Surviving Sri Lanka part 6- Horton Plains
I am by all intents and purposes a morning person, and routinely get up early even on weekends, but even I like to sleep in once in a while especially on vacation. As such, having to drag myself out of bed at 6am was pushing it for me on day 11 on my Sri Lankan adventure. There was good reason, for this early morning as the day’s adventure began with a hike through the Horton Plains.
Sri Lanka is a biodiversity hotspot, which means that it has an extremely high number of different species. This means that in all 25,330 square miles of the country there are 7,236 identified and distinct animal species or 3.5 square miles for each species. This is not how biodiversity is actually measured, but it does give you a rough idea. By comparison the United States has 102,992 identified and distinct animal species, but spread out over 3,531,905 square miles or 34 square miles for each species. If the United States had the same biodiversity of Sri Lanka, then it would be home to over a million different species of animals, and this would account for 79% of all animal species in the world.
This brings us to the Horton plains, which is located on the southern end of the central highlands of Sri Lanka. The plains are located at an elevation of 1,200 to 2,300 meters and it is the highest elevation I have ever been to. At the time, I didn’t even take notice of just how high up I was, even while hiking around the park. I guess living for 3 years at 1,200 meters in Mongolia is good for something, as I had a bit of acclimatization to high altitude. Now what makes the park so interesting, at least to the biologist in me, is that it is a high altitude plain and a cloud forest. It is also a biodiversity hot spot in a country that is already labeled as a biodiversity hot spot with 750 different species of plants and 128 different species of animals. While elephants used to roam the park they left in the 1940s, and deer are now the largest animals to roam the park.
The park is also a pilgrimage site for Sri Lankan Buddhists, as they come to observe Baker’s Falls. I am not sure of the cultural significance of a waterfall named after a British officer and naturalist from the late 19th century. It is, however, the first stop on the hike through the park. This is another instance where you should get up and do the hike early before it gets too hot, and make sure to bring the bug spray.
World’s End is another highlight of the loop path that takes you through part of the park. On a good day you would have a nice view of the park, but seeing as part of the Horton Plains is a cloud forest this can be a problem occasionally.
What you can’t really see is the 2,854ft drop right behind where I am standing, and that is why it is called World’s End. Now personally I think it’s called World’s End because if you fall, your world is ending. However, it is actually called World’s End due to the river that can be seen that feeds into the Unda Walawe National Park. If the water supply was ever cut off then the park would die off due to a lack of water.
Fall Number 2
For those of you who know me, I never do just a simple fall, and Sri Lanka of course delivered. (I am glad it wasn’t at the World’s End, though.) As you can see the path is a bit treacherous especially if you look near the top of the picture, well just past this point the whole path begins to gain a steep slope perpendicular to the direction you need to go, which made things a bit difficult, but not impossible. This is of course the point where it starts to get really crowded with an older nicely dressed gentleman, surrounded by a bunch of men in suits, so clearly there is some kind of business retreat going on. The only way around was to walk along the top edge of the path on the sloped rocks.
Yeah……… not the best idea, and all 235 pounds of me slips and heads right for the old guy only to be grabbed by all the men in suits. No harm, no foul, and some words in Sinhalese that I do not understand and I’m on my way, only for another hiker on the path to tell me that the old guy I almost crushed, he is the Prime Minster of Sri Lanka……..
Cloud forests are found in tropical and subtropical environments, and are characterized by being located in higher altitudes 500-4000meters. They also have a near persistent fog as seen above, and high amounts of rain (20 – 400 inches a year). Of all the different forests I have hiked or biked through, this one was the coolest. There are parts where I felt like I was on Endor, or in some sort of fantasy land, with the fog rolling down the through the trees.
Fall Number 3, or the crash
You have probably noticed by now the roads coming out of the park are narrow, wet, and rather steep in spots. Outside of the rain, this is par for the course in the mountains of Sri Lanka, along with the switchbacks. This isn’t too much of a problem except for when a car, truck, or tuk-tuk comes along and you have to find somewhere to go or be run over. Biking on roads that narrow was hard enough; I don’t know how the Sri Lankans do it on a daily basis. After coming part way down through the cloud forest we stopped at a small roadside café for tea and snacks, before tackling the rest of the descent. The Serbian woman decided to leave a bit early and I came along since I had my fill of snacks, and we took off down the mountain.
I was probably enjoying myself too much, whistling off we go into the wild blue yonder as I weaved my way down the narrow roads, nursing my failing brakes in an attempt to not go to fast. This means I took one of the switchbacks a bit too wide and a bit too fast, and had to slam on the brakes to avoid a pickup truck coming up the mountain. Well, I slammed on the brakes, and the front brake engaged, while the rear brake did not, and this spun the back tire out from under me in a 360, dumping me onto the road as I skidded several meters before stopping. I’m pretty sure the Sri Lankans in the truck learned a few new English words, before I waved them off, knowing the rest of my group couldn’t be far behind.
By the time they arrived I felt like I got double teamed by some of my football teammates back in high school along with a nice sized scrape on my elbow, and hip, and a cracked bicycle helmet. This is when the group arrived and Kate, acting like my mother, ordered me on the bus. I will admit this was probably a good idea as I’m fairly certain I had a mild concussion. It did take a while for the bus to arrive, but that can be forgiven due to how crazy the roads can be.
I can’t say there is anything really special in Ella, beyond the better than expected hotel I stayed at. True, I did have to sleep under a mosquito net again, but the shower, internet, bed, and food were great, something that was sorely needed after my crash. The flowers were a nice touch too.
The view overlooking more of the cloud forest was a nice bonus. Oh, and steak and French fries, real French fries never tasted so good.