First Light on the Peak
This winter I found myself back in Peak Wilderness with another group of enthusiastic OSC Environmental Systems students. Sri Lanka had experienced very, very heavy rainfall across the whole island during November and into early December. For a while the bleak weather seemed to jeopardize our plans to visit the hills during the last week of school. Thankfully the timing was perfect and the clouds cleared leaving a rain-washed mountain landscape with crisp, chilly winter air.
The Peak Wilderness area is a long stretch of protected forests that cloaks the southern escarpment of the Central Highlands. It is composed of a variety of vegetation types including lowland and montane rainforest as well as the unique ‘cloud forest’ of higher altitudes (roughly above 1,800 meters). The area is famous for Sri Pada (Adam’s Peak) the distinguished mountain that rises out of the forest and commands an unsurpassed view over much of the highlands and southern Sri Lanka. The Central Highlands were largely converted to plantation agriculture (notably tea) in the mid-19th Century but the Peak Wilderness area was spared destruction and modification.
As usual our class stayed at the Fishing Hut, a rustic, colonial-era log-cabin that is run by the Maskeliya Plantations Company. Its location at the remote end of the Moray Tea Estate gave us access to a traditional tea plantation as well as undisturbed montane rainforest. I was interested in students being able to make comparisons between these two very different ecosystems.
As usual we planned a trek up to Sri Pada’s 2,243 meter summit on our second day. The weather was exceptionally clear with bright sunshine. Our plan was to leave late, walk slowly and study vegetation on the walk up to the peak. The idea was to get to the summit by late afternoon and spend a night in the pilgrim shelter so that we could experience dawn and the views of the surrounding areas.
We started out in finely manicured tea estates with the unmistakable sounds of Blue Magpies calling in the adjoining forests. The trail ascends through degraded montane rainforest and then enters a steep slope of less-disturbed forest. The trees are shorter and stunted and are covered in lichens, mosses and epiphytes. This is the transition area between montane and cloud rainforest. We soon found ourselves on an exposed ridge with a stunning view of Sri Pada. Unfortunately we had to turn around when one of our team was affected with a severe case of altitude sickness and dehydration. Soon after another student had painful cramps in his legs and it was clear that getting to the top was not going to happen on this trip. Though it was disappointing not to reach the summit the group worked cohesively to get everyone back to camp in good health. Few would have thought that altitude could be a significant issue on our small tropical island! However, a combination of the sun, heavy pack and rapid accent from sea level made it a real problem. We returned to Colombo the next day, a bit disappointed that we had not been on the summit but grateful for good health and some fine bird sightings (see next post).
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