In the High Altitude Grasslands of Horton Plains
Far from the beaches and ancient ruins is a Sri Lanka quite like no other. The patanas (grasslands) and cloud forests of Horton Plains offer visitors a sense of a primeval windswept, and temperate landscape in the middle of this very tropical island. Many who visit are surprised by what they find and yet for anyone familiar with the hill ranges of southern India there is a natural sense of déjà vu.
Horton Plains is dominated by a plateau of rolling hills of patanas enclosed by the stunted cloud forests that are unique to the high Central Highlands. On the southern boundary the hills fall away in a steep escarpment. As I found on a recent trip, the coastline and Indian Ocean are clearly visible form the lofty escarpment edge. In the west the range extend towards Sri Pada (Adam’s Peak) through a ridgeline of protected forest now surrounded by tea estates. To the north, Horton Plains drops down slightly and is then connected to Pidurutalagala (Sri Lanka’s highest mountain at 2,524 meters) through the Nuwara Eliya plateau.
I have an emotional connection to Horton Plains that reminds me of the high altitude hills that I know well from my years in southern India. There on the high altitude plateaus of the Western Ghats shola/grasslands systems were once the dominant vegetation type. Both areas- the Central Highlands of Sri Lanka and the Western Ghats of southern India- have experienced dramatic change as plantation agriculture, hydroelectric schemes and hill station development have altered landscapes in the last 100 or so years. The loss of biodiversity is hard to fathom and remains an alarming issue as further areas are put under pressure of development. Horton Plains, like its counterparts in the High Range, Anaimalai, Palani and Nilgiri Hills retains a semblance of a forgotten past.
The Central Highlands share a similar geological origin with the Western Ghats and the similarities in the landscape are unmistakable. It’s a theme that I have enjoyed exploring over the past few years (see my 2006 Serendib article for a more detailed description). Eravikulam, of course, has some of the best-preserved examples of the shola/grasslands system. Sri Lanka’s systems are wetter and have unique floristic characteristics that distinguish them. I recently had a chance to visit the Plains and came away with some positive experiences and images despite the large numbers of tourists that are visiting on a daily basis. The park is clean enough that crows are rare (a few years ago they were the most common species seen). The management by the Department of Wildlife Conservation is clearly being quite effective.