Saturday, January 4, 2014

The Mist-laden Morningside of Sinharaja

Sinharaja Forest Reserve is the largest rainforest landmass [22,000 Ac] of a series of fragmented rainforests in the South-west of Sri Lanka. A biodiversity hotspot with an international significance; Declared a Man and Biosphere Reserve, and a World Heritage Site of the UNESCO. It’s got three access ways; the Kudawa entrance via Kalawana with Pitadeniya and Morningside entrances via Deniyaya and Rakwana respectively.
The Morningside area is special for it has a biodiversity of its own compared to the rest of the forest. The climate is wetter and the secondary forest is mist laden throughout the day. Bird species generally found at elevations over 1000 meters occur here while endemism both in flora and fauna is thought to be very high. This land having been opened for tea in the colonial era is now a regenerating secondary forest running abreast with very productive tea lands located between the forest and the driveway from Deniyaya to Rakwana.
The popular belief is that the name Morningside was coined by the colonial planters of the Lankaberiya Estate who named this section of the plantation as the Morningside Division, owing to the misty and gloomy climate, signifying the morning in the hill country. Thus the Sinhala translation; ‘Himidiri Pedesa.’ 

However it means otherwise to me. The term Morningside in the English language is generally used in reference to hills and mountains. The sides of a mountain is described as the Morning-side and the Twilight-side based on the falling sunlight due to the earth’s rotation about its own axis. The Morning-side of a mountain is always shadowed in the evening. This particular land being located in the east most part of the Rakwana range is the Morning-side of the range. However the Sinhalese term Suriya Kanda [Sun Hill] is appropriate for its position in the east most part of the range. [Re: popular song by Donny and Marie Osmonds’ in the 70’s

Three of us Wilson, Amudesh [Amu] and me have been ardent birders together for a long time. Amu had a three year long urge to visit Morningside of Singaraja which realized only on the last weekend of 2013. We planned an overnight stay at the Deniyaya rest house which was overbooked, and settled for a guest house in Deniyaya instead. With the bills paid up in full before retiring on Saturday night, we would leave very early on Sunday to cover a distance of 40 km to Rakwana aiming to be at Morningside by 7.O’clock in the morning. 

This 40 km drive from Deniyaya to Rakwana through the tea plantations of Hayse and Lauderdale Estates is one of the most picturesque driveways in Sri Lanka. Throughout it is a series of hills [Kanda–in Sinhala], starting from Anin Kanda to Panil Kanda, Buth Kand, Iththa Kanda and the last being Suriya Kanda; our destination. The turnoff to Morningside is on the 113th km from Galle. 

A monument done in 1941 to mark the opening of this road linking the Southern and Sabaragamuwa Provinces is still to be seen alongside the driveway. The bronze lettering on it is all but gone; vandalized for the value of the metal leaving the perforations that held the letters for one to read along. It is interesting to note that this monument also denotes the district boundary of the Pelmadulla and Matara Districts way back in 1941. Today there is no such district as Pelmadulla but Ratnapura.

The gigantic Gongala mountain massif protruding from the Rakwana range is seen for miles at every turn on this snaky road. Wilson says Gongala resembles a bull’s hump. To me it is so complicated, I am one who is yet to visualize the lunar rabbit on the moon surface. We stop at a wayside kiosk for homemade hoppers [not the razor sharp rimmed type in the city] and koli-kuttu bananas with much plain tea. Buns were packed to be had on the way.
We arrive at the 113 km turn-off passed 7 O’clock but is good enough for birding. This bit of road which says is a 7 km distance to the Forest Department bungalow is but suitable only for an off-road vehicle. A small truck lorry is the ideal. It is a shear climb winding through tea country partly stone paved and partly concreted. But the tar macadam of yester year is still visible hidden under the grass in certain sections. 

The car comes to an obvious stop where the road was wide enough for a passing vehicle. We have no choice but to hike. Wilson, who braved the Asian Tsunami in 2004 at the age of 68, finds the going too tough a challenge and decides to stay back. Amu and I decide to hike the distance of 7 km. We pass along encroached tea cultivations where some encroachers live on the land while most come from far to work the land and go back home in the evening. Mid-country tea fetches high prices and is a very lucrative business. The higher we trek the tea is thinned and the misty mountain immerge. Not a soul in site, its dead silence if not for the forest birds and the occasional cicada.

I recall the hikes in the hills during school time. A very tough one in 1969 when we hiked from Ella to Wellawaya finding our way by the surveyor’s pegs marking the trace of the present day road from Wellawaya to Ella. The camping trips to Yala and Lahugala where we learnt tracking. Rev Father H C Goodchild [Goodie] who organized these outings would tell us ‘ now look here you rascals keep your gaps shut and your eyes, ears and noses open when in the forest’. These were practical lessons to see what had taken the road before us; identifying through pug marks of the various fauna and their scats etc. Goodie’s teaching and the pranks we played with him for momentary annoyance years before came rushing to my memory when I showed Amu the wild boar harrows of the night before and the ant-eater [Pangolin] that had dug into a crater of the black ants in the middle of the road. The pug marks of a Jungle-fowl or Spur-fowl. The strong scent of urine in the isolated jungle patches in the ravines where the Sambur Deer has marked their presence and territory. Both sexes of this species depend considerably on the olfactory cues, during their various social behaviour.


Half way through a lady emerge from a short cut and said she was on her way to an old plot of land once part of the tea estate now vested in the forest. A bungalow with the roof off is still to be seen within, with the forest closing in from all direction. She still harvests the cardamoms that now grow wild in this area.

We keep trekking with the bird-watching; the research station of the Forest Department seems so remote. At last we reach the research station; its 30 minutes to noon, we’ve taken three hours to come here. The sun at its highest and the land is still cloudy, misty and gloomy. The buns and Arabian dates give us the lost energy to trek back listing to the Malabar Trogon, the Sri Lanka Hornbill and the Spot-winged Thrush. The most looked for bird over here the Yellow-eared Bulbul was seen just at the edge of the forest. Three of them; the bird of Nuwara-Eliya and the Peak wilderness occur here in a very strange manner. So is the endemic Dusky Blue Fly-catcher. It was pleasing to see much  Purple-face Leaf Monkey on this part of Sinharaja.


On the way back we descend directly through the tea plantations cutting short the time and meet up with Wilson who had seen all the Prinias and a host of Yellow-fronted Barbets and the Black Eagle.
Our timing for the return trip was just right as planned. A late lunch was taken at a wayside kiosk. On inquiries if lunch was available for three; the lady was reluctant to say that she could provide us lunch, but without any meat or fish. We were most obliged with the dhal and breadfruit curry with the greens accompanied with red rice. She was not happy though and decides to serve us an extra portion of onion salad and deep-fried sprats that was prepared in a brisk.
Relaxing before the drive back to Galle after lunch at the kiosk, the Black Eagles immerge once again and they swoop down so low in their courtship ritual, exciting the stray mongrels that give chase sending them high into the blue skies. That was to be the finale of Amu’s memorable trip to the Morningside of Sinharaja that took three years to realize. A very worthy one though with a strenuous climb of 7 kilometres.


  1. I was more than content with the long wait in the lower reaches of Morning Side as it was most rewarding.
    Three species of Prinias and a large group of Black Bulbuls and a few other species of birds- Yellow browed bulbuls,white browed bulbuls, the largest number of Yellow fronted barbets i've come across kept me excellent company.
    The greatest thrill was when an Ashy Prinia which came as if to sit on my head turned round elegantly two or three times and settled on a twig and commenced scolding me in its own sweet way!

    Excellent well reserched write up

  2. I was compelled to do another trip with my office colleagues on the 14th of January 2014. This time we booked the bungalow and went up in a van. The van took 2.30 hrs to go up the 7 km with all its passengers walking up to save the undercarriage. This time it was to be special.... the three elephant that inhabit Sinharaja had visited Morningside. The visit was signified with the ample dropping along the road and at the bungalow. The other specialty was the sighting of the Slaty-legged Crake.