An early start to the day was in order so that we could make our way to the Hortan Plains national park at sunrise. It was an hours drive from the hotel on well paved (unlit) roads that snaked through small villages and the neighboring hills. We reached the plains just past sunrise with our first (and only) animal sighting of the common Sambar that were grazing nearby past the main entrance. The driver dropped us off at the parking lot right next to the park office/reception that was closed for maintenance. You have to a walk a short way on the path next to it to a gate where they check you for any polythene that have been noted as a hazard to the park fauna.
At about 2000 meters above sea level; the Horton plains is the only National Park in Sri Lanka where visitors are allowed to walk on their own on the designated tracks. It’s a 9km trek that can take anything between 2-5 hours depending on the number of stops you make and how fit you are. There were about 20 people who had also decided to get to the park first thing in the morning; coincidentally, most of them were couples just like us. It was an overcast morning and the fear of another storm was always lingering.
On passing the gate we get our first panoramic view of the plains ahead. A mixture of invasive species (European Gorse and Warella) and native species (Rhododendron, White-eye and Arundinaria densifolio) covers the plains. The invasive species are threatening to eliminate the native species so the park has now began programs to manage them. After walking a couple hundred meters through the stunning plains; the track forks giving you the choice of going through the park clockwise or anti-clockwise since the whole route is just one big loop called the ‘World’s end/Baker’s loop trails’. A map at the fork indicates the various stops and how far they were. We picked the one that went left (clockwise) that took us through the cloud forest first. Oddly we were the only one who picked this route.
The silence that wraps you as soon as your enter the forest was a little eerie at first. And then your senses adjust to it all and you begin to notice the ruffling sounds of birds fleeing you presence, the random insect buzzing away hidden in the trees or the unseen stream gurgling away somewhere below. The path gradually slops up as you make your way to the first stop on the route. The air here is a lot cooler and more humid while temperature changes as the day progressed was a lot less obvious. On the other hand it clearly is obvious (from the pictures above) that I ended up going a little over the top with my track shots with the 135mm.
The storm the previous night had lashed the country side hard and the track was littered with puddles throughout our first leg of the route. The parts where the water had drained out; the sand had gotten mushy. You know that awesome feeling when you step into cold water and your socks get soaked? That was something we were trying to avoid to the best of our capabilities.
The ‘Bear monkey’ is the endemic purple faced leaf monkey that is found in the forest. Unfortunately most of them live in the tree tops close to their main food source and we failed to see any though we think we did hear a few of them. After a relatively easy trek; we came face to face to these natural steps. Loose rocks made this harder than we thought it’d be and my futile attempt to run up in a quick burst was rather stupid. There are a lot of steps, and some of them were huge requiring us to find an easier more careful way over them.
With the limited supply of light in the forest; plants have to compete hard to obtain sunlight. One way to do so is to grow on top of other plants (rather than on the ground) that is aided by the abundant water supply brought in by the clouds. Such plants are called epiphytes and the most common one being are the orchids. Another way is to maintain roots in the ground while using other plants to climb to the forest canopy. A strategy followed by lianas and vines like the wild pepper plants you’ll see in the forest. As we clambered past the steps; the track had turned into a small stream of its own. We continued to avoid soaking our shoes while slipping over loose wet stones. One of those moments we were glad it wasn’t raining cause maneuvering through this section of the route would have almost been impossible.
Our first stop on the route was the ‘little World’s End’ that’s about 270 meters in height. An fabulous appetizer to what lay ahead for us. It was sign of relief that the clouds hadn’t rolled in yet and we had a relatively clear view for now. We quickly scampered further in the hope of out running those clouds to ‘World’s End’ that we could see drifting in on the horizon.
We hadn’t met anyone else on the route yet and didn’t know if the people who took the other route had already gotten to ‘World’s End’. The track got trickier, darker and messier. The socks were soaked and progress was slow.
It was 8am and we were at ‘World’s End’. A drop of 870 meters in height, it looks upon tea estates and the Kiriketi Oya stream that runs into the Walawe Ganga. Further towards the right in the distance you can see two reservoirs, the closer one being the Walawe reservoir in the Uda Walawe National park. The view was gorgeous and we sat there for over 30 minutes absorbing it all in. Oh and that picture is going on the wall Insha’Allah.
We were the first one there and by the time other people turned up 30 minutes later; the best bit of the view had already vanished away. Clouds form when hot air from the lowlands created by daily heating rises and condenses by cooling at high altitudes that cloak the hills and often leads to afternoon rain. However, at Horton plains the water of the clouds gets stripped from them just by coming in contact with the trees that in many areas exceeds the water from rainfalls therefore giving it the name ‘the Cloud forest’.