“HORTON PLAINS – A JOURNEY INTO A HIDDEN WORLD” – BY RAJIV WELIKALA

“HORTON PLAINS – A JOURNEY INTO A HIDDEN WORLD” – BY RAJIV WELIKALA

My memories and experiences from Horton Plains dates back many years, to the time I was a little boy. My bond with this mystical highland wilderness dates back to when I was a mere 3 month old infant, when my father had carried me to Worlds End and staying inside the park in one of their many circuit bungalows. This unique highland ecosystem has seduced and haunted my memories and emotions for many years.

Horton Plains National Park is the islands smallest park, but one of the richest in biodiversity and endemism. This is the second most popular park to visit in Sri Lanka, with over 200,000 visitors gracing the plains annually, mainly to witness the amazing landscapes and the famous cliff Worlds End which gives stunning views of the land down below, as well as the scenic waterfall named Bakers Falls after Sir Samuel Baker a famous hunter from the Colonial Era. But what many fail to see is the unique “hidden” world which has enthralled only an enlightened few. Despite hundreds visiting the park on a daily basis, many fail to look around and notice the amazing natural treasures around them. It is this hidden world which brings me to this magical place on a regular basis. Unlike most of the lowland parks Horton Plains has managed to hold its secrets well. The true treasures of this land present themselves only to those who seek to understand it.

To begin, let’s look at the history of this land. Named after a former British Governor, Robert Horton. Before the colonization of the British on the island, the central highlands were rules by the Kandyan Kingdom, whom left the regions of Horton Plains as preserves, which were believed even during that day were important to safeguard the sources of the rivers flowing through the island.

With the British taking over, the highlands around Nuwara Eliya and the region were taken over as popular retreats for sportsmen for hunting and an escape from the lowland heat. It was during this time that two Englishmen, Albert Watson and William Fisher set on an expedition into the plains and published their discovery in the Supplement of the Ceylon Government Gazette on 12th April 1834. This region was preserved thanks to the administrative order given by Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, who advised the government to leave all montane forests above 5000 feet undisturbed.

The plains itself is a saddle shaped area of 31 square KM located between the 2nd highest and 3rd highest mountains on the island, Kirigalpotta and Thotupola Kanda respectively. The landscape consists of undulating grasslands bordered by montane forests. Three of Sri Lanka’s rivers originate from this area, The Mahaweli, Kelani and Walawe.

The park can be accessed from Nuwara Eliya which is a 1 hour drive where one will enter through the Pattipola Entrance, or via Haputale/Ella/Bandarawela region via the Ohiya Entrance.

Given the ecological significance this place is a haven for nature lovers such as myself. The true diversity of the park can be observed only if you know to look.

Visiting the park for around the 25th time, I headed to the park with plans to spend 3 days observing the biodiversity this unique land has to offer. March is generally a dry period with a lot of sunlight and with hopes that I could catch a glimpse of the elusive leopard, which is a very rare sighting in these areas. But as it was be, as soon as I was ascending the steep slopes of Pattipola to reach the plateau, it was evident the weather has taken a turn for the worse, with rain and mist sweeping into the park. This would not deter me on my mission, and despite near freezing weather and wind-chill we kept patrolling the park and observing the many wonders this unique habitat has to offer.

Even a casual observer will notice the change in vegetation after 1,500 of elevation on the island. The tree cover tents to be more stunted and closely packed with thin trunks and twisted gnarly branches giving a unique look unlike the vegetation found in more temperate climes. The underbrush is filled with shrubs from the Strobilanthes family known as Nilu in Sinhalese. Some of these Strobilanthes species bloom only every 10 – 15 years, bringing a range of vibrant colors to the area. The branches of the trees are filled with moss, lichens and orchids, most of which are endemic to Sri Lanka and found only in the highlands such as Horton Plains. During most of the year these forests are covered in mist and rain. Records state there are 353 species of vascular plant species found in Horton Plains, out of which 119 are endemic to the island, being the highest rate of flora endemism on the island. The most prominent tree species which is often seen on the top canopy is of Callophylum walkeri, and endemic to the island. Besides the appearance of the branches and size of the trees, the leaves themselves present to be very different from more lowland vegetation, having thicker and smaller leaves. The grasslands are scattered with a few species of grasses along with scattered clubs of the Rhododendron arboreum shrubs.

When entering from the park ticket office, and driving past the forest one would notice the canopy having a reddish tone. This is due to new leaves coming up on the Callophylum walkeri trees. Entering from the Pattipola side, we drove through the road leading past the family points in the park, from the turn off to Thotupola Kanda, Sri Lanka’s 3rd highest mountain to the family Arrenga Pool, all the way to the car park and main park office located in what used to be called The Farr Inn. Turning left from this junction will lead one to the Ohiya Road with its own ticket office located on the far end. It would be this stretch of road from the Pattipola entrance to the Ohiya Entrance which will be the area of our attention for the next 3 days.

One thing which always fascinated me in Horton Plains are the varying species of moss, fungi and lichens found throughout the forest, with most of them being unique and endemic to this region. Giving an almost unreal aura to the land, these forests shrouded in mist and fog throughout most of the year is unlike any other.

The same evening of our arrival we were treated with a very rare sight, despite the thick mist. In one of the roadside pools, we observed a Eurasian Otter, a very shy and elusive mammal though found throughout the inside, is very rarely observed. With an adorable look this agile mammals was swimming around among the cold mists, and occasionally peeping up to look who these unusual humans are. It was the first time in my life that I ever observed this rare mammal.

The birdlife in this park is unique as well as we observed many endemic species found only on the island and some found only in the highlands. The endemics observed were the Dull Blue Fly catcher, Yellow Eared Bulbul, Sri Lanka White Eye and Scimitar Babbler, all which are found quite easily in and around the park, as well as the Sri Lanka Jungle Fowl the national bird of Sri Lanka found around the plains.

The two absolute rarities which are mostly sought after in Horton Plains is the Sri Lanka Bush Warbler and Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush also known as the Arrenga.  The Bush Warbler has a unique “queet” call which can be heard close to many shrubs, but very rarely comes out into the open. For our luck on of these birds suddenly appeared on a stump out in the open, giving me the perfect photo opportunity. The Sir Lanka Whistling Thrush on the other hand has proved almost impossible to photograph given their elusive nature and tendency to appear during thick mist. Their unique call is unmistakable and can be heard clearly during mornings at the famous Arrenga Pool which is named after this bird, but even this time, despite seeing both the male and female birds flying across the road I was unable to capture them on film. Known by photographers as one of the, if not the most difficult bird to photograph on the island, this adds to the legend and aura of this unique bird.

One of the iconic mammals to be found in the sweeping plains is the Sambhur, the largest deer species on the island. Popularly known as Elk among the English hunters of old, this area was famous for hunts of this majestic species by Englishmen such as Sir Samuel Baker and Thomas Farr. Now all species of wildlife are given a strict protection and hunting of any manner in the island is illegal giving these majestic deer species a change to thrive. The abundance of Sambhur also results in them getting used to feeding on the rubbish thrown by many visitors, including left over food. Hence it is important that visitors are mindful of this fact and do not leave left over food unattended and ensure they are disposed of in designated bins which are found throughout the park, and once must never feed these deer as processed human food is not their natural food source and can prove to be harmful in the long term.

One of the key features enforced by the park is the ban on polythene which is a great initiative to ensure the pristine nature of the park is maintained, further rubbish is collected every day starting from the bottom of Pattipola and upwards to the park office. Such measured by the park ensures that this amazing habitat remains in-tact.

The apex predator of the park is the leopard, which prey on the abundant Sambhur found across the plains. The leopards found in the highlands and Horton Plains in particular are bigger and have a denser coat compared to their lowland cousins, due to the rich food source available and the cold climate. Despite their reputation, seeing one in the flesh is virtually impossible, unless one known how and where to look. The thick mist and rain did not help our search and we made most of small windows where the mist cleared. During one of these clear moments on the 2nd day , late in the evening we observed a female Leopard, peeping from the grasses just on the edge where the plains met the forest. There were Sambhur feeding on the plains, but none of them seemed to have noticed this elusive predator in their midst. The encounter lasted only 5 seconds, before the stealthy feline slipped back into the forest, not before I managed to get one photograph of looking straight at us through the grass.

During mid-day we spend searching for the two endemic lizard species, and found them not far apart among the many trees. Both species can be seen to the observant eye, but sadly many visitors fail to notice them among the many shrubs and trees in the park. The first is the Rhino Horned Lizard, which was seen in a lone tree close to the park office. As the name suggest this species has a horned appendage from its snout. The other is the Sri Lanka Pygmy Lizard, which we spotted on a tree close to the Ohiya Ticket office. This endemic species bears live young, and one of the females we observed was evidently pregnant, and both species are generally slow and tent to be found in the same locale on a regular basis.

The final day, we left our quarters early morning in search of more wildlife, and came across our friend the otter, out in the clear waters, and I managed to capture some great photographs of this amazing mammal.

On our way out of the park, another unique observation was the sighting of two Steppe Buzzard, which are rare migrants which visit the highlands every year. A perfect ending to this amazing tour of this unique world.

Horton Plains once again didn’t fail to amaze and surprise me, and I look forward to visiting once again to take in the amazing ecological diversity this unique land has to offer.

Classic Sri Lanka specializes in wildlife and ecological tours and hence it’s important for us to regularly experience firsthand all that is on offer in this amazing island of ours. Come tour with Classic Sri Lanka and we will show you a hidden world seldom seen by most.

 

 

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