Horton Plains, Sri Lanka’s smallest national park, is also its most visited. Almost 200,000 people, both Sri Lankan and foreign visit this site annually. A question we have often asked ourselves is, why?
Most visitors buy a ticket, trek across the plains for two or three hours on the familiar World’s End – Baker’s Falls trail and then leave, looking crestfallen.
World’s End, after all, is misted up much of the time. And as waterfalls go, even by Sri Lankan standards, Baker’s Falls are arguably not the most picturesque. Visitors with inside knowledge arrive early in the day and, if lucky, get themselves a clear view from World’s End. They also stand a better chance of seeing sambar on the grasslands than do the laggards. But only a small minority leaves any the wiser than that.
Yet, for its minute (31 km) size, Horton Plains contains a truly remarkable slice of Sri Lanka’s biodiversity. Unlike its lowland counterparts, however, this national park holds is secrets well. You will not come away with a count of leopard, bear and elephant sighted. Almost nothing here lends itself to counting: one pair of whistling-thrushes are a prize; two would be not only near impossible but a disappointment.
The treasures of this place then, present themselves only to those who seek.
The Horton Plains are so named after Robert Wilmot Horton, a former British governor of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Although the maritime regions of the island had been colonized since the first arrival of the Portuguese in 1505, the Kandyan Kingdom of the interior had remained inviolate until its secession to the British in 1815. The Kings of Kandy had been careful to preserve the forests of the highlands, which they considered to be an effective defence against invasion.
As a result, Sri Lanka’s European colonizers had no access to the mountains save for the embassies that periodically received the king’s audience at Kandy, or those who wanted, with the king’s permission, to ascend Adam’s Peak, for centuries a focus for pilgrims of many faiths.
In addition to serving as a deterrent to invasion from colonial settlements on the coast, the dense forests of the Central Province were also thought by the British to be rife with disease, which prevented them from venturing thither. The kings of Kandy, wrote Anthony Bertolacci (1817), “viewed a broad belt of wild and thick jungle as they could oppose to the attacks of an European Power established around them on the whole sea-coast of the island; and truly, they owed, for many centuries, the preservation of their independence, solely, to the unhealthy atmosphere exhaled from those uncultivated grounds… The consequence is, a deadly fever, well known by the name of the Candian Fever, which generally proves fatal to persons who are not born in that climate.
Within a decade of Kandy falling into British hands, however, the island’s new rulers began developing Nuwara Eliya (elevation 1,800 m) as a refuge from the tropical heat of Colombo. This vast plain had everything the British wanted a cool, almost temperate climate; plentiful running water; ample firewood: an absence of disease-carrying mosquitoes: plentiful game for sport hunting.
In addition to using the highlands as a hunting ground, the native population was also engaged in mining, probably for gemstones and iron ore. “There is good reason to believe,” wrote John Davy, a British physician-cum-scientist in 1821, “that the individuals engaged in this pursuit, who are not very numerous and chiefly Moormen, would be better employed in cultivating the ground that they ransack.” Unknown to Davy, one of the most remarkable examples of early hydraulic engineering constructions in the Sri Lankan highlands lay very nearly at his feet. It remained to be discovered, however, only in 1857 by John Bailey of the Ceylon Civil Service.
In the course of exploration in the vicinity of the Summit Tunnel (the railway tunnel between Ohiya and Pattipola, on the north face of Totupola Kanda), Bailey found a stonework channel that extended from Rajasinhagama to Pattipola. He also found a disused tunnel that suggested that a network of channels might have served not only to irrigate farmlands in nearby villages, but to divert water from the headwaters of the Mahaweli River to those of the Kotmale Oya.
The Plains themselves were undoubtedly known to pre-colonial Sri Lankans because they were the crossroads for pilgrims en route to Adam’s Peak. The trails from Balangoda, Nuwara Eliya, Haputale and Dimbulla met there as they do even today (the trail from Balangoda, via Loinorn Estate at Bogowantalawa, fell into disuse only in the 1970s). The importance of Nuwara Eliya and its surrounds is underlined also by it being among the place names mentioned in Robert Knox’s (1681) map of Sri Lanka, which shows it as a plain bordered by ranges of mountains to its north and east.