haputale forms the reserve’s northern boundary. The sanctuary abounds in wildlife and commands a magnificent view of the southern part of the country, particularly the hills, valleys and plains of the Walawe river. A number of streams cut across the sanctuary, providing crystal clear water all the year round. The footpath that runs through the reserve emerges at Adisham, the English-style country house built in the 19th century that is now a Benedictine monastery. From here follow the road down to Haputale.

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