Ian Lockwood

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2014 OSC Field Study to Sri Pada

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Sri Pada Collage 2014

Last December OSC’s Diploma Program students once gain explored the Peak Wilderness area and made a pilgrimage to the summit Sri Lanka’s sacred mountain, Sri Pada (Adam’s Peak). The idea behind this annual field study is to better understand the mountain’s ecology and appreciate its value as a stronghold of biodiversity in a rich Sri Lankan cultural landscape. As this blog has recorded the experience started out as an Environmental Systems and Societies (ES&S) field study but it now incorporates the three major DP1 science classes. This year the DP Physics students, led by HOD Will Duncan, accompanied us part way and then stayed at a guest house near Maskeliya Lake. They focused on themes of power generation and were able to visit a CEB hydroelectric turbine and later use natural stream flow to test electricity generating devises built by the students. They were supported by Dr. Indrika Senaratna. Tim Getter, the DP Biology teacher and I with the support of colleagues Dawn McCusker and Taiga Shipley took our students deeper into the wilderness to conduct our learning activities at the Fishing Hut.

OSC's Class of 2016 taking a breakfast break at Kitulgala on the way up to Sri Pada.

OSC’s Class of 2016 taking a breakfast break at Kitulgala on the way up to Sri Pada.

Ground orchid () in grasslands in collage with montane forest canopy view.

Ground orchid (Satyrium nepalense) in grasslands in a collage with montane forest canopy view.

As we have done for the past several years, we were based at the Moray Estate Fishing Huts. These rustic cabins are rented out to people willing to put up with simple amenities in order to experience a uniquely beautiful location. The huts lie at the boundary between manicured tea estates and mid-elevation sub-montane tropical rainforest. The Environmental Systems and Societies (ES&S) class focused on four themes of study:

  • Theme 1: Land Use Variation (anthropocentric vs. natural ecosystems, plantation agriculture etc.)
  • Theme 2: Forest & Vegetation Types (lowland, montane tropical forests, cloud forests)
  • Theme 3: Vertical Zonation
  • Theme 4: Biodiversity in a ‘Biodiversity Hotspot’

Our principal study day was on Tuesday December 9th when the ES&S class ascended the peak and the biology class conducted a series of ecological studies around the fishing hut. The ES&S class went with light packs for the day. The idea was to observe and record changes in plant diversity as we traversed human and natural landscapes and gained altitude on the peak. The hike is physically demanding, but it is a beautiful, wooded trail that is hardly use by pilgrims. Large clouds gathered over us by midday and we navigated several rain showers on the final step section just below the peak. We arrived at the temple around 1:00. It was wet and so, after ringing the newly installed temple bells, we started back down the hill. Originally we had intended to stay on the summit but several students were not outfitted with sleeping bags and warm gear, which necessitated a return to the hut.

(Elattoneura tenax) in a stream emerging from a mixed plantation of eucalyptus and degraded montane forest.

Red Stiped Threadtail (Elattoneura tenax), an endemic damselfly, in a stream emerging from a mixed plantation of eucalyptus and degraded montane forest.

On the final morning the ES&S class left the hut early in order to study stream diversity and look for dragonflies in degraded forests. The biologists completed a biotic index study of two streams and by mid-morning all our groups were heading back to Colombo. There was heavy traffic that delayed our arrival back at school. In spite of itchy leech bites and sore legs it was a memorable learning experience of applied science in a unique part of our Sri Lankan host nation.

OSC's DP ES&S class and their teacher at the Adam's Peak Falls viewpoint.

OSC’s DP ES&S class and their teacher at the Adam’s Peak Falls viewpoint.

 

FURTHER READING & REFERENCES

Aksland, Markus. The Sacred Footprint: A Cultural History of Adam’s Peak. Bangkok: Orchid Press, 2001. Print.

Carpenter, Edward. From Adam’s Peak to Elephanta. London, 1910. Print.

Cowley, Les. “Mountain Shadow Effect.” Atmospheric Optics. 14 October 2006. Web.  also see Sri Pada shadow.

Dhammika, S. “Sri Pada: Buddhism’s Most Sacred Mountain.” Sacred Island: A Buddhist Pilgrim’s Guide to Sri Lanka. Web.

Iyer, Pico. “The Holy Mountain.” Time Asia. August 8-14, 2006. Print.

Living Heritage Network. Sri Pada. 10 October 2006. Web.

Lockwood, Ian. “2013 OSC Field Study to Sri Pada.” Ian Lockwood Blog. January 2014. Web.

Lockwood, Ian. Primal Peak.” Outlook Traveller. March 2007. Print & PDF.

Lockwood, Ian. “Sri Pada: A Naturalist’s Pilgrimage.” Serendib. Print & PDF.

Pethiyagoda, Rohan. Horton Plains: Sri Lanka’s Cloud Forest National Park. Colombo: WHT, 2013. Print.

Skeen, William. Adam’s Peak: Legendary Traditional and Historical Notices. Colombo: W.L.H Skeen & Co. 1870. Print.

Tennent, James Emerson. Ceylon: An Account of the Islands Physical, Historical and Topographical, 2nd Edition. London: Longman, 1859. Print.

Werner, Wolfgang. Sri Lanka’s Magnificent Cloud Forests. Colombo: Wildlife Heritage Trust, 2001. Print.

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2015-01-15 at 10:27 pm

Kirigalpotta & Horton Plains

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Sunrise over Totopula (view#1)

Sunrise over Totopula Kanda (2,360m) Sri Lanka’s 3rd highest peak.

Kirigalpotha (left) as seen from near to Mahaeliya.

Kirigalpotta (far left) as seen at sunrise from near to Mahaeliya.

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.

Looking north at newly installed wind turbines installed at the Ambawella farms with Horton Plains rising into the mist in the background. Sri Pada as seen from the western edge of Horton Plains National Park. The turbines were not in place when I last visited and made a long panoramic images that was features in the Si Pada: Paths to the Peak exhibition.

Looking north at newly installed wind turbines at the Ambawella farms with Horton Plains rising into the mist in the background. The turbines were not in place when I last visited and made a long panoramic images that was featured in the Si Pada: Paths to the Peak exhibition.

Pidurutalagala and Hakgala (right) as seen from the road up to Horton Plains National Park.

Looking north to Pidurutalagala (center left) and Hakgala (right) as seen from the road up to Horton Plains National Park. Taken on the November 2007 trip.

Sri Pada as seen from the western edge of Horton Plains National Park.

Sri Pada as seen from the western edge of Horton Plains National Park (taken on the December 2010 trip)

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.

Snapshots in silver, black & white from the hike up to Kirigalpotha peak.

Snapshots in silver, black & white from the hike up to Kirigalpotta peak. The center image features a Vaccinium sp, with its distinct maroon/red bark. A similar example featured in my September 2011 post on Secret Shola in the Palani Hills.

Looking north from Kirigalpotha over the cloud forest and patanas of Horton Plains National Park.

Looking north from Kirigalpotta over the cloud forest and patanas of Horton Plains National Park.

Left: Calotes nilgilabris on a Rhododendron arboreum tree in open grasslands on the Kirigalpotha trail. Right: Rhino horned lizard (Cerathopora stoddartii) found in HPNP but photographed in Hakgala sanctuary.

Left: Calotes nilgilabris on a Rhododendron arboreum tree in open grasslands on the Kirigalpotta trail. Right: Rhino horned lizard (Cerathopora stoddartii) found in HPNP but photographed in Hakgala sanctuary.

 

Rhododendron arboreum is a unique species with link tot he Western Ghats and distant Himalaya.

Rhododendron arboreum is a unique temperate species with links to the Western Ghats and more distant Himalaya.

Generations of Lanka Lockwoods visiting Horton Plains National Park. Upper left: Merrick, Ian and Lenny in December 2010 at the World End trail head. Lower right: Ian and Amy in 2014 at the Kirigalpotha trail head.

Three generations of Lanka Lockwoods visiting Horton Plains National Park. Upper left: Merrick (in his inimitable chapals), Ian and Lenny in December 2010 at the World End trail head. Lower right: Ian and Amy in September 2014 at the Kirigalpotha trail head. Photos courtesy Brian Lockwood and Tracy Ramberg.

A parting sunrise over Horton Plains National Park. Taken near Mahaeliya.

A parting sunrise over Horton Plains National Park. Taken near Mahaeliya.

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.

2013 OSC Field Study to Sri Pada

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Collage of native flora on the forest trail to Sri Pada's 2,243 meter summit.

Collage of snapshots of native flora on the forest trail to Sri Pada’s 2,243 meter summit.

Every December it is my privilege and pleasure to lead a group of DP I (Grade 11) OSC students up the slopes of Sri Pada in order to study the mountain’s ecology and appreciate its value as a stronghold of biodiversity in a rich Sri Lankan cultural landscape. This year I invited the DP Biology class and their teacher Tim Getter to join our group of eleven DP ES&S students. We were supported by our teaching colleagues Sonalee Abeyawardene and Celine Dary  (so there were added opportunities to explore ideas of pilgrimages in literature and converse in French during our three days out!). Several students had just completed a heart-pounding SAISA tournament in Muscat and hopped from their airport bus onto ours as we headed up into the Central Highlands on a clear Monday morning.

Vertical zonation studies of floral diversity on the forest path to Sri Pada

Vertical zonation studies of floral diversity on the forest path to Sri Pada (center and right) and degraded forest near the Fishing Hut (left). Max, Chadoo and Teresa laying the transect and looking for plant diversity.

The Moray Estate Fishing Hut#1.

The Moray Estate Fishing Hut#1.

ES&S task sheets from the 2013 Sri Pada learning experience.

ES&S task sheets from the 2013 Sri Pada learning experience.

A contrast in habitats. A monoculture landscape of tea and non-native shade trees overshadowed by undisturbed sub-montane tropical rainforest in the Peak WIlderness area.

A contrast in habitats: a monoculture landscape of tea and non-native shade trees overshadowed by undisturbed sub-montane tropical rainforest in the Peak Wilderness area.

Looking for orchids  and other delights in the grassy meadow below the peak (altitude 1900 meters). John visits a favorite area..

Looking for orchids and other delights in the grassy meadow below the peak (altitude 1,900 meters). John visits a favorite, familiar area…

For all students, be they biologists or ecologists in ES&S, the three-day visit to Sri Pada and the Peak Wilderness area offers a unique opportunity to conduct field studies in a biologically rich but anthropogenic influenced landscape. The trip is a unique learning experience, one that is perhaps less appreciated by students in the moment but invariably remembered with great fondness. As usual, we based ourselves at the Moray Estate Fishing Huts. These three rustic cabins are rented out to ecotourists and people willing to put up with simple amenities in order to experience a uniquely beautiful location. Significant time was spent simply getting to the huts and back but once at the Fishing Huts there were all sorts of opportunities for learning. The huts lie at the boundary between manicured tea estates and mid-elevation sub-montane tropical rainforest. This year I highlighted four themes of study for the trip:

  • Theme 1: Land Use Variation (anthropocentric vs. natural ecosystems)
  • Theme 2: Forest & Vegetation Types
  • Theme 3: Vertical Zonation
  • Theme 4: Biodiversity in a ‘Biodiversity Hotspot’
Appreciating abiotic factors and the role of decomposers: snapshots from the study on the slopes of Sri Pada.

Appreciating abiotic factors and the role of decomposers: snapshots from the study on the slopes of Sri Pada.

Our main study day was on Tuesday December 10th (my brother Brian’s birthday!) when the ES&S class ascended the peak. Based on the fitness and gear that the group, I decided to make it a day trip and not spend the night on the top. We went with light packs for the day and were able to conduct a series of line transects as we gained altitude on the peak. The idea was to observe and record changes in plant diversity as we traversed human and natural landscapes and gained altitude on the peak. I had decided to leave my heavy camera gear in Colombo and was armed with a lightweight Canon Powershot, GPS and small temperature probe. The small allowed me to take quick snapshots of the wealth of plant life on the forest trail- and the detail isn’t too bad. Because the hike is physically demanding, there was little time to linger but the group managed at least five transects at different elevations and habitats. We got to the temple around 1:00 –it was pleasantly empty as the season was still a week away from starting. Our lunch of peanut butter and Nutella wraps was shared with a wandering Australian, we rang the temple bells, appreciated the summit temple and then headed back down. One of the students- Max who had been in Muscat playing football for OSC -had a sore knee and we took the last bit slowly. This facilitated a meandering conversation and time to observe the forest much more closely. It was dark by the time we got back to the Fishing Hut.

Snapshots of the OSC Biology class and their teacher Tim Getter in action. On the right the ES&S  class descends from the Peak through sub-montane tropical rainforest.

Snapshots of the OSC Biology class and their teacher Tim Getter in action. On the right, the ES&S class descends from the Peak through sub-montane tropical rainforest.

On the final morning we were able to look at a patch of degraded forest and a eucalyptus plantation. These habitats offer a fascinating contrast to the sub-montane forest. There are numerous invasive species colonizing these disturbed areas but also a gratifying number of native species also making a start. Down below us the biologists completed a biotic index study of two streams (one from the forest and one from the tea estate). We were moving back to Colombo by 10:30 and school wrapped up two days later. Now, as we begin a new term, the classes will be sifting through their data, science journals, photographs and memories to consolidate their learning on Sri Lanka’s sacred mountain.

Past OSC school trips to Sri Pada have been reported in this space:

  • OSC Class of 2010 (Sri Pada 2008 trip)
  • OSC Class of 2011 (Sri Pada 2009 trip)
  • OSC Class of 2012 (Sri Pada 2010 trip)
  • OSC Class of 2013 (Sri Pada 2011 trip)
  • OSC Class of 2014 (Sri Pada 2012 trip)
OSC's ES&S students on the last steps and then summit of Sri Pada.

OSC’s ES&S students on the last steps and then summit of Sri Pada.

Looking over the Peak WIlderness area to the east of the peak from the summit temple. The Fishing Hut and Moray Estate is on the far left.

Looking over the Peak Wilderness area to the east and south of the peak from the summit temple. The Fishing Hut and Moray Estate is on the far left.

Scenes from the Sri Pada temple area.

Scenes from the Sri Pada temple area. This was a week before the pilgrimage season officially opened up and the temple area was serene and quiet.

Sunset over Sri Pada.

Sunset over Sri Pada. Taken on Monday December 9th after a cold stream traverse.

Pre-Season On Sri Pada

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West face of Sri Pada  a bit lower than the summit from the Ratnapura path.

West face of Sri Pada, a bit lower than the summit from the Ratnapura path.

In recent years the annual pilgrimage to Sri Lanka’s sacred peak of Sri Pada has grown and the mountain is visited by thousands of pilgrims, hikers and others during its six month season (between the December and Vesak poyas). For most visitors this means an experience of negotiating the pathways with large numbers of people and at times there are human traffic jams amidst the cloud forest trails. One solution to this challenge of congestion is to visit the peak during the off-season. You gamble with the weather but if the timing is right and you are lucky, you can experience the peak, its landscape and ecology much the way that the very first pilgrims did thousands of years ago.

Last month I had the opportunity to do precisely that as I led a small group of students and teachers up to Sri Pada two weeks before the season started on December 27th. This is the 6th year that the OSC IBDP Environmental Systems and Societies has visited Sri Pada to learn about it ecology and cultural traditions. The group was small but filled with enthusiasm and energy for the challenge. Like our school it was international group: one Korean, a South African, a Japanese Sri Lankan, a Peruvian Sri Lankan, a Maldivian, a British-Sri Lankan and then me! As has been our tradition, we based ourselves at the Fishing Hut and then hiked to the peak on the 2nd day. We carried up food and gear in order to spend the night on the temple floor. Once again the temple authorities (there were only two young men on duty) helped facilitate our stay and gave us a room to use.

The dominant land use in the Central Highlands is large scale tea plantation agriculture. Surprisingly there are still some areas being cleared for new plantations. The image on the right shows new tea gardens being established on degraded lands (presumably a former abandoned estate). However the close proximity of the sub-montane forest is notable.

The dominant land use in the Central Highlands is large scale tea plantation agriculture. Surprisingly there are still some areas being cleared for new plantations. The image on the right shows new tea gardens being established on degraded lands (presumably a former, abandoned estate). However the close proximity of the sub-montane forest is notable.

OSC students and teacher before and during the trek to Sri Pada.

OSC students and teachers before and during the trek to Sri Pada.

The first day is spent getting from Colombo to the Fishing Hut. There are opportunities along the way to discuss and evaluate the impacts of large-scale plantations agriculture and hydroelectric schemes on the areas ecology and the country’s economy. The Fishing Hut sits at a confluence of human-dominated landscapes and the mid elevation sub-montane forest that has never experienced logging or degradation. The key learning part of the trip happens on the 2nd day as we hike up through tea plantations and sub-montane forest before entering the cloud forest zone near the upper parts of the peak. The opportunity to observe vertical zonation as we ascend the peak is a key learning outcome of the trip. We witnessed flowering Rhododendron arboreum trees and large tree ferns (Cyathea sp.) as well as a host of small flowering plants (Exacum sp., various Impatiens sp. etc.). At times some of these plants and larger understory species (especially Strobilanthes sp.) had taken over the concrete path ways! It was amazing to witness the resilience and recovery of the ecosystem in the brief months that pilgrims had not walked the pathways.

Three types of forest from Sri Lanka's Central Highlands: lowland rainforest, montane forest and cloud forest.

Three types of forest from Sri Lanka’s Central Highlands: lowland rainforest, sub-montane rainforest and cloud forest.

Flowers in the shadow of the peak. (Satriyum nepalense, Rhododendron arboreum and Impatiens sp.)

Sonalee Abeyawardene and students from OSC ascending the Hatton path steps to Sri Pada shortly after joining the concrete steps from the fishing hut trail. The Japanese Dagoba is visible on the regular Hatton pathway.

Sonalee Abeyawardene and students from OSC ascending the Hatton path steps to Sri Pada shortly after joining the concrete steps from the fishing hut trail. The Japanese Dagoba is visible on the regular Hatton pathway.

Rare and endangered wildlife from Peak Wilderness: Purple faced langurs (Trachypithecus vetulus) and the rare and endemic  Emerald Sri Lankan spreadwing (Sinhalestes orientalis) identified with the expertise of Karen Conniff. Apparently it was last recorded in 1859 but then rediscovered by Matjaz Bedjanič in Balangoda. We found the dragonfly on the summit near the sacred footprint while the langurs were photographed on the Hatton path in forest patches surrounded by tea.

Rare and endangered wildlife from Peak Wilderness: Purple faced langurs (Trachypithecus vetulus) and the rare and endemic Emerald Sri Lankan spreadwing (Sinhalestes orientalis) identified with the expertise of Karen Conniff. Apparently it was last recorded in 1859 but then rediscovered by Matjaz Bedjanič in Balangoda. We found the dragonfly on the summit near the sacred footprint while the langurs were photographed on the Hatton path in forest patches surrounded by tea.

Up at the 2,243 meter summit of Sri Pada we caught our breaths, congratulated ourselves on making the climb without injury and then realized that we were all alone in this most holy of holy sites. Mist rolled up from all sides and enveloped us in a moist cocoon. It was chilly and fleece jackets were unpacked along with a late lunch. Occasionally the mist withdrew to reveal glimpses of the lower forests and valleys of tea. When it did, bright sunlight bathed the temple in a silvery glow and projected bits of the peak onto the nearby clouds (the elusive Brocken Spectre effect). The actual sanctuary housing the sacred footprint was locked up but we sat on its side and stared out at the drama of clouds, sunshine and changing landscape. A dragonfly (see below image) had found its way to the temple and clung to a lamp post. This turned out to be the very rare and endemic Sri Lankan spreadwing (Sinhalestes orientalis). Later an officer from the Wildlife & Conservation Department came up and we compared notes on what we had seen.

That night the group turned in early (where else would you get teenagers volunteering to go to sleep at 8:00 pm?). I awoke a bit after midnight and wandered around the temple to take in the views of the heavens and lower settlements. The temple was deserted and it was cold with a steady wind blowing in from the east. All the clouds and mist had cleared from the summit. The feeling and view was sublime in a way that I have not witnessed on my fourteen previous visits to the summit of Sri Pada. Without the distracting brightness of sodium vapor and fluorescent lights, one is given a very different view on a clear night. Many of the surrounding valleys and hills lay in inky darkness-areas that fall within the Peak Wilderness area. Far above, stars, planets and occasional shooting stars filled the sky. As if a reflection of the heavens, there were clusters of lights in the hills and lower valleys. Ratnapura to the south, Maskeliya to the north and, perhaps Hambantota to the distant south-east were visible. The radar station on Sri Lanka’s highest (2,524 meter) peak Pidurutalagala was a bright beacon to the north east. Colombo cast a dull glow along the western horizon. Two or three large thunderstorms were active over the coast to the south and distant lightening illuminated banks of clouds.

I was able to rouse two members of my team- Harshini and Yo- who joined me on the steps by the temple. They used my bulky tripod to take time-lapse images of the views that illuminated the darkness in surreal ways. Harshini, a talented and energetic young photographer, has posted her photos of the trip at Mixbook. Several hours later after an interlude of sleep we were up again to watch the birth of a new day. By now there were other visitors, almost all foreign with guides from Nalathani, who had come up to the peak. The sun soon rose over the Horton Plains horizon and cast a gilded glow on the lower ranges before projecting the mountain shadow that I had been hoping to see. Our whole team was able to witness it leaving all of us with an unforgettable experience. As usual most of the other visitors were intently enjoying the sunrise to the east, ignoring the drama behind them! They soon hurried down and once again we were all alone on the sacred summit. We lingered and stayed several more hours to get a sense of the landscape before going down the Ratnapura steps to Nalathani. The view was exquisitely clear with unforgettable views in every direction. On the decent-always a bit painful with 4,600 plus concrete steps to negotiate- there were no shacks set up to buy tea from or get our tired feet massaged at! Nevertheless once again a small group of OSC students and faculty returned from Sri Pada’s ancient summit with a great sense of fulfillment.

The Knuckles Range as seen from Sri Pada looking due north. The city of Kandy is in one of the lower valleys inbetween.

The Knuckles Range as seen from Sri Pada looking due north. The city of Kandy is in one of the lower valleys between Sri Pada and Knuckles.

Mountain_shadow_on_Sri_Pada_Pan#1sb(LR)(12_12)

Mountain shadow projected by Sri Pada , looking west towards Colombo over the Peak Wilderness forests.

“On our third visit… we hoped of seeing the marvelous shadow of the peak projected above the low ling mist clouds, and stretching beyond the bounds of the Island far away into the surrounding oceans. Faint and not very clearly defined at first, as the sunlight became stronger, the outline and body of the gigantic pyramid-shaped umbra grew sharper, darker and more distinct; and as the sun rose higher in the heavens, the titanic shadow seemed actually to rise in the atmosphere; to tilt up and gradually fall back upon the mountain, shrinking and dwarfing in dimensions as it drew closer and yet closer to its mighty parent, until absorbed in the forest for which the mountain is clad, it was wholly lost to view. So singular a sight, -one so strangely magnificent, and even awe-inspiring, can be seen nowhere else in the Island, perhaps nowhere in the world. As the mist and clouds dispersed, the extensive views that opened out became sublimely grand. North and east, below and beyond us, were range upon range of mountains, the valleys and slopes of which from Maskeliya to Rambodde, from Dinmbula to Haputale…”

extracted from Adam’s Peak by William Skeen (1870) (p. 222-223)

West view from Sri Pada showing mountain shadow shrinking over the Peak Wilderness forests.

West view from Sri Pada showing mountain shadow shrinking over the Peak Wilderness forests.

Temple summit on Sri Pada looking east.

Temple summit on Sri Pada looking east.

Looking south from Sri Pada over sub-montane forest in the Peak Wilderness area.

Looking south towards Sinharaja from Sri Pada over sub-montane forest in the Peak Wilderness area.

West view panorama from the lower steps of Sri Pada. The last shadow of the peak is still visible.

West view panorama from the lower steps of Sri Pada. The last shadow of the peak is still visible.

Temple doorway on Sri Pada's summit, looking south.

Temple doorway on Sri Pada’s summit, looking south.

Written by ianlockwood

2013-01-21 at 4:39 pm

Winter Study and Pilgrimage to the Peak

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Sri Pada East face in the bright light of a winter day as seen from Moray Estate on December 12th morning.

The pilgrimage season to Sri Pada begins with the poya in December.  The weather is always a little unpredictable at this time with the North East monsoon still being active with gaps of cool, dry weather mixed in with violent thunderstorms. For the last several years I have been taking small groups of OSC IB Environmental Systems & Societies students up to the peak during the same time. My goals have been to give them a sense of ecosystems and the changes in structure, plant types etc. as you ascend. A trek up to the peak through the Peak Wilderness forests give one an excellent cross section of changes in vertical zonation. On the path there are numerous managed landscapes (plantations, hydroelectric schemes etc.) to observe and study. Most importantly the trip gives students a chance to be outside and to feel and breath what has previously been taught in the classroom.

Now that I have fairly decent spatial data of the area, we have been looking at the variety of land uses in the Central Highlands.  Starting with rubber plantations and home gardens  in the lower elevation and then moving up through patches of undisturbed forests through non-native eucalyptus and pine forests there is a good deal to observe and study. In the mid elevations we passed through the enormous and expansive tea plantations that are the most important feature of Sri Lanka’s Central Highlands. Finally as we pass through the Moray tea estate we encounter the undisturbed montane forest that represents the original vegetation of the hills. The walk up to the peak is mostly spent in these forests but near the summit (after 1,800-2,000 meters) vegetation typical of cloud forests is more prominent (Rhododendron sp. trees, Cyathea tree ferns etc.).

We had an energetic group of seven students that were able to do the walk with relatively minor difficulty. Last year several students had suffered from dehydration and altitude sickness-like symptoms that prevented us form making it to the summit. This year, under similar clear sky conditions, we went slowly. It got cloudy later and half way up to the summit  a deluge came down. Thankfully we had made it to a tea shack on the main path. It was quite wet by the time made it to the top where we spent the night. Leaches were a major distraction and the physical challenge of getting up the mountain through the wet forest made it challenging to facilitate learning on the pathway. At the top I shared my Paths to the Peak exhibition brochure with the temple monks, the first time that ‘ve brought it up. Thankfully we were able to get a room to stow gear while most of the group slept on the floor with other pilgrims. The next day’s dawn was beautiful though it lacked the first light and hence mountain shadow. We returned via the Hatton steps and we’re having brunch by 11:00. The 4,600+steps are a real nuisance on one knees and legs and few in the group weren’t limping through the rest of the week. I would prefer to take the decent more slowly but there were schedules to keep and we had the team safely back in Colombo by 3:30.

For further reading on the ecology, landscapes and culture of Sri Pada see my Serendib (2008), Outlook Traveller (2007), International Schools/IS (2007) and Frontline (2011) articles.

OSC students and teachers before climbing and on the way up to Sri Pada (December 2011).

Droppings, devotion and diversity on the path up to Sri Pada. The first image is of an unmistakable leopard stool specimen. The middle image is of a Hindu shrine on the way up through the little used Moray Estate path.

Starting the hike up to the peak through tea estates. Storm clouds to the east will soon bring on a deluge on our walk up through the montane forest.

North view over Maskeliya from Sri Pada in moonlight.

West view from Sri Pada in moonlight showing the two longer pilgrim paths through the Peak Wilderness forests to Kuruwita and Ratnapura.

South view towards Sinharaja from Sri Pada in the early morning.

North view over Maskeliya from Sri Pada in daylight.

Moon setting over the Peak. Two nights before had been the Poya night marking the onset of the Sri Pada pilgrimage season and we were fortunate to witness this scene in the early hours of December 12th.

Written by ianlockwood

2012-01-10 at 4:44 pm

PATHS TO THE PEAK INVITE

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Invite for the upcoming "Paths to the Peak" Exhibition at the Barefoot Gallery

Written by ianlockwood

2011-05-10 at 4:47 pm

In the High Altitude Grasslands of Horton Plains

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Calophyllum walkeri in a dieback patch at 2,100 meters near the eastern entrance to 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.

Species in the grasslands (patanas) and cloud forests. Impatiens. Sp., Calotes nigrilabris and a Robiquetia sp. orchid.


Looking south east towards Kataragama, Hambantota and the Indian Ocean from the eastern entrance to Horton Plains National Park. It was clear enough that we could make out container ships on the ocean from this vantage point!


Sambar stag (Cervus unicolor) at Horton Plains. A common sight in the early morning before large numbers of visitors descend on the Farr Inn area.


Shades of Eravikulam in Sri Lanka… patanas (grasslands) surrounded by cloud forests on the World’s End and Baker’s Falls trail. Note that cloud forest is growing on the ridge lines contrasting sharply with the high altitude shola/grasslands systems in the Western Ghats where sholas are in the valleys and the grasslands dominate ridge lines.


Sri Pada’s distinct profile seen from the Ambawella farms area under the shade of a remnant cloud forest survivor on the drive up to Horton Plains from Nuwara Eliya.

Written by ianlockwood

2011-02-28 at 4:58 pm