A panoramic view of a typical open grassland, with the Sri Pada mountain at the distance
Clouded forests, lush montane grasslands and pastures sheathed in mist. Spread across an area of 3160 ha in the Central Highlands of Sri Lanka, lies a fertile plateau topographically reputed to be the tallest.
Words: Nethu Wickramasinghe
Photography: L. J. Mendis Wickramasinghe
Ancients knew it as the Maha Eliya Thenna, which meant the ‘Great Open Plains'. It was later named by the British colonials as the Horton Plains. Declared as a National Park, this is one of the few protected areas in Sri Lanka where travellers are allowed to trail on foot. Much of the terrain's grasslands are soaked in spring water. Through tributaries this liquid dribbles in to three main river bodies, the Mahaweli, Walawe, and Kelani rivers, from where streams flow to become the lifeblood of the Island.
The National Park can be easily accessed through two main routes, either from Ohiya (8km to the National Park) or through the misty Pattipola (nearly 10km). For those who prefer travelling by rail, the final terminus of the railway stations too exist at Ohiya and Pattipola. These main routes to the park intersect at one point, providing an opportunity for the visitors to access both these routs on the same visit without much hassle.
Pattipola railway station is situated at an altitude of 1897.5 m above sea level making it the highest railway station in the Island. From there on it will be a drive uphill through several tough hairpin bends. Although the park can be accessed conveniently by vehicle, hiking uphill is possible for those who seek to feel the magical splendour of the surroundings. Even before one enters the park one can feel the enchanting aura of the plains as they traverse uphill. The view from any given point is simply breathtaking. The lichened barks and the glossy dew filled moss hang about stiffened branches of trees, all of which are typically found in montane cloud forests.
The ticketing counter at Pattipola is ideally placed with its extended platform providing a perfect view that tempts visitors to step down and feel the breathtaking environment.
On one such expedition, at the end of an unrewarding and wet, rainy day, with our cameras still carefully intact, we happened to exit from the Pattipola gate. Although the harsh inclement conditions had subsided it was still wet outside. I was thrown back in astonishment when all of a sudden a rare sight just flicked right under my nose. It was an otter swimming gaily, undeterred by our presence. Given the opportunity, rain mattered less to me. Moving with care, as I knew that the slightest movement would frighten away this golden opportunity, I captured a series of once in a life time photographs of a rare shy creature.
The usual welcome party at the entrance are Jungle fowls. By the side of the road they exhibit their power and might, competing with their rivals for a partner through flamed up combs and flared plumes. Even if you are only lucky enough to spot one or two Jungle fowls, the cacophony of flocks of these fowls can be heard for quite a distance. Amidst this noisy atmosphere one is almost certain to catch a glimpse of herds of sambars that graze in the endless pastures. Although leopards used to be a common sight here, as more vehicles are accessing the road, sightings have become infrequent.
Marshy swamps are home to a variety of dwarf bamboo species, only found in these plateaus and nowhere else in the world. A rare sight we enjoyed in these marshes was a pair of black winged stilts. Although common in the lowland wet zone, their appearance in the colder highlands was indeed a surprise.
The plains come alive when the rhododendrons are in bloom, and a visit during its season will be an added advantage. The vibrant red hue of the blooms on the bushes complements the surroundings. The under growth is often filled with a wide variety of Strobilanthes species, which are also commonly known as Nelu. These wild flowers bloom seasonally, and occasionally bloom aplenty to create a stunning spectacle.
Another site one must not miss along this trail is the famous ‘Aranga pool' named after a very shy bird, an endemic species of whistling thrushes. Thrushes are in general known to be shy birds and Aranga is no exception. Its velvety dark black plumage helps the bird to perfectly camouflage amidst the misty foliage, therefore to spot one becomes a hard task. Dawn is the ideal time to catch a glimpse of this bird if you are lucky; however you are sure to always be rewarded by its sweet voice.
The trail to the third tallest peak of Sri Lanka, Thotupola Kanda also begins from Pattipola. From this end, one can even witness a splendid view of the Sri Pada Peak across the pastures. Against the amber backdrop of the rising sun, it is a sight to behold from the Great Open Plains!
- Visitors must not trek outside the designated road/foot paths.
- Taking food and beverages to the park will be an added advantage.
- Refrain from taking any polythene to the park.