Monday, April 13, 2015

Return to the Montane Wilderness

This was a trip which was more than a year in the making. Ever since my amazing trip to Horton in 2013 with Riaz I wanted to do a bungalow booking in the park and stay over and see if I can have luck in photographing many of the amazing wildlife found there.

With this plan in mind I discussed with my friend Raveendra and made a booking for Mahaeliya bungalow in 2014. But this trip was never to be because Raveendra fell ill and was hospitalized. Since then we always talked about making this trip happen but it didn’t become a reality until this March.


Raveendra has booked the bungalow and we made plans to go with a small crowd. Hence it would be only myself, Ravee, Ganindu and Sudheera who would be taking part in the trip.

Planning to leave relatively early we assembled at Ravee’s house and departed at around 5.30 am from Kadawatha. Not decided on the root we should take we let Sudheera tell the directions. After a long drive through suburbs of Colombo he told of a turn off which would lead straight to Avissawella. Unfortunately for us the road was under construction and was in a terrible state. In fact terrible was an understatement. It was like going through a war zone. Reaching Avissawella after a bumpy ride we decide to drive towards Kandy as this would lead to a shorter route (so we thought).


After a stop for breakfast at a wayside shop, we arrived close to Peradeniya where there was a turnoff to Gampola. This is where Ganindu made the call to go via this route and hence we made another erroneous turn off where we ended up going up an amazingly windy road which led up a hill and down again to a valley leading to the Gampola town. The entire ride was dizzying as the roads were windy and in the map looked like an ECG reading.


From Gampola we headed on the Nuwaraeliya road, which too was winding with lots of bends and turns. Much to our discomfort Ravee who was driving wasn’t helping either, as he attempted to make us feel dizzy with his increasing turns at the bends much to our annoyance. Reaching the Mackwoods tea center we got off the vehicle all dizzy and dazed. The amazing tea offered at this center took our weariness away.

Back on the road we reached Nuwara Eliya in the afternoon and headed towards Horton Plains via Ambewela and Pattipola. Climbing the forested road we stopped at a few places to observe some bird activity. We came across the endemic Sri Lanka white eye and Great Tit. The weather was very cold and misty. Given that I got sick the last time I attempted the colder climes I was very careful. Unfortunately this time around as well I didn’t have adequate warm clothing.
Great Tit

Entering the park we made a small stop at Thotupola Kande turn off and walked on this trail for abit. First I saw the endemic dull blue flycatcher, and behind it, in the bushes a brown bird. It was very hard to photograph but managed to get some evidence shots. Further observation revealed that it was a female Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush. One of the rarest and most elusive birds in the country and also one of the hardest birds to photograph. The bird was in the bushes and it was very hard to see let alone photograph, hence we decided to head to the park office for lunch and to rendezvous with the bungalow keeper.


Along the way we came across many specimens of the iconic Sambhur, the large elk who is seen quite frequently in the park. These majestic deer are the largest species found in Sri Lanka. They are the main prey item for the Sri Lankan Leopard found in the plains. I was very keen to photograph a leopard in the plains as this is a very rare occurrence, arriving at the Far Inn office we had a quick lunch and picked up our bungalow keeper and headed for Mahaeliya.


Compared to the structures found in other parks this was not an impressive bungalow, it had been a former pug sty in the early 90’s and converted to a bungalow. It comprises only of a long corridor with three bedrooms and two toilets. There was no place to sit and relax, hence we put some chairs outside. The wind was blowing continuously and it was very cold, much to my discomfort. The evening was quite bad and I was suffering the most as I didn’t have adequate clothing. My hands, feet, wrists and ankles were aching from the cold and was feeling quit uncomfortable. Settling down for the night, I woke up at about 2.00 am to find my hand swollen and the rest of my body feeling try and taught. I was wondering if it was an allergy and went to the light to find the palms of my hands swollen and taught. The color was bright red/orange and was getting worried. But as I had no choice but to wait till morning I went back to bed and had an uneasy sleep. Up early morning we made our way to the Arrenga Pool which was a place famous for the Sri Lanka whistling thrush. But what we realized was that the number of vehicles arriving with tourists was so many that we had no chance of having a sighting of this shy bird.
 The typical Cloud Forests that Horton Plains is famous for
 The open plains which gave this land its name
 Cloud Forest Canopy
 Giant Fern
 A type of lychen called "Old Mans Beard" in the early morning light
Cloud Forest
After a hearty breakfast we walked along the main road where we came across two amazing and rare endemic lizards. One was a juvenile pygmy lizard and the other was the rhino horned lizard. Both sightings were a thrill for me as I always wanted to photograph both, especially the pygmy lizard which I have never seen before.
 Pygmy Lizard (Cophotis ceylanica)-
Pygmy lizards belong to a family of reptiles called Agamidae (commonly called dragons or dragon lizards). But unlike other Agamids these little fellows don't lay eggs. Instead they hatch the eggs within their body and give birth to live young. This lizard is one of the slowest moving lizards on the island. You can only find it in Sri Lanka, and then only in a few areas including the cloud forests in Horton Plains, Hakgala and the Knuckles Mountain range.  This endemic lizard was a very special find for us.

Rhino Horned Lizard (Ceratophora stoddartii)

Back at the bungalow we enjoyed the sun which was out till about 1.00 pm thereafter the mist rolled in. During the evening we drove down to Nuwara Eliya for some supplies and hoped that coming back we could have a rare leopard sighting. But it was not to be, but we did get some interesting landscapes.

 Black Winged Kite


It rained that night, which made the weather abit more bearable, but it was still cold.  That night as well I noticed my hands swelling and realized it is for the cold, where the skin dries up. Early the next day we headed back to the Arrenga Pool hoping for some luck. I wanted to go there before the crowds started pouring in, so we went there and waited. I suddenly heard the signature call of the bird and after a while my friend Sudheera pointed out to a bird hiding in a clump of grass on the side of the road. Suddenly the bird came on to the road and was having alive frog in its mouth. It killed the frog by dashing it on the ground and thereafter continued to eat it before flying away. The light was very bad and despite the high ISO reading I did not manage to hget a clerar shot as the camera was not focusing well due to the lack of adequate light. Nevertheless I was happy to at least see this bird who was such a rare and elusive specimen.

Evidence shot of a Female Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush. Sorry for the bad image due to low light.

Driving back to the bungalow we came across a mazing landscape with a view of the mountains far away and Adams Peak the holy mountain among them. This was where my new 24-105mm f4 L lens came in handy and I managed to capture an amazing landscape photograph. 


Despite the breathtaking beauty of the park, I was unable to truly take part in much photography due to the cold. This was making my whole body ache with bone chills.

Happy to leave that day we made a difficult decent down via Ohiya and took the route back to Colombo via Haputale.

I need to be more prepared next time, especially for the weather and return as this place truly is a treasure trove for photographers.



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