To my surprise I felt a certain springy keenness on the second day of our holiday in Nuwara Eliya. Breaking a long spell of solo travel I had my youngest son accompanying me on the trip. I was feeling excited because of where we were going. After nearly three decades I would be walking in the mist driven Cloud Forest of Horton Plains. For my son it would be his virgin expedition in the plains.
We had arrived there a little cramped on the Night Mail train the day before. Luckily transport was arranged and a van was waiting for us at Nanu Oya station. The drive from Nanu Oya to Nuwara Eliya is just over 9 kms you can easily get public transport, but at 3:30 am, in cold temperatures of 11-14 degrees, you will not venture out into the deserted town laid in pitch darkness because there will be no Tuk-Tuks waiting there.
We managed to convince the hotel to let us in even though occupancy was at its peak and early check-in was out of question. We freshened up to settle down in the lobby, which was still a luxury in comparison to where we had just spent the last seven hours trying to get some sleep. Since December is the holiday season and children are on school vacation people are queuing in numbers to get their rail tickets. I could only manage third class reserved tickets. I didn’t have to line up though, I purchased them using my Dialog mobile. I had duly warned my son to expect the bare minimum comfort wise and that the Windsor hotel would more than make up for the lack of luxury. We treated ourselves to a pot of hot coffee and a sumptuous buffet breakfast. The first day in Nuwara Eliya was largely spent in recovering and loitering in the town. There was a slight drizzle throughout the day but it wasn’t pouring as it does in Colombo. We heard that there had been frost in the morning a few days ago.
On the second day we overslept and were only able to leave the hotel around 8 am and hour later than what was initially planned. The weather was surprisingly good, the morning sun shone brightly making us open our jackets and loosen the scarf around the neck.
The Horton Plains National Park is some 27 kms travelling along Blackpool-Ambewala road and having crossed the rail line at Pattipola (Incidentally Pattipola station at 1,897 meters is the station at the highest elevation) we continued on an uneven and broken road that was lined with tall Pine trees lending us a feeling of entering the wilderness. All signs of human activity faded away as the van charges uphill. The driver a rather clever and is one from the area was able to handle the elbow-bends rather cleverly. A sense of excitement was rising inside me as the landscape began to level out into large flat expanses of yellowing grassland. The plains are not necessarily flat but looking like the surface of crumpled bed sheets you wake up on in the morning. In the far distance blue ridged mountains only a shade darker than the sky was curling around the plains like a huge fence placed along the horizon. The road bobbed up and down like a grey colour tape, and at the end of which we arrived at the Farr Inn.
The Farr Inn now serves as the Information Center for the National Park. Back then the Farr Inn was a hunting lodge for the British colonial officers. The Wildlife department <http://www.dwc.gov.lk> maintains lodging in terms of two bungalows (Ginihiriya & Mahaeliya), also the Forest department has another in Ohiya (Kande Ela) and a spacious dormitory for large groups. There are also camping sites made available for the more adventurous hikers.
For those who stay 3-4 nights it is possible to cover the three trails found on Horton plains. They are the Bakers Falls – World’s End circuit (8 kms) which is the more popular one, Kirigalpoththa (5.6 kms) and Thotupola Kanda (1.3 km) trails. According to Lakdasun website <http://www.lakdasun.org> done by veteran hikers Kirigalpothaththa trail is said to be the most interesting of the three. Two third of the trail is through the bush and the last stretch is a little tough along the rocky ascend to the peak. On windy days hikers are said to crawl on all-fours during this last lap. Standing tall at 2395 meters Kirigalpoththa is the second tallest mountain in the country. The summit gives wonderful panoramic views of the surrounding area. For those who actually get there, it’s worthwhile to spend time enjoying the beauty of nature.
The third trail which is to the peak of the third highest mountain (2,357 m) is easy because the ascend covers just 200 meters in elevation, a little over a kilometer in distance and takes about an hour at most. Thotupolakanda trail allows you to experience the unique mountain forest ecosystem, and is less crowded since most people do not know of its existence. A small board and arrowhead on the left hand, 400 meters to the park entrance where you obtain tickets, indicates the starting point to the trail.
According to Ramayan tales this location marks the landing place for king Rama’s plane ‘Dadumonara’ (a wooden flying object in the shape of a peacock) as he was bringing his lady love, Princess Sita to Lanka. Thotu-pola in local language, Sinhala means landing site.
We decided to take the first of the three trails since only one of these is possible in a day. Barely visible in the thick mist the sign at the starting point indicated a circular route that covers the Bakers falls, World’s End and the Little World’s End and vise verse. But more of that on a later date.
On our return to Nuwara Eliya town having spent a little bit of time at the Bale market which offers branded clothing and shoes at half cost we decided to take a circuit around Lake Gregory. The lake has received a major uplift since the taking over by Indian entrepreneurs. Grassy slopes lead to the edge of a cleaner lake, where children in colourful jackets were playing, while their parents watched with satisfaction. The kids play area is packed where a marry-go-round and swings had been installed. Further down boat rides and water jets are available for hire. A walking track is been constructed along the water’s edge. A hundred rupees is been charged for entrance reminding visitors that everything in life comes for a cost. I hope this does not get caught on as elsewhere walking tracks are used free of charge. In the town the Race Course offers horse/ pony rides. It was very tempting. I was an ardent fan of the movie International Velvet (starring Tatum O’Neal) and the British TV serial called Flambards which made me imagine one day I would too be galloping on a horse.
The highest mountain in Sri Lanka is Piduruthalagala (2524 m). The small space on the peak is almost entirely occupied by the army as they give protection for Rupavahinie Corporation’s main transmission tower. There is no indication of the route leading to the peak except for two words ‘piduru’ followed by ‘thalagla’ in Sinhala done in childish hand-writing on a stone just near the turn off. Driving further up we were feeling lost until we came to the Army check point. Locals said it was too late to enter but luck was in our way and we managed after giving the information they wanted. There is around 6 kms drive through the forest. The road is lined with beautiful wild flowers in a host of pinks colours, the foliage was thick and you can see the forest was untouched. Signboards warn visitors of leopards. As we make ourselves to the very top we found ourselves amidst the clouds and the mist started to clear away almost magically. Although we could not see anything in particular on the summit due to strict army regulations, the scenic beauty that was up for viewing was more than enough.
Little strands of clouds hung on mountain tops; we could see many mountains in layers stretching far beyond, their hues becoming a shade lighter with distance. It’s a pity we were not allowed to take photos but we covered up for it by spending a long while just taking in everything, even breathing it and smelling it lest we miss some important part of the experience. At this monumental place of Lanka the very peak we spotted two Ceylon White Eye birds, drinking nectar off purple blooms that were hung like lanterns on long stems. This olive green bird is very tiny yet found only on elevations higher than 2,500 meters. Its striking white stroke around the eyes was looking like someone had just applied Tipex!
The sighting capped a wonderful trip to the misty mountains in the central highland. We were so full of joy having been amid three of the highest mountains in the country, having seen the fauna and flora many of which are rare and endemic, we realized that we did not once mind, the effort taken during the long trail.