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Sri Lanka: A Land Like No Other (Part 9) Horton Plains

Sri Lanka —  9) Horton Plains

My first introduction to Horton Plains National Park was in Hans Mohemius’ photo room at his home in Colombo.  Hans was a skilled amateur photographer who shared with me a magical photo of a sunrise on Horton Plains, the setting misty and light softly diffused over frosted grass and trees.   I knew at that moment I had to visit this place so on my last trip to Sri Lanka I finally did.  As it turns out, Horton Plains is a great place to go for a hike — the best I personally encountered in Sri Lanka.  There are several hiking options in the Park but the most popular is the loop trail to “World’s End” which I’ll discuss below.

Horton Plains National Park is a high altitude plateau in the central Hill Country some 30 km (over an hour’s drive) south of Nuwara Eliya.  It’s situated between 6900-7500 feet above sea level so you’ll be gaining altitude to get there, traveling past tea plantations, vegetable gardens and a large dairy farm.  The park itself is covered by montane meadows. some marshes and patches of cloud forest.  Horton Plains includes 3,160 hectares (12.2 sq mi) of land and is one of the best preserved areas of Sri Lanka that I encountered.  The park is named after Sir Robert Wilmont-Horton, a British governor of Ceylon (in the early 19th century).  The second and third highest mountains in Sri Lanka (Kirigalpotta and Totapola) frame the plateau. Three major Sri Lankan rivers (Mahaweli, Walawe and Kelani) find their headwaters on these plains.   The site was designated a national park in 1988.

Horton's Plains, Sri Lanka

Hortons Plains, Sri Lanka

The park is mostly in a natural state and is rich in plant and animal life, some of which are endemic to the area.  It is home to sambar deer, leopards, bear monkeys (purple faced langur) and a large assortment of rare endemic birds.  Elephants traditionally lived here (and were hunted by the British in the 19th century) but have not been found on the plains for over 60 years.  We saw only a few deer and those at a distance, and I did not have the time or binoculars to bird-watch though that might have been fun.

There’s a 6 mile loop trail from the parking area which I’d recommend taking.  I walked it in a counter-clockwise fashion.  A large part of the walk is through grassland containing creeks, swampy areas, small patches of trees and rhododendrons.  The first major stop during my hike was Baker Falls, a pretty though relatively small waterfall.  The major destination for the hike is the “World’s End” where the plateau abruptly ends and a cliff drops nearly 3000 feet to the valley below.  Much like in the movie “The Gods Must be Crazy“, when I first reached World’s End I had to be careful because it was very misty and difficult to see the edge.  It would have been easy to step off the precipice as there are no barriers of any kind to prevent this.  I must admit I like the simplicity of the setting, because it can’t be the World’s End if you are kept from it by a 6 foot tall fence (as we would have in the USA thanks to our ludicrous tort system).  I probably spent almost an hour at World’s End, hoping the clouds would clear because on a clear day you can see as far as the Indian Ocean to the south.  I did have some moments of partial clearing, enough to appreciate how vertiginous and steep the drop is and to get a glimpse of a tea plantation, a tiny town and reservoir below.  It was a pretty cool experience!  A brief walk further through forest brings you to Little World’s End, another place to see the dramatic edge of the plateau and sudden drop-off.  The trail then completes its loop back to the parking area.

World's End, Sri Lanka

World’s End, Sri Lanka

Horton Plains is best appreciated in the morning when your chance of having a clear view from World’s End is best.  The mist is often back by noon or in the afternoon, but this is not predictable.  In other words, visibility is a matter of luck.  Still, don’t let that deter you from a visit because even just watching the mist and clouds swirl from World’s End is fascinating.  And the walk across the quiet grasslands and through the cloud forest are most pleasant and not at all strenuous.  Other travel options include mountain bike rentals and Jeep tours which I would only do if you can’t get around well on your two legs.

Prepare yourself as you would for a hike anywhere — good shoes, a rain jacket/fleece, sunblock and water bottle.  Mean temperature can vary considerably with an annual mean temperature of 13 °C (55 °F) and daytime highs of  27 °C (81 °F), so plan accordingly. Horton’s plains is one of the few places in the country where you might encounter a morning frost.  Toilet facilities on the trail are very limited.  Pack out your rubbish.

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