In one of the Tom and Jerry cartoons, Jerry convinces Tom that he has high fever, and locks him in a freezer to cool him down. Tom emerges with his teeth chattering, which continues even after Jerry pops him into an oven later. Sitting in a tuktuk trundling up the slope to the Horton Plains National Park at the crack of dawn, with chilly winds seeping into my bones, my teeth chatter much like Tom’s. Far ahead, deeper into the park, lies an escarpment that plunges 2,900 feet and is ominously named World’s End. Dawn is the best time to gaze down its yawning depths, but I wonder if reaching there in a gelid state wouldn’t be the end of my world.
Horton Plains National Park is part of the Central Highlands of Sri Lanka—an area in the south-central part of the country with montane rainforests so lush and biodiverse that they are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The park lies about 32 km from the famous tea plantations of Nuwara Eliya, the hill station with a distinctly colonial-era feel. Horton Plains had been on my Sri Lankan wishlist ever since a friend raved about how its landscape changed every half an hour—one moment you are walking through grassy plains, the next you are trekking through the jungle and then climbing up a rocky path to a clifftop.
The ‘Plains’ tag however seems to me a misnomer—the park is actually a plateau with vast swathes of grassland interspersed with dense forest and rocky ledges overlooking deep valleys. The original name of the plains was Maha Eliya, meaning ‘great open plains,’ but it was renamed after Robert Wilmot-Horton, Governor of Ceylon (British-occupied Sri Lanka) in the mid-nineteenth century. Horton Plains is the playground of rare, endemic species, such as the critically endangered western purple-faced langur and the slender loris.
A rocky path takes me from the park entrance into the grasslands. A fork in the road about a kilometre ahead denotes the start of the self-guided trail, a nine-kilometre circular route covering World’s End and Baker Falls. On either side of the road, as far as the eye can see, is tall russet-coloured grass known as patana in Sinhalese, swaying gently in the wind. A fellow hiker I meet on the trail points to distant mountains, now obscured by mist. Somewhere amid them, she says, is Adam’s Peak, a popular hiking spot with a footprint-shaped mark at the summit, believed to be that of Lord Buddha. The mist would be my constant companion through the hike, sometimes as a thin veil hiding mountains, at other times transforming into a light patter of rain that makes me pull my jacket tighter around me.
The grasslands give way to forest, and the path becomes more uphill. Horton Plains has one of the last remaining, rarest ecosystems on Earth: cloud forests. These tropical or subtropical montane forests are characterised by persistent, low-hanging cloud cover at canopy level. I walk along paths adorned with bursts of pink rose myrtle and yellow ranawara—peeking through the carpet of green. Warblers and thrushes keep me company with their chirps. The mist grows thicker as I climb, accompanied by a light drizzle. An hour into the hike, I reach Mini World’s End, a sharp cliff which on a clear day offers great views of the surrounding mountains. I feel like I am standing in a fortress of mist. Worse, the drizzle is by now a steady drift, making the ground slippery. My body urges me to turn back to the park entrance and defrost with a hot cup of tea. But after an internal tug-of-war, I resolve to continue up to the peak. Travelling to the World’s End isn’t supposed to be easy, after all.
Nobody really knows how the escarpment got its name. According to my homestay host, it is because of the vertiginous drop that has seen a few unfortunate accidents; others invoke legends of this being a place where lost souls look for a path back from the bottomless beyond.
To me, half-way into the four-hour trek, the World’s End comes as a new beginning. A few minutes after I arrive, a solitary sunbeam bursts through the cloud cover. Slowly the mist clears up, and I see the view that I have endured the hardship for—layers of verdant jagged peaks, some of which are Sri Lanka’s highest mountains, stretching until the horizon, and a sharp cliff drops into a valley lined with tea plantations. Some of my fellow hikers dangle their feet over the edge for a photo-op. I enjoy the view from a safe distance.
The grasslands reappear as I continue on the trail—seas of rust interspersed with bush vegetation, gnarled rhododendrons and ferns. There are flashes of movement in the grasses, possibly sambar that have made the plains their home. The landscape is reminiscent of Middle Earth—I feel like I am following in the footsteps of The Fellowship of the Ring, travelling from Rivendell like Frodo and his companions.
The path becomes forested again, and a short climb leads to Baker Falls, named after the English explorer Samuel Baker. I hear the roar of the falls much before I see it. Situated on the Belihul Oya river, the foamy white spray crashes over basalt rock formations into a gorge below. Bathers find their way down the slippery rocks into a pool below; I am reluctant to invite pneumonia by dipping in the chilly waters.
The last part of the trail is an uphill climb; I pause to catch my breath and look back at the path behind. I will remember the panorama as the snapshot of all of Horton Plains—evergreen forests blending into scrub merging with tall grasses, which stretch all the way up to the Knuckles mountain range near the horizon. I am glad that I took my friend’s advice and braved the mist and rain to see such a diverse landscape.
Horton Plains isn’t the only calling card of Nuwara Eliya; like many hill stations in India, the British who once occupied the town decided to remodel it into a replica of their homeland. Tudor-style bungalows with gabled roofs and picket fences dot the hillside. A stroll from my homestay on the slopes down to the town centre allows me to take in the storybook quality of the place: any moment I expect Anne of Green Gables to scamper out from a cottage and invite me to tea. Given the lush tea plantations that thrive in Nuwara Eliya, this would not be a far-fetched dream.
One of the chief attractions of the town is the golf course, perhaps the oldest in all of Sri Lanka. Founded in 1889, the 18-hole course stretches over more than 100 acres, and is bordered by graceful cypresses and soaring eucalyptuses, with a view of the tea plantations. The terrain is striking: undulating hills interspersed with waterbodies created by the Nanu Oya river, chart a course that looks like both a challenge and a delight to play in.
After a quick lunch of hoppers and fish curry at a local joint, I spend the afternoon understanding more about the tea country at the Pedro Tea Estate. Located about four kilometres of Nuwara Eliya and established in 1880, this is one of the oldest tea estates in the country. I learn about the Sri Lankan white tea, a rare and expensive product made from silver tea buds, harvested and rolled by hand to prevent damage. Tea aficionados love its subtle aroma and fruity finish. I take a guided tour of the factory and watch the machines for each stage of tea processing—one withering the tea leaves to wilt to soften them, another rolling to crush the leaves and facilitate oxidation; one machine aids infermentation (skipped for green tea variants), and then comes drying, in the sun or a charcoal roast, to remove moisture and impart tea its flavour. I taste a fine grade, the orange pekoe, and am delighted to find a light, citrusy flavour to it. The smell of tea swirls through me as I join the women picking leaves at the plantation later: they often make for skilled tea pickers, I am told, because they handle the tender tea leaves with utmost care.
I return to town to take in the sunset at the landscaped Victoria Garden. Blooming bougainvillea, wisteria, roses and camellias make the space seem like a rainbow has erupted from the earth. It is a popular picnic spot, and the cries of children playing catch ring in the air.
As I walk up the steep path to my homestay, the City of Light, as Nuwara Eliya translates in Sinhalese, twinkles below. To me, the hill station is like the silvery bud of the tea plant, a rare haven with the right mix of adventure and calm woven into its subtle charm.
Hortons Plains National Park is a 32 km/45 min drive from Nuwara Eliya, and can be reached by tuktuk or taxi. November-April is the best time to visit, when the weather is cool and dry. The 4-hr, 9-km trek, that includes World’s End, is best done at the crack of dawn. By mid-morning, the mist thickens and the views from the World’s End are all but obscured. Regular buses and taxis play between the capital Colombo and Nuwara Eliya. But the recommended way is by rail. Take the train from Fort Station to Nanu Oya, the closest station to Nuwara Eliya, for jaw-dropping countryside views (6.5-hr; four trains daily).
Arundhati Hazra works a 9-to-9 job so that she can indulge in her three key vices - traveling, eating and buying lots of books. She'd like to go from aspiring writer to aspirational writer sometime soon.