Travel

Steep journey to World's End

The World's End view. Photo / Leigh Noble
The World's End view. Photo / Leigh Noble

THE track to Baker's Falls, in Sri Lanka's hill country, was an "undulating" walk, according to our guide Thushara.

I reminded him of that adjective as I hauled myself up an almost vertical and very muddy hillside.

"If this is undulating," I muttered, pausing to grab another tree branch for support, "I'd hate to see what you consider steep."

Thushara grinned.

"Yes perhaps, that description needs revising."

Undulating was, however, a fair description for the rest of the walk that takes visitors on a 10km circuit through the Horton Plains National Park. This park, in Sri Lanka's hill country is the only one in the country where it is considered safe to explore on foot.

Some sources believe that the man who was almost single-handedly responsible for this was a former governor of Ceylon, Sir Robert Wilmot-Horton. According to at least one source Sir Robert who governed the island from 1831 to 1837 allegedly enjoyed elephant hunting to such a degree that he wiped out the hill country elephant sub-species altogether. However, I suspect Sir Wilmot-Horton has been confused with another colonial hunter, Sir Samuel Baker after whom the falls are named.

One thing that is indisputable, if completely irrelevant, is that Lord Byron the poet was Sir Robert's first cousin and Byron's poem She Walks in Beauty was inspired by the beauty of Sir Robert's wife Anne.

It is much more likely that Sir Samuel Baker, big game hunter par excellence and explorer of the Nile and Central Africa was the real culprit.

His own writings recount how when he went hunting in Sri Lanka's central plains he would dispatch whole herds in one day, bulls, calves and their mothers.

He noted that when he returned to the area some years later after his most successful hunting exploits there were a lot fewer elephants. He put this down to the fact that other hunters had lent their guns to their servant to go hunting as a reward for good service. (Check out his own book The Rifle and the Hound in Ceylon).

Another brief digression concerning wives... the story goes that Sir Samuel Baker met his wife Florence in a slave market in Eastern Europe. Florence was not however, a tourist but one of the items for sale. She was Romanian by birth but had been abducted into slavery.

It was love at first sight for Sir Samuel, who outbid a local Ottoman pasha for Florence. The couple apparently travelled together for some time before getting married.

As a result, despite Sir Samuel's fame as an explorer and his being the first European to discover one of the sources of the Nile, Lake Albert, Florence was never invited to the court of Queen Victoria. The queen believed Baker had been "intimate with his wife before marriage".

But meanwhile, back in modern-day Sri Lanka...

Whoever it was who slaughtered the elephants, the result is that the Horton Plains are considered safe for walkers. They are still especially rich in birdlife including the gorgeous Ceylon blue magpie and the purple-faced langurs. We spotted these monkeys in the tangled lichen-clad cloud forest on the way to the plains - they watched us cautiously, their faces framed with thick fringes of pale fur, rather like bush beards.

There are a few elusive leopards in the park too, which not surprisingly on a short visit in daytime, we did not see. However we did spot several sambar deer - big heavy-set deer, the males of which have impressive sets of antlers.

The Plains however are also famed for their plant-life and the extraordinary view from the aptly named World's End.

Because of its altitude and heavy rainfall, the plains are in places thickly clothed in cloud forest interspersed with vast rippling expanses of montane grasslands, the latter known locally as patana.

When I was there, the forests were splashed with the vivid red of Rhododendron aboreum, a species that has spread from the Himalayas to Sri Lanka via the hills of south India.

The walk from the information centre took us across the grassland, skirting small lakes that reminded me of high country tarns. Small streams of crystal clear water wove their way through the terrain. Gorse flowered prolifically - just as in New Zealand it is an invasive weed and difficult to control.

We entered the forest to descend to Baker's Falls, a 20-metre high cascade that drops into deep pools that have formed around a tumble of giant boulders. A cooling swim was tempting but we were on a mission to get to the viewpoint. The look out at World's End is infamous for being swathed in cloud, especially later in the day.

World's End is appropriately on the very edge of a sheer rock face that falls away 870 metres to the valley below. On a good day there are views of the hill country's tea plantations and if you are very lucky, the southern coast of Sri Lanka.

It's a view that draws not only tourists but thousands of Sri Lankans every year.

The track reaches the end of the world with no warning. We snaked through gnarled vegetation and - rather worryingly - past two pairs of shoes abandoned on the path.

A bare promontory of rock was before us and beyond it, distant forest clad hills that were frustratingly wreathed in cloud. But it was still an exhilarating feeling to stand on the wooden platform (in my case a respectable distance from the edge) and gaze into the abyss.

We were warned us not to step backwards when taking photos - several people have apparently met their deaths this way.

While the view might not have been perfect, the deep silence and the constantly changing light as tendrils of cloud or fog wrapped around the promontory, made World's End memorably eerie.

We made our way back to the start of the 10km circuit, all of us now more than a little sweaty - despite the altitude the temperature was still sultry.

It was the weekend and heading towards World's End were exuberant groups of Sri Lankans, mostly young men. We usually heard them before we saw them - music pumping, voices singing and making frequent photo stops - not of the scenery so much as of each other.

There were a few groups of girls too - some in high heeled sandals. I wondered if they'd attempt the descent to Baker's Falls and silently wished them luck on Thushara's "undulating" track.

>> Read more travel stories.

Topics:  sri lanka, travel, travelling




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