“Yeah, All is quiet on New Year’s Day”
Thus sang the Irish rock band – U2.
New Year’s Day 2015. My first outside India and what a place to be in : the UNESCO World Heritage site of Horton Plains National Park in the Central Highlands of Sri Lanka! It is a place to respect nature and maintain silence because I was in a silent-zone of a national park – lest the fauna got disturbed! So the words of U2 echoed in my mind.
The previous evening I was negotiating with a couple of Tuk-Tuk drivers in Nuwara Eliya regarding travel cost to Horton and back. After some discussions I finally negotiated with one and requested him to reach our Homestay in the wee hours of the morning. I was staying with my senior from Under-Grad school- Arman-bhai but he did not prefer to do the trek that day as he had already done it before with his Sri Lankan wife and did for free then.The tuk-tuk guy (let’s call him Mr. Kumar – I just couldn’t recollect his name though I had saved his mobile number somewhere!) and I left our guesthouse at around 6 AM-6 30 AM, travelling through one of the coldest parts of Sri Lanka especially in the morning. It was one of the scenic rides through Sri Lanka and after sometime we passed by Hakgala Strict Nature Reserve. It is an important cloud forest and its name is derived from several of the peaks that appear to have the shape of an elephant’s jaw (in the Sinhala language, Hak is jaw and Gala is rock). Mr. Kumar asked if he should stop for me to take some pictures but I was anxious to reach World’s End before 9 AM. This is because around that time, mist rises from the valleys below and shrouds the view towards the Indian Ocean in the distant horizon and the hills beyond. So I urged him to keep going! Then we pass through Ambewela town – the area around it is the highest and largest grassland of Sri Lanka and the environment conditions make it ideal for cattle rearing and dairy industry. This is the reason why it is also known as “Little New Zealand”
After around one and a half hours of travel from Nuwara Eliya, we reached the entrance of Horton Plains. We see a couple of sambar deer grazing in the dew-laden grass on the way. After you pay for the tickets, the park authorities check the bags and personal articles if any polythene bags etc were in possession. The park authorities are very strict about usage of plastics and they replace your polythene bags with their paper bags. So it is advised to avoid carrying polythene bags to the park. Lot of Sambar deer have died owing to consumption of polythene items thrown by careless people in the park. Finally I am ready for a solo trek through the diverse landscape of Horton Plains – windswept undulating plateau ,dotted with grasslands, paths through dense forest cover, rocky paths, rivers and streams, varied fauna ( though many are elusive), waterfalls and sheer precipices with amazing views. Horton Plains was originally known as Maha Eliya Thenna (In Sinhala : great open plain). However during British rule, it was renamed after Sir Robert Wilmot-Horton, one British governor of Ceylon.The peaks of Kirigalpoththa and Thotupola Kanda , the second and the third highest of Sri Lanka respectively, are visible from the Park. Even the holy Adam’s peak is visible from the Park on clear days. The trek is an easy one and it is not necessary to take a guide (as there are sign posts around with directions and information) and one can do solo like I did.
The trek is around 9.5km . There are two routes to do this circular path : a) visit World’s End first b) visit Baker’s Falls first ( the trail map is attached in this blog). For route (a) , which is the preferred route , the walk to World’s End is around 4km,another 2km to Baker’s Falls and then some 3.5km to the Park entrance. It takes around three to four hours in total. Surprisingly there were fewer crowds that day even though it was a holiday. This was because abnormal monsoons had hit Sri Lanka just some days before and incessant pouring of rain water had made trekking impossible. I was lucky enough to visit on a bright clear sunny day just after the rainy weather retreated. So far so good! I passed through open meadows in the beginning and then took the path leading to the World’s End first. After sometime, I reached a thick canopy of forest trail and was lucky to spot some Montane purple-faced langurs in the trees (these are also known as Bear Monkey (Semnopithecus vetulus monticola) and are endemic to Sri Lanka). The keena (Calophyllum ) with its white blossoms is a main tree species to be found. I kept on walking at a brisk pace in order to reach World’s End before the mist/cloud cover comes in. Then crossed a path of granite-like rock and reached Little Word’s End first – a cliff some 270 m high and around 1.75 km away from its big brother (according to a sign post). No mist yet there – a good sign! Admired the vistas that it had to offer and then immediately resumed my walk. Again I passed through a forest cover and finally reached the main highlight of the trek – World’s End (or Greater World’s End to distinguish it from its smaller version) . The height of the cliff is a jaw-dropping 870m. The time was around 8:45 AM. Again lucky as there was no mist or cloud cover. Time for an extended break and some quick snacks sitting on the rocks. The forest area of Horton Plains is also the source of three major rivers of Sri Lanka: River Mahaweli-the longest river of Sri Lanka, River Walave and River Kelani. Below the World’s End , in the valleys , tea plantation towns are visible and far away in the horizon on clear skies, the Indian Ocean is visible in the southern direction some 80 km away. Around 15-20 minutes later, a blanket of mist and cloud started engulfing this area as predicted!
I continued my walk in the vast expanse of grassland and since the weather has unpredictable mood swings in this part of Sri Lanka, the sun now started shining brightly again. Narrow streams meander past the trail road and I passed a couple of bridges. The way begins to go downhill a bit now towards Baker’s Falls (named after Sir Samuel Baker, who was a famous explorer in Sri Lanka). It lies on a tributary of the Belihul Oya (tributary of the Walawe River). The water falls from a drop of around is 20 metres only. Fern bushes abound in this area. I am in the final leg of the trek now towards the entrance when I read another of the informative sign posts along the way. It mentions that there are Rainbow trouts in the streams in this Park which were reportedly introduced by the British for purposes of Angling but they had a negative effect in destroying the marine ecosystem as they feed on the native shrimp. So new trout is no longer introduced here. It was time to check out the small museum at the entrance for some knowledge on this natural biodiversity hotspot.
Mr. Kumar and me then headed back for Nuwara Eliya when we again spotted a couple of Sambar deer on the way. However I was unlucky in not spotting many animals that day. Now that I am done with Horton Plains, I could enjoy the vibrant shades of green in Ambewela on the way back. Many herds of cows were seen grazing. We saw some wind turbines in the hills on the distance as this is a potential favorable location for wind farms and wind energy development.
It was a nice walk to remember but quite expensive compared to South Asian standards!
Anyway, U2 kept playing on the back of my mind as we passed by the wonderful scenery :
“A world in white gets underway
I want to be with you
Be with you night and day
Nothing changes on New Year’s Day
On New Year’s Day…”
1. Horton Plains National Park Entry Fees (for non-Sri Lankan people. They do not have a SAARC reduced price unlike other tourist places) : 3300 LKR
2. Auto/Tuk-Tuk Rent (from Nuwara Eliya to Horton and back including waiting for around 4 hours) : 2500 LKR
3. Snacks in Nuwara Eliya: 100 LKR
4. Fruits : 90 LKR
5. The areas near Little World’s End and World’s End are not fenced and there is no barrier to prevent people from falling down if they became too adventurous and try to reach too close near the edges of precipices. I still don’t understand why the Park officials haven’t yet constructed any fence there for safety of people.
LKR = Sri Lanka Rupee