Horton Plains. Misty Mornings and Montane Forests
The entrance to Horton Plains is shrouded in mist. The temperature is 16C and rising slowly. The morning air is damp and fresh dew hangs limply off the commonly found Rhododendron zeylanicum, a couple of which have already started to bloom. In one month’s time the Park will be aglow with its dark red flowers.
The sun struggles to push past the thick mist and manages to create an illusion of some cinematographic sci-fi movie scene. Along with the morning’s bird roll-call, a nearby transistor radio bleats out some popular beats from a local channel.
We buy our tickets after some small talk about ‘sightings’ of leopard and proceed into the Park.
Horton Plains is a highland plateau comprising an ecosystem of wet Montane evergreen forests, grasslands, rivers and waterfalls, and marsh. The Park sits on the highest tableland of Sri Lanka at an altitude of 2,100 meters above sea level and spreads across 3,169 hectares.
The Montane forest is also the source of three major rivers of Sri Lanka: Mahaveli River- the longest river of Sri Lanka, the Walave River and the Kelani River. The rainwater of this plateau is drained through tributaries to the Mahaveli river to the North (through Uma Oya), Walave river to the South (through Belihul Oya and Kiriketi Oya) and Kelani river to the West (through Bogawantalawa Oya).
Horton Plains is also rimmed by the second and third highest mountain peaks of Sri Lanka: Kirigalpotta Kanda (2389 m) and Thotupola Kanda (2357 m), all of which simply adds to the beauty of this plateau.
We start our trek at the Visitors Center. At the entrance to the trek I am surprised and pleased to see how thoroughly the young, enthusiastic Wildlife Department staff checks bags and carry-ons for plastic and polythene materials and packs all consumables into paper bags. As a result of this ban on non-biodegradables, the Park is clean and devoid of unkempt, dirty litter.
The main trek is a 9km circular route. And along the way, I am grateful to experience some stunning sights of expansive patina grasslands, dense wooded forests, expanses of cloud forests, a couple of pristine clear water streams, the man-made Chimney Pool which is home to the lazy Rainbow Trout, the some curious and other not-so-bold Sambar, leopard scat which is evidence of his elusive presence, a couple of Rhino-horned lizards, and so much more.
By mid-morning the sun is out in full force, yet the air remains chilly. The crowds have increased, all of whom are keen on making the most of this wonderful day. The trek in itself is not difficult at all. There are lots of families with young children, and older folk who seem to be keeping the pace.
Soon, we get to the formidable Baker’s Fall. The climb down to the Fall is about a 100 meters of steep, slippery and narrow path and the roar of the Fall gets louder and louder as I approach. Despite the clamber down, to get up close to see the great gush of water cascade down enormous rocky outcrops is worth the descent.
Going back in time, before British rule (of Ceylon), this area was called Maha Eliya. Around the 1820s, the British renamed this as Horton Plains after the then British Governor Sir Robert Horton (Governor from 1832-1837). It was during this time that Sir Samuel Baker popularized this area because of his hunting encounters. Baker is known to have hunted and killed herds of elephants for pleasure. He even wrote a book called “The Rifle and Hound in Ceylon”: in which he talks about his so-called expertise as a hunter, describing vividly and brazenly the wanton destruction of the elephant population at the Plains. His illustrations of the mass massacre that took place is tummy-churning. I cannot help but feel disgusted and angry at the thought of how heartless and unconscionable he must have been to brutally kill such majestic animals behind the safety of a loaded gun.
Other British planters, namely Tomas Farr and H. Anderson who had estates nearby had lodges built to facilitate their hunting episodes.
During the British era, this area was under protection from the Administration Order of 1873, which prohibited cutting of forests above the altitude of 5000 feet in the island. Horton Plains received the status of a National Park in March 1988. In 2010, Horton Plains was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Further past, this route leads to World’s End, with its 900 meter-escarpment. But let’s leave that for another day.
Ohiya is the closest town to Horton Plains. The Ohiya Railway Station is the 67th station on the Main Line (which runs between Colombo and Badulla). It is the third highest railway station of Sri Lanka, situated 1,774 m (5,820 ft) above sea level and opened in 1893.
Wear comfortable walking shoes, a hat and sunglasses. Bring sunscreen, food and water. Remember, plastics and polythene are not allowed, so pack your consumables in paper wherever possible. The weather can change very quickly on the Plains, so come prepared with a warm jacket.
Park fees must be paid at the National Park Office near Farr Inn. The last tickets are sold at 4pm.
Flora & Fauna
An important watershed and catchment for several year-round rivers and streams, Horton Plains hosts a wide range of wildlife. There have been many sightings of leopards, while the sambar deer and wild boar are more easily spotted. The shaggy bear monkey (aka purple-faced langur) and even the Toque Macaque is an easy spot around here.
There are many endemic species including the Yellow-eared Bulbul, the Fan-tailed Warbler, the Ashy-headed Babbler, the Ceylon Hill White-eye, the Ceylon Blackbird, the Ceylon White-eyed Arrenga, the Dusky-blue Flycatcher and the Ceylon Blue Magpie.