Kirigalpotta & Horton Plains
Horton Plains National Park in Sri Lanka’s Central Highlands is a unique high elevation ecosystem with intriguing parallels to the uplands of India’s southern Western Ghats. I was reminded of its mazing biodiversity and similarities with the shola/grasslands systems of the Western Ghats on a recent visit with my daughter Amy and friends Britton & Tracy. Our aim was to visit the plains, climb Kirigalpotta, stay in Department of Wildlife and Conservation (DWC) quarters, and assess the suitability of the place for a future OSC Week Without Walls experiential learning visit.
Kirigalpotta is Sri Lanka’s 2nd highest peak at 2,390 meters. Given that there is a military radar station on Pidurutalagala, Sri Lanka’s highest peak (2,524m) and it is out of bounds, Kirigalpotta offers the next best opportunity to get seriously high in Sri Lanka! The table land of Horton Plains is already at almost 2,100 meters so there is not much of an elevation gain as you do the Kirigalpotta hike but it offers an unparalleled experience in walking though relatively undisturbed cloud forest and patanas (grasslands).
Since my first visit to Sri Lanka as an adult I have been drawn to the Central Highlands for their montane landscapes, unique biodiversity and similarities to the higher ranges of the southern Western Ghats. In 2010 the Central Highlands were recognized as one of UNESCO’s World Heritage sites. Now after nearly a decade here I have had the opportunity to visit Horton Plains on a number of personal visits with friends and family. This school year I am getting ready to introduce a new Week Without Walls learning experience that will highlight the geography and ecology of the Central Highlands. Horton Plains and its peaks will feature largely in the planned experience.
Most people visiting HPNP-and there are a lot of them on weekends-make the long journey up to the Plains in order to do the leisurely World End trail. We had booked into the Maheliya bungalow through the DWC and were able to wake up in the Plains and head to the trail before the van loads and buses arrived. The Kirigalpotta trail starts at the same museum and parking lot (once known as Farr Inn) that is at the center of HPNP. There is a sign (see pictures below) and it leads off down the hill and along several long stretches of marshy patanas in a south-westerly direction. The path is well worn and on this trip we walked it without a guide. The patanas are intriguing with their different grasses, dwarf bamboo (Arundinaria densifolia) and scattered Rhododendron arboreum trees. Unlike in the south Indian highlands the cloud forest is on ridgelines and the patanas (grasslands) are in the valleys. I had made a memorable trip here with colleagues Ray Lewis and Dan Snyder and on that first trip it had been helpful to have a guide.
The path crosses a tributary of the Belihul Oya and after some exquisite patana walking you dip in and out of the cloud forest. There had been a major flowering of the Strobilanthes in the understory a year ago (something I regrettably missed –see the Sunday Observer and Sunday Times) and on this visit the forest floor was covered in their dried out, woody detritus. The trail is at times rather muddy and Tracy and Britton took turns handing Amy across or just carrying her through these obstructions. After about a leisurely two hours the bath crosses a small rivulet and then makes the final climb up to the ridge and summit of Kirigalpotta. On the final stretch it follows the exposed ridge amongst mossy rock faces and stunted, dwarf trees and shrubs. We experienced a mix of sun and brief showers as we made the climb. On the Kirigalpotta ridge we got a brief view looking back towards the plains and Totopula Kanda (see panoramic images below). Amy zipped along with the careful attention of Tracy shadowing her as they negotiated the slippery ridgeline. The summit is composed of a small clearing in dense vegetation and a window over the western edge. On a boulder there are barely discernable markings of the Survey Department, left from their 19th Century survey of Ceylon. The serenity and natural state is a reminder of what the summit of Sri Pada probably once looked like. We enjoyed a quick snack, took a few snap shots and then decided to head back as clouds rolled in and brought with them rain.
In 2012 Rohan Pethiyagoda of the Wildlife Heritage Trust published the seminal book Horton Plains: Sri Lanka’s Cloud Forest National Park. It is an exquisite publication both in production and the sweeping content that examines ecological, historical and contemporary aspects of the park. While Rohan is the editor and force behind the book Horton Plains includes articles and contributions by the leading natural history personalities in Sri Lanka. The book is supported with a dazzling wealth of color photographs, line drawing, aerial shots and high-resolution satellite (IKONOS) images of the Plains. The fine photography of Vimukthi Weeratunga is featured and stands out in the book. The book has intriguing chapters on the history of the Plains and articles on the ecological origins of the patanas (an anthropocentric-influenced system or a climax natural system?….you’ll have to read the book to see what conclusion is arrived at!). For anyone interested in the ecology and landscape of the Central Highlands and their similar systems in the southern Western Ghats in India, the book is a must have resource.
SELECTED REFERENCES & FURTHER LINKS
De Silva, Anslem. The Diversity of Horton Plains National Park. Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2007. Colombo. Print.
Lockwood, Ian. “In the High Altitude Grasslands of Horton Plains.” Ian Lockwood Blog. 28 February 2011. Web.
Pethiyagoda, Rohan, Ed. Horton Plains: Sri Lanka’s Cloud Forest National Park. Colombo: WHT, 2012. Print. Weblink.
Rodrigo, Malaka. “Lanka’s central highlands win heritage battle.” 8 August Sunday Times. 2010. Web.
Werner, Wolfgang. Sri Lanka’s Magnificent Cloud Forests. Colombo: WHT, 2001. Print.
NOTE: With regards to spelling you will see “Kirigalpotta” spelt in several different ways. I have used the spelling from the Wildlife Heritage Trust’s publications.