Monday, August 27, 2012

Enchanting Horton Plains ( Maha-Eliya) – a high plateau in Sri Lanka

Horton Plains and its immediate of Ohiya and Idalgashinna has fascinated me ever since my schooldays at Gurutalawa; located at a distance of about 5 to 8 miles from these localities. None of these places were inhabited then in the 60’s as today. S Thomas’ College Gurutalawa was  the only outbound boarding school in the country and these serene hillsides and valleys were our haunts during the weekends. Senior scouting activities and camping at Guru  was of very high standard. Overnight hiking was on tough terrain  in the wilds of Thotupola Kanda and Kirigalpoththa ranges. There is a paved bridle-path that runs from Nanu-oya through  Pattipola to Idalgashinna via Ohiya; laid by the colonial tea planters. This was before the railway, which now runs parallel at a lower elevation. It is now in neglect and forested. Birdwatching along this path from Ohiya to Idalsahinna then was a regular pastime; it was on this route that I watched  ‘Aranga’ and the  ‘Scaly Thrush’ for the first time way back in the 60’s.   

It was with these sweet nostalgic memories of school-life that I ordered the book HORTON PLAINS – Sri Lanka’s Cloud  Forest National Park,…. edited by  Rohan Pethiyagoda. Reading  Rohan’s ‘Personal Note’  the book became  much closer to my heart, for he too spends his childhood in and around Horton Plains in the 60’s. Not stopping at that…… I book the Ginihiriya Bangalow in  Horton Plains National Park on the Ohiya Road for July 13, 2012 in order to reminisce my childhood days, in the company of my family. 

July 12, 2012 we drive up to Nuwara-Eliya and then to Desford Estate in Nanuoya for the night. Aditha our dearest  niece [yes...the scribe in the family] and her hubby Nishantha was our hosts. We invite them also for the outing the following day but they are to leave for Colombo very early. We lock the doors for them and depart as early as possible with sufficient provision for a day at Horton Plains.  We check in at the bungalow and decide to scan the Ohiya side of the plains on the first day and to trek to the World's End escarpment the following day before departing.   

Panorama 7
At Desford with Aditha & Nishantha
Horton Plains was declared a National Park in 1988 and is the only National Park in the country where the visitor is allowed on foot. It was after this that there was to be so much people on this land, bringing a thumping annual turnover to the Department of Wild Life Conservation. Way back in the 60’s it was only the Farr Inn that attracted the nature lover and the odd planter who would book in for trout fishing; keeping in line with the colonial planter who introduced Rainbow Trout in the streams up here. The Farr Inn initially a hunter’s lodge built by Thomas Farr later became a motel for the overnight traveller and is now the visitor centre on the National Park. 

The Visitor Center - Formally the Farr Inn
The Ohiya side of the plains has much of the open expanse of rolling land and it was these lands that were utilised for potato cultivation back in the 1960’s. Sri Lanka was a welfare state then and feeding the masses was the primary order of the then governments. Potato cultivation thrived in the Welimada and Gurutalawa areas and there was to be a Agricultural Research Station for the development of seed potato at Rahangala, a few miles beyond Ohiya towards Boralanda. Today it is no more. It was these lands on the Ohiya side of the plains that were utilised to produce the seed potato needed in the country. These lands were terraced using heavy machinery. Remnants of them are still to be seen on the plains, but used differently. It must be noted that these cultivations were state sponsored and the destruction to the  immediate environs was not as significant as today with the private farmer at Mipilimana, Ambewela and Pattipola. However there was opposition from those concerned  on the use of pesticides and fungicide in this unique and delicate environment.  The potato cultivation on the plains was terminated in the early 70’s but the profile of the destruction to the natural rolling land is still visible to a seeing eye.   

The terraces made for potato cultivation is still vissible

Kirigalpoththa Hill  in the far ground
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A D4 Bull Dozer blade used for terracing  - now utilized as a seat
In the 60’s there weren't Sambar Deer in the numbers that we see today. If they did it would have had its impact on the potato cultivation. On the other hand this may be an indication that the leopard population has depleted with the adjoining land being opened for cultivation. [ A good number of leopard were lost in snares in the Nanuoya  and Nuwara Eliya area recently ]. I do remember an encounter long time back of a Sambar Deer carcass in the thickets near the Aranga Pool at Horton Plains. A possible leopard kill, for the carcass was covered with foliage. Leopards generally cover their kills with foliage or stick it on a tree. The  whiff of decaying meat and the hum of the bluebottles  prompted us to look around. It was strange to note the the two frontal limbs of the deer were removed from the carcass. Later inquires prompted to say that officials do partake in leopard kills?

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It’s now the evening and the open plains fill up with the Sambar Deer. We watch them graze alongside the Jungle Fowl picking the last grub before retiring for the night. The Black-naped Hare too are out in the open, for they are safer here than elsewhere.

Samber Deer come out in the evenings
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Sri Lanka Jungle fowl - looking for the grub before night fall
We  decide to drive down to the Ohiya Railway Station. It’s a steep descend through hair pin bends in the dark eucalyptus and gum tree plantations. At the crossing of the said bridle-path we encounter a pair of Sri Lanka Scaly Thrush, now declared endemic. It’s good to see the progeny of the 60’s survive to this day. We travel further down to the station. It was only the  railway station that existed then in the 60’s to say this is Ohiya…….. It is very much the same even to this day. Today there are two more boutiques than the one that served hot hot ‘yeast rotties’ [a flat bread made with yeast and wheat flour] to the ‘Night Mail Train' from Colombo to Badulla. We used to feast here before coming to school after vacations if the bus to Welimada was there when the train arrived. If not we would proceed to Haputale and take bus.  The railway station still looks the same, if not for the plastic chairs replacing the timber battened benches with profiled curvature and painted green which gave comfort  to the traveller.  We wait for the 'Udarata Menike Train' from Colombo to Badulla to pass Ohiya; sipping plain tea [ yeast rotties are made only for the morning ] at the boutique and returned to Gnihiriya for the night.

Same old Ohiya Railway Station
Udarata Menike approaches Ohiya after almost 8 hours of travel from Colombo
The night  is illuminated with solar lighting there is hot water also from solar energy. We have dinner and are tucked up in ample blankets given to us by a very humble caretaker. Quietly we drift into deep slumber accompanied by the sound of the beating rain on the windowpanes and the hiss of the gale through the weather beaten and warped window sashes. 

I am an early riser ……..the morning dawned with a birdy chorus. There was the Black Bird picking on the lawn and the continuous morning song of the Scimitar Babbler     pop pop-prrr ………….. [also declared an endemic species now].  

Black bird picking in the lawn
Eurasian Black Bird
I am missing my brisk exercise walk today……. instead a slow stalking amble over a mile watching birds and other fauna on the Ohiya side of the plains. 

I am adamantly  looking for the endemic agamid lizard native to Hortom Plains. I have not seen it in years. The Calotes nigrilabris [commonly called kata kaluwa in sinhala for obvious reasons – a black mouth strip] This is the  most common, but difficult to see lizard on the Horton Plains. Is usually seen on the ground or perched on a  shrub, once gone into the thick grass you have lost it. I keep looking at a distant, just above the grass for a iridescent green in the morning sunlight and I see this difference in the green…..It’s a nigrilabris. I am really lucky I feel.

The difference of the iridescent Green on the foliage 
Calotes nigrilabris - Kata Kaluwa
Highland Purple-faced Leaf-monkey
The Highland Purple-faced Leaf-monkey is another species special to Horton Plains. Its numbers seem to be satisfactory and very progressive compared to its lowland relation who is threatened with rapid urbanization.  

Apart from the abundance of Sambar Deer there is much diversity on the fauna in Horton Plains. Endemism is very high. Over 65 of the bird species are found in the plains while 18 of the endemic species are among them. It is an ideal location to see the endemic Sri Lanka Bush-warbler and the Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush. 

Black-headed Munia or Tricoloured Munia in the revised nomenclature
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Pied Bush Chat - Female

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Great Tit

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Pied bush Chat - Male

Samber stag in velvet
Samber Stag in rut

Giant Squirrel
I stalk stealthily towards a family of Hill Swallows. Two fledglings are in the open sunlight in the middle of the road being fed by the parents. I keep watching them until a motorcycle that came on disturbed them away. This is the frustration of being interfered with when watching birds. There was Giant Squirrels, in the trees and Otters crossings the road in a hurry. 

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Hill Swallow fledglings 
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Disturbed by motorcycle
The flora though seem to be having its negative impacts with the global warming and the lack of rain and moisture. Much of the lichen seen then is now no more. I have not seen the ‘niloo’ flowers in bloom for a long time now. Much of the older trees are seen dead. The invasive Gorse seems to be kept under control with ad hoc programmes conducted under conservation. The Dwarf Bamboo though seems to be still thriving as then in the 60’s. 


Old trees dieing away

Thriving Dwarf Bamboo
Old mans beard - A lichen found in abundance in the past

Gorse - an invasive introduction in the plains

We leave the Ginihiriya Bangalow

After breakfast we pack up and  say goodbye to the caretaker and are away to the World’s End escarpment. A circuitous hike of 9 km. 

Back during school time we came up here in a different route. A shear vertical climb at the tunnel on the railway line passing the Ohiya station towards Idalgashinna. We carried provisions for lunch given to us from school,,,, half a loaf of bread each, a hardboiled egg and an inch cube of Globe butter with a tin of Plaza for five. While up here we would grind the sealed edge of the tin of Plaza on a rock until the seal gave away and the brine flowed out. This was our lunch before the decent to school in time for evening prep. 

The so called World's End escarpment
However when we reached the Big World’s End today the skies greeted us in the most generous way. The downpour continued for over two hours, there is no point waiting for a cessation; we are soaked to the bone, and decide to trek the balance 4 km in the rain with camera and equipment given extra care than to our selves. 

Back at the entrance getting into dry clothes I tend to think why all these people come all the way up here to trek 9 km to see down an escarpment that is at most time covered in a thick blanket of fog. 

It reminds me of the old campfire song that goes………..the bear went over the mountain //…… to see what he could see //……And what do you think he saw //…… the other side of the mountain //…….. 

There is so much for one to see on the Horton Plains…than this stupid escarpment called the World’s End.


  1. very nice photos
    if you visit Ohiya please come to Misty Mountain Lodge at Udaveriya Estate

  2. Thank you very much for the brilliant photos and the descriptions. Looks like you had a swell time with your family.

  3. Udana VijayageethaJanuary 5, 2013 at 8:47 AM

    thank you very much for uploading your photoes and memories with is stimulating me to visit more and more horton plains.............i love that area...........

  4. Such an important article.Rich content filled with pictures truly give something to think and enjoy.

  5. No words,it's bravo.

  6. "There is so much for one to see on the Horton Plains…than this stupid escarpment called the World’s End" !!!!